Nothing is wasted in this nonduality. The spiritual journey leads us toward a maturity — to states that are more good, more beautiful, more pure in a sense — and along the way, every lesson, every impurity, is also teaching us.
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Articles in This Issue
by Vesela Simic
Ed: In these transcripts from the 2009 Science and Nonduality Conference,a Sufi, a philosopher, and a psychotherapist discuss the enigmatic nature of nonduality – from the Advaita concept of essential unity – and why it is relevant. The 2010 event featured over 50 presenters, including spiritual teacher Adyashanti, Diamond Approach® founder A. H. Almaas, University of Arizona Professor Stuart Hameroff, former University of Oregon physics professor Amit Goswami, and IONS researchers Cassandra Vieten and Dean Radin. Click here for information on the 2011 event.
Sheikh Kabir Helminski
From what I understand, nonduality seems to be a term that comes primarily from the Advaita Vedanta tradition. We have a close equivalent in Sufism, the Arabic word Tauheed, which means “the oneness of all levels of being.” In the Sufi tradition, we understand that everything is rooted and unified in the Divine – a field of oneness. Practically speaking, this means that my consciousness, my love, my will, my generosity, my capacity for forgiveness, all these attributes have their source in the Divine and ultimately all levels of existence, from this physical world through the emotional and mental worlds up to the subtle spiritual worlds and finally to the highest subtlest level of unity.
In Sufi practice, the aim is to live with an awareness of all such levels of being simultaneously. We call it “remembering God,” the foremost practice of Islam. The Qur’an says that remembrance of God is the greatest. For the Sufi, it means having an awareness with every breath that we live in a spiritual reality. But this is more than a mental awareness, for it has elements of gratitude and awe, from which come a humility. So Tauheed, this nonduality, has a quality to it that is more than something mental and abstract; it has a deeply personal attribute as well as a cosmic and impersonal attribute, because we realize that the human being is the ripened fruit of that nonduality.
It’s a miracle of our existence that we have an I, a self. We experience that self as a subjectivity, as an experiencing being. What I am talking about here is our true I, our true self, which is obscured by mental constructs, social conditioning, and culture. For various reasons, we have a false I, a false self, that needs to be deconstructed through a process of self-observation and self-witnessing. This is part of the spiritual process, which I think is universal, to question our motives and to examine what really speaks through us. What is speaking when I say “I”?
There are different levels of the “I-ness.” In the Sufi map of the soul, there are seven levels, and it is at the fourth level that we begin to truly wake up, to awaken to a kind of presence or mindfulness. This is the level at which a lot of spiritual work takes place; the esoteric paths are at this level of introducing presence and mindfulness into our lives. With presence and mindfulness, many things change. The quality of our sense of I changes; we’re not as invested in our idea of ourselves but have some space around the I, some freedom. This can be a long stage of the journey, but sooner or later, it leads to experiences of nonduality, of union with the Divine.
This is the fifth stage, when the self knows that its being is intimately sourced in Divine Being. We are no longer the drop alone but the drop that contains the ocean — not the drop that will dissolve in the ocean but the drop that experiences the ocean within itself. This might be a brief and even ecstatic stage of experience, but one generally does not stay there very long because there is yet a higher stage, when we return to this world with all of its interplay of forces. We come back from this experience of oneness, and our realization is tested at this sixth stage. Can we live in this world and solve our problems with love? Neither blaming nor judging, but working to serve, to solve problems? The seventh stage is when the enlightenment of the fifth stage and all the testing in the sixth stage reach maturity in our being and we become an apparently ordinary human being, someone the world might hardly notice, but one who radiates a beneficent energy that has a positive effect on others.
The point I want to make is that nothing is wasted in this nonduality. The spiritual journey leads us toward a maturity — to states that are more good, more beautiful, more pure in a sense — and along the way, every lesson, every impurity, is also teaching us. What if the unity is so great that the mercy and generosity of existence operate in every detail of life? What if there is a profound love operating in the nature of reality itself? Some of us, from our own experience, come to trust more and more that this is so. Some of the great Sufis have said that this whole universe was created from a single spark of love.
Shaikh Kabir Helminski is co-director of The Threshold Society, a nonprofit organization that educates people about Sufism and spiritual psychology.
My experience is that, fundamentally, reality is characterized by polarity. So for me, it’s not question of non-do or do, for example, but both at the same time. What I’m looking for is something that comes from an actual experience, not just a clever idea, and if I come right into this moment, what is happening right now is that there is a polarity to this moment. A polarity is opposites — but they can only exist together. Left is the opposite of right. You can’t turn left and right, but you can’t have left without right. So, they are two and one at the same time. What we are facing here, the paradox of our predicament, is that it’s two and one at the same time, depending on how you look at it. I see no reason to prejudice one or the other — in fact, I see a necessity to be conscious of both.
I’ve looked for an image that can capture the experience of nonduality, and for me the image is “lucid living,” a state comparable to lucid dreaming. When you dream at night, normally you’re lost in the dream, but if you dream lucidly, consciously, you see that you have a polarity to your nature. On the one hand, there is this particular person that you appear to be in your dream persona, and yet there is this deeper level to your identity, which exists with it at the same time, which is the dreamer — which is awareness itself, within which the whole dream is arising. And in that way, you are the dream; it’s all you. Awakening to nonduality is the same. On the one hand, I am Tim. I am an object, a thing, a person, an individual. I’m actually so individual that I inhabit this unique point in space and time, and no one else can or ever will inhabit it. And then there’s the discovery of this deeper nature, the subject of self, not the object but “the I,” that which is witnessing this. If I go deeply into that, it is a vast spaciousness within which all of this is arising — just like in a dream. And those two exist together. So here it’s a oneness, and here it’s all separate — which is true. They are both true.
The most important thing about the experience for me is that when I see that I’m one with everything, there’s love. Love is how oneness feels. When you love someone, it’s because you see through the separateness, and when you come to a place where you are one with everything, there’s this huge, huge, big love. And although it’s right up here, it also reaches right down into a feeling with the body, bringing you back into the separateness in a new way. So you are engaging with the drama of life, actually coming into it, maybe for the first time, in a whole new way. You come free. There’s a lovely line in one of the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Phillip, which I love: “Those who are free because of gnosis become slaves because of love.” That has polarity.
Sometimes it feels to me that this is so hard to find because it’s so damn obvious. It’s not moving; everything else is moving. It’s not a thing; everything else is a thing. It has no qualities; everything else has a quality. It’s the thing that is always here; it’s present in every moment. It’s a very subtle thing to find and yet the most obvious thing to find. What intrigues me about human beings in life is we’re a bit like we are when we dream. We become so caught up in our story that we don’t notice the most obvious thing about life, which is that we haven’t got a clue what it is. We walk around as if we know what it is all the time, and none of us know what it is. None of us! It’s a complete mystery — a breathtaking mystery.
Tim Freke is a “standup philosopher,” bestselling author (How Long Is Now?), and founder of The Alliance for Lucid Living (The ALL).
Almost all of psychology has a fundamentally dualistic orientation in the sense that there is a presumption in the reality of “the me.” Almost any system you look at is about, in some way, transforming or changing or fixing the me. Of course, there is a certain value in doing that. We can improve the quality of our imagined self so that we adjust and have a more positive psychology. We gain a better image of ourselves and feel better about ourselves. But although we can be a more authentic apparent self, that doesn’t make it real. There is always a sense of ungroundedness to this construct of me — a sense of lack, anxiety, or disconnection. A shadow of groundlessness accompanies this phantom me because it’s not fundamentally real. This is something that’s deeply repressed, even more than the fear of death. We have an intuition of our mortality but an even deeper intuition of our insubstantiality. There’s a hole in the core of our being that we repress because it feels like it’s empty. To the conditioned mind, it looks like a void, and there’s a lot of terror in opening to that emptiness.
We often approach the emptiness through the lens of our conditioning. Whether we’ve had experiences of feeling abandoned or engulfed, we superimpose such experiences upon our experience of the vastness. There are many obstacles, at least apparent ones, to letting go into this vastness because of a fear of the unknown — yet it is that unknown which is what we are and what everything is. When there is a deep letting go, when there is an attunement or recognition of this, that’s when a peace arises. When that fear, that sense of lack or disconnection — which are existentially rooted in this insubstantial self — when these dissolve, we feel our fundamental unity, our oneness with everyone and everything.
For me, this is what a nondual approach to psychotherapy uniquely offers: It doesn’t assume the fundamental duality of self and other; instead, it’s a recognition that that’s actually a distinction without substance. And when there is a realization of the unreality of this me, there’s a sense of just following an inner intelligence that’s at work. You realize that something, some much greater intelligence, is at work, and we’re just kind of along for the ride. The hardships of life seem to me a necessary ingredient in seeing that everything is impermanent, that nothing really is substantial, and that our true peace is to come home to what we really are — and then not just to awaken but to live that awakening. To embody that awakening is equally precious because our human experience is not just about going back to source but about going back to source and then living from that knowing in a creative way.
I think the primary difference between a nondual approach to psychotherapy and conventional psychotherapy is the awareness of the psychotherapist. You can work through almost any kind of model, but if the awareness of the therapist is not grounded in true nature, you have a different experience. In other words, the ground of being is generally not recognized in conventional psychotherapy as having any kind of reality. A nondual approach emphasizes the authenticity of this understanding and the spontaneity of its expression.
In my work with clients, I have noticed a significant progressive deepening over the years as my own understanding of true nature has deepened. With a greater sense of wholeness here in this particular body of mine, there’s a much quicker recognition of patterns — psychological patterns, emotional patterns, and identification with those patterns — and it becomes much easier to help direct attention, first to recognizing patterns and then to deconstructing them. What I find is a kind of spectrum, not a sharp delineation but a spectrum, of a deepening of awareness on the part of the therapist and a corresponding speeding up of the process of transformation with clients. If you’re a therapist with a nondual orientation, you can work on many levels, depending on the need and the capacity of the client. Meeting a client where he or she is could look like conventional psychotherapy, even when there’s a deep background of awareness. But when there’s an openness to inquiring on a different level, the therapist can meet a client there to deconstruct all the fundamental stories that make up the fabric of identity and then to let go into true nature. A therapist with a nondual orientation can have multiple roles: being a spiritual guide for those who are interested and also working as a conventional psychotherapist for the kinds of issues clients ordinarily bring.
John J. Prendergast, PhD, is a professor of psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), a practicing psychotherapist, and co-editor of and contributor to The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapyand Listening from the Heart of Silence.
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Vesela Simic is an editor and a writer whose subject portfolio includes psychology, recovery, contemplative wisdom, emerging worldviews, integrative medicine, and yoga. An editor of IONS' former print magazine, Shift, her website is www.veselasimic.com.