Nonsense and non-duality

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

For those unfamiliar with the term, Nondualism is a philosophical principle emanating primarily out of Hindu culture and spirituality. It asserts the possibility of viewing all experience devoid of implicit notions of subjectivity and objectivity, of selfhood and otherness. This positing of an awareness undifferentiated by any assumed subject or self, has perceived similarities with many philosophical and religious traditions, from Mystical Christianity through Sufism to Zen Buddhism.

Whilst descriptions of the non-dual principle differ culturally, it remains broadly identical in concept. The experience of non-duality, meaning the actualised knowledge of it, this however, escapes any verbal description. Because of this, and due also to its sporadic actualisation, the tenet itself is open to widely divergent interpretations even amongst adepts. We could also say that any and all interpretation fails at the outset, as the knowledge is itself not susceptible to any mode of conceptualisation.

Nondualism is a profound and almost elusively subtle principle, and one which has gained increasing traction in The West. And yet it’s not merely an abstraction, not simply a philosophical construct nor a fanciful religious hypothesis. It’s ascendance in Western culture is no accident, and neither is its durability, it having been rigorously tested for three millennia. So the lived actualisation of this impersonal, non-dual awareness was seemingly always latent within the human animal.

Okay, so that’s a very general outline of the subject of this article. Yet what of its significance here, for those interested in psychological and emotional well-being? When the chips are down and life’s tricky, what’s in it for you and me? Is there any usefulness in this obscure principle of non-duality; can it extend meaning beyond the dusty confines of philosophical discourse and can we come face to face with it in daily life? With the audacity of a little hope, we can surely say ‘maybe’.

And yet it’s not actually a case of hope, and certainly not one of belief. Non-duality, or if you prefer, non-self, is both approached and actualised by the receptive and open mind. It’s not a matter of the intellect, so is not produced by the piling together and arrangement of thought. As to its usefulness, we need first appreciate that any prolonged emotional disturbance, or subtly enduring dissatisfaction, must recur and attach in self-entity, thus appearing to happen to ‘me’.

Now in non-dual awareness, the appearance of this ‘me’ is absent. This means the idea of ‘me’ vanishes both as an assumption and as a point of centrality around which experience accumulates. We remain consistent in our sense of being as before, and as a social construct we too must of course persist as some loosely fixed self-entity. What dissolves is the identification with any implied narrative of ‘me’ as a locus and subject of experience. Ergo, there’s nothing to which dissatisfaction may attach.

So this answers the question of ‘what’s in it for me’, and to be clear, the answer is unequivocally ‘nothing’. The question came from a perspective of selfhood, in which ‘me’ is taken as a subject or experiencer synonymous with a benefitting self. This same self was that which assumed its own substance and continuity, and as a consequence came to believe that dissatisfaction attached to the imagined continuum in a parallel progression. All of this fails to pass scrutiny and is invalid.

In non-dual awareness, both selfhood and otherness are apprehended as mental constructs. There is no subject either to which awareness appears to channel, or which is thought to grasp outwardly at otherness. The awareness is seamless and is recognised neither as appearing ‘here’ or ‘there’, which again are known as constructs and values of the sensory system alone. ‘Here’, ‘there’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, are still understood in a conventional sense, yet are known just as conventions; they’re notional.

‘But this is nonsense!’ I hear you screaming. Well, yes, it is non-sense. It is awareness knowing itself as itself and prior to the learned demands of the sensory system which conventionally overlay it. As I said, the experience of non-duality escapes any verbal description, and yet it’s valid to point to it nonetheless. Why so? Again it’s a useful principle, and one which extends meaning in daily life once actualised. This meaning is deeply significant, and as explained just above, is beneficial.

So how does one explore non-duality; where does one (or two), start? Here, I differ from many contemporary proponents in recommending the adoption of a contemplative system of discovery. This generally isn’t what people want to hear, particularly if they’ve heard or read others’ suggesting the redundancy of method and structure. Whilst it’s true that non-dual awareness doesn’t come into being formulaically, it’s assisted by receptivity, openness and a passively enquiring mental outlook.

The receptive and pliant mind lends itself to an intuitive ‘seeing’ which is non-verbal and uncontrived by thought – it’s not empirically or discursively arrived at. It’s not, in this case, new knowledge derived by means of old knowledge. Neither is it any representation of the sensory system such as a mood, any mental state, or feeling – it is non-sense. And much nonsense is written about non-duality too, some out of ignorance or egoic pride, and some because it defies clear categorisation.

So, this principle is potently beneficial, is actualised in receptivity, pliancy and gentle enquiry, and is brought to mind through being pointed to. In my view, the best pointers avoid allusions to the spiritual or divine (where?), the esoteric or the mysterious (what?), and the rigidly formulaic or prescriptive (how?). Whilst actualised non-duality is indescribable, pointers to it need not confound the hearer unnecessarily nor worthlessly engage the dubious. Awareness alone must know itself.

23 thoughts on “Nonsense and non-duality

  1. Loved this post. Non-duality, encompassing most traditions, all come to a place where mind and words are not adequate so we are left using pointers as a means of explanation. I also noticed that you read some of my posts. I haven’t blogged for a long time. Been doing some “inside” work, got involved in Liberation Unleashed for a while and now feeling the urge to write some again. Thanks for that encouragement which allowed me to find you!

    • Hello there fellow retiree!

      Thank you for your comments and kind words; they are greatly appreciated.

      I’m glad to have been of some encouragement in respect to your writing, just as you too have been for my own.

      With gratitude and respect, Hariod.

  2. Thank you for posting such a clear exposition on non-duality. Very helpful! I have read quite a bit about it but never feel I really grasp it. This helps. The artwork is beautiful, too.

    • You are too kind for words. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment on this article.

      I strive always to bring a little clarity to what I write, and it’s greatly encouraging to hear that you receive the words in that way – truly, it is.

      Nondualism is perhaps the trickiest of subjects to apply oneself to as a writer, as one is attempting to convey something which is both paradoxical and beyond the references and conventions of many. I think this is why we see so much regurgitation of tropes and use of hackneyed, platitudinous expressions in this area.

      I’m so pleased that you like my choice of Clarissa Galliano’s artwork for this piece. I hope to include other abstract painters on the site before too long. This is one of my loves in life, and I only wish I had any facility to create with paint; but sadly . . .

      With gratitude and respect, Hariod.

  3. My point is that you said you cannot do abstract paintings (and maybe you can, but that is another issue) and I can’t for the life of me present philosophical and religious ideas as you do in writing and probably in talking as well! P.S. Off-hand, I can’t think of anything I have that expresses the dream-like feel of nondualism but I will look on my website. Thanks so much for your comment and encouragement.

  4. Hello Hariod,

    I almost hesitate to call such writing a “post” – more like walking through a natural sanctuary. So many subtle spectacles of delight and carefully poised truisms that take flight just as your eyes land on them. You can hear them singing away up in the branches, but you can’t quite pick them out. Very great.

    I appreciate your recognition that “as a social construct we too must of course persist as some loosely fixed self-entity.” I think there is risk in pursuing this non-dual awareness to the detriment of the personal being we temporarily inhabit, and as all of this is so challenging to explain, so I can merely try. With help derived from a stack of books, and a lot of letting realizations percolate within and ripen, I think I’m coming to the place where the “givens” of my life may reside comfortably alongside an indwelling vastness, or depth, that comes with touching this non-dual place. Our non-dual nature(s) flower through our evidenced existence. That which is incommunicable takes on life, as visible beings whose true nature is invisible emptiness, but possess an address, a language, and a varying set of customs and experiences.

    It’s like the picture at the top of this post. What is there to say? Just look.

    Lastly, to be true to my experience reading your post, your sentence in the final paragraph stating that “the best pointers avoid allusions to the spiritual or divine (where?), the esoteric or the mysterious (what?), and the rigidly formulaic or prescriptive (how?)” set my feelings into motion. I think we feel the same, perhaps, but let me try a paragraph or two and you tell me how they sit . . .

    For myself, there is a certain denial of the richness within that can come from categorically denying the self and denying experiences of this life, by brushing them off as “unreal” or events that “didn’t affect me because I’m not the self I thought was affected”. The narrative of self that is false, whose roots are in separateness, when truly displaced, makes room for an abiding mystery that encompasses all that is, yet somehow lives within us, and despite being profoundly mysterious is also more intensely familiar than anything we’ve ever known.

    So, for me the best pointers avoid excessive metaphysics or the proxy idols of deities and personified divinity, but do radiate Love, and recognize love as the bond of the world and the primordial substance of non-duality. And for me the best pointers avoid making a “big deal” out of the esoteric or the mysterious as if they are a selling-point of non-dual awareness, or as if only the “special” may grasp it, and emphasize instead the immediacy, simplicity, and fullness of the mystery alive within each one of us. And for me the best pointers avoid excessive reliance on method and dogma, or procedural concerns, and allow the awareness to ripen however it will within any particular being at any particular point in the continuum of awareness . . .

    How are we tracking? 🙂

    Michael.

    • Friend Michael – if I may call you that? – we are tracking well.

      A qualifier or three:

      Q1: As a blogging neophyte (that word again), I heeded some advice from the supposed experts that posts should be in the range 200-700 words long. On the principle of ‘give me an inch . . . etc.’, I stretch that to usually around 900; so typically, a 4-minute read. This, I know, is a turn-off and unlikely to grant me membership into certain circles of the community wherein page visits, likes, following and all that jive are the central concern. Even allowing for the mile taken, there remain severe constraints in what can be said; indeed too, on how it can be said. I also am working to write in this form with a certain symmetry such that the words run in paragraphs of roughly equal length and which impart or suggest to the reader’s mind a sense of balance and harmony. This is a tall order, and I know that I am failing.

      Q2: For the sake of ready comprehension, I bundle together the concepts of Nondualism and non-self. Doctrinally, there are a multitude of distinctions perhaps, though in their actualised knowledge, there are none. When I refer to non-self, selfhood and so forth, I reference them in relation to the narrations held in assumption and belief and which are formed, modified, held to and perpetuated in the stream of mentation. [I explain in more detail in other pages here]. So when I write about the ‘self’, I mean just this narrative stream. In the abandonment of the egoical identification with this stream, it remains the case – as you well know and demonstrate in your comment – that a certain authenticity as regards one’s own uniqueness forms. You describe this as being ‘intensely familiar’ Michael. So any apparent difference in our takes is largely a result of you being a poet and I being . . . not.

      Q3. As to pointers, then I commence on this with ‘In my view, the best pointers avoid . . . (etc.)’, the stress being a matter of personal preference though one which I know is far from being universally shared. It is my character to gravitate to what is essential, even though in so doing, I may often miss the essence! I know from past conversations with many friends and seekers though, that for some, understanding is best set to unconscious incubation when borne on words that to me present an unnecessary romanticism and occlusion. There surely can be no right or wrong on this, and again we come back to preference and the character traits of the hearer. Your own comments on this reveal the poet within; whereas my own reveal the non-poet. 😥

      Michael, I am once again humbled that you should think so carefully about my offering of words, and further that you should give of your time to let myself and others know of your response to them. When recently I jokingly asked of you to comment on all my articles, I had no thought that you might return so swiftly and with such unusual generosity. Thank you.

      With gratitude and deep respect, Hariod.

      • Lovely thoughts, friend Hariod.

        As to the first point, I am unable to reconcile the actual content and appearance of your blog with your perceived sense of failure . . . Keep on keepin’ on!

        Second and third points, wonderful . . . I think it is so very important that we share our unique perspectives, so at the risk of stating what I hope is obvious, my comments are and were in no way intended to be any form of correction, rather to supplement and flow with your own words to form a richer field that might emerge from multiple views of the same whole coming together.

        The gratitude and respect are returned . . .

        Michael.

        • The field is indeed all the richer with your presence Michael. And of course, the comments section here is not a place where only similarities are shared – I hope to learn from my readers – so should you wish to pose any counter-views in future, then you and other readers are most welcome to do so. It is, I remain hopeful, a place for friendly exchange, and your own comments act as an exemplar.

          As will doubtless be familiar to you, W.B. Yeats once wrote ‘tread softly, because you tread on my dreams’ – and yet how does one know when one is dreaming, when the other is dreaming, or when all of us dream together? We each must remain open to the possibility of enrichment, to allow for the intermittent snoring amidst our words to be interrupted by a gentle dig in the ribs!

          Embracing forever with you Michael.

          Hariod.

  5. Thanks, this clarified a lot for me and also opened up new questions. I confess, the term non-duality has never resonated with me, and it made me wonder why. I hear wheels clicking in the mind, or maybe somewhere else.

    • Hello there; I see from your avatar that you hail from Berlin. I’ve only visited your fair city once, though what a treat the art galleries were for me! My friends tell me I have missed much by not returning; ah well . . . perhaps I will do so by virtue of your cyber-home (an interesting place indeed).

      And yes, the term ‘non-duality’ is rather unsatisfactory and, I think, of itself, leads some to bark up non-existent trees. Indeed, this particular pastime has become quite popular in recent years; and it’s surprising how readily some come to have visions of the missing tree . . .

  6. I don’t usually divulge personal details, since my blog is anonymous. But I’m sure this maze of links would be too difficult to trace. I’m actually Romanian and lived more than half my life in NYC. Berlin was/is incidental. I came here because 10 years ago it was a mecca for international artists, but it now strikes me as something belonging to a former life, both for the city and for me. (http://subsol.c3.hu/joanne/videos.html).

    Your reply made me ponder . . . that it might be a useful undertaking to write something about this pastime of hunting down chimeras. Maybe we can share some thoughts off-blog (if not offline)?

  7. Several years ago, this point of view came into clear focus when I encountered the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. He coined the term, ‘Interbeing’. This term clarifies an aspect of the basic Buddhist teachings about interconnectedness.

    • It’s interesting that you should mention this term ‘interbeing’ as I’ve heard it referenced several times recently and wondered what its origins were – and now you have provided me with an answer! I have in the past come across the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and know that he is a deeply revered figure within the Buddhist community and without.

      I’m happy to hear that your understandings of interconnectedness, non-self or non-duality, have come into clear focus. Although we all may use different formulations of words when referencing this state of affairs, it’s pleasing that so many either do this, or, as perhaps in your own case, quietly and without fuss acknowledge any actualisation.

      Very many thanks to you sir for taking the time to read this article and for contributing by way of a comment.

      With gratitude and respect.

      Hariod.

    • Thank you Val; I am greatly flattered that one such as yourself should take time to consider my words. I am fairly new to short-form writing, and whilst I enjoy the discipline it demands, it can be a struggle to convey complex ideas with any concision. Your words are indeed a great encouragement to me as I stumble along in this learning process.

      With much gratitude, and of course, deep respect.

      Hariod. ❤

      P.S. All pages on this site may be printed if that is of any use to you Val – just click 'more' under 'share this' for the print option.

  8. Dear friend Hariod,

    I work at the leading academic center that researches enlightenment, nonduality, mystical experience, union with the divine, transcendental consciousness, and similar states of consciousness. The academic term for these is persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE).

    We coordinate, assist, and evaluate psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience research in these areas. Though it is not very well known outside of the university system, amazing work is being done at leading universities worldwide. Collectively, millions of dollars has been invested in these studies, and over a thousand research participants are involved on 6 continents.

    Over the past couple of years we’ve seen several major breakthroughs in understanding the scientific elements of non-duality. We see this work as a complement to the work of people like yourself who are helping people with non-duality. As such, we are reaching out to nondual community leaders to formally connect. Please send us an email at nichol@nonsymbolic.org to be added to our register of nondual leaders and practitioners.

    We’re about to publish the most comprehensive research on PNSE and would like to invite you and your group members to a free online presentation of this work this SUNDAY, November 9th @ 5:30 PST. Before taking the results to the wider world, we wanted to start by sharing the results of this groundbreaking and comprehensive study with the nondual community that helped to make the research possible.

    Please click this link to register for this free event. You can also share this link with your group.

    http://webinarjam.net/webinar/go/7343/36511d748c

    I’ve included a link to our center site below. On it you will find several documents and video links so that you can see the scope and commitment we’ve had to this over the years.

    http://nonsymbolic.org/publications/

    Thanks so much,

    Minal Sugandha.

    Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness

    http://nonsymbolic.org/

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