Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.

Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip. 

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.

It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. What a person remains as, once non-duality has been significantly confronted, and false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded, requires a pragmatic formulation that can provide context apart from the lingering fantasies of the religious and spiritual myths that still abound. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I will attempt to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact in this post.

I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and can be understood apart from Buddhism or spirituality. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are, after all, we are questioning, self-reflective beings and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can reduce ignorance, suffering and the atomised model of self that is perpetuated by the madness of Capitalism and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.

One route to take is to suggest that we are multiple selves, although the same issue of actual existence remains: where are they and how do I recognise them, and who would be recognising them in the first place? It will likely always be impossible to define what we are in a single, absolute and truthful sense. In which case, we are left to approximations, convenient metaphors, or, importantly, semi or partial descriptions, some of which have pragmatic applications, some of which are accessible, others less so. In this sense, we may accept that many semi and partial descriptions capture important aspects of the network of interwoven elements that an individual is comprised of. We may decide that is useful to define a person, in the multiple, as a network of layers and strands of being and becoming. The idea of a person as a network points to interdependence, possibly the most useful conceptual tool for developing working definitions to define what we are provided by Buddhism.

The Network of selves

As we experience ourselves incorrectly as discrete selves, we need to replace the conceptual framework we use for locating ourselves in time and space and social orders with an alternative meaning making system, one that is less weighed down by the lineage of a biblical God and its disparagement of our earth bound condition, which believe it or not, still saturates our assumptions about the world. If we are not separate individuals that exist apart from the world, we are necessarily embedded, interwoven elements of a continuously fluctuating environment which is characterised by constant movement and change. If we are willing to fully dismiss the ascension/dissension myths that have dominated our world view in the West and that make it possible to freeze time and separate the world into atomised forms which exist apart, then we can unravel the knots of dualism that distort our co-existence and sustain boundaries that delineate our social constructs. We must find the conceptual means and basis for engaging with the world and for being active participants in a fluctuating and emerging, pulsing landscape of interbeing.

The English anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to this inter-connectedness as a meshwork. His work explores ideas that offer a conceptual basis for conceiving of interdependence in quite radical terms. You can found out more about his work here.

A further progression in viewing ourselves more accurately involves the pressing need to drop our speciocentric view of the world minus the romanticism that haunts the re-discovering of animal life. Our speciocentric sense of entitlement sits at the core of our irresponsible behaviour towards the other non-human beings that co-exist with us here. Any description of our species that moves away from subject-object duality and the reification of the self can only be good for the survival of the network of beings that co-habit this planet.

The abstraction of ourselves as beings apart from these networks of forms has falsified our notion of what we are into beings that are always apart, suspended in artificial detachment from our surroundings.

This stretch towards an artificial separation from the world around us runs deeper than people seem to realise and we are impregnated by a form of species-arrogance that verges on the schizophrenic.

A further issue in the construction of a conceptual framework for identifying humans as co-emergent beings concerns utopian thinking. An important critique that is sometimes made of non-dualism, especially in its Advaita expression, is that it can lead to a sort of bland utopian imagining in which we are all one. Such a conclusion can be found to be rife in new-age circles and other expressions of spiritual narcissism, but hey, it also pops up in Buddhism. This way of simple imagination typically ends up being part of an escapist strategy designed to annul the rough edges of our finite material existence. It tends to lead to a rather superficial, narcissistic disengagement from the complexities of life; what the Slovenian philosopher and pop culture critic Zizek might define as ultimate surrender to the atomisation desired by Capitalism in which the individual self becomes the locus of all creation and a subject of worship.

Further enmeshment

Returning to the notion of multiple selves, it may be interesting to think of the locus of consciousness as a space of being, consisting of a multiplicity of impregnating forces, visible and invisible, each run through with space as their unifying quality. We are, after all, impregnated from birth by multiple forces; cultural, historical, linguistic, political, social, geographical, psychological, organic forces, movements, tides and spheres of influence. We are inextricably birthed into masses of enmeshed networks of being and becoming, both organic and man-made.

In growing and become more self- and socially- aware, we gain further understandings, we light up further strands of these networks, which in turn reveal further strands and dimensions of inter-being. Our relationship with these networks is one of impregnating through consciously or unconsciously feeding and being fed, stabilised and destabilised by these strands.

To deny the existence of these complex inter-meshing networks is to lock ourselves into blind ideological allegiance to a simplification of our human lot. When we consciously do this, we are basically giving up our part in providing for the possibility of further evolution and the refinement and stabilisation of meaningful patterns that reduce suffering and ignorance in the world.

From this shared view of being, our intimate lives are also shared and not as unique as we might like to think. This goes for our intimate relationships too. Emotions are not ours, not unique, but rather octaves that we resonate with or into. They are shared octaves of our collective ‘being-scape’. How else can we explain for the utterly unoriginal, shared nature of feeling and emoting?

Such octaves are not limited to humans, however, as animals too experience joy, sadness, depression, love, pleasure, and so on. For us as humans, within the plains of enmeshment, emotions and feelings are plains of opening or closing that we move along, shy away from, indulge in, and either force away or doggedly extend and go after. Sometimes, we get seriously stuck in them. We move in and out of these plains of emergence and we agree unwittingly the degree and length of the plains that we as cultures and groups will travel along, where the taboos lie, and too often the social significance of these frequencies of feeling. When enacted as culturally restricted plains of feeling, emotions compound restrictive identities and strengthen the atomistic self.

Outside of socially sanctioned feeling, what is the role of feeling and emoting? Within the non-dual sphere there is often talk of an underlying basis of compassion, love, and benevolence. Again, it is difficult to argue for some ultimate plain of existence without falling into illusions of permanence and duality, but perhaps the underlying basis of benevolence that even Madhyamaka philosophy points to is, rather than a solid end goal, simply the release of the self as a distinct, atomistic nucleus into spheres of co-emergent being, where emotions and feelings exist as plains of further opening and knowing which bind us further to the sea of beings we are co-emergent with. Within such open spheres of inter-being, expressions of being are shared and it becomes impossible to separate from the experience of enmeshment and to formulate a distinct sense of being separate from the simultaneously vast and confined world of inter-being that is alive and pulsing at this time.

We are bound by our physical existence and the physical plains within which we roam. We are not just impregnated, but are impregnating the streams and lines of being. We have agency, and however limited that agency is, we are integral elements of the lines along which we emerge, move, flow, stagnate or flourish. We can only work with  those lines of which we are conscious in order to enact directed change in the world. Asides from becoming increasingly conscious of the lines that we are run through with, for Buddhist that could start with a willingness to engage with the feast of knowledge and all its riches, the ethical decision we are faced with becomes one of choosing which lines to strengthen, weaken, tie together, separate, push towards, cross, uncross, reveal, dismiss and so on. Unconscious feeding of lines and avoidance of other lines is what allows systems of injustice to remain and ignorance and suffering to continue in their current man-made forms.

This view of inter-being, I think, has the potential to loosen many of the myths that are flowing around and within circles of knowledge seekers, whether Buddhist or otherwise. The search for the authentic self, the true self, the negation of the self (or that problematic word ‘ego’) all emerge from a dualistic division between here and there, good and bad, subject and object. Unlike the annoyingly persistent spiritual trope that states all we need do is “be here now”, the recognition of the dynamic, movement-bound, relational, shared basis for our existence in an intermeshed world of inter-being laid out in this essay encourages us to recognise that there is no fixed point called now.

There are plains, octaves, frequencies and lines of movement which we are moved through, and along which we move as spaces of semi-conscious being and becoming. The richer the network of lines  consciously part of our network of awakened being, the fuller our ability to participate and enact change in the world.

To choose a line of “nowness” is merely to find comfort within the network of lines one has so far become conscious of and reify its sum total into a specialness. I for one cannot help but see this as a cop out.

Moving forward

The world is in need of more enlightened views of the individual and society as transcultural phenomena, freed from Descartes’ heavy weight. We more than ever need further discussion of the ontology of being because religious identities are experiencing something of a resurgence whilst globalisation is challenging long-held national identities, seemingly leading to both a crisis of identity in nations and the risk of the fabrication of models of self that favour a return to domination by the political and economic elite and entrenched class divide.

To finish, two questions naturally follow for me. How do we make it easier for people to rid themselves of the subject-object dualism that lies at the basis of western thought? Especially considering the intense fear at the heart of our being of disappearing into the enmeshment, of unbound spaciousness and unfamiliar degrees of infinity, or emptiness. From what I can see, we are simultaneously terrified of being without boundaries and in awe of a return to formlessness! Secondly, what is an individual’s responsibility to this world as they become more fully conscious of their enmeshed nature? For Buddhists, I would ask a further question, is it enough to re-enact the particular lines currently available in existing spiritual traditions?

I would hope that the response for Western Buddhist to the last question be increasingly a ‘no’. If that is too much, then at the least, Western Buddhist would do well to remember what old Zizek had to say in his critique of Buddhism:

“…it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity.”

End notes

Obviously, not all of the ideas herein are made up by yours truly. Having a background in Animism and Shamanism, I have gained a lot from reading works by deep ecologists, a number of anthropologists, specifically Tim Ingold, and philosophers involved with object and process philosophy, most recently Adrian Ivakhiv’s Immanence blog. The no-self teachings that come from Buddhism pop up in their works and currently there is increasing dialogue across academic fields that is innovative and relevant to discussion of post-atomistic-self, experiential living. Some of the language in this and subsequent posts comes from these sources.

For further information on some of those who helped me formulate better my own opening to the world and networked thinking, follow the links below.

Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and descriptions’ by Tim Ingold, from Routledge

Tim Ingold‘s Bio at the University of Aberdeen

Immanence. A fascinating blog run by Adrian J. Ivakhiv, Professor of Environmental Studies from the University of Vermont.

Non-Duality’, by David Loy, from Humanity Books.

Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations’, by Paul Williams, from Routledge

Hokai Sobol‘s writings at his blog

Zizek on Buddhism


  1. Hi Matthew:

    I’m concerned about statements like:

    “Our speciocentric sense of entitlement sits at the core of our irresponsible behaviour towards the other non-human beings that co-exist with us here.”

    As long as we keep treating our ideas as the source of our behavior, our efforts to change our behavior are doomed. That pathway can at best alter the behavior of a few individuals (many, in raw numbers perhaps, but not any significant percentage). In general, our behavior as a society creates, rather than resulting from, our attitudes. The path to social change runs in the opposite direction.

    Our present mode of production dishonors and disadvantages one class of human beings for the benefit of another class. A dominant class that must rationalize its oppression of other humans is not capable of honoring other species. Appealing to it to do so is futile. The ecological rape of the planet is merely a collateral effect of the exploitation of the labor of some humans for the benefit of others. That is the point at which an attack can be productive, because those exploited human beings outnumber their oppressors and thus may be susceptible to rational arguments that they can and should act to end their oppression. If we can stop oppressing other human beings, we may be able to find a path toward respecting other species as well.


    1. Hi there Dave,
      Thank you for your writing. No doubt, what I have to say in response to your comment will be incomplete and partial so feel free to say more if you wish and I’ll answer as best I can.
      If you read through the whole article, you will probably see that I consider identity to inform beliefs and ideas and it is identity that I’m talking about primarily, rather than beliefs, which are often superficial in my experience and rarely considered to any meaningful degree by most folks. This is why I make the emphasis that we are collectively made. If we understand that we are collectively made, rather than these atomised individuals, then it becomes clearer that we need to destabilise received identities, build identities which consider the past, take stock of the present and move forward into building identity-based concepts of ourselves that are liberated from the subject-object duality that allows the political elite to increasingly use humans as cogs in a machine for the maintenance of an economic system which is no longer viable. When I write of identity, I’m talking about identity at both the collective and individual levels. By the way, the political elite and economic 1% or 0.1%, or whatever it is these days, need more accurate models of the self just as we do: one that undermines their sense of removal from the rest of the human race, and the natural resources their wealth almost always depends on.

      I do generally agree with your conclusions about class. However, a problem I have seen very often with purely class focused discussion is that it so often tends to romanticise the working classes. It also apportions them the task which no one else seems to want: political revolution. This seems ever more unlikely in this day and age, especially in the UK, with so many people considering themselves middle-class, no matter their income or social standing.

      From your comments, I assume you are all too aware of the lack of class consciousness in modern-day Europe. The whole idea of class consciousness is predicated on the complexity and intermeshing of identities: convincing the slowly shrinking middle classes in the West that their misfortunes are due to the further entrenchment of privilege for the political and economic elite involves a radical change in identity, accepting that the party is over and ecological issues and constraints will not allow it to continue is the elephant in the room. The loss of the dream of abundance is one that people refuse to accept and this seems to be the case for their children to, which is what I’ve been observing in Italy over the last two years. People have generally not realised the true consequences of the economic crash, the ecological situation we’re in and events taking place at present. I would suggest that this is due in great part to a refusal to change identity, and difficulty with national identities which are increasingly undermined by globalisation.

      Human beings are anything but rational. It would be great to think that rational argument easily convinces large swathes of human beings to suddenly fight against injustice, but I would imagine that’s probably much rarer than we like to admit. Large groups of people tend to be motivated much more easily by emotions and irrational beliefs. This idea of rationality convincing the masses to rise up seems like an extremely middle-class idea. I remember marching against the poll tax in England with my Marxist dad and it was great but I wonder how much of the participation was primarily due to the issue concerning money? We have been formulated into atomised individuals by capitalism and consumerism and the sort of solidarity that we saw in the first half of the last century seems to have dissolved as globalised identities lead to extremely short term and distant solidarity which has difficult manifesting into real action even when it does gain momentum.

      Finally, I would suggest that there is room for a number of different discussions concerning identity that do not solely centre around class distinction and economics: identity is not one-dimensional after all. This blog states as much.

      Part of the direction this blog is taking is to provide alternatives to mainstream Buddhism for those attracted to meditation, Buddhism and its ethics of liberation. I would assert that Buddhism has a number of tools that can be appropriated for undermining our ignorance, entrapment in received identities and compulsion to grasp at fixed identities when they become destabilised by circumstances. I also ‘believe’ that revolutionaries need to free themselves of their identification with fixed selves if they are to produce anything other than further ideological entrapment based on the repeat of history, however unlikely that is.



  2. Hi Matthew:

    Thanks for your response. I forgot to mention how much I like the fabric illustration. By a relative?

    I agree that the tools of Buddhism have the potentials you describe. As a Pepperian, I can also get on board with socially created identities (or ideologies) as a conceptual advance over atomized individuals (a capitalist myth, to my way of thinking, though Buddhism challenged it long ago).

    The question of how thought can bring about social change is of course complex. That it can change individuals is an essential premise of most if not all Buddhisms. Marxism also makes no sense if a rigidly deterministic interpretation is adopted under which all thought is only the product of, and never an influence on, social forces.

    Yet I stand by my warning that language implying that our mental formations are the cause of our social behaviors must be used with great caution. Danger, danger, Will Robinson!

    Your inclination towards such language seems clear. A “refusal to change identity,” you argue, is the explanation for the fact that people “refuse to accept” the realities of our current economic and ecological situation.

    Here, while appropriately contesting the capitalist myth of the atomic individual, you endorse an equally harmful aspect of the hegemonic ideology, the myth of scarcity. The party, you claim, is over, and we must give up the “dream of abundance.” (Our current governor here in California, Jerry Brown, who began preaching this dogma of limitation even before it became capitalist orthodoxy, would agree.)

    Luis Daniel posted a number of interesting links in this connection at TheNonBuddhist.com (see the post “The Zombification of Speculative Non-Buddhism,” comment #28). These are not without merit, but I detect a problem.

    In his comment #25, Luis wrote: “The real problem is that from 2007 onwards the economy is spending 1.5 the total resources that earth can renew in a year. This will no doubt affect mostly the 20% of world population which consume 80% of its resource. The degrowth movement is a good place to start.”

    I cannot vouch for these figures, but I do not doubt that they are in the right neighborhood. However, they do not, in my view, support the myth of scarcity.

    Accepting these figures, we can set the earth’s renewable resources equal to 100, and our current consumption of them to 150. The privileged minority (basically, the United States and Western Europe) is consuming 120, and the rest of the world 30.

    But this demonstrates not scarcity, but rather inequitable distribution. Let’s allow the privileged 20 percent to consume not 120, but 30. That’s more than their fair share of renewable (it’s their fair share of what we are consuming now). Then let’s reduce total consumption to the renewable amount. That still leaves 70 for the 80 percent, more than double the 30 they get now. That should, at least, be enough to eliminate hunger and inadequate medical care.

    The problem, of course, is the effect on the U.S. and Western Europe. Cutting from 120 to 30 will be painful. Even supposing the rich can be required to bear much of the burden, it would seem likely that the living standards of the middle and working classes would be significantly reduced. It is therefore not surprising that, as you point out, there is a “lack of class consciousness in modern-day Europe.” This demonstrates not irrationalism (though I concede human beings can be “anything but rational” at times), but rather a quite rational recognition that their relative privilege is based on the oppression and exploitation of masses of human beings in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Which they very rationally are not anxious to give up.

    My argument is that there is no way to confront this without acknowledging the massive inequities involved. We cannot “all get along” (in the sad formulation of police beating victim Rodney King), we must take sides. Those of us in the West must abandon appeals to the general shared interest (which in practice means to the ruling class), and demand that our own disadvantaged classes make common cause with the disadvantaged all over the earth. Our argument must be that if they fail to do so, they are making common cause with the advantaged classes of their own regions and will share their fate when the disadvantaged of the earth take their revenge.

    This argument may not succeed. I do not discount the obstacles you enumerate. But it is no less likely to succeed than the strategy of asking our own ruling elites to adopt new “identities” which entail giving up their BMWs and gated communities. At least it has a rational basis, and however irrational we may believe our species to be, if we are going to present arguments to it, they had best be rational ones.


    1. Hi Dave,
      The artist Michael O’Connell was a great uncle of mine who emigrated to Australia, so we never met. I forgot to put a link to his work. I have remedied that with a link under the art.
      We should firstly put my essay in context. I think there is a danger of confusing it with a statement on what all beings should be doing. I hold out no expectations that anybody sign onto my way of thinking, as it presently emerges, or even read my work. My writing here is aimed at Buddhists really, or ex-Buddhists. The piece is basically thinking out loud and pondering a re-evaluation of what happens when you make sufficient headway with what Buddhists would traditionally define as becoming self-less.
      My concern is actually that the ideology of no-self has led to a range of fantasies regarding Buddhist practice and the results of long-term meditation, as well as disengagement from the world by those who claims to have made strides forward in dissolving their ‘attachment to self’. I think our fantasies about the self and no-self and non-duality almost always create new forms of ignorance and illusion and that part of that is made possible by the lack of awareness of what we are if we are not discrete selves; hence, my attempt at formulating a re-imagining of the self as a network of enmeshment. I also think that part of the disengagement from politics by most Buddhists concerns seeking some form of salvation from modernity as well as formulating new identities that dissolve the need to participate in a messy world, which is a result in part of a meeting between Buddhism and Judaeo-Christian idealism.
      As an aside and to supply further context, as someone who has counselled and coached individuals for many years, I can personally attest to issues of identity underlying behaviour and a change in identity being one of the quickest routes to a change in behaviour. This in part explains my interest in this topic.
      As you say you are a Pepperian (fantastic statement by the way and rather amusing), it’s likely there will be some difference in priorities between us and not because I don’t appreciate Pepper’s writing and respect his contribution to discussion regarding the collective nature of self, ideology and Nagarjuna. As mentioned, my father has been a devoted Marxist since I was born and having heard his preaching on class, the Conservatives, the Americans, revolution, Capitalism and so on for over 30 years, I am of the conclusion that we need more than class consciousness and a lot of anger to produce change. To know is not enough. I still don’t think most folks are particularly rational either, George Carlin would likely agree with me on that one, and I think the faith that some have (usually intellectual secular folk with a semi-decent education) that we are inherently rational is a myth and I think it runs alongside the same myths that we are basically good and all basically the same. Of course, I appreciate that those who can, should provide clear, rational argument and reasoning when discussing how to bring about effective change in the world.
      As for scarcity, surely it’s both? The world’s resources are finite and the world’s resources are poorly distributed. The logical solution is not to bring the poor and lower-class masses into a lifestyle which mirrors that of the world’s rich, but consider shaping a world ideologically that is not based on the need to acquire masses of material objects and so on and that refuse the myth of ever increasing growth. To accept the world has finite resources is not to accept our lot, which is likely a nice strategy to be ramped up by the elite soon, but to recognise that the bigger picture is not only political and economic, but also ecological. I think that isolating areas of human activity is problematic when considering solutions to global problems and this is one reason why I am disinterested in purely political views of people and societies. Marxism provides us with class consciousness and an understanding of the inherent flaws of Capitalism. It doesn’t seem to provide us with a workable solution that is sufficiently cognizant of the irrationality of humans, or that accounts for the continuing presence of religious beliefs and ‘identities’.

      “…demand that our own disadvantaged classes make common cause with the disadvantaged all over the earth.”

      This I think does bring us back to identity. Those who are middle class or enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort and would be willing to identify with the world’s poor would have to expand their sense of self to include them and dissolve to some degree their embedded, unconscious identification with their privileged class: this is all about identity. Identifying with the disadvantaged is incredibly challenging because there is so much fear about becoming one of them. I would suggest it is something even Buddhists have great difficulty in doing. If they do, it’s often a case of projecting pity from one social position to another. The idea that we do what you have described assumes certain concepts of self and that, as you well know, requires being educated into an understanding of the role of ideology in shaping societies, social contexts and the limits of freedom we do or do not enjoy.

      Really though, there is a danger you may be preaching to the converted here Dave.


  3. Thanks for your patience with this conversation, Matthew. You are right about preaching to the converted. A good deal of common ground underlies, but also highlights, our differences.

    I will content myself with one more example of an assertion to which your perspective lends itself that I find problematic:

    “The logical solution is not to bring the poor and lower-class masses into a lifestyle which mirrors that of the world’s rich, but consider shaping a world ideologically that is not based on the need to acquire masses of material objects and so on and that refuse the myth of ever increasing growth.”

    “Growth,” for the capitalist, means the ever-more intense exploitation of labor. But the world is still full of people whose aspirations for “masses of material objects” mean little more than enough food to survive and access to medical care. These aspirations will not be satisfied without the development of the means of production. Once these elementary requirements are met, they may well think they might like televisions, refrigerators, cars, dishwashers, and iPhones as well.

    Buddhism has rightly pointed to the dangers of acquisitiveness for a long time, but the actual experience of acquisition is probably one most people need to have before they can be open to that message.


  4. Scripting an appropriate response to this decisively written and clearly executed piece has taken considerably longer than I had planned. However, a decent response demands serious reflection and inspection of the topic in hand and covering all of the concepts presented is not an simple task.

    For the sake of this response I’m going to posit that we’re spiritual beings, involved in, experiencing a physical reality as opposed the opposite. When viewed and considered from the standpoint of hard science this could easily be dismissed as a dubious and questionable approach but there is more than adequate evidence to prove, confirm and support this as a valid reality. It should also add additional dimensionality to the ideas within this response and expand this discussion, within context.

    I’d also like to make a distinction between Buddhism (the religion) and buddhism (or non-buddhism) as I see it as being re-evaluated. Buddhism fails to integrate, include and work on the levels of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual in an open source style. It also does not do a good enough job in discussing and acting tangibly towards addressing the mess that we have inherited and partake in on a daily basis. Neither does it offer or work towards the formation of positive avenues of reformative social action, progressive internal and external revolution, the challenging or breaking down of unhelpful cultural taboos or of addressing certain uncomfortable physical realities. In fact Western Buddhism does not appear to be doing a lot towards examining the premises that it itself puts forwards – but, then again, that’s really a forgone conclusion!

    To address your questions I would reply as to the following:

    – How do we make it easier for people to rid themselves of the subject-object dualism that lies at the basis of western thought?
    People are disconnected from themselves on multiple levels of being; both at the internal and energetic level and externally to themselves as well as to the living and breatheing world. Non-dual practices can do a fantastic job to readdress this balance.

    In terms of making it easier for people to ‘rid themselves of the subject-object dualism’ then beginning to heal this internal and external reality split at the heart of matter, as often experienced by individuals, should be a positive move that is worthy of consideration. A move that would make everyday life increasingly workable and accessible without costly need to, or consideration of, invest lifetimes or aeons before seeing the results! Do excuse me as I’m a little bit sick and tired of that being positioned as a ‘workable’ time frame. As sitting practice develops it often opens up vistas of experience that show how we are connected to the physical world around us that is clearly not available, accessible or advertised by capitalism, mass consumerism, buying the newest plasma TV/car/house/or , the latest Facebook update or an all consuming career in corporate business.

    My experience is that systemic Buddhism, complete with all of its successes and failures, is rarely utilised and employed – let’s not mention accurately deployed; because that would demand critical thought and work – to address life or as you describe it used as ‘a signifier of human potential’ Matthew. Rather I’ve seen it experientially used as a religious ideological system to indoctrinate, anaesthetise and subject witting and unwitting participants alike into group think; to one greater degree or another.

    Instead I would put forward that the process starts with looking into the physical and feeling dimensions of ourselves to begin the intricate process of disentanglement and removal from false identification.

    – Is it enough to re-enact the particular lines currently available in existing spiritual traditions?
    I would quite obviously say No. But whether we are aware of it or not it should be clear that we’re all working with and within the systems and structures that we have inherited from both, close and distant, local and global ancestry. For better or worse; modern human beings have been severed from our deeply inherent internal resources, structures and knowings that inform us. This is increasingly clear from your piece as you state the stretch towards ‘an artificial separation from the world around us [that] runs deeper than people seem to realise’. As far as I see it this is on all levels of being.

    In addition the structures and systems that look to readdress this balance are within and of themselves also splintered, fractured, disparate and often isolated even in direct relation to themselves. Obviously it is not enough to re-enact the “lines” that exist within each particular tradition and so a radical re-imagining is required to bridge the gaps and dark chasms that are glaringly obvious for those who listen, have eyes to see and the courage to explore and feel into their lived depths.

    The argument often put forward to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I would agree but that doesn’t make it a valid excuse to retreat, turtle like, back into the shell of tradition when faced with complicated and difficult questions, scenarios or life realities as I have seen and experienced many a ‘high-level’ Buddhist teachers do. Life is a dance between the simple and complicated and I think this highlights the inability of certain organisations (who are not innocent but shall remain nameless) to deal with and walk the line of working with life’s ambiguities and conflicting polarities.

    – What is an individual’s responsibility to this world as they become more fully conscious of their enmeshed nature?
    Engagement of personal and collective reality. This of course can take many forms but the basics as I see it would be to:
    1, Consciously work to integrate and to be committed to integrate the work being done on yourself into your own life and into the lives of the people that interact and share theirs with you
    2, Move into working with life as it is, but not necessarily as you think, wish or imagine it to be, through meaningful and engaged work and living. This move should be utilised so as to make a marked difference, whether small or large, upon our shared collective experience
    3, Continue to develop, grow and evolve the ecosystem of systems that support and strengthen our connections to each other in direct and meaningful ways so as to further sustainable human life and community

    Good work!!


    1. Stuart,
      Your comment appears self-contained and not in great need of a response: you’ve laid out a number of your own conclusions and opinions. Thanks for sharing those. The questions in the piece I wrote are obviously rhetorical. In a sense, I think the current answers we have to such questions are inadequate and unsatisfactorily formulated and that is what I am hinting at in my own attempt to find language and descriptions that go beyond the confines of Buddhist discourse. I have this rather masochistic desire to force a lot of what folks like you and I possibly took for granted in the past and as given out of the realm of Buddhism, and I confess, out of the realm of the spiritual, or personal, into a shared linguistic landscape. I am still unconvinced that we need to continue to use this metaphor of the spiritual, much in the same way we no longer need to continue with metaphors such as spiritual enlightenment, or even awakening, which leaves them in the realm of the special or elite. Such terms find their place within closed dialects, or macro discourse limited to Buddhists or spiritual folks. Within the much larger context of social and scientific discourse what do we actually mean when we refer to such ideas as awakening? I actually think that the scientific fields are less interesting than the humanities in providing a basis for understanding what is taking place, which have at least as much to contribute in formulating a vision of the individual within the collective as free in the way I laid out in my piece on reconfiguring enlightenment.
      This is not a project I wish to force on others though, it’s voluntary, but I do think it essential and in part motivated by the fact that I no longer hang out with Buddhists. The people I get as students for my coaching work either have no contact with Buddhism, but want to learn to meditate as part of the coaching process, or come from other spiritual or religious backgrounds and can’t relate to Buddhist metaphors. Those who come to me with some background in Buddhism seem as stifled in their progress by Buddhism and its commonly misunderstood tropes as they are by whatever issues they’re working through. This is a condition I too found myself in some years ago and de-constructing Buddhist and spiritual myths was so useful when I initially left organised Buddhism years back that I kept going with it and this explains the flavour of much of my writing.
      I thank you for your comments but you’ve written so much I am not sure what to respond to. Are you convinced by the ideas you wrote? How’s your own progress in exploring the potential within them?


      1. I like, and agree, with your reply a great deal Matthew,

        You’re ideas, theorems, assumptions, the direction you’ve taken and the contextual subjects that you rest your work upon is solid and it can’t be helped but to say wholeheartedly that I agree with many, if not all, of your conclusions.

        As for needing or requiring a response; I didn’t write to gain response or favour but rather to echo a deeply shared agreement towards your ideas and postulations. I am convinced by the ideas I’ve written otherwise I don’t think there would be much point in spending the time it took to craft a decent post – but they are a work in progress that rest solidly and heavily upon wanting to engage in life as deeply as possible and to have a workable sitting practice also.

        Like everything it’s a work in progress :),


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