Nondual Spiritual Awakening, Its Source and Applications
(C) Copyright 2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.
[Note: This 4-part paper appears in the book Listening from the Heart of Silence: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy, Volume II (John Prendergast & G. Kenneth Bradford, Eds.), Paragon House, June 2007. The editors asked if I would focus specifically on Hindu tradition, not any of the other nondual mystical traditions. The first section of this paper is heavily abridged from my forthcoming comprehensive book, India's Sages Source Book: Nondual Wisdom from Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas, Tantrics, Sants, Sikhs and Sufis (Wake Up Press, 2007). All diacritical marks have been removed from the following version of the original paper. I've added a little bit of boldfacing for emphasis. Boldfaced numbers refer to endnotes at the end of the essay.]
I. Historical Indian Sources of Nondual Spiritual Realization
II. Therapeutic Applications of Nonduality
III. Four Modes of Awakening
IV. Common Questions About Awakening
I. Historical Indian Sources of Nondual Spiritual Realization
In this astonishing dream of life, a growing current of nondual spiritual realization is enlightening various circles of religion, spirituality and psychotherapy. What, historically speaking, is the source of such nondual realization? The first known articulation of nondual awareness in human history emerged over 3,000 years ago in northwest India, within the Aryan people’s Rig Veda oral “scripture” of sacrificial hymns and spells. The Rig’s later compositional-layers (1100 BCE?) occasionally express a surprising nondual intuition of the One Reality. This Divinity transcends any monolatrous, anthropomorphic God like Egypt’s Akhenaten or the Hebrews’ YHWH.
In the famously paradoxical Nasadiya “There was not” Creation-Hymn (Rig Veda, x.129), we hear the rishi poet-seers sing of the deep, formless Reality. Prior to being or nonbeing, darkness or light, life or death, and prior to the gods, this undifferentiated One somehow mysteriously generates via “creative heat” the life force, and from this force emanates a differentiated world of earth and heavens. Elsewhere we hear high praise of “That which is earlier than earth and heaven, before the gods had being… that One wherein abide all things existing.” (x.82) “The One manifests as all this.” (x.2; viii.58)
Incipient Vedic theology thus points to an unborn (aja) One Truth (ekam satyam) mysteriously, wondrously expressing ItSelf as multiplicity. This is panentheism, no mere pantheism or theism, for this Divine Source/Substance is both transcendent and immanent—God beyond all and God within all. Over time this nondual theology would be “owned” and internalized for India’s sages as a nondual psycho-spirituality of the One Self/Awareness, realized right Here, right Now within the heart/mind of male and female sages.
Several ancient Vedic Brahmana commentaries arose. The Shatapatha Brahmana (c900 BCE), attributed to sage Yajnavalkya, apparent “father of nonduality,” speaks of a pure absorption in Self, Brahmabhava, “the Brahman state/mood.” This key term Brahman denotes the infinite, non-dual, transpersonal (not “impersonal”) Reality, Power, or Awareness. By this point in time, the “thought-surpassing mystery” of Brahman was considered identical with the One Truth, ekam satyam. A new stage of Vedic prose commentaries, the Aryanyaka “forest” literature, emphasized the Brahmanas’ inner trend and pointed to an even deeper, intuitive meaning of Vedic rituals—pure identity with the Absolute. “What I am, that He is; what He is, that am I.” Thus speaks the Aitareya Aranyaka (ii.2.4.6), one of only three extant Aranyakas.
Then, around 800 BCE, nondual awareness began to be even more boldly, consistently affirmed in a new class of oral teachings, the Upanishads, “works of monumental significance in the history of India and of the world.” This lore—the planet’s oldest substantial wisdom literature, filled with introspective psychology and metaphysics, reverential awe, benign humor and sharp-witted paradoxes—affirms a panentheist theology of Brahman and spiritual realization of the Divine Atman/Self, identical to Brahman. The Upanishads hugely amplify this era’s trend toward an interiorized wisdom-knowledge (jnana), a keen-eyed contemplative mysticism, in place of the liturgical, action-oriented (karma-kanda) Vedic religion of the upper-castes Aryans. The Upanishads signal a rationalist and deeply spiritual revolt against an encroaching cult of brahman-caste priests and their extravagant Vedic ritualism and symbolism.
This was not a mass movement. “Upanishad” means “secret doctrine” and the wisdom was indeed kept secret for a few centuries, available only to select, mature disciples of certain gurus. Significantly, neither the Buddha, his disciples, nor their diverse visitors in north India of the 6th/5th century BCE ever speak of the panentheist mysticism based on Brahman-Atman. There is talk of celestial god Brahma (masc.), but not the Absolute, transpersonal or supra-personal Brahman (neuter). Had the Buddha and his many followers known how the Brahman/Atman was discussed in a non-reifying way by the Upanishad-gurus, his “not self” (anatta / anatman) doctrine of disidentification might have taken a more nuanced connotation and precluded 2500 years of Buddhist-Hindu alienation on this crucial point.
The two earliest and by far the largest Upanishads were the Brihadaranyaka (the Shatapatha Brahmana’s long appendix) followed by the Chandogya Upanishad. Both came from the Ganga-Yamuna river valley in north-central India. Other Upanishads were composed from the 8th century BCE to 1st century CE—the Taittiriya, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Kena, Katha, Mundaka, Shvetashvatara, Isha, Narayana, Prashna, Mandukya, Maitri, Jabala and Paingala. The last five evidently come after the Buddha’s time; the middle six are roughly contemporary with Siddhartha; the rest originate before him. These Upanishads together comprise the Vedanta, the Vedas’ “end” or “conclusion.” In addition to these major, classical Upanishads, there emerged over the centuries nearly 100 minor Upanishads.
The early Upanishads tell of sages Yajnavalkya, et al., teaching a profound wisdom of disidentification—neti, neti, “not-this, not-this”—from all mentality-materiality (nama-rupa); and realization of one’s actual identity as Divine Atman-Self. This true Self, prior/interior to body-mind-soul-ego, is, again, none other than Brahman, the Absolute Being-Awareness-Bliss (Sat-Cit-Ananda), the timeless, spaceless, changeless, colorless, partless, speckless Fullness (Purnam), the Source/Witness/Substance of the multi-leveled Cosmos.
Hence the advaita (“not-two,” nondual) “secret doctrine” of the Upanishads: the awesome Divine Source of the world appearance is not remote or distant but is, in most intimate fact, our true Identity, our real Being. This Self/Reality is invisible, imperceptible, not an “other,” a thing or entity, and thus is not seeable or knowable as an object. However, Self/Reality is eminently be-able when ignorance (avidya, ajnana) has suddenly or gradually given way to innate Divine Self-Knowing (vidya, jnana, prajna). Moreover, this Self is Supra-personal, infinitely greater than the merely “personal” and certainly not “impersonal” as too many scholars and clergy have misleadingly called THIS Supreme Reality that transcends yet includes all beings.
To awaken listeners from the egocentric, hypnotic trance unto this stupendous Divine Truth, these Vedanta sages issued potent mahavakyas, “Great Sayings,” like “I am Brahman” (Aham Brahmasmi), “That Thou Art” (Tat Tvam Asi), “This Self is Brahman” (Ayam Atma Brahma), “Pure Knowing is Brahman” (Prajnanam Brahma), and “All this is indeed Brahman” (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma). Throughout the early Upanishads we hear riveting aphorisms:
“It is the notion of ‘otherness’ that results in fear [elsewhere, lust, confusion and mortality are also mentioned as a result of this dualistic felt-sense of otherness].” (BrU i.4.2)
Knowing the all-pervading Brahman, “subtler than the subtlest, farther than the far, yet right here” (MuU iii.1.5), “without earlier or later, inside or outside” (BrU ii.5.19), one finds OneSelf as the unborn-undying Brahman, “independent (svaraj, self-ruled), with unlimited freedom in all worlds.” (ChU vii.25.2)
One “knows everything” (BrU iii.1.1), realizing the Essential Self of all gods, humans, animals, beings, worlds. “This is the Seer Itself unseen, the Perceiver Itself unperceived.” (BrU iii.8.11) “There’s no other seer but He, no other hearer, perceiver, thinker but He.” (BrU iii.7.23)
“When there is some other thing, one can see the other, smell… greet… hear… ponder… the other. [But in dreamless sleep or in fully awake Brahman-realization] one becomes the single ocean, the nondual Seer. This is the Brahman domain... the highest goal, highest treasure, greatest bliss.” (BrU iv.3.31-2)
“It moves and moves not; It is far and near, within all this and beyond all this.” (IsaU 5)
“This un-showable, constant Being can be realized as One only. Let a wise aspirant directly realize this insight, not just reflect on tiresome words.” (BrU iv.4.10-21)
“The calm, self-controlled, interiorized, patient, and collected sage, who has banished all desires, cut all fetters, and thereby undone the heart’s 'knots,' knows that 'He who is here in a person and yonder in the sun—is the same One.'” (TU iii.10.4) “Know: He is my Self.” (KsU iii.8)
“It isn’t understood by those who [think they] understand It; It’s understood by those who do not ‘understand’ It. When known via awakening in every state, It is rightly known...” (KeU ii.3)
“The sage relinquishes joy and sorrow, having realized by Self-contemplation (adhyatma-yoga)… that primal Divine.... The knowing Self isn’t born, doesn’t die, hasn’t sprung from anywhere, hasn’t become anyone.” (KaU i.2.12,18)
“There the sun doesn’t shine, nor moon, stars or lightning—much less ordinary fire. Him alone shining, all else shines as His reflection; the worlds radiate His Light.” (KaU ii.2.15) “No one can see Him with sight. By heart, insight and intuition is He contemplated....” (KaU ii.3.9)
“The wise sage has filled all; he is radiant, bodiless, invulnerable, pure, untouched by evil. He, the Seer, Thinker, all-pervading, Self-existent…” (IsaU 8) “His heart the world (hridayam vishvam), He is the Self of all beings.” (MuU ii.1.4)
This Atman, “brilliant and full of light,” isn’t realized by sight, speech, senses, austerities or rites. “But when the attention/intelligence is purified by wisdom’s light, one realizes Him who is partless/whole.” (MuU iii.1.5,8)
“The sages realize Him who is present in all, and enter into that all…. As flowing rivers disappear into the ocean, giving up their name and shape, so the knower, freed from name-and-form (nama-rupa), realizes the higher-than-high Divine. Verily, one who knows the Supreme Brahman becomes Brahman.” (MuU iii.2.5,8)
“This highest mystery in the Vedanta... is not to be given to one whose passions aren’t subdued.” (SvU vi.22)
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, foreshadowing a rich 2,500-year-old tradition of nondual Hindu bhakti-devotionalism, emphasizes a panentheist focus on Shiva, the “Benign One,” who is:
“the immense Atman, always residing in people’s hearts.... The one God, Self of all, ordainer of deeds, the witness (sakshi), the only one (kevalo), devoid of qualities (nirguna)… He is the Intelligent among intelligences, the One among many.… the all-knowing One, Lord of both primal nature and individual souls, Lord of the governing qualities (three gunas: sattva/harmony, rajas/agitation and tamas/inertia), cause of bondage, existence and also liberation (moksha) from rebirths (samsara).” (vi.11,13,16)
For contemplative Vedantins, all these and many other aphorisms from the Upanishads support the essential “triple method” of awakening from the reincarnational/samsara dream of “me”: namely, hearing, pondering and meditating (shravana, manana, nididhyasana) upon this revealed Truth until lucidity dawns in an unshakeable Self-realizing intuition that one is none other than Infinite Unborn-Undying-Unchanging Awareness. Centuries later, the great “father of Mahayana Buddhism,” sage Nagarjuna (2nd cent. CE), encouraged his listeners to use the same triple method for aphorisms concerning Openness/Emptiness (Shunyata) or transcendent-immanent Suchness (Tathata).
Besides the major Upanishads, two other ancient works arose to form a three-fold prasthana-traya Vedanta scriptural canon:
1) The 550-line Brahma-Sutras (Vedanta-Sutras), composed by Badarayana (post-200 BCE), and likely our first known Indian author of a consistent advaita (non-duality) or abheda (no difference) viewpoint. His is the only work extant among several compositions by ancient sages who tersely systematized the oldest Upanishads’ teachings. Among its many Vedanta truths: Brahman’s appearance-as-world isn’t motivated by need but happens merely as Divine playful pastime, lila, a central notion for later Hinduism. (ii.1.32-3) The individual soul, a mere appearance of Brahman, is neither born nor created. (ii.3.16-17) Brahman might seem two-fold—unqualified formless (nirguna) Reality, and qualified with attributes/forms/world (saguna)—but truly Brahman is formless only, without differences. (iii.2.11-14) It is pure spiritual Intelligence, but just as the sun seems distorted, decreased and trembling in its reflection(s) in water, so also Brahman appears to decrease and suffer through the body-mind adjuncts. (iii.2.16-20) There’s no difference between Brahman and its manifestation in activity. (iii.2.25) One need not work to gain wisdom, yet one must be calm and controlled. For the scriptures prohibit licentiousness. (iii.4.27,30)
2) The 700-verse Bhagavad Gita (c300 BCE), the “Lord’s Song,” Krishna’s memorable instruction to friend-disciple Arjuna, features an eclectic wealth of nondual wisdom and nondual devotion. The Gita reveals how the Divine “I AM”-Self/Atma is not only the Cosmic Source and Witness, but the only Reality, the One Actor playing all souls/roles in creation. Lord Krishna’s repeated confession as Avatara, Divine Incarnation, shows that Atman/Brahman is not opposed to a vital, physical manifestation and can be fully, immanently lived within the human drama, not just in some transcendent state. And Krishna’s four margas or spiritual paths—karma, yoga, jnana and bhakti—are each articulated along nondual lines, meaning that one can live nondual spirituality, full of equanimity and free of dualistic perception or doership-sense, regardless of one’s temperament.
The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the long epic-poem Mahabharata, which in its developmental history came to include a few far-less-read “Gitas” of nondual instruction, the Sanatsujatiya and the Uttara or Anugita, containing Krishna’s “further instruction.” Other Gitas independently arose, crucial for Hindu nondual/advaita tradition, like the Ashtavakra, Avadhuta, and Ribhu Gitas, chock-full of ecstatic confessions of nondual Self-Realization.
Meanwhile, key aspects of nonduality—equanimous freedom, emptiness of all phenomena, and awakening to the unborn/undying advaya peace and bliss of nibbana/nirvana—were being expressed in the Pali-Canon teachings of the Buddha, and then grandly elaborated in early Mahayana Buddhist sutras (Prajna-Paramita-group, Ratnakuta-group, Samadhi-group, Vimalakirti-nirdesha, Sandhinirmocana, Lankavatara, Avatamsaka), and in the writings of Madhyamika philosopher-giant Nagarjuna, and of Yogacara Buddhists Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th century). The subsequent Buddhist tantra movement featured no-nonsense sages like Saraha (8th/9th cent.), Tilopa (989-1069), Naropa (1016-1100) and other nondually-oriented mahasiddhas or “great adepts.”
Further Hindu expression of nonduality occurred theologically in the motley, encyclopedic Puranas (4th century CE onward)—by far the most beautiful and charming among which is the Bhagavatam Purana (circa 4th cent. CE). Book 11 (chapters 7-29) of the Bhagavatam contains the “Uddhava Gita” by Krishna, a gem of nonduality.
The famed grammarian, Bhartrihari (5th/6th cent. CE) expressed clear nondual themes in his Vakyapadiya and a more dynamic-vibrational notion of Brahman and Its Shakti-power.
But it was the nondual commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad by sage Gaudapada (5th/6th cent.) and, a few generations later, the many works by the towering philosopher-theologian-sage Shankara (c700 CE), reinforced by the aforementioned nondual Gitas and contemporary nondual works like the 29,000-verse (!) Yoga Vasishtha, that gave rise to the prominent advaita vedanta school in India, still tremendously influential today.
Gaudapada and Shankara distill and give renewed emphasis to the profound psycho-spirituality of the Upanishads. Atma is never bound, doesn’t transmigrate, and is always liberated. Thus, echoing Mahayana Buddhism, there are no “bound souls” and no “liberated ones,” either—the sense of bondage (bandha) comes from temporary ignorance. There’s nothing to “do” to realize Brahman other than hear/ponder/meditate on revealed Truth, for one is always already only THIS. And the phenomenal world has never really been created (the ajata-vada, “no-creation view”). World (jagat), self (jiva) and personal Lord (Ishvara) are wondrous forms of this Formless Spiritual Reality, products of a mysterious “super-imposition” (adhyasa) (a term equivalent to the old terms maya/illusion or vikalpa/false discrimination). The world and a self-sense appear, sustained by ignorance (avidya), just as a rope can appear as a snake to someone not yet seeing clearly (Gaudapada’s famous illustration).
With the dawn of true knowledge, vidya or vijnana, comes the realization, expressed in Sankara’s well-known verse: “Brahman alone is real, the world is appearance, the self is nothing but [“disguised”] Brahman.” (Brahma satyam jagan mithya, jivo brahmaiva na parah). The experience of a world of multiplicity is “subrated” or “contradicted” (badha) by realizing there’s only Brahman. In Realization, it is clear that the ordinary world and “jiva”-self, are misperceived—the Truth is Shiva, God. The soul’s Real Identity is Divine: “jiva is Shiva.” Everyone and every phenomenon in the cosmos is none other than Brahman.
Awakened sages serenely know This as direct experience, anubhava, not mere speculation or smug concept. The dream-like world doesn’t literally disappear for a sage, except in dreamless sleep and formless nirvikalpa samadhi. Shankara clarifies: “World as world is false/unreal. World as [appearance of] Brahman is real.” In the “natural absorption” or sahaja samadhi recommended by advaita tradition, it doesn’t matter whether a world appears or not. Brahman or spiritual Reality alone IS.
Within several centuries, Advaita Vedanta blended with a deeply devotional, lyrical “love mysticism” in the gorgeous and striking panentheist poetry of Kashmir Shaivism’s Utpaladeva (c900-50) and Abhinavagupta (c950-1015); the Marathi Varkari movement’s leaders Jnaneshvar (1275-96), Namdev (d.1350?), Eknath (c1535-99), and Tukaram (1607-49); and the nirguni “formless God” sants led by Kabir, Ravidas (both 15thc.), Nanak (1469-1539) and the Sikh Gurus. A lovely blend of head and heart. Jnaneshvar and the Kashmir Shaivas, for instance, assert that the universe arises, not as any “mistake,” but as the eternal dynamic love-play (lila) of Shiva and Shakti, who are mysteriously not two but One.
India’s spiritual history sees a dialectic between the deconstructive and constructive, with some nondual teachings more imbalanced toward the transcendent pole of pure via negativa realization at the expense of Divine immanence, whereas other nondual teachings—tantra and certain forms of “extreme” bhakti, for instance—come down the other way into a colorful, complicated via positiva mysticism. Space constraints prevent conveying any further historical details, let alone coverage of stellar modern-era figures including Ramakrishna, Shirdi Sai Baba, Narayana Guru, Ramana Maharshi, Gnanananda, Nityananda, Shivananda, Meher Baba, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Anandamayi Ma, Anasuya Devi, Amma Amritanandamayi, et al., who have so impressively lived the nondual Dharma they teach—and what wonderful teachings! The interested reader may explore all these profound and delightful expressions of Indian advaita/advaya Awakening, past and present, in two forthcoming publications.
II. Therapeutic Applications of Nonduality
We turn from this all-too-brief history of nonduality in India, only hinting at its tremendous treasures, to its therapeutic applications. Amusing paradoxes await anyone who winds up being an instrument, a teaching voice, a sagely presence for nondual tradition. For starters, this is a tradition that is never old, always new and NOW. So “Now,” in fact, that many of its sages declare the “tradition” doesn’t even exist. Nothing has ever really happened! There is only Brahman/Buddhata/Shunyata—no world, beings, words, scriptures. “All phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a mirage, a fairy city,” as Nagarjuna, Gaudapada and Shankara often declare. Advaita reveals that every apparently distinct person encountered in this Divine Dream is, in Truth, none other than an appearance of the Divine Dreamer, and this Awareness has no problems, hence, there’s nothing to teach, no one taught, and no teacher. No guidance, no help of any kind is actually needed for the Infinite/Open/Empty/Full Reality of Self-Shining Spirit.
Ah! but as the same sages affirm, two truths pertain to our situation: the Absolute Truth or Higher Knowledge of true Identity (paramartha-satya, para-vidya), and Conventional Truth or Knowledge (samvriti- or vyavaharika-satya, apara-vidya) pertaining to the relative world of relationships, each domain to be honored appropriately. And the sages say, Woe unto anyone who mixes up these two levels. For example, rationalizing non-virtuous, selfish behavior as the Self’s “lila”-play to avoid personal accountability; or mistaking dissociated, depersonalized apathy and avoidance of helpful service to sentient beings as “spiritual transcendence.” Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) gets the balance right: “Wisdom says I am nobody, Love says I am everybody.” The ancient Buddhist Prajna-Paramita Vajracchedika (Diamond-Cutter) Sutra puts it: “One must sincerely, tirelessly help save all sentient beings. Yet no sentient beings really exist.”
So: in conventional therapy or satsang situations, a person comes for relief from some “dis-ease.” Most therapists and counselors, unaware of Absolute Reality, presume this person really has a problem and somehow has to be rescued, shifted or changed from problematic state A (which usually has other problematic states B, C, underlying A) and brought into the desired goal state X, Y or Z.
Yet for Absolute Awareness there are no problems. On the level of Conventional Truth, yes, the personality has psychic-mental-emotional-physical issues to work through, but one’s fundamental, utterly transpersonal nature has no dilemma whatsoever, no lack, flaw, complication or suffering. The sagely therapist recognizes the friend-client in/as the ever-free Self, the unborn Infinite Awareness characterized by perfect freedom, blissful peace, and radiant vastness.
Also: this friend-client is not an “other.” While certainly wearing a distinctive, unique personality with its own history, needs, feelings, and conditioning, his/her transpersonal Awareness is intimately right HERE, not separate from or other than “one’s own” Awareness. The many selves inhere in this one Self.
Hence the lovely poignancy of any nondual therapy-satsang situation: Divine Awareness in the form of the client “approaches” Awareness in the form of the therapist/facilitator, saying, on the personality-level, “I have a problem.” In the inclusive “two-truth” spiritual logic of Absolute-and-Relative, the Supreme Awareness that we are compassionately, empathetically shares this client’s pain. The drama of the Divine playing the noble role of a struggling human being is so utterly full of dignity and pathos! Yet, Awareness also knows that this Divine-appearing-as-person basically has no real troubles. All that’s “needed” is for Awareness to somehow invite or encourage ItSelf to snap out of the hypnotic trance that one is a limited and problem-prone person, and authentically awaken from the “me”-dream. One shifts from “I am this, I am that” to the original, unborn-undying, non-conceptual I Am That Am.
From this context of true Identity and enlightened Freedom, any personal issues, now “de-problematized,” can then be therapeutically explored, worked through (played through!) and to some extent healed or resolved. A reassuring announcement from many of the most esteemed nondual sages is that everyone awakens to Awareness because there is only Awareness. Thus, throughout the therapeutic process, we know that Right HERE is the Divine Heart of existence—Pure Solid Being-Awareness-Bliss—the profound Truth of whatever experience arises.
Therefore, when people come to satsang or therapy with a felt-sense of a dilemma or impasse, the satsang-facilitator or psycho-spiritual counselor need not further problematize the situation with heavy messages about the person’s poor karma, bad tendencies, weak energy, or abusive parenting (even if these are big factors on the relative-conventional level of the personality). We can always be careful in our satsang-therapy talk about hyping this sense of the problematic—however well it might play into any of our own self-inflating tendencies as the “helper-rescuer-savior-liberator.”
Some spiritual groups, now including many spiritually-oriented psychotherapy groups, overhype “enlightenment” as the Great Goal, and denigrate “unenlightened thought” or “the ego-mind” as a big problem. There is, in truth, no bogeyman. There’s only God, playing all parts, destined to awaken from the personal to transpersonal, and on “perfect Divine schedule.”
In this respect, the simple, natural advaita way from the Upanishads through Nagarjuna and Shankara and medieval sages down to the illustrious Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) seems far healthier and more gracious than the “I’m-enlightened/are-you-enlightened?” carnival surrounding certain teachers. Context here is all-important. If the native presumption is Divine Freedom, that this entire Kosmos is God God-ing God, the One Awareness zestfully playing all the parts/roles, adventuring with highs and lows, pleasures and pains, losses and gains—then any therapeutic work/play happens as part of Freedom Freeing Itself... Perfection Perfecting Itself (Perfectly!).
But if, by contrast, one presumes the conventional view that the person is this vulnerable, pathetic package of protoplasm with a mental voiceover (the usual materialist-“scientistic” presumption), or that the person is some kind of “soul in trouble” (the usual religious or psychic presumption), then one will have no end of problems and futile attempts to resolve them. I say “futile” because there is no real resolution within the me-dream. The only ultimate and pragmatic solution to all problems is waking up from the assumption of false identity. Then one is fully Divine, consciously playing at being fully human.
III. Four Modes of Awakening
Just how Awareness awakens from the me-dream is wondrously mysterious. Beyond the hearing-pondering-meditating on Spiritual Truth, Awareness evidently uses any of four modes to awaken from its own Divine Comedy or Playful Game of apparent (not actual) “Self-forgetfulness.” Competent therapists / satsang facilitators simply encourage any of these to occur.
• Completely stopping/dropping/letting go the illusion of being merely a separate, personal self. There’s no sense of movement, direction or shift in this radical stopping/dropping, only the cessation of me-and-mine via the realization of “Be Still.” In this inner stillness, the obsessive dream of myself/my-world simply falls off and Divine Freedom remains as pristine, Self-luminous No-thing amidst the Everything of spontaneous bodymind activity.
• The way a lens suddenly shifts from being blurry to clearly focused, one clearly Re-cognizes or “Knows again” that one’s real Identity or true Nature is the infinite Openness-Emptiness-Fullness that never moves, changes, shifts, goes anywhere, diminishes or improves.
• A third mode that Awareness deploys to awaken ItSelf to ItSelf is returning Home, “coming back from” the changeable sense of personal selfhood, usually through the inquiry that asks, “Who am I?” and doesn’t settle for or identify with any image, concept, felt-sense, or storyline that might arise. This Who/What am I? self-enquiry has a way of “pulling” the Self out of its outward-turned mind, the pravritti marga or “outward path” of involvement with worldly objects or one’s own thoughts or emotions “back into” one’s native, natural condition of ego-free Awareness right HERE. Many folks actually report that, upon awakening, they suddenly feel like they abide in this mysteriously “placeless” place behind their old sense of self; they feel spontaneously, immediately Here, whereas before they felt identified with a superficial entity or process “out there.” Medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart eloquently put it: “God is at Home, man abroad.”
• A fourth way that Awareness awakens itself from feeling identified with dream-circumstances and the dream-persona seems opposite to mode #3. Awareness, so to say, suddenly “penetrates” or “bursts forth beyond”—and thereby annihilates the dream of limited identity, the apparently solid world of me-and-my-objects. This “feels like” a forward movement, a blasting through an old, actually flimsy veil of ignorance, grasping, fear, and any sense of egotism defining itself through this separative ignorance and attachment-aversion. Awareness explodes whatever apparently limiting self-concepts or world-concepts and all binding likes and dislikes (samskaras, vasanas) that have arisen as old conditioning. Nothing can bind or limit anymore. One is free, floating, flying, frolicking as the One Alone. Any arising appearances-events are transparent forms or energy-vibrations of this Formless Reality.
In some cases, this awakening happens quite abruptly and “dramatically,” a bright light suddenly switched on, whereas in others it occurs gradually, like sunlight slowly, inevitably dawning.
In final Awakening, all selfish “seeking” ceases, yet a natural, non-egoic “healing aspiration” continues, a thorough establishing of Awareness-Freedom-Love-Compassion in all aspects of living, spontaneously clearing out much old shadow-material and habitual bodymind tendencies.
Therapeutically, one is simply available as intelligent-compassionate “space” for this to happen. Skilled therapists-guides will come to have, through their own inner guidance, an intuitive sense of how best to serve the client. It starts with clearly knowing by being the One Free Awareness that we are.
I’ve seen over the many years that excessive use of absolute-level speech by teachers is not fruitful for most individuals. Indeed, “advaita talk” can too often be abused in a contrarian one-upping manner that is merely a disguised power-trip on the part of the wise guy/gal. A client or student asks about some personal or social justice issue, to which the “wise one” retorts, “That is just a dream—nothing is really happening.” Such use of absolute-level parlance may look and sound impressive, but is actually corrupt at the core, because it often serves as a subtle put-down rather than loving empowerment. A blend of compassionate, conventional-level psycho-spiritual counsel along with Absolute-level teachings seems to work best for most folks to awaken from the me-dream in a mature, balanced way.
Spontaneous silence can allow our intrinsically mind-free Identity to abide unto ItSelf. Partners or groups relax back into their primordial sahaja (“inborn”/intrinsic) Awareness-Openness. Yet silence done as a “method” can also become ignorant posturing when there is attachment to physical silence and any aversion toward “disrupting” sounds or useful conversation. Nisargadatta Maharaj, faced with people who claimed they only wanted to “meditate with him in silence,” would insist, “Words first, then silence. You must be ripe for silence.” Anyway, in genuine awakening, it doesn’t matter whether the Silence of the Self occasions physical sounds (i.e., words) or their absence. An active mind is no problem for the sage, just as an active body is no problem—indeed, both are dream-like instruments for spontaneous expression and service.
IV. Common Questions About Awakening
Certain questions often arise for those in the awakening process. For example:
Q: I cannot seem to find, know or perceive the Self or Awareness. I get a vague sense of the Self, but I can’t seem to bring it clearly into focus.
An oft-heard complaint. The Self is not an object to be rendered “clearer” or “more focused.” The clarity of focus is in realizing that one’s true nature as Awareness is not any kind of object, thing or entity at all. Awareness need only rest or abide as ItSelf, sheer Isness-Aliveness-Sentience-Intelligence, the basic roomy Capacity for experience. Invisible and imperceptible, Awareness need not go in search of ItSelf or try to make an object out of ItSelf, just as a fingertip is not “designed” to touch itself and will only convolute or dislocate itself in trying to do so. If you want to perceive the Self, behold the world and all its beautiful beings—Divine Forms of the Formless.
Q: What basic attitude should be maintained?
Just be capacious no-thingness, with a simple, keen curiosity or affectionate amusement over Who/What am I? And what the hell/heaven is going on here? What is the true nature of this arising pain or pleasure, this discomfort or comfort, this confusion or clarity? What is the real nature or underlying reality of this “me”-subject and “my” objects of experience?
In general, one enquires “What is this? What is this particular saliently-arising state (fear, lust, anger, shame, envy, euphoria, pride, numbness, tightness, nervousness, body sensations, thoughts, memories, images, psychic impulses...)? And for Whom does it arise?”
Awareness being the only Reality, when Awareness investigates Its own emanations-productions, It deconstructs them and knows neti, neti, “I’m not this, not this.” The Buddha often put it, “this [whatever aggregate or state] is not mine; this I am not; this is not my self.” This is Buddhist mindfulness, Hindu witnessing, Christian-Sufi watchfulness. No need to get heavy or obsessive with it. There’s nothing to “do” and nobody to “become.”
Just be, just remain as you are, in the relaxed, “natural state,” lucidly dreaming the life-dream, freely noticing-enjoying the basic fact of Awareness and Its objects. And plainly know that You are both this Formless Awareness and these “Form-full” objects. Thus, you can be fully engaged while freely unengaged, compassionately involved while transcendentally uninvolved.
Q: Why are we here in the first place?
This, along with many other similar “why” questions, can, of course, be “answered”—e.g., “to love and serve and to enjoy the adventure of being the Formless playing the dance of Form.” Yet “why” is more usefully re-directed to How is it that there is an arising sense of self and world at all?
A related “why”-question is “Why did the Divine Self dream up this painful illusory world and self-sense?” This, too, can be therapeutically shifted to “Precisely how is it that I identify with and problematize any painful situations and self-sense?”
Q: [One is often then asked:] “So, ‘how’ come there is suffering?”
One can always point the questioner back to classic Advaitin or Buddhist self-enquiry, “Who or What is aware of ‘suffering’?” The knowing Awareness, after all, must be quite different in kind from its object. This Changeless Principle Right Here recognizes various changing emotional, mental, psychic and physical states like suffering, ennui, loss, desire. The Changeless Awareness is not part of or tied to those changeful aspects of experience. If the person further responds, “well it feels like my suffering is changelessly part of my life,” one can reply, “where is it, then, in deep, dreamless sleep?” as evidence that suffering comes and goes and is not always, changelessly part of one-self.
But it is also therapeutically useful to sometimes speak on a more conventional, psychological level by distinguishing between intensity, pain, and suffering. Basically, any form of physical or emotional pain is a form of intense energy that one does not know how to process psycho-physiologically. There is an ancient, evolutionary programming within different species to perceive and judge certain intense stimuli: “Owww! Painful!” Without this discrimination, most animal species never would have survived, lacking incentive to run away from predators chomping on one’s limbs. So pain is a useful alarm signal. Suffering comes in with neurotically self-obsessing thoughts like “Why is God always doing this to me?”
One can drop the “suffering” of certain painful situations by letting go inner judgments, resentments, regrets, expectations and the sense of being the hapless target-entity afflicted by cruel outside forces, and instead simply notice pain, along with intelligently making any changes needed (e.g., pulling the hand away from the fire or moving beyond a chronically abusive relationship). This shift from conflicted suffering to fully experiencing pain is well-known to many professionals working in pain-management clinics, where the emergent wisdom has been to teach clients how to meditatively be-the-pain. Studies indicate that many people’s felt-sense of even physical pain actually diminishes considerably, by up to 80%, by focusing upon pain’s raw sensations and not getting entangled in self-obsessing thoughts about the pain and its relation to “me.”
Marathon runners, swimmers, cyclers, weight-lifters et al. routinely take on extremely painful situations while training. Their muscles and entire physiology painfully “scream” as these athletes repeatedly go beyond their normal felt-sense of physical and mental limits, stretching into greater excellence. Most persons suddenly placed into this stressful situation of athletic training would complain of being put into hell. But athletes seek out this situation—they know they can “become the pain” and realize it as passionately-intense energy. It’s not just that the body-mind starts releasing endorphins and other natural pain-managing chemistry. No, these aware athletes often feel that they’ve been released into nondual aliveness, pure intensity—no more subject of experience, object of experience or dualistic process of experiencing. Just pure experiencing.
This is, notably, one of the very definitions of Brahman in Yoga Vasishtha.
Likewise, we “become one with” any painful physical or emotional situation upon losing the dualistic sense of subject and object and realizing we are really this Formless Awareness nondually being various forms of intensity. This is Shiva experiencing ItSelf as Shakti, Awareness experiencing ItSelf as the sacred world of intense energy.
Q: I feel emptiness, but it feels like a dead, disconnected, nonblissful, meaningless emptiness.
Classic self-enquiry, again, would have one enquire “Who recognizes this emptiness as such?” Alternatively, the individual is invited to explore the precise nature of this dead emptiness—or any bodymind state of suffering or dis-ease (e.g., anger, fear). It is Guest—You are non-separate Host. What are its dynamics? How, precisely, does it manifest for each of the senses and the emotions? How, specifically, is it that the Infinite Being-Awareness-Bliss has packaged ItSelf in such an interesting masquerade? One explores the dead emptiness with that intense curiosity and “lurking suspicion” that it is really an opaque window onto the Divine Reality. So one makes this dead emptiness the object of an informal, ongoing mindfulness or witnessing meditation and, through the clarifying and dissolving power of Awareness, one witnesses it unravel and reveal itself as the Divine temporarily appearing in phenomenal form. As Advaita Vedanta says, whatever is, is Brahman. There’s no other Reality than this. When Awareness focuses on any object/state, it will eventually dissolve it, like sunlight melts a hard solid ice cube into water then into vapor. Awareness ultimately dissolves everything back into pure Aliveness-energy.
It helps here to know that such “dead emptiness” states of feeling hapless, helpless and hopeless are an almost standard crisis (Self-intended!) to render the “me-dream” so intolerable that one ceases to invest or cathect any more energy in “normal” living and instead awakens to Vastness. In other words, when the dream becomes stultifyingly banal or painfully nightmarish, there’s motive to wake up altogether from dreaming. The me-syndrome becomes so “insufferable” that one melts, transcends or simply pulls back from or snaps out of it by resuming one’s real Identity.
Q: I feel lots of energy coming through me and certain powers. How can I become a “co-creator” with God?
This question arises when one believes that there are two Selves, God’s and “mine.” But there is only the nondual Self. Sagely tradition argues here for total humility, clarity and transparency to preempt narcissism, pride, and megalomania. All that is meant to appear will spontaneously happen in and through the various selves as the Self’s play. One need not push the river or add legs to a snake, as Zen says.
Q: I feel an expanded sense of Awareness in meditation and especially here in satsang/therapy, but then I lose it at other times, like at work. I feel I’m only aware of being Awareness some of the time, not all of the time. How to have more consistency?
This very common concern presumes that Awareness is a special state of mind coming and going in time and can somehow be made “constant” by some special discipline, when in fact Awareness is timelessly/always the Constant Substratum of the dream or movie of life. Our Real Nature is this Self-evident, Obvious ISNESS, the only non-changing aspect of our life. All else changes but THIS. And, as Shankara and Ramana Maharshi frequently pointed out, people already know they are constantly the Self and really don’t doubt it. Otherwise, if they were only their changing mind-states with no continuity, they would be incessantly shocked, over and over, moment by moment, by the sudden re-appearance of discrete, discontinuous bodymind states.
So we all know, deep down, subconsciously, that we are the One Self-Awareness. All that’s “needed” is to stop presuming that we are the changing, limited states of the bodymind and stop searching for some special new bodymind state called “enlightenment.” The only way we miss Spiritual Truth is by searching for it on the “object”-ive level of body, mind or psychic-soul.
The fact is that the God-Self—Infinite, Unborn Awareness—is equally present in human confusion and clarity, struggle and ease, failure and success, misery and joy, just as present as when one is on the meditation-seat, the car-seat or toilet-seat. Where else could God be but right HERE? When could God be but right NOW?
Wisely knowing-being this grand yet simple Truth is what allows for deep relaxation, real freedom, blissful peace, and all-embracing love.
Acknowledgment: Pranams to the Absolute, to the nondual sages, and to John Prendergast, friend and early-1980s housemate, for the invitation to contribute to this growing literature for psychotherapists and other helping professionals; Elliott Isenberg, for pointing me to Nisargadatta Maharaj’s I Am That dialogues in 1979; Stephen Quong, for the introduction to Annamalai Swami (a spiritual son of Ramana Maharshi) before my first India trip (1980-1); and Dan McClure, who, in my 18th year, 19 months after a life-changing nondual realization, alerted me to radical inquiry “Who am I?” and “dropping the personality,” and urged: “read everything you can on Ramana Maharshi and Zen.”
1 I have been asked by the editors to focus on the Indian origins of nonduality, specifically within Hinduism, so I only gloss over nonduality in Buddhism (see other contributors’ chapters), I ignore nonduality in India’s Jaina tradition (e.g., sage Kundakunda), and I don’t at all discuss it outside India within: 1) the ancient pre-Socratic Greek sages in Italy/Sicily—Parmenides (c515-450 BCE) and Empedocles (c492-32), those “founders of the Western rationalist tradition,” who were actually nondual-mystic healers, priests, and masters of trance and stillness (hesychia) devoted to Apollo Oulios (see Peter Kingsley’s revisionist works); 2) Chinese contemplative Taoism (Tao-chiao), taught by sages Lao-tzu (c5th/4thc. BCE?), Chuang-tzu (c369-286 BCE), et al.; or 3) among Western Neoplatonic, Christian, Muslim-Sufi and Jewish-Kabbalist mystics (Plotinus, John Scottus Erigena, Meister Eckhart, Bayazid Bistami, Mansur al-Hallaj, Sanai, Rumi, Moshe Cordovero, et al.). One is encouraged to sample, if not deeply explore, all these expressions of nonduality.
2 Since no other contributors to this book are using diacritical marks for foreign terms, I have dropped them for this chapter, sparing editors and typesetters added labors. I transliterate both the retroflex “s” and palatal “s” as “sh,” as in “Krishna” and “Shiva,” even though the palatal “s” has a “thinner” sound. I leave the Sanskrit “c” correctly as “c,” not “ch,” though it is in fact pronounced in English with a “ch” sound.
3 Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Tr.), The Rig Veda: An Anthology, Penguin, 1981.
4 Rig Veda, i.152.5.
5 William Mahony, “Upanishads,” in Mircea Eliade (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, NY: Macmillan, 1987, vol. 15, pp. 148-52.
6 Pratap Chandra, “Was Early Buddhism Influenced by the Upanishads?” Philosophy East & West, vol. 21, no. 3 (July 1971) pp. 317-324. Two further points: 1) I accept the traditional earlier dating for the Buddha (c566-486 BCE), persuasively re-argued by Alex Wayman, E. Bruce Brooks, A.K. Narain, et al., against the revisionist attempt by Heinz Bechert, et al., in the 1980s to argue for a later date for the Buddha (e.g., that he died in 368 BCE). The dating of not just many Buddhist events but also the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, etc. and other ancient Indian historical developments all crucially depend on where we temporally situate the Buddha. 2) The Buddhist idea of anatta/anatman, “no-self,” is better translated as “not-self,” and viewed as a dis-identification strategy, not an ontology bordering on nihilism. See insightful articles by Thanisssaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), “No-self or Not-self” and “The Not-self Strategy,” at www.accesstoinsight.org.
7 All 16 major Upanishads were fully translated by Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanishads, Harper & Brothers, 1953. For translations of fewer numbers, see Valerie Roebuck, Patrick Olivelle, Swami Nikhilananda, et al. Most of the minor Upanishads and all major ones can finally be read in English translations, albeit without Sanskrit text or commentary, at www.celextel.org. The minor Upanishads adhere either to 1) the pure Vedanta of early Upanishads, or else lean toward 2) the rival Yoga-Samkhya system of practices and dualistic views, 3) strict renunciation/sannyas, 4) mantra-recitation, or 5-7) emerging new sectarian theist cults devoted to Vishnu, Shiva, or Divine Mother (Devi, Shakti, etc.). Hence, the seven groupings of minor Upanishads are known as Vedanta, Yoga, Sannyasa, Mantra, Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta Upanishads. Some minor Upanishads have elements from a few or all these categories. Note that most of the Upanishads contain material bearing on creation myths, Vedic rituals, exotica, esoterica, food, sex, gifts, wealth, the body, the afterlife, etc. These Upanishads are not “purely spiritual,” by any means, but reflect the concerns of the colorful, feisty, and very vital Aryan society in which they arose.
8 These five mahavakyas come from BrU i.4.10, ChU vi.8.7, MaU i.2, AU iii.3, and ChU iii.14.1.
9 In a forthcoming work, India’s Sages Source Book (Santa Barbara, CA: Wake Up Press, 2007), I give several hundred full quotes, with references, from the 16 major Upanishads and many minor Upanishads, as well as a few thousand quotes from scores of other sages and texts only briefly mentioned in this article.
10 In several of his works, Nagarjuna uses the equivalent terms shruti, cinta, bhavana, as the threefold prajna/wisdom promoting Jnana or Bodhi, full Awakening to the intrinsic Buddha-nature, the truth of oneself and all appearance. See Lindtner (1997) for Nagarjuna’s additional authentic works beyond his famous Madhyamika-karika philosophy treatise (these other works yield a much broader, more balanced view of the sage).
Note: this contemplative method is first emphasized in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (“See and hear, reflect and concentrate on the Self,” iv.5.6), then more succinctly stated as the triple method in the Paingala Upanishad (iii.2) and Brahma-sutras (iv.1.1) and subsequent works, especially in the treatises by Shankara.
11 Some scholars have tried to argue that the Brahma-sutras are more “qualified nondualist” than purely nondualist; other scholars and sages contest this. For translations, see Swami Vireswarananda, George Thibaut, S. Radhakrishnan. For a synopsis of this and many other works of this tradition, see Potter (1981), Advaita Vedanta up to Samkara and His Pupils.
12 “Reality is that which cannot be subrated [disvalued, contradicted] by any other experience…. The only experience, or state of being, whose content cannot be subrated in fact and in principle by any other experience—which no other experience can conceivably contradict—is the experience of pure spiritual identity … wherein the separation of self and non-self, of ego and world, is transcended, and pure oneness alone remains.” Eliot Deutsch (1973), Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophic Reconstruction, p. 18.
13 On these important sages, see, for starters (and for works not already mentioned), Sankara’s most authentically-attributable independent work, Upadesha Sahasri (various translations); Utpaladeva’s Shivastotravali nondual mystical-love verses (two English translations exist) and his sagely advaita work Ishvara-pratyabhijna-karika; Abhinavagupta’s Paramarthasara; Jnaneshvar’s Amritanubhava and Changdeva Pasashti, etc., and other works of the Marathi poet-saints as translated and discussed by R.D. Ranade and Swami Abhayananda; and work by Charlotte Vaudeville, John Stratton Hawley, and other scholars on the Nirguni Sant and Sikh poet-saints. One can also delve further into medieval advaita/advaya developments within Buddhist and Hindu tantra; e.g., see David Snellgrove and Alex Wayman on Indian Buddhist tantra and the mahasiddhas, and George Weston Briggs on the quasi-Hindu Natha sect of Shaiva tantrikas (Gorakhnath, et al.).
14 See the author’s forthcoming 2-volume work, India’s Sages Source Book: Nondual Wisdom from Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas, Tantrics, Sants, Sikhs & Sufis, featuring over 120 sages and texts; and, covering the modern era, India’s Sages: Nondual Wisdom from the Heart of Freedom (Wake Up Press, 2007), with biographical sketches and ample spiritual teachings of more than 30 sages.
15 Personal communication, Bombay, January, 1981. A version of this same idea is also found in the modern-era “nondual bible” of Maharaj’s discussions with aspirants, I Am That: Conversations with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Maurice Frydman, Tr.), revised 1-volume ed., 1982.
16 In his article “Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience,” in The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy (John Prendergast, Peter Fenner, & Sheila Krystal, Eds.), St. Paul, MN: Paragon, 2003, ch. 6, John Welwood writes of this as “becoming fully human,” beyond subhuman egoity or transhuman egolessness. With students/clients, I have termed this “the poignant dignity of God playing the role of human being”—to be deeply honored in “oneself” and “others.”
17 I recommend the delightful experiential “experiments” (“the science of the 1st Person”) shared by British sage Douglas Harding (1909-2007) for authentically realizing Awareness (beyond mere abstract concept) as one’s imperceptible but quite be-able Self. See www.headless.org and bibliographic references.