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Simplifying Nonduality

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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.

Tim Freke

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).

John Prendergast

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.

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  • 13 Comments
  • frequencytuner Sep 15, 2010

    Non-duality cannot be simplified any further than calling it unity. It IS the essence of unity and the very core of simplicity itself. There is no way to "know" it or explain it or simplify it or teach it or learn it, but you can "understand" it. Coming from a dualistic perspective, this essence is as complicated, confusing and abstract as it elusive. It is undefinable, inexplainable and inconceivable. Trying to comprehend simplifying simplicity cannot be done from a human cognitive intellectual level. As the eyes and ears - sensor units - are tuned to receive a specific range of frequencies, the mind - as the master processing and sending unit - is tuned to send and receive a specific range of frequencies. The brain has particular regions and components that send and receive on frequency ranges we cannot access through - what we call - "this dimension" - this specific range of frequencies. "This dimension" that we exist within is like a tiny bubble of air trapped in an endless ocean.

    To "understand" nonduality one cannot exist within duality. I would like to quote the first post on this thread by Sheikh Kabir Helminsk: "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." Nonduality IS the ocean and the only way "understand" it is to BE it - unite with it.

    Herein lies the true question: How do you re-tune your perspective to allow this to happen? Because Science and technology - artificial, man-made sensors - cannot send or receive outside of "this dimension", this must be done at the individual level.

    I will use the old lotus philosophy to explain. The lotus is said to represent 'enlightenment' in many cultures around the world. It is a unique plant in the way it grows. The roots are buried deep in the earth's soil to represent a solid grounding - the root chakra connected to the geomagnetic female energy. Because the lotus grows in water, the stalk climbs from the earth, through the waters of duality until it reaches the surface. Here it encounters the "event horizon" where the water ends and the air begins - the heart chakra, where above and below meet. This is the gateway.

    One - man, state, race, civilization, species - must make this journey alone in an 'I help you because I want you to help me so I can help myself' kind of way. This is essentially the purpose of human existence as a whole: "return to sender".

  • Pamir Kiciman Sep 17, 2010

    Excellent resource, great truths. Bookmarking this to come back and contemplate. One caveat... not sure how simplifying it is. This is how I teach it to neophytes: "We're One with ourselves, others, Nature and its life forms, the planet, the cosmos, and in a very personal way we're One with the Divine."

  • Pamir Kiciman Sep 17, 2010

    To Freke's point... We have to be very careful with the semantics of Oneness. "Duality" and "polarity" aren't synonymous. Duality is either/or: either left or right. A road through the mountains can weave both left and right, but it's "one" road. Left and right is a polarity, because they can be both/and, and because they can be collapsed completely. In the embodied realization of Oneness, jumping directly form duality to It is hard for most of us. Polarity provides and in-between stage and helps us feel the truth of Oneness.

  • Anonymous Icon

    IntegralMind Sep 19, 2010

    It is This, it is not-This, it is both, it is neither (and even All This is too much!)

  • Anonymous Icon

    Ha123 Sep 22, 2010

    We are a self aware conscious expression of God experiencing God. Gifted with a free will. Duality enables us to exercise free will providing choice. As such when we immerse with oneness we bring a new vibrational context to it.

    Mahalo and Namaste to all-- what fun

  • Anonymous Icon

    nim Sep 23, 2010

    Helminski and Freke have great verbal summaries of issues which defy being put into words. In my professional career as a human performance engineer, I have constantly confronted the limitations of what they are putting forth.

    <a href="http://www.skillware.com/7)%20Thought%20Flow%20Plans/slides/AboutTFP.html">ThoughtFlowPlans</a>

  • Anonymous Icon

    nim Sep 23, 2010

    Sorry for the erroneous link in the previous comment. Here's a more accurate summary. If the link below does not work, just paste it into your browser.

    Helminski and Freke have great verbal summaries of issues which defy being put into words. In my professional career as a human performance engineer, I have constantly confronted the limitations and expansiveness of what they are putting forth. And, back in the 1970’s I started confronting the engineering generation with the consequences of overly exclusive dualistic thinking – something I call the “Binary Consciouness.”

    For an artistic, or techno-mediated comment on what they are suggesting, go to this page:

    http://www.skillware.com/7)%20Thought%20Flow%20Plans/slides/AboutTFP.html

    Thanks to both authors.

  • MikeNelsonPedde Sep 24, 2010

    Forgive me for saying so, and I haven't yet had the opportunity to read this article, but isn't having 'three' people discuss 'nonduality' an oxymoron?

    Mike.

  • Xiakathy Sep 25, 2010

    There are many oxymorons in the universe, and Schroedinger's Cat makes nine lives which divided by three is three, so you can't say fairer than that. Having read Amit Goswami's Self Aware Universe I think the guy knows what he's talking about - like the General Theory of Relativity it takes us non-scientists a couple of gos to get some of the concepts. Are non-scientists oxymorons, or is that just a term that becomes reality in government departments??

    May the think be with you....
    Kat

  • Neon1 Sep 27, 2010

    I often wonder, “What is my current stage of awareness?”
    I experienced being a drop who does not dissolve when immersed in the ocean, but I didn’t get a sense that the ocean was also contained in my drop. Was this a deliberate truncation of my experience? Was I not ready at the time?

    Since that unity experience I have been tested in just the way mentioned by Sheikh Kabir Helminski (stage six). I was faced with the question: Can I “live in this world and solve my problems with love? Neither blaming nor judging, but working to serve, to solve problems?” It was a brief, yet intense test; the most difficult test I have ever faced.

    Have I now come to see myself as ordinary? (stage seven) While I am ordinary, I have yet to appreciate myself in that way, and still cling to a belief that there is something very special about me.

    I still have so much to learn, and would like to accelerate my spiritual growth under the guidance of a master, but I lack the financial resources to help enable the luxurious lifestyle of these gifted teachers.

    Perhaps, since I am not financially rich, my progress is meant to be slow and arduous?

  • Lightfiend Sep 28, 2010

    Do fear, anger, and hate all come from the One too? If so, in Oneness, how do we discern morality? Or positive states from negative states? The answer, I suppose, is that in Oneness we DO NOT discern at all. So I guess my question is this: once we have discovered Oneness, is there any point in entering back into a world of duality (at least, for practical reasons?) How does the wisdom of Oneness affect our actions in the dualistic world?

    Just some questions and thoughts,
    Steven
    http://www.theemotionmachine.com

  • Mindlink0 Oct 12, 2010

    Shaikh Kabir Helminski talks about a "field of oneness" in which "everything is rooted and unified in the Divine." And the other contributors seem to echo this concept of some kind of unity. But in my own, unique experiences of nonduality, there was no Divine and there were no things; there is just IS. I have this concept of levels of consciousness being like concentric spheres where each greater level of consciousness embraces all lower levels of consciousness. The experience of nonduality gives different perspectives and different influences of the lower levels, but does not eliminate or replace them; it becomes an edifying part of the lesser spheres of consciousness, wherein we continue to dwell at the levels of our choice.

    This concept of concentric spheres of consciousness, where the greater sphere embraces the lesser spheres, eliminates (as least for me) the paradox of both levels being true at the same time, as noted by Tim Freke. I also enjoyed Tim Freke's comments "it's not a thing", and "it has no qualties", and "we haven't go a clue what it is". I look forward to realizing the greater levels of consciousness, whose existence has been shown to me.

    I would suggest to frequencyhunter that perhaps nonduality is beyond current human ability to "understand".

    I would like to assure Neon that there very definitely is someting very special about you. There is something very special about each of us. Your progress is meant to be as slow and arduous as you mean to make it.

    In answer to Lightfiend's question: "Is there any point in entering back into a world of duality?" I would suggest that you never leave the world of duality. Nonduality just gives you a different perspective. In answer to the question: "How does the wisdom of Oneness affect our actions in the dualistic world?" I would suggest that is your choice. You might be amazed at the power we humans have in the choices we make.

  • Anonymous Icon

    DmitriyNGaevoy Sep 08, 2011

    Nonduality explained - Integrative Model:
    http://www.appliedmedtherapy.com/?page_id=538

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