There Is No Other Side

Why did the chicken cross the road? There must be a million variations on this hoary old joke about getting to the other side. When I queried Google, I got more than 92 million responses. Even allowing for some repetition, you could spend a lifetime poring over them without exhausting the possibilities. Here’s one that I found particularly inventive from cartoonist Doug Savage, who does a panel called Savage Chickens. The title is “Chicken Poetry Reading:”

The crossroad
is within.
There is no
other side.

Savage’s offering manages to be both funny and profound — a rare combination. The funny part you either get or you don’t; same with the profound part. The crossing is indeed within. Early in life, we all develop a mental framework that puts “me” here on the inside, and everything else on the outside. In effect, there were now two sides to life. But where exactly is the dividing line? Is it my body? That would be the most logical answer. Except that my body – or at least the part I can see – is as much out there as in here, and the stuff that is ostensibly out there in the world may, in fact, be contained within my own consciousness, which is in here.

Philosophers have been puzzling over this for a long time. Descartes concluded that mind and matter occupied entirely separate realms. Modern science pretty much followed Descartes’ lead, choosing to focus on the material world while pretending that the subjective realm didn’t matter. And it didn’t — at least not until quantum physicists noticed that subatomic particles sometimes behaved like particles and sometimes like waves, depending on whether or not they were observed. Where was the dividing line then between the observer and the observed? The quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued there wasn’t one: “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.”

A Nobel Laureate in physics, Schrödinger was well aware that quantum theory merely provided mathematical language for age-old philosophical insights. Unlike colleagues who shunned the mystical implications of their work, he readily embraced Advaita Vedanta, an ancient Hindu philosophy based on the premise that all experience is unitary. (Advaita is a Sanskrit word that literally means “not two.”) Western philosophers have also weighed in. Plato quoted Socrates in Phaedrus as praying, “Beloved Pan… grant me to be handsome in inward soul, and that the outside and the inside be one.” The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text dating from the second century CE, has Jesus proclaiming, “…the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you.” In another saying, he elaborates, ”When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner…, then you will enter [the kingdom]."

William James, best known as a founder of American psychology, developed a non-dual philosophy he called “radical empiricism” that maintained mind and matter did not occupy separate realms but were one kind of “stuff.” James’ “radical empiricism” is somewhat akin to the Buddhist notion of “clear seeing” — pristine awareness before our experience has been rearranged by thoughts of inner and outer, self and other. James was a departure point for phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who wrote in Phenomenology of Perception: “Inside and outside are inseparable; the world is wholly inside, and I am wholly outside, myself.” How can the world be both inside and outside at the same time? Once you see — really see — that there is no other side, then it’s obvious.

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