“Okay, what is non-duality, ‘cos I just don’t get it?”

Bear with me, this is going to be a long one (because you won’t get much from the short answer). Firstly let me say that this post, like all the other posts is not here to sell non-duality. Non-duality is not going to solve your problems, make your life better or improve you in any way. When you get what it is, you’ll see why this is the case, but for now let me say, if you’re searching for a better life through non-duality, you’re on the wrong path. You’ve set off in the wrong direction.

Secondly, this post will make use of a number of analogies. Non-duality is extremely simple, it can be summed up by the statement: ‘The realisation of the undivided nature of all.’ But as that’s going to leave you no further forward than before the analogies will serve, it is hoped, to point to it in a way that helps clarify it at least a little.

Please bear in mind that no analogy is perfect, they all have limitations. Some will stretch further than others but none will be or can be complete. They are simply there to point. Like the words on this page, they are the map. To truly understand you will need to explore the territory yourself.

This exploration is a living journey that begins before awakening or non-duality arises and continues long after. Non-duality is not a state. A person cannot be in a fully awakened state. Awakening is what happens when the sense of person-hood is not present; it is seen though as illusory, and like all illusions, once realised, you can’t go back to not realising it and you almost certainly won’t forget it, unless it was so briefly glimpsed it was not fully realised in the first place.

Please also bear in mind that this is not a mental exercise. You won’t get this because you’re smarter and you won’t struggle because you couldn’t do maths in school. A realisation is not a thought and this realisation does not rest in thought in any way.

Taking thought as our starting point, that may be considered our first barrier to seeing clearly. We have to cross the barrier of thought if we’re going to progress. The reason for this is simple; we’re using language to attempt to convey meaning. In the first place you take in words as information. At that stage it’s just a thought. Whether you agree with it or not brings you no closer to the truth. You need to get behind the words; underneath them, to the silence in which understanding or clear seeing can arise. So don’t spend any more time in verbal thought than absolutely necessary. It’s the froth on the surface of a sea we need to get far beneath.

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Thought might be our first barrier but it pales into insignificance compared to the second. The second is perception. Let’s start by defining it: perception is the process which turns experiences into things. Put another way, it is the act of perception, a process that runs continuously, that transforms ‘raw’ sensory data into the world you perceive it to be. It adds little value to say here that you will, if you come to awaken, realise that your world is a fully self-created one. The trick is understanding that this is neither a denial of external phenomena or an acceptance of their reality. In truth, when you finally see, you’ll realise that such a distinction is based on a false premise, as are many of our most fundamentally challenging questions.

But if you’re feeling lost already, don’t worry. Aside from the first sentence, you can strike the rest of the last paragraph for now. Returning to the nature of the second barrier itself, the problem lies in the simple, undeniable fact that prior to awakening, it feels like there’s a separate ‘me’. For most of us ‘I’ feel real and separate, and that feeling is so fundamentally present in every moment that its denial seems frankly absurd.

Agreed, it does seem that way. But it’s still not the truth. The simple truth is that despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of humankind agree with you, the sense of self is no more real than an amputee’s phantom limb. However much it feels like it’s there, it’s not and when you see how perception works and how identification and belief build on it, like a foundation, you’ll realise why it feels so real and yet isn’t. Perception creates the words, thought tells the story, and we are so caught up in the narrative, so moved by the unfolding drama, so engrossed in the plot, we utterly fail to realise it is a work of fiction and nothing more. So profoundly embedded are we in the story of ‘my life’ that even the notion that it might not be real seems ridiculous. It is our ‘all’ so how could there be more? But indeed there is.

So let’s be blunt; if the sense of self, the ‘I’ or ‘me’ is not real, then why don’t more people see it? Why is it only a few; a few who it might be suggested, are doing rather well out of book royalties and lecture tours, by the way?

It’s a fair point. There is no real answer to the question except to say that at this stage, as a species, as humanity, we’re just not at the point of seeing this clearly yet. Perhaps the time for this to happen hasn’t quite arrived. When a gardener looks at the spring buds, what can he do? Can he make each one open early? Can he force them to bloom at will? Why would he even wish to do so? Each flower blooms in its time and not before.

Do not listen to any teacher or guide who claims that all humanity ‘should’ awaken. Awakening happens when it happens and it can’t be forced, created, given or halted. It is not within the control of any and control, as you will come to see, is just another aspect of this illusion; it is part of the dream, not part of reality.

So awakening, awakened guides, this article et al are for those who are awakening or perhaps more accurately for those who are at a point of awakening where this will have any value to them. If you’re reading this, then that probably means you. You don’t know how close you are to the shift we call awakening, neither do I, but it’s safe to assume you’re somewhere on this pathless path. ‘Pathless’ because no process or practice leads directly to awakening. As before, don’t believe anyone who tells you they can ‘make’ you awaken, they can’t. They might support you to clear out some of the baggage and help you take a fresh perspective when you’re feeling stuck but it’s you that has to do the seeing. Each see for themselves, or don’t, it’s never given.

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Awakening is the shift that happens when you realise the self you always took yourself to be was nothing more than an illusion and in that moment the illusion ‘pops’ and reality is experienced as undivided, with no experiencer. It can’t be easily put into words but when it happens you won’t mistake it. Alternatively, for some it’s a gradual falling away rather than a shift, a bit like walking into the sea and the beach falling away beneath your feet (and if that analogy sounds familiar it’s because I respectfully borrowed it from the Buddha).

Back to our second barrier: how do we get around the challenge of perception? The answer is, we don’t. We can’t switch it off we can only consciously see it in action and in seeing it, understand its nature and how it creates a world that appears to be made up of separate things. In other words we come to realise that perception is a process that forms part of this human experience, it is not part of reality, it’s part of how reality is received and processed.

When you look around now is there anything in your field of vision for which you don’t have a label? Anything at all? There isn’t is there? So it makes sense if this field of experience is made up of hundreds of objects, each with their own label, then that which sees it must be a separate thing too, and have its own label. That’s the ‘me’ and even though we don’t know exactly where in this body to find it, we guess it has to be in here somewhere, probably the brain. That’s the paradigm isn’t it? In fact it’s the fundamental paradigm, the numero uno, the paradigm which comes before and underscores all others. And it really doesn’t matter if a particle physicist tells us that at the quantum level there is only a unified field, on the level of our human experience it doesn’t feel that way and that’s what we always default back to.

It’s a powerful illusion and seeing through it takes persistence and energy. Things that make it harder or less likely to happen include a comfortable life, the feeling that we have lots of time, a strong identification with ‘me’, with a group, with some other association e.g. nationalism, politics, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity… the list is endless. Not that any of the things on it are in and of themselves bad, it’s just that a strong identification with them or with anything is another aspect of this powerful illusion that must be seen through eventually if we are to awaken. So if I fundamentally and absolutely believe in ‘X’, whatever ‘X’ is, then I’ve created a highly energised thought that will occupy my awareness and prevent it from falling into the spaces between thoughts, into the silence of non-being in which all things are seen to arise like soap bubbles; into the ground of being itself which is the inexpressible essence of all. No point in going on about that more here, you’ll get it when awakening happens then you can write about it yourself if you like.

What I notice about those who start out wishing to awaken is that they sometimes seem a bit like a person trying to escape earth’s atmosphere in a hot air balloon. It’s just going to take a bit more… well, just more.

At the other end of the scale we have the seekers; those who travel the world, sit at the guru’s feet, gladly collecting the pearls of wisdom scattered forth and often developing along the way a kind of spiritual superiority complex; their mild disdain directed at any who have not at least visited an ashram. As if the truth somehow isn’t right here, right now.

Do you need a teacher? Yes, but everything is your teacher. If you think the teacher is a person then you’ve missed the point. Your teacher is the next time anything pulls you further into the story of the way this appears to be. Anything at all that creates a reaction in you in which you are identified with a ‘me’ experiencing ‘this’. That’s your teacher and you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. The pattern of your life will repeat and repeat all of the experiences you need to awaken. Those you see through, those that no longer fool you slip by unnoticed. Those that catch you out will bring their own results that will give you pause to reflect time and again until they too are seen.

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How does awakening happen? Simply like this: when you become so mindful of each experience as it arises that you are grounded in the present to such an extent that the majority of experiences are seen as they arise, rather than being unconsciously identified with at the outset. From this apparent duality of being the awareness in which that which arises is seen comes the shift to non-duality when it is realised that that which is aware is not a thing; that awareness itself is not objective in any way, it is rather inherent in all, and beyond that point thought cannot travel; it stops and seeing clearly starts.

Realising there is no experiencer, the sense of self falls over, it dissipates more completely than a bubble bursting as if it never was. It is only then fully realised to have been a thought so fundamentally ingrained in thinking it had established itself as that through which all other thinking happened. Only the deepest, most abstracted thought puts awareness close enough to its boundary as to be almost beyond its influence.

And so we might say, one ‘path’ is the path of investigation; looking deeply into the nature of things. What ‘things’ doesn’t really matter, insights along the way may be useful but these aren’t the point either. The point is that the process of doing so moves us from a ‘me’ centred mode of thought to one less so, and thereby creates a clearer, less identified perspective. In the same way an athlete on a track doesn’t run around cones because there’s any value or need to do so per se; the colour or type of cone is irrelevant, the objective is not to perfect ‘cone slalom’, the point of the exercise is to develop strength and fitness.

Deep investigation or looking isn’t about what we might find along the way. The purpose is to develop presence through practice until we reach the point at which it is seen that that which appears to be present is not a thing. There is no duality because there is no seer, no looker, no experiencer; just seeing, looking, experiencing.

So if that’s one path, are there others? Well, yes this isn’t the only way but this post is already quite long so let’s deal with that another time.

For now, here’s a brief summary: this is about the quality of the seeing, not what is seen. The deeper the seeing, creating initially a sense of duality through the apparent separation of awareness from the object of awareness, the more likely it is that at some point the illusion of awareness as a thing (the looker) will be seen through and non-duality realised.

These are just words and are not truth; they are far from perfect, you have to look for yourself in order to see. At the point of reading, all of this is information, which is as much use as a train timetable: it only works if you make use of it; it won’t get you there by itself.

Lastly, although we may use thought as a starting point, awakening is not a thought or a state or a goal or anything but seeing clearly how it is in the moment. So be present with this moment, with this experience and you’re already a little bit more awake.

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6 thoughts on ““Okay, what is non-duality, ‘cos I just don’t get it?”

  1. Excellent! You explained it very thoroughly. I kind of gave up trying to tell people about awakening, it seems like the need to know, the ability to get beyond thought somehow inbuilt into very few people. Most never question anything outside the familiar, and never will, no matter what you tell them. I still wonder, why so few? It is almost like this tiny spark being carried through time from person to person, for thousands of years, without any hope to grow into anything bigger, just because, just in case…

    • Thanks Nelli, that’s very beautifully put. Why so few? Yes, a few early risers in a dormitory where most are still asleep, and one or two are sleepwalkers who move around as if awake but aren’t. But the truth is there to be seen. I like the fact that it’s now so shared, not the province of any school of thought or religion or tradition; it’s out there. I really like to read and hear people’s words who have no connection to any of these but who have awakened and just express it in their own language; to me that’s very beautiful. So perhaps lots of tiny sparks 🙂

    • I was always looking, looking, looking, trying to see clearly and understand things for myself and that led about 4 years ago to a shift that people refer to as awakening (much to my surprise). After that, through conversations, discussions etc. questions come up, more looking happens and over time that deepens and broadens our perspective. But that aside I would suggest to anyone reading the blog not to take it as: ‘this is the way it is’, I don’t mean it to be dogmatic, it’s intended to be a reflection that can act as a pointer if people find it useful (or not). So while I try to say things as they’re seen here, the words are never quite right. It’s not easy to express what is seen accurately, language is a tool about which I still have a lot to learn. PS just looked at your blog and I love it. We hold meetings in the North East (UK) as Nonduality up North and the topic you covered in your last blog post was under discussion/investigation this Tuesday – almost word for word, which felt strange when I read it 🙂

    • Well we could get quite wordy with an answer to that question, couldn’t we? It could lead us to look at how we use language, what lies beneath language, what words point to etc. We could notice that really duality is just another label we apply to an experience. But really, within the context of non-dual inquiry the experience is the bit that matters. Does it feel as if there’s a separate me? Does it appear as though there’s a subject and object? If that’s how awareness arises then that’s what we label duality.

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