(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)
The Need for Context
Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and of establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming. Modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.
Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence
When talking about non-duality these days, there are two primary schools of thought that tend to dominate discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality or emptiness in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argumentation. It seems inevitable that once we work out what we are not, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, and consider how our view of what remains determines to a great deal how we build community and establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed. What a person remains as once non-duality has been meaningfully confronted and the false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded requires pragmatic formulation. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I am motivated by the need to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact. I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and that it does not need to remain a Buddhist or spiritual idea. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are; we are questioning, self-reflective beings after all and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can potentially reduce ignorance, suffering and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.
One route to take is to suggest that we are multiple selves, although the same issue of actual existence remains: where are they and how do I recognise them, and who would be recognising them in the first place? It will likely always be impossible to define what we are in a single, absolute and truthful sense. In which case, we are left to approximations, convenient metaphors, or, importantly, semi or partial descriptions, some of which have pragmatic applications, some of which are accessible, others less so. In this sense, we may accept that many semi and partial descriptions capture important aspects of the network of interwoven elements that an individual is comprised of and that it may be most helpful to define a person, in the multiple, as a network of layers and strands of being and becoming. The idea of a person as a network points to interdependence, which is possibly the most useful conceptual tool for coming up with working definitions provided by Buddhism.
The Network of selves In order to deal with the fact that we experience ourselves incorrectly as discrete selves, we need to replace the conceptual framework we use for locating ourselves with an alternative meaning making system, one that is less weighed down by the lineage of a biblical God and its disparagement of our earth bound condition. If we are not separate individuals that exist apart from the world, we are necessarily embedded, interwoven elements of a continuously fluctuating environment, characterised by constant movement and change. If we are willing to fully dismiss the ascension/dissension myths that have dominated our world view in the West, then we can unravel the knots of dualism that distort our co-existence and sustain boundaries that delineate our social constructs. We must find the conceptual means and basis for engaging with the world and for being active participants in a fluctuating and emerging, pulsing landscape of interbeing. The English anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to this inter-connectedness as a meshwork. His work explores ideas that offer a conceptual basis for conceiving of interdependence in quite radical terms. You can found out more about his work here.
A further progression in viewing ourselves more accurately involves the pressing need to drop our speciocentric view of the world minus the romanticism that haunts the re-discovering of animal life. Our speciocentric sense of entitlement sits at the core of our irresponsible behaviour towards the other non-human beings that co-exist with us here. Any description of our species that moves away from subject-object duality and the reification of the self can only be good for the survival of the network of beings that co-habit this planet. It is not romanticised to see ourselves as utterly dependent on the material Earth in which we are embedded, or to return the right to co-exist to the other species, whether animal, tree or rock. The abstraction of ourselves as beings apart from these networks of forms has also falsified our notion of what we are into beings that are always apart, suspended in artificial detachment from our surroundings. This stretch towards an artificial separation from the world around us runs deeper than people seem to realise and we are impregnated by a form of species-arrogance that verges on the schizophrenic. We do need to be wary though of fragmenting ourselves further by attempting to construct merely abstract relations with the environments we are embedded in through anthropomorphism.
A further issue in the construction of a conceptual framework for identifying humans as co-emergent beings concerns utopian thinking. An important critique that is sometimes made of non-dualism, especially in its Advaita expressions, is that it can lead to a sort of bland utopian imagining in which we are all one. Such a conclusion can be found to be rife in new-age circles and other expressions of spiritual narcissism but it also pops up in Buddhism. It can serve as the basis for a reaction against the dominant persona one is expected to adopt, and a general desire to feel-good. Spiritual folk can easily end thinking that as I am certainly not this and as I am definitely not that, well, then I must be everything and everything must be me! This typically ends up being part of an escapist strategy designed to annul the rough edges of our finite material existence. It tends to lead to a rather superficial, narcissistic disengagement from the complexities of life and what Zizek might define as ultimate surrender to the atomisation desired by Capitalism in which the individual self becomes the locus of all creation and a subject of worship.
Returning to the notion of multiple selves, it may be interesting to think of the locus of consciousness as a space of being, consisting of a multiplicity of impregnating forces, visible and invisible, each run through with space as their unifying quality. We are after all impregnated from birth by cultural, historical, linguistic, political, social, ecological, geographical, psychological, organic forces, movements, tides and spheres of influence. We are inextricably birthed into masses of enmeshed networks of being and becoming, both organic and manmade. In growing and become more self- and socially- aware, we gain further understandings, we light up further strands of these networks, which in turn reveal further strands and dimensions of inter-being. Our relationship with these networks is one of impregnating through consciously or unconsciously feeding and being fed, stabilised and destabilised by these strands. To deny the existence of these complex intermeshing networks is to lock ourselves into blind ideological allegiance to a simplification of our human lot. When we consciously do this, we are basically giving up our part in providing for the possibility of further evolution and the refinement and stabilisation of meaningful patterns that reduce suffering and ignorance in the world.
From this shared view of being, our intimate lives are also shared and not as unique as we might like to think. Emotions are like octaves that we resonate with: which is not to say they are permanent, self-existing frequencies, but rather are part of the make up of our psycho-emotional being. They are shared octaves of our collective ‘being-scape’. How else can we explain for the utter unoriginality and shared nature of feeling and emoting? At the least, we can refer to them as shared resources for our evolutionary drive. They are not limited to humans, however, as animals too experience joy, sadness, depression, love, pleasure and so on. For us as humans, within the plains of enmeshment, emotions and feelings are plains of opening or closing that we move along, shy away from, indulge in and either force away or doggedly extend and go after, or get seriously stuck in. We move in and out of these plains of emergence and we agree unwittingly the degree and length of the plains that we as cultures and groups will travel along, where the taboos lie, and too often the social significance of these frequencies of feeling. When enacted as culturally restricted plains of feeling, emotions compound restrictive identities and strengthen the atomistic self.
Outside of socially sanctioned feeling, what is the role of feeling and emoting? Within the non-dual sphere there is often talk of an underlying basis of compassion, love, and benevolence. Again it is difficult to argue for some ultimate plain of existence without falling into illusions of permanence and duality, but perhaps the underlying basis of benevolence that even Madhyamaka philosophy points to is, rather than a solid end goal, simply the release of the self as a distinct, atomistic nucleus into spheres of co-emergent being, where emotions and feelings exist as plains of further opening and knowing. Within those open spheres of inter-being, ever more expressions of being are shared and it becomes impossible to mentally separate from the subjective experience of enmeshment.
The paradoxical nature of existence, at least in our current limited capacities to perceive and conceptualise, demands that we are at minimum two, if not multiple. We are always bound by our physical existence and the physical plains within which we roam. Remember, we are not just impregnated, but are impregnating the streams and lines of being. We have agency and however limited we are integral elements of the lines along which we emerge, move, flow and stagnate or flourish. We can choose to work with only those lines of which we are conscious in order to enact directed change in the world. The decision then becomes one of choosing which lines to strengthen, weaken, tie together, separate, push towards, cross, uncross, reveal, dismiss and so on. Unconscious feeding of lines and avoidance of other lines is what allows systems of injustice to remain, ignorance and suffering to continue in their current manmade forms.
This view of inter-being I think has the potential to loosen many of the myths that are still flowing around and within circles of knowledge seekers, whether Buddhist or otherwise. The search for the authentic self, the true self, the negation of the self (or that problematic word ‘ego’) all emerge from a dualistic division between here and there, good and bad, subjects and objects. Unlike the popular myth which deems that all we need do is be here now, this recognition of the dynamic, movement-bound, relational, shared basis for our existence in an intermeshed world of interbeing demands that we recognise that there is no fixed point called now. There are plains, octaves, frequencies and lines of movement which we are moved through and along which we move as spaces of semi-conscious being and becoming. The richer the network of lines that are consciously part of our network of awakened being, the fuller is our ability to participate and enact change in the world. To choose a line of nowness is merely to find comfort within the network of lines one have so far become conscious of and reify their sum total into a specialness. I for one cannot help but see this as a cop out. It may be sufficient for some, the best they can afford. What’s not helpful though is to indulge the idea that there is an end to all this and that that is it.
The world is in need of more enlightened views of the individual and society as transcultural phenomena. We more than ever need further discussion of the ontology of being as religious identities are experiencing something of a resurgence and globalisation is challenging long-held national identities, seemingly leading to both a crisis of identity in nations and the risk of the fabrication of models of self that favour the return to domination by the political and economic elite and entrenched class divide.
To finish, two questions naturally follow. How do we make it easier for people to rid themselves of the subject-object dualism that lies at the basis of western thought? Especially considering the intense fear at the heart of our being of unbound spaciousness or unfamiliar degrees of infinity. It turns out we are simultaneously terrified of being without boundaries and in awe of a return to formlessness! Secondly, what is an individual’s responsibility to this world as they become more fully conscious of our enmeshed nature? Is it enough to re-enact the particular lines currently available in existing spiritual traditions? I would hope the response to the last question is increasingly negative.
At the least, we would do well to remember what Zizek had to say when speaking on Buddhism:
“…it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity.”
Obviously, not all of the ideas herein are made up by yours truly. Having a background in Animism and Shamanism, I have gained a lot from reading works by deep ecologists, a number of anthropologists, specifically Tim Ingold, and philosophers involved with object and process philosophy, most recently Adrian Ivakhiv’s Immanence blog. The no-self teachings that come from Buddhism happen to pop up in these works and currently there is increasing dialogue across academic fields that is innovative and relevant to discussion of post-atomistic-self, experiential living. Some of the language in this and subsequent posts comes from these sources.
For further information on some of those who helped me formulate better my own opening to the world and networked thinking, follow the links below.
‘Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and descriptions’ by Tim Ingold, from Routledge
Tim Ingold‘s Bio at the University of Aberdeen
Immanence. A fascinating blog run by Adrian J. Ivakhiv, Professor of Environmental Studies from the University of Vermont.
‘Non-Duality’, by David Loy, from Humanity Books.
‘Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations’, by Paul Williams, from Routledge
Hokai Sobol‘s writings at his blog
Zizek on Buddhism