On Nondual Thinking: Part 1, Definitions

A focus on "nondual" thinking or "nonduality" is all the rage among Christians, especially progressive Christians. And yet, I, for one, have been puzzled about the enthusiasm, and have not found the frame of "dual versus nondual" to be all the illuminating and helpful in my own journey. 

In this, I confess to being peculiar. (Not a news flash.) Almost everyone I know who has encountered the idea has found it helpful. And not just helpful, life-changing and faith-sustaining. So I fear venturing into this conversation with some questions that have perplexed me. In fact, I've re-read these posts so many times, hovering over them, so close to deleting them for fear of people's feelings. But then I thought: You, dear reader, are a grown adult. You can handle this. 

And so, being who I am, I'll trouble these waters. But I want to be clear, my questions are just that, my questions. They likely are not your questions. It's sort of like the Enneagram. The Enneagram has a large and enthusiastic following who have found it to be profoundly transformative. And yet, the Enneagram has its critics. The same, I'd suggest, goes for nondual thinking. Nondual thinking has a large and enthusiastic following who have found it to be profoundly transformative. And yet, I'd like to take up the lonely job of asking some questions.

Let's start with definitions.

Truth be told, it's hard to pin down exactly what nondual thinking is. The various leaders in this area vary in their definitions and descriptions. That gives me pause. Sometimes nondual means avoiding crude, simplistic thinking. Sometimes it means not being ego-centric. Sometimes it means embracing mystery and unknowing. Sometimes it just means loving people. 

Here's my concern. It's often the case that a buzzword hits Christian culture. And when that buzzword hits what happens is that all things good and holy get grouped under that word, and all the bad stuff gets left out. I think the nondual conversation is tempted like this. Not that this is bad if people find it helpful, just that our previous language in describing such things still remains effective. 

For example, as mentioned above, when people describe nondual thinking what they often describe are things like love, non-judgmentalism, complexity, inclusiveness, relationality, generosity, or humility. Basically, we make a list of a suite of social, moral, and intellectual virtues and then declare: "This is nondual thinking."

Maybe this is helpful for some. A fresh take on some very traditional virtues. But to my eye, this can appear to be simply re-branding some perfectly good ways of thinking and talking about these virtues already. 

For example, if by "nondual" you mean that I shouldn't rigidly divide the world between "the good" and "the evil," well, I agree. Life is a lot more morally complex than that. And if by "recognizing moral complexity" you mean "nondual," well, okay. The same goes if you say that nondual thinking is holistic and focused upon interrelationships. And again, if seeing our world as an interdependent whole is what you mean by "nondual," well, okay. I confess that I'm very willing to admit to seeing moral complexity and webs of mutual dependence. And I think everyone else should as well.

And yet, as I consult my mind about how I've reached those conclusions I don't recognize these truths because I've adopted an esoteric, mystical perspective on the world. I haven't attained a "Christ-consciousness" or some Christian version of Eastern enlightenment. I recognize such things because they accurately reflect life and experience. And if a person refused to admit these realities I wouldn't describe them as a "dualistic" thinker. I'd just say they were wrong. As in, empirically wrong, ignoring obvious facts about the world. People, in point of fact, are not wholly good or bad, not me or you. Nor does anyone stand isolated and autonomous in the world. Them's the facts, revealed to us through a bland empiricism, at least in my case, than rather through some exotic mystical insight. 

This brings me to another conceptual issue, which is how much of the nondual conversation traffics in dualism. For example, a savvy reader would object to what I just said above, "See Richard, you are trafficking in dualistic thinking, thinking that there is a 'right' versus a 'wrong' view of the world." 

To which I would respond, "I do see some things as right or wrong, as true or false, as good or evil. But isn't that why you're opting for nondualism in the first place, because you take it to be a truer and better way of viewing the world? Doesn't nondual thinking move you toward something more beautiful, gracious, and loving and away from something something ugly, violent and hateful? Why prefer nondualism over dualism if not for an antecedent moral valuation?"

It is interesting how many conversations about nondual thinking trade pretty heavily on some dualisms. For example, there is "dual" and "nondual" thinking. There is "the false self" and "the true self." Dual thinking is "Western" and nondual thinking is "Eastern." Dual thinking is "individualistic" and nondual thinking is "holistic." Dual thinking is "I-It" and nondual thinking is "I-Thou." Dual thinking is "ego-centric" and nondual thinking is "other-centric." Dual thinking is "narrow and shallow" and nondual thinking is "deep and broad." Dual thinking is "bad" and nondual thinking is "good." Or if not bad versus good, then immature/simplistic/primitive versus mature/complex/developed. 

Think about, for example, Spiral Dynamics, a parallel theory that shows up a lot among nondual proponents. Spiral Dynamics is based upon an evolutionary, developmental model, going from primitive forms of thought and morality to more complex and sophisticated. Dualistic thinking is associated with the more primitive modes of thought, and nondual thinking is associated with the higher, more abstract, forms of thought. Which, I hope you can see, is a sort of paradox, how a moral and developmental dualism (primitive/advanced) is being used to evaluate a mode of thinking (dual/nondual). 

To be clear, the very best of the nondual crowd avoid such dualisms in describing nondualism. But a lot of the nondualistic world is pretty dualistic. 

By and large, what I think is happening is that "nondual" is being used as a synonym for things like love, relationality, and complexity. And it's my personal opinion that clarity and moral potency is best achieved if we stay at this more granular level, where particular and delineated virtues are named and described. If you're talking about love, let's talk about love. If we're talking about mystery, let's talk about mystery. Because the two are really different things. You can embrace mystery and be an entitled, selfish jerk. I've seen vain and selfish mysterians. And you can be the most loving person in the world and be a pretty concrete, black and white thinker. In my estimation, abstracting away from these particular virtues with the label "nondual" muddies the spiritual formation waters. I lose track of what we're talking about.

Because of its vague, high-level abstractions, where "nondual" can almost mean anything, whenever I've tried to enter the nondual conversation I've tended to find, after some unpacking, a fairly obvious and recognizable territory, hearing about things I already hold sacred: by "nondual" you mean love, interrelationship, intellectual complexity, spiritual maturity. For a lot of people "nondual" has been a helpful, life-giving, one-word handle to grab ahold of this suite of virtues (social, moral, intellectual and spiritual). But for me, "nondual" hasn't been a key, necessary, or insightful tag. 

Perhaps we should be more nondualistic about nonduality as the royal road to spiritual growth. For it would the height of irony if nonduality became the newest fad by which we secure our place among the elect.

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