In referring to Platonism and to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, philosopher David Loy writes that both these "dualisms" understand the self "to be the source of awareness and therefore of all meaning and value, which is to devalue the world/nature into merely that field of activity wherein the self labors to fulfill itself (303). In making this assertion, Loy opens up a range of complex issues that are central to longstanding philosophical debates about the nature of the self and experience. But there are two crucial points to make about Loy's observation for our purposes:
First, this self to which Loy refers is the Cartesian self: the autonomous thinking self that is brought into being by thought; the Platonic self able to transcend the physical and find Truth in the metaphysical; the prevailing Western self that is understood to be fundamentally separate from other selves and from the physical world.
Second, how we understand the self matters. As Loy points out, in the West, the self resides at the center of how we make meaning of the world and our experience of it. The implications of our prevailing Western sense of self are vast, and one of those implications is a fundamental disconnection between "us" as human beings and the physical world we perceive around us. That disconnection is at the heart of the life-threatening environmental challenges we face today.
In this node, I wish to present an alternative version of the self, one based on David Loy's notion of nonduality. Loy draws on Asian philosophical and spiritual traditions to inquire into nonduality as an alternative to Western modes of philosophical inquiry and their dualistic ways of understanding experience. This is complex terrain that I will not try to map analytically or systematically. Instead, I wish to offer a general description of a sense self that arises from the idea of nonduality. This nondualistic self, which is central to the Eastern traditions Loy draws on but which exists in various guises in the Western tradition as well, must, I believe, become a crucial component of the effort to re-imagine ourselves in relation to each other and to the world we inhabit in order to create sustainable communities and ways of being in the world.
Loy's primary goal in his study is to "extract and elucidate a 'core doctrine' of nonduality" (6) from three major Asian traditions or "nondualist systems": Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism. In pursuing this goal, Loy confronts the question of how to understand the self (and the prior question of the very existence of a self) within a nondualist framework. Juxtaposing his stance to modern Western philosophy, which he says begins with "Descartes' postulation of the subject which functions autonomously as its own criterion of truth" (138), Loy presents "the nondualist's claim that there is no autonomous self ('I . . .') distinguishable from its experience ('I am aware of . . .')" (139). Whereas the Cartesian view holds that "the act of thinking requires a thinker, an 'I' to be doing it" (138), Loy describes an alternative experience of experience, a non-intellectual way of being in which the distinctions between subject and object, "I" and "world," disappear:
Originally, there is no distinction between "internal" (mental) and "external" (physical), which means that trees and rocks and clouds, if they are not juxtaposed in memory with the "I" concept, will be experienced to be as much "my" mind as thought and feelings. (140)
Loy acknowledges that this way of explaining the self--or, more accurately, the lack of self, what Buddhism calls "no-self"--is "incompatible with our usual way of . . . understanding experience" (5), which rests on the assumption of an "I" that can perceive the physical world as separate from itself, as an object that is not part of that "I." But he points out that the subject-object duality that he wishes to deconstruct
arises not only from a simple bifurcation between grasper and grasped. The subject must also be 'grasped' in an objectification whereby I identify my consciousness with thought (including memory), a body, and its possessions--all of which are objects lacking the most essential characteristic of Self, consciousness (140).
In other words, we must separate the self--objectify it--from everything else in order to bring it into being and be aware of it. Loy argues that such a self is illusory, and he bases that argument on the idea of the fundamental unity of all things: "the world itself is nonplural, because all the things 'in' the world are not really distinct from each other but together constitute some integral whole" (21). Zen teacher John Daido Loori sums up in somewhat simpler terms the implications of this idea of wholeness for understanding the self in the Buddhist tradition, on which Loy relies: "In a sense, the 'person' in Buddhism is the totality of the universe. And it responds to the whole universe and takes care of it as if it was taking care of its own body" (229).
This sense of nonduality as wholeness actually informs the curricular and pedagogical proposals of a number of scholars working in diverse fields, including some feminist scholars, especially those espousing ecofeminism, as well as many environmental studies scholars, including David Orr, whose notion of "ecological literacy" is based on "the comprehension of the interrelatedness of life" (93). Donald A. McAndrew describes an "ecofeminist whole" that "is not the traditional transcendent and abstract biotic oneness, the old masculinist dodge of mystics and poets. It is a new sense of wholeness based on revaluing the whole person in the natural world. . . .This whole of wo/man/nature must be revalued" (373). He quotes Marti Kheel to underscore not just the idea of interdependence that informs the concept of wholeness but also the understanding of dynamic beings as existing only in relation to other beings:
When ecofeminists talk of all inclusive wholes, they speak of holistic awareness of the interconnectedness of all particular beings in the lived experience of the individual-in-whole. (Quoted in Anderson, 373)
In a similar vein, educator Steven Glazer, complaining that "in our schools, we learn to approach the world as an assortment of objects, rather than as an interconnected whole" (9), defines wholeness as
the inherent, seamless, interdependent quality of the world. Wholeness, indeed, is the fact of the matter: the things of this world (including us) are already connected, are already in relationship, are already in union. (10; original emphasis)
We can draw on the idea of nonduality to address two problematic versions of the enduring Platonic binary that informs Western thought:
Nonduality as I have tried to describe it here encourages us to view ourselves as whole beings whose intellects or minds are not only inseparable from our bodies but in a sense equivalent (that is, not subordinate) to them; furthermore, it encourages us to see ourselves as inextricably and fundamentally interconnected to each other and to the physical world, as of rather than in the world.
As I describe this notion of nonduality, I am at pains to avoid sounding mystical in a simplistic way or, worse, na´ve. It would be easy to dismiss this idea of nonduality as na´ve idealism lacking in intellectual or philosophical rigor in the traditional academic sense. But that kind of criticism reflects the strength of our conventional (academic) ways of knowing-and underscores the rigidity of our analytical categories for knowledge. Moreover, subtle but fundamental shifts in how we view ourselves can manifest themselves in concrete ways with profound implications. One obvious example in American society is the admittedly slow and difficult but profound change in how the role of women is understood. The social, economic, political, and cultural implications of this change are far-reaching and as concrete as the fact that women now serve as U.S. senators and congresspersons.
To put it another way, how we understand ourselves as beings-in-the-world matters, because we act on that understanding. As environmental ethicist Nicholas Sosa reminds us, "Human behavior is responsive to and guided by human perception" (49). Sosa goes on to argue that "a profound change in perception is a necessary condition for solving the problems of climate change, population growth, wholesale deforestation, municipal and industrial pollution, the erosion of biological diversity, grinding poverty, unjust social institutions, and international equality" (49).
The idea of nonduality I have briefly presented here serves this very purpose. How this idea might become the foundation of a pedagogy is addressed in Section V, Teaching With Technology for a Sustainable Future.