Nondualism: A Holistic Way of Seeing Reality

October 2018

There is a huge challenge in distinguishing the separatist thinking of dualism from the nondualist viewpoint of interconnectedness and oneness. As with many challenges, there are less-than-obvious traps as one attempts to make distinctions. The biggest trap for me has been resorting to dualistic approaches in describing the elegant reality of nondualism.

As a Westerner, I developed habits of thought that have their roots in either/or, right/wrong; very prone to oppositional thinking. Very dualistic.

Nondualism is the place from which mystics and contemplatives come as they view the world in all its manifestations – physical and spiritual. Both/and. Where opposites and paradox are accepted. 

A word that could help make the distinction might be “holistic.”

Mirriam-Webster defines holistic as “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts; holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body; holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system.”

“Holistic ecology” allows us to see all living things as a single system rather than separate parts. All living things is pretty broad, right? Like everything! This includes all ideologies, left and right, conservative and liberal, Christian and Muslim and Jewish, so-called good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. Everything as one single system!

Holistic reminds me of holons, a term that grew out of the Greek word “holos” meaning complete in parts. It was introduced by Hungarian system thinker Arthur Koestler who meant it to mean something that has integrity in itself yet is part of a larger system. In other words it is a “subsystem” of a larger system, hence the cell, the human, the earth and the galaxy (pictured below), with each one being a subsystem of the next largest one.

(L-R: microscopic cells, human beings, Earth from space, galaxy)

(L-R: microscopic cells, human beings, Earth from space, galaxy)                                           

And beyond galaxy, how about universe? If we think of cells as an element of the human being (trillions of cells), then humans as an element of the species and thus the planet (zillions of cells), then the planet as an element of the galaxy and then, finally, the known universe (unfathomable number of cells). From this perspective we find it easier to hold it all as one, nondual oneness, sharing awareness and mutual dependency.

In medicine, the holistic approach allows a person to be treated as a “whole” person, or as a fairly complex system where everything is seen as linked and relational. You could say holistic medicine takes in all 20-30 trillion cells in the human body and treats them as one giant multicellular organism.

This doesn’t invalidate the podiatrist’s work as a specialist on feet or the cardiologist who focuses on the heart. There is still a place for specialists who focus on the “parts” which need special attention. There is still a place for dualism. 

For me, this helps to see the value of each world – the dualistic and the nondualistic. They complement rather than compete. Both have value. Both are valid in their own rights. To quote Franciscan priest and modern mystic Richard Rohr*, “Binary thinking [dualistic thinking] is not bad or wrong in itself – in fact, it is necessary in many if not most situations. But it is completely inadequate for the major questions and dilemmas of life.”

 *The Naked Now, by Richard Rohr, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2017, p32 

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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