The contemplative concept of dual and nondual thinking is largely misunderstood.
Dual thinking is the insistence that something can only be seen as being either/or. Nondual thinking is both/and, where we hold space for ideas that may appear to be contradictory due to our finite understandings. Dual thinking requires that we declare absolutes about the world we see, while nondual thinking allows us access to being present with the mysteries of the universe. Dual thinking lends itself to the pride of thinking we know things to be absolutely true on our path of progress, while nondual thinking lends itself to graciousness, as it helps us remain in humility in our relationship to everything.
For example, dual thinking leads to things like, “Either homosexuality is a sin, or it is God’s way, and since it can’t be God’s way, it must be a sin.” Nondual thinking might lead to, “Homosexuality is one way in which sexuality is expressed and is both one possible part of the path of one’s development and progress on their journey to their own godliness and not required to be considered a necessary Godly attribute because sexuality itself is not necessarily part of the eternal nature and being of God.” Nonduality allows for the mysteries of God to both remain a mystery and also inform the grace we have for others. It is not reductionist, which leads to overly simplified half-truths.
The temptation can be to allow nonduality to produce a type of fuzzy thinking that if taken too far just results in more dual thinking. In our homosexual example, we’d need to be careful to not imbue homosexuality with our biases until we end up with just the reverse of our original dual statement. Grace is not the same as sanction. So we cannot allow our nondual grace for the mysteries of God to result in, “Homesexuality is sanctioned by God and therefore perfectly just and right.” Could that be true? Maybe. But it would lead to, “Either homosexuality is a sin, or it’s not, and since it’s not a sin, it must be totally fine and I don’t need to sit with these questions anymore.” Do you see the trap there? It remains dual thinking.
You may be tempted to say that duality is merely factual and the only possible way of thinking in fields like science. Either the sky is blue or it’s not. Upon closer examination, “the sky is blue” is an incredible oversimplification of what is real about the sky, and we might be better off saying something like, “I perceive the sky to be blue.” This is far more nondual and leaves space for the experience of others with different perceptions, and also allows for the complexity of known and unknown principles which contribute to your perception of the sky being blue. Nonduality both accepts the real and allows for the mystery, and thereby allows for further inquiry, and is thus inherently scientific.
Of course, this seems all very abstract, and, for the most part, it is, on purpose. Contemplative Christianity requires more heart space than brain bandwidth. It demands a honing of one’s spiritual sense of subtleties, and developing a level of comfort with the mysteries of God. On our path to knowing, we must always remember that it is only in the unknowing that we are open to progress. There can be no knowing without unknowing. So we must hold both knowing and unknowing gently in our hands, willing to be molded by the Maker. The practices of meditation and mindfulness can be very helpful in developing this heart-centered way of seeing the world.
I was recently watching a documentary on the varying theological debates that are happening in America right now. One of them includes the reintroduction of contemplation into Christianity. Many Christian evangelicals were criticizing nondual Christians because they both teach nonduality and also make clear theological statements, like “God is nonviolent”. They were saying, “Nondual Christians want to say God is nonviolent, but if they were truly being nondual, they would say that God is both nonviolent and wrathful.” This is a misunderstanding of nonduality. Nonduality and cognitive dissonance are not the same thing.
So, if nonduality is holding ideas together for the sake of remaining open to the mysteries of God, how is that any different than cognitive dissonance, which is believing contradictory ideas at the same time? The difference is in the fruit that is produced, the actions that come from those two different ways of thinking.
With nonduality, the holding of ideas leads to an acknowledgement of one’s own unknowing, of one’s humble position before God, and therefore gives access to love and grace, both for one’s self and for others. You cannot act out of hate, anger, or frustration when practicing nondual thinking. You merely sit in the mystery, continue to learn and grow through experience, and allow others the same privilege. Nonduality does not mean not acknowledging various ideas. It means uniting ideas into one consistent thought and action. Love.
With cognitive dissonance, any action must come from one of the two held beliefs at the expense of the other, because they are inherently contradictory and come from a place of knowing. You cannot choose to act according to one belief without also acting contradictory to the other. Therefore, in order to remain consistent and not be hypocritical, you must not act at all. And the cessation of action means the cessation of the experiences that lead to progression. This is the very definition of damnation. Cognitive dissonance in damning.
Let’s take the example of God’s nonviolent nature. Nondual thinking could say, “God’s nature is both ineffable to the mind of man and also exhibited to be nonviolent through my own personal experiences and through Christ’s teachings and crucifixion.” I can hold both of those ideas and move forward with one unified action of love and grace, the love which emanates from believing God is nonviolent and the grace which emanates from recognizing that my brothers and sisters are walking their own paths of discovery in relation to God’s nonviolent nature.
Cognitive dissonance would say, “God is both wrathful and vengeful and also loving and merciful.” Logically, if I’m going to progress towards Godhood, I would need to choose one of those statements as being true in my moment of action. If I act wrathfully or vengefully I am not loving and merciful. If I act with love and mercy I am not being wrathful and vengeful. Any reconciling of those ideas would require equivocating on the meaning of the words, which only leads to a confounding of the language. Cognitive dissonance thereby leads to dual thinking, because either you act from one belief or you act from the other. To remain consistent in action and not be hypocritical you would need to act from one belief and reject the other, or not act at all, which is damning.
The answer lies within the fruits. By their fruits ye shall know them (Matthew 7:20). The fruit of nonduality is love and grace. We can’t force our way into it. By it’s very nature it requires quiet contemplation, gentleness, meekness, and long-suffering. I believe it is worth exploration and practice to see what fruit it yields in your own life.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile. (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42)
I cannot make moments of nondual consciousness happen. I can only assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by grace. -James Finley