In the non-dual tradition it is said that there is no dancer, only the dance. There is no singer, only the song. There is no ‘one who loves’, there is only love…
Or as we could also say, then we finally get the joke we realize that there is no one there to get the joke! In Israel Regardie’s words, when the magician attains to the summit, he discovers that the one who started the journey is no longer there. From a grammatical point of view, we could say that there no nouns or adjectives, only verbs. Or we could say, there is no subject and no object, only what Wei Wu Wei calls non-dual subjectivity.
Saying something like ‘there is no dancer, only the dance’ (or ‘there is no doer, only the doer’) sounds profoundly baffling from the point of view of the thinking mind (which is of course the ‘dualistic’ point of view). We have problems with it. To say that we have problems with it is putting it mildly – if there is no doer doing my life, enacting my life, living my life (when the whole point of all my actions / thoughts is to benefit this imagined doer) then this takes the wind out of our sails in a big way! Who am I doing everything for if there isn’t a doer? Why am I striving to achieve this goal and that goal if there’s no one to enjoy them when they are achieved? Why am I always busy making plans if there’s no one there to enjoy the fruits of these plans? And so on…
So in one way this is very perplexing. It’s so perplexing that we simply can’t take it on board. As we have said, the point behind (almost) all of our thinking, (almost) all of our doing, is to benefit the thinker, to benefit the doer. This seems so obvious that we really just can’t question it. To question this would be to question everything! Being aware of the unreality of the thinker, the unreality of the doer (even if we were willing to agree that this is a possibility worthy of discussion, which we generally aren’t) would straightaway make everything we think and do entirely meaningless.
The basic non-dualistic premise of the nonexistence of the doer is not necessarily such an alien concept as all that however. If we come right out and say that ‘there is no doer who does the doing’ then this seems too radical to take on board, too radical to consider, but it is possible to reframe this basic premise in terms of engagement and present it in a way that makes perfectly good sense – intuitive sense if not rational sense. There are two ways about engagement, as we all know very well: we can either engage or not engage. We’re free to go either way – it’s not that that one way is better than the other, it’s not that we ought to engage rather than not-engage, it’s simply that there are these two possibilities. The two (apparent) possibilities that we are faced with in life are ‘to engage or not engage’!
We all know what it means to engage with life. If we engage in something then that means that we enter into it fully – we don’t hold back. Whatever it is, we give ourselves to it without reservation. We give it everything we’ve got. We go right into it – we go right into it so much that we don’t even notice that we have gone right into it. This is the whole thing about engagement – if we are engaged then we aren’t looking at ourselves from the outside seeing that we are engaged. If I am dancing I don’t look at myself dancing or think about myself dancing. I don’t monitor myself to see how well I am dancing – if this is the case then there is no dance! Or if I am playing music in an engaged way then I do not reflect on myself playing the instrument; I don’t know how or why I am playing the music – I just play it. There is a profound type of ‘letting go’ that takes place…
In terms of creativity generally (in whatever form that takes) we can say that if I am entering wholly into the flow of the creative process then I don’t reflect on the fact that I am being creative; I don’t objectively observe the fact that I am being creative (or work out how I am being creative), but rather I lose myself in it. ‘Engagement’ means that I completely lose myself in the flow of creativity, it means that I’m no longer there!
So immediately we can grasp the point that wholehearted engagement in whatever we are doing means that there is no one doing it. There is no separate doer. Engagement means precisely that there is no doer, no author of the action – if there is ‘a doer’, if there is ‘an author of the action,’ then this is non-engagement!
Non-engagement doesn’t mean that I don’t do stuff – it just means that I do stuff in a non-engaged way! I look at my doing ‘from the outside’. I monitor my doing, I evaluate my doing, I regulate my doing, I measure my doing. I think about my doing, in other words. It’s not just that I am reflecting upon my doing – everything I do takes place within a framework that has been established by thought. Everything I do has been organized by thought, commissioned by thought, set in motion by thought. My actions – the entire pattern of my life – is a reflection of my thinking, an enactment of my thinking. My purposeful behavioural output (which is to say, the life I lead on purpose) isn’t just guided by thought, it is thought. It is ‘thought made concrete’; it is ‘thought acted out into the word’ and this isn’t engagement because the whole point about thought is that it is in its very nature fundamentally non-engaged!
When I think about life (instead of simply living it) then this is what we are calling ‘non-engagement’. I think about what I am going to do before I do it and so I never do anything that ISN’T an enactment of my thinking. I have ideas about myself and the world and when I act on the basis of these ideas, these beliefs then this is ‘non-engagement’. The thing about non-engagement is that I am always on the outside of life looking in! I’m peering in through the living room window. I’m watching my life on a TV screen! I’ve dissociated: I’ve turned myself into a mere ‘mental object’. Somehow I have managed to separate myself from reality and turn myself into a mere picture or image on the VDU screen of the conceptual mind!
We might quite reasonably ask what possible advantage there could be in this manoeuvre, seeing as how it doesn’t seem like a particularly pleasant or wholesome thing to do. Why would I want to turn everything into a mental object or image that can be held at arm’s length and rationally examined? Why on earth would I want life to be something that is happening outside of me? Why create this ‘mental distance’, this separation, this irresolvable fragmentation / alienation that comes with objectification?
The answer is of course staring us right in the face. The ‘advantage’ that we gain as a result of taking up this fundamentally alienated or dissociated position with regard to life (and any position we take with regard to life is going to be an alienated one) is that we get to feel that we are the doer. We get to feel that we – in some way – are doing life, that we are the decider (or controller) of what happens. We get to feel that we are the ‘responsible agent’, so to speak; we get to feel that it’s ‘all down to us’ – one way or another. I’m the unabridged author of all my rational decisions – I’m the guy in the driver’s seat. I’m the one steering. I’m the one who has the job of pulling the levers and pressing the buttons as and when required…
When we talk about having ‘made bad decisions’ (so that we are now in an unfortunate position rather than a fortunate one) it is this key idea of authorship, this key idea of agency that we are basing our statements on. The perception that I am sitting there in the driver’s seat, deciding what happens and what doesn’t happen, getting to be in control, is a double-edged sword: on the one hand there is the great feeling of pleasure / satisfaction / gratification that I get when I get things to go the way I wanted them to, and on the other hand there is the flip-side of this euphoria which happens when I don’t succeed in controlling successfully. There are the punishing dysphoric feelings of dissatisfaction, displeasure, dismay and dejection that come when I don’t get things to go my way.
Between feeling satisfied, gratified, validated, vindicated, and so on when we ‘win’ to feeling dissatisfied, de-validated, blamed, downcast, dejected and despairing when we ‘lose’ lies the whole of human life! Or rather it is – as we should qualify – the whole of ‘human life as it is lived from the point of view of the dissociated or disengaged abstract self’. Everything is strung out between these two poles – everything is either measured in terms of how well or of how badly we’re doing. It’s all pluses and minuses and all of these pluses and minuses refer to the framework of thinking that is assumed by the static or abstract self. All of these pluses and minus are the static framework in fact – the static framework expresses itself in terms of pluses and minuses. No matter where we go, just so long as we are identified with this defined self we can never ‘leave the framework’.
The life of the abstracted everyday self cannot ever ‘depart from the map’ of these particular mental states, pleasantly euphoric on the one side and unpleasantly dysphoric on the other. These euphoric / dysphoric mental states are the abstract self! Just like a coin, the abstract mind-created self has two faces: the pleased face of euphoria and the displeased face of dysphoria. From the very constrained viewpoint of the everyday self (if it were somehow to be confronted with the fact) this would not necessarily seem to be a bad thing because we always assume that we can ‘win instead of lose’. We always imagine that we can – if we are careful enough or clever enough (or lucky enough) steer our boat into the safe waters of the positive, enjoyable mind-states and keep well away from the choppy, shark-filled seas of the dysphoric ones. We think that we can collect ‘a bag full of pluses rather than minuses’ in other words. We think that we can (if we make sure to get it right instead of wrong) get a whole load of ticks on our ledger instead of crosses.
This assumption or belief is however what we might call ‘the defining delusion of the conditioned self’. We have to have this particular delusion or else we couldn’t go on with the game! But in reality – as we have already suggested – the life of the disconnected or abstract self is made up of equal portions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, gratification and annoyance, validation and de-validation, elation and despair. That’s the territory. The very fact that I am able under the right conditions to feel pleased means that I am equally able (under what I will see as the ‘wrong’ conditions) to feel displeased. To take the extreme example – it is not possible to have the state of exultant triumph without at the same time setting oneself up for the complementary state of despairing defeat. The everyday self is equally both of these states – and all the various shades and gradations that lie in-between – for all that it can’t see it…
So we can set up this situation (or ‘way of being’) in which it is possible to enjoy the rewarding mental states, yet in setting this up we have at the same time unwittingly created the situation in which we are fair game for all the complementary punishing mental states. In order to obtain the rewards of the euphoric mind state all that is needed is a highly restricted, highly constrained, highly curtailed way of looking at the world in which some outcomes are seen as ‘favourable’ and others ‘unfavourable’. This highly restricted, highly constrained, highly curtailed (or ‘highly biased’) viewpoint is the one that belongs to the everyday self, which is only a function or artefact of the abstract framework that is assumed by the system of thought. As a result of narrowing ourselves down this much (i.e. as a result of the manoeuvre whereby we disengage ourselves from the ongoing flow of life) we enter into a world of interminable suffering, therefore.
It is the promise of being the recipient of all these deliciously rewarding feelings (the sweet, sweet nectar of euphoria) that sucks us into the game and as a result of our very restricted viewpoint (the very same narrow viewpoint that allows us to enjoy the euphoria) we cannot see that the rewards which we covet so much always come with an equal and opposite punishment in tow. Every plus comes with a minus. Even the good times are bad, when it comes right down to it. Even the satisfying / pleasing states of mind are suffering really because they are only pleasing or satisfying from the limited (i.e. conditioned) point of view which is not who we are at all. Or to put this another way, the feelings of security, satisfaction, validation, vindication, etc. that we prize so much (the conditioned states of mind which are for us the ultimate commodity) only mean so much, only mean what they do mean to a self which doesn’t actually exist. All conditioned states of mind are suffering really because they are all states of alienation from who we really are! As Wei Wu We says in Ask The Awakened –
Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.
From the point of view taken for granted by thought (which is as we have been saying a static, ‘abstracted’ kind of a thing) statements like are bound to sound very negative. When the mind-created idea or image of ourselves takes itself – as it has to – to be the centre of everything, the underlying reason for everything we think and do then the uncompromising assertion that this self (this ‘me’) doesn’t actually exist comes as the worst news we could ever receive. To say that this particular bit of news is ‘disappointing’ or ‘depressing’ for the everyday self is to rather understate the matter!
But who we are isn’t the mind-created vantage point known as ‘the self’. We aren’t that disengaged static onlooker. We aren’t the measurer or evaluator or adjudicator of all that happens around us. Who we are is the flow of creativity which is inseparable from the universe itself. We aren’t the isolated dancer, we are the dance.