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One of the defining qualities of the modern worldview is that of duality. Duality is the separation of one reality into two—materialism vs spiritualism.
The 17th century philosopher and mathematician Rene’ Descartes created what has come to be known as the Cartesian Split, which essentially established the division between the mind and the body, matter and spirit. Descartes viewed both domains as divine, yet they were completely separate and different. One domain—body or matter—was like that of a machine and could be studied by science. The other realm—mind or spirit—was the seat of your thinking, reason, and intellect and was to be known through religion.
While this compartmentalized approach allowed for the study of each aspect of reality without crossing into the other’s territory, it also created an uneasy truce between matter and spirit that exists to this day. The irony is, however, that once you look closer, you see the boundary between mind and body, matter and spirit, begin to dissolve into unity; revealing the truth that the division between the two is totally artificial and has only ever existed in one place—your mind.
More about how these two levels of reality become one later. For now, let’s examine the unique attributes and perceived differences between matter and spirit.
Materialism—The “Stuff” of the World
The material world is the physical “thingness” that you call home and are most intimately familiar with. Your environment, your body, and your energy all make up the solid and tangible reality that you experience every day. It is the realm of everything you can perceive through your senses; what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. At the material level, events are directed by a set of fixed scientific laws (motion, gravity, thermodynamics, etc.) that precisely predict the behavior of nature. Time flows linearly from past to present to future. Materialism is a localized reality, or in other words, everything has a defined location in time and space. At this level, everything is inherently impermanent; all that you can perceive through your five senses at one time wasn’t here, it will exist for a time, and it will eventually come to an end. The materialist world is what your mind may have come to interpret as the “normal” and commonsense way the world works. It feels solid and permanent, but appearances can be deceiving.
Materialism isn’t just the stuff of the world or its properties, though. Materialism also embodies the mindset or worldview in which you mistakenly identify with the environment or objects in the environment as points of reference. This is known as object referral, and through it you define yourself in relation to those external things. This is the ego’s territory—firmly rooted in positions, possessions, roles, titles, approval of others, self-image concerns, exclusivity, and a sense of superiority. Because the ego senses the impermanence of the material world, it is naturally insecure and fearful. It has built its mansion on transient sand that is ultimately destined to wash away.
Despite this fact, materialism continues to be the dominant way you may view the world. This not through any fault of your own; after all, your senses can seem very convincing. And when you’re culturally and socially indoctrinated into the belief that the world works in a very reasonable “nuts and bolts” way, it’s difficult to believe that there might be another option.
Spiritualism—The “Non-Stuff” of the World
At the other end of the spectrum, you have spiritual reality or the underlying mind or consciousness of the universe. If the material reality is the “thingness” of the world, true spirituality is the “non-thingness” of the world. As such, it makes it more difficult to get both your mind and hands around these concepts. However, while the spiritual reality doesn’t have solid, tangible properties that register with your senses, it is the source that gives rise to all the things you can perceive at the material level. It is the pure potential of all that was, all that is, and all that will be. It is the void; simultaneously empty and pregnant with possibilities. It has no physical properties and is governed by no scientific laws, yet it gives rise to all those things and infinitely more. The spiritual reality is not in space nor is it bound by time, therefore it is non-local; nowhere and no time in particular, and everywhere and all times in general. Unlike the impermanence of the material level, the spiritual domain is infinite and eternal; it has always been and always shall be. It is indestructible, invincible, and unbounded. As Krishna reminds us in chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita:
Weapons, fire, water, and air are incapable of cleaving, burning, wetting, and drying the self; for, the nature of the self is to pervade all elements; It is present everywhere; for, It is subtler than all the elements; It is not capable of being pervaded by them; and cleaving, burning, wetting and drying are actions which can take place only by pervading a substance. Therefore, the self is eternal. It is stable, immovable and primeval. The meaning is that It is unchanging, unshakable and ancient.
When you identify with the spiritual level of reality, you are self-referral, or knowing yourself not through the narrow filter of the ego’s perceptions, but through the ultimate total inclusivity of universal awareness. In this expansive state, all divisions, constrictions, and limitations dissolve into the love of pure awareness. You are able to live in a more reverent or sacred manner, feel a deeper connection with life and all things, and cultivate a deep inner understanding over externally focused worship. Because you are established in the ultimate and permanent reality, you lose your fear, enjoy everyday life more, and stop worrying about how long it will last. This doesn’t mean the material world doesn’t exist—it simply isn’t your true home.
Healing the Split—Matter and Spirit Reunited
You might be wondering, how could I ever merge these two vastly different realms back together? Surprisingly, the idea is not as difficult as it appears. All that’s required is a shift in your perception. You have been fooling yourself all along. Once you realize the ruse, you can step out of the illusion and see the underlying unity. Or as author Alan Watts in his book, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, puts it:
The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world that had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects.
Make a spurious division of one process into two, forgot that you have done it, then puzzle for centuries as to how to get the two together.
Thus the transition zone between mind and body, matter and spirit, lies within your own awareness. It is the mistake of the intellect that has confused the map for the territory and split matter and spirit into two. Peeling back the layers of this artificial division is at the heart of the Vedic teachings of yoga and meditation. These tools and their allied disciplines exist as bridges back to the unity you have forgotten. Through their practice, you don’t gain a mere intellectual understanding of the underlying unity at the heart of reality, but you experience it directly. And having had the experience, the illusion of duality falls away and you can see matter and spirit as they have always been, one and the same.