What Is Duality?

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dvaita = duality, dualism

Duality Definition

Within yogic and Buddhist traditions, duality is the cognitive habit of dividing the world into opposing pairs, which can lead to suffering when taken to extremes.

The path to liberation in both traditions involves transcending this dualistic perception to reach a state of non-dual awareness, where the interconnected and unified nature of reality is realized. This realization is seen as a key to inner peace and liberation from suffering.

Although “dvaita” is commonly translated as “duality”, it is crucial to acknowledge that the term “duality” does not fully encompass the complexity and subtlety inherent in the concept of “dvaita” within Indian philosophy.

The differences between duality and dvaita will also be explored in this article.

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Duality Deep Dive

Both yoga and Buddhism share a common goal of transcending duality and achieving a state of non-dual awareness or realization.

In yoga, this is often referred to as “Samadhi” or union, where the practitioner experiences oneness or unity beyond the dualistic perceptions of the world.

In Buddhism, it is the realization of “emptiness” (sunyata), where the distinction between self and other, as well as other dualities, are understood as illusory, leading to liberation from suffering.

Dualistic Perception

Duality in yoga and Buddhism refers to the fundamental cognitive habit of dividing the world into pairs of opposites.

This division is a product of our ordinary, everyday perception and thought processes. It involves categorizing phenomena into contrasting pairs, such as good and bad, self and other, pleasure and pain, or existence and non-existence.

The Nature of Duality

Duality arises from the tendency of the human mind to differentiate and discriminate. It is a way of making sense of the world by creating distinctions and boundaries.

While this cognitive process is essential for practical functioning in everyday life, it can also lead to suffering and confusion when taken to an extreme.

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The Role of Duality in Suffering

Both yoga and Buddhism assert that duality is a root cause of suffering (dukkha).

When individuals become overly attached to one side of a duality (e.g., pleasure, self, or good) and averse to the other side (e.g., pain, other, or bad), it generates craving and aversion, which are sources of suffering. This is often expressed in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Transcending Duality

The central aim of both yoga and Buddhism is to transcend dualistic thinking and experience a state of non-dual awareness or realization.

This involves recognizing that the distinctions created by the mind are relative and not absolute truths. It’s about seeing beyond the labels and categories we impose on reality to perceive a deeper, interconnected, and unified truth.

Non-Dual Awareness

Non-dual awareness is often described as a state where the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, or any other dualities, dissolve. In this state, there is a sense of unity and interconnectedness with all of existence.

This realization is considered a path to inner peace, contentment, and liberation from suffering.

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Understanding Dvaita

“Dvaita” is a Sanskrit term commonly used in Indian philosophy, particularly in the context of Vedanta, to refer to a specific philosophical standpoint.

While “dvaita” is often translated as “duality” in English, it’s important to recognize that the English term “duality” doesn’t capture the full depth and nuance of the concept of “dvaita” in Indian philosophy. Read on to understand why:

Philosophical Significance

“Dvaita” in Vedanta is a philosophical concept that goes beyond the simple idea of duality. It represents a specific metaphysical position that asserts the ultimate reality of a duality between the individual soul (jivatman) and the supreme reality (Brahman).

This duality is considered fundamental in the philosophy of Madhva, a prominent proponent of Dvaita Vedanta. The individual soul is seen as eternally distinct from Brahman, and this distinction is not seen as an illusion but as a fundamental truth.

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Ontological Separateness

In Dvaita Vedanta, the duality between the individual soul and Brahman is not a temporary or illusory state; it is seen as an ontological fact. This means that, according to this philosophy, the individual souls and Brahman are eternally separate entities with distinct natures.

Unique Terminology

Dvaita Vedanta employs a unique and precise terminology to describe this duality. It distinguishes between various categories, such as the individual soul (jivatman), the supreme reality (Brahman), and matter (prakriti), each with its distinct characteristics.

These distinctions are carefully articulated in the philosophical texts of Dvaita Vedanta.

Theistic Aspect

Dvaita Vedanta also has a strong theistic component, emphasizing a personal relationship between the individual soul and the Supreme Being.

This aspect goes beyond a simple philosophical duality and involves devotion, worship, and ethical conduct as essential elements of spiritual practice.

To summerize, the English term “duality” generally refers to a broad concept of division or opposition between two things, often without the specific metaphysical and ontological implications found in Dvaita Vedanta.

“Duality” in English can encompass a wide range of dualistic concepts, from simple distinctions in everyday life to more abstract philosophical or scientific dualities.

So, while “duality” may be a convenient translation for “dvaita” in some contexts, it does not fully convey the philosophical, metaphysical, and theistic dimensions of the concept as it is understood in Dvaita Vedanta.

Therefore, when discussing Indian philosophy and Vedanta in particular, it’s important to recognize the unique and nuanced meanings of Sanskrit terms like “dvaita” and not rely solely on a simple translation like “duality.”

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Duality In Your Life

Both yogic and Buddhist practices offer practical techniques and practices to help individuals move beyond duality.

In yoga, practices like meditation, mindfulness, and self-inquiry aim to quiet the mind and reveal the non-dual reality beneath surface perceptions.

Buddhist meditation practices, particularly Vipassana and Zen, are designed to lead practitioners to a direct experience of non-duality.

Below you can find some suggestions to incorporate yogic philosophy and practice into your daily life in order to understand and transcend the concept of duality:

1. Self-Reflection through Meditation

Regular meditation practice can facilitate self-reflection and self-awareness.

By observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment, you can begin to recognize the dualistic tendencies of your mind—such as labeling experiences as good or bad, or forming attachments and aversions.

a buddhist monk meditating in ruins wearing orange robes

2. Mindfulness in Daily Activities

Apply mindfulness to your daily activities. Whether you’re eating, walking, or working, stay fully present in the moment. Mindfulness helps you break free from the dualistic mindset by focusing on the experience itself rather than categorizing it.

3. Yoga Philosophy Study

Explore the philosophical teachings of yoga, particularly non-dual philosophies like Advaita Vedanta. Studying texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras can provide insights into transcending dualities and recognizing the unity of all existence.

4. Practice Non-Attachment

In your everyday life, consciously practice non-attachment. This means letting go of the strong attachment to outcomes, possessions, and even identity. By reducing attachment, you can diminish the influence of dualistic thinking.

5. Service and Compassion

Engage in selfless service (seva) and acts of compassion toward others. This practice helps you break down the barriers of self and other, fostering a sense of interconnectedness beyond dualistic distinctions.

6. Balancing Asanas

In your physical yoga practice, incorporate balancing asanas (poses). Balancing poses require a focus on both stability and flexibility, mirroring the need to balance dualities in life. They teach the importance of finding equilibrium amid opposites.

two women practicing tree pose in a yoga studio in front of a plant

7. Pranayama and Breath Awareness

Explore pranayama (breath control) techniques. The breath is a bridge between the body and mind. By regulating your breath, you can cultivate a state of inner balance and calm, transcending dualistic states of mind.

8. Mantra and Chanting

Mantra repetition and chanting can help still the mind and promote unity. Chanting “Om” or other mantras can be a powerful practice to experience the vibration that underlies all dualities.

9. Yoga Nidra

Practice yoga nidra, a form of guided relaxation and meditation. Yoga nidra helps you move beyond ordinary dualistic awareness into a deep state of relaxation and interconnectedness.

10. Practice Gratitude

Cultivate a daily gratitude practice to appreciate the wholeness of life. Recognize the beauty in both joy and sorrow, success and failure, as they are interconnected facets of the human experience.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Amy is a yoga teacher and practitioner based in Brighton.

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