Religion & Philosophy

Is there consciousness above and beyond dualism?

tarot - the hermit

Another rambling conversation on religion and mysticism from the staff…


Can somebody help uncloud my thinking? And apologies in advance – words are really failing me. This is the most incoherent thing I’ve written in years, I’m certain.

Anyway. Lately I’ve been wrestling with a kind of … I don’t even know how to describe it. A theological dualism conundrum? Psychic/spiritual dissociation?

In essence, I’m having a hard time making sense of how the various parts of “Me” fit together. It’s like all of a sudden, I get the sense there’s a part of Me I didn’t know about.

Start with basic religious conceptions of duality. We have a spirit and a body: the spirit inhabits the body, but is separate from it. In some views, the spirit (or “soul”) is eternal.

It’s almost as though there’s a third component of Me, though. I was thinking about the dualist relationship in a world where we learn more about the magnitude of the universe (multiverse?) each day. To simplify, there are seemingly infinities of infinities of possible universes, and as many as 11 dimensions (I believe – correct me if I’m wrong). Which suggests (to me, anyway) there’s no way we’re the only life in existence. However, we also know – or think we do – that life isn’t exactly common.

This got me reflecting on self-awareness. Once I understand that I exist (Cartesian assumptions here), I found myself having trouble reconciling me with Me. I could understand how the world might give rise to consciousness, but all of a sudden it felt like there was a larger question about how Me came to be associated with me.

Put it another way. There’s an entity named Sam, who exists in this place and time with lots of other entities more or less like him. Sam is conscious and self-aware – so far so good.

But the thing in my head all of a sudden can’t understand how I came to inhabit Sam. That is, it’s as though there’s an … uber-consciousness? That I’m not a duality, but a triality?

Following so far? No? I feel your pain. I’ve been thinking about this on my own for a few weeks and you can see how incoherent I still am. So I thought I’d try sharing it with the S&R crowd. Maybe there’s a post in here somewhere. Or a dissertation. Or a truly baffling revelation, the sort of which cults are made of.

Or maybe a few nice weeks in a quiet institution, with two group sessions a day and maybe some little green pills.

Maybe what I’m trying to grasp is the actual nature of duality. Thing is, body and spirit haven’t arisen together organically. I’m talking in terms of a pre-existing consciousness descending into an evolving consciousness. That is, body and spirit aren’t two elements of the same whole. What I feel I’m perceiving is decidedly external.

Am I saying anything that rings any bells, suggests anyone I should read, etc. Or am I coming apart? Frankly, the way life has been lately, this seems entirely plausible…


Coming apart is generally the precondition to enlightenment. The Buddhists work hard to break the mind for that very reason, and in other traditions where it’s not so clearly stated, the role of monastic solitude, etc is designed to do that as well.

Frankly, I’m a monast. It came from an early fascination with theoretical physics and then both philosophy and studying Buddhism.

I’m a firm adherent of Najarguna’s proof of no independent origination. Sam (or Lex) is a trick of the individual mind played on itself. We are not discreet from anyone or anything else. Alan Watts had a great way of putting it; we are god playing hide and seek with itself. Of course this requires a rather expansive and eastern idea of “god” rather than a cloud-based rule giver.

I came to monism because first there’s duality, then triality, then another and another division. Like in physics where we keep finding smaller bits of the universe but never the once and for all final building block. Zeno’s paradox of motion fails the common sense test, but it seems to speak to something deeper in its infinitesimal divisions.

And I part ways with Descartes and the Enlightenment around that point where they start thinking that we are because we think. Rather, we think because we are. It’s part of “peopling,” just like trees “tree” and horses “horse.” It’s weird to think that we’re really not different than a blade of grass, but I think it’s weirder to twist the mental knots to proclaim that we are different and wholly separate.

Frank Balsinger:

Chiming in from the ill-self-defined chaos mystic quarter here, but it’s damned strange you’d bring this up the very day after I cracked open Crowley’s Book of Thoth and Duquette’s accompanying, much friendlier, treatise on Tarot.

Am I a “believer” in Tarot? Hell no. Do I think reflecting on its symbolism has utility in exactly this kind of moment? Hell yes.

0=2. Ask Crowley, who, were he still alive, might just laugh derisively and tell you to confirm it yourself. His A.’.A.’. might have claimed to have the method of science, the aim of religion. I only claim that my method is madness. Then again, it seems to be working pretty well for me, all things considered.

Even stranger, I don’t think any of what I just said conflicts even a little with Lex’s take. It’s just a different skin on the same app.


I’m a Tarot believer, but not in the way you might expect. I’m a by-god Symbolist. I think in terms of symbols, icons, totems, archetypes, etc. I suspect the ways in which I ascribe meaning drives some near me crazy, but it’s who I’ve always been.

For me, Tarot is a collection of archetypes. Its use is that we flip a card and we find ourselves contemplating the self with respect to the archetype. The Tower comes up, I know it denotes ruin, and I consider what the symbol of ruin means in my life. At present. In the future. The card is a mirror and a question, and perhaps there is revelation to be had in the interaction.

It doesn’t tell me about myself, but it asks me to contemplate myself along a series of “universals.”

Michael Smith:

So, what you’re saying is that this isn’t a good time to mention that I’ve been struggling with the Big Bang Theory (the theory, not the show). It’s either just another soft creation myth that doesn’t adequately explain how we got here or it showcases the way our minds are incapable of dealing with infinity or non-linear causality … or my mind, anyway.

If you’re asking for a scientific view, from what I’ve read, consciousness and the sense of self are currently believed to be emergent properties that bubble up out of a head full of neurons that all scream in reaction to stimuli in a vaguely ordered way … kind of like the British House of Commons. The part that emerges as “you” is the result of the part of your brain that listens to the volume of these screams to determine what you think is correct. This is also the part of your brain that goes to sleep when you sleep, leaving the rest of the screaming neurons to fill you with dreams involving friends you don’t actually know and houses you haven’t lived in for 30 years.


Yeah, and as an atheist I’m well aware of how this chat is open to charges of hooey.

I’m really asserting nothing. I’ve been an “atheo-pagan” for a long time, but – with respect to the Symbolist comments above – I’ve also been called a “Jungian pagan.” Have fun with that one.

All I’m doing is considering this war in my head and noting that something new is happening. And I’m doing so within a context of profound ignorance. For everything we know there is an infinity we don’t know.


I see no conflict either. There is not one path. There may only be a single truth (I’m not sure), but not a one true path to it. This is the fork in the road of spirit and religion.

The wisdom of Zen is rife with Hindu underpinnings, East Asian animistic traditions, and Buddhist philosophy. Christianity has clear roots running back to the Bronze Age and from Persia to Egypt to Britain. Even the paths aren’t singular within themselves.

I’m a monist for what I consider to be good, well-considered reasons. At the same time, I can’t prove I’m right beyond any shadows or doubts. I feel that I can prove a few religious things I don’t believe wrong, but even then I know I’m only proving an expression of the underlying thing wrong. Because I can make a rock solid argument that the Bible isn’t received truth doesn’t mean that some of the people in it didn’t see the truth and attempt to express it.

I am a little concerned about the spiritual health of modern humans though. Sam’s original post points towards it as well as anything. He’s thoughtful enough to express it verbally; a lot of fracturing he describes is also acted on subconsciously by a lot of us. What I can’t do is describe the exact problem.

It stems from the Enlightenment conceit of rationality. With that becomes an ingrained belief that we must be capable of figuring shit out: it’s literally who we are since about 1800. But we can’t. We never will “figure it all out” because we’re attempting to overlay our belief in rationality over reality. I’m not sure it fits. It works in taking the world apart but seems to miss the mark in putting it together such that it’s whole.

I think of the great leap in Physics during the first half of the 20th century. Small minds could make bombs of it. Great minds were blown such that they turned towards very deep religious philosophy to make sense of it for themselves.

There needs to be wonder, the ineffable, the unknown and the unknowable. We also need to communicate with that and incorporate it into our being. Some of it is around us, some is within. If you follow me on Instagram in the summer, there are a lot of near-macro flower and plant pictures. Not because I’m looking for shots but because I look at my gardens that way. And I look to see the befuddling wonderment of Life, wherein I can’t make philosophical divisions between this and that, it and me. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it … even to myself. But it’s there. That’s enough.

And I don’t particularly care if I’m wrong. That’s not the point.


Eureka, the man said. Writing this post and seeing the responses have helped me clarify the big piece I couldn’t put into words.

In the dualist world I was raised in – and this may describe all Christianity, although I’m not certain – the soul and body were distinct, but intricately linked. They belonged together. They arose together and were part of the same creation process. And when the body died, the soul moved on into the afterlife.

The soul didn’t pre-exist the body. There isn’t some waiting room where unattached souls hang out until a baby is born. Or conceived, depending on your view. Conception and life call the soul into existence in this tradition.

What has happened to me is that somehow I’m all of a sudden sensing that “I” pre-existed all that. That I exist above and outside any of it, and that my consciousness attached, post-hoc, to the entity known as Sam.

A close friend grew up Christian Scientist and we’ve had some talks about this. From what I gather, the sense I’m having is actually pretty close to what they believe. Sorta. I’m not sure they think the material world really exists at all. So maybe I need to do some reading.

Frank Balsinger:

You might appreciate this both from a dualist perspective and from the perspective you’re working from/toward: Guf.


This still assume the one-to-one relationship between body and soul. What’s bugging me is the feeling of a consciousness beyond even this. I think.