The Three Levels of Nondual Reality

© Copyright 2003 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

[The following is adapted from the April 2003 featured interview with Timothy Conway by Arnie Cooper for The Sun magazine, the full text of which interview is available at this weblink here. The "Three Levels of Reality" model is given here separately to facilitate ease of accessing this model for those who have expressed interest in reading about it. This is a very powerful explanatory model to account for such things as help and harm, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice (level 3); along with the idea or perception that "it's all perfect," that life is an exquisitely-scripted "Divine Comedy" (level 2); and the deepest mystical realization that "nothing is really happening—only God/Awareness" abides (level 1).]

* * * * * * * * *

Many people feel a tension between the more contemplative life on the one hand, and the more engaged activist life on the other. Or, on a conceptual and emotional level, they wonder how to integrate purely nondual, "Absolute-level" spiritual teachings with "conventional-level" notions of ethics and morality, politics and justice issues.

To heal this conflict, I think it helps to see our situation on three levels—all equally true and valid. I’ll start with the most familiar level, level three, the level of our ordinary, non-mystical experience in the world. This is a realm of opposites, of pleasure and pain. In some spiritual literature, you hear a lot about going beyond the opposites, beyond duality, but let’s stop at this level and acknowledge the loss and gain, the beauty and ugliness. This is the level of right and wrong and good and evil. It’s humans doing despicable things to each other and to our ecosystems. It’s also all the good and beauty and joy in the world.

Look at September 11 and the horrific damage the terrorists caused: not just the nearly three thousand dead, but also those who were scarred for life, the economic dislocation, the massive layoffs and monetary losses. But there was also the great heroism shown by the firefighters and police officers and rescue workers and all those who donated their blood and time and energy. The events of September 11 showed both the best and worst of humanity.

This is level three: the amazing play of good and evil. At this level, one must look evil in the face and see it for what it is. And one must be willing to step up with an engaged spirituality and do what needs to be done for the public good. I do not mean mere charity, but getting involved in enacting justice. There’s a big difference between charity and justice. Bill Moyers said, “Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.” He wrote that in the preface to a book by another hero of mine, Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical Christian, editor of the spiritual-political journal Sojourners and cofounder of the Sojourners community. In his book, Wallis says, “We need to do more than pull people out of the river before they drown; someone needs to go upstream to see who or what is throwing them in”—for example, government policies that punish poor and middle-class Americans, or corrupt foreign-aid practices that destroy habitat and displace thousands or millions of people from their ancestral lands. So level three, the realm of good and evil, is where engaged spirituality shines.

As for level two, we realize here that, whatever happens, it’s all perfect. The great fourteenth-century Christian saint Juliana of Norwich was immensely troubled by the misery around her, the sinfulness of people, and the traditional idea that sinners would go to eternal hell. Then she experienced a dazzling revelation: Jesus appeared to her and, among many other lovely utterances, said to her, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” And this beautiful secret from God was revealed to her—that all beings would somehow be brought Home. No one would have to permanently suffer in hell, for God is our deepest truth, our real condition of eternal love and bliss.

This goes back to the old, largely forgotten Christian idea of apokatastasis, or universal salvation taught by Origen and Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Scotus Eriugena: God’s love is so powerful that no creature can exile itself from this Love forever. It may take eons, but at some point God will redeem all souls. Even Satan will be reconciled in God’s love.

The beauty of universal redemption is that, no matter what’s happening on level three—the oppression, exploitation, and terrorism—it’s all perfect, for this Divine Comedy has a happy ending. Moments, or periods, or even eons of suffering are ultimately “outshined” by reconciliation in God.

This idea is not found just in Christianity. It is also known to mystical Sufis and Hasidic Jews, and it is openly acknowledged in the Eastern traditions. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna promises universal salvation for all beings. So, too, does the Buddha, when he says that all beings will come to nirvana, that none of the conditioned states are permanent. The ancient Brahma Sutras of India say, “All beings will eventually become Brahman,” or Divine Reality, “because there is only Brahman.”

So, with this blissful outcome for all, there’s a sense that it’s all perfect. Yes, there are times of terrible tragedy and tribulation, but ultimately everything turns out well. All souls—really God in disguise—use their suffering as grist for the mill to produce sublime awakening to Spirit.

Ramakrishna, the great Bengali master of the nineteenth century, when asked why we suffer, replied: “To add zest to the play.” In classic works of comedy, from Shakespeare to the Marx Brothers, things get darkest before the dawn. And when that dawn comes, when the comedic climax happens, all those on stage awaken to an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness. In the highest form of comedy, even the villains are converted. So here at level two, the deep, mystical part of us realizes that all is well. Unlike our vulnerable human aspect, which fears things are going down the drain, this deep Self knows that, in the exquisite script authored by Divine Intelligence, it’s all perfect and everything happens for a reason. You can take this on faith, but mystics know it in the core of their being as the truth of every situation.

Arnie Cooper: Many people have trouble even taking it on faith. They want proof.

Conway: Well, in a way, modern physics supports this aspect of the mystical view. The basic parameters to get a physical cosmos had to be absolutely, utterly perfect—otherwise this nearly 14 billion-year-old universe just wouldn’t have happened. So many astounding fine-tunings underlie this world that it’s obvious to many scientists that divine intelligence and wisdom are active in the process.

What holds the cosmos together is a great mystery. Respected Princeton mathematician and physicist Elliott Lieb has worked for thirty years on the “foundational problem”—the question of why matter is stable. Why doesn’t the atom just implode and then explode? Another glaring anomaly is that, at the origin of the material universe, there happened to be a tiny bit more matter than antimatter. If there had been equal amounts, which is what one would expect, then everything would have just canceled out. But there just so happened to be a few more quarks than anti-quarks, in just the right proportion.

And let’s ponder that initial inflationary period of the physical universe: the infinitesimal Planck moment, the tiniest moment in physics, 10-43 second—a ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second! In this original moment in time, a “speck of nothing,” a quantum bubble of space-time, inflated out of the “vacuum” to the size of a soccer ball. Then the inflation somehow stopped and the Big Bang process took over to slowly unfold our universe through an energy radiation phase to the birth of matter, and then evolving galaxies, stars, and planets to their present proportions. Now, why did that original inflationary cosmic bubble expand to a certain point and then stop? If it hadn’t gone far enough or had gone too far, in that initial Planck moment, we wouldn’t have a universe today.

And, in a fascinating development over the last two decades, superstring or M theory, accepted by over 90 percent of theoretical physicists, holds that our familiar, four dimensional space-time cosmos must be embedded within an eleven-dimensional hyperspace, a much subtler realm ultimately rooted in the immaterial.

In the realm of chemistry and biology, one great anomaly is water. A century ago, Lawrence Henderson of Harvard explained that water is, in many ways, a miracle substance. It has some highly unusual properties compared to other molecular compounds. And without water, you wouldn’t have any complex forms of life.

The famous astronomer Fred Hoyle, after being an atheist for most of his life, found remarkable and inexplicable anomalies in the chemistry of stars that caused him to declare that “a super intellect has monkeyed with [the basic laws of] physics as well as chemistry and biology.”

A survey done by the journal Nature revealed that 49 percent of scientists believe in a personal God. That number surely would have jumped to 70 or 80 percent had the question allowed for belief in a transpersonal God, such as the one that Einstein held dear.

The point is this: Atheistic materialists who claim the universe is just an accident have to appeal to the almighty “laws of physics” to account for how the cosmos got to be so stable and so conducive for the emergence of complex forms of life. But when we see how many absolute miracles of fine tuning were necessary for a universe and sentient beings to manifest, it becomes a semantic quibble whether you invoke “the laws of physics” or “God,” because they share the same divine powers of manifestation. Of course, the mystics would say that God actually has powers beyond the physical cosmos.

Cooper: We still haven’t gotten to level one.

Conway: Well, after level two—the realization that everything is the perfect design of Intelligent Spirit—you might ask, “What could level one possibly be?”

Level one is the deepest mystical truth, namely: Nothing is happening. The world is a dream. There’s only God here. It’s always only been God, changeless and full. A hymn repeatedly found in the ancient Upanishads declares, “Praise to the great Divine Fullness (Purnam),” which remains perfect and changeless despite all that is happening at levels two and three. Because at level one, nothing is happening. What appears to be happening at the other levels is a dream of Consciousness. Sufi saint Hakim Sana`i declared: “You think you are something, but that something is nothing.” La ilaha illah Llah. There is nothing but God.

Here again modern physics helps out, revealing that atoms are 99.999999 percent empty space. Shimmering fields of energy underlie the appearance of matter. And energy, physicist Richard Feynman declared, is a complete mystery. Thus, an increasing number of physicists are considering that consciousness may be the basic reality, the source of everything.

The finest nondual advaita scriptures of India use humor to explain this. Yoga Vasishtha, for example, playfully states, “The cosmos is like two sons born to a barren woman who did not really exist, and one day they went out and got on their horses that had never been born and traveled along a nonexistent path to an uncreated land to a town that existed only in the imagination.” These advaita scriptures all affirm that the world is a dream-play of the Supreme Consciousness. Yes, a world-appearance is happening that has a relative reality to it, rich with phenomenal experiences—colors, sounds, textures, tastes, smells, bodily pains and pleasures, emotional ups and downs. Yet it’s all a dream. And if you bring attentive awareness to it, and a strong urge to awaken, the dream’s apparent solidity is dissolved. And that’s true for the ego as well, the sense of me, my mind, my body.

So here’s the paradox: in Spirit—wide open, vast, spacious, infinite Being-Awareness—the No-thing manifests as “something,” a world of phenomenal entities and processes. But, as the Zen masters say, it’s all sunyata, empty fullness. It’s manifesting as Arnie, as Timothy, as the plants, the walls and all these beings within these walls and beyond, from the microscopic bacteria to fungi, to animals, to life on other planets. The entire play of all these souls is the One sitting where it always sits, spaceless, timeless, conjuring up a dream of multiplicity. Within the heart-mind of God appears this Cosmos-dream, manifesting on subtle levels of refined light, from the heavens all the way down to the denser, gross levels of the physical plane. Wondrous and poignant adventures are happening. God plays all the parts.

Cooper: But if, on level one, none of this is really happening, then why are we talking?

Conway: Why not? It’s part of the divine play at levels two and three. You see, all these levels are simultaneously true. Nothing is happening, and everything is happening. “Wisdom says I am nothing; love says I am everything” was how one of my mentors, Nisargadatta Maharaj, put it to those of us who sat with him. The completion of the journey Home is realizing one’s identity as both formlessness and form, nothing and everything, nobody and everybody. And that’s where engaged spirituality spontaneously manifests. When you know that there’s only God here, you’re motivated to do whatever it takes—peacefully protesting, serving, educating, praying—to alleviate suffering and remedy injustice.

Cooper: But what about the realization that it’s all perfect? Why do anything at all?

Conway: Ram Dass related a wonderful story about this. Coming from a good, progressive Jewish family, he was much interested in tzedek, or justice. One day he was kvetching to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, about the suffering in God’s creation, and his guru finally cut him short, saying: “Look, Ram Dass, suffering is perfect.” And Ram Dass, shocked by this apparently callous statement, began to marshal his intellectual resources to argue with his guru. But Neem Karoli stopped him again and said: “And, Ram Dass, your attempt to end suffering is also perfect.”

There’s no airtight case for why we should pursue social or environmental justice, given the fact that everything’s perfect. But, paradoxically, God prefers good over evil, even though God is also playing the villains on the world stage, from Nero to Hitler to Stalin to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said, regarding the five hundred thousand innocent children dead in Iraq because of U.S. sanctions, “We think the price is worth it.” Yet God is also the human-rights activists attempting to educate folks like Albright, and God manifests as all progressives rising up to protest and heal injustice.

[The essential point here is this: mature, balanced spirituality sees all three of these levels as simultaneously true, no one level is to be overvalued or undervalued at the expense of the other two levels.]