Over and above that, Non-Dualism also satisfies an urgent ethical and spiritual need that is felt worldwide. In that sense, Non-Dualism is a philosophy whose time has now definitely come. This becomes especially clear in light of the many global problems facing humanity, notably that of climate change. In this post I will argue that it is only by recognizing the truth of non-duality – i.e. by recognizing our fundamental unity with each other, with our planet, and with the cosmos at large – that we will be able to muster the global solidarity needed to deal with these global problems. And perhaps, just perhaps, this is the upside of climate change: that global warming will cause a ‘global melting of the ego’ and thus a global embrace of Non-Dualist modes of thinking and experiencing. In this way, perhaps, climate change will bring about its own solution…
My Long Hot Summer of Love
If you are expecting some raunchy story about erotic conquests on the beach, I have to disappoint you. Partly because I have no such stories to tell (I am a happily married father of a seven-year-old son). But also because I would like to tell you a different kind of story, one of spiritual awakening, or – as I put it above – the melting of my ego. Mind you, the summer of 2018 was exceedingly long and hot. In fact, it was one of the longest and hottest summers ever recorded in the Netherlands (and much of Europe besides), which is where I live. It was simply another bead on the string of meteorological records – heat waves, droughts, tropical storms, arctic ice melting, and so on – that have become so familiar the last couple of years, testifying to the worrisome reality of climate change. The long hot summer of 2018 meant there was a perfectly rational explanation behind my somewhat mystical experience: all those months of sunny weather just made me super relaxed, up to a state of ultimate ‘hippie-ness’ so to speak. Of course, I am very concerned about the potentially catastrophic threat of climate change, not least because of our son whose future is at stake. But the truth is that I also thoroughly enjoyed this amazing summer. I feel kind of guilty saying this, but it’s true.
We live close to the beach, so that’s where we would spend most of our free days: swimming, building sand castles, giving the old frisbee a throw, relaxing under the parasol, reading books on non-duality, meditating, eating ice creams… In short: living the good life! In the afternoon, we would cycle home languidly, take a shower to wash off the salt and sand on our sunburnt skins, and start up the barbecue for another easy diner in our garden. In the evening – my stomach filled with veggie burger, fries, salad and light beer – I would just sit there and look in wonder at the spotless blue vault over my head, with a hint of orange in the west, and watch the acrobatics of the swallows weaving their warp and woof in the warm evening air. And I would think to myself: “Actually, life isn’t that bad!” (Duh!)
That’s when it would happen, during those days on the beach and evenings in our garden, this ‘melting of the ego’ experience, of becoming fluid and fusing with my environment. I would have glimpses of cosmic unity, of everything being one. I would look at the people around me and have the strange sensation that somehow ‘they are me’ or ‘I am them’. Whatever it was that looked out of my eyes at the world, it also looked out of their eyes. Whatever it was in me that enjoyed the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the taste of ice cream, it had the same enjoyment in the people around me. It felt as if the universe was enjoying itself on the beach, tasting itself, feeling itself, playing with itself, throwing frisbee at itself, basking in the light of its own sun, swimming in its own water... And this feeling of all-embracing love would rush up inside of me, engulfing me, engulfing everything around me.
Waking up from the dream of separation
Now, these thoughts – of everything being one – were certainly not new to me. Having a background in philosophy, I am particularly interested in the philosophical tradition of Absolute Idealism, which stretches roughly from the Upanishads in the East and Neoplatonism in the West to the German and Anglo-American Idealisms of figures such as Schelling, Hegel, Bradley, and Royce. Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Self, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences itself. Up till the summer of 2018, however, my interest in these ideas was purely intellectual and theoretical. The idea that the universe is one consciousness simply seemed (and still seems) plausible to me in the light of what physicists and philosophers tell us about the holistic unity of the universe and the place of consciousness in it (the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”). But now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, it became an experiential reality for me as well. I started to feel its truth.
No doubt, this was in large measure due to the fact that I had taken up meditation, stimulated by my wife who was following a course in mindfulness. I am convinced, however, that the exceptionally long hot summer also played a crucial role here: in making me super relaxed, in almost literally ‘melting my ego’, it made me feel – rather than just intellectually understand – the truth of cosmic unity. The thing that finally did it for me, that made the penny drop, was reading Christopher Wallis’ wonderful book Tantra Illuminated on the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism (which is not the thoroughly commercialized pseudo-spiritual sex therapy which is sold as Tantra in the West, though it certainly is true that sexuality plays a significant role in Tantrism). Reading this book on the beach, I came across the following passage:
“Thus all sentient beings […] are simply different forms of one divine Consciousness, which looks out at the universe that is its own body through uncountable pairs of eyes… This perspective brings a sense of meaning and presence to even the simplest acts. When you sit and contemplate a pebble, what is really happening is that the universe is contemplating itself in that form… When you see yourself clearly, there comes a flash of recognition: you are a microcosmic expression of precisely the same divine powers that create, maintain, and dissolve this whole universe. [T]here is a profound shift. Your fear and pettiness drop away as you harmoniously fall into the dance of life energy… An explosion of joy accompanies the realization that there is nothing to do, nothing to achieve, other than to fully embrace the divine powers that seek to manifest through you by expressing the entirety of your authentic being in the fullness of each moment, in an endless flow of such moments.” (Wallis 2013: 56, 62, 67)
When I read this, I literally felt the “flash of recognition” of which Wallis speaks. Bang! There it was: cosmic unity, cosmic love… Clearly, the Tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism with its belief in “one divine Consciousness, which looks out at the universe that is its own body through uncountable pairs of eyes” is one particular instance of the broader tradition of Absolute Idealism. However, in the context of Eastern philosophy, this way of thinking (and experiencing) is usually called “Non-Dualism”. One could say that the Absolute Idealisms of philosophers like Plotinus, Schelling, Hegel, Royce and Bradley is simply the Western variety of Non-Dualism. This is not to say there are no significant differences between them. Whereas the Western approaches to non-duality are mostly theoretical, more focused on the epistemological, ontological, and theological aspects of non-duality, the Eastern approaches – though certainly not devoid of theory – focus more on the experience of non-duality as an existentially transformative experience, as the key to Enlightenment and the ultimate Liberation of Suffering.
That is, in Eastern philosophy the non-dual experience is usually seen to bring to an end the suffering inherent in being a (seemingly) separate individual, standing over against an independent world, in which the individual must struggle to maintain him-/herself. As the illusion of the separate ego falls away, its petty worries and ambitions, its bickering likes and dislikes, its fears and unfulfilled desires, all these obstacles to peace of mind fall away as well. And what remains is just peace of mind, a tranquil bliss, and a deep feeling of loving unity with everything and everyone. This enlightening aspect of non-duality is often illustrated by the comparison of the human mind with a lake that mirrors the sky above it. Normally, the water on the lake is rippled, as the ever-variable winds of our thoughts and emotions create smaller or greater waves, causing a distorted reflection of the sky in the water. But with the experience of non-duality, the waves on the lake calm down, as the storm of thoughts and emotions settles, and the water becomes as smooth as a mirror, finally reflecting the blue sky above it, with the radiant Sun at its centre. Here, of course, the ‘Sun’ is a metaphor for the creative essence of reality-as-a-whole, the source of all energy and life, which you now realize to be your true identity.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
I guess that that’s what I experienced during the summer of 2018, an enlightenment experience. Not that I would say that I am permanently Enlightened now. Not even close. For, as many spiritual seekers will testify, such “pink and fluffy” feelings of all-encompassing joy and love, which generally accompany the first glimpse of non-duality, are usually not permanent. They last for a while – from a couple of days or weeks for most people up to a year or even a few years for others – but then, ultimately, at one point or another, daily life kicks back in again. It’s a bit like what happens to mafia boss Michael Corleone (the character played by Al Pacino in The Godfather) who, realizing the senselessness of the mobster life style, wants to get out but finds to his dismay that the ties to his former personality aren’t cut that easily. The people around him – family, friends, enemies, the FBI – still see and treat him as the Capo di capi, forcing him to act accordingly, against his deepest wish. At one point in the film this makes him exclaim the famous line: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” (And the television series The Sopranos, where the same thing happens to mafia boss Tony Soprano, contains some great parody on this.)
Most spiritual seekers who look upon the experience of non-duality as the ultimate Enlightenment, as the end point of the spiritual path, have at one point or another uttered just the same line – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” – or something like it. They find that the unforeseen events of daily life keep ‘pulling them back into duality’, that is, keep addressing them as separate individuals, who must struggle to find their way through life. You may become sick, lose your job, lose a loved one, fall back into some nasty habit, or simply hit your head very hard against a kitchen cupboard – the trigger could be any negative experience, which suddenly bursts your pink bubble of non-duality. Hence the importance of spiritual practices, what in Indian philosophy is known as “sadhana”, such as yoga and meditation, which help you to stabilize your initial enlightenment experience and to integrate it into your daily life.
The global threat of climate change
In my case, what shook me out of my pink-and-fluffy dream of cosmic love was precisely the very same thing that had put me in it: the long hot summer of 2018. As elated as I was about the melting of my ego and becoming one with the universe, I knew in the back of my head that – from another perspective – this melting was a very bad thing. As if the polar caps themselves were melting inside of me! The looming threat of climate change gave this whole ‘enlightenment thing’ an eerie atmosphere, not least because much of the Netherlands lies several meters below sea level. This is especially the case where I live, in the province of Zeeland, where an intricate network of dikes is our last line of defence against the ocean thunderously bearing down upon us. Lying on the beach, immobilized by the oppressive heat, I would have these nightmarish visions of polar caps melting and breaking up into huge chunks, causing tidal waves spilling over the dikes, engulfing our homes, drowning my loved ones…
Thus, by melting my ego, global warming had created my pink-and-fluffy bubble of cosmic peace, love and happiness. But almost simultaneously it also popped that bubble. After all, it has been scientifically proven now that man-made environmental pollution – and CO2 emission in particular – is the driving cause behind climate change. Even according to moderate scenarios, global warming will bring disastrous consequences within a hundred years, endangering the survival of the Earth’s flora and fauna, including human beings. Although it is true that the Earth has naturally warmed up and got colder again during other eras, such cycles have always been much slower, taking millions of years. But now, within a period of just 200 years, we are reaching levels that in the past brought about extinctions!
If we don’t drastically diminish our output of greenhouse gasses (such as CO2), the average global temperature will – according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization – most likely have risen with 3 to 5 degrees Celsius in the year 2100. (And some estimates put this rise even higher!) In the process, there will be accelerated melting of arctic ice, which in turn will cause a rising sea level, leading to mass flooding of coastal areas. Some small island states will probably disappear altogether. There will be an increase in violent weather phenomena, such as tropical storms, heat waves and droughts, which will endanger the food chain and economic resources, especially in developing countries. Glaciers will melt, resulting in dried up rivers. Vast areas of the Earth will be left uninhabitable, becoming literally too hot to live in. As a result, there will be many, many millions of climate refugees. Already Europe is struggling with a refugee crisis due to the war in Syria. But the number of climate refugees will dwarf those that have fled the Syrian conflict. The result will be increased political conflict, instability, war...
But even as my pink-and-fluffy bubble was popped by the threat of climate change, this loving awareness of cosmic unity stayed with me. In fact, it became even more important, because I realized that Non-Dualism could just be the right spiritual stimulus triggering people into collective action. Not only to deal with climate change and to save the precious ecosystem of our planet, but also to eradicate poverty, war, racism, injustice, and the extreme wealth inequality that has become rampant after 40 years of neoliberal capitalism. For, in the light of such challenges, what could be more inspiring and motivating than to learn that you, a seemingly separate and isolated human being, are really not separate at all? That you and the other(s) are actually the same, the same suffering being which is suffering precisely because it hasn’t yet realized what it is, namely, a single being? What could be more conducive to global responsibility and solidarity than the knowledge that you and the world around you are one?
Cosmic versus Acosmic Non-Dualism
Here, however, we should note an important difference between two kinds of Non-Dualism: cosmic and acosmic. This distinction is especially relevant to the ethical value of Non-Dualism. In philosophy “acosmism” means the denial of reality to the empirical world of plurality. The universe we observe around us appears to consist of many different individual objects, from atoms and molecules up to trees, cars, people, planets, stars and galaxies. According to acosmism, this plurality of individual objects is ultimately unreal, non-existent, a mere appearance or illusion. Non-Dual philosophers are particularly prone to acosmism, given their overarching emphasis on the fundamental unity of reality: since reality is one Whole, the empirical world of plurality must be unreal – or so it is argued sometimes. Such acosmic forms of Non-Dualism often go hand in hand with a monastic ethics of renunciation: to achieve the final Enlightenment, the individual must renounce the empirical world of plurality – only then will she realize the liberating insight into “the One” that alone is truly real. Such renunciatory acosmism affects both Eastern and Western forms of Non-Dualism. In the East, acosmism is a dominant feature of classical Advaita Vedanta and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Buddhism. In the West, acosmic tendencies can be found in Parmenides, Spinoza, Schelling (at the time of his “Identity System”) and the British Idealist Bradley.
By contrast with “acosmism” we can define “Cosmic Non-Dualism” as a position that recognizes the fundamental oneness of reality yet does not deny the reality of the empirical world of plurality. The cosmos – the infinite universe with its countless stars, planets, living and non-living beings – is rather seen as somehow manifesting the One that alone truly is. For Cosmic Non-Dualism, the One appears as the world of plurality: reality is a unity-in-diversity, an integrated whole with inner complexity, rather than a featureless blob of undifferentiated oneness – which is the view to which acosmism tends. Consequently, Cosmic Non-Dualism does not tend to world renunciation but rather to the exact opposite, world affirmation, a celebration of empirical existence as the manifestation of divine reality, and an associated ethics of universal compassion and solidarity. Enlightenment is achieved not by rejecting the world, but by embracing it as your own Self. This leads to an ethics of active involvement in the world rather than aloofness from the world. In the East, such Cosmic Non-Dualism, with its celebration of empirical reality as manifesting the Divine and its ethics of universal solidarity, can be found in the original Vedanta of the Upanishads and especially in Shaivite Tantrism. In the West, Cosmic Non-Dualism is a prominent feature of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who explicitly rejected the extreme world renunciation of Gnosticism, and the philosophy of Hegel, who developed his version of Absolute Idealism partly in criticism of Schelling’s acosmism.
The ethical value of Cosmic Non-Dualism
Clearly, if we want to utilize Non-Dualism as a means to foster global solidarity, we need the cosmic variety rather than the acosmic one, which tends to a nihilist indifference towards the world. This comes out forcefully in Robert Pirsig’s cult novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which is partly autobiographical), where the protagonist – the analytically minded Phaedrus – goes to India to find wisdom but ends up taking classes in Oriental philosophy taught by a professor with a predilection for classical Advaita Vedanta:
“But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.” (Pirsig 1999, p. 144.)
This is exactly why the difference between Cosmic and Acosmic Non-Dualism is so utterly crucial! An activist ethics of universal solidarity is precisely what our much suffering world needs today, torn as it is by ever widening divisions – between the haves and have-nots, between different ethnic groups, between secular society and religious fundamentalism, between mass society and the isolated individual, between the dangerous lure of populism and the aloofness of the political elite, between the interests of economic growth (necessary to feed an ever-growing world population) and the interests of a defenceless nature choking in the mind-numbing garbage heap produced by economic growth. These are global problems, affecting our whole planet and everyone on it, requiring a global solution and thus global solidarity. Hence the great ethical importance of Cosmic Non-Dualism. With the separation between self and other overcome, you can no longer remain indifferent to the suffering and injustice in the world. You have to act, simply because in helping others you are actually helping yourself – perhaps not, directly, your individual self, your empirical persona, but first and foremost your underlying Self, the creative essence of the universe, of which everything and everyone is an integral part. The Non-Dualist teacher and therapist Jeff Foster puts this wonderfully well:
“It’s myself in Burma, it’s myself in the earthquake. It’s myself starving in Africa. People sometimes hear the message of non-duality and they think that it’s about sitting back and doing nothing. They think it’s about arrogantly sitting back and saying, “Oh, it’s just a dream, it’s just a story, there’s nobody there suffering so what’s the point in doing anything at all?”… Oneness recognises itself in the face of that starving child and can move to help itself, not out of pity, not because it needs to be a good person, that’s nothing to do with it. It doesn’t come from a set morality. But in seeing that it’s all One – and this is the mystery of the universe – somehow it moves to help itself.” (Jeff Foster in Gilbert 2011, p.37.)
So let’s just hope that global warming will have at least this positive consequence, that it will lead to a global melting of the ego and thus to a global embrace of Non-Dualist modes of thinking and experiencing. At least then we have a fighting chance to deal with our problems together, as a single species, in harmony with each other and with our precious planet.
Om & Peace!
You can join the discussion about Cosmic Non-Dualism at: www.facebook.com/groups/cosmicnondualism
Gilbert, Eleonora (2011), Conversations on Non-Duality: Twenty-Six Awakenings. Cherry Red Books.
Pirsig, Robert M. (1999 ), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. London: Vintage.
Wallis, Christopher D. (2013), Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Boulder, CO: Mattamayura Press.