“Our world and our lives have become increasingly interdependent, so when our neighbor is harmed, it affects us too. Therefore we have to abandon outdated notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and think of our world much more in terms of a great ‘US’, a greater human family.” – Dalai Lama
“We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
From a Buddhist perspective, humanity suffers from a mass delusion, in a sense, a kind of mental illness, and it is called dualism. We don’t recognize it as a kind of insanity because to us it is normal, but normal is always relative. Most people today would call the idea of one race making slaves of another race an insane idea, but of course, 250 years ago, the concept was considered quite sane and normal by many leading persons in American society.
Dualism is a state of mind, a way of looking at the world based on the experience of separateness in a world made up of separate objects, in which these objects have only a utilitarian relationship to each other. This means that I (the primary and most important object) look at the world and see objects (including other people) as having beneficial use to me, as detracting or harmful to me, or as irrelevant to me. We then organize these objects into a hierarchy of relevance ranging from what we believe to be the most detracting and dangerous, to the most enhancing and beneficial. We make a grave error in believing these assignments of relevance reflect true and accurate assessments of the way things really are. This is why dualistic thinking often leads to delusions, both small and great.
The institution of slavery was the product of dualistic thinking that made people of the African race into objects of utility in the most debased way to people of the white race. Today we recognize this as crazy, as delusional. The point is that slavery is only an extreme example of dualistic thinking. What is important is that dualistic thinking is as alive and well today as it was two hundred years ago, only operating at subtler levels of discrimination. Dualistic thinking was extremely destructive two hundred years ago, and it is perhaps even more dangerous today because the stakes for the future and quality of survival for the human species are now much higher. “We must be aware of the real problems of the world.” Successful human progress requires overcoming the dualistic thinking that separates individuals, genders, races, classes, sexual preferences, regions, political parties, religions, and nationalities from the truth of our mutual value, interdependence and common needs and problems. It also requires the realization of humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence with the non-human natural world, a non-dualistic realization that has barely scratched the surface of human consciousness.
When the world is perceived as divided into the very highly valued “me” and “us, with “you” and “them” having lesser or even negative value, and “it” as having no value other than how I and we can use it, we have set in motion the consciousness at the root of much of the harm and suffering caused by humanity. While it is true that dualism is essential for the particularly human characteristic of material productivity, inventiveness and creativity, it is remarkably short-sighted. It tends to look for immediate solutions to problems in isolation as they arise, and is largely incapable of seeing problems within their larger context. It also looks for solutions within parameters of possibility limited to already accepted ideas, sometimes the very ideas that have created the problems. It is typically blind to the insight that ultimately humanity’s problems arise from the inability to see that we are one species sharing a planet with each other, regardless of surface differences, as well as with many other species, all interdependent and necessary for the quality existence of each.
Without a counterbalancing non-dualistic perspective that recognizes all humanity as sharing common problems, that recognizes that we are all together on this great “Space-ship Earth,” a term coined by the ecological visionary Buckminster Fuller in 1967, along with all the animal and plant life in a codependent state of what the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” we are unable to “be aware of the real problems of the world.” The “mindfulness” that Thich Nhat Hanh references is seeing the non-dualistic context of existence as the larger frame in which the small frame of dualistic interest must operate in order to truly and skillfully “know what to do and what not to do.”
An inherent limitation of dualistic thinking is that it organizes our perception and choices as “either – or.” We almost can’t help approaching life with its challenges and problems from the limited perspective of “this way” or “that way.” If I consider myself “right” in my approach to something (and who doesn’t) and you have a different approach, then you must be “wrong.” Reality is not this simple. Reality is made up of all perspectives, and perhaps the most underappreciated small word in the English language is “and.” Life is seldom this or that, but rather, this and that, and that, and that, ad infinitum.
There is probably no area of human life more locked into dualistic consciousness than politics, and since politics is the arena in which decisions about how the elements of human society interact with each other, and eventually, with the natural world, it is imperative that we find a way beyond dualist thinking in politics. We must understand the inherent limitations of either-or thinking. We must be able to see, for example, that the arguments between individual-liberty/free-enterprise capitalism and support-for-all-socialism are false. We must see that our problems can only be resolved with a non-dualistic political perspective that synthesizes the best of capitalist/libertarian and socialist/collectivist political and economic philosophies.
A dynamic system that skillfully balances protections for the liberty and enterprise of individuals, while guarding against excesses by the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable, is essential. Creative individualism and all-inclusive supportive community has to be the goal. In such a system, government is democratic in a quite pure sense with built-in protections against undue influence and control by special and powerful interests, while guided by an overarching non-dualistic philosophy. Education that trains citizens not only in traditional information and skills, but also complementary non-dualistic wisdom, must be open, available to all, and the highest societal priority.