Or, “Beeth Thou a Feather on the Duck of God”
A primer on non-duality and interbeing
I saw this meme on a Facebook pantheism page recently, and sure, the light-hearted humor isn’t lost on me. But the logic behind it is antithetical to any “pan” system of thought, and this was social media after all, so I felt obligated to challenge it.
“Oh yeah? What about a duck feather? How’s your binary logic working now?? *winky tongue emoji*”
Then of course came the obligatory rebuttal in defense of binary logic.
“A part does not equal the whole, therefore that would be ‘not a duck.’”
Yes, the part is not the whole, understood. But it also isn’t not the thing of which it is a part. As Alan Watts is so often quoted in pantheist circles as saying, “A wave is a function of what the entire ocean is doing,” and so is the feather of a duck. If you point at a duck’s feather, you are also pointing at the duck that grew it as part of its body. Your ability to isolate your attention on the feather does not remove it from its natural context of duckness.
I thought personalizing this context might help.
“Not so cut and dry really. One could make a salient argument either way. Your arm is not your body, but it also isn’t separate from your body in the way your desk lamp is. You’ll notice the difference if you stab both of them with a fork.”
It didn’t help.
“You can’t say an arm is a human, it’s part of a human. A feather isn’t a duck, it’s part of a duck. The argument really only goes one way here.”
What I wanted to do next was paraphrase William Butler Yeats:
“O duck who swims on yonder pond,
Are you the feather, the feet, or the bill?”
But I figured that also wouldn’t get us anywhere. Here though, among readers with a genuine interest in the subject, I want to elaborate on this crucial point at which non-dual logic can bring us to what was undoubtedly the hallmark development of human spirituality in the 20th century and the key to its future progression: the state of interbeing.
SEMANTIC AND NON-DUAL LOGIC
What Yeats was doing with his similar challenge to the mental dissection of a chestnut tree in “Among School Children” (“Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?”) was looking at how semantic logic—the basis of every “is/isn’t” binary pair— conflicts with the nature of what things truly are.
Semantic logic assigns a word to each definable thing and a meaning to each word. A word means what it means in its semantic context, exclusive of all other meanings, therefore the thing called “feather” is not the thing called “duck,” and neither of them are the thing called “desk lamp.”
It is important to note that semantic logic is not wrong in this sense. The ability to use these individual units of meaning as we explore the world is the key to reductionist thought, which is the basis for all scientific inquiry. It is very useful to be able to focus attention on a duck’s feathers and notice that they secrete a substance that keeps their body dry even when fully submerged in water, and not presume that the duck is some kind of supernatural wizard.
The problem, though, is that the natural world is not comprised of units of meaning.
Semantic logic is something like a grid pattern that we overlay on top of our perceptive field, and its patterns form the template by which we understand nature, but they are not the template for nature itself.
To watch as a duck grows from fertilized egg to a mature adult waterfowl, or a tree from a seed to a “great rooted blossomer,” (as opposed to being manufactured from parts like IKEA furniture, a car in a factory, or a sentence from words) should lead us to observe a few truths that defy our semantic logic:
1) Complex units of being emerge from combinations and interactive behaviors of the most primal and simple.
2) Almost paradoxically (but not quite), there is nothing more primal and divinely simple than that which preceded even our field of space-time, the Whole from which all wholes emerged. The source of every atom in the universe is singular, and so even if we think of things that are assembled from pieces like a desk lamp, we are talking about an emergent quality of the Whole.
3) The parts that semantic logic would chop into separate units are really aspects of the whole.
In other words, duck, desk lamp, and tree are all coordinated patterns of behavior of the same fundamental substance as everything else that exists, and not an assembly of separate parts. The leaf, the blossom, and the bole are descriptive terms we give to different functions of the whole tree; light bulb, shade, and plug are descriptive terms we give to different functions of the whole desk lamp, for even though it was manufactured and did not grow as an integral whole like an organism, its parts are all derived from the same source.
It should be clear by now that reductionism by itself cannot adequately describe our world and its overlapping units of being, for there would be nothing to describe aside from blurring arrays of subatomic particles. In reality, any unit of meaning we can name, from individual atoms to the universe itself, lies somewhere in the interior of a set of Russian nesting dolls comprised of both lesser and greater semantic units. To make our semantic templates truly useful, the logic must be able to zoom in and pan out; it must see the wholes just as clearly as their partial aspects. It must be able to recognize that a wave is also the ocean, a leaf is also the tree, a light bulb is also the lamp, and yes, a duck feather is also the duck.
It is relatively easy to see that just as an ocean “waves” and a tree “leaves,” a duck “feathers” and uses its feathers to remain dry in water; it is harder to see that there is also a natural system called a biome that “ducks” and “waters” and countless other things, but it is just as true and just as important to understanding how and why these systems work.
DUCK DUCK GOOSE
Pantheism is supposed to be a body of thought that helps us see the holism inherent in the universe (all of the “pan” ontologies really, but pantheism is the simplest of these so I’ll stick with that), so it’s a little strange to have to teach non-dual logic from scratch on a pantheist page, but I proceeded:
“Well, this is a pantheism page, so let’s look at it in those terms. All is God/Universe, right? We know this because we define the latter as infinite, all-inclusive. So any individual, finite thing you care to name is an aspect of God/Universe. Not exactly God, but neither is it separate from God.
“‘Not God,’ AND ‘not not God,’ you could say.
“So back to the duck. If ‘duck’ were the word we use for the infinite and all-inclusive, pantheism would clearly show that all things are Duck. But as soon as we recognize a ‘goose’ distinct from the duck, that no longer applies. So the duck is a finite creature with a lifespan and spatial dimensions. The desk lamp is ‘not duck,’ plain and simple.
“But the duck’s feather, or bill, or webbed feet etc, because they are aspects of the whole that is duckness, is indeed both ‘not duck’ and ‘not not duck.’ And all of it is God.
“It’s all about releasing the mind from the semantic meaning of words we use to identify things, and seeing them in their natural state of continuity with their environment, which is a more truthful way of seeing what they are.”
The latter part of that statement, the “not not God/duck,” is what gives non-dual logic its mind-blowing capacity, and we need to be better at teaching it.
Binary logic has no room for the “not not” category; “is not not” is functionally the same as “is,” which brings us back to the same rut of “how can something be a duck and not a duck at the same time?”
Because only binary/semantic logic begs that question. The non-dual logic of nature is not saying “feather is duck.” It is saying “feather is not not duck.”
They are not one and the same, but they are also not separate.
Not one, and not two.
That connection should be obvious by now. What is less obvious, but equally important to understand, is that “bill” and “feather” also have a “not one, not two” relationship because they share a co-identity as “duck.” Without the functional aspect of a duck that we call “bill,” the feathers would be hard pressed to do their job to support the whole organism, and vice versa.
Even more obscurely but just as true: duck and feather and desk lamp are also “not one, not two,” because they share layers of co-identity as well. They emerge from the same Whole.
If you see where this is going — that nothing exists in isolation, that there is a Whole in which everything that exists shares a co-identity and a recognizable function that connects it to all other things—then you’re breaking free of the chokehold of semantic logic and getting what non-dual theologies like pantheism and panentheism are trying to show us.
The “not one, not two” relationship has a less clunky name: interbeing. The term was popularized by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and prolific author, Thich Nhat Hanh, who recently left his body but lives through the enduring legacy of a concept the world desperately needs to understand better.
In short, anything we can name has a being — an existential unit with finite parameters that can be defined by semantic logic — and it has an interbeing — the entire matrix of its co-identical “not one, not two” connections across time and space, and ultimately with the timeless, spaceless Whole; the relational self as opposed to the semantic unit of self.
(If that seems a little too wackadoodle to you, ask yourself this: how do you know anything about your own existence except in relationship to your immediate surroundings? How do you know anything about those surroundings except in their relationship to surroundings on a greater scale? So on and so on, all the way to infinity. So really, interbeing is only letting you know what you already know about yourself, while making you acknowledge how you know it — then letting you co-identify with that knowledge.)
The Peasant and the King is an elaborate lesson of interbeing, taught by the King, a symbolic personification of the all-inclusive Whole beyond time. The peasant is an archetype for you and me and any individual who is only aware of their limited, mortal being. The King first offers a detailed takedown of dualistic religion, which introduces the concept of a transcendent soul but keeps that soul isolated in the individual being, primarily as a carrot-and-stick stratagem to modify behavior. But it doesn’t take much imagination or investigation to see that the soul itself is a personification of one’s interbeing. Using a mixed bag of non-dual logic, metaphysical reasoning, moral persuasion, and Trickster deity-style misdirection (which I find an absolutely necessary ingredient of any spiritual truthing), the King leads the peasant into a deeper, more intimate familiarity with interbeing as his most authentic reality.
Among the wisdom traditions that originated on the Indian subcontinent, there is an age-old debate about the existence of individual essences of being: do they really exist, or is their apparent existence an illusion? Generally speaking, Sikhism, Jainism, and the most of the Vedic traditions recognize the individual soul (atma), while Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta do not (anatma).
The brilliance of Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing is that it bypasses this debate entirely. While the individual being either is or appears to be, it already “inter-is” with all other beings or appearances. Interbeing is here now. It isn’t a state we enter when we’re enlightened or when we die and go to heaven (though I would argue that both of those are flawed semantic metaphors for the realization of the non-dual state of interbeing). But the prospect of death, be it spiritual or physical, becomes a lot less fearsome when interbeing shows us that the base of our being persists beyond the event horizon before us, even if it gives no concrete clues about what lies beyond it. There could very well be more to the story, but interbeing doesn’t compel us to pretend we know what it is in order to have ego-transcending spiritual experience while alive.
For the scientific minded, interbeing involves no more woo than the logical realization that “the duck feather is not not the duck,” extrapolated as far out as you will let the logic take you. There is nothing unscientific about a worldview in which consciousness can slide up and down the scale of perspective, and acknowledges that the outermost level of this scale is a timeless mystery in which all of existence dwells — in fact one might argue this is exactly what the scientific method does show us rather than blunt reductionism. Even Carl Sagan, a non-mystic by trade if not possibly a pantheist by persuasion, told us, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Interbeing agrees, and tells us that, no matter how confounding it is to binary logic, you can have your pie and make it from scratch too. All that changes is the perspective of the self.