Among the Nonduals: Exploring the True Nature of The Mind

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Event Horizon tweet

“The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar
 characteristic. They tend to produce … a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” tweet

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, 1909 tweet

A man sits on a chair in front of a blank white screen. His hands are clasped in his lap and he speaks slowly and carefully. The conference audience in this quiet corner of Holland is rapt.

“Perception is conventionally believed to be divided into two essential ingredients: an inside self or subject, and an outside world or object. The belief that all experience is divided this way underpins our entire world culture – how we think, feel, act, perceive and relate.”

His voice is gentle. “Look around you. We think we see a room. In fact, all we know or experience is our perception of the room or world. Do you ever know or come into contact with anything other than the knowing of your experience? It’s not possible. All we really find in experience is knowing.”

The speaker’s name is Rupert Spira. He’s an Englishman, a ceramicist by training. His interest in perception comes by way of his art, and by way of his other career as a spiritual teacher and author.

Although it is unlikely Spira would put it in these terms, this part of what he is describing is, from a neuroscientific perspective, actually quite conventional. The world comes in all broken up via the senses and is assembled by the brain into a coherent model of reality. All we ever experience are these images and sensations and perceptions, which we take to be an honest accounting of a world beyond ourselves. Of course we do – that’s why perceiving is worth the bother.

For Spira, this recognition is the departure point for a radical reorientation in how we experience self and world. What if, Spira says (Spira and the other two dozen or so speakers), what if we don’t immediately rush into that very reasonable assumption of externality? What if we take a bizarre chance, and practice living our lives from the technically more accurate truth of direct experience, which presents to us only one thing: our own awareness? If we actually do this, if we reframe experience in this way and patiently explore not the world, but our own personal world filters, then we will not find any sort of division between a self and a world, an inside and an outside. In fact, we will find no limits at all.

If this sounds like an unwanted excursion into freshman philosophy – at best an indulgence, at worst a solipsistic derangement – then that may be because you are trying to use common sense to follow and critique Spira’s argument.

Try some uncommon sense instead. Because it turns out that when you trust the instructions and actually begin to feel into this kind of questioning with your body, something very interesting can happen. You may have heard the phrase a million times before – something about oneness, something about the dream-like nature of reality, something about the outside being no different than the inside – except this time there is a slippage in your conceptual guard. In Zen they call these well-timed phrases “turning words.” A bright shot of vertigo enters the system. The camera of your awareness lurches and resets and suddenly you are conscious of the weird fact – and breadth – of your existence in a fresh and more immediate way.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar in nature: a sudden view that pulls your breath from your body and resets your mind, an unexpected convergence of intimacy in the forest or sea. This “reorientation” is the opposite of exotic; indeed its very familiarity is said to be one reason it is so often overlooked. For many, the experience is accompanied by a sense of lightness and spaciousness and – for me anyway – of comedy. I usually giggle. Others describe it differently.

For some – call them the accidental few, although as the saying goes, practice makes you accident-prone – their perspective shifts and stays that way. It’s as though they crossed their eyeballs for too long, just like their mothers warned them about, and now – whoops – they went and got enlightened. Or awakened. Or whatever you want to call it. If the shift begins as a very subtle and ordinary thing, the more years one percolates inside it, the more profound it can get, eventually uprooting all kinds of familiar structures of consciousness and leaving the former seeker just another chunk of vibrating cosmos, free and unbounded and participating in what they say is a paradoxically more accurate reality.

At least, that’s one way to talk about it. Welcome to the Science and Nonduality Conference (SAND), which I attended in Doorn, Holland last June, the sixth installment in four years, a California export that every year finds a larger and larger international audience.

“Four hundred crazy people just like you!” says conference organizer Maurizio Benazzo, who introduced the proceedings. Maurizio is a tall and radiantly sentimental Italian, given to public displays of grateful weeping. Everyone loves him, even the normally stoic Dutch.

“One day science will try to understand this nonduality – not to prove it, not to find The Truth, but to participate in The Mystery!” The crowd cheers.

The particular challenge of writing about nonduality is not that there is too little information about the subject; it’s that there is too much. There is so much noise that the signal is obscured. Technically, anyone writing about “oneness” – and this includes popular spiritual writers like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Deepak Chopra and a legion of disorderly New Agers – is expressing a form of nonduality. Indeed, a version of the idea – often camouflaged in very different assumptions and language – can be found in all the world’s contemplative traditions, from Greek philosophy through to Buddhism and Taoism and each of the mystical branches of the Abrahamic religions. It is the centerpiece of the so-called Perennial Philosophy, which argues that all religions point to the same underlying reality, whether you call it God or Emptiness or Tao or the True Self.

Nonduality also has a much more precise meaning in the smaller inter-disciplinary world of consciousness studies. It is a direct translation of “advaita,” part of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, one of the oldest and the most rigorous branches of Indian thinking and practice. Vedic purists would never translate “Advaita” as “oneness;” the more precise meaning, they insist, is “not-two.” If that distinction seems like hair-splitting, then this may not be the genre for you. Because nonduality is all about subtlety – all about exploring very fine paradoxes that, over time, are said to change the way you experience self and world.

For a journalist, it’s a slippery area to research, for everyone has a slightly different take on how to arrive at that underlying nondual reality, and what that reality actually entails. Different teachers emphasize their own way in, and usually disparage the other routes, which is why the elitist Tibetans roll their eyes at the gnomic Zennies, who smugly dismiss the striving Theravadans, who are enraged by the absolutist Vedantans, who make fun of the devotional theistics, who weep with joy and confusion and don’t actually care what the others say, because, like the famous “masts” of India, their engorged neural-circuits are sloshed on Divine love.

“I am not a nondualist. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know anything, and the not-knowing just gets thinner and thinner and thinner,” says Shantimayi, a charmingly candid former seeker from Ohio, now a spokeswoman for living without boundaries or fixations. You get the sense that many of the speakers don’t even know why they are there – the experience just seemed to happen, and here they are on stage, looking bemused at the an equally-bemused audience, spontaneously manifesting their bafflement or their certainty or, in some cases, their nihilism.

So: why is all this worth the bother? There are many answers to this question. The first and most nondual is: I have no idea, nothing is worth the bother. That’s the absolutist view, which is extremely annoying and probably why no one talks to “neo-Advaita” extremists at parties.

A better answer is it matters for understanding the nature of mind. Some version of nonduality is the where all spiritual practice leads: meditation, prayer, koans, ecstatic dance – you name it. If you believe these people – and until there is a proper neuroscience that can address what is happening in the nondual brain, all we have to go on are first-person descriptions of experience – then by all reports the nondual operating space is fundamental to understanding who we are, how the mind works, and why we suffer.

And that is the other very good reason: human happiness. Life is hard. People are in pain. For two and a half thousand years contemplatives in every era and culture have repeated the same basic message: all mental anguish is descended from our unwitting and false identification with a limited self. We think this is a religious message; they say it’s empirical. As we learn techniques for metabolizing the mercurial layers of interference and bias that come between ourselves and the world, not only do we suffer less, but so do all those we come into contact with. Far from being escapist, which is the usual 21st century dismissal of spiritual practice (we are impatient to act – call it our deepest bias), in an interconnected world, helping ourselves is actually the departure point for helping others.

So, that’s the Kool Aid – the pitch. As a meditation teacher, I basically buy it. I’ve seen how practice can open people, can wake them up. But I’ve also seen how it can rewire them, sometimes in ways many of us would find disturbing. This is the other part of why I attend these conferences; I’m interested in the specific and particular ways nonduality affects how people live – the so-called benefits, the challenges, the impact on relationships. To that end, in Holland I hosted a panel called “Filling in the Details” with three people who teach and identify with with the nondual perspective.

I found, not surprising, three very different understandings and experiences. For Lisa Cairns, nonduality is the end of “stories” – the end of projecting onto other people your ideas and assumptions about who they and what they experience. Life for her is just happening, and the idea of creating any kind of continuous narrative out of it seems to her damaging and false. For Gary Weber, at a certain point in his practice his whole pattern of relating changed. “When you let the “I” fall away, what happens is there is no one there to hold the other end of “I need you,” or “I want you” or “I love you.” I have no attachment to my family anymore – but my wife would say I’m a better husband for it, and my daughters that I’m a better father. I’m much more present than I used to be.” For Tim Freke, reality is paradoxical. He lives with one foot in the perspective that everything is perfect, and another with the sense that, as the famous Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi once said, we “could always use a little improvement.” His attachments are what make him human; for Tim, the nondual project, if you can call it that, is not just to know ourselves, but to show ourselves, in a more fully human and loving way.

To the uninitiated, the language and the ideas at SAND are strange and sometimes frustrating. It may be hard to see how this boutique clique of 21st century practitioners and explorers might have anything to contribute to a proper science of mind. But I believe they do. Something very interesting happens to the human mind over the course of dedicated spiritual practice. When you strip out the layers of interpretation and religious dogma (not to mention the endless if well-intentioned appeals to quantum physics), what you are left with is the raw evidence of people’s experience. Culturally-conditioned, yes – you can’t get around this. And yet, even so, they are real as experiences.

Spira has an interesting line. “Let experience be the test of reality.” We may not be quite ready for that, but we can at least take direct experience more seriously. After all, “empirical” means experience-based. It’s where science began.

Here is a link to my own Science and Nonduality talk: tweet

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