Soul Searching #8: Non-duality

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Hello, and welcome to the 8th episode of Soul Searching. This time, I’ll talk about my small sojourn into a philosophy called ‘Non-duality’. But first, the index to the previous episodes:

  1. Introduction
  2. Values
  3. Energy
  4. Intuition
  5. Flow
  6. Personality Tests
  7. The human brain

During my early phase of personal development, I started looking into stress and ended up listening to a Dutch podcast called ‘Leven zonder stress’ (life without stress). It’s hosted by former radio DJ Patrick Kicken, a proponent of the philosophy Non-duality. He talks about it regularly, and actually has several initiatives joint with neuroscientist/philosopher Paul Smit in the context of Non-duality. Many of the nuggets of knowledge I talked about in #7 actually came from them.

There are a few thoughts I’d like to share with you that stuck with me after diving into Non-duality. I’m by no means an expert, and I’ve had the merest glimpse of Non-duality. But it is a fascinating glimpse. I intend to revisit it in more depth later on, I think. I hope my explanation below will do sufficient justice to the concept.

The basic idea is that everything that we see and experience on a daily basis, is actually a manifestation of the same force. This force has no ‘complement’, ‘reverse’, ‘inverse’, or ‘other’, etc. Hence, the term ‘Non-duality’. Some people say that everything is energy in motion. Too vague? Yes, I felt that way too, and I still feel that I can’t put it into words properly. So I’ll try a more concrete approach.

monkey looking in a mirror
Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman suggests that our brain consists of two interconnected systems: System 1 and System 2. The first, System 1, is the part of your brain that works without instructions and control. It is fast, and good at learning heuristics from experience. This is where our ability to guess the approximate origin of sound originates. System 2 is very slow, but very accurate. This is where complex calculations and reasoning occurs, and where deliberate decisions are taken. The two systems interact, and mostly System 1 sends information to System 2 if it needs more detailed processing. Most of the time, our thinking occurs in System 1. Personally, I guess it is also possible for System 2 to give control back to System 1, although I can’t do that at will (walking seems to help, or taking a shower).

Recall this paragraph from the last post: “Also, my brain can be massively annoying: it’s continually looking for ways to congratulate me on how great I am, or tell me how much of a fool I am, or to turn some lucky event into ‘I knew that was the right thing to do beforehand, because blahblahblah’. Now that I’m able to observe that process, it seems absolutely crazy. It’s as if the proverbial angel and devil on my shoulder are continually shouting at me, with a nutty professor standing on my head adding to the confusion. I stopped listening most of the time.”. I think my System 1 is a bit like the control room in the movie Inside Out. There are various “me’s” battling for access to the controls:

  • Devil me: emphasizes strongly what I have done wrong
  • Dreaming me: extrapolates the past into positive futures (often unrealistic)
  • Fearful me: extrapolates the past into negative futures (often unrealistic)
  • Victim me: keeps shouting that the world is conspiring against me and that non of it is my fault
  • Rational me: tries to explain everything, does a lot of calculation and planning
  • Etc.

I deliberately quit the list here, because I can sense myself going overboard. An important part is coming: the thing that I think of as ‘I’ is not among them. ‘I’ am an observer to this process and these actors. But I do think that ‘I’ am in System 2 somewhere, since ‘I’ am gone/silent/passive/dormant when System 1 is active.

And now things get even more interesting. Since System 1 is in charge and comprises most of our brain activity, System 2 might just be a tool for System 1 to deal with more complex tasks. To be precise, ‘I’ might be just a tool. Well, that takes me down a notch. The situation is even worse for the little “me’s”, because since I realize that ‘I’ is not one of the “me’s”, ‘I’ am sometimes ignoring them.

Non-duality takes the concept a bit further. It supposes that System 2 is completely controlled by System 1, and that decisions are already taken before one of the “me’s” ever gets a say. That also goes for “rational me”: everything he says is merely an after-the-fact attempt at an explanation, even though the decision was already taken before he ever opened his mouth. (There is some scientific evidence that decisions are taken before the rational part of the brain activates.)

And it goes on: non-duality means that everything is a manifestation of some external energy in motion. This energy drives System 1; it drives everybody’s System 1. So everything we see/do/create/experience, might just be a giant screenplay, where we are the characters — and not the actors.

This was my attempt to explain Non-duality. Probably it is flawed and incomplete. For me it has had some profound consequences. First of all, when speaking of Non-duality, I have trouble making sentences, since ‘I’ and ‘me’ now have to be carefully phrased. Also, all the little “me’s” have lost their importance, and life feels just that little bit easier. Moreover, the separation of ‘I’ from the ‘me’s, from my body, from emotions, has put me in a permanent baffled state. It’s a very odd experience.

Well, that’s it for now. I quit looking into Non-duality a while ago, but it is so profound that it hasn’t disappeared from my thoughts. This will probably be another one of my obsessions at some point in the future. Until then, I’d like to thank you for reading this post. If you have ideas, comments, or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. I’m also reachable on LinkedIn, of course. See you next time!