I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.
Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.
As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality:
Concepts such as high and low, one and many, coming and going, birth and death, are all important in everyday life. But when we leave the realm of the practical to meditate on the true nature of the universe, we must also leave behind these concepts. For example, when you raise your eyes to look up at the stars and moon you say that they are “above.” But at that very same moment, for someone standing on the opposite side of the planet, the direction you are looking is “below” for them. When looking at the entire universe, we have to abandon all these concepts of high and low, and so forth.
Abandon all such concepts? As Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, our “way of thinking and speaking makes it difficult to penetrate non-dualistic, non-discriminatory reality, a reality which cannot be contained in concepts.”
Of all the dualities we employ for our survival, none is more fundamental than that of “self” and “other.” We learn that duality early on and apply it ever after. At the same time, our ordinary concept of “self” is often narrowly defined, and from the vantage point of Zen teachings, it is largely illusory. Broadly speaking, we tend to think of our “self” as something solid or at least continuous from decade to decade. And because our personal experiences differ from those of other people, we tend to view ourselves as separate from everyone and everything else. Our culture of individualism fervently supports that view.
Yet reality teaches otherwise. If we take “the backward step that illuminates the self,” as Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) enjoins us to do, what we are likely to observe is a swift-flowing stream of information, impressions, memories, judgments, opinions, fantasies, and other mental phenomena, from which we construct and defend a coherent “self.” We may think of that construct as akin to a stone, but in reality it more resembles a whirlpool. And far from being separate, it co-exists in a dynamic, interdependent relationship with the web of life, natural and human. In her book Mindfully Green, the environmentalist Stephanie Kaza describes that relationship in this way:
Each of us reflects the day’s weather and the mood in our household. We act from the legacy of our parents’ values and the deeply familiar psychological habits of our families of origin. We speak from our knowledge of woods and streams or oceans and beaches. We offer an opinion as a member of a company or agency. Looking closely at our situation, it becomes obvious: we don’t exist apart from those systems.
Viewed in this light, the simple duality of self and other loses much of its meaning. Like any one part of our bodies, the so-called self possesses a recognizable identity, but it also co-exists in an ever-changing relationship with multiple systems and the one body of undifferentiated reality.
“The mind divides,” Zen teachings tell us, “and the heart unites.” Can we keep the mind and heart in balance, knowing that our true self is inseparable from the one, indivisible body of the world? Perhaps not all the time. But as an effort in that direction, we can remind ourselves that “self” and “other,” in the language of Zen, are “not two, not one”: two in conventional, relative terms, but one with respect to the unity of all life.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (Parallax, 1988), 45.
Stephanie Kaza, Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking (Shambhala, 2008), 44.
Photo, “Inside Looking Out,” by Colin Kinnear