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.