(This is another of my ‘thinking out loud’ posts on non-duality. If the subject doesn’t interest you, you might want to skip this one.)
cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti
About 18 months ago I began a journey, intended to help me handle stress better (something I struggle with a lot), exploring the subject known as ‘non-duality’ (or non-dualism), which some define as the realization that there is no ‘separate self’ (or ‘separate’ anything) — everything is part of a oneness (which some call ‘consciousness’ or ‘spacious awareness’ or ‘infinite presence’, others call ‘your true self’ or ‘true being’ and yet others call simply ‘all there is’, an infinite eternal unknowable no-thing that is also everything.
I began that journey with Liberation Unleashed’s Ilona Ciunaite, and I hung out there for several months, trying to ‘just look’ to see the self as illusory. I then checked out Eckhart Tolle’s videos and book The Power of Now, and then moved on to the videos of other non-dualists (Adyashanti, Mooji, Jon Bernie, Rupert Spira, Jim Newman, and Tony Parsons, in roughly that order). This seems to have been a progression from a more accessible to a more radical non-dual message, and the more radical the expression, the more it has resonated with me.
Here’s a transcript of the Tony Parsons video linked above, that articulates his ‘radical’ message on non-duality:
Separation is the root of all seeking. As tiny children there is simply being. There is no one. Life happens. Regardless of whether a child cries or seems hungry, there is just pure being. And then a moment comes when that tiny being identifies itself and becomes a separate person. At that moment of separation, there is a contraction back into the sense of being limited in the body. “My boundary is this skin, and everything else is separate”. From that moment on there is seeking, and a sense of something lost. ‘Being everything’ is lost in that moment. And being a separate person, an entity looking for everything, begins. From that moment on there is only seeking — until there isn’t.
And that seeking is endless. People we see in the world — wanting to be rich, to have lots of lovers, to have power or whatever they want — all desire is the longing to come home. And home is wholeness, home is being everything, which is our origin.
So oneness arises as wholeness and then plays the game of becoming separate. So the whole key to liberation has nothing to do with the apparent separate person. We grow up and we feel separate, and we learn from our parents and teachers and priests and bosses and spouses that we are definitely separate, live in a separate world, and there is absolutely no doubt that we have a choice, we are a separate individual that has free will and can choose to make our lives work, or not. So what you see in the world is a desire to make people’s lives work, when what people are really doing is trying to fill this sense of loss.
Most people spend their whole lives living like that, trying to fill that sense of loss. For some making money, being powerful etc. isn’t enough — there’s still a sense that there’s something missing. So they look for what’s missing — in religion, in therapy, and in the search for ‘enlightenment’, but all this time there’s an absolute conviction that they’re a separate individual with the choice to fulfil this sense of loss. And when you go to an enlightened ‘master’, you’re naturally attracted to the ‘master’ who still presumes the fundamental idea that you are separate, and that you ‘need’ to meditate or self-inquire or ‘give up the ego’ in order to find what you’re looking for.
And all of that is the ignorance. That’s how the game continues. Religion is the seeking, through ‘individual choice’, for something that already is. What we’re looking for already is this. But all the time there is someone seeking, this can’t be seen. The fulness we seek is timeless and the seeking is in time — “It’s going to happen when I’ve meditated”, or “The answer’s going to be on the next page of this book.” “I’m going to find it one day.” There’s that constant agitation of looking for this. Sometimes it’s gratified for a short while and it seems everything is complete. But that gratification is short-lived and is soon replaced by the longing for and seeking of this.
That gratification and wholeness can never be found until there’s no one looking. It can’t be found by the individual, because the individual function is to look for that. When there’s no longer a seeking, that which is sought, is seen. But it is seen by no one.
So we’re here today to rediscover the key to wholeness. And the key to wholeness is that there is no one. So this is a very simple message, and a very difficult one — difficult because it’s about your death, the death of the individual. It’s about moving beyond the idea that there’s anyone sitting in this room who can ‘do’ anything, beyond the idea that there’s anyone — any separate entity — in this room.
And it’s coming to realize that what’s happening right now, is happening to no one. There’s no one that this is happening to. The whole sense of being separate is that everything that’s happening is happening ‘to’ you, and that everything ‘you’ do affects that and ‘attracts’ what happens.
Liberation is the realization that all there is, is this, is what’s happening, and it’s happening in emptiness. So that all that’s sitting in this room is emptiness. There’s a body that feels, there’s a mind that thinks, but it isn’t anybody’s body or anybody’s mind. It is just what’s happening.
This is so simple that it totally confounds the mind. So what we’re here to talk about is totally beyond understanding. It can’t be understood. You’ll never understand your way to ‘enlightenment’. Nobody ever has. There is no such thing as an enlightened person. Already, all there is is liberation, all there is is enlightenment, and in that there are people looking for it.
So we can talk together and it’s possible that something will be seen, but it won’t be ‘you’ that sees it; it will just be seen. And also energetically, as there has been a sense of contraction (me, I am this body), there can be an expansion, a dropping of that sense of contraction and a moving out into free-fall, into boundlessness, into the unknown. The idea that ‘you’ can know and ‘you’ can do it simply drops away and suddenly there’s a wonderful, free but dangerous place called everything.
It’s very simple: All there is, is this. That ‘thisness’ is totally physical, all the five senses are speaking to you right now. Through all the five senses the beloved is waving and saying “I’m here already. You don’t need to look for me. This is already what you’re looking for. This is it. I’ve never left you. I’m the perfect lover. I’m here already and I sit here watching you looking for me.”…
We don’t function in duality. In the dream we think we do. In the dream we’re absolutely sure ‘we’ choose this and avoid that and do that and not that. This apparent choice ‘we’ don’t do — it is done. You don’t go in and out of duality by choice. There is only what is. Everybody in this room is being lived. There is just life happening in this room. There’s no choice, no will, and nowhere to go, nowhere that anything has ever been. All there is, is this…
It’s not something to ‘get’. Liberation is actually a loss of something rather than a getting of something. The loss is the one that’s trying to get it. When there’s nobody trying to get it then suddenly it’s realized that it already is that. This is it. There’s nothing to ‘get’. Choice and doing apparently happen, but nobody has ever done anything. There’s no responsibility, nothing to forgive. It’s just happened. Breathing is happening. Seeing and hearing are happening, but nobody is doing it. This [pointing to himself] isn’t doing it. There’s nobody doing it. Isn’t that amazing?…
It feels dangerous to the person, because it’s the end of apparent individuality. For the individual who thinks they’re in control of their life, that fallacy that you’re the ‘managing director’ of your life, and can make it continue, falls away, and that feels risky…
There is something that I call ‘liberation’, and with liberation, it’s all over, there’s no one, there’s just life happening, but previous to that there can be an ‘awakening’, a sudden realization that there is only oneness, and then for a while, subtly the seeker comes back and wants to own that. So you can’t say how long it lasts. Awakening and liberation can happen at the same moment, or after a few weeks or longer.
Awakening is not gradual. Awakening is totally immediate because it’s timeless. There’s a seeker looking for oneness and then suddenly there’s nothing. There is no time. There is only this.
The idea in the mind that if you meditate long enough you’ll get to it, is ludicrous. That’s what keeps the story going. The whole idea that there’s something to do to find this is a total denial that already, all there is, is this.
No lovely fluffy Om One Consciousness, just ordinary ‘all there is’, without the veil of the illusory self to make it personal. No Path, direct or otherwise — with no control, no free will, there is no pathway or process or practice or program for the individual person or self to get there, and no ‘one’ to pursue it in any case. All-there-is is beyond the comprehension of the limited, separate, personal, illusory self, as is any understanding of how ’all-there-is’ is that, or happens, or any understanding that there is no ‘why’ , no purpose— it just is. ‘Abiding’ and meditating and inquiry and contemplation won’t help, and may even hinder this realization.
So why keep listening to these ‘hopeless’ messages? Why attend a meeting with one of the messengers? There seems to be something — a ‘resonance’, a bodily intuition — that emerges from listening to stories of others whose egos/minds/selves have ‘fallen away’. Perhaps this ‘resonance’ is ‘all-there-is’ speaking through our intuition, out of earshot of the ‘conscious’ separate self, and listening to it might trigger the realization, or at least a ‘glimpse’ of it, un-consciously.
About a week ago I experienced such a ‘glimpse’, while sitting looking out over the forest near my house. It had the following qualities:
- It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
- It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just perfect, exactly as it was.
- There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My ‘self’ would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. Momentarily, I was not my self.
- A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.
If this is an ‘awakening’, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect me, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past ‘awakenings’. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! How could ‘I’ not have noticed?
And I now wonder (since many of these memories were pre-school) if the horror I felt at the age when I first entered the school system, that had me retreating for much of my young life deep inside my head and into my imagination, was just the new separate me concluding that all these separate ‘selves’ made no sense and were awful and full of cruelty and suffering and I was going to hide from them until they went away or somehow all of it made sense.
Or perhaps this is all just wishful thinking, and my brief moment of ‘awakening’ or ‘connection’ was just a daydream.
I can appreciate that the people I love and care about find this ‘going nowhere’ journey, and this belief in non-duality, with its implication of giving up ‘self’ control and the sense of responsibility, frightening, even threatening. Most people believe that what we do and don’t do is governed by a mature sense of self, self-control, self-awareness, personal responsibility, personal choice and ethics. Non-duality says none of this exists and our behaviour is what it is despite the non-existence of all these things.
This seems, understandably, preposterous. How do you explain ‘positive’ changes in the way we behave (“personal growth”) in their absence? Non-duality says it can’t be explained, that apparent changes just happen (or more accurately, since non-duality recognizes that time is also an illusion, that what the separate ‘we’ perceive as changes in behaviour according to some pattern ‘our’ minds conceive and remember as ‘sequential’ on a ‘time line’ in memory and judge to be ‘improvements’, just happen). That Gaia, the astonishing sympathetic evolution of environments, cells and organisms to be self-optimizing and self-sustaining over billions of years and against all odds, just happens. Just a game that ‘all-there-is’ plays with itself. For no reason.
Absurd. Unbelievable. Could only be the belief of a victim of desperate, cult thinking. Yet, somehow, intuitively resonant.
So I apologize to those I love for their understandable anxiety, but I somehow sense that this is all for the best, and that (like others who have apparently been through this) what remains if ‘I’ go will love them even more, and be less anxious and ‘self’-preoccupied about doing so.
And if ‘I’ stay, it will have been an interesting journey anyway, one that seemingly is already bringing about some ‘changes’ in ‘me’ that are healthy and calming: I still catch myself getting angry, sad, anxious and fearful, but these feelings pack less of a punch and pass more quickly, as if they are being observed and soothed. I feel myself wanting less, not so much being more accepting of what I have and what is, but more giving up hoping and striving due to a sense that striving and hoping and yearning and aching and dreaming don’t make any difference to the outcome, so why stress it?
So to some extent this ‘journey’ is over, since while I’m still curious about all this (and love to talk about it ad nauseam with those interested in the subject), I sense that self-less ‘awakening’ and ‘liberation’ will happen, or won’t. And if they happen, ‘I’ won’t be around to take credit, or lament the consequences.
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A story; that one of Jeff Foster
I think you’ll like this.
Your post reminds me of the third stanza of Dry Salvages (#3 of Four Quartets):
I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
I recall you used to quote T.S. Eliot’s most famous work quite a bit. I didn’t really get into the poem until recent years. Some say it is a work comparable to chartres cathedral in terms of its contribution to western civilization.
Your reference to your “journey” also reminds me of some of the last lines of the last quartet:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
All shall be well :)
Also, I just wanted to add or suggest that there is no either/or re “I” going or “I” staying as you say. I think the message in the poem and in eastern philosophy/religion is that the way to hang on to yourself is to let go (the way forward is the way back, etc). I agree with what you say about things resonating intuitively. I like to listen to Eliot read his poem aloud while I am doing other things. Much of it doesn’t resonate immediately, but with cross pollinating (in a manner of speaking) of the mind, when I read something like what you quoted above, it resonates with Eliot’s poem.
Thanks for the comments. I absolutely understand Jeff Foster’s concern, and ‘extremists’ about non-duality could certainly be insensitive and obnoxious, but the people I know who are non-dualists are not at all ‘fundamentalist’ about it, and in fact seem extremely sensitive, caring and generous.
Liliana, fascinating how long this message has been ‘out there’, and how it is obfuscated by our inherently ‘dualist’ languages. The message is inspired, but of course there is no ‘way’, and no ‘us’ to do ‘all we need to do’.
Theresa, thanks — I think I stopped citing Four Quartets because people got tired of how often I did it. It’s certainly a masterwork. Eliot loved paradox, but it seems strange to me that he described himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” and seemed somewhat preoccupied by Christianity even after all his study of Eastern religions more aligned, I think, with his existential message.
I’m sympathetic to this line of inquiry (nondualism) but have a different take on it, probably borne out of a far lower level of discomfort with the hardened ego boundaries of modern consciousness than you (Dave) experience.
Nondualism is a tautology for animism, though I suspect some will disagree. It’s a throwback to our evolutionary past when we had much more in common with other animals as simply beings. One would have to go back in time beyond the Classical Era of Greece and Rome (in the West), perhaps beyond the Agrarian Revolution some 13,000 years ago, to find animism in wide practice. It may have survived in the Americas (and elsewhere perhaps) prior to their discovery in the 15th century (and later conquest) but has mostly been extinguished even among indigenous peoples.
Although we can awaken to the sensibility that we are each part of a larger organism (the superorganism we call society, or even more broadly, Gaia), the physical world that allowed us to participate selflessly is long gone, replaced by industrial civilization. Socialization after the honeymoon period of early childhood remakes us into upstanding citizens (consumers, units of productivity, zombies), by and large. Loss of self in various communal and tribal activities (sports, political movements, mob action, dance and music-making, etc.) returns us temporarily to immersion in the group, but it’s fleeting when the pressures of everyday life require participation in a very different sort of reality, mostly grubbing for money.
I can’t say I blame you for seeking situations of selflessness and purposelessness, of easy, convivial coexistence with everything and everyone else. Obviously, that’s an option once basic human needs are met, which option does not exist for most people. Oddly enough, however, the paradox is that those living very close to mere subsistence are also closer to nondualism. The aged also approach it as energy and ambition subside, though it’s often hard to distinguish from being warehoused and waiting for death.
Brutus: excellent synthesis of political/philosophical/spiritual ideas — thank you! My sense is that the emergence of the illusion of self was an exaptation (http://www.livescience.com/39688-exaptation.html), and a result of a combination of larger brain size (whales, dolphins, some birds seem to have it), and stress (the illusion of self may have conferred short-term evolutionary advantage to species facing existential threats), and that it co-evolved with abstract language (which enabled some members of a species to persuade and ‘teach’ the rest that the illusion of self was real).
The self is obviously real. But it’s not the only cognitive orientation or way of being in the world. Feral children who miss out on human social contact don’t develop it. The suggestion that it’s all only an illusion is a mistake.
Think of it this way: a emotion experienced vicariously or in response to an artificial stimulation is still a real emotion even if it doesn’t original in the person experiencing it. It’s also one of the primary ways to demonstrate that there is an emotional field or force that is shared by those within its scope, making the self (emotional or otherwise) somewhat more porous that most might believe. Lots of people go to the movies to be goosed by whatever screen action takes place (action, adventure, comedy, horror), and to a lesser degree, character emotion (drama, romance). They’re totally artificial stimuli but nonetheless produce a response widely shared in the audience.
Persuasion that the self exists as a self-contained identity, mind, psyche, or soul, housed in a body but maybe able to transcend the body after death, is a social construct that has absolutely real impact on how we live. It’s fashionable these days to argue materialist reductionism, that the self and free will don’t really exist, we just think they do. Well, in this instance, thinking is believing is truth. It’s not merely a semantic argument, but it often goes there.
Brutus, I would say the separate self is apparently real, which is not to diminish in any way the suffering that causes. Santa Claus is real and socially reinforced in young childhood and the realization that he was just apparently real can be traumatic and unbelievable to children. What nondualists are arguing I think is that the apparent reality of separate self can drop away and with it all the suffering, disconnection and feeling of incompleteness that belief in the separate self entails.
You’re still hedging: illusion of self vs. apparently real. I think the modern sense of self is absolutely for real, but it’s only one of who knows how many alternatives that may exist. We know of several alternate realities that coexist according to different lenses through which we view reality. The quantum view is gaining ground on the materialist view. Neither is very convincing to me; and in fact, there may be no unified theory that truly satisfies.
Cessation of suffering, disconnection, and incompleteness sounds to me distinctly like one or more strains of Buddhism, especially Taoism. I’m not well enough acquainted with the philosophies/religions/life ways to go any further.
I appreciate the back and forth. Please understand I’m not trying to prove myself correct or you wrong in any sense. The discussion is interesting for its own sake, not as a vehicle to play gotcha.
Agreed, Brutus. We can’t know the truth but it’s interesting to compare mythologies. What we perceive, including the sense of separateness, is real for us. Nondualists would say that if the separate self ceases to exist then that separate self’s sense of it will similarly cease to be ‘real’. Then there is only wholeness, and the body devoid of the sense of self is just part of that flow. Apparently.
I’ve had so many “oh, that!” moments that I’ve come to trust in them… and yes, that silly grin lasts, and no one else knows what it’s about…
I’ve given up trying to explain this to folks who are fixed on ‘enlightenment’ being an arduous journey of denying the fragments of reality we don’t like. What a shame so many folks seem to feel the need for things beyond the ordinary, obvious, wonderfulness of what is!
It’s also a shame to see people squandering their time here on striving for something that isn’t real while what’s real – what is – has been here all along, waiting patiently like an unconditional lover who knows we’ll return from walkabout when we’re good and ready… :-)
Anyhoo – welcome to the club (that you were already in)! It’s nice to be home, eh? Warm and comfy, and a new light shining on the things we’ve taken for granted for too long. :-)
@Brutus: It’s not often I come across someone who echoes my own thoughts and stokes my desire to respond as much as Dave does, but you’ve managed to do so ! :-D
Your points on the self seem to be more closely aligned with my own views. I’ll lay my cards on the table here: my background is in psychology, so I come at all this with a scientific understanding of how the brain works, and where various functions reside… so it intrigues and amuses me when folks seem to think of conscious cognition as something other than merely a brain function much like memory & learning, emotion, fight/flight/freeze, homeostasis, etc. – only much less important as far as our survival goes…!
So, for me, as far as the ‘self’ goes, well, it’s a construct of our conscious cognition that applies a sense of agency to the things we do. It’s been very useful as far as our evolution has been concerned… although double-edged swords of unintended consequences about. Of course that sense of agency lends itself to the development of what we call ‘ego’, which to my mind is basically the ‘me’ that thinks it’s in the driver’s seat, when in reality it’s just receiving a summarised memo of what all the other parts have been tinkering away with behind the scenes – much like Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the US president in The West Wing. :-P
The ‘self’ isn’t separate. It’s just a wee bit of us that resides in the prefrontal cortex. Trying to purge it, rather than observe and understand it, is about as useful, to my mind, as getting rid of a kidney because you got stones from eating a crappy diet. It’s called throwing the baby out with the bathwater; makes more sense to me to swish out the bath and run the tap again :-P
So, in addressing counselling clients I aim for a mutual metacognitive understanding of their predicaments, which is very liberating for them ;-) We don’t aim to smash the ‘self’ – just recognise its limitations in reflecting upon itself, and nurture a bit of tolerance and compassion for that :-)
BTW: I don’t believe in the ‘cessation of suffering’, and I think it’s the same kind of shovelling-shit-uphill journey that folks are taking when they try to dispense of the ‘self’. Suffering is real; it’s part of what is. In this sense I share the view of the Romantic poets that to love nature means to accept it unconditionally – suffering and all. It’s the attempts to change ‘what is’ (not the stuff that can be changed – the stuff that’s part of the human-constructed world of nonsense as far as the natural world is concerned – the stuff that can’t be changed) that cause us to suffer on that psychological level – the only level at which suffering is an optional extra.
Thanks Kari. It is comforting to find people who don’t find these radical non-dual ideas crazy or ‘escapist’, in the same way that it’s comforting to find people who don’t believe it’s possible for humanity to ‘save the world’ (by which they mean human civilization culture). But I don’t feel like I’m ‘home’. All this stuff resonates with me, seems intuitively right, even obvious. But it’s still the separate ‘me’ that it resonates ‘with’. It’s kind of funny that I now wake up in the morning and curse the fact that my ‘self’ is still here, trying to make meaning of all this. This is what Richard Sylvester (another non-dualist with a similar message) describes as the existential ‘dark night of the soul’ for those that intellectually and emotionally appreciate non-duality but whose separate ‘me’s are still hanging around tormenting them about things. For me it hasn’t been a ‘dark night of the soul’ but it’s been frustrating, despite the glimpses that have arisen that make me feel somehow more relaxed about everything.
Re: your reply to Brutus: I understand that unlike traditional CBT methods of psychology that insist you can control and take charge of and improve your ‘self’, narrative therapy encourages the self to tell, examine, know and be aware of your own ‘story’, and seems closer aligned with non-duality because it doesn’t preclude the realization that your ‘story’ is just that, a fiction. So healing comes not from self-improvement or personal growth, but from a better appreciation and acceptance of who/what the self really is. You also wrote “the ‘me’ … thinks it’s in the driver’s seat, when in reality it’s just receiving a summarised memo of what all the other parts have been tinkering away with behind the scenes” — this is brilliant! Love your writing. Not sure about the whole issue of suffering in non-duality, but it would be a great subject for a discussion. Does pain that happens to ‘no one’ and which cannot be avoided or changed give rise to ‘no one’ suffering? Intriguing existential question.
Ah, sounds like you need to be more of a friend to your ‘you’, if I may be so bold as to say something literal that will probably sound cryptic! ;-) More tolerance of the ‘you’ that hangs around will likely be more soothing. Pat the space next to you on the sofa as you sit down, and ask your ‘you’ to join you and tell you what it’s all angsty about today, if it can put its finger on it at all. And than kick back and enjoy some good food and a laugh together, as you would with an old friend you’ve grown apart from, but still share so much history with :-)
Oh, and cheers for the reflection of my psych stance! It’s nice to feel understood :-D I find the narrative style of therapy really empowering as it puts the client in that metacognitive zone where they can observe themselves almost from the outside, and have a good laugh about all the silly things they’ve been thinking and doing, and then figure out a way to do it all differently… while recognising that none of it’s really all that serious anyway – a wonderful perspective that can emerge from coming to see it all as ‘just a story’.
Re: suffering in non-duality… the pain that happens to ‘no one’, and which cannot be avoided or changed gives rise to a Schrödinger sufferer – one that we can simultaneously embody yet watch and marvel at ;-)
Thanks Kari. Since my ‘me’ is essentially The Story of Me, I tried to do that in my latest post, which I see you’ve also commented on. My understanding of narrative therapy is that the purpose of the story is to clarify and perspective on what really happened and what the current situation is, not so much to figure out how to “do it all differently” (that’s more like CBT, which I have little use for). It’s tricky drawing the line between objectivity and dissociation (which is why I would make a lousy therapist).
Love the idea of a Schrödinger sufferer. Reminds me of the line in the Neil Young song: “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away”.