Reflections on Non-duality

Non-duality is an experience. It’s also a theory about the way the universe works. We can encounter ideas about non-duality in a whole host of places. Examples include Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as more recently parts of what is often called the new age movement. One can also come across observations on the subject by scientists working mainly but not exclusively at the margins of the mainstream. However the experience of non-duality is as old and as widespread as the mystical impulse itself.

The term is usually traced back to Hinduism, and is a central tenet of the Advaita Vedanta school. Although the concept is much older its most influential expounder was Shankara in the 8th Century. Advaita means not-two, and asserts that the Supreme or Absolute Reality and man’s true Self are the same.

Any attempt to describe the development of non-dualism is impossible here. However, as might be expected, over centuries of time commentators have added their own ideas to those of the original doctrine; and one or another version has become integral to various systems, religions, philosophies and practices. Each of these systems has its own technical vocabulary, some of which is difficult to penetrate.

While cutting through the terminology can be a task in itself, in some cases it’s well worth the effort. The sincere and persistent investigator will uncover much in the way of truth and beauty by reflecting and meditating on the teachings of the ancient Indian sages. For all mystics, past and present, know that the journey within is a journey towards the One. They also know it involves recognition that the life of the physical senses is essentially unreal and illusionary. To meditate on such ideas brings us to the peace within. And if we learn how to listen to our own master who speaks from the silence of our heart we can, to some extent at least, grasp the sublime truth of non-duality.

However, among the jewels of wisdom that lie half-hidden, scattered across the fertile ground of the religions of the East, the seeker will also find teachings and practices that may be less enlightening. For example, concepts often closely associated with non-duality, such as the absolute, nirvana, absorption and annihilation can if not correctly understood introduce confusion, and on a theoretical level at least obstruct the seeker’s view. He will find cheek by jowl with crystallised truth, plenty of untruth as well as part-truths that have been misunderstood or misrepresented for many centuries. It’s tempting to speculate that in some cases these may have been introduced as corrections to the superstitions and religious practices of particular times, cultures and places. However, whether this was so or not, the true and not-so-true teachings have become so entangled that it’s difficult to extract the simple, original and complete truth from them. One or two such teachings that may warrant further investigation will be noticed later. First however, there will be some brief observations on a few of the more recent and popular expressions of non-dualism.

Some teachers within the new age movement – or whatever the preferred label might be, have taken aspects of the traditional non-dualist teachings and re-presented them for a modern, western audience; and in many cases they have done them great harm in the process. Drawing from a variety of sources, they have worked up a set of principles and practices that appeal to an increasingly large number of seekers. Inevitably, these contain some part truths. Aspects of their teachings strike a chord, and can be verified by real experience. And some of their promulgators show evidence of advancement on the path of inner development. Alas however, many others do not, and appear motivated primarily by fruits of a more material nature. Overall, the non-dualist teachings as presented within this new movement constitute a menace to all inexperienced seekers.

How is it that our wrong turns on the way seem so clear and obvious to us in hindsight, while at the time of making them we were so certain that we were heading in the right direction? Why is it that we need to be tangled up in thorn bushes before we conclude that perhaps we ought to retrace our steps and re-join the path? Both of these questions are worth reflecting on. But whatever the answers, it’s strange indeed that the seeker of truth and virtue and beauty can apparently be convinced that there is in reality no path to follow, and so the direction in which we travel doesn’t really matter; that in fact there is no need to travel at all, for there is no virtue, no light or beauty to seek. And not only is there no path, there is no-one to travel along it. No self, no path, no destination, and it would seem to some, no point.

“…there is no such thing as enlightenment or liberation, or an individual that can become enlightened or liberated. These are all ideas that come and go within the individual story. When the assumed sense of being separate seems to collapse, already there is only the constant and unknowable wonder of being.” (Parsons)

It’s strange that we can be persuaded to believe with all our heart that enlightenment is to know that enlightenment doesn’t exist because there is no-one to be enlightened, and nothing to be enlightened about.

“Enlightenment can best be described as the direct seeing that there is no person, so there cannot be any enlightened people. There is no self, so the quest for selflessness is futile. We are seeking to lose something which we do not have, because there is no one to have it.” (Sylvester)

Perhaps the answers to the questions posed a little earlier are connected to our need for a wide range of experiences, good and bad. Our lack of awareness sometimes leads us into difficult circumstances which hold hard lessons for us. Learning such lessons appears to be necessary, even though they inevitably leave us bruised and muttering “I won’t make that mistake again”. It seems to be one of the ways we make progress and become more aware than we were before. However, to learn from our mistake turns a bad experience into a good one. On the other hand some seem to sink further than others into the sands of nihilism and appear unable to escape the thought that there is no meaning to life, that to seek anything better is futile, and so they cease even to try to escape. This turns a bad experience into a tragedy.

The committed new age non-dualist is unlikely to be convinced by such things however, and will have a pocket full of counter arguments. But among the many things that do matter, this is one that doesn’t. For whatever is said or not said, they will continue to spread their net – often unknowingly and with good intentions – and the inexperienced seeker will continue to become tangled up in it until he manages to free himself, learning a valuable lesson on the way.

But let there be no doubt. Let such seekers know that there is a self, an individual, a self-aware entity, that reincarnates for many cycles of lives, gradually evolving far beyond the point at which he is no longer in need of the experiences provided by the physical body of the senses, or the associated lessons of material life. And let him know that this immortal self is not the limited, selfish ego, which is no more than the consequence of our being connected to a physical body, and which is transcended as part of the process by which we are liberated. First it is to be tamed, then controlled and harmoniously directed. And what some have termed its destruction is not really destruction at all, but rather a transformation, or perfection, insofar as the material can be perfected.

The path that takes us through material life to freedom from rebirth is a very long one indeed. The final victory is hard won. Beware of the teacher who promises quick results to the unripe seeker. An inexperienced new-age follower of non-dualistic versions of the truth may feel encouraged to believe that he can take a quick and direct route from the midst of the workaday world to the very highest states of awareness achievable by any human being. All he has to do in order to be liberated is to rest in his own true nature, which is the same as resting in the Absolute.

However, though the final step may take place in the blink of an eye, the discovery of our true nature is a longer path than many realise. Some new age aspirants on the path of non-duality have been led to believe that they are approaching the ‘end stage’ of utter enlightenment, that they are on the brink of liberation, when in reality they have only just begun to realise intermittently a small measure of the peace within. To know anything at all of truth is of course important, but it’s not the equivalent of making oneself true. And as such it cannot be compared to the achievements of the Indian sages.

Underestimating the length of time required for our inner development is a mistake that seems to have been made by many of even the best of the new age teachers. Many of them have also failed to understand, or have rejected, the cyclic nature of the work. Each unique path is subject to cycles of varying types, some stretching across several or even many lives. Each step might require us to learn an important lesson, to develop a specific ability, or perhaps overcome a major obstacle. Such cycles or sections of the path may be full with ripened joy, or with grief beyond the telling; though more often than not they are experienced as ‘the mingled yarn’ of both warp and woof.

They may include dramatic and sudden glimmers, as the Sufi might call them, flashes of light that bring wonder, awe and sometimes ecstasy, changing our lives forever – or eventually fading like sparks into the night. On the other hand, sometimes the work appears more mundane. But whatever it may entail, progress along our path demands that we learn all the lessons each stage contains for us; there can be no next step without completing in full the work of the present cycle. And it should be remembered that the extraordinary flashes of illumination that seem to come from out of the blue, are always the culmination of a great deal of unseen hard work and preparation, preparation that may have been initiated long before this current life began.

To try to hurry or rush or to think that we can in some way cut a corner is fruitless. The fruit will appear when we have completed the work and not before. It won’t appear earlier because it can’t; for the fruit of a cycle is not separate from the process, but the end stage of something necessary to its development. If we are fortunate enough to have experienced such a significant step we will know what it means to have ‘gathered the fruits of experience’. And we will be wary too of assuming that the pressing next step for us is the same or even similar to that which preoccupies another. The individual nature of our path, as well as its universality, is well worth pondering on. To know with certainty where we are on the path is not as easy as it seems.

Sometimes a self-appointed teacher is mistaken about his progress and believes that he is further along the way than he actually is; he has confused a step with the final goal. The increase of his inner peace, or the sudden inrush of a higher consciousness, has overwhelmed him. He is convinced that he has won the final victory, the end of all duality, union with universal consciousness. But actually he has only broken through to the next level of it, with god knows how many cycles on the path before him. From then on in, deluded, he cannot but mislead his followers.

Because they can so overcome us, it may be a long time before we realise the relative nature of all but the most rare and profound of inner experiences. This is not to undermine or limit the importance of such experiences, for they are often crucial to our progress. But eventually their true meaning will become clearer to us.

However it should be noted that each improved version of the truth, each successful breakthrough to a superior state, is accompanied by an increased sense and appreciation of all that is beautiful and virtuous, and not by their negation. A significant step on the way brings us to a higher consciousness, an awareness of a higher plane of being. Our ‘new’ and better state of mind can sometimes be experienced as a kind of oneness with the rest of creation, but never as the antithesis of creation. There is more, not less. Our hearts and minds are filled with God, not emptied in the sense implied by the nihilists. Each important advance leads us to transcend some of the old certainties, and to see their limitations. But, so long as we are progressing, this does not introduce a sense of uncertainty or hopelessness. Quite the opposite. Our inner faith is strengthened, not diminished.

The old tussles, born of contending dualities give way to peace, cooperation and greater harmony between the parts of a whole. At times we see how the many unfold from and are rooted in a unity which is only apparent when we take a higher standpoint. Then the struggle for dominance is transformed into a dance of complementary energies. We gain a higher ground from which we can sense the previously unrealised connectivity of things. We join a joyous but perfectly natural flow; and that flow connects us with the rest of creation; all is embraced within a shared life and being.

This is not however, union with the absolute; nor is it enlightenment; and neither is it anything that might qualify anyone to advertise themselves as a ‘self-realised’, or an ‘awakened’, or any other kind of spiritual teacher, or to subtly imply that they are such. As we travel the path we may gain many impressions of a higher state, and from time to time achieve important and lasting insights into truth. However perhaps it’s wise to await further developments before declaring, even to ourselves, that we have transcended duality, or any other such nonsense.

Not some, but all of even the best of the new age teachers of non-dualism are, as we all are, but aspirants stumbling on the way. In their short-sightedness some may unwittingly mislead those who are willing to listen too closely; others on the other hand, are more culpable.

When we are ready for a new, improved version of the truth, when we have completed the necessary preparations, it will emerge from within. However, it goes without saying that each of us has complete freedom to believe whatever we wish; and so if after our beliefs have been challenged we find that our satisfaction still rests content in this or that teaching and practice, or in the words of this or that authority, then it is our inalienable right to continue to do so, so long as we don’t bring harm to others in the process. For if we do not feel tolerance towards those with whom we differ, then how can we expect such tolerance in return?

Like the new age non-dualists, Buddhists do not believe in any kind of self, soul, or God. They seek the annihilation of the individual consciousness in a Nirvana of un-knowing.  The Advaita Vedantist on the other hand asserts the existence of Brahman, the Absolute Reality, and of the true Self, which two he considers to be the same in Reality. Consequently he hopes that in the end he will experience final absorption in the Absolute, just as a drop of water is absorbed in the ocean; and he wishes to lose in this blissful process all awareness of individualised being or any sense of ‘I’.

This is a powerful simile and is often persuasive; for we can easily imagine a small drop of water losing its individual-ness upon hitting the surface of a vast body of water representing the ocean. However, it concedes some of its power to persuade when it’s remembered that the drop of water isn’t really outside the ocean at any time. We, as individual entities, already exist as individual ‘drops’ in the ocean of God. This is the case even when we are separated from the physical body and its associated complex of sensations, emotions and mental processes. This leaves open the possibility that there is at least no need for the loss of our actual individuality at the moment of our conscious re-union in God.

Also, the process of developing and building up the conscious, self-aware individual has taken aeons of time. If that individuality was always destined to be erased as though it never existed, it makes it hard to understand the purpose in creating individuals in the first place.

And surely it cannot be that the creation of a universe of individualised conscious entities is part of a process in which the Absolute is evolving or improving itself in some way. The Absolute cannot be improved or altered in any way, for if it could it would not be the Absolute. No, or so some will say, there is a greater purpose to my creation than this. They will instead consider man to be continually evolving along with the rest of the manifested universe. They will feel that the path of our evolution stretches very much further than our many lives as a human being progressing through the classrooms of life.

They might instead consider the man who after each day’s activity enters a period of rest or sleep, after which he wakes to carry on with his activities, until it’s again time for rest, and so on. They will note that we don’t expect that person ever to disappear from his bed into an absolute nothingness, never to be seen again, or fail to awaken once more to carry on with the rest of his life. The individual that goes to sleep each night wakes again each morning. But remember, this is analogy only; and also remember that the individual self in question here is he who incarnates for many cycles of lives, and after which must surely carry on evolving into more and more perfect expressions of individualised consciousness, though eternally rooted in the Substance of the One Life.

What is here called the One Life is sometimes contrasted with the Supreme and Absolute Principle, and is by some referred to as God, or Logos, or Creative Will, or some such other term or combination of terms.  However, it doesn’t really matter what name we give it. It is the first and highest active principle in the Cosmos. Spirit, Substance and Consciousness, are its differentiated expressions. In its essential nature it is an impenetrable mystery. But it is not the Absolute.

As a Being it is utterly transcendent. Could the mosquito become tired of its surroundings and so fly up from earth and alight on the sun? Of course not; and nor can the human mind draw near to That which creates, sustains and transforms the cosmos, the Divine Sun of suns. And yet in its differentiated and reflected aspects the One Life is also universally immanent. In one way or another, it is in everything. However, its manifestation is conditioned in the sense that the structure and organisation of a localised system enables or inhibits its expression to a greater or lesser degree. This seems to hold true whether the system under consideration is a single cell, a primitive organism, plant, insect, animal, human being, angel, planet, or any other part or quality of the cosmos.  They all, to some extent, contain differentiated aspects of the One Life. So it seems the mosquito and sun are intimately connected after all, for they are both filled with their own expressions of the One Life; but that does not mean that the mosquito is the sun, or that the two are equal or the same.

It is this One Life that forms the ocean in and through which we live and breathe and have our being, in and through which we evolve, rising fathom by fathom, up towards the eternal fountainhead, or sinking fathom by fathom further from the divine source of light and life.

The One Life is itself caused to be by the Absolute, about which nought can said or thought, about which nought can be known or perceived. However in spite of this the Supreme and Absolute Principle is not as some non-dualists assert consciousness, cosmic or otherwise, but the cause of consciousness and all other active principles. Nor is it the highest God, but the cause of that God. Neither is it the Self of man, however supreme. It must be beyond all thought, motive or action of any kind. It is not a being, but the Cause of Being. The Supreme or Absolute cannot be conditioned by space, time, dimension, or by any other limitation. It cannot be augmented or depleted. It cannot ‘become’ the relative. Nor can a part of the relative, or the sum total of such, ever ‘become’ the Absolute. The idea that man can approach in mind, or can consciously rest in the Universal Absolute, the Cause of God’s existence, is to claim too much for him, or for any other being, however sublime.

But someone might object that to spend too much time and effort on such theories and abstract concepts is unnecessary to our immediate progress. And maybe they would be right. Perhaps it’s sufficient to know that all the initiates of old asserted that to a greater or lesser extent, man can find and enter the eternal ‘Peace that passeth all understanding’. And in so doing he can come to know something of the true Self and experience more directly the one-ness that connects all things to God.

So let us sit for a while at the feet of the Initiates of the East and imbibe their wisdom. Let us not be one who sits for too long theorising by the side of the way; neither let us worry too much about high philosophies; nor be in too much of a hurry. Above all let us avoid fruitless contention, and in so doing allow others their beliefs.

But on the other hand let us not listen too closely to the deluded, the error-stricken or the charlatans of this new age. Let us give most of them a wide berth and instead seek out our master within, whose words of love and compassion strike a sonorous chord with the wisdom of the ancients. Let us focus instead on the current step here, where we are, now, preparing for the journey ahead, for the road is long and uphill all the way.

“And he is fitted to seek the Eternal, who has discernment, freedom from self-indulgence, quietude and the other virtues, and who ardently desires liberation.” (Shankara)

Let us be disciplined in our own way and commit to the work of preparation. Let us discriminate as best we can between the real and the not real, seeing through the glamour and illusions of material life. For,

“The world, like a dream full of attachments and aversions seems real until the awakening” (Shankara)

Let us fulfil our material duty to the full; but also let us regularly step back from the workaday world to seek the immortal Self within.

“Dive deep into the chambers of your heart. Find out the real, infinite ‘I’. Rest there peacefully for ever and become identical with the Supreme Self” (Ramana Maharshi)

In peace and in silence, watching from the golden shore of our own holy island, let us feel the rise and fall of the great ocean of being, the ebb and flow of it all. And being secure there, let us be content.

“Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind become still. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. They grow and flourish and then Return to the Source. Returning to the Source is stillness, which is the Way of Nature”. (Lao-Tzu)

And in the stillness of the space between ebb and flow know that we, together with the rest of creation, have our being in God, the One Life of all.

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