Boys, Girls, and Metaphysical Monism

Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, India.
Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, 2013.

By “metaphysical monism” I mean the view that every kind of variety and difference in the world is ultimately unreal. So what’s real? The One. In reality, the many things we experience are One Thing or – more precisely – One Being. Only apparently is the salt shaker before me different from the glass of V-8 juice in front of my plate. Only apparently are there two things at all. Only apparently am I different from either of them.

It’s not so much that appearances, in the way we see and feel them, are the result of our fallen or tarnished human condition. The latter view would be Gnosticism, which has had a long career in Western cultures, down to the present, under different labels.

Rather, the monistic claim is that the experience of ultimate difference in any form is itself delusive. To realize this is immediately to want to recover from delusion and be free from unreality.

The Western philosopher who stands out for monism was Parmenides (fifth century BCE). His disciple, Zeno, composed a series of challenging paradoxes to show that “the many” cannot be held in thought consistently. Thus, Achilles cannot outrun the hare because, in order to cover any ground in the race, he must first cover half the ground, but before that, cover half of that half, and so on ad infinitum. Philosophers have been working to solve Zeno’s paradoxes ever since, but their work has not prevented them from coping with their variegated experiences or running any race they feel up to running.

It was different in the East. In India for example, metaphysical monism has called its adherents to the practice of yoga. The theory and practice of yoga can be studied in the Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali in the first centuries CE, which is long after they were first, archaically formulated and practiced. A colleague introduced me to this compilation, calling Patanjali “the Isaac Newton of yoga.” To make the theory and practice her own, the student needs to attach herself to an adept, preferably an achieved master or guru.

At one point in my life, I did just that. Why? I wasn’t trying to drain the cup of life to the dregs or try every feasible experience once. So why not just muddle along, day to day, doing the best one can, guided by ordinary common sense? What’s wrong with apples and oranges keeping their distinct flavors and colors? Why try to stuff them all into the blender of the One?

I’ll tell you why. In my own personal case, the level of ordinary common sense had become unbearable. I don’t know about you, and whether you happen to have had any gifted and persistent enemies, but I’ve had a few. There was one in particular who, at that point, was gnawing at the vitals of my life. I won’t disclose the person’s sex or relationship to me, but this particular adversary had managed to persuade a fair number of my friends – even colleagues in some cases – to believe damaging fictions about me. As these former life companions were falling away, so was my health. 

In short, ordinary life – with its mild and unassuming common sense – was not working out. And I hate for the bad guys to win.

I’d heard of an ashram across town where wholesome vegetarian suppers were reasonably priced and followed by Sanskrit chanting and videos of the guru, reputedly a lovely young Indian woman. In my circumstances, a change of pace and venue seemed like a healthful idea.

After about a month, I decided to join one of their bus trips to the upstate ashram where I could get my own first-hand impression of the guru. When I returned from the upstate weekend, I recall one woman friend asking me what kind of a human being she was.

“She’s not a human being,” I replied, shaking my head, wide-eyed. I had never seen anyone, man or woman, that beautiful or graceful. She seemed to inhabit a charmed space of her own. What I saw appeared to me to have –

escaped the hazards of womanhood

with its subliminal awareness 

of vulnerability.

Why then did I ever leave? Did I simply decide that I could never achieve what she had achieved? How would I even know that, without giving it an extended Old College Try? No. Let me tell you exactly why I left.

I was upstate for another weekend at the ashram. As soon as I arrived, I noticed that there’d been a few changes. For one thing, the female swamis were now wearing lipstick. In their red nuns’ robes, they didn’t look good in lipstick. It was garish. Over the loudspeaker, one heard an announcement that each newcomer would have a senior member assigned to her for the weekend. This instituting of a “minder” put me on high alert immediately. It seemed an attempt to interfere with the ability of new people to form independent judgments about their ashram experiences. 

In accordance with ashram routine, all the visitors filed into the large auditorium. As usual, a speech from the guru preceded the dimming of overhead lights for the hour of meditation. I listened closely to every word the guru said. From what I heard people say afterwards, her speech struck many as poetic and paradoxical, with steep darks and gleaming lights that listeners took for literary flourishes. 

But I had never heard her give a speech with literary flourishes. Her talks had always been plain, straightforward, and sometimes humorous. I recognized this particular speech as an expression of some kind of obscure personal defeat. 

I could hear her! She was saying that she felt trapped. 

You need help, I thought

 And no one can help you!

When the lights came on again, I stood up and walked out to wait for the next bus back to Manhattan. Metaphysical monism can’t recognize individual human rights abuses because it lacks the conceptual tools with which to mark out individuals.

What had happened to her? What had pulled her down from the heights she had occupied when I first saw her? Some months later, an article about the ashram appeared in a fashionable magazine. In it, one of her swamis reported having asked her if it was true that she’d slept with her bodyguard. The guru had answered defensively but hadn’t denied it. 

Now as it happens, I knew several people who followed gurus or zen masters and admitted to me in passing that their realized teachers were known to grab any female disciple they could get their realized fingers on. 

One woman philosopher friend said to me indignantly, about her zen master, “He may be beyond good and evil but they (the female followers) are not!” 

Well, just between us kids, nobody is beyond good and evil. I don’t care how many chakras (energy centers) you’ve got spinning. 

Be that as it may, it’s clear to me that the male masters can help themselves to treats of the flesh and still keep their standing, status and power. The females (at least in the case I witnessed) cannot.

That is a profound asymmetry

between the sexes

that no metaphysical monism

can put right.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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