Varieties of Nondual Realization: Divine Play as One/Many
(c) Copyright 2006 by Timothy Conway
[Note: This paper was originally written as a rather free-wheeling overview essay for professionals in the mental health field and/or satsang leaders of nondually-oriented gatherings. For this web-version of the essay, I have removed all diacritical marks. Boldfaced numbers refer to endnotes at the end of the essay.]
Right HERE is the Heart of existence—Pure Solid Awareness—the profound Truth or Reality1 of whatever experience/experiencer arises. This is Nondual Realization, the quintessential mystical experiencing.
In the grand dream of life, it is historically significant that western psychology, through the work of cutting-edge theorists and clinicians, has increasingly integrated the traditionally mystical-spiritual nondual perspective. A strong recent movement of nondually-oriented psychotherapists interfaces with a nondual and “neo-nondual” spiritual movement in Asia, Europe and America featuring more-or-less enlightened teachers and students in lineages of eastern and western religions.2
Nonduality commenced in literate form some 2,800 years ago with India’s most ancient Upanishads and developed through later Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Ch’an/Zen Buddhism, Jainism, Indo-Tibetan Tantra, Kasmir Saivism, Nirguni Bhakta Sant spirituality, and circles of Neo-Platonism, Christian mysticism, Sufism, and Jewish Kabbalah-Hasidism.3
Reflecting on 35 years’ study (since 1971) and over 20 years of facilitating nondual realization for friends, students, and clients, I notice how authentic Nondual Realization can be a veritable panacea, bringing undreamed of peace, freedom, solidarity with all life, and real bliss. And various age-old, persistent conflicts that arise for so many spiritual aspirants—free will vs. destiny, effort vs. non-effort/grace, head vs. heart, involvement vs. un-involvement, relationship vs. non-relationship—are all wonderfully resolved by the nondually-inclusive realization: “in Reality, both are true/needed” (just as Quantum Mechanics has had to utilize a similar complementarity principle to account for the fact that subatomic mystery-entities like electrons are both particle-like and wave-like, a blatant contradiction, but… that’s just the nature of physical reality).
By way of elaborating on an array of topics in nondual spirituality, and addressing what I see as major pitfalls afflicting spiritual development—disorientation; depersonalized apathy; self-inflation/megalomania and/or paranoia; and “anything goes” moral relativism—in this article I explore fourteen domains of “nondual realization,” or “enlightened freedom.” These include not only the intuitive-cognitive domain (the domain that most people focus on), but also the affective (emotional), motivational-behavioral, ethical/moral, relational, temporal, spatial, devotional, psycho-linguistic, socio-political, financial, sexual and other domains.
1) The way that most teachers and aspirants most often conceive of or speak about nondual spirituality is intuitive-cognitive awakening from the narrow, limited sense of “me” identity, with its problematically egocentric agenda. And to What does one awaken? This awakened/awake Nondual Reality is variously termed the Nondual One Who Alone IS (One-without-a-second, Advaita), the Formless Absolute Being-Awareness, the changeless Noumenon ontologically beyond/prior to all changing phenomena, the utterly transcendent “No-thing” paradoxically immanent within all “things,” the infinite-eternal (spaceless-timeless) Reality/Self Brahman/Atman, uncreated Spirit, Siva, Tao, Buddha-Nature (Buddhata), Sunyata (Emptiness-Openness), Dharmakaya (Truth Body), al-Haqq (Truth), Ain-Sof (Infinite No-thingness), Gottheit (Godhead), Spirit, I-Am-That-Am.
The spiritual awakening or liberating wisdom-knowledge (knowing by being) is also variously termed by different sacred traditions as jnana, vijnana, prajna, bodhi/bodha, nibbana/nirvana, ming tao, hsuan-t’ung, ta wu, haqiqa, ma`rifa, gnosis, theoisis, etc.
In this genuine nondual awakening, the chronic felt-sense of identifying with the particular yields unto realization of operating from and flourishing as the Whole. One isn’t just a self among selves or being among beings, but the Self/Being of all. The more-or-less alienated sense of being an entity among a herd of entities gives way to being Infinite Host for all the “Guests” who are essentially none other than Host-in-disguise. And this realization is no insidious solipsism, no reifying (thing-ifying) of “me.” One knows: “I am Absolutely No-thing.” As ancient Buddhist tradition knew: “There is nirvana, but no one in it.”4
2) A mature, key stage of Realization corrects any imbalance toward “mere transcendence” that awakening from the relative to the Absolute can occasion. Full awakening to the transcendent/immanent Absolute is, therefore, awakening to the utter sacredness of the Phenomenal as well. Mature spirituality thus intuits nonduality of both Formlessness and Formfullness, i.e., Absolute Awareness and Phenomenal Appearance. This is what Prajna Paramita Hridayam (Heart) Sutra affirms: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” and likewise with the other four skandhas (“sensation is emptiness, emptiness is sensation;... perception;... reactions;... egoic cognizing”).”5 Hindu Advaita Vedanta distinguishes but sees the nonduality of Nirguna Brahman (Reality without qualities) and Saguna Brahman (Reality with qualities), or Brahman and Maya. Kasmir Saivism (Utpaladeva to Abhinavagupta) and Maharashtra’s Varkari mystics (Jnanesvar to Tukaram) speak and sing so eloquently of this as the nonduality of Siva and Sakti. Ch’an quaintly terms them “Host” and inseparable “Guest” (li-shih). Kabbalah: Ein-Sof (Infinite No-thing) and Yesh (Sefirot-emanations and worlds-of-form). The ultimate nonduality of Noumenon and Phenomena, Stillness and Dynamic Activity, Silence and Sound, Nothing and Everything.
Experientially, this means we always both transcend and permeate whatever arises. Hence we can be fully involved/engaged in life while being freely uninvolved/unengaged. Bombay sage Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) put it in a disidentification/re-identification model: “Wisdom says: I am nobody. Love says: I am everybody.” Jesus said: “Be in the world, but not of it.”
This balance helps us stay free of the common syndrome of being identified/caught in bodily-mental phenomena on the one imbalanced extreme, and, on the other, chronic dissociation, depersonalization, “zombified” apathy, unfriendly robotic aloofness.
Along this line, a major semantic clarification helps here regarding the commonly-used term “incarnation.” We’re never actually trapped “in the meat (in-carne).” We realize that, as transcendent Awareness, we are so free that we freely permeate and animate the bodymind. We are associated intimately with the bodymind, but are never caught in it or defined by it.
Moreover, the body isn’t some “entity” or “thing,” anyway, but a flowing process of 30-70 trillion cells and diverse organ systems all functioning in miraculous (“wondrous”) fashion, made of molecules made of atoms made of fundamental energy-emptiness. The mind is just as wondrously magical—how do thoughts arise? What is their substance? How do attention, perception and memory really operate?
In short: one doesn’t become bodiless or mindless, but body-free, mind-free, free to fully express as bodymind. Similarly, realizing the Transpersonal One doesn’t mean becoming frozen and incapable of expressing one-self as personality. Yes, the word persona means “mask” or “facade”—but the Self utilizes personae for inter-relationship. Transpersonal psychologist John Welwood sees this as “becoming fully human,” beyond subhuman egoity or transhuman egolessness.6 With students/clients, I have termed this “the poignant dignity of God playing the human being”—to be deeply honored in “oneself” and “others.”
Not stuck in “mere transcendence,” full Realization knows the intrinsically perfect harmony of body/mind/world with Spirit—all are realized to be different vibratory states of One Nondual Manifestation. Ancient Vedanta symbolizes these emanations as the primordial consciousness-vibration AUM/OM. Nondual Awareness regards neither body, mind, nor world as impediments for Awakeness. Compare this with the anti-body, anti-world tendencies in ancient Indian sramana circles (within Jainism, Buddhism, Samkhya-Yoga), and in certain western religious movements—Gnosticism, Manichaeism and their later, medieval reincarnation as Albigensian Christianity, representing heretical tendencies near the surface of Christianity down to the present.
Because bodymind or world aren’t fundamentally problematic for nondual Awareness, there’s no need for “yogic fussy-ness”—obsessively trying to purify them. As we’ll see, spontaneous purification, refinement, harmonization can develop, but there’s no egoic agenda involved.
3) Nonduality of “method”: beyond a basic, passionate curiosity concerning “Who/what am I, really?” or “What is THIS?” (regarding any state, including egoic consciousness itself)—no complicated method or technique awakens one to Formless/Formfull Awareness. What “technique” do you use to awaken from a dream during sleep? You just cease to identify with the dream-environment and its subject (the “dreaming me”) and you wake up.
So, too, spiritual awakening is simply ceasing to believe that one is a “me-soul-person-anything,” and remaining free as Boundless Awareness transcending/permeating all phenomena. This is, essentially, “de-hypnosis”—snapping out of a longstanding trance of limited identification, separation, reifying, clinging, worrying, strategizing. Nothing is being “done” by an ego-sense within the dream-trance, for ego—a series of contracted mind-states—has no power to do anything, being fundamentally jada (“inert”), as India’s ancient sages knew.
Thus, there’s no actual going anywhere in Awakening—no path, landmarks, stages of initiation, destination or goal “out there” in psychological space-time. Zen master Dogen (1200-53) woke up under Chinese Ch’an master Ju-ching with the words, Shinjin datsuraku, “Body-mind dropped off!” For Zen master Bankei (1622-93), it’s simply realizing “we’re always unborn (fu-sho) Buddha-nature.” Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) declared, “Truth is a pathless Land.” Meher Baba (1894-1969) put it: “The journey is from here to HERE.”
We have very useful psycho-spiritual “12-Step programs” in the Addiction Recovery movement. Radical nondual spiritual awakening is, essentially, a “0-step unprogramming”—the ultimate yet natural “Recovery” of what was never actually lost: one’s fundamental Reality as raw Isness-Aliveness-Awareness.
So we drop any “busy-ness” masquerading as spirituality. The Bliss of our Being needs no busy-ness, no agitated stratagems, to naturally affirm ItSelf.
South India’s master advaita sages, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) and Swami Gnanananda (d.1974), and Sri Lanka's Yoga Swami (1872-1964) always expressed in Tamil the epitome of the “way”: Summa Iru, “Be still,” “Just Be.” So did Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918) in telling sincere aspirants: "Only keep quiet and I [the God-Self] will do the rest."
My fiery mentor Nisargadatta emphasized: “Just Be, and don’t get restless over trying to ‘be.’ Just BE.”
The Ch’an/Zen masters knew: “don’t add legs to a snake.” The “Way” is simple, non-rigid, flowing stillness, dynamic silence. It timelessly begins and sustains with the clarity born of natural ease, what medieval sages Saraha, Jnaneshvar, Kabir, Nanak, et al., term Sahaj, what Ramana, Nisargadatta, and other advaitins call Sahaja Samadhi, the natural oneness or Divine absorption.
Having said all that, I hasten to add: authentic nonduality doesn’t preclude or shut out spontaneous forms of spiritual expression like meditation, devotional worship (chanting/singing/ceremony), charitable and social justice works, pilgrimage, or making spiritual art. Enlightenment doesn’t mean becoming idle, an inert statue! Zen declares: “Wake up from ego, then real spirituality can unfold.”
These spiritual activities can occur spontaneously, freely, as Self’s natural, exuberant dream-actions without any motive to “get something” or “reach somewhere” via such actions. These “effortless efforts” just appropriately happen—for the wholesome spiritual fun of it and because there is a spontaneous dynamic of deepening, the Self establishing ItSelf more fully in/as ItSelf.
This involves a holy aspiration distinct from any neurotic “seeker’s syndrome.”
Let me elaborate: it is fashionable in the neo-Advaita movement (with pockets of preachers and practitioners from India to Europe to America)7 to dramatically emphasize the “finality” of Enlightenment and “calling off the search.” The crux of this message is to cease looking for the Divine outside yourself and know that the Self is your true Self. Peace/freedom/bliss is your true nature. And that’s that!
This “ending the search” certainly helps stop the usual restless hunting for the Divine Self as a perceptible object for the mind. And yes, a rather charismatic euphoria (giddiness?) can result from suddenly ceasing to seek after so many years/decades/lifetimes of hankering for the Divine as a special state or “object”-ive.
Alas, many who “call off their search” find that the thrill or rush of letting it go brings no permanent satisfaction. Apathy or restlessness ensues, often covered up by the remembered “afterglow” when their neurotic seeking ended.
This neo-Advaita message seems to chiefly pertain only to the first three of the “10 Fetters” (samyojanani) outlined by the Buddha, namely, 1) realizing the nonexistence of any fundamental egoity and 2-3) abandoning doubt and the belief that any ego-based methods can produce nibbana. These three are obviously crucial, but they only begin the process of real spiritual maturation. One hears very little in this neo-Advaita movement of the need for attenuating further fetters described by Siddhartha and other sages: sensual desire, aversion, pride, restlessness, etc.
All authentic adepts of nondual spirituality emphasize what I call a “nondual holy aspiration” that can spontaneously ensue upon dropping egocentric beliefs and practices. When the neurotic seeker-syndrome drops off, there can still flourish—now even more powerfully!—a dynamic aspiration for real wholeness/holiness. This is mumuksatva, sincere yearning for Realization, that Sankara urged as essential for full Self-awakening, Atma-Bodha. This is the “tremendous earnestness” urged by Nisargadatta. It isn’t neurotic searching for “liberation” as a special achievement for “me” (Nisargadatta: “liberation is not for the self, but from the self”).
Rather, this holy aspiration, sincere yearning or ego-free earnestness, is the One Nondual Reality manifestly “being all that It can be,” exploding longstanding egoic conditioning for the soul/personality/mind-stream to allow for a spontaneous blossoming and flourishing of virtues: loving-kindness, compassion, empathy-sympathy, clarity, courage, natural unattachment, generosity and a spirit of selfless service toward whomever one encounters (the Self in disguise).
This aspiration sprouting forth beyond seeking is Self’s way of purifying and refining the personality as an instrument for wholesome expression within the life-dream.
Yes, it’s paradoxical: whereas whatever happens is meant to happen, otherwise something else would be happening (by almighty Divine Will), and therefore whatever happens is realized to be “perfect Divine Play,” this holy aspiration reveals an intrinsic Divine urge to also perfect its manifestation. “Perfection perfecting itself perfectly,” a Taoist friend once said.
4) Nonduality in emotional experience. All experiences are permutations of one energy, intensity or vibration. Therefore, we are equanimous witnessing/feeling the play of opposites: pleasure-pain, fame-shame, gain-loss, justice-injustice, etc. There's no need to fall into chronic emotional reactivity.
Advaita yoga-sage Jean Klein used to say, “there’s only one true emotion [that which radiates/emotes]: Love. All else is a contraction of Love.”
This equanimous love, or freedom from the unwholesome samskaras or binding likes and dislikes, deepens into nondual realization that underlying and actually constituting all the different shades of emotion, sensation, perception and thought is the One Intensity or Energy (Tibet: “One Taste”), just as white light is the source of all distinct “colors” in the electro-magnetic spectrum.
This allows for a keen felt-sense of the suchness (Buddhism: Tathata) of whatever arises as a permutation of experience.
Notice how spiritually-oriented students and clients are often distressed when certain emotions, thoughts and behaviors still arise, like anger, lust, fear, greed, insensitivity, confusion, and so on. They feel disgusted at themselves: “I can’t possibly be enlightened because X still comes up for me.” (Would that sociopaths and certain political-corporate leaders suffered from this over-developed conscience!)
Anyone suffering excessive conscientiousness can be invited to view whatever arises as “the Divine in Dreamed Disguise.” For instance, rather than spending too much time trying to figure out why anger arose, or suppress it, bypass it, or vent it (the last strategy, deployed too often, only succeeds in grooving anger right into the psyche as a samskara), one can instead enter into the vibratory energy we glibly, abstractly call “my anger,” and, thus penetrating into it, we open it up with the all-permeating power of Awareness; we savor the suchness of this “anger” to get an intuitive sense of how it pulses, what energy-field vibrations it occasions in us, what bodily sensations it creates, what inner chatter it provokes in the psyche’s verbal aspect, and what inner pictures/scenarios it triggers in the psyche’s visual aspect.
The inquiry, then, is “What is this X (particular state)? What is it, really?” “How is this X none other than Awareness/Reality in disguise?”
A fortunately quite frequent experience is that when keen curiosity and appreciative wonder are allowed to host and penetrate whatever arises, then the phenomena involved in the arising state—so-called “unwholesome” emotions, “troublesome” thoughts, and “problematic” behaviors—amazingly loosen up and reveal, perhaps other complexes, but eventually just deeper, subtler, freer energy states.
An illustrative metaphor is H2O in the form of an ice-cube. Any chronically problematic emotion, thought, or behavior is like the ice-cube: apparently solid, hard, unchanging, unyielding. But bring that seemingly solid ice-cube into the warmth of sunlight, and it begins to melt and dissolve, becoming at first softer on the edges, then becoming liquid even to the core, then vaporizing into gas. Take this further and, with enough light-heat energy applied, one explodes the hydrogen and oxygen atoms into pure light-energy!
Likewise, bringing any chronically arising phenomenon (anger, fear, craving, whatever) into the “light of Awareness” eventually dissolves it back into the one amorphous intensity of unstructured, free Aliveness Energy: Sakti or Ch’i.
So whatever arises with whatever kind of emotional charge is the secret gateway home to Reality.
5) Nonduality in the motivational domain. Free of samskaras that distort our perception/cognition, limit our behavioral repertoire, and create a heavy egocentric agenda, we are fully available and responsible (able-to-respond) for the welfare of all, the commonweal. Such equanimity and freedom from egoic motivation set us free to love, serve, work, create, play, and worship in whatever appropriate way suggested by Divine Intelligence/Guidance, the Divine Will or Tao-Flow. One can “love all, serve all”—ranging from “little acts of love” to massive community or global projects. (It’s all one manifestation.) There’s a spontaneous wanting to give, not take, at work here, and nothing obsessive or dualistic about it—after all, who gives to whom when there’s only Awareness?
This nondual motivation takes us far beyond merely speculative “armchair” nonduality. One teacher purporting to be a “successor” to Nisargadatta (but exposed for womanizing and financial exploitation) has frequently claimed that “the Understanding is all,” that advaita realization is entirely about a certain (merely) cognitive “apperception that Consciousness is the only Reality.”
This apparently-profound but actually shallow teaching, however, ignores the fact that all Nondual Tradition has taught that liberation’s essence is not mere cognitive understanding of Truth, but actual living of Truth in genuine freedom from the binding likes/dislikes and egoic complexes, the samskaras, vasanas, klesas, nafs or “sinful tendencies.” Genuine liberation, in other words, operates more in the motivational sphere rather than merely the cognitive, though, of course, the latter can powerfully shape the former.
The precious fruit of real liberation/awakening is this availability and generosity.
6) Nonduality of action—The truly free being, whose motivation has been cleared/purified, realizes that s/he is not “the doer,” and that there are no multiple, praiseworthy or blameworthy doers/agents, because all actions happen according to one Divine Sakti/Power/Tao/Agent. The Bhagavad Gita bluntly states an old Vedanta insight about non-doership: “No one slays, no one is slain.” (ii.19) This annihilation of the sense of ego-agency has been widely, if usually rather cautiously, expressed in sacred tradition. Modern-era sage Anasuya Devi (1923-85) openly and often taught this, taking it to its logical, comic conclusions: “THAT alone is the cause for everything.... THAT does all the mischief while all the time making you think that you are the cause.”8 (Space constrictions preclude any lengthy quoting of her rich teachings on this topic).
So what about all the practices/methods that are recommended by spiritual teachers? India’s parabhakta saint Papa Ramdas (1884-1963) sometimes revealed the big secret that spiritual practices (sadhanas) are prescribed only to exhaust the sense of doership and the sense that egoic action can achieve anything!
7) Nonduality within/beyond the temporal sphere: discovering the experiential now, and, underlying this, the Eternal Now, as the Reality wherein aliveness most fully, freely happens. One is opened to this Reality by not buying into the escapist mental tendency to conjure up a “past” and a “future” to cling to and indulge as an avoidance of present issues. The Buddha discovered 2,500 years ago the liberating, healing power of mindfully attending to phenomena arising in the unfolding “now,” such as arising/passing breath sensations, bodily feelings, mental events, etc. Ancient Vedanta and Ch’an/Zen lineages contain rich counsel on “mind abiding nowhere / Now-Here,” and attending to the dynamics of the moment, obviating the chronic human tendency to abstract into a remembered past or anticipated future. J. Krishnamurti’s talks/writings on “choiceless awareness,” “attending to what is,” and “freedom from the known” echo and reinforce the way of simply being present, without thought or the hankering for special experiences, and as free from old conditioning as possible. On the basis of this wise orienting to the ever-fresh present, something of a “Be Now” cottage industry has sprung up in the West—from Alan Watts and Ram Dass books/tapes to the est/Forum movement’s clearing present space for life to happen, to Eckhart Tolle’s more recent Power of Now products.
Letting the past simply be past, one is always free in this moment to have life manifested anew, fresh, without the burden of old conditioning and the trauma, expectations and distortions this entails. One’s true nature is a vast, open clearing—pristine, untaintable, invincible—out of which the dream of life wondrously unfolds.
Back in the early 1970s I realized that, at the beginning of each moment one is always fully free, undefined, unbounded, infinite. What a revelation!—the “me”-dream is neither constant nor solid; it is not a given in this moment. Yet as each moment unfolds in psychological time, an “ego maintenance job” (Wilber: the “Atman project”) gets created—or karmically re-created—in small flashes of time, and there arises the sense of being a separate, limited, bound self, defining itself through ignorance, attachment and aversion (Vedanta/Yoga: ajnana-raga-dvesa; Buddhism: moha-lobha-dosa).
This realization is colossally important for therapeutic and spiritual practice: rather than always presuming one is bound, one presumes Freedom. One notices how “un-free” states seem to be momentarily created; not buying into them, one “sees them off,” for whatever comes, goes. One thereby obviates at the very root any presumption of a problematic identity needing somehow to become “enlightened.” There is no “me” to be “liberated.”
A caveat here: let us beware becoming too psychologically “now-focused” that we de-automatize useful forms of habituation-learning and instead become disoriented and irresponsible due to an inability to make appropriate use of memories of a past and anticipations/planning for a future.
Further contemplating the Now, we realize it has this absolute, “Eternal Now” quality to it. For instance, we early-21st-century persons regard ourselves as living now, while regarding persons of prior centuries as having lived back then in time. But JFK, Rumi, a merchant living in 600 CE, a farmer in 400 BCE, or anyone at anytime in past eras sensed themselves as alive now, and they would have regarded people of earlier or future eras as remotely then in time. Michelangelo’s “now” and Picasso’s “now” each seem “out there/then” in time relative to each other. But it’s obvious that people always only live NOW, “whenever” in chronological time they seem to be living, and whether or not psychologically they are paying attention to the Now-moment.
Thus, the changing now, the nunc fluens, the passing present or “now that flows/flees,” unfolds in its dynamic, evanescent manner within the overall context/matrix of the timeless present, the nunc stans, the Eternal Now that “stands/stays.” As Roman Christian philosopher-martyr Boethius (c.480-524) said, “the passing now makes time, the standing now makes eternity.”
Medieval German sage Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327) often spoke of God’s Eternal NOW in which God is always Incarnating as the Son or Word—meaning creation. Hence, to speak conventionally of God creating the universe aeons ago, said Meister Eckhart, isn’t true. God always creates anew, right Now. There is only this Eternal Now in which nothing/everything happens. It’s always NOW. Even past memories and future anticipations happen NOW, made of present, vital energy.
8) Nonduality within/beyond the spatial sphere: the Infinite, Boundless Here:
Whereas “Now” has gotten much attention, few have spoken of the boundless, all-inclusive Here in which all identities/phenomena arise. This has implications for not only intuiting what/where we are but also a profound implication as to where our partner’s awareness is. Let’s explore the former implication first.
British sage Douglas Harding (97 years-old in 2006) has spent well over 50 years deploying delightful, childlike and utterly profound experiential exercises to point people right back at Open Awareness, “what they’re looking from,” “right HERE at zero-distance from yourself.”9
Transcendental Awareness, in other words, is HERE, not “out there” in some other rarified “place.” Living in/from HERE, there is never any sense of needing to go/move/shift/progress to “there.”
Aspirants often say, “I am not ‘there’ yet,” as if God or Realization is some remote, distant state. But this HERE is not a “state,” this HERE is THIS Absolute, “always already Real,” as Ramana Maharshi affirmed. Authentically living from HERE, one realizes that whereas the “scenery” of life changes (say, proceeding from one’s house to a friend’s home or the market), Awareness is always changelessly right HERE, unmoving, “freely immobile” as the only Solid Principle, witnessing a world-appearance ever changing and morphing according to the laws of physics.
You can notice this while walking or riding in a vehicle. Diverse environments move through You, but You as Awareness don’t shift or go anywhere. Hence all talk about “spiritual paths,” “destinations,” “not there yet,” “getting there” are all delusion, presuming an “entity going somewhere.” There are no entities trapped in the spacetime continuum. One is the Empty/Open Matrix for spacetime to happen. One is the “wall-less,” boundless Container-Capacity in Whom a kosmos can happen. As ancient nondual traditions basically affirm, “You are not in the world; the world is in YOU (Awareness).” Yes, body-mind inhabits physical-psychic environments, and these environments or worlds float in the creative consciousness, the OM-vibration of the Divine Mind, but this entire play is a speck or bubble in the vastness of This Awareness, always right HERE.
The realization of Absolute HERE as the locus of Awareness can impact our language, and vice-versa. Whereas many texts and teachers prefer to use pronouns like “That” and “It” to refer to this Divine Awareness, I have seen that most people will go into their heads with these terms and treat them like abstractions pointing to some Principle that feels remote from their own intrinsic Awareness. So I prefer to use the term “This” to refer to Source Awareness, so that a listener really understands/innerstands that our True Reality is not at all remote, distant or abstract.
THIS Reality right HERE is what is AWARE of these words on the page, breathing, chair, sky, environmental sounds and the “ten thousand things” arising out of Tao.
As for realizing HERE in the context of relationship, a basic inquiry is Where is my partner’s Awareness? My partner is no mere object. Of course, any two bodies occupy different spatial regions, and minds have their own “psychic location” colored by personal history, aspirations, samskara-attachments/aversions, etc. But who you are as Awareness is what I am as Awareness, and this single Awareness isn’t split or divided.
Looking into your eyes, I intuit WHO YOU ARE as Infinite Awareness beyond body, mind, or soul. This Awareness is not “over there,” but entirely right HERE. You are mySelf, I am yourSelf.
When you speak, Silence hears ItSelf expressing the unique perceptions, feelings, and heart-yearnings of the Divine-embodied-as-the-human. This is WHO I AM as the precious Person on display.
9) Nonduality in relationship—the sacred relationship of “I” and “Thou” is really One of Us Here, playing both (all) parts. Just as you can hold up your hand and wiggle the distinct fingers but realize, by shifting the gaze downward a bit to the palm, these “separate” fingers are integrally part of or aspects of one single hand, so also all the diverse sentient beings—human and nonhuman—are integral aspects of one Reality.
The many personalities inhere in the One Transpersonal Awareness, the many beings or selves are aspects or roles played by the Nondual Self. Just as one actor with the paranormal power of superluminal speed could put on an entire ensemble theater-production, appearing as the diverse characters, male and female, heroic and villainous, so also Pure Awareness or Divine Spirit is playing all the parts so that every apparently “other” person I encounter is not other at all, but intimately, immediately this One Self-same Awareness.
10) Nonduality in devotion, parabhakti or abheda bhakti. For anyone considering the wisdom- and devotion-paths as necessarily divergent and incompatible, spiritual literature reveals that most of our eminent nondual mystics possess, in addition to a strong Intuitive-Sage temperament, a spontaneous, full-feeling Devotional temperament. The Svetashvatara Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, Shankara, Nagarjuna, Indo-Tibetan Mahasiddhas and Tantrikas, Bistami, Sana’i, Rumi, Juan de la Cruz, and many other nondual mystics East and West display strong devotional temperament toward the Absolute/God/Buddha/Father/Mother/Guru. Ramana Maharshi was often found with tears of love streaming down his cheeks for his “Father,” Arunachala Siva.
Recall the Zen story of the “enlightened” youth who seeks out a great old master but is shocked to find him repeatedly bowing to the Buddha-statue in the zendo hall; the youth lectures the old man on the silliness of bowing devotionally to external objects when there’s only nondual Buddha-Mind. What is the enlightened old man’s response? He agrees heartily and then... resumes bowing to the Buddha!
Some of us find that everyone we meet so uniquely, poignantly, beautifully embodies the Divine that we spontaneously want to worship them as the One transcendent-Subject-embodied-Object.
Many neo-Advaita circles display a smug attitude of condescension toward the devotional path as a “lesser, dualistic path,” and anyone among advaitins who speaks too lovingly of God is regarded as some kind of heretic sinning in the Church of Nonduality. Such anti-devotional advaitins do well to see if an unconscious, hidden agenda—perhaps rooted in childhood trauma over religious abuse—is engendering an aversion to spontaneously feeling and regarding Pure Awareness in a loving, devotional way, the One Reality (non-narcissistically) celebrating/loving ItSelf as the Beloved.
11) Nonduality in the psycho-linguistic sphere of words/concepts. This is an interesting domain not (yet) much explored. Many spiritual aspirants and teachers express a conflict between talking and conceptualizing on the one hand, and silence on the other hand. Certain teachers express almost shame over having to use words to teach, and express futility in trying to “eff the ineffable,” as Alan Watts joked. A longstanding bias—coming from certain teachers and texts themselves—idealizes a phenomenal state of “no talking” / “no concepts” and makes this somehow equivalent with the ultimate “silence of the Self.”
But, just as the Heart Sutra knows that “form is emptiness, emptiness is forms,” we can paraphrase this to say “words/concepts are emptiness, emptiness is words/concepts.” In other words, upon realizing we are not the mind, ceasing to identify with it, not taking a position as a “mental self” (just as we stop identifying with or posturing as merely a bodily self), then the mind is freely available as a fluid, creative, and helpful instrument of expression. Just as Self’s stillness does not mean rigidly maintaining an immobile catatonic freezing of body movement, so also the silence of the Self does not require an immobilizing suppression of mental activity.
The mind does frequently go into natural periods of stillness throughout the day when not needed for communication, task-accomplishment or problem-solving—even strangely-beautiful periods of radical “unknowing” (Divine Ignorance). And the mind subsides in hours of natural stillness in dreamless sleep.
But presuming that an active mind, dealing in words and concepts, is necessarily a problem for anyone, is a guaranteed way to complicate spirituality and set oneself up for failure. Just as sensations arise and don’t hinder one’s dis-identified Freedom, so also thoughts and psychic impulses arise. No problem.
In other words, just as, for Awareness it doesn’t matter whether a phenomenal world of experience arises or not, so also Awareness doesn’t negatively judge whether a mind of expression—conceptualizing and speaking—arises or not.
Ancient Hindu Vedic, Vedanta and later grammarian traditions, especially pre-Shankara advaita sage Bhartrihari, all make it clear that Speech (Vac/Vak) is sourced in the Divine and is utterly Sacred—thus it behooves us to refine human speech so that speaking/chanting/singing is transparent for and expressive of the Divine.
Realize just how wonderfully mysterious speech is: on one level, speech consists in these funny rumblings of the vocal chords through the laryngeal flaps, and the manipulation of that airy sound-current by tongue, teeth and lips. A coordinated physiological dance involving billions of cells and diverse organs and tissue. What a lovely and yes ultimately comical expression of Divine whimsy!
On another, no-less-whimsical level, speech is meaningful or nonsensical (more about the latter in a moment). Meaningful speech ranges from the “conventional” to the “esoteric,” from the “beautiful” to the “ugly,” from expressions of truth to deceitful lies, from words that uplift/heal/empower to words that divide/invalidate/wound. Compare the hate-speech of an angry, rabble-rousing, cruelly prejudiced demagogue to the “love-and-wisdom-words” of a sage or holy text. Family therapists hear how dysfunctional families/couples use speech injuriously, unlike healthy families/couples. Cognitive therapists know how we use internal speech/thoughts to empower or dis-empower ourselves.
Now notice, especially, the aphoristic forms of sacred speech in the nondual mystical tradition that are uncannily empowering in referring us back to the Source/Substance of speech—Pure Awareness, the Absolute permeating and transcending the phenomenal play. Hear the ancient Upanishads’ mahavakya “wisdom sayings,” the earliest instance of purely mystical speech: e.g., “This Atma-Self is Brahman-Reality”; “Pure Consciousness is Reality”; “That Thou Art.” “All is Brahman.” Listen to Krishna’s nondual teachings in the Bhagavad Gita and later Bhagavatam Purana; the Buddha’s wisdom words in the Pali Canon and, along with Nagarjuna, Vimalakirti, et al., in the Mahayana canonical texts; later Indian sages like Gaudapada, Shankara, Saraha, Utpaladeva, Jnaneshvar, Kabir, and, in the West, Sufis like Bistami, al-Hallaj, Sana’i, Rumi, and Christian and Jewish mystics like Erigena, Meister Eckhart, and Moses Cordovero.
Their speech dazzles!
About this kind of speech that awakens one from egotism, Nisargadatta Maharaj declared, “True words come true!” Such Truth-full speech can suddenly or gradually de-hypnotize souls from their longstanding “me-dream” into body-free, mind-free, transpersonal Awareness. This is why Nisargadatta insisted that there be ample clarifying discussion before settling in for any kind of silent meditation: “First words, then ‘silence’—one must be ripe for silence.”
I’ve noticed ever since the late 1970s that an eloquent, enlightening Inner Voice is available for uttering Dharma-Speech for “private” edification or, when uttered as public speech in a satsang group, classroom situation, client session, or with family/friends, the edifying of anyone present.
So a bias against speech, per se, need not characterize nondual spirituality. No need for embarrassment over words and concepts. Master-adepts of nondual mystic traditions have frequently utilized concepts and words to make helpful distinctions for the sake of promoting spiritual balance (i.e., remedy imbalances and pitfalls), and to spontaneously glorify and praise Absolute Reality. Even the Ch’an/Zen/Son Buddhist tradition, which of all our sacred traditions most “vociferously” (?!) puts down “attachment to words and concepts,” itself generated countless words and concepts to express itself, didactically and poetically.10 Think of oft-used schemas like Tung-shan’s 5 Ranks/Modes of Ch’an, the 10 Oxherding Pictures, the 3-phase “mountains-rivers; no mountains, no rivers; again, mountains-rivers” model of “full circle” development; etc. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Taoism, Shankara and Advaita tradition, Kashmir Trika Shaivism, nondual Sufism, etc., all put out lots of texts and make numerous subtle conceptual distinctions therein. Ramana Maharshi, so famous for his “silent transmission” of Advaita realization, after an early period of largely remaining outwardly silent eventually composed several teaching works on various topics like the fine points of atma-vicara (self-enquiry) and delightful poetry (who can forget his “Ode to a Papadum”?). Thereafter Ramana conversed on diverse topics with visitors/friends. Ramana also spent considerable time editing printed editions of spiritual works—his own and others. He also usually read a daily newspaper—not just “looking at the pictures” in a conceptless way. (Maharshi’s reading the newspapers, incidentally, makes a delightful koan for anyone misconstruing Advaita as apathetic withdrawal from the socio-political sphere).
Upon transcending identification with being the speaker or conceptualizer, Awareness is exuberantly free to express all kinds of words through this mindbody instrument, speaking “sweet nothings” of love, educating (educare—to bring out of ignorance) anyone feeling ignorantly bound, transmitting useful information on any number of topics, expressing wit (especially compassionate “heartfelt humor,” not offensive “heady humor”), and so forth ad gloriam Dei.
Sometimes the Divine just likes to rumble vocal chords and flap lips to utter pure nonsense, ranging from Kabir and Nanak’s “upside down language” to French Zen psychiatrist Hubert Benoit’s “anti-meaningful speech streaming” to the abrupt (pattern-interrupt) kung-ans/koans of the Ch’an/Zen masters: “About Buddha-nature, what does your left elbow say?”
In the final analysis, Speech is sacred, through and through, as a vibratory dream-manifestation of the One Reality. May those with ears to hear, really Hear.
Speaking of Speech, one more point: the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Sankara, Kundakunda, et al., make an extremely valuable distinction between the “two truths”—conventional-level and Absolute-level of parlance.11 The former deals with the phenomenal, practical plane; the latter with awakening to the nondual Absolute. These sages were free to use both modes, depending on the occasion.
Certain neo-nondual teachers/circles seem quite unfree in chronically preferring to use only Absolute-level discourse. But an obsessively contrarian urge to mismatch or “one-up” the listener with Advaita-speak (“Nothing is really happening”; “‘Who’ is asking the question?”; etc.) is not enlightenment. What kind of freedom is it when conventional-practical discourse is taboo?
12) Nonduality in the justice sphere—alleviating socio-political-economic-environmental-racial-gender injustices. Enlightenment is not apathetically abdicating responsibility for public policy-making. Warned statesman Edmund Burke over two centuries ago: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Just as advaitin householders manage their personal resources (and formal renunciates get other persons to manage their resources for ashrams, traveling, etc.), so also nations and a globalized world need to properly manage their resources. Why there should be attention only to private and not public resource-management makes no sense. “Politics” is a dirty word for many spiritual persons, especially in New Thought/New Age circles and most neo-Nondual circles. However, politics is simply any body of people in a city/state/nation optimizing resources, solving problems, providing support when persons suffer from the vagaries of the economic marketplace, enacting laws to regulate individual/collective behavior for the commonweal.
Yet nondual spirituality doesn’t selfishly identify with any “righteous cause” and never demonizes or ostracizes perpetrators of injustices though not being afraid to sometimes name names. As nondual Atma-Self, I am everyone appearing throughout the cosmos—“evil,” “good,” “ugly,” “beautiful.” One God/Life, playing all the roles.
13) Given massive financial exploitation perpetrated in so-called spiritual groups, we posit: “financial nonduality.” Its main manifestation is flowing ease around money, freedom from insidious “poverty consciousness” and compensatory greed. (Zen: “Don’t make anything.”)
One doesn’t need, for instance, to commodify “satsang” or extract fees (let alone exorbitant fees) for consultations and workshops, or overcharge for flimsy little books. I can testify that, whereas severe challenges or tests can arise financially, Lord Krishna promises in the Bhagavad Gita to support all sincere aspirants, and the Divine does indeed support the ministry of those who charge no fees for their time and energy. Serendipitous developments, unsought donations, etc., flow forth to support the living/sharing of this nondual awareness. It might be said that some are not yet “karmically ripe” for this to happen, and such persons might still need to solicit “suggested donations” to support themselves and/or family, but there is, I promise, another stage wherein life nondually becomes one big “pro bono” without the need to take anything from anyone.
14) With frequent sexual exploitation occurring in psycho-spiritual “helping” circles, we add another element: “sexual nonduality.” The ancient Brihadaranyaka Upanishad counsels, “The sense of ‘other’ is the root of fear”—and lust. That veritable “Bible” of nonduality, Yoga Vasishtha (6th-12th c.), declares: liberation is realizing there are no actual objects. So: one never treats people as objects to be manipulated/exploited for private pleasure. They are transparently the Divine Self, to be adored with true love, not lust; to be soulfully served, not salaciously seduced. The Self is Fullness (Purnam), not lack. Yoga Vasishtha: “Whether his arms are embracing a beautiful woman, or being hacked off, the sage is always having the same Experience.”
... Only possible when lucidly dreaming this life-dream from the viewpoint of Awareness, not ego.
1 “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, Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophic Reconstruction, Honolulu: Univ. Press of Hawaii, 1973, p. 18.
2 Nondual themes first show up in the work of Western psychologists like William James (1842-1910), Richard M. Bucke (1837-1902); Carl Jung (1875-1961), and then especially Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), Hubert Benoit (1904-92); Erich Fromm (1900-80), Alan Watts (1915-73); Abraham Maslow (1908-70); Frederick “Fritz” Perls (1893-1970); Ram Dass (1931- ), Arthur Deikman (1929- ), Daniel Goleman (1946- ), Ken Wilber (1949- ), et al. The especially strong recent wave of psychotherapists integrating nonduality in their theory and clinical practice has expressed itself in a series of conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area and two exceptionally fine books, The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy (John Prendergast, Peter Fenner, & Sheila Krystal, Eds.), St. Paul, MN: Paragon, 2003, and Listening from the Heart of Silence: Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy, Volume II (J. Prendergast & E. Kenneth Bradford, Eds.), Paragon, 2007.
3 My forthcoming India’s Sages Source Book: Nondual Wisdom from Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas, Tantrics, Sants, Sikhs and Sufis, Santa Barbara, CA: Wake Up Press, very comprehensively treats the historical arising of this nondual wisdom in numerous spiritual movements of India over time. See also David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, Yale Univ. Press, 1988; Humanity Books ed., 1997; Chandradhar Sharma, The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy: A Study of Advaita in Buddhism, Vedanta, and Kashmira Shaivism, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996; and many works I have submitted for this book’s general bibliography. Peter Kingsley has investigated the significant but lost Western esoteric nondual wisdom of Pre-Socratic Phocaean-Greeks (Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, et al.); e.g., see Kingsley’s Reality, Inverness, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 2003. No one as yet has done a history of the rise and development of nonduality in all the Western traditions of religion, philosophy and psychology.
4 The ancient quote (unreferenced) occurs in Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic 5th-century classic, Visuddhimagga, xvi.90.
5 Jennifer Welwood superbly discusses the therapeutic applications of this major insight from Mahayana Buddhism in her article, “Dancing with Form and Emptiness in Intimate Relationship,” in The Sacred Mirror, ch. 13.
6 John Welwood, “Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience,” ibid., ch. 6.
7 Such neo-Advaita teaching was flamboyantly emphasized by “Papaji” Harilal Poonja of Lucknow (1910-97) and his dozens of “authorized disciple-teachers”—prematurely authorized, say Papaji disciple Berthold Madhukar Thompson and others; see Berthold Madhukar Thompson, The Odyssey of Enlightenment: Rare Interviews with Enlightened Teachers of Our Time (Mt. Shasta, CA: WisdomEditions, 2002), ch. 2 and passim. (Note that some of his interviewees like Andrew Cohen are known to be quite unenlightened in their behavior; further note that Madhukar has taken this book off the market and now teaches in the Papaji mode, regarding Papaji as his great Guru.) A major critique of neo-Advaita as "pseudo-advaita" has been delivered by Alan Jacobs (a former proponent for certain neo-Advaitins like Ramesh Balsekar) for the Autumn 2004 issue of The Mountain Path, Sri Ramanasramam's famous spiritual journal, as part of his review of Dennis Waite's very uneven The Book of One, which features lots of neo-/pseudo-advaitins.
8 On some truly remarkable teachings and witticisms from Anasuya Devi on this topic, see my Women of Power & Grace: Nine Astonishing, Inspiring Luminaries of Our Time (Santa Barbara, CA: Wake Up Press, 1995), pp. 209-19.
9 D.E. Harding’s works are a treasure-trove of nondual wisdom and wit, deserving much wider readership by the nondually-oriented. For starters, see www.headless.org.
10 Scholar Jeffrey Broughton ironically notes, “In the long run those [Zennists] who championed silent transmission of Buddha Mind published many more words than did the doctrinal schools of Buddha Word.... The volume is simply staggering.” The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1999, p. 116.
11 The distinction is between the Paramartha-satya or Para-vidya (Absolute truth, Higher View) and the samvriti-satya or vyavaharika (relative truth, practical reality). To account for an intermediate “third truth” dealing with the “all is perfect” level of “soulular evolution,” I have found it useful to posit “Three Truths.” See a long
with the author for The Sun magazine (April 2003, Issue 328), “Coming Back to the World: Timothy Conway talks about engaged spirituality—an interview by Arnie Cooper”—available in full [at this website] from Timothy Conway (the Sun’s archive website has only a truncated-text version).