Angie Fee: Non duality – within and across the divide

How willing are we to think differently? How prepared are we to question the taken for granted foundations of our knowledge and expose them to scrutiny? This process raises questions and requires a willingness to live in the anxiety of that questioning without closing it down too quickly. Butler and Foucault, two significant philosophers of their time, introduce the idea of the ‘politics of discomfort’ which is designed to ‘estrange and upset’ our familiar ways of thinking and being.

So what are those things that restrain our capacity to think and imagine differently? My personal and professional experiences including my research studies, teaching and clinical work has consistently highlighted one particular way of thinking that has set parameters and policed the boundaries of what is possible, particularly in the experiencing of our desire and in the construction of sex, sexuality and gender identities – that is the concept of duality.

Dualism is a generic term commonly used which refers to the way objects and thoughts are conceptualised in opposition to another and this is a dominant influence in western thinking. A fundamental dualism has permeated western culture, whereby the structure of our religion and culture is based on a belief system that has divided life into good/bad, rational /intuitive, scientific/religious. These two essential aspects are not merely separate categories, viewed as different experiences of the same reality, but within the dichotomous structure of dualism, one is desacralized and seen as better than the other. Hence, part of our cultural heritage is that we tend to see everything in twos. Dividing things into 2 opposing categories/parts often results in perpetuating oppression and power over.

One of the main dualisms, that of mind /body was established in the seventeenth century. Philosopher Descartes argued that the body was merely a machine directed by the mind which was where the intelligence lay. His explanation was that the body and mind are made up of two different substances, the body takes up physical space and the mind takes up non-physical space. According to Descartes, our minds are essential to our identity in a way that bodies are not. ‘I think therefore I am’. We don’t need to know the physical nature of things as long as we are thinking, we exist. It is the mind which understands, doubts, loves, not the body. One can always affirm one is a thinking being.

The Cartesian division of body and mind paved the way for developing the positivist approach to scientific research whereby the body merely became something to be measured and experimented on and the true source of knowledge came from the rational and reasonable mind. Cartesian dualism has also affected the development of western psychological theories, starting with how Freud’s’ psychological theory was influenced by the Newtonian mechanical model of biology - the medical model – and how subsequent theories have maintained the duality of the mind/body split. Thus something is only described in terms of the other; usually one is better than, more than etc. For example life/death, traditional/alternative, object/subject, right/wrong, sexuality/spirituality, body/soul, nature/nurture, male/female, mind/matter. This split has become so integrated into our external culture and internal dialogues that it’s easy to overlook the implicit assumptions that underlie Western therapeutic thinking and practice. Advantages of this are that it can simplify things and bring order to chaos and make things understandable and logical.

But when it comes to the idea of sex, sexuality and gender, dualistic thinking over simplifies and reduces people’s experiences and desires into binary sexed and gendered identifications such as man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, gay/straight, man/woman, male /female. I am not arguing against the categories themselves as they can be useful in helping us to define and organise how we experience our world, but what I challenge is the limitations that arise when those categories come to be seen as ‘natural’ descriptions of experience rather than tools to understand them. As duality is part of our cultural heritage, it is important that we see the limitations of this model and the unexamined philosophical assumptions. Questions of sexual identity, gender identity and desire are usually answered within the binary framework which maintains the duality of the sexes, thinking of them as ‘natural’, failing to engage with the complexities of peoples identities. This has fundamental consequences as to how sexual desire is constructed and how identities are created based on the nature of that desire. Traditional ideas of feminine and masculine roles still permeate the therapeutic discourses, such as fathers are needed to help children separate and set boundaries.

This raises and highlights the ongoing dualism of the conventional nature/nurture debate, but this is a familiar and well fought debate. I think that we need different kinds of questions such as what are the wider cultural conditions that shape and influence how people experience and construct their sexual and gender identities? What are the political/social systems that influence how people embody and articulate their sex, sexuality and gender identities?

Heteronormativity, a term established in the 1990s, is one significant aspect of those wider cultural conditions. It is the term used to describe the dualistic model based on the western sex/gender model and is a particular social norm which has become woven and embodied in everyday social life and practiced and lived without question. This model is based on difference, particularly the physical difference between the sexes; and then gender is mapped onto this. Gender attribution is a primary aspect of our initial meeting with others. As counsellors and psychotherapists, we need to become more aware and open to exploring how we position ourselves in relation to the gender of the other. There is no framework that exists outside the gendered social structure whereby a human being can exist without an identity that is gendered as male or female. This dualistic classification system then creates, mediates and sustains culturally accepted behaviour and expression. In the last 100 years, the nuclear hetero sexual family has become the cornerstone of most psychological developmental theory and has been traditionally seen as a unifying principle and focal point for holding together a sense of social order. This has had huge implications for how our psyches are structured and the subsequent myths and norms that have been accepted unconsciously.

But this is a particular historical arrangement of human relationships, of the sexes, their pleasures and desires and it can limit and police our vision of any other way of living. Can we imagine and create a space outside the assumptions of duality and see the connections between things instead of the disparities? Can we understand difference without it being in opposition? Can we acknowledge the interdependence of contrasting pair of things? And could this change the way we understand ourselves and open new possibilities for erotic experience and expression?

The Psychosynthesis model as a model of unity is a useful and creative framework for highlighting and educating people on the insidiousness of dualistic thinking which has been and is very powerful in how we experience our identities. This is part of our overall emphasis of exploring how our belief systems shape and influence how we experience our sex and gender identities which always take place within a larger cultural context. This includes deepening awareness of how the heteronormative discourse creates and maintains binary thinking and classifications. In this way, we can examine how we regulate ourselves within our own particular cultural contexts and how we prevent different stories being told and engage with different kinds of questions that can disrupt and unravel our dualistic way of thinking.

Subpersonalites and disidentification are 2 key aspects of the model that are very effective in the deepening exploration of our identities and belief systems. Working with the active imagination tools and techniques offers much in terms of exploring things not yet imagined.

One of the aims of Psychosynthesis is holding together various truths in a creative tension which is not either/or but both. The emphasis on synthesis addresses the dualism inherent in western thinking – synthesis is the bringing together of conflicting opposites into a larger whole. It takes us beyond the personal and individual towards the next whole. This is not about creating a false harmony where individuality is lost and we transcend all difficulties, but holding together a multitude of truths in a higher synthesis. As long as we are identifying with dualistic categories, we are avoiding the recognition of a deeper reality.

In writing this I have been keen to avoid setting up non duality in opposition to duality or as yet another belief system. Once non duality has been named, a duality has been created. I draw on SANDs (Science and Non-duality) statement of non-duality which points to the interconnectedness of life – “Non-duality is the philosophical, spiritual and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness “. In other words, there is only one substance which is the essence of all existence.

My invitation is for us to become more aware of the role that dualistic thinking has in how we think about and conceptualise our sexual and gender identities. By introducing different ways of seeing things we don’t have to make the concepts of dualism or heteronormativity wrong as this is another dualism we can create. I am suggesting that we can enter into meaningful dialogues with different paradigms and approaches. I believe that by addressing the strengths AND limitations of any current classifications systems, and indeed any newly forming ‘alternative’ systems, we will be able to hold a more flexible and psychic and social space for ourselves and our clients.

This of course is dependent on the questions posed at the beginning of this article - How willing are we to think differently? How prepared are we to question the taken for granted foundations of our knowledge and expose them to scrutiny?

So few of us are willing to go beyond definitions and concepts to grasp life itself. (Thomas Merton)

Dr Angie Fee

Angie is a Psychotherapist, Supervisor and Trainer at the Psychosynthesis Trust.

*Music – Manta Ray by J. Ralph & Antony and the Johnsons ( now known as Anohni)


*Undoing Gender - Judith Butler (2004)
*The History of Sexuality – Michel Foucault (1976)
*The Naked Now – Richard Rhor (2013)
*The Thomas Merton Reader - Thomas Merton (1974)


    • Ada blair

      Great piece, especially timely as uk voters are being asked tomorrow to take a dualistic position on remaining or staying in the European Union.

    • Jake yearsley

      Great article. Even within the Trans communities there can be a political divide. So Trans identities that conform to the binary and those that don’t. This is reflected in the language used for those identifications, for example gender fluid (non conforming, more radical politically) verses non binary ( conforming, more conservative politically). As you discuss, binaries can be set up in anything. Im curious to know when did the culture of binary begin? I heard something that it is quite a modern western concept, possibly invented at the time of scientific classification systems? So prior to this we didn’t have binary systems?

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