What is non-duality anyway?

lotus flower

This website is sub-titled ‘Spirituality and Non-Duality’. But what exactly is non-duality (advaita in Sanskrit)? Even in spiritual circles only a few people will ever come across the notion of non-duality and fewer still seem to be interested. From my point of view that’s a real shame as as far as I can see, non-duality is where spirituality gets real and freedom can become reality. Well let me start by explaining what the opposite, duality, means.

Most of spirituality is profoundly dualistic. Most ‘spiritual’ people are trying to get somewhere. They imagine that through some practice or method they will be able to attain their spiritual goal, whatever that may be. For example, someone may think that by meditating everyday for several hours they will be able to attain enlightenment in which all suffering ends. Or perhaps they will raise their Kundalini shakti energy through performing once-secret practices and experience everlasting bliss as well as learn to teleport and read people’s minds. Or maybe their ideas are less grandiose such as through changing the way they think and relate to the world they will be able to attract better situations in their life. Or through loving-kindness meditation they will become more compassionate.

In all of the above examples there are 3 basic concepts that are implicit: there is a person, who is following a path/method, to achieve a goal. This seems reasonable enough and is very much the paradigm we experience in daily life more generally:  in order to go to see our friend (goal) we get in the car (method) and drive (method) to his/her house; in order to get a degree (goal) or earn more money (goal) we go to university (method) and study there (method). In order to keep out teeth healthy (goal) we brush them regularly (method). Of course implied in all these examples there is also the presumption of being a person, an entity, who is able to chose to carry out certain actions.

In all of the above examples there are 3 basic concepts that are implicit: there is a person, who is following a path/method, to achieve a goal.

The point I am making is that while in everyday practical life this paradigm of person-method-goal works very well, when transferred to spiritual matters it fails spectacularly. Spiritual duality appears practical, but actually doesn’t work. This is why all too often you see people who have been meditating and bending their body for years on end but still not getting it and still feeling spiritually frustrated.

In contrast non-dual teachings can often appear highly conceptual, but once ‘understood’, they are seen to point to that which is non-conceptual and liberating. In fact it can then be seen that it is not non-duality but duality that is in fact conceptual, as it relies on a whole host of unconsciously assimilated (dualistic) assumptions.

(By the way, if you have never come across this kind of analysis before you may be thinking what on earth is he talking about and how is any of this relevant to anything? Well hang in there…)

Non-duality points to a qualitatively different approach. The above examples are dualistic in that there is a person trying to get somewhere. The duality (two-ness) is that there is a presumed difference between where the person is currently and where the person wants to be. Where the person is currently is not good enough so they want to get to somewhere better, eg. enlightenment or pure love or God-consciousness. Incidentally, the goal people are trying to get to is usually a self-projected imagined ideal which may have no actual grounding in reality.

…the goal people are trying to get to is usually a self-projected imagined ideal which may have no actual grounding in reality.

Non-duality says something different, namely that where you are right now just happens to be perfection itself. Even when life seems shit, it is actually also perfect (perfectly shit, you could say). Rather than needing to get to somewhere better (implying that you are currently somewhere worse), the problem is not that where you are is shit, the problem is that where you are is perfect but you are not able to see it as being perfect. Non-duality says we don’t need to fundamentally change anything, we just need to better understand our present situation.

Non-duality says we don’t need to fundamentally change anything, we just need to better understand our present situation.

Note that doesn’t mean that you don’t correct mistakes or try to improve things in daily life. Improving the situation may be exactly what is needed, or to put it differently, improving things may be what is happening right now…more on this seeming paradox in another post perhaps.

So in non-duality, the emphasis is no longer to try to get somewhere better, but to clearly see what is going on right now. And because by sheer luck we happen to live in a universe that is inherently without suffering, when we see things as they are, we become free from suffering. In this sense it completely scientific, as it is based in observing what is actually happening and trying to see things as they actually are, and not as you want them to be. It is by seeing the truth of things that we are set free.

…the emphasis is no longer to try to get somewhere better, but to clearly see what is going on right now.

Now let’s take the title of this website as an example: ‘Rope & Snake’ (this website used to be called ropeandsnake.com). This ancient metaphor, which is probably at least 5000 years old, says just what I have been saying above, but much more concisely. A man walking down a street mistakes a coiled rope on the ground for a snake and as a result he becomes scared. The world appears to be scary at times, represented by what appears to be a snake on the dimly lit road. However if you look carefully at your own experience (shine a light on the snake), you will see that there is nothing to fear and things are perfect the way they are, as represented by the non-scary rope (it was always a rope, it just appeared to be a snake).

What most spiritual seekers are doing is trying to change the snake into a rope, something that is clearly not possible and leads to frustration. Alternatively seekers may be metaphorically trying get rid of the snake or learn to better deal with the snake. The point is nothing needs to change. Things are already ok. It is already a rope, it just appears to be a snake. Methods such as meditation, yoga, chanting, raising the kundalini, taking drugs, sending out loving kindness – all these things are akin to trying to change the snake into a rope or better deal with or remove the snake.

It is like feeding the snake certain food, or tying the snake to a tree or doing special rituals or casting a spell on the snake, all in the vain attempt of turning it into a rope or getting rif of it all together. All of this is missing the point. There is no snake. There is only rope. What you thought was a snake is just a poorly lit coiled up rope. In other words, things are already perfect: you just need to see things as they actually are.

In other words, things are already perfect: you just need to see things as they actually are.

Then in this context practices such as chanting and loving kindness take on a different meaning: for the ‘unenlightened’ they become ways of encouraging transient states of peace and calm, in which thoughts become less intrusive, and so the deeper teachings of no-self (or true self, which is the same thing) can be more readily seen; for the ‘enlightened’ some of these practices may (or may not) become spontaneous expressions of freedom; in both cases these practices are often beneficial, but they do not lead directly to freedom – that only comes from seeing things as they are.

Freedom is also something that is permanent, because it already is. It is worth noting that all spiritual practices are limited and finite, and so their results will also be limited and finite and therefore transient. Any states of mind or consciousness derived from spiritual practices will necessarily be temporary: what comes can also go. Any sense of peace and bliss that appear will also eventually disappear. Even any insights gained will also eventually go or be liable to be doubted.

Freedom is also something that is permanent, because it already is…Any states of mind or consciousness derived from spiritual practices will necessarily be temporary: what comes can also go.

Because non-duality points to something that already is here but is not clearly seen, when it is clearly seen the freedom that results is recognised to have always existed. This freedom is not a specific state of mind or a specific way of being but is ever-present regardless of states of body or mind (or environment). It could be said that it is understanding that leads to freedom, but freedom is beyond even understanding, understanding also being something that can come and go. Freedom cannot be put into words, it is unique, ever-present, already here and all that is.

Freedom cannot be put into words, it is unique, ever-present, already here and all that is.

There are other ways to talk about the meaning of non-duality vs. duality, and this is just a few of them. When a spiritual seeker really understands this central point, it has the potential to completely transform them and their lives, or at least the way they see their lives.

Many traditional paths are explicitly non-dual, such as Zen/Chan Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Dzogchen, Taoism, Sufism and Kashmir Shaivism. Other traditions hint at it implicitly. I’ll leave you with a famous Zen koan, which perfectly illustrates the non-dual insight that what is needed is not a progressive path to a goal, but a direct insight into the eternal here-now. We should not try to turn a snake into a rope, but just see the rope directly:

One day when Nangaku came to Baso’s hut, Baso stood up to receive him. Nangaku asked him, “What have you been doing recently?”
Baso replied, “I’ve been practising zazen (sitting meditation) exclusively.”
Nangaku asked, “What’s the aim of your zazen?”
Baso replied, “To achieve Buddhahood.”
Thereupon, Nangaku took a roof tile and began rubbing it on a rock near Baso’s hut. Baso, upon seeing this was confused and eventually asked him, “Reverend monk, what are you doing?”
Nangaku replied, “I am polishing a roof tile to make it a mirror.”
Baso said, “How can you possibly make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”
Nangaku replied, “How can you possibly make yourself into a Buddha by doing zazen?”
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12 thoughts on “What is non-duality anyway?

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. Can I ask a favour? Would you mind visiting my blog and letting me know what you think because it’s for school and I’m not sure how well it’s going. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I think many people would resonate with what you wrote regarding a fleeting realisation/experience. What this teaching is pointing to is something that already IS. It is present all the time and not dependent on states of mind or realisations or insights or anything else – it is not a state at all really. It is just THIS. And in THIS it can become clear that there there is no self, no doer. There is nothing to attain, no state to strive for, just THIS. The self is just an illusion, albeit a convincing one, and when it is seen as it is – ie. when the separate self is seen to be non-existent, then all that remains is THIS, which is all there ever was anyway the entire time. Make sense? 🙂

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