Limbo Pt. 2

So this is what it’s all come down to: a hopeless realization that this apparent person has no free will, no control or choice, no responsibility or agency — doesn’t exist at all in fact. That what we call ‘real life’ is apparently an ephemera, a dream, a tragic, totally-unnecessary and accidental consequence of the brain’s growth to the point it is able to create a model so sophisticated it can create an identity within it and then persuade that identity it is real.

This cannot of course be proved — a character in a dream cannot prove to the other characters that they are all dreamt. So why would ‘I’ want to believe such a thing? ‘I’ cannot help myself; it’s intuitive, it’s compelling (complete, internally consistent, and explains everything), and it resonates with some ‘glimpses’, some ‘memories’ of something other, something truer than what seems real the rest of the time. I certainly don’t want to believe something that creates such cognitive dissonance, makes navigating this world more difficult, annoys many of the people I care about, and leaves ‘me’ in a frustrating state of limbo. And achieving intellectual clarity about it is of no help whatsoever.

But this is for now what I believe, and I’m learning to deal with it. At some point in early childhood my brain created my self, and suddenly the world that had been obvious, perfect, awesomely complex and wondrous, became suddenly terribly complicated, bewildering and dangerous, in need of ‘navigation’ on behalf of this previously competent character, this organ-filled bag of skin. In pre-school years ‘I’ seemed to drop away and re-emerge quite frequently, I think (and have done so occasionally since then, in moments I call ‘glimpses’).

Right from the start, ‘I’ didn’t like this separation, this sudden responsibility. I sensed no reason for it, and it filled me, as ‘I’ grew more separate (with encouragement from everyone in ‘my’ culture, the other deluded selves) with fear and anxiety. During the glimpses there was (and is) immediate recall and recognition of previous glimpses and of what was before ‘I’ — what eternally is —  and a realization of the needlessness of anxiety, and indeed the needlessness of a self. But nonetheless my self has continued to grow stronger, unable to help its self but still foolishly sure of its self, and incidents of its falling away have become rarer.

Like most ‘people’, ‘I’ have (apparently) achieved some considerable successes in my (apparent) life, and these successes gave my self some solace and a sense that its struggle was ‘worth it’. And ‘I’ have also experienced the limerence of falling in love — that amazing chemical cocktail that obliterates the sense of self and separation and makes the body feel too good to be anxious, angry or sad. But they never lasted, these illusory moments of escape from the struggle, from the search, and sometimes from the self itself. There was always a let-down, a fading away of the good feelings, a disillusionment. And then it was back to the struggle, the sense that something very basic was not quite right about this life, and the search for that magic: “Yes — aha, that’s it, how could I not have seen, not remember?”

Achieving an intellectual understanding of all this has provided very little solace — usually ‘I’ find that even when learning something is saddening or upsetting, it is better to know. But knowing you’re in a dream is of no value if you can’t wake up. Getting clarity about why you’re in a prison serving a sentence of life without parole, when you did nothing to deserve it, doesn’t help make the harsh term or conditions more bearable.

And my study of radical non-duality has led me to understand that there is no path — that what all the well-meaning gurus and spiritual ‘teachers’ and ‘leaders’ do is convince the desperately seeking self that it can transcend its self, which is a tautological impossibility.

The best that the self (including the selves of gurus and spiritual ‘teachers’ and ‘leaders’) can hope to do is to find ways, with the help of others, to make the prison of the self more comfortable, and to help others do likewise. And of course the self cannot do so voluntarily, since it doesn’t really exist. If the inherent nature of the creature is to do this, with or without clarity, it will do that. This creature’s character is selfish and tired, and there are limits to what and how much it’s prepared to do to heal and comfort others (no limit on what it’s prepared to do to heal and comfort itself, however). But it’s doing what it must, and that, I’m told, has included doing things that have helped others.

And of course ‘I’ can’t help hoping, absurdly, that my self will fall away if only I create the right conditions for it. That is what selves do, in their coherent or incoherent endless search for what they cannot find — their own demise. In the meantime, my self still seeks escape in love, in sex, in accomplishment, and in learning new things, though it knows, now, that disappointment will surely follow.

Would the world be a better place if the self had not evolved to needlessly afflict us? Radical non-duality’s answer is probably not, and that we cannot know. The belief in the above description of reality (and my belief in it remains tentative) changes everything (in how I relate to the world and to my self) and nothing (since ‘I’ don’t exist). That’s why I can’t stop writing about it.

If my self were to ‘permanently’ fall away it is hard to guess what this character that ‘I’ have infected might do without ‘me’. Probably just drop out of public view, give up all ‘my’ possessions (including, I suspect, this blog), do joyous things with those it loves, and just wander the world, untethered, in wonder. That seems to have been the propensity of this character named Dave before ‘I’ intervened. I can only hope, fool that I am.

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9 Responses to Limbo Pt. 2

  1. Nathan says:

    Dave – firstly, because my self is annoyed at the typo, can you correct the image so it says “wealth” instead of “weath” under the “achievement” bit?

    I’ve been wondering whether being on the edge of what’s called “Autistic” has put me in the position of seeing through the world of human relationships, and being more anchored to the senses. I have performed “normal” well enough to stay in a job, yet I’ve always felt that I’ve had no social connection to anyone. At certain points I’ve thought I’ve had “friends” but I’m always heading back to having no idea if “friend” has any meaning.

    If there is no “me” then what is there to have something called “friendship”?

    The most sensible creatures I know are my cats. Maybe they have a better sense of what they are. And I say “my” cats. More like creatures humans call cats who are happy to stay around because I feed them and get some comfort from their apparent enjoyment of physical proximity or contact.

    Limbo is a very good way of putting it. I’d like to be in a place where I could just “be” but I’m dragged back in so I can have some interaction with others. I haven’t had friends that much because while I may like someone’s “vibe”, what seems to be emotionally engaging to them seems empty to me.

    I’d like someone to drop all that crap and “be” with me in my place, or the place this sentient being is, responding to music or the patterns made by the shadows of leaves on the ground.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Nathan — 2 typos corrected. Tony Parsons talks about the apparent requirement for the “me” to have to “negotiate” with the world, where without the affliction of a self there is simply no need to negotiate — everything just happens. I’ve always found that negotiation process difficult, and often wonder what this “friendship” thing really means. My sense is that there’s a hierarchy that ranges from needs to wants to pleasures, and that apparently-deep friendships often develop around needs, as a kind of co-dependency. I’m happiest with relationships that centre around mutual pleasures (eg game-playing), which seem more to me like the healthiest relationships I was in as a very small child before my “self” was well-established — minimal responsibility or obligation. Kind of like what you’re describing in the last paragraph of your comment.

    In my study of Welsh pronunciation I learned that the Welsh language evolved without a possessive tense — rather than say “my cats” you say “the cats that are with me” which seems closer to the non-dual perspective. I love cats and sense that while they are not afflicted with selves they can, as smart and sensitive creatures, learn and even to some extent be infected with human-type-self anxieties eg separation anxiety. I don’t think this is inherent in cats (or even dogs, who seem more prone to separation anxiety), but sadly humans can, perhaps unwittingly, inflict it upon them.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    I use google to look up ‘my child’ in Welsh:
    fy mhlentyn

    So it seems that the Welsh assume some sort of special relationship between parent and child. Does radical non-dualism assume the same sort of special relationship as most languages, or are the infants similar to the cats which merely appear beside the parents without cause or obligation?

    Don Stewart

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    The Welsh have introduced modernisms to align the language with English, but the connotation remains the same: David’s dog is “ci Dafydd” which implies “dog with David”. The interpretation of these structures as connoting possessive rather than “in the company of” is modern. So a more precise translation of fy mhlentyn (at least in old Welsh) is “the child with me”. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I don’t claim to be an expert.

    Radical non-duality (which I don’t claim to be an expert on either) has no room for “relationship”, which would be inherently dual. As for the cats and the children, non-duality would I think assert that they and we are just cat-ting, children-ing and adult-ing, what is apparently happening, without cause, meaning or obligation. Of course the self believes otherwise, and fears (I now think needlessly) that without the sense of obligation and meaning and responsibility we would all believe horribly, including to our cats and children. Until the selves all fall away we won’t know for sure.

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Some species feel no obligation to their offspring at all. Fish, I believe, regard them as ‘food’.

    In the United States, the courts decided (in the 1920s as I recall) that children were not ‘property’, as slaves had previously been ‘property’. The case arose when some parents in Kentucky took their children out of school so they could work in the coal mines. The Supreme Court finally held that the parents had a legal responsibility to permit the children to be educated, and that the children were not property to be treated any way the parents wished to treat them. So we get the ‘in loco parentis’ actions of governments when parents cannot or will not behave as what we consider ‘reasonable parenting’.

    As covered pretty thoroughly in Sapolsky’s book Behave, there are two different physiological strands involved in human morality. One strand is based on rational thinking. Another strand is based on disgust. The two strands involve very different brain networks. Both strands are heavily influenced by social norms. For example, it was once considered by many people to be both irrational and also disgusting to shelter a runaway slave. Sapolsky shows some pictures of butchered dogs displayed in Asian food markets. Many Americans would find buying and eating the dogs to be ‘disgusting’, but few would argue that it is ‘irrational’.

    As for the special relationship most humans feel for their children. Sapolsky relates a story about Joe Stalin. The official line in the USSR held that loyalty to the ‘workers paradise’ superseded loyalty to one’s parents. A young man turned his parents in for what he regarded as disloyal behavior to the State. Stalin, when told about it, remarked that the young man was ‘crazy’, but let the wheels of bureaucracy grind anyway. In many American courts husbands and wives are not required to testify against each other.

    So things are definitely not alike over all species, and cultures do differ and do change. I think the notion that one’s children are just little creatures who happen to be where they are, and that the parents have no responsibilities toward them, is now on the ‘disgust’ end of the scale for the great majority of people. I don’t think the disgust can be soothed by appeals to radical non-dualism, nor do I think the Courts would be impressed by that defense.

    Don Stewart

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Sorry, Don, didn’t mean to set you off, but I’m afraid you’re completely missing my point. It’s not about morality. It’s about the difference between what appears to be real and what is really real. There is no ‘you’, no ‘me’, no time or space or people or children or cats or fish or people or free will or control or choice or meaning or purpose. To the self all these things seem real, but they (including the self) are all illusory constructs of the brain. When the self falls away, nothing changes, because the self wasn’t real in the first place. Everything just eternally is, oneness, nothing playing the game of being everything. What appears to happen would happen exactly as it happens without separate selves — including apparently rational and irrational and altruistic and disgusting behaviour and courts holding people responsible for their behaviour — because there are no separate selves. The illusion, the dream, is that we actually have control over any of this, that ‘we’ as separate selves exist at all. The struggle occurs because we think ‘we’ can (and should, and must) make a difference, change our behaviour through the illusory self’s agency and volition. That struggle is for nought, because there is no self, and everything would (apparently) happen the same anyway. If the entire world were to suddenly embrace radical non-duality, absolutely nothing would change.

    Some scientists have warned others that, while there is now growing scientific evidence that there is no separate self/mind/soul/free-will, they should not tell the rest of the world, because the world would suddenly become a nihilistic, irresponsible place. They too miss the point — no one can choose to become nihilistic or irresponsible, because there is no one. No one has the free will to change their behaviour. All there is is what is (apparently) happening. As science and philosophy develop further, my guess is that, just as scientists have become increasingly convinced that runaway climate change is now inevitable, they will become increasingly convinced that there is no soul, free will or separate self. And that shift in belief will change absolutely nothing. Because there is no one to change behaviour.

    Hope that’s a little clearer.

  7. JPL says:

    Hi Dave,

    You keep responding that we don’t understand, we don’t get it or miss the point when in fact we simply disagree with your world view. That you keep coming back with that answer (see your responses to myself or below for an other recent example) suggests that somehow you may presume that Radical non-duality has such a powerful message that anyone who understands (even just intellectually?) must necessarily buy into it. We understand what you preach my friend we just don’t buy it. I will just share with you what some of us sees: radical non-dualism as you tell it is just another story, a story that confounds the teller in believing that ultimately there is no story. Some of us just see through the deception.

    The oneness you describe is simply an intellectual (of poor quality) coating of oneness you plaster on reality. You are being played … by yourself! The power of the imagination you decry are playing tricks on you. Order, disorder, diversity, polarity and duality have existed and shape the unfolding of reality and existence well before any human self ever made its appearance.

    I will quote Stuart Kauffman

    “Think of E. coli swimming up a glucose gradient. This is a causal set that “feeds” the E. coli; hence, it is a function of E. coli that sustains this Kantian whole in its world … Once life exists, sensing its world was of selective advantage. But given that sensing, the E. coli must “evaluate” “good for me or bad for me,” it must make a “decision” to approach food or flee toxin, and then it must be able to act in the world to achieve an instrumental ought. Once doing exists, so do instrumental, not yet ethical, “oughts.” ”

    That order, disorder, diversity, polarity and duality have existed and shape the unfolding of reality and existence well before any human self ever made its appearance is a simple observation that is in no way a contradiction with the insights of someone like Nisargadatta for instance. I will just quote Albert Low who as a fuller perspective on non-duality than radical non-dualism.

    “Wholeness, unity, oneness, organic, all of this implies indivisibility, individuality, yet one is two. As we shall see, creativity arises out of the impossibility of divided unity.”

    You recently wrote in the comment section of the first part of the Limbo post: ” Either I’m really poor at explaining what radical non-duality’s message is, or else it’s more difficult to understand conceptually than I thought. So a couple more points in response, and then I think I’ll let it rest.” It is neither … Rather, it is because radical non-duality is simply bullshit. Let me explain what I mean. Soon after coming across your initial exchange with Don in that post (and for the most part agreeing with him) I read the article ( by Ezra Klein and the obvious dawned on me: radical Non-duality is not so much about messages with any form of underlying necessities but simply bullshit. Contrary to what you frequently suggest on your blog, radical non-duality is not some difficult and complicated conceptual arrangement (although for many, it would be emotionally difficult to accept that I admit). Also, one can’t be poor at explaining what inherently can’t be explained. Its messages are simply a bunch of bullshit. Don’t take that characterization personally (of course, how could you :)! ). The judgment and the realization I had are more about the totality of its expressions on the web and through its voices** than particularly your own. Nonetheless, you can’t naturally escape the fact that it is bullshit: Just some recent illustrations (from your first Limbo post) …
    — “nothing expressing itself as everything” is meaningless bullshit with pretension of depth. Of course, someone can be polite and write instead ” You will of course follow your own path. I personally find the interdependent path more informative and healthier.”
    — Your account of evolution is reductive, uneducated and terribly self-serving. So is your conceptualization of the ‘ego’, ‘self’, etc. through your posts.
    — Many concepts and terms are used indistinctly, blurred, incoherently and at fast pace in your posts in ways that simply and ultimately only confuse and soak out the discursive oxygen in the room (needed for any dialogues).

    The radical non-duality narratives crowd out or snuff out any attempt to engage them. Apparently, if we don’t agree or see it your way we “don’t understand” or are missing the point. Give us a break.

    **To say that Tony Parson is a bullshitter is pretty obvious for any mate that listens to him in person or online …

  8. Don Stewart says:


    Robert Sapolsky’s book is 717 pages, heavily footnoted, and was reviewed by 24 eminent scholars. So if Sapolsky is missing something, it is likely they would have pointed it out to him. One of the recurring themes is the delicate art of separating correlation and causation. Humans have a powerful gift of constructing rationalizations which may not be causative.

    On page 526, we find this passage: ‘ Consolation is also shown among those heartwarming pair-bonding prairie voles, as shown in a 2016 Nature paper from Larry Young of Emory University, a pioneer of the vole/ monogamy/ vasopressin story, along with (Frans) de Waal. Members of a vole pair would be placed in separate rooms. One of the pair would be either stressed (with a mild shock) or left undisturbed; pairs were then reunited. As compared with unstressed individuals, stressed ones would be licked and groomed more by their partner. Partners would also match the anxiety behaviors and glucocotcoid levels of their stressed pairrmate. This didn’t occur for a stressed stranger, NOR AMONG POLYGAMOUS MEADOW VOLES’. (Capitals inserted by me.)

    Without meaning to sound (too) snarky, perhaps you are a polygamous vole amidst a dominant culture of pair bonding voles. If so, you will see the world differently. A male bear mates and leaves with no thought whatsoever. But you, being a minority, may feel the need to come up with some sort of rationalization. It just may be that you have selected radical non-duality as your justification. You are well-educated enough to make that sound somewhat convincing to some people. But it may not be causative. If you were a member of the pair-bonding voles, you might reject the theory out of hand, and consider anyone who refused to take responsibility for their actions as repellent.

    Here, for what it is worth, is Sapolsky’s final word on free will: ‘I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will. It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology. Perhaps we’ll have to settle for making sure our homuncular myths are benign, and save the heavy lifting of truly thinking rationally for where it matters—when we judge others harshly.’

    Please note that I have condensed many hundreds of pages of text, describing thousands of pages describing experiments, into something doubtless oversimplified. If you are interested, I suggest you read Sapolsky, along with Lisa Barrett and Dan Siegel.

    Don Stewart

  9. Dave,
    IMHO, radical non-duality is dualism, i.e. it’s either/or (duality vs non-duality), not both/and. We are all individual AND we are all one. Everything is a particle AND a wave. It’s not free will OR determinism, it’s BOTH—constrained free will in a complex system.

    I tend to lean towards the thinking of Charles Johnston (among others–I like to synthesize. See my paper “We are not the Enemy: Thoughts on habits and the challenge of enlightenment–or of being a Systems Thinker”: Here’s a good article of Johnston’s on the subject of identity (“Rethinking Identity: How the myth of the individual provides essential evidence for the future’s needed “Growing Up” as a species”):

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