NONDUALITY AND COMPASSION
(aka ‘FEEDING THE STARVING CHILD’)
Somebody recently asked me:
“Jeff, in your latest piece of writing you talked about seeing a starving African girl on the TV, and that it was simply an appearance of Oneness. But how can it be Oneness? I mean, it’s okay for you to say that, you’re not starving, after all. But she is. Couldn’t “Oneness” just be a concept you’re using to push away or deny the reality of living in this world? A way for you to cope with the harsh realities of existence and suffering?”
This is a great question. Of course, this “Oneness” could so easily remain on a purely intellectual/conceptual level. It could so easily disintegrate into a belief used by an individual to block out or deny suffering: “There is only Oneness! Nothing exists! Nothing matters! There are no starving children in Africa! My mother didn’t die of cancer! Pain doesn’t hurt! I don’t need to eat, because there is no body! I didn’t punch you in the face just then, there is nobody here punching! And nobody to punch!”
Yes, this could so easily be taken on as a life-denying philosophy. But of course this is not what I am suggesting. For me, Oneness – or at least what the word ‘Oneness’ points to – is a living reality, not just a belief… although ultimately of course it’s just a word, and cannot capture the aliveness of everything. For me, Oneness is not a new religion or belief system, not a new ideology for the individual to cling to, but a clear seeing of life as it actually is, beyond our concepts about life, beyond our ideologies and religions, beyond all our second-hand knowledge.
You see, Oneness is not a dead thing. Oneness could include moving to feed that starving child. It denies nothing. It includes all possibilities. Well of course it does, it is everything. How could it deny any aspect of itself? It moves to feed that child, or not.
It is everything, it appears as everything, and yet it is no-thing in particular. Nothing and everything at the same time. It appears as wars, genocides, flowers, trees, cups of coffee, cars beeping their horns, everything. It appears as saints and sinners, starving children and overweight millionaires. It also appears as apparent individuals who can apparently do something about starving children.
Part of this freedom is that there appears to be free will.
I’m not talking about “coping” with reality and suffering. I’m not talking about using Advaita concepts to “cope” with life. Oneness IS reality, and it IS the appearance of suffering in the world. Oneness could involve moving to feed that starving child, if that is possible. Or not. I don’t know. I’m not telling you how to live. I’m just interested in reality beyond our ideas of it. Beyond even these ideas.
Reality is always already beyond our concepts about it. The mind will never catch up.
That starving girl. Her belly appears to be empty. Mine appears to be full. Oneness includes both. It appears as a starving girl in Africa, and a well-fed man typing on a laptop. Ultimately – ultimately - there is no “my belly” separate from “her belly”. There is nobody here and nobody there. But in the appearance, there is. We cannot deny the appearance. Again, who would deny it? To deny the appearance would affirm the appearance, anyway. If you say “There is no starving girl” you affirm the appearance of the starving girl. If you say “There is no Africa” you affirm the appearance of Africa. What you reject always comes back to haunt you.
Hunger does not appear here – and there is gratitude for that, of course. At the moment, I cannot experience her hunger. But Oneness does not deny the appearance of her hunger and my lack of hunger. It embraces both. It is both.
In other words, there is only what’s happening. For the starving girl, what’s happening might be this: hunger arising, sounds, sights, smells happening, maybe some pain…. and perhaps movement to find food. I don’t know. I cannot know. Over here, there is no hunger, at the moment. There are sights, sounds, smells happening, and images of the starving girl on the TV. Can you see that Oneness is all of this? It plays every role.
And who knows, I might be about to do something to help that girl, who is myself too. Again, I’m not telling you how to live. Just looking at what’s real.
In a meeting once, a man asked me what I would do if a starving child came up to me and asked for food. I said I’d probably feed the child. The man came up to me after the meeting. He said he’d been shocked at my answer. He’d been to so many so-called “Advaita” teachers who, in response to that same question, had said things like: there is no hunger, there is nobody there who is hungry, her hunger is an illusion, it’s all a dream… and so on. And that might be true from an ultimate perspective. But nobody can live in ‘ultimately’. She needs food, not your concepts about ultimate reality. She cannot eat concepts.
Remember, what you deny, you affirm.
And so when all of those beliefs fall away, then, well… you feed the child. Or not. Perhaps food is the last thing she needs in that moment. Who knows. But your actions certainly aren’t coming from rigid Advaita beliefs. The mystery meets itself in the face of that starving child. This is the essence of compassion. Who knows what action will arise out of that.
This is certainly not about a denial of anything. If anything, it’s the end of denial. It’s a life lived without the illusions. Without the mythology. Without the comforting beliefs. Even the belief in Oneness – that goes too. And what you are left with is unconditional love, beyond the concept of it. And you meet the world for the first time. Like a newborn baby.
“I’m hungry. Can I have a little bit of your bread?”
Feed the child, and you are feeding yourself. Let her go hungry, and you too go hungry.
Are you going to sit around debating whether or not the starving child really exists?
Are you going to give her a little bit of your bread?
Beyond nothing mattering and everything mattering, what will you do, when you no longer have anything to defend?
And that question simply dissolves into silence.