Understanding Dualism

When everyone in the world sees beauty, Then ugly exists. When everyone sees good, Then bad exists.

Therefore: What is and what is not create each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Tall and short shape each other. High and low rest on each other. Voice and tone blend with each other. First and last follow each other.

So, the sage acts by doing nothing, Teaches without speaking, Attends all things without making claim on them, Works for them without making them dependent, Demands no honor for his deed. Because he demands no honor, He will never be dishonored.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

Dualism is a concept describing the general human tendency to split things up into two opposing parts. Binaries. We observe dualism in nature: there’s night and day, male and female, hot and cold, big and small, tall and short. In an emotional sense, we tend to sort things into twos as well: happiness and sadness, mania and depression, focus and unfocus, love and hate. Even mythically we like to split stuff into binaries. There’s man and god, winner and loser, the sacred and the profane, the dionysian and the apollonian, the erotic and the thanatotic. The list goes on. 

These oppositions help us get through our lives in the same way the proton and electron of an atom chase each other around, creating a fundamental energy beneath everything we see. They are the truths on which all our abstractions and gradients are based. There are a million metaphors we could draw from in the natural world. Dualism, on the surface, seems to be an adequate representation of reality. It’s the easiest one to grasp. Every philosophy and religion from Hinduism to Buddhism to Christianity has drawn on dualism in some way.

What we learn from Taoism and Zen, however, is that there’s something beyond dualism. Dualism is an intriguing way of diagnosing and solving problems and experiencing metaphor, and of course has a use, but it isn’t an adequate blueprint for understanding the fundamental essence of things. We start to understand that essence better in meditation, through total honesty and genuine examination of truth. Eventually we surpass dualism and find something more nuanced and real.

In the philosophical tradition, we see this revelation coming to light with Hegel in the 18th century. It took the West that long to say to itself, “Maybe there’s something beyond A and B, 0 and 1,” in any radical sense. In the simplest terms possible, Hegel said that dualism (in all its varied forms) is overcome through synthesis. There’s a thesis, and an antithesis (a thing and its opposite) and through synthesis we achieve a new viewpoint containing the strengths of each previous part. That’s a crude explanation, but for now it’ll do.

The ideological implications of this were huge and one could argue they sparked modernity: the master/slave feudal morality was overcome in society. The god/man dichotomy was broken down and secularization took over in the West. Dualism had been conquered, woohoo. All the rules began to be broken and reconsidered. All of the most resounding changes in human history since the 18th century have been the result of this overcoming of dualism— for better or worse.

It’s my opinion that a similar revolution occurs within the self when we overcome dualism on a spiritual level.

The Tao tells us that the way to transcend dualism is to understand that these concepts aren’t opposites. They aren’t in opposition. They are in cahoots— two sides of the same coin, rather than two opposing coins. As such, we can’t have X without Y. Dualism conversely says, “we either have X or Y”. Even the Hegelian route draws from both sides to form a synthesis, which is still fundamentally reliant on dualism. In a way the Tao is a synthesis of the poles of each duality. In this sense we’re experiencing these fused “opposites” at all times and can direct our attention to this. It’s the philosophical equivalent to the spinning electron. The poles are always moving and shifting and we can never keep up, so we should stop trying to grasp at point A or point B. It’s a pure whole rather than something reliant on something else. 

When we see the fundamental unity of all things and all concepts, suffering doesn’t feel as desperate. Happiness doesn’t feel as fleeting. Good and evil rely on one another, feed on one another, and create the weird grey area that exists between them, and everything else beyond. We feel less of a need to resist, to fight and to challenge the organic functionings of nature, time, and space. The thing to remember is that in dualism we assume concepts exist in isolation, opposing one another. But in the Tao there is no isolation. Everything is connected and reliant on everything else. How can we feel hopeless or desperate when we’re integral to the functioning of everything, no matter what happens? And how can we feel too egotistical when we’re just as significant (or insignificant) as a leaf, an ant, or the person we oppose ourselves to? There’s an Italian proverb: at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back into the same box. Same with the Tao; there’s no distinctions. There’s nothing to chase. And oddly, when you stop chasing so desperately, the world tends to come to you. 

That’s the point, and it is really nicely illustrated in that atomic example. In a static, fake world, there is A and B. There are pure opposites. There are simple explanations: happiness and sadness, success and failure, etc. But in an entropic world, in which matter is always trying to exit from its vessels and nothing is ever left unchanged, we must accept a more nuanced view of things. Nothing is as it seems, nor is it otherwise. As soon as you grasp what you’re chasing, it morphs into something else. So stop pretending you live in a static world, a world of pure opposites. When we overcome dualism in this way, we overcome precisely what makes life feel unnatural— ourselves.

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