Detail from I'timad-ud-Daulah's tomb
Twice this year, I’ve ended up engaging with highly intelligent, deeply experienced folk on spiritual paths who forwarded arguments about how we need to transcend dualistic understandings about good and evil, bad and good, and so on.
…My goodness, they were so emphatic about it!
I think it’s important to understand the distinction between levels in order to approach this question realistically. The idea that we are on a level — or can, from where we are, inhabit a level — that transcends dualism is to me a patent absurdity. The whole point of the level we are on, and the material universe in general, is that it is a universe of discrimination (separations and distinctions) and polarities. Without polarity, energy itself could not exist — energy, after all, lawfully flows between positive and negative poles, that’s the way the universe is made.
In an exquisite irony, both of the friends who were advocating the non-dualistic philosophy spoke enthusiastically about moving upwards towards a higher energy, etc. — as though that could take place without polarity, without the selfsame flow between positive and negative forces that puts energies in motion to begin with.
There is a fundamental truth to the metaphysical proposition that everything is one single thing — that the universe, at its root, emerges from Divine Love as a single unified force, and that everything else follows. It is equally inevitable, however, that Divine Love has a partner — Divine Wisdom — which Swedenborg laid out as the foundation of his metaphysics: not, mind you, a hypothesis, but rather a factual report imparted from divine sources.
One of the things that struck me about both of these discussions was that the persons involved both earnestly wished for the universe and existence to be non-dualistic.
Why is that even necessary?
Can we truly expunge differences from life and meta-life, and expect to end up with anything at all?
Most recently, last week in India, I pointed out to the second of these two rather dear friends that the idea of non-dualism itself is ironic—simply because it pits itself against dualism, creating a dualistic issue. This situation shows us how difficult it is to escape from dualism, no matter how hard we try. It’s a Mobius strip, a Klein bottle. The topographical landscape refers back to itself no matter what we do.
Because of this, I wonder what use such arguments really are in the end, if they are worth anything at all.
One has to move between levels to begin to understand the concept of transcendence; and if we do that at all, we only do so at death. No matter what energies we channel into this level during the course of a lifetime, we are always within this level. This level has a specific set of laws that govern it and they are inescapable.
Perhaps the most inescapable law of all — which applies to every level short of the Absolute Divinity, The Reality — is that no part of creation, no matter what level, can fully know God.
This ironclad doctrine governs every exchange on heaven and earth. Even at the highest level of heaven, God cannot be fully seen or fully known, because there is no way for any part of creation to comprehend God. The moment incomprehension arises — and it arises always and everywhere — consciousness is trapped between knowing and unknowing, ignorance and intelligence. It is the tension between these two states that creates the energy that feeds life.
So even here, at the root of conscious Being itself, duality is actually necessary.
In the course of the discussion, I pointed out that one can’t merely stop at dualistic thinking; one has to include a third force. When we speak of duality, dualism, dualistic thinking – however we choose to describe such sets of two — we must inevitably invoke this third force which reconciles the opposites. In almost every case, the third force describes and represents the process of relationship between the two dualistic forces; and that relationship always consists of a flow of energy between them.
The classic “battle” between good and evil that takes place on both the physical and metaphysical planes, both in mythologies and world wars, represents the same movement, a flow of energy, between two polarities. Good cannot know itself unless it has evil to take measurements with; and evil cannot know itself unless it encounters a good to reject. Dualistic forces, in other words, are entirely dependent upon one another and even necessary in order for reality to manifest as it does.
Sometimes a particular metaphysical text seems to truly hit the nail on the head; one comes back again and again to it and invokes what the author said in order to illustrate essential truths. In this particular instance, a Sufi manual on retreat, Journey to the Lord of Power, is a useful referent. Written by Ibn al ‘Arabi in the 12th century, it explains each step of the ascent leading towards human perfection. This fine book, like the Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom, belongs in every esoteric spiritual library not just as a spacer on the bookshelf but a frequently consulted volume.
“Know that since God created human beings and brought them out of nothingness into existence, they have not stopped being travelers. They have no resting place from their journey except in the Garden or the Fire, and each Garden and Fire is in accordance with the measure of its people. Every rational person must know that the journey is based upon toil and the hardships of life, on afflictions and tests and the acceptance of dangers and very great terrors.
“It is not possible for the traveler to find in this journey unimpaired comfort, security, and bliss. For waters are variously flavored and weather changes, and the character of the people in every place where one stops differs from the character at the next. The traveler needs to learn what is useful from each situation. He is the companion of each one for a night or an hour, and then departs. How could ease reasonably expected by someone in this condition?
“We have not mentioned this to answer the people fond of comfort in this world, who strive for it and are devoted to the collection of worldly rubble. We do not occupy ourselves with or turn our attention to those engaged in this petty and contemptible activity. But we mention it as counsel to whoever with wishes to hasten the bliss of contemplation in other than its given realm, and to hasten the state of annihilation, elsewhere than in its native place, and who desires absorption in the Real by means of obliteration from the worlds.
“The Masters among us are scornful of this ambition because it is a waste of time and a loss of true rank and dissociates the realm with that which is unsuitable to it.
“… So it would be better for you if, at the time of your contemplation, you were engaged in labor outwardly, and at the same time in the reception of knowledge from God inwardly. You would then increase virtue and beauty in your spiritual nature, which seeks its Lord through knowledge received from him through works and piety, and also in your personal nature, which seeks its paradise. Further human subtle nature is resurrected in the form of its knowledge, and the bodies are resurrected in the form of their works, either in beauty or in ugliness.
“So it is until the last breath, when you are separated from the world of obligation and the round of ascending paths and progressive development. And only then will you harvest the fruit which you have planted.
—Ibn ‘Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power, Inner Traditions International, 1981, p. 27-29
The essential point we see in this passage, which has been edited at the asterisks, is that the activity we engage in in this realm must be appropriate to the realm itself.
We are not in a non-dual realm; within the context of the path we are in, the level we are on, there are very real choices to be made between good and evil. It is in the operation of our choice that any achievement of spiritual distinction, such as it may be, arises.
This idea is common and vital to both Gurdjieff and Swedenborg; abandoning it in favor of a transferred understanding, whether New Age, Buddhist, or Theosophist — wherever, in fact, it comes from — is a philosophically untenable position that abandons thousands of years of classical metaphysics, as well as specific instruction on practical work on the path from many different Masters.
It has, I think, become stylish and fashionable to enthusiastically graft spiritual practices together. The Internet has encouraged this; and the consequent dilution of many extraordinary traditions, each one of which had a tangible intelligence to it, has been something like watching people adopt homeopathic medicine. Of course you can keep diluting a substance with water until there is nothing left, and believe it will cure you. People do that. But the ancient traditions don’t submit themselves to the vagaries of homeopathy; they say what they say for reasons; and unless those of us with at least some small understanding of that work to preserve those traditions, all will be lost. We live in a world that is mostly water; and both modern thinking and practice have sprung a lot of leaks.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.
Most readers are well familiar with Gurdjieff's formulation of human beings as "three brained beings."
My new book, Being and Impressions, consists of brief and practical discussions on the subject, along with observations about impressions and how we take them in.
The book was written to address some questions that have been directed at me over the last few months on the subject, which helped me to understand that many folks still struggling with these concepts—even after many years of effort to understand them.
Most moving was a friend of mine—a true genius of talent with extraordinary outer accomplishments to his credit—who still after most of a lifetime, feels he cannot understand why impressions don't fall more deeply into him.
His comment touched me in ways that theoretical discussions of these matters never do. I felt it was necessary to undertake an effort to grapple with these questions more directly, in a contemporary language, rather than the material we are all familiar with and have been reading for many years.
The aim in this book is to simplify and clarify some of these matters. It remains to be seen whether I have succeeded. Readers will have to judge.
Interested readers can purchase the book by clicking on the link in the above text.