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As my readers can probably tell, I’ve lately been pondering on how our spiritual experiences bear on our earthly lives in practical terms. Sri Ramana Maharshi has become a helpful model for me in this regard because he was very clear in teaching people that we should trust in the basically spiritual nature of things (God) and that we should therefore avoid interference into the affairs of others as far as possible, but that where our earthly responsibilities (karma) link up with the lives of others we must take those seriously as our part in the play (dharma). When asked pointed questions about how to enact nondual experience in the world, he responded equally directly that we should not “enact” nondualism at all; it is ever the reality of the situation in any case, and we do more good by behaving dualistically from a place of nondual realization.

I recently posted this news story on Facebook along with the following commentary:

This, like many of our present and ongoing tragedies, is a series of human choices. Somebody had to make these choices; someone else had to approve it; many others had to enact it. How many believed what they did was “for the greater good”? How many questioned it but said nothing, did not resist their illegitimate orders, went ahead with what they knew to be a grave act of violence?

Here is spiritual disease at work: dukkha generates dukkha; kleshas fuel karma which forms conditioned patterns which support kleshas; sins generate sins, rolling like waves into more and more lives. We cure the disease in ourselves individually, but only by realizing that selfhood is not at all what we thought it was — that there’s no such thing as an individual. And when we really understand that, we cannot fail to treat others better because, after all, there are no others. We frame these things as “partisan politics” at our own great peril; there aren’t two equally valid teams on whether or not we treat one another humanely.

For me, this sequence of thoughts arose directly out of this mind of mine which has been spending an increasing amount of time in nondual meditation. I don’t claim unique divine inspiration nor any sort of exalted spiritual state. For me, there is only an increasing adjustment to the experience of life from this Center; some days I seem to be “there” more than others, and I can usually tell the difference in a pretty clear way. But that is, admittedly, purely subjective. How do I know to what degree I’m projecting my own socio-political beliefs through the lens of nondual philosophy rather than allowing my ideas of how to live arise organically out of nondual experience? In other words, is there a “right” way to think, a “correct” set of beliefs, apart from my own thinking and believing?

It is notable to me that every major spiritual tradition in the world places emphasis on certain fundamental social goods: we should, as far as possible, do no harm to one another. This is articulated differently and extended further by some compared to others, but the fundament does not differ. Some spiritual traditions have more concrete notions on what constitutes a good, just, or godly society, but most don’t go into a lot of detail about it at all or provide such contradictory advice that it quickly becomes clear that all such models are either addendums or simply situational. We cannot depend on these any more than we can claim absolute value for modern systems like capitalism, socialism, democracy, and the like. We do best to cherry pick any tradition of social or political theorizing to fit our circumstances while continuing to innovate based on current need and the core value of harmlessness. But, again, they all seem to agree on the reality of a “common good” (something which the most common and influential of modern secular schools do not, in favor of theoretical “social contracts” and projected “self interest”) and on some sort of ground-level unity or at least non-difference emphasizing the interdependence of individuals.

Though I would argue that most of these spiritual traditions actually begin with the nondual experience of their founders (or of generations of influential individuals within a culture where there is no unique founder), many of them do not immediately preach nonduality. Simply put, this is because many people aren’t comfortable with the implications of nonduality, so a broad interdependence, community spirit, or affection are promoted as core values encouraging mutual trust, spiritual optimism, and charity. Though the founders, reformers, and highest representatives of these traditions always express these in the most sweeping, trans-sectarian, trans-communal of language, increasing institutionalization after their deaths more often than not shrink the scope of the message to simply “this tribe” or “the faithful”. The happiest and most peaceful — and, so, most successful — societies, too, seem to be the ones with common good at their heart rather than abstract systems, social contracts, or Leviathans.

None of this is intended to be utopian; for so long as the bulk of individuals in a community think, speak, and act from klesha (which I use coterminously with dukkha and sin for those more comfortable with Buddhist or Christian language), there will be problems. But many of those problems can be mitigated by acknowledging klesha overtly and the clear and observable existence of a common good; this way, we short circuit repression and oppression, perhaps not ruling them out entirely but depriving them of their full fuel. Though, for instance, we should certainly not be pining for a return to the feudalism of Europe, Japan, or India, we can at least acknowledge once we set aside modern market-driven prejudices that there were certain mutual responsibility loops within those societies which made even kings immediately dependent upon the explicit cooperation of other social layers which literally cannot exist in the modern nation-state.*

Each of us is individually responsible for our own dukkha — our own frustration, lack, and existential angst arising from our deep ignorance of the nature of our Self. No person or — and here’s the crux — institution can do away with it for us. Even in theistic modalities like Natha Yoga, contemplative Christianity, or Jewish mysticism, a certain impetus and effort must come from our end or we can’t be helped. For some yogis and mystics, this translates to a need for removal from the broader society (either occasional or permanent). But for others, it necessitates an overhauled or regenerated engagement with society and with the individuals whose web of relationships make it up.

When the teachings say we need to reduce our fascination with the things of this life, it does not mean that we should abandon them completely. It means avoiding the natural tendency to go from elation to depression in reaction to life’s ups and downs, jumping for joy when you have some success, or wanting to jump out the window if you do not get what you want. Being less concerned about the affairs of this life means assuming its ups and downs with a broad and stable mind.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “The Heart of Compassion”

Even this “new approach” can not and will not be identical for everyone. This may sound strange when speaking nondualistically, but nondualism doesn’t imply a unity of appearances, only of the Being which shows forth as the appearances. But there are some common threads which can be teased out, and they’ve already largely been summarized above.

How does all of this relate to projection? Well, the fact is that we are projecting constantly. One wouldn’t be out of line in saying that projection is the closest thing to “creation” allowed by the nondual experience. Ramana Maharshi put it that the absolute truth is that nothing ever arose and nothing ever subsides; there is no creation or destruction of the universe, only the mistaken recognition of the universe as separate from oneself and/or from God (that is to say, from Awareness which is identical both to the individual and to God) and this misapprehension makes it seem as if creation, change, and destruction have happened and will happen again.

Of course, some projections are more thorough than others. The world itself is a massive, shared projection, while certain religious, moral, and political views (for example) are private projections which nevertheless impact the shape the world takes. These latter are the projections we’re asking about when we wonder whether our beliefs are “true” or merely preferences.

Certainly it can be helpful to ask those questions of ourselves, even of our most cherished values. It keeps us grounded and both signifies and encourages genuine humility. But we mustn’t get caught up in them. Our beliefs about the world are themselves “worldly” — which is to say, we’re letting ourselves get dragged a few layers deep into mental projection before we even get started. We must instead fight for the surface to catch our breaths.

When I spoke above about allowing our viewpoints and behavior to be shaped by the nondual experience (as opposed merely to nondual philosophy), what I meant was just this: we have to learn to view our own beliefs from a higher angle in which we see them not only as our own projections upon the world but in which we also see the whole world-system itself as a projection. While we may not be able to maintain this perspective all the time (not at first, anyway), having had the experience even once and keeping it in mind will already begin dissolving the knots of tension between ourselves and the world. Our beliefs will invariably change as a result.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve seen my own political and social views soften considerably. My fundamental values have broadened rather than changed, and I have seen this happen with others as well. Those who began as ardent nationalists come to define their “neighbors” as a larger group than just their compatriots; those who were humanists will catch glimpses of sentience in places they did not expect; and the deeply religious will spot God in all forms rather than only church-approved icons. And so on. Your karma will still determine a certain bias — for as long as you are in a human body, some karma and conditioning will ride in your brain even if you were able to bump it from business class to coach — but that bias will be more easily recognized for what it is. Our philosophical projections will not therefore go away all at once, but they will lose their grasp over us finger by finger. In practical terms, this means that we will not knee-jerk so frequently or with as much force and will be able to respond more and react less. We have to make decisions about what we do and do not value, and how how our actions will accord with those decisions, but the more lightly we hold these thoughts the more able we are to adjust to new information or experiences.

Though what we believe can certainly cause trouble, even this is a symptom of how we believe. When we evaluate events in the world according to our own expectations, we are only viewing them through the lens of our own limited self-identity. When we allow our gaze to widen, we may not fully escape the danger of projection but we certainly mitigate it by attacking the root rather than the branch.

*For a full discussion of this topic, see David R. Loy’s A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (2002, SUNY)