Duality and non-duality

Duality and nonduality offer different views about the nature of reality and human experience.

In this article, we look at the definition and meaning of duality and non-duality. Moreover, we examine the relationship between them.

Duality and non-duality define two approaches to looking at the reality of the universe. Although some overlap, each proposes a different philosophy for life.

And finally, as a takeaway, we look into some practical aspects that we can take non-duality into our day-to-day life.

What is Duality?

The concept of duality has intrigued philosophers, mystics, and scholars throughout the ages.

The term duality refers to “having two different or opposite parts or elements.”

Opposite pairs make up most of the reality we experience. They are integrated into the physical reality, like light and dark, hot and cold. Or they belong to the non-physical realm, like good and evil, brave and coward, worthy and unworthy.

At the heart of duality is the physical separation of the “I” from the rest of what it is “out there.” This “out there” is the entire reality operating outside of us. And it includes other people, animals, plants, and the whole universe.

Roots of duality:

  • Personal experience is limited: Duality is rooted in an individual’s unique perceptions.
  • Duality is intellectual: Duality involves intellectual categorizations.

Duality is personal

Everyone’s experience is unique and influenced by their perception, experiences, and point of view.

For example, watching the same movie in the same theater people come out with different experiences. Some might not like the story, some might complain about their seat, or the noise, and the rest you can imagine. So the idea of what is good or bad is personal.

Likewise, our experience is limited to our physical location. For example, we might hear on the news that some people face a tragedy halfway around the world. In such a case, no matter how much we empathize we can not experience what they are going through. 

This naturally leads to the experience of the duality of the “I” versus the other.

Duality is intellectual

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Tao Che Ching

Duality is the way we perceive and interpret the world through contrasting concepts.

It comes from our tendency to learn through categorizing and observing differences.

In other words, duality is an intellectual process that simplifies our understanding of the world through categorical thinking.

These categories make thinking faster and our lives easier to navigate. But they also restrict our potential by oversimplifying complex situations.

For instance, we might categorize red apples as good and red mushrooms as bad or perceive a shark as dangerous while seeing a school of sardines as safe.

But consider a different situation involving success and failure in a project.

For example, we often look at outcomes as either successes or failures. Of course, categorizing experiences like this helps us navigate our lives. But at the same time, we lose sight of complexities and nuances. For instance, a failure at point A might be the beginning of success at point B.

To sum up, while categories simplify thinking, they also cause us to lose nuance. Thus, by focusing on opposites and seeing the world through a dualistic lens, we miss out on seeing larger relationships.

Coincide of opposites

Our physical universe is built on the fundamentals of opposites.

The coincidence of opposites suggests that seemingly contradictory elements can exist in harmony. Our physical universe, with its intricate balance of forces and energies, exemplifies this principle, where opposites often complement and coexist to maintain cosmic equilibrium.

For example, a magnet has a North and a South pole. The same magnetic principle applies to the electromagnetic fields around the earth. What would our planet be like if there were more than two opposite electromagnetic poles? It would result in a different place than the one we inhabit.

Everywhere we look, our world is made through opposites. Could we even imagine a reality with no opposites?

Carl Jung writes, “[L]ife is born only of the spark of opposites.”

He further observes that “in nature, energy always moves in one direction, that is, from a higher to a lower level.”

In other words, Jung believed that life cannot exist without the presence of opposites, as most aspects of our lives are filled with pairs of opposites. To elaborate on this, Jung wrote:

The effective and the ineffective,
The fullness and the emptiness,
The living and the dead,
The different and the same,
Light and darkness,
Hot and cold,
Force and matter,
Time and space, Good and evil,
The beautiful and the ugly,
The one and the many.

Carl Jung

To sum up, our physical reality is constructed with pillars of dualities. The space we inhabit, the experience of time, and the creation of new life all stem from dualities.

What is non-duality?

To simply define, Non-duality involves moving past the dualities of good and evil, or the separation between self and other. It requires moving beyond these opposing perspectives to reach the underlying unity.

Thinking in non-duality is at the center of mystical and Eastern traditions.

As a philosophy, non-duality involves seeing reality beyond separate entities. Moreover, it entails accepting the complex and undivided nature of life.

However, non-duality is not about eliminating the opposites. Rather, it is about emphasizing the oneness of everything.

In this perspective, distinctions such as self and other, good and bad, or subject and object are illusory. This could be due to several factors such as limitations in experience, perception, and the brain’s tendency to oversimplify.


Heraclitus believed that everything in reality is constantly changing and evolving. He also believed that opposite things are essential to this process of change, as duality in nature initiates the change process.

As the same thing in us is living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and conversely those having changed around are these. (DK22B88)

Essentially, Heraclitus believed that although there is duality, the opposites unite through the flux in the universe. So, opposites are essentially identical.

In Heraclitus’s perspective, non-duality is a way of expressing the creative process that sets everything in motion. The cycle of birth, reproduction, and death is similar to this perspective.


Plotinus, an ancient Greek philosopher, is known as the founder of the Neoplatonic philosophy.

He identifies the One as the absolute and first principle of all existence. It is the ultimate source of everything. For Plotinus, dualities such as good and evil exist because of their separation from the One.

What causes this separation? In Plotinus’s metaphysics, Intellect causes separation from the One. How? Intellect’s thinking of itself as distinct from the One causes the separation between the two.

In other words, the Intellect causes this separation by inducing self-reflection and self-awareness.

Plotinus’s idea of Intellect is the realm of Platonic Forms, where the perfects exist. Intellect involves thinking and serves as a means of understanding reality.

So, in the material world, separation from the One by Intellect causes the existence of good and evil.

Unity and Duality

Both Heraclitus and Plotinus accept the existence of opposing forces or dualities. They also both acknowledge the idea of some unity beyond the physical realm.

As a result, they view dualities through their connection to a larger unity.

This collaboration between unity and duality emphasizes interconnectedness and aims for balance and wholeness at the same time.

For Heraclitus, opposites create movement and change, which is the force of creation in reality. This is similar to the flow of hot and cold currents in the ocean.

As a way of thinking about reality, a non-dual approach is about:

  • Accepting continual change: Living in a changing world, the only certainty is change. This means being comfortable with not knowing and seeing different possibilities beyond black-and-white dualities. Accepting that there is more to life than what we can see, so a seemingly negative situation might not be all that appears on the surface.

Non-duality as a way of living

Non-duality means moving beyond black-and-white categories. It’s also about seeing the big picture. This approach to thinking about non-duality comes with a few characteristics:

  • Non-duality is about accepting the opposites
  • Non-duality is about embracing chaos and entropy
  • Non-duality is about embracing change
  • Non-duality is about focusing on direct experience

Non-duality is about accepting the opposites

Living in a world of opposites also means that one side appears more favorable than the other. For example, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. Or we seek success and avoid failure.

Thinking in terms of non-dualities is about embracing the paradoxical nature of existence. It is about being open to seeing more of the nuance.

On a personal level, this means embracing our shortcomings and triumphs, and recognizing that in a world of opposites, each side holds value and contributes to our understanding of existence.

Zhuangzi, the Taoist philosopher, tells the story of a man who feared his shadow.

There once was a man who feared his own shadow and hated his own footprints, and thus tried to run away from them. But the more he lifted his feet the more footprints he left, and however fast he ran he could not outrun his shadow. Thinking he must still be moving too slowly, he just kept on increasing his speed—until finally he died of exhaustion. He didn’t realize that if he had just lounged in the shade his shadow would have vanished, and if he had {257} just stood still he’d have made no more footprints.

Zhuangzi, The Complete Writing

The story of the man fleeing from his shadow and footprints warns about the consequences of not facing our fears.

Escaping our fears and insecurities eventually leads to exhaustion and disappointment.

The story also reminds us that our worst fears may not be as scary as we think. Instead of seeing things in black and white, we can pause, reflect, and accept ourselves. This can help us find peace with who we are and may also guide us in finding our path in life.

Non-duality is about accepting chaos and entropy

Looking at reality through non-duality is about seeing chaos and entropy as natural processes in life.

Chaos is often viewed as a disruptive force, and we may dislike change, especially if it could disrupt our normal lives. However, accepting that a non-dual universe requires continual change can also be fertile ground for new possibilities to emerge. In disorder and uncertainty, opportunities for innovation, growth, and transformation abound. Like seeds scattered in the wind, ideas, and potentials take root and flourish amidst the chaos, leading to unexpected outcomes and new beginnings. Embracing chaos as a catalyst for creativity and change opens the door to a world of endless possibilities waiting to be explored and realized.

For example, forest fires, while they can seem harmful, are a natural part of how forests grow. Some types of trees, like pine trees, need fire to help them grow. Pine cones require the heat from the fire to open up and start growing new trees. So, even though fires can be destructive, they’re important for ensuring forests stay strong. Accepting that a difficult situation will inevitably have positive outcomes.

Instead of imposing control, non-duality encourages embracing life’s spontaneity. Recognizing the interconnectedness of all things reveals chaos and order as complementary. Embracing chaos allows us to surrender to life’s natural rhythm, finding beauty amidst disorder. Non-duality teaches us to find peace in the universe’s ever-changing dance.

Non-duality is about continual change

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

Tao Te Ching , 76

Lao Tzu compares people and plants to illustrate how change is constantly occurring in life. Life is inherently about change. Therefore, refusing to change and staying stuck in our ways is akin to not truly being alive. However, being flexible and going with the flow connects us more deeply to the energy of life.

Therefore, accepting change and being adaptable shield us from harm. Just like a plant can bend with the wind and not snap.

Non-duality is about accepting change as a natural part of life’s journey.

Instead of holding onto fixed ideas about who we are or how things should be, we learn to go with the flow of life’s ups and downs.

By letting go of our need for things to stay the same, we can experience life more fully. Change isn’t something to be afraid of—it’s a chance for us to learn and grow. When we embrace change, we become more present and aware, and we feel more free to be ourselves.

Surrendering to change brings us a sense of peace and freedom, knowing that everything is connected and always changing.

Non-duality is about focusing on direct experience

In non-duality, we focus on experiencing things directly to understand reality better. Instead of just thinking about things or trying to figure them out in our heads, we learn to fully be in the moment. By paying close attention to what we see, hear, and feel, without judging or trying to explain it, we can start to see how everything is connected. Through activities like meditation and deep self-reflection, we can discover a deeper awareness where we feel connected to everything around us. This direct experience helps us see that we’re all part of one big thing called existence.

Bringing direct experience into your life involves cultivating mindfulness and presence in each moment. Start by paying attention to your senses—what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Take time to notice the details of your surroundings and the sensations within your body. Practice being fully engaged in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s eating a meal, taking a walk, or having a conversation. Let go of distractions and judgments, and simply allow yourself to experience each moment as it unfolds. By embracing direct experience, you can deepen your connection to life and discover a greater sense of aliveness and vitality in everyday moments.

Duality vs. Non-dualityThe article explores the concepts of duality and non-duality, offering different perspectives on the nature of reality and human experience. It delves into the definitions of both concepts and examines their relationship. While duality involves perceiving the world through contrasting concepts and intellectual categorizations, non-duality transcends opposites and emphasizes the interconnectedness and unity of all things.
What is Duality?Duality refers to the presence of opposing elements or categories in reality. It encompasses various aspects of life, from physical opposites like light and dark to conceptual opposites like good and evil. The concept of duality arises from individual perceptions and intellectual categorizations, shaping how we interpret the world around us. Despite its simplifying nature, duality can limit our understanding by oversimplifying complex situations and overlooking nuances.
What is Non-duality?Non-duality involves moving beyond opposing perspectives and recognizing the underlying unity of existence. It transcends the dualistic view of reality and acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things. Non-duality encourages accepting change as a natural part of life’s journey and focusing on direct experience to understand reality better. While duality categorizes and separates, non-duality embraces the complexity and interconnectedness of life, offering a broader perspective on existence.
Unity and DualityBoth Heraclitus and Plotinus accept the existence of opposing forces or dualities while acknowledging a unity beyond the physical realm. They view dualities as interconnected with a larger unity, emphasizing balance and wholeness. Heraclitus sees opposites as essential for the creative process in reality, while Plotinus attributes the existence of dualities to separation from the One by Intellect. Despite their differences, both philosophers highlight the interconnectedness of unity and duality in understanding existence.
Non-duality as a Way of LivingNon-duality extends beyond philosophical concepts to practical applications in daily life. It involves accepting opposites, embracing chaos and entropy, and focusing on direct experience. By acknowledging the interconnectedness of opposites and embracing change, individuals can cultivate mindfulness and presence in each moment. Direct experience allows for a deeper connection to life and a greater sense of aliveness and vitality. Non-duality encourages a shift from categorizing and separating to embracing complexity and interconnectedness in all aspects of life.
Summary Table duality and non-duality