Reflections on Non-Duality

Non-duality is an experience. It’s also a theory about the way the universe works; and its influence is as widespread as the mystical impulse itself. We can encounter ideas about non-duality in a whole host of places. As a religious concept non-duality has been predominantly associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. In recent years however it has formed a conspicuous element in what is often called the new age movement. The growing enthusiasm for this and other similar concepts have also been bolstered by observations on the subject by scientists working mainly but not exclusively at the margins of the mainstream.

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 oneness. 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 can if not correctly understood introduce confusion and can obstruct the seeker’s view. He will find cheek by jowl with crystallised truth, plenty of untruth as well as the  part-truths that some might argue 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.

To further complicate matters 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, in many cases doing 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. Almost inevitably, these contain some truth. Aspects of their teachings strike a chord, and can be verified by real experience. Also, 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 often presented within this new movement seem to 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. Certainly, finding that we have taken a wrong turn on the path is not uncommon. It seems to be one of the ways we make progress and become more aware than we were before. However, it’s never too late to extricate oneself, and we can take some comfort from the fact that to learn from our mistake turns a bad experience into a good one.

On the other hand some seekers, believing that they are following a non-dualist path, 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 make progress. 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.

When we interpret the leaving go of the illusions of material life as tantamount to there being no meaning to life we have taken a wrong turn. When the falling back upon the spiritual self in the centre of our being becomes the rejection of the existence of self itself we have taken a wrong turn. When the realisation that as we make progress each of our versions of the truth is inevitably replaced by one which is better becomes a rejection of all ideals as empty illusions, then we have taken a wrong turn.

Let there be no doubt. Let such misguided 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 it 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 them 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. Let them know that this little ego is transcended as part of the process by which we are liberated. First it is to be tamed, then controlled and harmoniously directed. And let them know that 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.

Also, we should all 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 or she 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 they have to do in order to be liberated is to rest in their 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. The path that takes us through material life to freedom from rebirth is a very long one indeed. The final victory is hard won. 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.

The part truth and the distorted or misrepresented truth can lead us astray. To know anything at all of truth is of course an important stage on the way, but it’s not the equivalent of making oneself true. And as such the quick fixes of the new age teachers cannot be compared to the achievements of the best of the Indian sages.

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. 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. To know with certainty where we are on the path is not as easy as it seems.

However it may be worth noting here that each successful breakthrough to a better state is generally 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, 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 give way to peace, cooperation and greater harmony between the parts of a whole. At such times we sometimes appreciate more clearly how the many, like the branches of a tree, unfold from but remain rooted in an original unity. When we are able to take a higher standpoint we realise that this has always been so. Once transcended the struggle for dominance is transformed into a dance of complementary energies. We join a joyous and perfectly natural flow; and that flow connects us with the rest of creation; all seems to us to be embraced by a shared life and being and consciousness.

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.

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.

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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