The Duality Trap
Is there more than Gabe vs. Steven?
It’s 1994 and I’m swimming laps in a high rise on the east side of midtown Manhattan. The pool is a tiny rectangle, so I hit a wall and turn, over and over, a hundred times in the half-hour.
Back and forth. Back and forth. In geometric terms, I’m a vector, traversing one line between two points, stuck in an infinite repetitive pattern.
In human terms, I’m an ambivalent mess.
My mind churns with me through the water. The insipid “torn between two lovers, feelin’ like a fool” song is wedged deep in my cranium, an unwelcome soundtrack to my freestyling back and forth through the water.
“Steven” or “Gabe”? Gabe or Steven? I’m dating two different guys, and I can’t for the life of me decide which one is “the one.”
This is the very human trap we need to free ourselves from, a belief that we live in a world of true opposites. It’s a learned way of approaching the world, and for us to evolve personally, societally, and spiritually, it’s got to go.
“Your mindful meditation on our national symbol is a reframe that is essential for us in realizing the beautiful future our hearts know is possible. As long as we remain trapped in duality, thinking our only choice is to either mindlessly sing along or remain mute in protest, we cannot create a better country.”
It got me thinking about how — and why — we often trap ourselves in duality. We are surrounded all the time by what we consider opposites: night and day, light and dark, left and right, up and down, in and out, hot and cold, black and white.
All of those pairs are seemingly real. Isn’t light the opposite of dark? We name it as such and do the same with other pairs, interpreting Nature as offering us myriad examples of opposites. We drift into duality-thinking as a “true” reflection of our surroundings.
But Nature also offers everything in between those extremes, too. Just witness the way light blends into infinite shades all day, from dawn to dusk and back again.
In English, we have the word “synonym,” and the word “antonym,” but no word that means “related to the word, but neither totally the same nor totally different.” If you know of that word in another language, please let me know.
I don’t think we’ll ever know if our inclination toward opposites in our language and our mindsets is a result of something inherent to being human, or an insufficiency of our language. Or if the two — our language and our human nature — have evolved together to solidify this inclination.
But I do know that throughout human existence, powerful interests have recognized that inclination and have manipulated it to their own benefit. Casting one side as evil and the other as good has launched a million missiles and lined the pockets of military industrialists with gold. It has pitted religions, cultures, and races against each other. It has divided nations and families. It has turned the United States into a World Wide Wrestling Federation match, with heroes and villains play-acting their outrage against each other, to put more butts in the seats and more cash in the hands of the fight promoters.
For years I genuinely thought of myself as part of the “good guys” on the Left. If only the evil Right could be vanquished, I thought. If only the world could be run by Democrats, why, then it would be a paradise on Earth. My mother-in-law always believed the opposite, and still does.
That is the mindset of a crusader. Or a Crusader. That’s extremism, but I didn’t know it then. It took the last few years to teach me that Left and Right are not necessarily opposites:
This concept makes sense to me from a living world perspective as well: if you keep making left turns, even small ones, eventually you’ll end up facing the right.
Which brings me back to Nature, the great purveyor of true — and I mean true —wisdom. But before I dive into that, I want to touch on some recent statements by individuals I follow: RFK, Jr. and.
In Kennedy’s October 9th speech on the steps of Independence Hall, he declared his intention to run as an Independent — a move I applauded, and still do.
I also applauded this, from his speech:
“…We need to pry loose the hammerlock of corrupt powers in Washington, DC and make this nation ours again. But there is a sacrifice that everyone, including myself, has to make if we are to unite America.
We will have to surrender a kind of political addiction that is at the root of our divisions: it is the addiction to taking sides.”
An “addiction to taking sides” is almost the same as being stuck in duality, no? RFK, Jr. continued, saying that only letting go of taking sides will allow us to:
“… ask the questions that nobody thought to ask. We can discover solutions that were right in front of our face. We will listen not just to the other side, but to those who are apart from any side.”
Music to my ears. Finally, a viewpoint freed from the stranglehold of duality.
He finished the topic strong, noting that his declaration goes beyond political party independence:
“It is also independence from tribal thinking. It’s freedom from the reflex of having to take sides. Instead of asking people ‘Which side are you on?’ I’m going to ask people, ‘What do you care about? What do your children need? What is it like to be you? What do you love?’ Because our country is never going heal if the only formula is for one half of the population to vanquish the other half in a pitched battle.”
Such music didn’t last long.
The Palestinians had already attacked Israel, and when I heard Kennedy speak in Orlando on October 12th, I was surprised to hear him say that sometimes, in the case of a “just” war, you have to choose sides. In his opinion, the U.S. must back Israel because 1) Israel is a more democratic, fair country; and 2) because it’s a strategic outpost in the Middle East. Our national interest — our continued access to oil — is at stake.
Now, I’m not going to comment on the validity of either of his statements, because I don’t begin to know enough to be certain of anything.
Instead, I’ll express my surprise at his seeming inability to apply his own philosophy to the situation. Where were the questions? Where was the search for solutions outside the knee-jerk choosing of sides? If ever there was an intractable conflict that cried out for outside-the-box thinking, surely this is the one. But no.
I’m not alone in my surprise/disappointment.
“My disappointment in RFK Jr. is not because I think he has taken the wrong side. It is that he has taken a side. We need leadership that recognizes the tragic and inevitable failure of conquest as a formula for a better world.”
I know Eisenstein and I, and probably many others, are asking a lot of a presidential candidate who needs significant financial backing in order to win. But at the very launch of his campaign, Kennedy compared his father’s terrible odds of winning with his own similarly terrible odds, saying this:
“…hopelessness in his campaign freed him to tell the truth to the American people.”
RFK, Jr. seemed to imply that he didn’t care what his own odds were; his mission — like his father’s — was to tell the truth. And perhaps that’s exactly what he believes he’s doing when he talks about the Middle East. Or maybe his stance reflects what the polls now show about his campaign: RFK, Jr.’s run is clearly not hopeless. Who knows? I’m open to both possibilities.
Actually, in the spirit of non-duality, I’m open to ALL possibilities… just as Nature is.
Nature presents herself in every shape possible, but mostly round:
I read somewhere that circles are an artifact of any generative system that radiates outward from a point. Circles are also evidence of boundaries seeking the smallest perimeter, like rain drops, waves, bubbles, or planets.
Think about that for a moment. A system radiating outward. Boundaries seeking the smallest perimeter.
What could our human world look like if expansion were our goal? If we created boundaries with the fewest limitations?
We already know that when we gather in a circle, the dynamic opens. A circle invites, includes. A circle allows us to see everyone’s faces, to look into eyes, to experience the fullness of each human presence. A circle is a place for all opinions, all thoughts. There are no “sides” in a circle.
When human beings first made shelters for themselves, they built them to reflect and adapt to the world in which they lived, so most shelters were round.
Since then, as we’ve “conquered” more and more of our environment, we’ve built a world that doesn’t need to adapt to anything but our own efficient, commercial interests. What’s the cheapest way to build houses, roads, cities? Squares and rectangles. Boxes. Straight lines.
Geometry, the only math class that actually made sense to me, tells us “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” Yes, but no one said that the shortest path is actually the right one, or the most meaningful one, or the one with the most possibilities for expansion.
Straight lines don’t bend, they break. They don’t compromise, because they can’t. A straight line doesn’t adapt to the direction of the wind; it’s the curvature of trees that makes them strong and at the same time, permits them to re-orientate themselves to the wind.
If we could see a tree — the whole tree, roots and all — we would see Nature’s wisdom in all its spherical magnificence.
During its entire life span, a tree will keep digging farther into the unknown, spreading its roots below as wide as its branches above. Unless it encounters some kind of impenetrable boundary, it will expand to its fullest potential.
Duality does not exist in the world of a tree. No up, no down. No light, no dark. It is simply reaching out, out, out from the periphery of the seed, doing what it came here to do.
Compare that to the human geometry we have created for ourselves:
In 1994, the very rectangle I swam in reinforced my dualistic thinking. As ridiculous as it seems to me now, having found and married a man unknown to me then, I actually thought I had no more options than Gabe and Steven. Those two were it.
I was trapped inside my own fishbowl belief system and therefore couldn’t expand my world of possibilities to encompass an ocean. I was a blind ping-pong ball in a miserable tiny pool, trapped by my own fear. [More on the origins of fishbowl limitations here.]
It’s comforting to reduce the world to two options. It soothes us. Airline travel used be my favorite dining experience, not because the food was tasty (it wasn’t) but because the choice was so limited. Places like TGIFriday’s, with its tome-like menu, used to send me into paralysis. Ah… the simplicity of “chicken or beef.” That I could handle.
We like to paint in stark black and white, because doing so reduces this big, confusing, scary, world to something understandable, handleable.
But we don’t live in a two-dimensional world that adheres to geometric laws. Life is messy. Relationships — between individuals, between countries — are complicated, nuanced, multi-colored. We live in a world acted upon by of all kinds of forces: money, history, fear, desire, injustice, violence… all of these and more pull us in different directions.
Our attempts at straight lines, at black and white, are destined to fail because they can’t withstand forces like that. Straight lines can’t bend, can’t adapt. But they can divide others, and they can be fashioned into swords. Is it any wonder that we keep fighting the same battles, over and over? How can we rise above our dualistic thinking?
Because now I know, thank god: there is more than Gabe vs. Steven.
Kennedy had the right idea when he said:
“Instead of asking people ‘Which side are you on?’ I’m going to ask people, ‘What do you care about? What do your children need? What is it like to be you? What do you love?’”
The magic keys to the Duality Escape Room are these: complementarity and curiosity.
In 2022 Esther Perel joined Yuval Harari at the Alpine Fellowship Symposium, on a panel about polarization. Okay folks, here’s your opportunity to start practicing not taking sides if you happen to be, like me, a huge Perel fan and a huge Harari
hater disliker: watch it here.
Fellow Substackerbrought their conversation to my attention, saying this:
“[I]… was deeply impressed by Esther's view on polarization. I've tried to put it into practice. It's a hard habit to break, skipping over where I agree and going right to where I'm right and they're wrong.”
It is hard. But Perel, a world-renowned relationship therapist, laid out some wisdom when she said, “A loss of freedom comes with polarization.”
She explained that two individuals in long-standing conflicts often view the other as WRONG, and believe they know exactly what the other is planning to say. (Been there.) They therefore focus entirely on their own grievances and pain — usually totally justifiable — and arm themselves with arguments to deploy at the precise moment the other one stops speaking.
God knows I’ve done all that.
Perel is so right: in doing so, I effectively imprisoned myself, cutting myself off from hearing anything, including something I might actually agree with.
She went on to suggest that “the opposite of polarity is complementarity,” and the way to achieve complementarity is to start by noticing, and acknowledging, the things you agree with first, before launching into the things you disagree with.
Think of the yin-yang symbol.
Yin and yang are not viewed as opposites; they’re seen as complementary forces, with a small portion of the opposite element on each “side.” Our job during conflict is to identify that crucial dot of agreement and offer it up.
So simple. So simple and yet so hard. And so freeing. From Tereza:
“The universe really wants me to learn this, though, because it ‘rewards’ me when I do, with a real conversation and surprising synchronicities.”
I’ve reaped those same rewards, too. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the universe probably wants us all to learn this.
Everyone I know is beyond tired of “us vs. them.” Part of RFK, Jr.’s surprisingly huge appeal is his message of unity. But how many people are willing to actually take up this simple, difficult practice in their own personal lives?
There’s another practice that goes hand-in-hand with complementarity: curiosity.
“Complex subjects cannot be responded to with “either-or.” They don’t have a right or wrong answer.”
I would add that the more complex the subject, the more it demands inquiry: open-hearted questions from open-minded people. The deeper the roots dig, the stronger the tree. The more its limbs branch, the more fruit it yields.
And sometimes, after all the questions have been asked and answered, the most courageous act is to kneel down and admit “I don’t know.”
At that stage, duality sneaks off into the sunset. Nothing is separate from the universe any longer; it can’t be.
“It is in the dark night of our souls, when all we know is that we know nothing, that the presence of the sacred may quietly well up, mingling with our pain and connecting us to a love that will never die.” —Mirabai Starr
This is the path. It’s not choosing one side with certainty. It’s fearlessly remaining open, a tree basking in the gradient light of the unknown. Neither this nor that. Neither physical nor immaterial. Neither Israel nor Palestine. Both. All.
An open heart, wide open to the pain and insecurity of uncertainty, expands to welcome the infinite possibilities and solutions that only a higher intelligence can envision.
That’s where we’re headed, if we choose to go that way: hand-in-hand with Grace, following our ever-expanding hearts in a new way, into the roundness of a new world, curious and unafraid.