Making sense of non-dualism

The term ‘non-dualist’ is widely used to refer to various types of spiritual philosophies or practices, but there are a number of difficulties and confusions involved in the use of term. When I first started developing Middle Way Philosophy in a Ph.D. thesis 15 years ago, I used the term as a primary one to describe my position. But as I found it subject to a great many misunderstandings, I let it recede to the background – though it has still been present as a potential term for the Middle Way.

I have recently made this video to present some of the key ideas around non-dualism and try to head off the misunderstandings.

A useful sense of ‘non-dualism’, then, as I argue here, involves a degree of faith in the possibility of avoiding absolutised beliefs. We do not need to structure our lives around absolutised beliefs, nor assume them for everyday living. That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily get rid of them entirely, but it does mean that experience offers us alternatives to the dualistic stranglehold of opposed and conflicting basic beliefs.

More commonly, however, the term ‘non-dualism’ is conflated with ‘non-duality’, and this is seen as some kind of ultimate truth about the lack of subjects and objects in the universe. Such ‘non-dualism’ is self-undermining and contradictory, because the belief in non-duality itself involves absolutisation. We might have meaningful, archetypal ideas about non-duality, but it cannot helpfully be an object of belief. The same goes for the related term ‘monism’. Monism is the belief that everything in the universe is ultimately one. Again, this is just another metaphysical belief, and does not help us to psychologically identify and work with absolutisation. There is nothing practically different about believing that everything in the universe is ultimately one, and that it is ultimately two or multiple: either way we have to impose that view on our experience and in the process repress alternatives. Our experience is not of ‘things’ nor of the absence of ‘things’, prior to the ways in which we designate ‘things’ for practical reasons.

I made this video tributary to the one on incrementality, because I think incrementality is the aspect of the Middle Way that most directly addresses dualism. Wherever we find a questionable separation between objects and/or subjects,  try re-conceiving that discontinuous distinction as an increment or a matter of degree. This is the basis of a range of potential practices that can help us to undermine absolute thinking.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

7 thoughts on “Making sense of non-dualism

  1. HI Robert,

    ” There is nothing practically different about believing that everything in the universe is ultimately one”

    Well, I would question this statement. To me it appears to be a great, huge difference to understand non-duality. To understand that the universe appears to be a projection in limitless awareness had a great change on how I perceived the world. It gave me peace of mind in difficult situations, and also provided peace of mind regarding life-threatening situations.

    “either way we have to impose that view on our experience and in the process repress alternatives.”
    I am not sure either if we have repress alternatives to the view of non-duality. In the end it is a matter of confidence, isn’t it?
    If I am confident regarding the view of nonduality but accept that there are other ways of looking at the world, then I do not see repressing of alternatives.

    p.s. so far, I only came about three options regarding non-duality.
    1) We live in a duality
    2) we live in a nonduality
    3) Withholding judgement regarding the two above

    1. Well, the fourth option regarding non-duality and dualtiy is to conceive it as a matter of degree, as mentioned above by Robert on incrementality

      1. Hi Georg,
        I think the distinction between finding a position meaningful (and perhaps even inspiring) on the one hand, and believing in a metaphysical ‘fact’ that cannot be related to experience on the other, is important here.

        I’m quite happy to accept that the idea of a particular ultimate state might be symbolically or archetypally inspiring for you. That might be one possible source of your ‘peace of mind’. Such an effect does not depend on belief, though – indeed it cannot, because your experience would be exactly the same regardless of whether duality or non-duality is ultimately true. If everything in our experience of separateness is illusory, then there is no differentiation offered between things that are illusory and things that are not, and the belief thus has no purchase on our responses to specific things.

        On the other hand, perhaps the source of your peace of mind is actually the development of beliefs that are not metaphysical because they are more specific in their application, even though you identify them with ‘non-duality’. For example, perhaps you identify belief in non-duality with recognition of specific projections, or even with the recognition that any supposed objects might be projections? The recognition of a projection is the discovery that something we thought ‘real’ might not be, an advancing of awareness. In no way does such a recognition require us to adopt the belief that everything is a projection.

        A third possibility is that your experience of ‘peace of mind’ is genuinely associated with the metaphysical belief, but that you feel like that primarily because of its social implications. It’s easy to transfer one’s relief at being accepted by others to their metaphysical beliefs, but in the process we can lose our critical awareness of the beliefs of the group.

        Only you can judge which of those it might be, but they all offer alternatives to attributing your achievement of more peace of mind directly to the effects of a metaphysical belief. I think there are lots of basic reasons why metaphysical beliefs can’t have such positive effects: for example because they assume a mistaken view of meaning, because they can’t be incrementalised (and thus can’t be related to our organic experience), and because they offer no specific information that allows us to make better judgements about specific experiences. That’s why I’d recommend your third option (the fourth one in my view is contradictory).

  2. Hi Robert,

    thanks for your reply.

    This resonated very much with me.

    In fact, there is a nice analogy to what you have written:
    Liberation/enlightenment is not the acquisition of a particular belief but simply the falling away of hard-wired ignorance.

    Another analogy is a camp-fire:
    To make a fire you need wood, to keep the fire burning you need to stir the fire with a piece of wood but eventually, once the fire is almost extinguished you need to throw in the piece of wood with which you have been stirring it (the wood in this analogy represents the teaching)

  3. Oh, I have another analogy which might fit to what you have written above to explain why I feel peace of mind regarding non-dualism:

    “the source of your peace of mind is actually the development of beliefs that are not metaphysical because they are more specific in their application, even though you identify them with ‘non-duality’. For example, perhaps you identify belief in non-duality with recognition of specific projections, or even with the recognition that any supposed objects might be projections? The recognition of a projection is the discovery that something we thought ‘real’ might not be, an advancing of awareness. In no way does such a recognition require us to adopt the belief that everything is a projection.”

    A nondualist metaphysical belief is like “a thorn to remove a thorn” which at the end must be thrown away as well!

    At the beginning the metaphysical belief in nondualism makes it obvious that the previous objects which were considered to be absolutely real are now considered to be not real at all!
    Once this has been seen, it is required to throw away this new belief (nondualism) as well, otherwise you are just stuck with another belief.

    Is it okay to say that in incremental terms I consider the belief in nondualism to be better than the belief in dualism?

  4. An opposing metaphysical belief offers an alternative perspective that can help one be aware of criticisms of the first, but invariably (in the sense that I’ve never found an exception) the arguments used by one polarity against the other are over-interpreted sceptical arguments, used selectively against one side even when they apply to both sides. An opposing metaphysical position can thus be ‘a thorn to remove a thorn’ in the sense that they can make us aware of such sceptical arguments, but everyone’s alternatives will differ depending on what metaphysical assumptions they start with.

    For example, while I was still a Buddhist I once travelled to Thailand, and one day there met a Singaporean evangelical Christian. He was a young man full of enthusiasm for his faith, but he was as shocked to discover that I was a Buddhist as I was to find he was a Christian. For him Buddhism was a ‘grandmother’s religion’ full of irrelevant dogma, just as Christianity was for me. For him Christianity was still fresh, and he was moved by the Christian criticisms of Buddhism, as I was the opposite. You could say that for each of us, the other religion was ‘a thorn to remove a thorn’, but if so it was a different one in each case.

    That’s why I’d suggest that there is no intrinsic superiority of one metaphysical belief over another. They may have different meanings for you or others at different times, and be more or less relevant, but that’s only due to one’s social relationship with them, not because the claims that one of them makes are somehow closer to the truth than another. Since we have no way of checking any of them in experience, it would be impossible to justify any belief that one is closer to the truth than another.

  5. Thanks Robert!

    I agree:
    “the arguments used by one polarity against the other are over-interpreted sceptical arguments, used selectively against one side even when they apply to both sides. […] there is no intrinsic superiority of one metaphysical belief over another. They may have different meanings for you or others at different times […] Since we have no way of checking any of them in experience, it would be impossible to justify any belief that one is closer to the truth than another.”

    Yes, I think that especially for “beginners” certain new metaphysical beliefs such as nondualism can provide peace and serenity but eventually – as you say – there is no way of proving superiority.
    Nor is there – at least in my case – a sincere interest in proving anything. After all it is all a play of words and the mind

    In the end, I suspend judgment regarding what is better.

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