The Power of Duality

Sri Ramakrishna was a spiritual seeker and teacher from India who was known by many as one who lived his life as an ongoing contemplation of God. He says “When the divine vision is attained, all appear equal: and there remains no distinction of good and bad, or of high and low.”   When we are unable to hold the ebbs and flows of life in a space of equanimity, we stray from the nature of reality and live in spaces of delusion. The definition of delusion is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.” It’s interesting that what is defined and maintained as being characteristic of a mental disorder, is the path by which most people are living their lives. Rejecting the idea that many things can be true at once, isn’t idiosyncratic; it’s simply the essence of reality. This is the essence of living in the threshold of non-duality. Duality IS reality. Duality is like a lens with which we view life. The willingness to “be with” circumstances as they are and not how we envision them to be can radically shift the way in which we relate to the ever changing states of both internal and external consciousness. 

There is often a sense of fragmentation that arises in the spaces of duality that leads to deep suffering. In the mental health world, we refer to it as “cognitive thinking errors” or simply “black and white thinking.” It is the way that most people think and perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality that justifies war, destruction of the planet, racism, oppression, and social injustices. If something falls short of perfection, or lies slightly outside the margin, it’s regarded as a failure or atypical. All or nothing thinking gives paves the way for anxiety to spiral out of control which fuels our fear driven society. Unchecked fear leaves us trapped in our limbic system, unable to gain access to the frontal part of the brain which is responsible for empathy, non-judgment, and compassion. It is the part of the brain that allows us to consider other choices of responding, rather than habitual reactive patterns.  The fragile mind, with all its tricks and strategies, struggles to hold multiplicities of truth, while resisting the essence of reality. Ironically, the  body is a  container and vehicle of dualities all of the time. Hot/cold, tension/relaxation, pushing/pulling, gripping/releasing, arousal/fatigue, hunger/fullness, and resisting/yielding.  We cycle through many dual states all day long, often experiencing them as transient states without much focus or attention. When we consider historical patterns of how knowledge is valued, knowledge arising from the body, has often been subjugated and determined to be a non-viable source of knowledge. We see those patterns continuously played out in gender politics and through the destruction of the planet.  

Oftentimes there is an unconscious fear that we are “too small” to contain more than one truth at a time. In trance like states, we believe that if we cling to one single truth it will somehow simplify the overwhelming nature of gently holding two dialectically opposed constructs in the same river of truth. We see it etched upon the patterns in which we show up in relationships. We  willingly accept the parts and pieces of another that validate the ego, but we are quick to discard and resist that parts of another that rub up against and challenge the ego.  In yoga, when we use the breath to soften the muscles, open the joints, and shift the relationship we have to our thoughts,  we offer light to the darkest corners of ourselves, widening the space and stretching the limits. Every inch of that space holds the power to give birth to a thousand suns, moons, and stars. Universes unfolding in radiance and reverence. Duality is reality.

Duality means we make space for it all while trusting with deep conviction that bandwidth and capacity for that space exists within each of us. Forests make space for all living things to flourish and thrive.  Let that external truth be reflection of our inner universes. The human spirit is powerfully willful and driven to seek out freedom. The spirit will find a way to seek refuge in acts of liberation. Such examples can be found in artwork created by incarcerated individuals. Kenneth Hartman, is the author of Mother California: Story of Redemption Behind Bars.”  He served 38 years in the California prison system and recalls his experience of a fellow inmate who was able to draw upon his artistic skills and make sketches on an old paper lunch bag. 

“I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.”(Hartman).  In 2015, Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim was shot in the back of his head, as he walked home, carrying food for himself and his wife. After two teenagers joked guilty and were sentenced to prison terms, the victim’s mother offered to hug them. “Vengeance solves nothing”, she said. “Those young men – although they took my son’s life in the manner they did – we need to fight for them. Because they are going to come back out. And they will be older. But if they have no light, then this same disease is going to repeat itself and they are going to take another person’s child’s life and eventually their own,” Rukiye said. “And every mother’s heart must feel this.” The powerful ability to hold grief and compassion in the same moment is a refection of the human capacity for resiliency, without clinging or grasping to a single truth. 

Even in the face of profound suffering, there is potential for seeing the light beside and within  the darkness. There is a time just before sunrise and just before sunset where the crack between the two worlds opens, and the two opposing, energetic forces of night and day create a palate of color, reflecting back to us our potential for reverence and transformation outside the dual nature of our habitual thoughts patterns and social environments. I’d like to close with a poem by Rumi:

The Guest House

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”