Unitive Thinking

Unitive Thinking

Tom McArthur
Aquarian, Wellingborough, Northants, 1988.

We think in grooves. We think in little grooves we call habit and conditioning and inclination. We think in bigger grooves we call education and folkways and mores. We think in even bigger grooves we call environment and heredity and human nature. Whatever we call it, much of our thinking is preprogrammed by earlier thoughts that we have had, or that others have had before us.

Such thinking is not really ours. We are its. The metaphor of the groove suggests that we are following a path, perhaps a furrow plowed before by ourselves or by many others. However, as the groove of past experience becomes deeper and wider-as it changes from a furrow to a ditch, then a trench, a channel, a ravine, and finally a great canyon-something remarkable happens.

We get so deep into the groove we and others have worn in the surface of the land that we can no longer see anything but the groove. The vast surface of the land, with all its glorious variety, stretching to the uttermost horizon, is beyond our ken. We see only the sides of the groove we have worn into the earth. And then, instead of its belonging to us, we belong to the groove. The comfortable, familiar path has become a prison, shutting us in.

Much of our grooved thinking is in dualities. I and the other. Mine and not mine. Happy and sad. Helpful and hurtful. Male and female. Patriot and traitor. And so on through an infinite number of such oppositions by which we structure our everyday thinking-by which we wear our grooves ever deeper into the earth.

Dualistic thinking is helpful sometimes. Indeed, it seems nigh inescapable. True, every pair of oppositions implies a third term that synthesizes the opposing thesis/antithesis and so resolves them. Thus "I" and "the other" are synthesized by "we"; "male" and "female" by "human"; and so on. But as soon as we have synthesized one pair of opposites, the synthesis calls forth its own opposition: "we" versus "they" and "human" versus "nonhuman". And so duality reasserts itself. This continuous pattern of the reconciliation of opposites only to be followed by the re-establishment of a new dualistic opposition is called, in the philosophy of Hegel, the dialectic process.

Grooved thinking is dualistic thinking. It is useful sometimes, but if we abandon ourselves to it we fail to see the landscape all around us. The sides of our groove become our only view. The great problem, however, is to get out of our groove without tumbling into another, and perhaps deeper, one. The problem is to reconcile the dualistic struggle of thesis and antithesis without generating a synthesis that will only provoke its own antithesis, and thus continue the process.

We think in grooves. But we need not. Sages and saints throughout the ages have pointed the way to another kind of thinking -a grooveless, nondualistic thought process. That kind of thinking is the subject of Tom McArthur's book, Unitive Thinking. It is an old subject, but in this book it is approached in a new and fresh way.

Tom McArthur is an authority on communication and a lexicographer. He edits a magazine called English Today published by Cambridge University Press; he has written dictionaries and books about dictionaries; he is currently engaged in editing a new work, The Oxford Companion to the English Language; but he has also done books on yoga and the Bhagavad Gita. His integrated knowledge of linguistics, communication theory, and Eastern lore allows him to bring a new view to the old subject of nondualistic or, as he calls it, unitive thinking.

McArthur begins with the ancient symbol of the yin and the yang as typifying all oppositions, all dualities. We may, he says, view them as exclusive choices: either yin or yang. Or we may rise above exclusivity and say we can, indeed must, have both yin and yang. But then we have a new duality: either-or versus both-and. How do we rise above, not just a particular pair of oppositions, but all duality? How do we come to unitive thinking about the world? McArthur answers:

You get this effect by rising above or distancing yourself from the first two options. Call it "transcending" them if you wish, or think of it as more elbow room, and a refusal to be limited by one vision of how things are. At this level of understanding one has, as it were, two visions. One can (at the very least) choose to go the way of division and either/or, or go the way of cohesion with both/and.

That is the secret -allowing oneself more elbow room. Accepting alternative views, as valid, recognizing that one can go in diverse ways, and doing what is most effective in any circumstance, without preconception about what is "best" in an absolute sense.

What McArthur calls "more elbow room" others have called by other names. The modern sage Krishnamurti called it "choiceless awareness", and in a statement known as "The Golden Stairs" it is called "an open mind". It is refusing to be bound by the limitations of any one theory or view of life. It is realizing the truth of the culminating statement in The Messiah's Handbook from Richard Bach's Illusions: "Everything in this book may be wrong". It is waking up from the sleep of ordinary perception, as the Buddha became awake to the infinite possibility of reality. It is leaving the groove to look at the landscape around.

Unitive thinking involves respecting the differences we encounter in the world. Unitive thinking involves realizing the unity within ourselves and of ourselves with all others and ultimately with the All. The sense of separateness that divides us from others and that infernally fragments us is the illusory result of the limits we place on our thinking. In a sense, of course, we are separated; were it not so, the world would not be. But in another sense we are unified. Unitive thinking accepts both the separateness and the unity.

McArthur refers to Unitive Thinking as a "how-to" book. And so, in a sense, it is. But it is no ordinary, no run-of-the-mill "how-to" book. Its central idea is that unitive thinking is possible for everyone who knows how to develop it. Its purpose is to show how to go about doing just that.

Intellectually, the book ranges over Taoism, Kipling, Shiva-Shakti, yantras, maya, science fiction, time, Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, Plato, St, Thomas Aquinas, brain structure, metaphor, Darwin, Piaget, Maslow, Zen, Toynbee, cosmology, Pythagoras, Colin Wilson, Robert Pirsig, and a lot more besides. It distinguishes vertical from lateral thinking, and illustrates what the latter is by its own presentation. Its sweep embraces the wisdom of the ancients and the insights of the moderns -and it aims at making all that relevant to the here-and-now life of the reader.

Each of the ten chapters of the book ends with a few pages of "follow-up", which are puzzles, exercises, and applications of the concepts of the chapters. In one way, these follow-ups are the heart of the book. For they challenge the reader to come to grips with the ideas -not just as intellectual constructs, but as motivating impulses. Those who do these exercises will have their view of reality stretched and enhance their ability to climb out of the groove and see the landscape.

Tom McArthur writes perceptively, and also clearly and entertainingly. The book is a lively presentation of vital ideas. This is no dry-as-dust academic tome. It has no jargon. It is simple, direct, and lively. But it deals with matters that are as important and weighty as any the human mind can wrestle with. The last chapter of the book concludes with a quotation from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that ends as follows:

If you're going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool.

A wise teacher in the last century wrote to a would-be student that to succeed, he was asked only to TRY. That's what Unitive Thinking is about -gumption and trying.

-John Algeo