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spiritual essayEssay 3/2013

Experiencing Non-Duality

 

Spiritual seekers who aim to go beyond duality often fancy that, at the end of the journey, they are going to experience reality altogether differently. That’s right and wrong at the same time.

Even before, there are many situations that allow us to experience non-duality, which is in and through everything. Reality being non-dual, it would be quite surprising if non-duality was untraceable up to the time of enlightenment. So even unenlightened mortals experience non-duality plenty of times throughout their day. Indeed we interpret the experience wrongly. What happens with enlightenment or awakening, is that this wrong interpretation, based on ignorance, is dropped. This means that all those possible non-dual experiences are recognised for what they essentially are: non-duality itself. What, again, is non-duality? In Sanskrit non-duality is called advaita.

 

Extract from the essay of December, 2010:

What is advaita?

Many seekers of Truth have already heard the term ‘advaita’, because most satsang teachers around the world call themselves teachers of advaita. Even so some in their audience do not know exactly what advaita is. Advaita means ‚not two’, ‚non-dual’; which means that advaita assumes that reality is based on one single principle, is basically one single entity. Beyond this single principle/entity there is no second.

But when we look around, we see a world full of forms and colours, we experience various sensory impressions, we experience our body, the energy that pulsates through it, its physiological functions, and we are aware of our thoughts and feelings. All of this is supposed to be a non-dual reality?! 

We usually experience the world as dual – here are not only we ourselves, but also what we experience: a division between subject and object. All the same we study mystical and eastern teachings and we attend advaita satsangs; we intuit that what advaita makes out as reality is a higher vision and we consider the possibility that this superior vision is truer than our day-to-day perception.

 

If reality is non-dual how come we experience it as dual? Why do we actually experience a reality that is split into subject and object?

One answer is that the experience of duality seems to start with language. Pre-linguistic experience seems to be non-dual. Some people can still remember exactly the time when, on account of language, their undivided childhood reality disintegrated all at once into many different parts.

 

An experiment

It seems that, of all senses, visual experience is particularly tied together with linguistic classification. Therefore, for the following experiment we switch it off:

Sit down on a chair and close your eyes. Now ask yourself: What do I perceive?

You will be able to enumerate: body, clothes, thoughts, chair, floor, temperature, sounds etc.

Next you investigate your perception. Start off with the body. Perceive the body. It is wrapped in clothes. It sits on a chair. It registers the temperature of the surrounding air. The feet, maybe in shoes/socks, are placed on the floor. Sounds penetrate the ears, smells reach the nostrils. Even thoughts or feelings are perceived. Etc.

Now you go even more into detail. Question your above experience. Really feel it out.

You feel your body. What do you really experience? Do you actually sense what you would see if you looked into a mirror?

The body is dressed. Where do the clothes touch the body? And are there really no clothes, where you do not feel them touching the body? If you did not know that there are clothes how would you describe your experience?

You sit on a chair. Do you feel the chair? Or do you feel a certain pressure in the area of bottom and back? On account of tactile perception can you be sure that the pressure comes about by a chair? Could it not be a sensation belonging to the body?

If you did not know that the feet touch the floor what is your direct experience? Where, in each case, do you sense the borderline between skin and clothes, between body and chair, feet and floor, or skin and surrounding air?

When and where, exactly, do smells and sounds cross the border between outside and inside and turn into your own sensory perceptions?

Where do thoughts or feelings originate, what is their whereabouts and whereto do they disappear? What separates one thought from the next, do they touch and, if not, what lies in between?

 

Investigating these questions will bring about astonishing findings because all those boundaries that we constantly draw in point of fact do not correspond with our actual experience. Your bottom and the chair cannot be separated clearly from each other, any more than anything else. This allows the conclusion that our imaginary limitations in reality are nothing but concepts. We have the feeling that we perceive them simply because we do have different words at our disposal; we then assign our, actually undivided, perception to these terms and in order to do that we divide it up. The reality originating from it is nothing but a projection.

Even if we investigate our experience visually while abstracting from linguistic concepts, we can mark out borders only on the basis of differences in light and colour. And the result we’ll get to will not correspond to our usual world-view or self-image.

 

Walking through life with such an impressionistic world-view would, however, make social interaction impossible. Therefore, it is good that we have the option of language. Indeed, assuming that our usual experience is identical with reality as such, is a mistake. Even science nowadays has gone beyond that notion. Whoever would like to have a taste of non-duality, does well to submit his own experience to a thorough test. What the mystics, the enlightened and the Advaita scriptures talk about is not at all as far away as many suppose.

In fact we could not survive if we did not dive into non-duality every night. Yes, every night, each of us – namely in dreamless deep sleep. This state is, as everybody will confirm, exceptionally pleasant and regenerates our vital forces better than anything. Why? Because in this state there is no duality. Duality generates tension and perfect freedom from duality is deeply relaxing.

However, even in the course of the day at countless moments we recover from the exhausting idea of a dualistic existence. Between each of our thoughts/feelings there is a moment of no-thought/feeling when non-duality prevails. In addition there are longer time spans when we fall into a trance, which also comes under states of non-duality. Such trances occur, for example, while we are under the shower or in the bath-tub, waiting for the bus, on a train drive, in routine activities, briefly, at all moments of so-called absent-mindedness.

But we do not only experience non-duality when mind is absent , it also happens in other states. In the experience of love, for example, the idea of a separate ‚me’ dissolves and with it duality. Likewise in the experience of beauty separation/duality dissolves. Also, each time a desire is fulfilled we stop experiencing our imagined limitations (that go hand in hand with neediness), which manifests in feelings of relief, relaxation and happiness.

Now, all these experiences are temporary – as experiences go. They will not stay, as enlightenment would. Still one may ask oneself: if life is that honeycombed with non-dual experiences, why is enlightenment actually that difficult to attain? Here I would like to briefly define what distinguishes the phenomenon ‚enlightenment’ from all these experiences. Enlightenment is not merely a prolonged experience of non-duality. Enlightenment consists of recognising non-duality for what it is: the true Self. Only with this knowledge does non-duality cease to be a passing state but turns out to be what I truly am: the same as that which everything else truly is.

Enlightenment is difficult to attain, because many continually search for this prolonged experience, which per se cannot exist. Why do they look for it anyway? Because they lack the knowledge that what they are seeking is not a new experience but that which, in fact, is already the case. We just need to stop constantly overlooking it.

 

So it’s all about finding ways to go beyond our habitual interpretation of reality. If you understood the last two essays fully and can relate to the suggested exercises (reflections, meditations, experiments), your belief in separation and duality will start to weaken. Not only the reports of the enlightened, including the Vedanta scriptures, not only logic, but even our own sensuous experience gives us every reason to doubt the idea that we are in a dual reality.

All the essays that have been published this year are aimed at least at questioning the framework of our usual perception, if not at blowing it up completely. This is necessary, however, by itself it not enough to recognise one’s own true nature. Each seeker is different, but all seekers need a certain emotional maturity that enables them to face the inevitable changes of life with calm and composure. Moreover, all seekers need the information that there is something called enlightenment, what is it all about, what helps to attain it and what does not help. In many former essays I have written about all of this (and will go on doing it).

Also, all seekers need the opportunity to clear doubts and questions that come up in their minds with a competent guide. The reflections and experiments mentioned earlier can help with it but without the help of someone who knows 'the area' well, the seeker will most probably get lost.

 

Only if there is not a single doubt left clouding the knowledge of the seeker, who now actually cannot be called a seeker any more, only then he/she can walk on alone. Habitual identifications will still appear from time to time – which he, nevertheless, without any outside help can recognize as such and leave behind.

The experience of reality is the same, whether you are starting out your spiritual journey or have reached its end. But the enlightened or Self-realized one knows without a doubt that his/her generally dual perception of reality is based on non-dual reality itself. This again means that he/she knows that all concepts of separation are based on wrong interpretation, i.e. that the manifold phenomenal world consists of the same ‘non-material substance’ as he/she does.

This non-material-substance is existence-consciousness-limitlessness – in Sanskrit Sat-Chit-Ananta.

 

 



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