What Prince understood that most don’t

Steven Barnes
9 min readNov 3, 2023

“A lot of people say that the person who goes through it all changes, but I don’ tthink that’s true. I think its everyone else who changes, because they expect certain things from you and they’ll approach you in a different manner” — Prince Rogers Nelson. The clearest adult-child split I’ve ever experienced in the secular world.

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I love Facebook. It is a practical laboratory where ideas about any aspect of life can be tested against billions of people, a large enough sample to reasonably represent humanity itself. And both connections and conflicts are educational. I was thinking back over EVERY issue I’ve had in the last few years, and a remarkable number of them relate to various aspects of dualistic thinking.

  1. Black vs White. I filter people who are not CLEAR on a belief in equality. To be honest, I give black people a little more wiggle-room on this. If you need to ask why, you are part of the problem.
  2. Male vs Female. Interestingly, this isn’t woman-bashing on my pages as much as women who have some of that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” as well as Alpha guys who (sob sob) feel guilty about all the terrible things men have done to women, and consider women morally superior. These two groups make interesting allies.
  3. Atheist vs Believer. The LIBERALS I’ve had conflict are largely atheists. The CONSERVATIVES tend to be Christians. This is fascinating to me, and I’ve not evolved a theory about it.
  4. Liberal vs. Conservative. (Democrat vs. Republican/Libertarian is a similar gradient). My attitude is that Liberals/Progressives look to the future we can build. Conservatives look more toward the past behaviors and agreements. More artists, scientists and educators on the Left, more police and military on the Right. One could easily look at Yin-Yang or Female-Male as interestingly similar splits. Love and Fear might work as well, as long as you aren’t ascribing negatives to either term. Remember that the Tao is only created by the union of “opposites”. Stay on one side and you NEED the other side to stay balanced “the American Eagle needs both wings” is a way I look at that. That said, I DO believe there is more fear and disfunction on the Right, largely due to future shock: issues of race, gender, and even national identity are very confusing to those who are dualistic thinkers. The world must look as if it has gone mad.
  5. Politics vs Philosophy. Philosophy is “what is true?”. Politics is “how do we win?” In a sense. And if war is politics continued by other means, and “the first casuality of war is truth” (or innocence), then the implication is pretty clear: Philosophy THRIVES on the quest for truth, and I believe that we can work backwards from the Three Gates and derive all real philosophy. But POLITICS, the application of the perception of truth, often demands lies or half-truths to bond large groups together. It is an hysterical blindness when people who can’t create agreement between a dozen folks blame “Washington” or “corrupt politicians” or “stupid leaders” who are tasked with creating agreement among MILLIONS. Hat’s off to those few who can thread a million needles without pricking their thumbs. Or being pricks. I see the necessity of politics, but know that to walk that path and keep your soul, it takes a wholly unusual human being, one who genuinely resolves the dualities that lock most human beings into Us-Them. DAMN it is hard. Even DESCRIBING non-duality demands dualistic language. If I started life by working through the negative duality of black-white (everything in culture worked to suggest, calmly, politely and even a little regretfully, that people like me were…well, you know…monkeys.). Once I rejected that, AND rejected the notion that white people were particularly evil or stupid, that all of this mess was just the emergent nature of dualistic and tribal thought in human beings, that notion became the foundation of everything else. It amuses me when white guys insist I see Republicans as sub-human, or “waste my time trying to understand the enemy.” That is stupid strategically (tiger hunters better the hell understand tigers), but they are asking me to rip the band-aide off the very non-dualistic thought that makes racism anathema. They quite literally don’t understand that if I WERE to think dualistically about these things, first up would NOT be something as ephemeral as politics. It would be race. And that would not be a happy outcome. Frankly, I sort of marvel at their naivete. Must be wonderful to live in a world where you don’t have to examine that comforting illusion. All of this to say that I will NOT diminish the humanity of anyone, especially my opponents — that is the easiest, laziest, most fear-based position I could take. Won’t do it. And you wouldn’t like the results if I did. Trust me.
  6. Child vs. Adult.

Ah. And now we are touching on the deep philosophical underpinnings. The CHILD thinks non-dualistically about most things, understanding just a few innate qualities or states: love and fear, pain and pleasure. Fearing only loud noises and falling. Out of a few basic states, all the other dualities and distinctions, what is “me” and “other”, “Us” and “them” emerge. The adult world.

But male and female babies look much alike. So do very OLD people.. In-between, we play the male-female game, and it is delicious and delightful. BUT IT IS A GAME.

Babies and children don’t understand race or politics. That shit is the “adult” world. And we have to BOTH understand the survival values in those distinctions, AND understand their limitations. Older people often resolve those dualities, leaving behind petty worldly fears as they face the ultimate fear of death and see that all that other shit had been “useful” perhaps, but never ever “necessary.” And often regret the walls they built against their private terrors.

Children and the Elderly often move beyond the ego-walls, the dualities of the adult world. This is why we use the “ANCIENT CHILD” concept. The “adult” personality has to move between the child and adult worlds with integrity. Has to create distinctions without being trapped by them. And this can be an ego-shattering experience.

Discussing this issue with my dear friend, literary lion, Buddhist scholar and martial artist Charles Johnson, he said something to me that I only later realized was his answer to my unasked question. He said that his mentor, another great literary intellectual, said: “if non-dualism is correct, my entire life has been a lie.”

And Chuck silently thought “Now you understand.” You cannot SAY that to people. It wouldn’t pass the Three Gates. And a dualistic thinker would tend to damn themselves rather than rise up to the next level and say: “Ah! Dualistic thought is useful HERE, and less useful THERE.” and realize they were not just “doing the best they can” but actually performing vital, natural functions within society. It takes a Krishna to explain to Arjuna how you can kill your cousins in battle without hating them, or sinning. This is NOT normal thought.

But the “child” and “elder” understand. They live in a different state, and therefore are deep wells of wisdom.

Resolving the duality (is there a term “triality”? Maybe there should be) between child and adult, or child and elder, or child-adult-elder so that you just feel the Path we walk, one step every day, and the roles we play…frees up massive energy, as “spirituality” is simply what remains when we remove illusion.

That’s the end game. “Non-Dualism” has limited value in the adult world, depending on your degree of clarity and wisdom. Frankly, it CAN be limiting to want a happy outcome all-around when dealing with dualistic people willing to lie, hurt, or cheat to accomplish their ends. You DO need to be what might be called an “awake, aware, adult human being” who can look at adolescent schoolyard games and see it for what it is: children jostling for position in the pecking order to enhance survival, gain status, and have access to the most attractive mates.

Its cute, and sweet, and pretty universal as a growth pattern…and something to move beyond.

There are lots of ways to approach this “awake, aware, adult” self, but one of the most powerful is to simply tap into the “Parenting” reflex that protected everyone reading this. Even if you have no memory of ever being loved and cherished, had you not been you would be dead. Maybe the reflexive thingie only kicked in for a couple of years, but it was there. We come from love, and survive because of it.

And THIS protective response is present in every human being alive, or they would be here. Everyone experienced it passively, and the majority experience it actively as well. Thinking of defending YOURSELF is often problematic (especially for women, who are encouraged by society to pretend to be more vulnerable and weaker than they really are, as a means of triggering and legitimizing a male response of being stronger and more naturally aggressive than THEY really are. It’s a fascinating game, and few see the costs to both sides). But thinking of defending a helpless child or family member will often trigger than “teeth baring, YOU SHALL NOT PASS” response.

That energy, that willingness to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to protect your child, can be focused within ourselves. That energy is terrifying in its clarity, and requires an ethical structure like the Three Gates to make it safe for individuals or societies. And those who can hold that energy in a safety cage of ethics and values become, in my opinion, our greatest thinkers, leaders, and artists.

And it all comes from treasuring the child within us, the Ancient we will be (whether warrior, lover, healer, artist or teacher matters not: they are all versions of the exact same survival energy) and as adults, walking the road between those states one day at a time…THIS is the path of the Hero’s Journey.

The “Five Minute Miracle” breaks your patterns. Heartbeat Meditation connects you to love. The Morning Ritual sets you up for 1% weekly growth. And the Ancient Child releases your true life energy. The Three Gates keeps that energy safe for you, and children, and society.

That’s really how I see the game. I cannot “prove” this works to you, but it is simple to design an experiment to test it for yourself.

The 90-Day Love Feast is one such experiment, and we are exploring it until the end of the year (hell, I might make this a permanent focus of FIREDANCE: the quarterly deep focus on one aspect of the Path). We are awakening our inner child, and creating an adult powerful enough to keep her safe so that she can give us the energy and aliveness, the creativity to solve all problems that stand between us and the most authentic experience of life we can hope for: the awake, aware, adult human being.

That state is probably the last stop of totally useful thought. Non-dualism, the step beyond, is dangerous because you WILL be attacked: you are casting doubt on some of the most basic aspects of consensual thought. So if you would go there, you must be STRONG AND CLEAR.

Doesn’t the child within you deserve love and safety? The loving, safe human being AUTOMATICALLY begins to resolve the “us-them” dichotomy. You can see it, once you start looking for it. And this state is available to anyone willing to FIRST trigger their survival drive, protect their “child” self…and then open their heart.

If this speaks to you, the path is available. If it would be useful to hear thoughts on the territory ahead, and how to approach it with integrity…please join us.

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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.