What is nonduality?
In all my years of teaching, I have yet to come upon a single definition of nonduality which is satisfactory; one that is consistent with my own experience. It is not from a lack of trying. It is that the true essence of nonduality cannot be expressed in words. Whatever words I use as a pointer toward the understanding I am trying to convey, they all fall short of their task. Indeed, language is, itself, the veil which precedes all dualities. Language is also the veil which precedes nonduality.
I could suggest, as most nondual teachers do, that nondual means “not two” or “one undivided without a second”. It is a way of expressing the fundamental nature of reality as a singular whole in a manner that is beyond the ability of the human mind to fully comprehend. It is something that is only made directly and experientially apparent when one sees beyond the illusory limits of the conceptual, mind-made self and conceptual, mind-made world – a process often referred to as ‘awakening’.
Nonduality is not a religious or spiritual belief system – it is the nature of ‘things’, seen clearly as they are. In fact, all such belief systems have arisen in the wake of one who has experienced this basic truth and tried, to varying degrees of success, to share it with others. The seeds of non-dual reality can be observed as the core foundation of all esoteric mystical transmissions; including Gnosticism (Christianity), Sufism (Islam), Kabbalah (Judaism), Zen and Dzogchen (Buddhism), Advaita Vedanta (Hinduism), Yoga, Taoism, Sikhism, and several other lesser known ancient wisdom traditions. Modern-day research in the fields of physics, neuroscience, transpersonal and experimental social psychology, linguistic anthropology, and more, are also providing a rich body of evidence that further reinforces the truth of these realizations.
Yet this description does not actually tell you what nonduality really is or what it means. I could try sharpening the image a bit by offering a more experiential description. I could tell you that the preeminent quality of nondual realization is the direct, experiential recognition that ‘you’, as you think of yourself, do not actually exist in the way that you ‘think’ you do. It has to do with the nature of our conditioned minds – at least at first. We’ve been taught to see the world a certain way – to see it as separate or apart from ourselves; to see ourselves as separate or apart from it. We’ve been drawn into a story about the way things are that simply isn’t true. We’ve become so immersed in and identified with this story that we’ve lost ourselves to it.
Nonduality is the clear seeing of things as they are, without our conditioned filters. It is to see through the illusion of ‘self’ and into that which exists ‘before’ the mind comes into being; into that which is ‘prior’ to the mind. There are many other things that can be said about awakening from the dream of duality, but no point is more fundamentally important than this one – everything hangs on this single premise. For as long as you see yourself as isolated, separated, and apart from the whole, you remain caught in the net of duality. When the illusion of a separate self has been seen through, everything falls into place on its own – just like it has been doing all along.
And yet I still have not said anything concrete about what nonduality really is… Nothing that the mind can grasp onto or capture as an object of consciousness. I have painted a vague picture, an abstract view. Something that feels incomplete and unsatisfactory. Something that sounds like a trifle bit of philosophical meandering devoid of any real meaning. Why must it be so? It is difficult to explain in words – difficult to formulate within the limited constructs of language. And that’s the rub.
So, these days I am explaining nonduality in a very different manner. Not as a single principle that stands alone, but as part of a triad that stands together. They say all good things come in threes, and this is no different. In fact, the threefold journey of awakening is a necessary abstraction that encapsulates an important point. Awakening is, ultimately, a three-stage process.
In the first stage we are deeply caught in the net of duality and completely identified with our body-mind experience as ‘me’. This stage can be quite challenging and tends to inspire a great deal of suffering in people’s lives. In the second stage, there is a seeing through or a falling away of our conceptual identity. We become aware of ourselves as awareness and begin to disentangle ourselves from identification with the body-mind experience. In the third stage, there is a sense of radical intimacy with all aspects of our inseparable being. We inhabit and embody every aspect of our lives from a place of deep knowing that completely embraces this non-separateness.
Most people live their whole lives in the first stage. Many are able to pierce through to the second stage, but then create a new identity around the discovery of themselves as awareness. Very few, it seems, are invited into full fruition of the third and final stage. Much of this has to do with the role of language and the workings of the mind. Since the mind is limited to the use of words to establish and maintain its contextual frame, it seeks to inventory, categorize, and quantify anything said in words – turning the whole experience into another conceptual abstraction; into a series of nested traps.
To avoid this common tendency, I am therefore suggesting that nonduality is actually a philosophy, a set of teachings, and a way of pointing at something that is no-thing at all. In other words, the study of nonduality represents a particular path, a pathless path, but a path nonetheless. But where does this path lead? Does nonduality lead to nonduality, or is there something which reveals itself as we walk the path? Something that invites us into a new and mysterious relationship with ourselves? What is the fruit of seeking? What is at the end of the path? This fruit, this ‘end’, I would refer to as Self-realization.
I will address the topic of Self-realization – and the third pillar of the triad, the embodiment of awakening, in separate articles. For now, though, it is enough to understand that nonduality is a path that leads to Self-realization. In this context, nonduality is like a map and Self-realization is like a destination. One leads to the other – at least this is the most useful way of exploring this topic in the early stages of inner inquiry and investigation. It helps focus the seeker in the direction of a goal that feels solid, concrete, and obtainable.
This imperfect conceptual division can be thought of as an open doorway. When we are standing on one side of the doorway, it may be helpful to receive instruction on how to cross the threshold. Once we have crossed the threshold, we realize something about the nature of the open doorway that we could never have possibly understood while standing in our original position. It is subtle and elusive, and can only be seen by stepping through it for ourselves. No one can explain it to you, make sense of it for you, or give it to you. All that we can do is tell you how to cross the threshold for yourself. This is the function of all nondual teachings.
The act of crossing the threshold, the experiential revelation of Self-realization, has its own themes, processes, and teachings, but those are for later. What matters at this stage is an earnest and sincere willingness to look at where we are pointing, at what we are pointing towards. As I sometimes like to say, this is the process of “using the mind to sharpen the mind until it can pierce the mind”. Nonduality is the whetstone which makes our blade sharp enough to pierce the mind. It requires hard work and determination, radical self-honesty, and disciplined practice for the blade of the mind to be made sharp. Or, if you prefer “for so long as you believe you are someone, doing something, then give it everything you’ve got!”.
I’ll tell you right now though that the teachings of nonduality have a hidden agenda – they all do. The goal of all such teachings, behind their external presentation, is to exhaust the seeker… to lead the seeker into such a state of great confusion that the mind can no longer be relied upon in any way at all. This is often referred to as a process of ‘ripening’ so that the fruit is ready to fall from the tree on its own. This can sound quite scary – and in fact, it is a terrifying prospect for the mind. Yet all those who have ever stepped through the doorway, since the dawn of time, have undergone the same invariable process: a breaking down or deconstruction of the psychological self that is born of language.
This is where nonduality begins to elicit the early stages of Self-realization. As you peel away all the layers of who you are not, who you are begins to radiate in much the same way that the sun shines in the sky. It does not matter whether you can see the sun or not, it is always there – always present. When the weather clears, you can witness it for yourself, which can be glorious. But the presence of darkness or clouds only obscures the sun – they do not extinguish it. Language creates the darkness; language creates the clouds. Language obscures awareness; the most fundamental aspect of Being. This is just a general approximation though – not the realization itself.
Are you starting to see why it’s so difficult to offer a stand-alone definition of what nonduality is? Of why all such definitions are ultimately unsatisfactory? Because the best way to express it is as a negative, as an inversion, as a stripping away, as a dismantling, as an unlearning. Even nonduality itself gets deconstructed. This is why I am refining my own description so that it reflects a path toward something – toward realization of the Self. Since I can’t really tell you what it is or what it isn’t, I am framing it as a path of Self-discovery. In my next article, I’ll offer more context on the nature of the Self which is discovered, but the only way you’ll ever recognize it for yourself is by following the path.