What is it that makes undivided reality appear to be a world of separate, transient objects? What makes each of us believe that we are the body rather than our own Self? The sages answered with a story still told after thousands of years. Imagine, they said, a man dreaming that he is being attacked by a tiger. His pulse will race, his fists will clench, his forehead will be wet with the dew of fear--all just as if the attack were real. He will be able to describe the look of the tiger, the way he smelled, the sound of his roar. For him the tiger is real, and in a sense he is not wrong; the evidence he has is not qualitatively different from the kind of evidence we trust when we are awake. People have even died from the psychological effects of a potent dream. Only when we wake up can we realize that our dream-sensations, though real to our nervous system, are a lower level of reality than the waking state.
--Eknath Easwaran, Introduction, Bhagavad Gita
(I seem to have an unsolicited, uncultivated talent for upsetting folks, and I don't mean to do it now, but I have to write what's on my mind, so please, view it with the Best Interpretation Possible.)
I've been turning over non-duality as a concept in my head and in my hands for weeks now. It seems entirely radical to me. It is the opposite of separation: the interconnected-ness of all things and all people--and not in any tree-hugging, Pacific Northwest, communal farmer way, but in a sloppy, insecure, dust-of-the-earth, touching the gross, quivery nastiness of humanity way.
Everything about the way I was raised reinforces the separateness of people, and of the divine from the mundane. I learned early on that I am a black woman, that being one had powerful repercussions, that it was often confusing at best and threatening at worst. There were many people on the planet who were black, and many people who weren't black, and that fact dictated a lot about how we related to and treated each other. There were passwords and code indicators you had to know, and not being able to say Shibboleth cost you (me) a lot in relationship. Racial identity was flexible, dynamic, but also an indelible lens through which I understood myself and the world around me. So it goes also with things like gender and nationality.
Faith was an even more complicated division. Not only did the tradition I was raised in encourage my separateness from other people of other faiths, but it put forth a kind of separateness between me and the Divine. I, like the rest of us on the planet, was born into sin, it said. I must use an intermediary to connect to God, it said. We are separate beings, and can only hope to be connected through a complicated series of behaviors and beliefs, it said.
So with these identities firmly in grasp, I lived for a while. I hurt a lot of people (and was hurt deeply by lots of people) for employing these lenses as part of my world view. Sometimes I was pushy and militant, sometimes I was accommodating and inclusive. But I was always living, viewing and interacting with life grounded deeply in the skin of my own experience: my feminine body, my brown body, my God-fingerprint-between-my-eyes body--all of it was how I knew the world.
Lately I've been reading some theology? philosophy? that makes me wonder. This flesh suit that I wear through the world, it's just a case, so says this theology. It holds the good ideas and the compassion, the fury and the frustration, and almost all of those are created by the giant lump of nerve cells at the top of it. But beyond the flesh-case and the lump of nerves there is a part of me that is ethereal and divine and beyond all the sensory and cognitive lenses and interpretations of life. What if these sages are onto something? What if that Namaste that we mutter to each other at the end of asana class isn't just cliche, but is a real salute, a certain and legitimate acknowledging of the Divine Spark that is housed within my flesh suit? What if beneath the bones and adipose and smooth muscle, in my transcendent body, I am Love?
What if, the same Love that dwells in me also dwells in my husband?
What if the same Love that dwells in my husband also dwells in that waitress he was checking out last week? (she was kinda hot)
What if the same Love that dwells in me and my husband and the hot waitress also dwells in that woman who still holds anger toward me?
What if the same Love that dwells in me and my husband and the hot waitress and the woman with the anger in her fist is also in the senator who wants control of my reproductive rights? And the #22 bus driver? And the clerk at Falafill? And POTUS? And every angry, hurting, shooter who has yet to pick up an automatic assault rifle? And the corrupt official abusing his wives on the other side of the planet?
What if we, all of us, carry with us the spark, like tiny, magnificent, glowing grains of rice, that is g_d? If it lives in all of us, whether we believe it's there or not, regardless of how we name it or commune (or don't) with it? What if the thing that is the Divine already dwells inside me? I don't have to sign or pledge or practice anything.
This feels incredibly radical to me. What it means is that the lenses we've been using to define ourselves and to understand the world--our race, our orientation or gender, our citizenship status or nationality--are irrelevant. Or greater still, the elements of our experience we thought were lenses aren't lenses; they're veils.
Usually, when someone says something like this, they're a white person (man) who just wants everyone who doesn't identify with and like them to assimilate. Why don't you water down your cultural experience and be more like me? English only please. All roads lead the This Particular Kind of American Experience. I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that. Still, I know that when I start saying that how we identify doesn't matter, or shouldn't people get very twitchy and start taking it personally.
I used to love writing and reading about the particular nature of my racial experience in America. I felt I was telling a story that hadn't been heard, and doing so with reverence and respect and maybe a little bit of challenge for my audience. But it was deeply important.
I think now that I was soaking in the experience of my body to do that. I think that the same eyes I use when I see the man pull the rabbit out of the hat are the eyes I use to notice my blackness. I might be saying that the existence of race is an illusion. (It occurs to me now that maybe this was Mary Patillo's point all along. But man, she was dry and tired about it. I wanted so much more from my classroom experience with her.)
I'm not advocating that we should all seek an ascetic life devoid of the trappings, that we should absent ourselves from our bodily, sensory experience and seek transcendence on a higher plane. (Having said that, those caves do look alluring sometimes. I've surprised myself by the number of times that I've wanted to absent from the goings-on, but it's just an act; I wouldn't last an hour.)
Is it possible that our race, our gender, our sexuality, our nationality, our political affiliation: is it possible that the labels that we wear can be a way to move beyond the need for labeling at all? I'm not asking in a kumbaya sort of way if our differences can bring us together. I'm asking if its possible for our labels to move us toward a place where we see our labels don't matter, and where we see the labels of others, and ultimately how little they matter too?
I don't know. I would imagine there's someone who's reading this who still feels quite threatened by it. I suppose letting go can be threatening. We've been holding onto, defining, knowing ourselves this way for so many months, years, decades. (Lifetimes?) To let go, to know ourselves in the place beyond language-based labeling might sound like No Great Shakes.
But I think it might be the only way.