The Dual Nature of Reality

By Richard Smoley

Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "The Dual Nature of Reality." Quest  95.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2007):

Richard Smoley

Thought, taken far enough in any direction, leads to an ultimate question: what is reality? What do we experience as real and why do we do so?

This issue has preoccupied philosophers for thousands of years. In the end, they seem to have come up with two radically different answers and these answers in and of themselves have shaped not only schools of thought, but entire civilizations.

The first perspective underlies most of western thought. From this point of view, there is little doubt about what is real. It is what we can see and feel and touch—in short, things. And in fact, if we leave the definition to etymology, the matter is settled. After all, the word reality is derived from the Latin res, which means "thing." If we accept this perspective, it is things that are real. This is generally how we use the term in ordinary language: the real is what is material. Only a fool buys invisible real estate.

The greatest champion of this perspective was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that what underlies reality is substance. It would be hard to overestimate Aristotle's influence not only on western philosophy, but even on ordinary notions of reality. By this view, whatever does not have substance that we can see or feel has only a dubious claim to reality. The room I see before me now exists; the room I saw last night in a dream does not.

All this seems so obvious that it may look uninteresting. Of course, we may be tempted to say with impatience that the world of sensory appearances is real. How could it not be? The most famous argument in favor of this view was stated by the British philosopher G.E. Moore, who claimed he could prove the existence of external reality: "How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, 'Here is one hand,' and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, 'and here is another'" (Edwards 3:166).

In one sense, Moore was right. If I were to offer you an airtight logical argument that proved that the hand in front of you does not exist, would you believe me? Probably not. The evidence of your own senses would trump any form of reasoning, no matter how impeccable. As Moore wrote, "Which is more certain — that I know that I am holding a pencil in my hand or that the principles of the skeptic are true?' (Edwards 3:378).

And yet there is something troubling about this view, and it has bothered philosophers for about as long as there has been such a thing as philosophy. In the first place, our senses frequently deceive us. To use a metaphor common in Indian philosophy, I see a snake in front of me. But on closer inspection, I see that it is actually a rope. What kind of reality, then, did the snake have?

Such simple errors may be easy to correct, but who is to say that our cognitive misreading of the world does not go much deeper than that? Even the most rigorous materialist must admit that our senses perceive only a narrow bandwidth of reality. We have devised scientific instruments—telescopes, microscopes, and so on—to expand our horizons, but in all likelihood, this only expands the scope of our view to a tiny degree.

There is yet another problem with the common-sense view of reality. In the West, it was first stated by the Greek philosopher Parmenides in the fifth century BC. How can the world of substance—that is, of appearances—have any reality when it is constantly changing from one thing into another? As Parmenides wrote, "How could what is thereafter perish? And how could it come into being? For if it came into being, it is not, nor if it is, going to be in the future" (Kirk 273).

Parmenides' views were highly influential on later philosophers, including Plato. Building on Parmenides' argument, Plato contended that what was real (because it was unchanging and eternal) was the world of Ideas or Forms, archetypal patterns that exist in a higher, intellectual reality.

Despite Plato's tremendous stature, western philosophy as a whole has not adopted his stance. The West has generally been far more comfortable with the views of Plato's pupil Aristotle, which correspond much more closely to common sense. The philosophy of India, on the other hand, has tended to be more comfortable with views like Plato's. While most Indian schools of philosophy do not speak of anything that corresponds to the Forms, they do generally accept Plato's criterion: that only what is unchanging is real. (In all likelihood, this view was formulated in India before Plato's time.)

Hence we are left with two radically different criteria of reality: what we can see and feel and touch on the one hand, and what is eternal and unchanging on the other. It often seems that when philosophers dispute about this question, they are judging from different premises without realizing it.

Is there some way of reconciling the two? I believe there is, and it appears in the esoteric teachings of many traditions. To begin to understand it, let us return to the notion that what is ultimately real is the world of sensation. We have already seen one problem with this point of view: it is hard to distinguish what is actually going on. Our minds and our senses deceive us. The snake may be a rope; the mouse I see in a room at twilight may be nothing more than a crumpled piece of tissue that missed the wastebasket. And then there are dreams, illusions, hallucinations—what about these?

Nonetheless, even if I am experiencing an illusion, I am still experiencing something. In this sense we may speak of one dimension of reality as that which is experienced. Whether or not it looks that way to others, this view cuts through all the difficulties about the veracity of what I experience. To give this dimension of experience a traditional name, we can call it the world. (Of course this is not the world in the conventional sense of the planet Earth; it is the sum total of what we experience.)

If we grant that there is a reality that is experienced, we can see that it has certain characteristics. For one thing, it is eternally changing. Things mutate into other things; there is decay, death, destruction on the one hand, birth, creation, generation on the other. Even thoughts and dreams have life spans, following some mysterious cycles of their own. All of these make up the world. Viewed in this way, the world seems to be eternal, even if the individual things that appear to make it up are not. It goes on endlessly, and to all appearances it will continue to do so.

But this leaves another issue open. If we grant that there is something that is experienced, what is doing the experiencing? This is harder to pinpoint. It leads us to the question of subjective experience, another issue that has vexed philosophers for thousands of years, just as it is now perplexing psychologists and cognitive scientists. There has been endless debate about the "mind-body problem," for example, whether our subjective experience is nothing more than the firings of some neurons—or if it is not, what else might it be?

Again, however, no matter what the ultimate cause of this experience may be, it remains true that there is something that is experiencing. It is that in us which says "I." But this is not the ordinary ego, with its thoughts and desires and judgments. Why? Because we can step back and look at all these things within ourselves. When we look at internal events, what is doing the looking? It would seem that the ego is merely a kind of anteroom to a larger, higher "I" that sits at the background of all our experience, watching it through our minds and bodies as through a telescope.

Moreover, this "I," whatever it is, also seems to be eternal—at least in the context of our individual lives. Whatever I experience, good, bad, or indifferent, it always remains true that there is an "I" that is doing the experiencing.

Contemporary philosophy, at least in the English-speaking world, has grown skeptical about this "I." After all, one cannot cut up a body and find this "I" somewhere inside. Nor can one detect it in the endlessly complex series of neural processes that so fascinate contemporary investigators. But in a sense, one does not need to find it, because it is always there. It can never be seen, because it is always that which sees.

All this seems to come down to a fundamental polarity: between that which experiences, the "I," and that which is experienced, the "world." But then what about others? Am I the only sentient being in the world? If not, how do I know this? If we do not deal with this point, we are left with solipsism, the idea that we can ultimately know nothing apart from ourselves.

Here is where esoteric philosophy comes in. It tells us that ultimately this "I" is the same in all of us. While this may seem to make our view of the world not only bend but snap, it is the only conclusion that remains. And in any case, we pay lip service to it all the time. How many times have we said or heard, "We are all one"? What would this mean otherwise, what could this mean, unless it is simply an empty cliché?

This assertion that this "I" is ultimately one in all of us takes us fairly far from ordinary experience, but it is a truth that has been stated by sages and masters over and over. If it cannot be verified from the street-level point of view, it can be verified by certain spiritual practices— notably meditation in all its forms.

As I have already mentioned, these ideas appear in many different types of esoteric philosophy. In esoteric Christianity and Judaism, the "I" is sometimes called "I am." It is why, in the Kabalistic tradition, "I am that I am" is the holiest of God's names, and it is also why the Gospel of John can have Jesus say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Viewed from this inner dimension, it is not the personage known as the historical Jesus, but rather "I am," that is "the way, the truth, and the life," the "door," the "true vine."

What the western esoteric traditions often speak about in veiled or allusive terms, the traditions of India discuss openly. The Mandukya Upanishad says, "The Self is the lord of all; inhabitant of the hearts of all. He is the source of all; creator and dissolver of beings. There is nothing He does not know." (Yeats and Swami 60) And one master of Advaita Vedanta writes, "From the absolute viewpoint, the Self alone is true; it is felt within as the 'I' or pure consciousness and pervades the external world as creative God." (Chakravarti 166) The most common name for this Self in the Indian tradition is atman.

The Samkhya, perhaps the oldest of all Indian philosophical systems, points to similar insights. What in this article I have called the "I" the Samkhya calls purusha; what I have called the "world" the Samkhya calls prakriti. Suffering arises when purusha identifies with prakriti, or, as we might say, when the "I" confounds itself with the world. The spiritual path, which is a long process of detachment, is a means of gradually separating the "I" from the world, that is, separating consciousness from the contents of its own experience. At this point, supreme illumination takes place. The old world falls away, and a new one arises. Such is enlightenment.

The perspective set forth above may sound dualistic: that is, it may seem to isolate everything into two radically distinct forces that ultimately have nothing to do with each other. And it is true that the Samkhya, for example, is usually characterized as a dualistic philosophy. Many people today speak of dualism contemptuously, yet without quite knowing why it deserves such treatment, much as people used to have a superstitious aversion to two-dollar bills. But dualism is not so easily discarded. It does seem to be true that this separation of the "I" from the world is only one stage in a lengthy process and that in the end the essential unity underlying all things will recognized. But dualism, if not the final stage, is a necessary one, much as the old alchemists had to perform separatio or separation on the matter they worked with before they could raise it to a higher unity. In short, there may well be a stage at which one realizes that "the nature of phenomena is nondual," as we read in a text of the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism (Norbu 81). But we may need to pass through the phase of duality before we reach it.

Is this process of detachment and reintegration ever complete? Will we ever be able to separate ourselves from a confused perception of reality so that we may return to the world in a new and more integrated form? The evidence of innumerable masters and mystical texts suggests that it is possible. I must immediately add, however, that I have never met anyone who seemed to attain this level of full realization, which is sometimes called enlightenment. As a result, I cannot answer another question that seems to arise: is this realization of the Self, the recognition of one's absolute identity with the true Knower, itself a final goal? Or is it merely another portal to dimensions of reality that are as far above it as enlightenment is above ordinary consciousness? Personally, I incline toward the latter view. And this would mean that both consciousness and the universe are multivalent, open-ended, and open to endless exploration. There is nowhere to stop, because there is always further to go.

Richard Smoley is an editor for Quest Books and the author, most recently, of Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code. His other works include Inner Christianity and The Essential Nostradamus. A revised edition of his Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (coauthored with Jay Kinney), has been reissued by Quest Books in 2006.

Chakravarti, Kshitish Chandra. Vision of Reality. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969.
Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillian, 1967.
Kirk, G.S., and J.E. Raven. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
Larson, Gerald J. Classical Samkhya. Second edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.
Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai. Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. Translated by John Shane. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1996.
Yeats, W. B. and Shree Purohit Swami, translated by. The Ten Principal Upanishads. New York: Macmillan, 1937.

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