Understanding and Cultivating Non-Dualism

Everything in the universe that we experience is possible due to contrasting opposites. We have night only because we have day. There can be wealth only if there is poverty. And we can feel fear because we also feel love. The idea that everything has an opposite is the perception of “dualism”.

What we don’t realize, however, is that the opposites are only an illusion. For example: in “reality” there is no dark, only light . The darkness is only a separation of light from itself. Additionally, there is no fear, only love: fear is love separated from itself. However, we as humans don’t experience life this way, so it’s difficult to grasp at a conceptual level.

Instead, we as humans view the world dualistically. We learn this perception via our early development process, which starts with the discovery of “mine” vs. “not mine”.  Due to this (mis)perception, we form dualistic beliefs. For example, the idea that individuals are separate from each other. Or that humans are separate from God (or that there is no God). The act of seeing everything and everyone as separate leads to the concept of private ownership. This in turn inevitably leads to actions based on greed, selfishness, envy, hate, violence, and war.

What is Non-Dualism?

Non-dualism is the understanding that nothing is separate. It is the perception that what you do to another, you are doing to yourself. That the way you are treating another is how you are treating God. To use an analogy: God is the universe, and we as humans (and everything else contained within the universe) are a part of God’s “body”. The belief in non-dualism leads to respect, selflessness, service, generosity, acts of love, and peace.

Throughout history, there have been many different religions, beliefs, and philosophies. The majority of religions past and present originated from spiritual teachers who taught from a common foundation of non-dualistic thinking. Misunderstandings of the teachings occur when well-meaning disciples and followers take the teachings of the spiritual masters and try to interpret them through the perception of dualism. This simply doesn’t work: it is not possible to correctly interpret the concepts of non-dualism through the lens of dualism.

In general, a person’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are not the deciding factor of his or her moral character. For example, one person of the Christian faith may be kind and compassionate, while another Christian may be selfish and spiteful. This paradox could be explained by simply saying the selfish person is not a “good Christian”. But the actual explanation is that the selfish person views the world dualistically.

When a Good Deed is not a Good Deed

This leads to an interesting question: is it possible for a person with a non-dualistic viewpoint to be kind and loving towards others? According to the comments of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, the answer is “no”. Jesus made it clear that the “good deeds” of the Sadducees and Pharisees were not carried out from a place of love, but from a place of selfishness. Specifically, the spiritual practices of these groups were for the intention of “buying their way into heaven”. But as Jesus pointed out, the pleasure that the ego acquired in doing these deeds meant that they had already “earned their rewards”.

This idea is reinforced in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, when he stated “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me.”

According to A Course in Miracles, any action carried out from a dualistic perception is ego-driven and selfish, even supposed acts of kindness. The reasoning is that as long as we view others as separate from ourselves, anything we do for another is a demand (either consciously or unconsciously) for something in return. I.e., we are hoping for something in return from the other person or from the universe/God via the law of karma. And anytime we feel our efforts have been in vain, we accumulate negative emotions inside of ourselves such as resentment, anger, and a sense of injustice.

Cultivating Non-Dualism

Therefore, one of the most basic and fundamental beliefs that should be developed and cultivated in ours lives is the idea of non-duality. The trick is that this cannot be accomplished at the mental level. I.e., you can tell yourself that everyone is you and everyone is God, but that won’t make you stop being angry when somebody does something that you cannot tolerate.

Instead, this belief is cultivated via action. You may not feel that everyone is you, but you can still act like everyone is you. This is the concept behind the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the Golden Rule is only the first step. When you do something kind for another, you should also force yourself to feel that it is in fact the other person that is doing the act of kindness to you.

This may seem silly at first, but a lot of spiritual practice involves the “fake it until you make it” principle. In this case, we “practice” feeling gratitude every time we do a good deed for another by actually forcing ourselves to feel the gratitude. It will seem inauthentic at first, but that is the whole point of practicing: at first, it won’t be authentic. After a while, this gratitude will become more and more genuine and we will actually start to feel less of a separation between another and ourselves. And the more we combine kind acts with gratitude, the closer the connection we build between ourselves and others, which in turn strengthens the connection between ourselves and God.