Seeing as natural and technical metaphors tend to inform many of the more mythical insights into existence, dualism tends to spread memetically and without reserve. Our entire computational infrastructure is based on Ones and Zeroes. What we typically call ‘nature’, the biological framework by which humans were created and persist, provides us with endless metaphorical opportunities. Night and Day, Darkness and Light, High and Low have become poetic terms for Good and Evil, Positive and Negative, Happy and Sad. Abstract metaphysical concepts are now irrevocably paired with their tangible counterparts in the physical world.
What has this led to? A world where people chase goals both spiritual and material, enjoying themselves in the moment only as the result of fleeting sensual pleasures, thinking that enlightenment, retirement and fulfillment are just around the corner— when in fact, they were there the whole time, right in front of them, if they had just taken a few minutes to look around, breathe deeply and enjoy themselves.
People find themselves in debt to pay for an education to get a good job to support a lifestyle to impress others and wonder why they feel empty. They rush to everything from booze to fad diets to problem shopping to prescription medications to ease the fall from glory, the realization that what we want is never what we achieve.
The longer we put off the understanding that what we chase will end up chasing and catching us instead, the longer we will continue to live under the saddening and deeply false assumption that happiness is an achievement rather than a state of mind. To be happy is not some sort of Protestant vindication of suffering and hard work, but an acquired and mindfully-prepared way of thinking. You won’t be able to feel it as a playboy or a multi-billionaire if you can’t attain it now. As the Zen proverb goes, “The journey is the destination.”
Back in the first grade I was assigned homework in which I was required to name 50 sets of opposite ‘things’. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was definitely revealing. Since doing the exercise and reflecting back on it as I get older, I often wonder if the activity of realizing how many concepts are dualistic cemented a certain involuntary dualism in my way of thinking. At the very least it’s symptomatic of how we are trained from childhood to see the world in pairs. Perhaps the easiness of naming opposites was just a symptom of human nature.
You know, Enlightnment equates light, a natural gift-giver, with a sort-of spiritual reawakening, an acquisition of knowledge. What functions in nature as positive serves as a symbol for what is conceptually positive. Light represents wisdom, bliss and spontaneity. We like to either love or hate, feel happy or sad, etc. These simple definitions provide us with the security of the illusion that the world is similarly simple and we are just riding through it. But there’s so much more to our experience to be learned from poking around in the space in between these words. It’s the space in between the notes that produces what we typically perceive as music, the negative space that defines the painting.
Seeing the world through opposing forces is problematic. Such a framework for thinking and living presupposes that things are either Good or Bad, one is either Happy or Sad, Rich or Poor. It doesn’t take a philosophy degree or a state of samadhi to see that life is rarely this simple. This is just one of many junctures where one realizes deeply that experience must precede or complement study. A philosopher can tell you you’re either Happy or Sad, Good or Evil, but until experiencing the abstract associations these concepts are linked to in the ‘real world’, they hold no bearing. You cannot know such feelings through their descriptions; you have to feel them out, perceive them in full. When we distill concepts into single words we risk abandoning their nuances. We all feel these loaded words slightly differently. Like any symbolic system, language is severely limited. It’s not the ‘real thing’.
Happiness is punctuated by its own unique and nuanced fluctuations, and some sadnesses are strangely pleasant. Anger can arise out of love, ugliness can rouse lust. Think of how cliched terms like “love-hate relationship” “ups and downs” and “mixed bag” are. The popularity of these motifs could represent our natural tendency to think outside of dualism, but never fully. We want to be relieved of living in terms of opposites but not so much that we’re faced with the discomfort of uncertainty.
It’s difficult to make the leap into embracing what is unknown, though doing so is a lifelong journey that reaps transcendent rewards. Emotional states are constantly at war with the conceptual understandings humans have developed in often futile attempts to cope with our vastly complicated and interconnected spiritual and psychological landscape. The middle-ground balance, often referred to as The Middle Way, represents both an embracing of dualism and a transcending of it. Life experience is not so simplistic that it can be summed up in two categories. Imagine how boring that would be.
So, instead of Yes or No, we have Maybe. Instead of black or white, there’s Gray. Instead of the Good or the Evil, perhaps there’s the Human, a complicated creature who often knows not what he does but still does the best he knows. Dualistic concepts alienate us from one another, and, most harmful of all, from ourselves. If we believe our essence of experience so basic and uncurious that it can be reduced to a series of pairs, we’re profoundly limiting ourselves. So let’s allow this to be the beginning of an experimentation with Maybe.