The Depths of Nonduality by Ed Burns

I recently completed a lengthy study of the history of modern European philosophy. A key figure in that history was French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes has had an enormous influence on the manner in which modern Western European and Anglo-American people view the world. Briefly stated, Descartes initiated a worldview of what is sometimes called “dualism”; that is, a world consisting of subjects (namely ourselves) and objects (the world outside of or apart from ourselves). According to this worldview, it is assumed that all reality outside of ourselves can be measured objectively, clearly defined, analyzed, broken down and reduced to its basic elements.

This dichotomy between subject and object has been the foundation for the development of all of our modern sciences and technologies. It implies that we can study matter, energy, and motion, and in the light of our findings we can organize the world to our own purposes. This is precisely what we have been doing for the past 500 years, with increasing efficiency. In fact, you might say that during the last century we have been doing so almost with a vengeance.

The choice has come with increasing cost to our own humanity. For example, witness the horrors of the 20th century, the most violent in human history. Most of the tragedies that have occurred over the past hundred-plus years have been the result of scientific knowledge gone awry, in the process of which some human beings have regarded and treated others as if they were objects to be used or disposed of as the dominant power structures saw fit.

The evidence of this mindset toward the world continues into our own time, and nowadays it can be seen in our increasingly impersonal worlds of industrialism, consumerism, individualism, and mass communication. In his essay “On Naming the Present,” theologian David Tracy speaks of our current age as “a techno-economic realm out of control,” a “system that does not hesitate to use its power to level all memory, all resistance, all difference and all hope.”

However, of late, even the most sophisticated scientists are calling into question this Cartesian worldview of dualism, a world of subjects separated from the world of objects. That questioning began approximately 60 years ago with the publication of a book by Werner Heisenberg entitled Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution of Modern Science. As briefly as possible, what Heisenberg discovered in this story of subatomic particles and quantum physics was this: In terms of its most minute elements, the objective study of the world of matter is no longer seen to be wholly within our grasp. The more we attempt to gain knowledge of matter, the less precisely we can pin it down. Traditional physics presumed that one can measure separately the location and the speed of an object—an electron, for example. In his study of subatomic matter, however, Heisenberg discovered that this was impossible: if you could determine how fast a thing was going, you could not determine its location. And if you could determine a thing’s location, you could not determine how fast it was going. Even more significant was Heisenberg’s discovery that the very effort of an observer to measure something affects the actual structure of the thing being measured.

Out of these studies has emerged what has now become known among scientists as the “uncertainty principle,” which means that we can no longer claim objective, scientific certainty regarding the observed world. In the words of Heisenberg, “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves. . . . This was a possibility of which Descartes could never have thought, but it makes the sharp distinction between the world and the ‘I’ impossible.” Or, in the words of another writer, “There is no longer any ‘outside’ ourselves; when we explore the world, we are, in a reciprocal way, coming to know ourselves.” If I could put all of this information into a sentence or two, it would be as follows: We do not live in a Cartesian universe of dualism, a world of subject and object. We live in a world that is a single unity in which the cosmos and ourselves constitute one reality, a reality of interconnectedness and mutuality.

In an essay about Thomas Merton’s exploration of Eastern religions during the last years of his life, William Shannon describes Merton’s growing awareness of an intuition of the ultimate unity of all reality. This kind of intuition is much more likely to be found among the Eastern religions than among the Christian religions of the west. “Since the time of Descartes,” Shannon says, “much of Christian theology and spirituality has been unequivocally dualistic in tone; separating God from God’s creation, and the sacred from the profane.” Shannon calls this separation “spiritual apartheid,” adding that this is just as harmful in its own context as political apartheid. He then goes on to use this fascinating example to explain what he means by the ultimate unity of all creation: “To put it simply,” he says, “God, plus me, equals not two but one. And me, minus God, equals zero.” He then concludes, “We do not see God and creation aright until we grasp the non-dualism of all creation.”

In the story of creation taken from the Book of Genesis, we hear that famous passage of Yahweh’s creation of Adam and Eve. Adam looks all around creation and names all of the creatures he has thus far encountered. But in none of them does he discover a kindred spirit. He finds himself alone in the universe, isolated even from himself and incomplete creation. Yahweh sees Adam’s lonely state of existence and utters that famous line, “It is not good for man to be alone.” So he casts Adam into a deep sleep, and from Adam’s very being, he creates Eve to be his companion and his helpmate. When Adam awakens from his slumber, he sees Eve and declares in words that express his astonishment and his joy, “This at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” In Eve, Adam discovers the mutuality, unity, and companionship he has been seeking. He discovers that he is no longer alone. Among all of God’s creatures, he now discovers one who is like himself. Using the language of Shannon’s example, you might say that Adam without Eve was, for all practical purposes, a zero; on the other hand, Adam with Eve equaled not two but one. There was no dualism in the original creation story.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks clearly against divorce and remarriage. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:6–9). In the verses following this passage, Jesus is even more explicit: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12).

When Jesus spoke of the indissolubility of marriage, he was reiterating and confirming the original teaching of the Book of Genesis in which Yahweh created a single reality of mutuality and oneness between a man and a woman in their relationship with each other. There was perfect coherence between the story of Adam and Eve and the teaching of Jesus regarding the sacred unity of marriage. Now Jesus himself, being a good and knowledgeable Jew, was well aware that in the history of his own people, men and women had often not maintained this teaching of Genesis faithfully, to the point where even Moses had allowed exceptions to this teaching “because of the hardness of their hearts.” Nevertheless, the teaching of Genesis, and the teaching of Moses, and the teaching of Jesus consistently presented the sacred unity and oneness of marriage as the true ideal and standard toward which every marriage is directed.

We are living in a society and a culture that has become infected with an excessive emphasis on ego, individualism, autonomy, and personal rights. It is a culture that tends to separate people one from another by its emphasis on satisfying and gratifying one’s own personal needs over and often against the needs of one’s partner. It is a culture that fragments relationships and undermines unity and mutuality, the very elements that are essential requirements for any committed relationships if they are to survive.

Healthy and mature marriages derive their permanency primarily from the faith and trust that the couple place in each other. They are rooted in the understanding that such commitments can “tutor us as no other experience can in the given nature of human life and the acceptance of responsibilities we have neither willed or chosen.” From the Christian point of view, authentic married life has a salvific character based on the bedrock biblical teaching that we are not created for isolation but for relatedness and communion with each other.

So where does all of this leave us? It leaves us, I hope, with a new or a renewed awareness that we do not live in a dualistic universe, a world of subjects separated from objects, a world of egos separated from other egos, a world of “us” against “them,” a world in which God is separated from creation, and holiness is separated from the ordinary. It leaves us with a growing sense of wonder at the mysterious cosmic dance of mutuality and harmony present at the heart of the universe and encompassing all that exists. It leaves us with a greater appreciation of the Eastern religions whose insights into the ultimate unity of all reality can help us heal our own self-imposed and imprisoning “spiritual apartheid.” It leaves us with a consciousness that “I” minus “you” equals zero, and you plus me equals one. It leaves us with a consistent Judeo-Christian ethic and understanding regarding the sacredness of the covenant of marriage. And, finally, it leaves us with a true ideal, a true standard of oneness and kinship toward which we should all continually strive and direct our hearts in our marriages, our relationships with each other, our political lives, and our prayers.

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.


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