Does nonduality (i.e. "oneness") imply a lonely, solipsistic universe?
July 10, 2023 12:39 PM   Subscribe

In my understanding, the basic tenet of nonduality is that there is only 'this', here and now; that 'only this moment exists'. Another tenet of nonduality is that there is no 'person' here, but rather just reality happening. My question is, if nonduality is the truth, and there is nothing but what I am experiencing at this moment, does that not imply solipsism is true?

On one hand, I like the nondual concept and I feel in my bones that it is true on some level, but recently I came to a conclusion through reasoning that is quite unpleasant. I need some help to reason myself back out of it.

It seems to me that, if nonduality is true, then there is only this, now, and there is therefore only one reality, only one moment, only one self, and that's the entire universe. When I consider this, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness, because the implication is that whatever I am, it must be the only thing that exists, and that ever existed. It would make 'the world' just a game that is being played, almost as a distraction or an entertainment.

I think that I must have reached this conclusion in error, and I'd really appreciate if someone more versed in the nonduality philosophy or related practice (e.g. Zen Buddhism) could explain where I've gone wrong. I don't think the philosophy should be a depressing one!
posted by phiellaep to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like your conclusion is much like that of Parmenides, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers. In particular, his ideas included the way of Aletheia or truth, which describes how everything is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless and uniform. You might want to look at the place of those ideas in Greek and other Western thought.
posted by pipeski at 12:53 PM on July 10, 2023 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that, if nonduality is true, then there is only this, now, and there is therefore only one reality, only one moment, only one self, and that's the entire universe.

I’m not following this logic. The mind and body aren’t separable, distinct entities, therefore no one else is real and there’s no past or future? Why?
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:01 PM on July 10, 2023

It would be an understatement for me to say that I am not well versed in philosophy, but if you are interested in an introduction to the Zen take on non-duality specifically aimed at an American/western audience, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a classic and a quick read to boot.
posted by nanny's striped stocking at 1:13 PM on July 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

I have some experience with zen but am by no means an expert nor am I making any promises on how accurate my understanding is, but I think it’s the concept of “self” that you need to examine in this situation.

You might want to try to find a zen community for this, sitting with some guidance and community will really get you there fastest (which still might be some years).
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:32 PM on July 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

In my experience of nonduality, it is in every way the opposite of your conclusion. The "duality" referenced by nonduality is the separation between "self" and "other". Nonduality is what you experience in the moments when the veil is lifted and you become one with God/dess / the Living Universe / the All. It's more like an overwhelming feeling of love and wholeness and empathy, not loneliness and pointlessness. I would assert that it's not really possible to understand this through reasoning, and that it has to be experienced to be understood.
posted by heatherlogan at 1:52 PM on July 10, 2023 [10 favorites]

if nonduality is the truth, and there is nothing but what I am experiencing at this moment, does that not imply solipsism is true?

No. That would only be the case if the piece of this moment that happens to be within range of you right now is actually the only thing going on anywhere. But the world is big, and it isn't. It's pretty much always safe to assume that almost everything that's going on simply never bothers presenting itself to you for evaluation; it's not all about you.

If you're seriously interested in resolving this question to your own genuine satisfaction then I suggest that you turn your attention to pondering the question of what truth means, and what meaning means, and where the limits to applicability for these concepts should properly be put.

It seems to me that, if nonduality is true, then there is only this, now, and there is therefore only one reality, only one moment, only one self, and that's the entire universe

To describe the entire universe as a single object is to think in a way that puts aside all distinctions.

Ignoring distinctions is something that all of us do all the time to some extent; we have to, or we'd get nothing done. The trick to being comfortable existing in the world is understanding which distinctions can and should be ignored right now.

With dedication and practice, there are achievable states of awareness that make the perceived distinction between self and not-self go away. In my experience these states make the perceived distinctions between anything and anything else go away as well, thereby rendering the entire process of constructing meaning temporarily, completely and blissfully superfluous. It feels very oceanic and I thoroughly recommend spending at least some time in such a state on a regular basis if you can swing it.

Thinking about the experience afterwards raises a whole load of questions about what was "really" happening inside it, but the very existence of such questions is a reliable marker of no longer being in that state. The experience that the questions are about is simply no longer accessible, which makes any answer to them count as some variety of just making shit up.

I have nothing against making shit up. It's a deeply pleasing pastime. But it doesn't pay to take any of it seriously enough to cause distress.

In particular, as soon as you start wondering whether you are in fact identical to the entire universe rather than standing in a part-whole relationship to it - which amounts to wondering whether the distinctions you customarily make between the universe's assorted parts are some kind of illusion - then it pays not to lose sight of the fact that to the extent that those distinctions are illusory, so are any conclusions drawn on the basis of reasoning with them. In other words, the best evidence you have for the proposition that solipsism is true undermines the conclusion before you can even formulate the premise.

One distinction that I find personally very useful, and which I often find a great deal of value in bringing to mind when considering this class of question, is the distinction between the map and the territory.

The territory just is. As soon as you start making claims about or formulating descriptions of the territory, you're working with a map.

I think the only demonstrably definitive statement that can be made without a map is that the territory exists: something is going on. This proposition remains true even in the aforementioned blissful oceanic states.

Whether or not the entirety of your own map is built on an assumption that the territory's primacy and ineffability justifies describing it as a single, unitary object is entirely up to you. It's not a question that's going to affect my map unless we start exchanging opinions on it.

Let me offer you a piece of evidence that solipsism doesn't work: if you were identical to the process that formulated this answer, then you'd know what's behind this spoiler tag before opening it, and you'd know where it came from and what it means afterwards.

Spoilerfsjzn puzxl pksyv rmaax vheit

posted by flabdablet at 1:55 PM on July 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

Another tenet of nonduality is that there is no 'person' here, but rather just reality happening. My question is, if nonduality is the truth, and there is nothing but what I am experiencing at this moment,

These two sentences are contradictory. If there is no person, there is no ‘I’.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:04 PM on July 10, 2023

Nonduality does not mean there is nothing other than what you are currently thinking. Quite the opposite: nonduality is the experience that consciousness is the nature of the universe, and that you (your consciousness) is not separate from this universal consciousness. They are the same thing.

There's a paradox in this. When we experience unity, we know that isolation does not exist. And yet we also experience isolation, and at those times we cannot imagine that unity exists. Some might believe that enlightenment is experiencing only unity, but others would say that the enlightened one experiences both at the same time, unity and isolation as two eyes, creating a kind of binocular vision as they go through their day-to-day life.

The paradox is at the heart of much of Rumi's poetry. Here's one take, quoted from this Facebook post:
This Bewildering Game

How are you? How are you?
Neither “how” nor “what” will understand you.
Except for the Sultan, the one who is beyond “how” and “what,”
no one will be able to understand.

O my Beauty, the universe is illumined by You—
filled with light.
Yet neither the sky nor the earth can see it fully.

A wind moves this blue curtain
but it’s not the air blowing through;
it’s a wind known only by God.

Do you know who stitches that cloak of joy,
that cloak of grief?
Why does this cloak
think himself different than the one who sews?

Do you know what image shines
in the mirror’s heart?
The one who knows
is the one whose heart is pure.

This universe is a banner
that keeps fluttering.
Your heart sees the banner;
your soul thinks it’s the air that makes it move.

But the one who knows
how helpless air is
recognizes that everything
is nothing but God.

O God’s Shams of Tabriz,
Our Lord has so many tricks up His sleeve;
without your dice, how could the soul
even begin to play this bewildering backgammon game?

— Mevlana Rumī Lihat Sedikit
posted by Winnie the Proust at 2:47 PM on July 10, 2023 [4 favorites]

'only this moment exists'

You might find it fruitful to read about the experience of "flow states", which also have the features of immersion in the "now" and the temporary absence of the awareness of the self.

Some of the stuff that you are regarding as basic tenets of a philosophy of nonduality are, I think, actually "just" commentaries attempting to describe what the experience of nonduality feels like. It's not so much, "nonduality says there is only 'the now'", it's more "when I'm experiencing nonduality I'm aware of only 'the now' (but sometimes 'the now' also encompasses all of time)". I would assert that nonduality is not so much a philosophy, as it is a mystical experience that infuses your perspective.
posted by heatherlogan at 3:07 PM on July 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

Solipsism and nonduality are very different concepts.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:18 PM on July 10, 2023

Roughly speaking there's you, and then there's everything else.

Solipsism would have you believe you can ignore everything else.
Material realism would have you believe you can ignore yourself.

Nonduality holds that both are essential, and that furthermore they can be understood as aspects of the same single thing.
posted by grog at 3:26 PM on July 10, 2023 [4 favorites]

Some of the posts on this zen related site may be helpful in answering your question about what the experience of non-duality is like.
posted by Xurando at 4:47 PM on July 10, 2023

Slightly woo hot take:

If nirvana was enough, samsara would not exist. Creator chose to split itself into a multitude of separate consciousnesses in order to experience itself. We are many but also one, this is where we come from and where we return. Returning to the experience of source is like the satisfaction of a newborn child being nursed by its mother. The child does not perceive separation or ego, only blissful contentment and love.
posted by ananci at 5:50 PM on July 10, 2023 [6 favorites]

These two sentences are contradictory. If there is no person, there is no ‘I’.

I disagree, on the basis of having directly experienced "I" without directly experiencing "person".
posted by flabdablet at 3:02 AM on July 11, 2023

*anecdotal information coming*

think I had a similar feeling during meditation once. It was like this sudden overwhelming awareness of the fact that I am alive, and the terrifying nowness of having a brain and a mind and knowing that I can feel anything and experience anything, and the softness and vulnerability and near helplessness that that entails. Perhaps what youre having is a feeling rather than a conclusion arrived at through rational inquiry?

But if you can find a way to sit with that terror, let it speak, let it breathe, welcome it, recognize it, name it, accept it, you can then begin to detach from it, not identify with it, see it from the outside perspective. And then you will have achieved again the open mind that welcomes everything in the universe
posted by winterportage at 5:22 AM on July 11, 2023

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the very constructive replies. There's lots here for me to consider. I like the idea of getting involved with a practising Zen group. I appreciate it may have been more of a feeling than a thought. Wording it was difficult and the result was imperfect.
posted by phiellaep at 11:32 AM on July 13, 2023 [1 favorite]

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