When I wrote about why sabi was important, I touched on it’s role in fostering non-dual thinking. Non-dual thinking is a bit of a buzz word in certain Integral and “Progressive Christian” circles. Two of my favorite writers, Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault, have been speaking about it for many years, and I’ve heard some interviews in which advocates for non-duality claim to see a perspective even beyond non-duality. But for now, I think it is fair to say that most of us need to first experience the shift to non-dual thinking. But why?
Non-dual thinking grows almost unconsciously over many years of conflict, confusion, healing, broadening, loving, and forgiving reality. – The Center for Action and Contemplation.
Most thinking involves a process we call categorization. The word category comes from the Greek word, kategoria which literally means accusation. In it’s verb form kategorein means “to speak against; to accuse, assert, predicate.” Going even deeper we discover that the root kata means “down to” or “against.”
Aristotle used the word to refer to his 10 classes of things that can be named. Naming is a form of distinguishing one thing from and against another. We think in accusations. We get down to the distinctions. We slice and separate and dissect in order to stack things up. We group common things, create species, identify primary colours, tease out essential elements, puzzle out true and false, and begin to see the categories, more than the whole.
The Problem with Dualistic Thinking
Dualistic thinking causes us particular trouble when it comes to the social divisions we make as part of a group. We fall into prejudice, sexism, racism, ageism, and all the other isms. It is simply a reality of human nature that a large part of our thinking is a form of separation and conflict that we use to reinforce in-group loyalty.
Eckhart Tolle is perhaps the most well known teacher on this subject.
Our entire life is lived this way, constantly naming every thing and every one. We even name events and experiences. We take a trip to the ocean and we chop up our experience into little pieces that are conveniently named so that we can tell others about it later. “We swam in the ocean.” “We sunbathed.” “We watched the sunset.” – Eckhart Tolle Naming and Labeling Our Experience
Tolle’s caution is that this behavior blocks us from having a direct experience of the thing named or categorized.
Ditching the Distinctions
Non-dual thinking is a type of thinking that does not rely on categorization.
Richard Rohr says that shifting to non-dual thinking involves experiencing the world with a new freedom, letting the walls fall away.
“This is why teachers like Jesus make so much of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace, because these are the things that, if truly experienced, totally break dualism down. Because once you experience being loved when you are unworthy, being forgiven when you did something wrong, that moves you into non-dual thinking. You move from what I call meritocracy, quid pro quo thinking, to the huge ocean of grace, where you stop counting, you stop calculating.” – Richard Rohr Father Richard Rohr on Racism, Non-Dual Thinking, and Jesus Christ
Rohr says that for him the task of the spiritual life is to fall deeper and deeper into what he calls the “ocean of grace” where we stop keeping score, holding grudges, and insisting that our way of seeing things is the right or only way.
Sabi Helps Non Dual Thinking to Emerge
Spiral Dynamics and other theories based on the work of Clare Graves present a compelling argument for forms of thinking beyond irrational, dogmatic, rationale, entrepreneurial, and even collaborative thinking.
While it may seem obvious that each stage of development is marked by a certain way of thinking, the range or spectrum of the ways one can think is something that unfolds and expands the further you go in your development.
While we are sitting in one stage (with it’s useful perspective), it is difficult to grasp that there may be another way of thinking that might be more useful. For example people who have seen the value of disciplined analytical and critical thinking find it difficult to imagine any higher or better kind of thinking. For these folks, skepticism, materialism, and atheism are the best we have.
People at lower levels of development find analytical thinking dangerous, and prefer knowledge that has stood the test of time and carries with it the authority and comforting certainty of emotional confirmation. It feels right. They embrace the safety found in adherence to laws, rules, and order. That feels right too. They trust the established codes that provide stability.
People at a level of development lower than that have not fully embraced the rule of law, because they prefer the sense of identity and belonging that comes from powerful leaders who function efficiently and quickly without the limitations of law and order. People at this stage embrace the mythic power of primal qualities of character that are clear and unequivocal. They hope to gain over others by following the strongest leader. Part of what they hope to gain is glory, vengeance, and power.
Each of these stages, and their associated way of thinking, have limitations, and each also has it’s place in the functioning of a culture. We need strong leaders AND good rules AND Science AND the other ways of thinking. Non-dual is one of those other ways.
As I have suggested, sabi is a mood or receptivity and acceptance that allows us to progress beyond polarities such as beautiful and ugly, good and bad, and right and wrong. For someone in the red, blue, or orange meme of the spiral of development, such a sentence chills the blood. I have literally heard people sputter when I say such a thing. They are incredulous. “Do you mean to say that you don’t think anything is wrong? You are totally OK with murder and pedophilia?” This response is understandable and highlights just how hard it is to even conceive that there is any way to think about such things except within the paradigm of right and wrong.
Someone with a green, yellow, or turquoise meme, however, is able to agree that murder and pedophilia should be stopped and prevented, while at the same time resisting blaming or judging the people who engage in these acts. They see that for people to act in this way they are ill, wounded, or subjected to some extreme pressure that they lack the ability or resources to resist. The person operating from one of these memes looks to solutions that include the healing of the perpetrator, as much as preventing the act.
For someone at a lower meme, there is only one solution. Lock them up and throw away the key, or kill them.
Non-dual teachers have always emphasized grace, forgiveness, empathy, kindness, tolerance, wisdom, and patience. Most of the axial age traditions include mechanisms for transformation to this way of thinking. They involve self-emptying, dying to self, ego release, and other ways to un-clench the grasping quality of an ego in love with it’s own identity.
But too often these teachings are overshadowed by hostile threat-based memes that rise out of the fundamental conflict at the core of life. Reality is made up of living beings who move about in order to obtain as much energy and freedom as possible. Evolution describes the way in which all beings are faced with these survival pressures.
Again, from lower memes, this reality of nature “red in tooth and claw” is used to justify competition, aggression, and the glorification of strength and power. People at higher memes are able to question this. Green, yellow, and turquoise ways of thinking harness sabi to soften defensiveness. From these points of view the world IS full of competition, fighting, and survival but it is also full of cooperation, collaboration, flexible meme selection, healing, creative thinking, enlightenment, and a host of other realities more useful and effective when in the right context.
Sabi is not non-dual, nor is it felt only by people at higher memes, but it is a powerful mood that emerges when conditions are right and while it’s power is subtle, it’s action, over time, can produce lasting insights. Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammad, to name a few non-dual thinkers, all retreated to the wilderness where they experienced, I do not doubt, sabi and it’s transforming effects.
See Sabi is the Bedrock of Zen for more on how sabi can be involved in enlightenment.