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LATEST DIALOGUES What is Nonduality?

Comet Lovejoy - C-2014-Q2

Comet Lovejoy – C-2014-Q2 by Michael Jaeger

As this is a website dedicated to Science and Nonduality, it’s appropriate to define terms. What does Nonduality mean? Nonduality is derived from the Sanskrit Advaita, meaning not 2. In other words, Oneness, “one without a second”. This may well be a statement of the obvious to readers of this site, but what many have made of this does not always correspond to the original texts.

Adi ShankaraAdvaita was brought forward by the famous sage Adi Shankara who revived the monastic tradition in India about 1,200 years ago and directed the establishment of the 4 seats of the Shankarcharya tradition. They are still active to this day. He was a renowned debater and wrote key commentaries on the Veda – particularly for Vedanta, the texts of Advaita. (Brahma Sutra, Upanishad, & Bhagavad Gita)

The first key understanding is that true Advaita is not a philosophical concept or something gained from learning. It is not sync or connectedness or togetherness. It is not even an experience. It is a state of being. We may debate oneness, but it must be directly lived to be known.

“Taught by an inferior man, this Self cannot be easily known, even though often reflected upon. Unless taught by one who knows him as none other than his own Self, there is no way to him, for he is subtler than subtle, beyond the range of reasoning.” (Katha Upanishad 1.2.8)

The second key understanding is about the nature of the world. Shankara only briefly taught that the world is an illusion, until he was corrected by an experience of the Divine Mother. The poem Ananda Lahari was the result. He said that the world in itself cannot be real because it is impermanent. But since the world is experienced, it cannot be non-existent. “It can never be that what is actually perceived is non-existent.” (Brahma Sutra Bhashya (commentary) 2.2.28) Therefore the world is neither real nor unreal (sattasat). Rather the reality of the world is not in an of itself but rather is an appearance of Brahman, which is real.

This is illustrated by his famous quote:
“The world is unreal
Only Brahman is real
The world is Brahman”

“The whole world is nothing but Brahman, the supreme.” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.12)

Elsewhere, Shankara observed that when tamas guna (a quality of inertia) is dominant in the person, they perceive the world as real in itself, as most people do. The world is as you are. When rajas guna (fire, activity) becomes dominant, the person does see the world as illusory. When sattva (purity, clarity) becomes dominant, then the world is seen as Lila, the divine play. In other words, “world as illusion” is an effect of a stage of development. It is not reality.

Even sattva must be superseded. “The face of truth is hidden by a covering of gold.” (Isha Upanishad 15) This means even sattva obscures the truth. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us to “be without the three gunas”.

Self Realization
A key stage of Transpersonal development is commonly known as Self Realization. This is not something a person achieves. Rather, it is described as the Self waking up to Itself here, through this apparent person. This is also known as liberation. Fully established, it is sat chit ananda (absolute bliss consciousness) or nirvana.

“He who knows this enjoyer of delight – the Self, the living soul, always near, lord of what was and what will be – no longer hides in fear.” (Katha Upanishad 2.1.5)

However, this is the awakening of the subject, the perceiver or observer. The world is still seen as separate and perhaps illusory. There is an inner sense of boundless wholeness which some confuse with nonduality. But as long as there is a distinct world, this is not it yet. In fact, this is dwaita, duality. Self + world = 2.

Some teachings discount talk of further development as illusory or misguided. Or they see talk of stages as concepts that are a barrier to living it. While I fully agree the map is not the road, a map is very useful during the journey. And then it is put aside. Plus, if science is going to come to understand this process, we’re going to have to define the stages.

Happily, the Vedic texts have done this for us. Skipping a great deal to focus on the point of this article, the next major stage is the true beginning of Nonduality.

As Self Realization matures, there is typically a refinement of perception resulting from the sattva shift in perception of the world, mentioned above. We come to recognize that underlying the appearance of the world is the same Self as within.

Shankara described 4 Mahavakya or great sayings, each drawn from an Upanishad from each of the 4 primary Veda. We might call these the core recognitions, though how they unfold in this or that journey varies. They are well known:

I am That, Thou art That, All this (Self) is That, That alone is. (That, in this case, is Brahman)

With the initial Unity realization, there is no longer an “inside” and an “outside”. Rather, all experiences and the world are contained within mySelf. Where the subject awoke in Self Realization, now we awaken in the objects of perception and all is recognized as mySelf. Subject and object merge, leaving only experiencing. This is the dawning of true nonduality.

Simply from living life, we experience and become everything that arises. All the layers of experience are progressively united. This is the actual message of the Brahma Sutra: the progressive realizations of oneness into an “aggregate” whole. This goes progressively deeper, including memory and past experiences. It also progresses into the world to “the farthest reaches of the universe beyond perception.”

Over time, it comes right out into the surface of experience. When we touch something, we feel the object. But because we are also the object, we feel being touched simultaneously. This is very literal. As you might imagine, it is a profoundly intimate process.

Near the end of this unfolding, even the physical body is recognized to be the one Cosmic body. There is only one person here (Narayana or Virat), appearing as many, much as Krishna describes in chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita.

“You are woman. You are man. You are the youth and the maiden too. You are the old man hobbling along with a staff. Once born, you are the face turned in every direction.

You are the dark blue butterfly, you are the green parrot with red eyes. You are the thundercloud, pregnant with lightning. You are the seasons, you are the seas. You are without beginning, present everywhere. You, from whom all worlds are born.” (Shvetaashvatara Upanishad 4.3-4)

At the higher end of Unity, consciousness (Atman) is recognized to be both globally aware and aware at every point within itself. Where in Self Realization, it was the point value that woke up to itself (called Kaivalya (singularity) in the Yoga Sutra), now it is the whole waking up everywhere. With Atman fully awake to itself, it can turn from ever-looking in on itself to observe what is greater still.

What next occurs is known in the Vedic texts as the Great Awakening. This is when Atman recognizes it’s origins in Brahman. We look beyond consciousness, beyond even the subtle duality of existing or not existing into the height of nonduality.

“Using the nature of his own Self (Atman), like a lamp to illumine the true nature of Brahman.” (Shvetaashvatara Upanishad 2.15)

During my talk at SAND15 US this fall, I’ll be going over this underlying process in more detail. While the experience of this varies widely by person, the same basic process is underway. This is much like we all experience puberty but how it unfolds varies by person. And it’s very helpful to understand what is unfolding.

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10 Responses to “What is Nonduality?”

  1. August 06, 2015 at 12:00 am, MJA said:

    I found a simple way to unite science with Oneness, the single absolute. Remove the measure and see the light of One true self. =

  2. August 06, 2015 at 4:39 pm, Amit Kharkwal said:

    Why bring Shankra forward in time. Only 1200 years back. He is much older.

    • August 08, 2015 at 6:47 pm, Davidya said:

      Hi Amit
      The Shankaracharya linage can be traced directly back to Shankara. He is thought to have left in about the late 700’s. I have the list for the north seat, beginning with his founding disciple Trotaka. It has all the names, then the exact years from the 20th forward. So the exact time is not known but it’s in that range. Some think him older and others newer.

      The knowledge he revived is much older. His debates to establish the superiority of a nondual approach are still used today.

  3. August 08, 2015 at 10:49 am, David Storoy said:

    Shankaracarya is not founder of Vedanta. He said the knowledge is not from him. He is only following a tradition that has existed for thousands of years.

    • August 08, 2015 at 6:35 pm, Davidya said:

      Hi David
      Agreed, Shankara did not found it. He revived it, brought it forward again. The texts mentioned are from long before his time. And he revived the monastic tradition, as mentioned. The common framing of Advaita today is derived from his teachings though. Vedanta itself is not monastic, for example.

  4. August 08, 2015 at 9:06 pm, John Sharman said:

    “If science is going to come to understand this process…” But of course this is really neither a process, nor something which can be understood, is it? Trying to marry science to non-duality is a bit like trying to analyse love by mixing potions in a lab – it might provide an entertaining distraction for a while, but all you’ll be left with in the end is a bunch of smelly chemicals.

    • August 10, 2015 at 2:58 pm, Davidya said:

      I disagree. Enlightenment is not an event, it is a process. It has key shift points but those have to be integrated, then embodied. This is very much a process, just like growing up. It is also something that can be understood and studied. The worlds traditions are full of descriptions. If we have a suitable framework, we can put those descriptions in context.

      Of course, understanding is not it. The map is not the road. But that doesn’t mean the map has no value while on the road. Presently the west does a terrible job supporting people undergoing such changes. If they had a workable operating framework, they’d do a much better job or at least would be able to refer better.

      I would also refer you to the 6 darshanas of India. The first is Nyaya, logic. The 6th is Vedanta, the books of nonduailty. Just as in science, Nonduality is founded in logic. Even the process of Oneness itself is one of the intellect shifting from looking out and dividing to looking in and joining. I am That, Thou art That, etc.

      • August 15, 2015 at 12:42 am, John Sharman said:

        I can see what you’re getting at Davidya, but really I’d be very wary of emphasizing the process aspect. I see that as the single biggest trap that keeps people from realisation – the belief that enlightenment could ever be anywhere else than right here, right now; the underlying assumption that’s so prevalent, that I have to follow some long and tortuous path if I’m ever to get “there”. Seeing enlightenment as a goal to be aimed towards immediately puts it out of reach, because it creates that false duality between the seeker and the sought.

        Sure, there are things we can do, practices which may help us achieve a more open and receptive state, where enlightenment is more likely to arrive. But as I see it, true enlightenment must ultimately lie beyond all intellectual confines, and is always characterized by a sudden realisation – sudden because it is a realization not confined by temporal laws, nor by scientific logic.

        • August 15, 2015 at 7:43 pm, Davidya said:

          Hi John
          You make some good points but also illustrate why a bigger picture is needed.
          For one, enlightenment is not a single realization. There are several, as the article outlines. In fact, the Brahma Sutra outlines a progression of them in the Unity/ non-dual process. Yes, the key realizations happen in a moment but that alone is not enlightenment. It must be integrated and embodied. There is no “instant enlightenment”.

          I certainly do not encourage the idea its a long and torturous path – in fact, the point of my SAND talk is that it’s normal human development. I start the talk with childhood development to show how the stages above tie in and can be supported. This understanding is something that is gradually being restored.

          I’ve seen repeatedly how important it is that people understand the process better. A lot of people are having these shifts now and they need context to support the adaptation. The simple expectation there is one shift, for example, gets very confusing when something else starts to develop after it. But if you understand it as an unfolding much as we experienced growing up, it makes a lot more sense.

  5. August 15, 2015 at 8:10 pm, Nemir Adjina said:

    Thank you for this clear explanation. My own experience harmonizes nicely with your road map. My view is that the whole process is an unfolding of understanding, a continuous revealing of the truth of what already is. My present view is that I and Brahman are not compatible, as long as I believe that I exist, then I am not Brahman, when I dissolves what is left is Brahman. So although all is Brahman, including the I(Atman), there is a kind of voluntary separation or pretense of separation which is necessary for the drama of existence to unfold. I would be interested to now your views as the the Why of existence? Thank you again, Nemir

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