Part of a series:
- Presence (Part 1): What are Reactive Patterns?
- Presence (Part 2): Dissolving Reactive Patterns With Attention
- Presence (Part 3): Uprooting Reactive Patterns Through Insight
- Presence (Part 4): What is Presence?
I learned about insight practices through my work with Tibetan Buddhism.
The Problem with Dualistic Perception
Developmental psychology has shown that as we grow, what we perceive ourselves to be (that is, what we identify with) grows, too. At different stages of life, we may identify with different things: our body, our intimate relationships, the groups we belong to, the systems of thought we subscribe to, even the process of evolution itself. This is how the self evolves. As it does, what stays the same is that it always identifies with some kind of thing. Dualistic perception is a fancy name for perceiving ourselves to be things. It’s called dualistic because things are by nature distinct from other things; so perceiving ourselves dualistically automatically divides experience in two: there’s me, and there’s everything else.
Perceiving ourselves to be things automatically brings up some strong instinctive fears and cravings. The fears arise because we know from experience that things can go away, and instinctively, we’re afraid of not existing. The cravings arise because when we see ourselves as things, instinctively, we want to become better, stronger, more beautiful, more powerful things. As we grow, what we identify with shifts—and the related fears and cravings shift as well. We may be afraid of dying and want to live forever; we may be afraid of losing emotional connection with others and want to maintain it; we may be afraid of being nobody and want to be respected; and so forth.
What we identify with gives rise to a special set of needs; these needs tend to have an especially big impact on our feelings. When we perceive a threat (or opportunity) related to what we identify with, it’s not just an ordinary situation—it’s a crisis. For instance, if I identify with my relationships, then any threat to those relationships automatically becomes a crisis. When we react to this type of crisis in a way that resolves it, we remember this, and we tend to use a similar behavior to handle similar crises in the future. You can see how these behaviors can quickly become habitual; this is how reactive patterns are born. Notice how dualistic perception (our perception of ourselves as things) is the root of the whole process.
Insight and Nondual Perception
Fortunately, there is an alternative to dualistic perception. That alternative is not obvious, but it is accessible—through a family of practices known as insight practices. What insight practices reveal is perceptual, not conceptual. This kind of insight is not about understanding something or believing something. It’s not the understanding or belief that all things are related and interdependent, or that all things are one. (Of course, all things are related and interdependent—but insight reveals something else.) As far as insight goes, it doesn’t matter what you understand or believe—if you are perceiving yourself as a separate thing, then you are perceiving dualistically. (A quick test for dualistic perception is to ask yourself where your awareness seems to be located now. If it seems to be somewhere in your body—perhaps in your head behind your eyes—then you are perceiving dualistically.)
Insight practices reveal what I call nondual perception: a way of perceiving life where you stop perceiving yourself as a thing—you don’t see yourself as a physical thing, an energetic thing, or any other type of thing. In fact, you perceive yourself as nothing whatsoever. When you perceive yourself as nothing (no thing), you understand that in a certain sense, there is no way you can be harmed or helped. Then the fears and cravings connected with seeing yourself as a thing start to subside. Even though you perceive yourself as nothing, experience keeps arising, you still seem to have a physical body, and you still suspect that your body will still die at some point. (Trying to understand all this intellectually will likely get you nowhere—it’s better to just start doing insight practices, when you’re ready.)
Getting a brief glimpse of nondual perception is not that hard. But perceiving life dualistically is a deeply ingrained habit, and it takes a lot of practice to learn to rest in nondual perception. What’s left to do when you’re resting there? Relax and live your life. This isn’t the relaxation of not caring; it’s the relaxation of compassion. You care deeply about the whole, and you’re able to act on that caring with great effectiveness—because your attention is less wrapped up in the recurring crises that inevitably arise when you see yourself as a separate thing.
I hope this post has given you a taste of what insight practice is about. But actual instructions for insight practice are beyond the scope of this post.