The Crag and the Chasm

Another annoying post about radical non-duality. But cool title, no?

Dave’s four worldviews, 1951-????

Since I started listening to, and speaking with, the radical non-duality speakers shown on my blog’s right sidebar, eight years ago, I have started exploring the nature of reality, and human nature, from its very different perspective. This “seeking journey” has taken me from a belief in free will (worldview I in the diagram above) to a belief that we have a self but it doesn’t have free will (worldview II), and then to a belief that we have neither a self nor free will (ie that they are both illusions, created by the brain in a mistaken attempt to make sense of the body’s perceptions — worldview III).

This was the only way I could find to ‘make sense’ of both the ‘glimpses‘ that have seemingly occurred at various times in my life, and the latest science and neuroscience about free will, about the illusory self, and about the nature of time and space. I’ve written about all of this ad nauseam, basically saying the same things (mostly out loud to my self, to be sure I really understand them and their implications) over and over.

But the obsessed seeker for the ultimate truth is never satisfied: I keep looking, with curiosity and some longing, at worldview IV, the full message that the radical non-duality speakers are articulating. The message is that there actually is no ‘real’ time or space, no causality, no ‘thing’ real or separate from everything, and nothing really happening — only “everything appearing”, only “just this”. ‘I’ can appreciate this message intellectually, and feel some resonance with it intuitively, but somehow I ‘know’ that ‘I’ can never actually ‘realize’ or ‘see’ the truth of this as ‘obvious’, as the (apparent) radical non-duality speakers (apparently) do.

I am not sure why this is so important to me. I suppose this is the nature of obsession — like when we can’t remember something but it’s right on the tip of our tongue, so that until we retrieve it we can’t think about anything else. The radical non-duality speakers assert that there is no “path” to this “realization”, and that it really doesn’t make any difference to anything — they insist they are not “enlightened” and are not “teaching” anything, just trying to illuminate what is obvious ‘there’, which is what I describe as worldview IV (though perhaps I should call it worldview zero). And they do not appear to be particularly happy, or relieved, or even passionate about what is now ‘obvious’ ‘there’.

Whatever the reason, and no matter how hopeless, I can’t shake my obsession with this message. I don’t particularly want to. It is at once infuriating and a source of endless curiosity and fascination. The message is so internally consistent (across speakers in five different languages, with very different backgrounds and different ways of describing things and different past belief systems), so effortless, such a (not-grand) “theory of everything”, and delivered with such sincerity, that I cannot shake the sense that it is simply true.

I hear them saying there is no “path” to “see” this, no practice or process for getting “closer” to it, but my gotta-make-sense-of-everything brain will not accept that. It cannot help but try. So much of science, and the glimpses, ‘fit’ with this message, that surely it’s just a matter of finding the rest of the pieces and it will all ‘fit’, surely.

But that thinking, I know, is pure folly. The more I explore it, the wider the chasm between worldview III (where I sit, impatiently, now) and worldview IV (which I impossibly aspire to ‘realize’) yawns. Every discovery just raises more unanswerable questions. So I am teased by discoveries in astrophysics that time does not actually exist — it’s just a mental placeholder and categorization tool for the brain’s desperate and futile sense-making. I am teased by the scientific theory that space is likewise just a conceptualization — that all that exists is an infinite “field of possibilities” where some of those possibilities ‘appear’ (there’s that word again) to ‘happen’. I am teased by Michael Pollan’s argument that the effect of some psychedelics and some deep meditation and some brain injuries is to disrupt the “default neural pathways” in the brain and open ourselves to an entirely different way of perceiving and conceiving of reality — and the possibility that the radical non-duality speakers have somehow permanently ‘slipped free’ of these conditioned, entrenched default neural pathways (and so maybe the rest of us could, too).

I am teased by the possibility that these default neural pathways that seemingly create what Tony Parsons has called the inescapable “prison of the self” arose due to an evolutionary misstep many millennia ago, first described by Julian Jaynes, which I’ve frequently elaborated on as the Entanglement Hypothesis. I am teased by growing evidence that no animals other than humans have this illusory sense of self and separation, and that furthermore they don’t require it to live completely full and functional lives.

I am teased by what my study of evolution has revealed about the immense variety of ways of ‘being in’ and ‘perceiving’ the world, and about how much it explains, and how much it fails to explain, the world as we seemingly separate self-afflicted humans see it. I am teased by how utterly the ‘loss’ of the sense of self and separation in radical non-duality speakers has seemingly changed ‘their’ way of perceiving reality, and how little it has seemingly changed their characters and behaviours. For example, they are absolutely clear that there is no perception of time or causality ‘there’ — everything is “always new” — yet they go on scheduling their meetings as if time and causality were real. And some still entertain (what to me are) conspiracy theories, and are quite entertained by (what to me are) inane programs, in spite of ‘their’ avowal that nothing is really happening, and nothing matters.

And I am teased by the very compelling arguments that all our behaviour is conditioned (which some radical non-duality speakers confirm, with the ubiquitous “apparently” qualifier), even though (apparent) conditioning would seem to absolutely require the existence of (apparent?) time and (apparent?) causality.

The realization that ‘we’ are not “all of a piece”, but rather just collective labels for the trillions of creatures that comprise what we label as “our bodies”, and that it is their conditioning, not ‘ours’ that determines what we do, had me, once again, foolishly and hopelessly, trying to discover or construct a crag, a branch, a perilous path, that would take me from worldview III to worldview IV.

So I felt a recent compulsion to call Tim Cliss, the radical non-duality (he hates the term) speaker with whom I’ve probably had the most extensive conversations, and ask him for his ‘take’ on all of the above discoveries — his take on evolution, on the “field of possibilities” theory, on the “default neural pathways” theory, on the Entanglement Hypothesis, on the possibility of conditioning when there is no time and no causality, and all the other possible footholds, and apparent gaps, in the crag that I am trying to build and use to make my way to worldview IV.

But I know Tim, and the other radical non-duality speakers, have already been asked, in one way or another, about these ideas and connections and apparent inconsistencies in the message. And their answer has always been the same: In essence, it is “I haven’t the faintest idea. (And it doesn’t matter.)”

If I were to ask Tim about all of these things, that’s what he would answer, I am sure, to all of them. He would do so in the most kindly possible way: He’s a softie, and ‘his’ life experiences prior to the (apparent) loss of ‘his’ (illusory) self parallel mine in many ways.

He would be telling me, gently, that there is no way of getting from worldview III to worldview IV, no matter how meticulously the crag that seems to partly bridge them is crafted and cultivated, no matter how maddeningly well all the amazing revelations that came with reaching worldview III resonate with the message of worldview IV. ‘You’ can’t get there from here.

There’s a joke going around about rural wisdom, and it goes like this: A carful of tourists are desperately trying to find some tourist destination, and end up on a lonely country road. They roll down their window and ask a passing farmer for directions. The farmer answers: “If that’s where you’re trying to get to, I wouldn’t recommend starting from here.”

So here I sit, on my largely self-manufactured crag, looking across the chasm at a destination that seems, the closer I try to get to it, ever farther and farther away. And that’s OK. Einstein said he could never understand it all. And if he couldn’t, there is no hope for me. But my conditioning, if that’s what it is, won’t let me turn back from the crag. The view’s pretty good, despite a bit of fog. Just happy to have come this far. Think I’ll hang out here for a while.

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7 Responses to The Crag and the Chasm

  1. Renaee says:

    The ‘I am teased by’ phrases gave a really good summary of everything you have explored to date, leaving no stone unturned it seems. There is an addictive quality to listening to these speakers bc it resonates on that intuitive level and as you said cause they all seem to be saying the same thing, regardless of being wildy different characters. And occaisionally i have powerful aha, of course of course of course moments, but then it fades, and I wonder – what was that about, just like being on magic mushrooms and you can’t quite figure out why everything was so intensely interesting. But the fact that people continue to play out the various aspects of the personality, regardless of this insight or seeing, is the most curious of all really.
    Very well put together post and not annoying ;-)

  2. Ray says:

    It is a kind of curse, that (at least some) humans are compelled to fret about these things. I personally find it somewhat pathological that we want to know almost
    everything there is. What good does it to know about self, free will, the origin of the universe, quantum field theory and all such stuff. Why did we invent these terms and concepts? Why are we frantically searching for meaning in our little lives?
    I can only come to the conclusion that conscious humans are a dramatic aberration in this pointless universe. We really don’t belong here.

  3. Vera says:

    Ray: Pointless universe where we humans don’t belong… stated as though it were true, as though the writer knew with certainty this was so, as though a daily dose of nihilism is a good thing.

    Count me out of that point of view.
    Cheers, howtosavetheworlders! :-)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    I would prefer to believe that our incapacity to get along with each other, and with other creatures, and to ‘fit’ as Darwin used the term, is the result of the tragic disease of our entangled brains, and that if future humans evolve to be free of it, we will once again fit very well and just ‘be’ without needing abstract knowledge or meaning.

    But then, given my conditioning, I would believe that, wouldn’t I?

  5. Michael says:

    Dave, your profound exploration regarding the nature of self, free will, and reality aligns in several intriguing ways with the teachings of “A Course in Miracles” (ACIM). Both your perspective and ACIM delve into the illusory nature of personal identity and the deeper truths about existence, albeit through different lenses. Your posts have encouraged me to go back to my ACIM materials and confirm the similarities that I felt were present while I read your posts.

    First, your shift from believing in free will to viewing both the self and free will as illusions created by the brain mirrors ACIM’s foundational premise that the ego, or the sense of a separate self, is a false construct. ACIM teaches that this ego creates a dualistic experience of the world, leading to the perception of separation from God and from other beings, which is not the true state of reality. The course states, “The ego is the mind’s belief that it is completely on its own” (T-4.II.8:4), which resonates with your description of worldview III—where what we perceive as “self” and “free will” are merely brain-created illusions.

    Further, your description of worldview IV, where time, space, and causality are non-existent and everything is seen as merely “appearing” without real separation or events, parallels ACIM’s teachings on the nature of time and reality. ACIM suggests that time itself is an illusion, only existing within a framework the mind constructs to maintain the appearance of separation. It states, “Time is a trick, a sleight of hand, a vast illusion in which figures come and go as if by magic” (W-pI.158.4:1). Thus, both perspectives recognize that our normal understanding of causality and the linear progression of time does not reflect ultimate reality.

    Moreover, your struggle with the no-path to realization and your intellectual and emotional grappling with the implications of radical non-duality echo ACIM’s concept that the realization of truth, or awakening from the dream of separation, is not achieved through a linear journey. ACIM teaches that there is no path to what already is inherently true; it’s a matter of removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is our natural inheritance (T-In.1). This is similar to your insight from radical non-duality speakers that there is no method or practice to achieve the recognition of the non-existence of self and separation; it’s about seeing what is already apparent.

    Lastly, your continued fascination and obsession, despite recognizing the apparent hopelessness of bridging the gap between your current understanding and worldview IV, reflects a dynamic ACIM addresses directly: the persistent attraction to dualistic thinking and the difficulty of letting go of the ego’s viewpoint. ACIM suggests that this struggle is part of the journey to enlightenment, where one gradually learns to forgive, not in the traditional sense of pardoning sins, but in recognizing that what seemed to happen in separation never truly did (W-pII.1.1:1).

    Both your philosophical journey and the teachings of ACIM suggest that the true nature of existence is non-dualistic and that the sense of a separate self and the constructs of time and space are illusions, barriers to understanding a state of oneness with all existence. I think that ACIM would encourage you to continue exploring these insights, reassuring you that your journey is not in vain, for each step taken—even seemingly in circles—is part of the process of undoing the ego, which is the ultimate aim shared by both your inquiry and the course itself.

  6. Bob says:

    Paradoxes, whatever the expression, appear only in self-representation as the apparent knower of something else, and the apparent solutions or absence of solution to such paradoxes appear in the same way, whatever the expression.

    So one could argue that all paradoxes are but the reflection of the paradox of self as the apparent knower of oneself and the failed attempt to solve the apparent paradox of existence. And yet, upon reflection, such a desire to solve or negate the paradox of existence is the apparent knower, and the knower it-self is but the apparent desire to put an end to the paradox in something apparently unquestionable, as someone that need not be questioned: ‘I am’.

    There is no understanding of existence but for apparent experience and no experience of existence but for apparent understanding full circle. While there is no one who could achieve desirelessness to evade the circle of existence as self, we could just as well say that what need not be it-self need not be experienced or understood. Existence as something apparently known echoes unknowing as existence in apparent understanding.

    Such echoing views are often seen as irreconcilable in endless debates within oneself where the desire to exist as the knower oscillates between self-affirmation and self-negation and the apparent impossibility of the ‘other view’. Though apparently pointing to something beyond the apparent paradox, ‘not two’ is not some other perspective, some reconciliation or some bridge between the two. Oneness, if need be named, need not be it-self to solve the apparent paradox of existence. There is no such thing as an experience of oneness that I can have nor is there an understanding of oneness that I can achieve.

    Where there is no one claiming existence there is no need to penetrate that which need not be breached. As Lao Tzu once wrote: ”Only that which has no existence can enter that which has no opening.” And I would add in echoing understanding no less apparent: There can be no parting for those who have never met.

  7. Peter Reck says:

    Dave Pollard: THANK YOU for putting this together. The diagram on the top is excellent for us, as more visual folks also approach the exploration with logic!

    Although I was repeatedly told that logic is as useless a tool here as a degree in languages would be in solving math problems.

    Much is being said about dealing with the paradoxical nature of many aspects of what is being discussed. What about settling for the view that it only seems paradoxical when attempting to apply logic but approached from alternative paradigms? It’s neither a paradox nor anything at all.

    The radical nondualists have done a pretty good job of messaging that the habit of objectification of the brain renders the idea that there are “things,” i.e., there is separation. Those things are then labeled and used to construct relationships, causal and otherwise. Then, we call that duality and imply that it is only imagined.

    Dabbling in the messages of radical nonduality has this effect: The idea that there is a “there” here, where my suffering is alleviated, and eternal bliss is all that remains, has dissolved.

    It seems more and more natural that everything is as it is: unpredictable, unknowable, and available to be lived and savored.

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