Non-duality means not-two or more explicitly one without another. It derives from the Sanskrit word Advaita. The saying goes you can’t say it’s all one – the best you can say is that it’s not-two. That’s why it’s called non-duality.
This boring and innocuous word would be easy to ignore except that it has been getting attention in the meditation community. As people dive into their meditation practice and start to wonder what lies ahead they get curious about enlightenment. Words like nirvana, satori, advaita, emptiness get thrown about and they seem to point to this concept called non-duality. In this book we’ll use the word non-duality as a stand-in for all of these topics.
What are we looking for?
In Pooh’s Heffalump movie, Winnie Pooh and his friends set off on an expedition to catch a Heffalump. Unsure about Heffalumps, they build up fancy visions about the characteristics of heffalumps. As we begin our own journey, it would be wise to start to clarify what we’re looking for when we talk about non-duality.
“I saw one once,” said Piglet. “At least, I think I did,” he said. “Only perhaps it wasn’t.”
“So did I,” said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like.
“You don’t often see them,” said Christopher Robin carelessly.
“Not now,” said Piglet. “Not at this time of the year,” said Pooh.
In many enlightenment circles it’s gauche to talk about enlightenment. There are a myriad good reasons for this approach. A Lao Tzu quote from the Tao Te Ching captures the essence of it.
He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not knowLao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
In a previous chapter we covered how the pursuit of enlightenment becomes its own chase and perpetuates the suffering. This presents a challenge: why are perfectly capable people spending so much time sitting around staring at walls? What knowledge besides that of our sore behinds & knees are we gaining? Are we raising consciousness or just the risks of deep vein thrombosis?
A common trope that is used to explain this is that Enlightenment is an accident and meditation makes us accident prone. This allows one to work at it while claiming to not be in active pursuit. After all, the reasoning goes, I haven’t hit 10,000 hours yet.
Waking up to reality
A common understanding of enlightenment is that one wakes up to what’s always been true. The word Buddha in Pali Sanskrit literally means the woken one. The understanding is that we are caught in the world of delusion and working through it lets us see reality as it is. Meditation is compared to windshield wipers – clearing the clutter that our mind is filled with.
While waking up is a useful analogy for understanding enlightenment it carries some erroneous baggage. When we wake up from a dream, we’re in a different state – presumably the waking state. The dream has been left behind and we’re left with memories of the dream. The state is quite different and distinct from the previous phase. This then implies that once we wake up things are different and that the woken up state is preferable to the sleeping state. As a result of these conclusions we start to purse the woken up state.
We need a new analogy
The waking up we’re talking about in enlightenment, non-duality, etc is a little different. It’s like waking up to realize that there are multiple levels of truth and the implication of the lower level has a profound impact of an upper level, but the upper level doesn’t disappear. A few examples could illustrate this clearly.
A flat earth no more
Early man had an intuitive understanding how day and night worked. The Sun seemed to race across the sky during the day illuminating what looked like a flat Earth. It seemed that the stars and suns were arrayed around us on Earth. We did have some questionable phenomenon like solar eclipses that required some magical explanations.
When we realized that the Earth is round and it goes around the Sun it didn’t make a difference to our experience but we had a more complete picture of what takes place. We could now explain things like eclipses better but we continued to use the original understanding. We say words like sunrise and sunset and for the most part the idea of the sun tracing its path across the sky continues to be helpful.
Space and Matter
Our knowledge of the dynamics of the quantum world continues to expand and one of the most interesting facts is that at the atomic level matter is more space than particles. Technically it would be possible to take a step and go through the floor but on an every day basis we can expect (and usually) the floor holds us up. We can have an understanding of the microscopic world and still hang a picture on a wall.
Levels of understanding
It’s helpful to think of non-duality from this level of understanding perspective. Waking up doesn’t mean the dream disappears it’s just that you see the nature of the dream. Like an illusion or mirage it continues to persist but we have an understanding of its nature.
Kinds of Dualism
What do we mean when we use the word dualism? To understand and navigate the world we categorize the world around us. These categories give us short hands: friend/foe/unknown, helpful/unhelpful/to-be-determined. This ability is incredibly helpful and we’d be incapable of living without this ability. But these are categorizations of convenience and don’t have underlying differences.
We’ll now investigate the various kinds of duality we see
We typically view ourselves as distinct from our body. We use possessive terms to refer to our body parts (“This is my hand”). Our conventional understanding is that if we were to be unfortunately separated from our hand we would still exist (albeit without a significant and important appendage).
This view of referring to ourselves as distinct from our body is called dualism. It implies there is a mind (or soul) that’s distinct from the physical body. Now if there are two distinct phenomenon how do they interact? This is called the mind-body problem.
If you’re a dualist then you likely believe that a soul or mind exists and when the physical body dies the soul will survive. Traditionally most religions are based on the belief of an independent self that continues.
If you believe there is only one thing then you have a few different ways to go. You could be a materialist, one who believe there is only the physical realm. The mind then is an emergent property of the biological brain. That when the body dies the mind goes with it. The challenge then is to understand how the mind arises in the brain and there are many research initiatives to understand the physical location of various mental processes (neural correlates of consciousness).
Alternatively you could be an idealist and believe all there is mind. In this case the physical body is an arising in the mind. Now looking for consciousness in the mind makes less sense.
Non-duality sees it all as one and tends towards idealism. All phenomenon are seen arising in the mind. [x]
Subject-Object / Self-Other Dualism
As early as first grade, our rules of grammar instruct us that a sentence is structured with a subject (nous) that interacts (verb) with an object (noun). It is the basis of how we communicate in the world. We experience ourselves as a subject navigating the world – reading this page for instance.
We’ll see in upcoming sections that this distinction while helpful isn’t inherently accurate. There isn’t a you that’s interacting with a cup that’s out there and distinct from you. This notion known as No-Self is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought.
Now-Then (Time) Dualism
We see ourselves as navigating a world where time flows by like a river. We make a decision now to take an action then (in the future). We remember a moment in the past when an action took place. This distinction seems woven into our basic assumption about the world. We could only be reading this page in this moment.
The difference between now and then isn’t quite what we perceive. This is another an important kind of duality that disappears upon investigation.
Cause and Effect
The dissolution of time takes with it a key belief that we have about the world. If there is no subject and no time then cause and effect doesn’t make sense. How can a non-existent actor take an action since action implies an activity takes place in time.
Here and There
We situate ourselves at a location in time. So without a moment in time where do we exist? We’ll see that here and there don’t make sense either. We’re everywhere all the time or perhaps nowhere none of the time.
Implications of non-duality
If you’re still reading then you’ve probably had a good chuckle at the points made above. The rest of the journey is to see how these dualities dissolved at closer inspection. The key reminder is that while these dualities dissolve they continue to be experienced and are helpful. As with sunrises and sunsets, we’ll continue to see ourselves as individual actors navigating the world. But perhaps with less seriousness.
Why bother? Why is non-duality worth understanding?
Each day billions of us use our computers to get our essential tasks done. We drag files from desktops to trash cans, we save, delete, chat, and browse. But back behind the screen there are no desktops and no files. The computer presents an interface ( a mental model) that helps us navigate a heap of 1s and 0s. Probing deeper we realize there aren’t even 1s and 0s, there are just transistors that have the ability to hold charge. Out of this simple property a world rich of websites, cat videos, and video conferencing emerge. We don’t really benefit from knowing the details but our mental model contains the concept of the Internet and a storage device. We know that when we delete a file it goes into a trash can giving us a chance to fish it out before we delete it permanently.
Understanding the planetary motion helped us see eclipses as fun and interesting events (ones that we plan and travel distances to experience). In a similar way the understanding of our world could help us take it less seriously.
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.Zen saying