At the park in our town there’s a small stream flowing behind a row of trees. This Saturday my kids and I went there to sit on the edge and put our feet in the water. The wind blew the tall branches and the trickle sounds of the stream rolled along meekly before us.
Sitting here by the stream, let me propose a question. How many things are in that stream? If you were to hypothetically wade into this stream, bend down, and start counting, how many things would you find? How many things could you distinguish? In fact, what metric would you use to decide if something even counted as a thing or not?
This question of counting is one of the core questions that the philosophies of Dualism and Non-Dualism seek to answer.
Have you ever considered that a fish doesn’t understand what water is? When you are surrounded by something your entire life, that thing isn’t even a thing at all — it just is. On other hand, a frog spends some of its life in the water and some on land. Therefor a frog, much more so, understands the concept of water. It is only by dividing something into parts that we are able to create the concept of a thing. What is outside? Not inside. What is a cat? A mammal that is not a dog or a cow. What is a cat made of? Cells, atoms, electrons. What are electrons? The parts that are not protons and are not empty space.
Consider this. On a black piece of paper, try to draw a circle with a black marker. You will undoubtably find this difficult. But give me a black piece of paper and a white marker, or a white piece of paper and a black marker and I will surely draw you a recognizable shape.
Again, I would ask you — If you were to be with me in that stream with your feet in the water, how many things would you find? From a Western perspective, the answer is clearly “many”. There are rocks and bugs, sticks and leafs. There are little whirlpools and waterfalls. With this mindset, you could count all day. This is the concept of duality — a way of understanding the world as constructed from many parts.
On the other side, from an Eastern perspective, it is much easier to answer “one”. “In front of us is one thing.” To look at the stream in all its complexity and claim that there is one thing in front of you? Now this is easy to claim, but is there any sense in it? Let’s start with an observation of the same whirlpool that we noticed before. Is this whirlpool a “thing”? Yes and no. Are there molecules of water that make up the whirlpool? Actually, there are molecules of water that are flowing through the whirlpool. Though between any given minute the molecules of the whirlpool are not the same. It seems that the whirlpool is less of a thing in the static sense, and more of a pattern, a happening. There is a pattern in this location that we can recognize as the whirlpool. But what makes up this whirlpool is actually the stream flowing through this pattern. And here we have arrived back at the conception of one-ness, the concept of non-duality. The Eastern perspective might say that the whirlpool is actually the entire stream as focused on one particular place in one particular time. The Eastern perspective can recognize sub components of a larger thing, but it is distinct in that it doesn’t believe the world is made up many things, but rather the world, the universe is one. This is the concept of non-duality.
If you’re like me and have grown up in a Western culture, some of these Eastern concepts, like non-dualism, are hard to fully grasp when first presented with them. Fear not. In this short article, I hope only to intrigue you with the concept. As a first step, let’s try a simple experiment. The next time that you are in a place where you have the opportunity to be quite and think. Maybe you’re on a bus, or sitting at a picnic table. Simply consider the environment around, or the system around you, consider it as one. Rather than starting by noticing a particular thing like a tree or two people walking by, rather, consider the situation or the system as a whole. “There is a bus ride occurring.” There may be many components, people flowing in and out, cars moving near and far, but there is one occurring, one happening. And you’re a part of it as well.
The above is an excerpt from the upcoming book The Great Unlocking: A path to economic, political, and spiritual enlightenment. Sign up below to learn more.