Department of Philosophy
Monterey Peninsula College
Monterey, California, U.S.A.
My aim in this paper is to show that there is no inherent incompatibility between nondual experience and the phenomenon of thinking.Nondual living can include thinking and moreover, to reverse the coin, thinking can even occur in the process of dissolution of duality.
There is an apparent problem in conceiving nondual living.Thinking, being a conceptual activity, seems to be a mental operation which involves contrasts—both in terms of the object (of thinking) contrasted with what it is not, and in terms of the object contrasted with the subject; i.e., as involving an implicit or explicit reference to the self.If these contrasts necessarily create a division and duality between the self and the world, and if thinking is essential even for a liberated person in order to operate in this world, then the problem sees to be, how can the liberated man be said to exist in a state of nonduality and yet use dualistic thinking in order to deal with his world, other people, and himself?
I will attempt to resolve this problem by showing that the process of thinking creates more than one type of duality—to be specific, what I shall call merely conceptual (or cognitive) duality, on the one hand, and affective and existential dualities, on the other.I will claim that in the state of nonduality a person is free from affective and existential dualities, while I will also claim that conceptual (or cognitive) duality is innocuous and quite compatible with nonduality in an affective and existential sense.Even though in deep states of samadhi one is probably free of even conceptual duality, one could be in a nondual state in waking consciousness and yet employ “dualistic” thinking.Such a dualism can nevertheless be clearly distinguished from the emotionally “dualistic” thinking where one is painfully aware of oneself as separate from the world and other selves.
What is Duality?A) Cognitive Duality:Simply defined, duality is twoness.Perceiving a chair as different from a table, and thinking about an object, both employing concepts, involve cognitive duality.When I see a chair and recognize it as such, I see it, at least implicitly, as distinct from things other than chairs, and also as other than myself.This may also be accompanied by an implicit awareness (perhaps made explicit in a later act of reflection) of my seeing.The same sort of awareness goes on when I am in the purely mental realm of thinking about things.This duality is what I shall call cognitive duality.However, the mere fact that a chair is perceived as different from a table is not the sort of duality that matters for purposes of liberation, although the same mental functions also produce other sots of duality which are relevant.To repeat, the mere fact of perceiving a chair as different from a table, or perceiving that there are many things in the world, or seeing that people, you and I, are different from one another and from the world, do not by themselves constitute the problem of bondage.No one has renounced the world to become free from this sort of duality.
b) Affective Duality:When there is a consciousness of the object as distinct from oneself (either implicitly or explicitly) and when there is an interpretation of such consciousness as pleasant or painful, we have what could be called affective duality.Affective duality is inherent in the process of desire or avoidance.
Affective duality is considered a problem only when it connotes a consciousness of pain, a sense of uneasiness at the least, something which one resists.The disappointment felt in not succeeding at or not possessing what one wanted, creates a consciousness of the pain one has, a pain that one would like to avoid.Other dualities (perceptual or cognitive duality and duality in action) play a significant role in the life of the person striving for liberation only on the assumption that affective duality is a problem.
When a person merely perceives something, there is no sense of separation in his mind between himself and what he perceives.But recognition of the object of perception implies employing a concept.He classifies it, makes a judgment about it.He may desire such an object, based on his past experience of it, or he may wish to avoid it (or remain indifferent to it).In desire (or avoidance) there is an implicit awareness of oneself as separate from the object of one’s desire (as lacking it).Then he acts to fulfill his desire.If obtains what he desires, then he plays with it, cherishes it, and soon goes on to some other object and repeats the process.When there is an obstacle in the process of obtaining what one desires, there is a keen consciousness of oneself as separate from the object one desires.This is accompanied by a sense of tension, pain or uneasiness, and there is an attempt to avoid this consciousness of separation (and the accompanying pain).Before, any implicit awareness of separation (or duality) was not a problem.But now duality has become a problem one has to resolve.I see the object as something I must have, or as something I must avoid.At this level the self or ego exists, although momentarily, in the sense that there is a consciousness of oneself as lacking something, as having achieved something, as being hurt, and so on.
Affective duality is not always seen as something painful.When it is seen as pleasant, it is when one has solved the problem of a previous affective duality by achieving the object of a desire, and thereby has gained temporarily a sense of achievement.Also the process of desiring itself can seem to be pleasant as when it presents the prospect of fulfillment, or when one fantasizes the fulfillment of desire in some fashion or other.But my claim is that any affective duality, regardless of how it is seen, involves a sense of alienation and uneasiness, and hence in itself is a problem, although it is not seen as such except at the level of existential duality.At the level of existential duality one is not so much enchanted with the goals of one’s desires as much as with the process of seeking them.Then one may be well aware of the accompanying weariness and the underlying alienation.
c) Existential Duality:Ordinarily, we attempt to transcend this affective duality by focusing on the world and trying to change the situations in it, or by trying to “improve” ourselves, so that we can eventually get what we want.But, when somehow the problem of ‘affective’ duality is not solved (either I still haven’t gotten what I wanted, or getting what I wanted only left me with a sense of vague dissatisfaction, weariness or alienation, with a sense of meaninglessness of the goals I have been seeking), I am left with a more profound sense of separation between myself and the world (or the people and situations in it), or between myself and my life or existence.This is when we say the person is experiencing ‘existential duality’.Although existential duality is only an extension or continuation of affective duality, it is at this level that duality is felt at its keenest.Existential duality is synonymous with samsara or suffering.When a person seeks liberation, it is generally at the level of existential duality that he does so.Of course, even at this stage a person my not see duality as suffering. When he does, he may still not see the suffering as something that can be totally dissolved by the process of liberation.
Thinking Underlies Affective and Existential Dualities:Thinking can only operate through concepts.Conceptualization through the recalling of a past experience as pleasant or unpleasant, the consequent formation of an image of it as desirable (if it was pleasant), and the thinking of oneself as not having it, the perception of something as means to achieving it, and so on, are all mental processes necessary for the formation of affective and existential dualities.However, the thought process here is not merely cognitive; it is at the same time affective and conational.When we label (or describe) a thing, all the knowledge related to that thing is also brought to bear upon it in such a way that the description of the thingis translated into our value scales of pleasure and pain and then elaborated upon.The thing is then seen as something to be sought after (for one’s pleasure, happiness or fulfillment) or something to be avoided.If our subsequent nonattainment of the object of desire and the frustration in our attempts to achieve it are seen as such from the point of our past expectations, then such consciousness brings forth affective duality, which is seen as painful, which may in some individuals culminate in existential duality.The consciousness of the attainment of the objects of desire is not something which we resist as painful.Hence it does not present a problem of duality.
Affective and Existential Dualities imply the Ego: Our thinking process also creates the notion of the self or ego, the “idea” of oneself as currently being happy or unhappy, and as having to be happy or fulfilled in the future, and the consequent notion of “time.”Even if one has, for instance, solved the current problem of pain, the memory of the pain still leaves an emotional “scar” on one’s psyche.Similarly, one isn’t merely satisfied with the achievement of a current goal; one attributes the achievement to oneself and feels proud of it.The achievement is now seen as flowing from one’s “potency” or “potentiality.”
The ego is a sense of oneself as a continuous person to whom are attributed all experiences, actions, the body, and various other qualities.The ego always goes beyond the present experience.Our conscious existence is in reality nothing but a collection of thoughts each followed by other thoughts.Some previous thoughts and memories become the objects of present thoughts.When a previous memory becomes an object of a present thought, there is consciousness of the memory, there is an attribution of it to the self, and a feeling that one is still in pain or pleasure.Thus a sense of continuity, which is perceived to be the self or ego, is created.Thoughts of the future, which are memories modified by our desires in a way that they anticipate events, also create continuity by a similar process.Present actions, performances, achievements, and the qualities one notices or others notice about oneself, are all followed by thoughts attributing them to the self, or feelings that one is the source of them.
This notion of the ego or self exists even at the level of affective duality as a momentary implicit or explicit awareness of self.However, beyond this implicit awareness of self in consciousness and thinking, and part from the mere awareness of oneself in the present self-consciousness as the subject or self who experiences the world, there is a life of the more generalized or ‘long-term’ ego constantly gathering knowledge and experience, seeking fulfillment, meaning, ultimate and permanent happiness, a union with reality, and so forth.Existential duality is a problem only because we are governed by the long-term ego.Each thought, as it were, thinks for the whole self.And it seeks permanent happiness not for itself, but for the whole self.It is as if the whole of the knowledge we have accumulated operates through each thought, and seeks fulfillment for the self, although the single thought may be only seeking a particular goal or object.
Objectively speaking, the ego is nothing but a tendency to think, believe, and behave as if one were a permanent entity continuing in time, lacking a certain fulfillment, and having to be fulfilled, and having certain qualities, experiences, beliefs, hopes, fears, projects, potentialities, destiny, and so forth.Even more specifically, the ego is an inertia created by the tendency on the part of an experience to linger on and repeat itself.If there is no desire or urge to repeat a past experience (or to avoid a painful one) then there is no self or ego, nor is there a consciousness of the self.The experience repeating itself looks upon itself as an object, as something to be desired or avoided, and also upon itself as a self lacking what it desires.It then tries to strive for the object or become it.The generalized notion of the ego is only an extension of this primitive ego or self.A series of experience is put together, on the one hand, as the world (the object) and, on the other, as the ego or the self.To release the object is also to release the subject to that extent.Each thought builds the self, and it seems as though it is the self that builds (or causes) further thought about the same situation.The ego is not, however, dissolved by removing this or that particular goal or expectation.It will in fact seek out a goal, or even invent one, whenever it feels a lack or vacuum in its present consciousness.
The process of Attachment creates the Ego and Affective and Existential Dualities:The mere mental functions of thinking do not explain the ego or our affective and existential dualities.The tendency on the part of man to hold on to all that he attributes to himself is the additional element hat is needed to explain how the ego and the affective and existential dualities are created and maintained.This holding on or grasping manifests itself in our feeling that what we are attached to is essential to our identity, happiness or well-being.In other words, to be attached to something is to be identified with it, whether positively or negatively.If I am identified with something positively, I would seek it, and treat it as necessary for my happiness and well-being.On the other hand, if I am identified with something negatively, I would seek to avoid it, and treat it as a threat or an obstacle in the way of my well-being and happiness.
Thoughts going “back” in memory and actively recalling a past event, and attributing it to the self takes place only because one feels ‘attached’ to the object or event in question, and to a certain image of oneself that one has created for oneself in the past.We of course interpret our attachment to these thoughts as ourselves going out and seeking, but never see ourselves as merely a series of thoughts, having their own momentum, and mechanically seeking fulfillment.While our attachments create the ego, the ego once formed, renews old attachments, and in the process of seeking their fulfillment, it forms new attachments.These in turn further shape and strengthen the ego, thus creating a perpetual spiral of an increasingly complex ego fueled by an increasing number of attachments.
Contrary to attachment, to be detached from something is to see and live as if that thing makes no difference to one’s identify, happiness or well-being.When one is detached from something, then there are no thoughts going back or forward seeking fulfillment either in fantasy or in actuality (by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain). When we are free from attachments, we are free from the continuity of the ego, and the consequent affective and existential dualities.Then our living is at least affectively and existentially speaking nondual.The other sorts of nonduality are not a problem.
A clear distinction in analysis is not generally made between merely functional thinking or cognitive processes as such (with the momentary affective or conative elements that go with it) and the processes of thinking which include attachment and which create the notion of the self and the affective and existential dualities that the notion of the self implies.The consequence is to assume that to be free from the ego or the self and its concomitant problems is to be free from even the cognitive processes such as thinking.I submit that these two are not synonymous.
There are several reasons why seers and philosophers might have felt that merely functional thinking and thinking which includes attachment are the same.First, in states of samadhi or total absorption no thinking whatsoever occurs.Second, thinking seems to be dualistic and divisive, since it involves the use concepts.And third, thinking seems to be necessarily involved in the formation of desire and avoidance.While all these reasons are true, they do not necessitate equating cognitive with affective and existential dualities.
There are two contexts in which the role of thinking in nondual living is especially relevant:thinking as used in day-to-day dealings with the world, and thinking as used in meditation as part of the process of “deconstruction” or dissolution of affective and existential duality.
Day-to-day living:When one becomes free from the urge to repeat a past experience or avoid a painful one, then one can become free from the notion of the self.However, the rest of the mental processes, including the cognitive, conative, or affective ones, can still remain such that one can live and function in this world, without at the same time being subject to the psychological problems of worry, fear, pride, anger, depression, loneliness, and so forth.The ego can occur as a momentary counterpart of a thought, and one can experience momentary pleasure, fear, or anger, without attributing those experiences to the self.Hence the ego as a continuous entity is not put together, and hence does not arise.Also there is no continuous ego because one no longer has the urge to become, the urge to fulfill oneself through something other than oneself.Since any response to an object in an environment (or a mental object) exists only as a momentary state (however short or long the “moment” is), and since there is no continuity between one such state and the next one, nor attachment to any of them, the long-term ego or self cannot arise and does not exist to create the deeper problems of duality.It is existential duality (generated by the long-term ego) that creates sorrow or suffering in life, and not the momentary pleasures and disappointments of daily life.The latter, even when they are perceived as such and dealt with when they occur, would not be attached to a long-term self, and hence would not present a problem.
If the momentary responses to the world are not connected to a long-term self, then the particular responses, not only the pleasures and pains, but even the thoughts which accompany them would not have the “weight” which they normally have.As the Zen Buddhists would say, then thoughts would be free “to come and go.”When there is no need (whether “need” is defined in terms of “survival” or the “situation on hand”) for dealing with the present situation, then there is no occasion for thought.Then one focuses on any aspect of the environment which “draws”his attention (without even naming it), or simply is withdrawn into a samadhi until some other situation or needs of living bring him into consciousness and prompt him to deal with the environment.When the process which translates our knowledge and all we notice in the environment into the pleasant and the painful is gone, the center which puts together our experiences and attributes them to itself,the “I,” is also gone.Each thought may occur, bringing with a momentary (implicit) consciousness of itself, but does not refer the characteristics of the situation (or action or whatever is the object of one’s awareness at the moment) to the self.Hence, affective or existential dualities are not created.Then one might act as if he has no “biography”, character, or purpose in one’s life.There is no continuity in one’s consciousness or behavior.The person is moved by whatever is the immediate situation on hand.
When there is no putting together of the object or of the self beyond the needs of the immediate situation, then when responses occur, thoughts and actions are spontaneously brought to bear upon the situation which demands attention; yet there is no referring to the self.To an observer, the person may seem to recognize the objects, to respond to them through an ego or self, be angry, laugh, converse philosophically, and so forth.Yet, for the person himself such distinctions do not arise.He becomes, as it were, part of the natural processes which are interacting with one another.Any desire that might occur at the moment is limited to the means one has at one’s disposal to achieve the end desired.Any ego that appears in a particular interaction is purely limited to the moment.There would be no “ulterior” for one’s actions.As the Zen Buddhists would say, he eats when he is hungry and goes to bed when he is sleepy.
Spontaneous responses to the environment do not require “dualistic” thought or “active” memory.Being free from the self or the ego, one is moved by one’s surroundings, seeing no reason to move by himself.Of course, some knowledge is operating in “reading” the situation in whatever way it is read, but as there is no attachment, the knowledge does not create an anticipatory “build up” of thought or expectation.Memory helps him recognize the situation and respond to it appropriately.But there is no active recall in terms of reminiscing, nor is there an active modifying of the past into the future through the seeking of pleasure or avoiding of pain, as we normally do in fantasizing and worrying.There is no fantasizing, no reminiscing, no “movement of pleasure or pain.”
Any pursuit in life which requires continuity of action occurs only when the situation itself reminds the person of the need to pursue, with no prior deliberation or contemplation.For example, my hunger (or whatever situation reminds me of my need to eat) and the subsequent need to make a living are enough to prompt me each day to go to school and pursue a course of study.There is no need for a constant envisaging in one’s mind of the prospect of getting a degree, and the pleasure and bounty it is supposed to bring, or of the disappointments one might feel if one fails at one’s efforts at making a living.The person is so flexible that he constantly readjusts himself to the ever-changing world and its situations.
Meditation:The second context in which the role of thinking in nondual living is relevant is when it is used in meditation as part of the process of dissolving duality.No mediation is completely successful without developing a sense of total detachment.If attachment is the source of affective and existential duality, then detachment is a necessary condition for, although not a means to,nonduality.Detachment has two aspects to it:acceptance and renunciation.Acceptance is to let whatever happens to oneself be; not to attempt to change it into something else; not to regard it as something to be overcome.Renunciation is to let go of all the fascinations and attractions one is attached to .These attachments are not always to ‘positive’ things.For example, one may have an attachment to one’s anger or hatred to a person.To renounce that is to let it go.
In the thinking process of becoming free from duality, my duality can be dissolved by letting my fear, guilt or anger be.If I am resisting or trying to avoid these, I also let my resistance be.For instance, when I am dualistically separated from a person or situation, I resist the person or situation through my anger, guilt or fear.I normally become reflectively aware of my own anger, guilt, pain or fear and resist that.In contrast, in meditation, my sense of duality can be dissolved by accepting my fear, accepting the threatening object, and accepting even my resistance to the fear.I let them all be.If I cannot accept something, then I learn to accept the nonacceptance of it.That is, I learn to accept things at whatever level I am capable of.
If, on the other hand, my duality is created by the awareness of my nonattainment of an object or goal which I cherish, I accept that nonattainment and my resistance to it.I can let the object of my attachment go by realizing how duality, and the consequent alienation, are created by attachment.I realize that the satisfaction of the needs of living has little to do with being attached to objects.Alternately, I can let go of my resistance to the object’s nonattainment.I let go of my fear of losing things I am attached to.This is a movement of renunciation, a detachment in my consciousness from the objects I am attached to, and the detachment is accompanied by the process of thinking.In other words, dualism of thought by itself is not the problem here, for when I let things be, although I am aware of the object as an object, as well as my response to it, I am able to let my response be without putting up any further resistance to it, and thus I attain a level of reflection without generating further subject-object duality.
For instance, I am dualistically aware of a painful disturbance within myself.I am also aware of the particular attachments which have created this disturbance.My realization so far has been that it is my attachments that cause my disturbance, and that as long as I hold on to them my disturbance will remain.I also realize that I cannot renounce my attachments with an expectation to achieve any result.I can only let my attachments go and let my disturbance be.Any consequence of this I accept as a possibility.I may be freed from my disturbance; but then I may become disturbed again, or in a different fashion.Any detachment that occurs thus is not the result of a willful act, and thus does not create further attachment.Before, I was aware of my disturbance dualistically (affectively speaking).But now, though I may still be aware of my disturbance, I am no longer resisting it.Therefore, there is no duality in an affective sense.If I notice that I am still resisting the disturbance, then I let my resistance be, and not resist that.Thus I am nondualistically aware of my disturbance.Although conceptually dualistic thinking may still be occurring, it now occurs in the general context or environment of nonduality.
I may not succeed in developing such a movement of detachment until I renounce, through reflection, my attachments to certain basic objects of desire such as reputation, money, power, achievement, sex, knowledge, as well as the fear of not attaining them, and the fear of death or non-being.(Such fundamental detachment, once developed, is what perhaps enables one to be detached from particular objects without effort.)Indeed, I may have to become free from the very attachment to living itself, and from the very urge to become.But one cannot make a goal of developing such a detachment either, for that too would be a self-centered goal, and hence will only result in further affective duality.Indeed, there may be well be times when one cannot develop detachment, and attachments keep recurring.Then one is forced to develop a detachment toward the very urge to detach oneself.I must ultimately become free from the very idea of “freedom.”In other words, one cannot attempt to use detachment as a means, a method or technique to create a certain result or effect.
To repeat: the role of thinking in “deconstructing” duality is clear.It is by means of thought that we “see” that it is attachment and the consequent “seeking” which cause duality.We are thus disillusioned with attachment and the process of striving for goals.We are disillusioned to the degree of abandoning all goals (including the goal of being free from all goals) and the seeking which we use to reach those goals.It is not that we are disillusioned first and then that disillusionment leads to the abandonment of goals.The very disillusionment is simultaneously a renunciation of our goals and of our process of seeking them.Thus it is itself not a deliberate process of goal-seeking.This is how thought, to use David Loy’s expression, “deconstructs” itself.Then there is a total acceptance of one’s emptiness, or whatever we see we are.Whatever facts we see about ourselves, we are able to let them be.We accept ourselves without any attempt to change ourselves into something better.When such total detachment occurs then duality dissolves itself.
Is such “deconstructive” thinking free from ego-centered motivation?If it is not, is it not dualistic, and therefore, does it not create further dualism instead of dissolving the dualism that is already there?It is true that such thought operating in mediation is dualistic, being borne out of a consciousness of one’s condition and out of the desire to be free from it.However, since it operates without any attempt to change the given into something other than the given, such thought does not “construct” the ego; instead, since it attempts to “accept” (by allowing to happen) whatever is given, it “deconstructs” the duality it operates upon, while at the same time, having no other object to become, it dissolves or deconstructs itself in the process.Until such deconstruction occurs,thinking not only must operate dualistically, but must perpetuate the dualism that is already there.
In such a process of detachment in meditation, from the point of view of the subject there is no distinction between means and ends, since the whole approach is based on letting go of an object one is attached to, without seeking a further end.Because of such a detachment, there is no interest even in liberation.If there is no goal one is seeking, then there is a willingness to accept one’s samsara as nirvana, and the search ends.From the point of view of the meditator (for lack of a better term I am using this term) there is no difference between samsara and nirvana.Samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara.
Being free is where I end up if and only if being free is how I start.I may have achieved this by the mechanism of thought, but the process and the end-result are nondual.I may have to do this over and over again, and as a consequence I may appear to be making progress from an outside observer’s point of view.But from my own point of view, in the process of meditation, I am always either here in the dualistic world, making distinctions between samsara and nirvanas, or I am “there” where there is neither here nor there.When I am liberated I have no awareness of my liberation.Then there is neither samsara nor nirvana.There may be a moment when such nondual liberation is once-and-for-all final and complete, butI would not be concerned about it.
Philosophically one could still ask the question whether cognitive nonduality should be part of liberation along with affective and existential nondualities.The answer to this question is that there is no model as to how a liberated person does or should live, and that whether or not his living includes occurrences of cognitive nonduality is not a concern for the liberated person.For the essence of liberation is to be free from affective and existential dualities, from the concerns of the self and its “fulfillment.”Liberation brings freedom from such concerns, including the concern of solving metaphysical problems.The liberated person knows by now full well that metaphysical questions as to the true nature of reality or of oneself, the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of existence, are all generated from the alienation which is part of existential duality, and that thought, itself being dualistic, cannot solve those problems.On the other hand, it may well be that he does not achieve total unity (or nonduality) except in moments of samadhi.Even so, one cannot live all his life in such states of samadhi.Short of this, nonduality in living, in action, and in relationship makes perfect sense if it is understood as affective and existential nonduality.