The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

Is non-dualist thinking possible?

Relational non-dualism is life and love.

The New Mindscape #T1–4

The key flaw of the dominant Human Operating System (HOS) of our society — and many alternative operating systems too — is that they tend to be based on a dualism that always divides things into two. Dualistic battles between concepts turn into conflicts between people. The way the operating system is designed generates conflict systems, consciously or unconsciously. We need to build a non-dualist operating system — an operating system that isn’t based on dualism, that is not based on creating conflict.

In many of the world's religious traditions, the highest ideal is one of non-dualism, although expressed in different ways. For example, in Christianity, Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God. What that means is that the dualism between God and Humanity in the flesh is completely resolved. In the person of Jesus, there is no dualism between the material and the spiritual, between the Creator and the Creature. Jesus incarnates a state of absolute non-dualism that completely combines God and flesh.

Source: Maryknoll Missioners

Buddhism is also strongly non-dualist, teaching that egotistical desires generate dualistic notions of self and other, which are the root of all dichotomies and suffering. When you completely let go of your ego, there is no division between yourself and the world. There are comparable ideas in Daoism.

But these ideas represent an ideal. We are not Jesus or Buddha, and we won’t achieve this kind of absolute non-dualism. In a pure abstract sense, it’s possible to intellectually imagine non-dualism. But in real life, we’re always in a dualistic state. We avoid bad things and are attracted to good things. That’s basic to survival.

So non-dualism seems to be either a purely abstract idea that doesn’t really change anything, or something that only the rarest saint, sage or Boddhisatva can ever attain, usually by cutting themselves off from this world.

So for us who live in the world, is non-dualism impossible?

Just now, even I posited a dualism between the old, dualist operating system and the idea of a new, non-dualist operating system.

So I’d like to talk about a realistic form of non-dualism, which we can call relational non-dualism.

Relational non-dualism

I said “reach in, reach out” and “listen to your body, listen to your spirit.” But some of you asked, isn’t it true that sometimes the body draws you in one direction and the spirit draws you in another direction? How can I say that body, mind, and spirit are all one whole, when they tend to go in different directions?

Stop for a moment and take a breath. Breathe in, and breathe out.

When you breathe in, what you have to do at that time is contradictory to breathing out. It is utterly impossible to breathe in and breathe out at the same time. You cannot and should not try to breathe out while you are breathing in. There is only one good thing to do, which is to just breathe in.

But once you finish breathing in, the only good thing to do is to breathe out. So life is about breathing in and breathing out. At one level, you could say that there is a contradiction — or a dualism — between breathing in and breathing out. Yet breathing in and breathing out are part of one whole.

Or think about walking. Your right foot is on the ground, and the left one is rising and moving forward. That creates an imbalance in your body. Your left and right feet are in different places, going in different directions, destabilizing your body. To restore your stability, your right foot will rise up and move forward. It’s going to again destabilize your body, drawing it in another direction. Your two legs are always going in different directions and in different places. Yet, that’s what makes us move forward. Rather than saying that my left foot and my right foot are in conflict, they are doing what they should be doing at any moment in time. Their differences can be coordinated.


Our body, mind, and spirit are different. Sometimes they go in different directions, but they can be coordinated.

The natural tendency of your body is to be drawn down to earth, into earthly, animal needs and concerns, as if it were pulled that way by a force, which will ultimately pull it into your grave.

While the natural tendency of your spirit is to be drawn up to heaven, to beauty, to goodness, to transcendence and purity, as if it were pulled up by a force, that pulls it toward other worlds than this one.

When your body and your spirit come together, your body is filled with spirit, and your spirit is filled with life. Your body becomes a channel to bring spiritual love, beauty and wisdom into this world.

This is an alchemical process, in which the combination of duality creates a new unity. But the new unity does not dissolve the parts. The different parts have their own tendencies, and they continue to relate to each other. Two lovers unite in their difference, and thanks to their difference. This is relational non-dualism.

This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.




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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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