Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost
Dualities are pernicious and recurrent patterns of suffering. Caught on the horns of any dilemma, we’re firmly entrenched in the belief that our problem will be resolved if we just make the right choice.
When one has invested a significant amount of life force in an interminable oscillation for or against a course of action, it feels almost absurd when practice suggests “dropping the conversation” as a way to exit the suffering. That answer seems insufficient when one is attempting to make big life decisions such as staying or not staying in a relationship, quitting or not quitting a job, buying or not buying a house, moving or not moving to a new city. How does dropping the conversation assist me to make a decision? “Dropping the conversation” in conditioned mind doesn’t necessarily solve the issue on the level of the content.
It isn’t meant to.
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty,
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Being and nonbeing produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy.
Long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Before and after go along with each other.
So the sage lives openly with apparent duality
and paradoxical unity.
— Tao Te Ching
Practice “solutions” offer an existential context, the recognition of which re-contextualizes and dissolves the “content problem.” For instance, if spiritually one realizes that one’s well-being is not based on circumstances, then a coin toss can assist one to decide between San Francisco and New York as the next place of residence. If there are no mistakes and my life is a workshop in transcending ego, does it really matter whether I take job X or job Y? But for those caught in the deep unhappiness of a duality, not making changes at a content level feels non-survivable. And, it is non-survivable for the ego.
The duality maintains the identity of unhappiness. When the duality collapses, so does the identity. The very structure of the duality is constructed to keep the problem unresolved and the identity intact. But from inside the duality it seems as if the resolution of the circumstance resolves the unhappiness. If we pay attention, we see that resolution does provide temporary relief, but the relief is from the cessation of the “for and against” conversation in conditioned mind, not the change in circumstance. It isn’t New York that is responsible for the spring in my step, it is that my life force is not tied up in determining whether New York or San Francisco is a better place to be. However, we are never allowed to see it that way. We buy into the narrative that the change in circumstance is the reason for the current state of well-being; consequently, the original conditioned premise that externals dictate one’s internal state of peace is reinforced.
Where there is no “I” there is no karma.
— Ramana Maharshi
For those who have been around practice for a while, the already fraught world of opposites comes with an additional layer of suffering. As spiritual practitioners, we are determined to encounter and transcend karma. So, in addition to having to decide whether the right choice for our happiness is, for example, staying or not staying in a relationship, we have to make the choice that doesn’t perpetuate the karma.
Many people misunderstand facing and transcending karma to mean gutting through the circumstances. No spiritual practice would suggest a course of action that perpetuates unhappiness. In fact, Awareness Practice would never tell us what to do since the realm of awareness is not in the sphere of doing but in the sphere of being.
The karma that we face and transcend in any situation is how “I” am in the situation;
it is not facing and overcoming the situation I’m in.
If I have a karma to be accommodating, my karmic behavior in any situation will be accommodating. I can change my family, my partner, my boss, my job but that doesn’t mean I change my karmic pattern. As a practitioner of awareness interested in ending suffering, changing the externals doesn’t change the karma. That doesn’t mean I have to stay in a relationship or in a job. As a practitioner of awareness, if I do change the externals, I do so with complete awareness that the movement may not transform “me.” I might still be “me” in whatever situation I’m in next and may exhibit the very same karmic behavior in the situation, and likely suffer in the same way.
Transcending karma also isn’t moving to the opposite side of the duality. My karma to be accommodating doesn’t end in a particular situation if I am not accommodating. If the change in behavior comes from within the conditioned system, “I” still exist even if my behavior is different. However, if I follow the guidance to “drop the conversation,” which only offers two bad choices—be accommodating and suffer or don’t be accommodating and feel bad—a world of possibilities might be revealed. If I practice being in the situation with the Mentor, perhaps something shifts internally and I dis-identify from the context of suffering into the context of awareness. Meeting the Unconditional, perhaps through R/L, will release me from the trap of conditioning and a sense of “nothing wrong” guides a content decision that is completely life affirming.
What happens when attention is redirected from a dualistic conversation can never be known because the moment will reveal whatever is next. The transformation in consciousness can produce a behavior that is identical to the karmic behavior, but because the context of action has changed there is no suffering. I might choose to buy the house if that was the content of the duality, but how I do that, what I’m identified with when I write the check, is not egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.
One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
— Hsin Hsin Ming
Before we leave this subject of decision making, another place of suffering for “good” spiritual practitioners is lack of clarity about “thy will be done.” If Life is simply unfolding, the duality becomes whether “I’m” listening to Life or conditioned mind, whether “I’m” making a choice for Life or ego. Since only conditioned mind would noodle that question, we can safely drop the conversation and attend to thisherenow, where there is no pesky “I” indulging in self-doubt. After all, if Life is what animates me, all choices would be Life choices, yes?