Deconstructing the Subject-Object Distinction

Posted on 9 August 2006


Our normal experience is of a world of objects or phenomena that are distinct from a subject or experiencer of them. Mystics, however, claim that this distinction is imaginary and not real. Insofar as we experience it as real, our experience is a distortion of the true nature of reality.

One way to investigate this claim of the mystics for ourselves is to go back to what it really means for something to be distinct or different from something else. Insofar as A is distinct from B, they are separate and not related, because if they are related then they depend at least in part on each other and can not actually be completely distinguished. You might object that there is some “essential” or “inherent” part of A that does not depend on B, while other “non-essential” parts of A depend on B. But then the same problem arises with the distinction between the essential and non-essential parts of A. If they are related, then the essential part of A depends somehow on the non-essential part of A, which depends in turn on B. So the essential part of A is not “essential” or “inherent” after all. To sum it up, a real distinction has to be a complete separation. If it is “leaky” and allows some dependence or connection, then there is not really any distinction there; it is just an imaginary distinction that we superimpose on reality that is in fact an undivided whole.

So far, this is all just theoretical abstraction, of course. But if you really ponder this deeply, and get an insight into how it applies to your own experience, you’ll realize that “you” must have some relationship to your experience and, therefore, you cannot be separate or distinct from your experience. This starts to eat away at the sense of a separate self. No distinctions actually exist in reality. They are all only imagined to exist.

This insight can have real consequences for our life. If there is no separate ego then there is no “one” to suffer. It’s not that pain or discomfort or irritation don’t arise, but that there’s noone there to suffer from it, to resist it as something “other” than oneself. Without resistance to what is, there is freedom from the struggle to get away from it. (If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy my article The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy.)