In the Round: Nondual Roundtable [Part 1]
by Matthew King
Anyone who has come through the friendly confines of NDA will know that we welcome (with open arms) the diversity of voices that are now speaking about nonduality. The flowering of expression that is taking place is nothing short of amazing — especially with Western audiences! We highly value openness and inclusion and hope that you will continue to share this spirit with us.
So what is Non-Duality?
There are a million words being written about it daily — online, published via many books, You Tube videos, live events, meetings and retreats, yet many people seem to be somewhat confused about what is being talked about.
I decided to track down six key authors/teachers or speakers in this seemingly rather “tight-knit” community to help shed some light on various topics and I asked them some unique questions in the process. I suppose some of these questions could seem “challenging”, but they are not about challenging the “teachers” just for the sake of challenging. These are the types of questions that get sent to NDA HQ from readers spanning the globe and examples of questions that teachers themselves are often asked during meetings, live events, retreats and or Satsangs.
Who were the participants, what about those questions and what is a “round table” style discussion anyway?
A round table discussion is typically a form of small group communication and is really useful when it comes to learning. The group is usually focused on a single subject and group cooperation and or participation is key to the overall success of the group. Our version is more like an “interview”. I asked the same questions to all the participants. That way you get some rather in-depth explanations and hopefully many of you will resonate with their responses. The goal was to get the discussion going in the COMMENTS section at the end of the post.
This is the début post which concentrates on DEFINITIONS and features: Rupert Spira, Scott Kiloby, Nirmala, Gary Crowley, Randall Friend and Greg Goode. There will be six different posts (i.e. “rounds”) with these six participants covering six main topics. If you would like to ask these gents any questions then the COMMENT SECTION is the place to do it.
Round One Questions
What is Nonduality?
RUPERT SPIRA: Non-duality could be said to be the experiential understanding that experience does not comprise two parts, a perceiving subject and a perceived object, but is rather one seamless whole. In this revelation the distance, separation or otherness between oneself and all objects, people and the world is seen to be and to have always been utterly non-existent.
Love, peace and happiness are some of the names that are sometimes given to this experiential realization but are usually misinterpreted by thinking. In conventional dualistic thinking we feel, “I love you.” In the living experience of non-duality, the I and the you dissolve, leaving only love.
SCOTT KILOBY: A seeing beyond or through separation in all its forms.
NIRMALA: Nonduality is simply a word and a concept. And like all words and concepts it can be more or less useful depending on whether it helps point someone to a direct experience of something, or if instead it catches them up in pure conceptualization.
In my experience, the word nonduality is sometimes confusing for people because it implies that it is either the absence of duality or the opposite of duality. Perhaps a better word would be “totality”. This points to the totality of existence, and of reality, which includes all of what we call duality and more. In this view nonduality or totality is not something apart from or opposed to duality or any aspect of our everyday experience. Instead it is simply pointing to more of the truth about our life and our existence: that everything is really one thing appearing as many.
GARY CROWLEY: “Nonduality” is a label that attempts to describe the non-separate experiencing of living. “Non-separate” is a label that attempts to describe your unique experiencing of this-here-now as the everythingness of what you are.
RANDALL FRIEND: Nonduality is an expression which attempts to remove duality as reality. It points away from the false towards what is true. Yet the false IS the true also. What does this mean?
Duality is what we know – the opposites – thing-ness… That is our idea of the world – duality is the template upon which our reality is built. We live in a world of “things” – many things – each possessing it’s own existence. When a thing arrives, it EXISTS. To us, that means it takes on it’s own existence. That means the thing is a thing of itself, standing alone – it’s existence began with the arrival of the form. It’s existence will end with the ending of the form.
Nonduality points out that this viewpoint is not the absolute reality. The world of things is only an apparent reality. We take appearance as absolute, as if we had the premium view of what IS. As if our view of “things”, our view of the “universe” is the Absolute Viewpoint – all others are less-than, less correct, less accurate. We miss that our limited view of what-IS is just that, limited.
But we are measuring what-IS. This is where so many so-called “teachers” miss the boat. Duality isn’t the enemy. Duality IS reality, only known with limited means. When the means changes, the view or appearance changes. With no means available, there is only what-IS without anything to say, without any way to describe. There is only existence as it is – oneness – wholeness – the Absolute nature of existence or Brahman. A form is a form OF THAT. When a form is gone, nothing happens to existence, to that from which that form arose and that to which that form returns.
We aren’t trying to do away with duality. We only see that duality is the play of existence itself – forms OF emptiness – expressions of one intelligence. This person you take yourself to be is just an expression of the whole – therefore what you are isn’t that expression but the whole itself – the intelligence which IS duality and nonduality. Then both duality and nonduality fall away as irrelevant.
You are the whole itself. The world is an expression of what you are. You have no opposite – this is the true meaning of “nonduality“.
GREG GOODE: In the last few years I’ve encountered more and more people who don’t resonate with the usual teachings in which nonduality is explained as singularity, unity or awareness. They feel a deep yearning to realize that they aren’t limited to an objective, pre-existing body or mind, but don’t have the intuition that the basis of everything is awareness. The idea can seem arbitrary.
So for these folks, I’ve used the emptiness teachings descended from Nagarjuna. There has been great and intuitive response where the awareness teachings didn’t hit the spot. Since these are fairly different from the teachings on awareness, I’ll switch gears here and discuss these round-table questions as from the emptiness teachings. The awareness teachings are already quite well represented here on NDA!
For more on the background to the emptiness teachings click here.
In the emptiness teachings, nonduality is a mode of existence. It’s how things exist. They exist like the jewels in Indra’s Net or like a magician’s illusion. Things aren’t substantial and they aren’t lacking. Things don’t exist in an independent, self-powered way, and they don’t utterly lack existence either. Things are contextual; they’re present in a way that can perform functions. Emptiness-style nonduality avoids both of these extremes. Things exist in a sort of pragmatic way. When I was in the Army, we said we were done with a project not because it had an absolute, fixed endpoint, but rather when it was “good enough for government work!”
The direct realization of emptiness is a non-conceptual nondual experience in which subject and object don’t appear, not even in the most subtle way. After this experience, the self and world of phenomena return, but forever changed. There are no more afflictive emotions, no more metaphysical or cosmic yearnings, and no more gestalt that says things are really truly there or truly missing. Instead, things are free, light, and joyful.
Is nonduality another word for consciousness —how would you define consciousness or awareness? Are these words you use, if so, what are they referring to? Please take the reader into a direct pointing to what these words are pointing to.
RS: I use the words Consciousness and Awareness synonymously. Are you present now? Obviously, yes. We may not know what we are but we know that we are. That is, we know ‘I am.’ In order to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Am I present?’ (and it is not possible to legitimately answer that question in any other way) our own presence or being must be known to us. In other words we must be aware of our own being.
Now what could be aware of our own being? Our own being is not known by something other than or outside of our self. It is I that knows or is aware that I am. In other words, the ‘I’ that I am, is both present and aware. The suffix ‘–ness’ means the presence of. Therefore, Awareness means the presence of that which is aware.
In other words, the word Awareness denotes the simply knowing of our own being, more commonly known as ‘I.’ It is the most obvious, intimate and familiar fact of experience. It is never not known although sometimes overlooked.
SK: Nonduality means no separation in any way. Awareness is the borderless, nonlocatable, timeless cognizing space to which all phenomena come and go. Awareness or Consciousness is sometimes confusingly associated with the term “nonduality.” One can recognize awareness as that space to which all appearances come and go and still be buying into duality as real, for example, believing that there is a real line between awareness and what appears to awareness. That’s still dualistic. I use words like awareness, but always with the caveat that it’s just a teaching tool. In the end, when the belief in separation in all its forms is seen through, awareness and the world are seen to be inseparable.
N: I use these words and a lot of other words to point to the mysterious Being that we all are. There is a funny thing we do with language where we use a quality or function of something or someone as a name for that object or person. For example we call someone a teacher when that is something they do. Teaching is a function they do, it is not what they ultimately are because they still are themselves even if they stop teaching. And similarly, we call plants greens or greenery when again that is a particular quality of their nature. There is a lot more to plants than their green color.
So we use words like awareness of consciousness to point to the mystery of Being because these are such fundamental qualities of the mysterious Being that cannot be completely described or contained in the words we use to point to it. Other fundamental qualities of Being are things like space, presence, aliveness, existence and oneness. At times Being also expresses the particular qualities of peace, joy, love, compassion, and clarity. So at times any or all of these words can be used to point to this bigger mystery, but what is also being pointed to is the mysterious source of these qualities.
GC: I prefer to use the term “experiencing” or “experiencing this-here-now.” It reduces the confusion and the tendency for people to go off on tangents of abstraction that end up being a distraction.
Excessive abstraction is the surest way to distract from the simplicity of that which is being sought.
RF: There are many ways to point this out – and these words are used in different ways. The true “I” is that aware-ness or conscious-ness, that present activity of knowing – but this still asserts “I” as a thing – an awar-er or know-er, subtly. We must see that this “I-ness” has no objective qualities WITHOUT trying to give it objective qualities in imagination. When we see the obviousness that this “I” has no content, no appearance, no objective attributes, we naturally try to give it some.
That’s the nature of identification – it is fear – it is the unknown. We can find ourselves objectively so we apply that “subjectivity” to some “thing” – to the concept of a body or mind or person. In spirituality we do the same thing – we might begin to recognize that the “I” has no appearance or qualities, but we assert that it is some “blue light” or supreme blissful state that I haven’t reached yet or some feeling. It’s almost impossible to NOT do this. But when we’ve truly had enough of it, we simply rest in our own absence, in the lack of anything objective – we recognize our fullness as the present activity of knowing.
Then there are no conditions or resistance – the world simply arises within this absence or “container” – we might be happy there but there is still the subtle duality nipping at our ankles. There are still objects in the world which oppose “what I am”. Therefore we look a bit deeper and notice that this activity of knowing we call “I” and the experience we call “world” are truly the very same reality. We notice the irresistible compulsion to divide in order to communicate, to describe, to make sense. It’s a natural and innocent expression, an expression of the whole – it isn’t wrong – it doesn’t need to be done away with. It is simply recognized for what it is.
GG: The notion of consciousness hardly plays a role in emptiness teachings. Taking cues from Buddhist psychology, the Madhyamika emptiness teachings posit many different consciousnesses in a person. There are eye consciousnesses, ear consciousnesses, tactile consciousnesses, mental consciousnesses, and more. Each consciousness is clear and knowing and empty. Consciousness is not treated as a global substratum of existence or knowledge. Things aren’t said to be made out of consciousness. Consciousness is merely said to be a subject that knows an object. And even then, the consciousness is empty because it depends on the object known.
During my childhood in the 1950’s I remember thinking that my parents were really self-formed, truly just like that, inherently existent. They seemed perfect and invulnerable. I never saw them have a severe problem, get hurt, go naked, go to the bathroom or have sex. Any of these things would have shocked me.
Many years later, and slowly, these images of self-formed perfection and stasis began to crack. My parents argued loud and into the night. Or my father got mugged one day and had to go to the hospital. Or I came home from school and saw my mother sitting at the dinner table, crying. I came to realize that they were just people, with human problems, trying to do the best they could.
Amazingly, this gradual lessening of immaturity on my part led to my loving them more. How precious! A fragile, delicate pair of human beings setting out a family and helping others, dependent upon a wide variety of conditions. The utter fragile sweetness of this can bring tears to my eyes even now.
The Buddhist heart sutra says, “Form is none other than emptiness and emptiness is none other than form.” What is that referring to, in your view?
RS: To begin with we may say that the mind, body and world (form) appears in or is known by the transparent, luminous empty presence of Awareness (emptiness). This understanding is a half way stage in which the belief that ‘I,’ the body/mind, knows the world is replaced by the provisional formulation that ‘I,’ Awareness, knows the body/mind/world.
However, this is still a position of dualism albeit subtler than the one to which we previously subscribed. On looking more closely at experience we find that the body/mind/world is made only of knowing and that the only substance present in knowing is Awareness. In other words, the distinction between Awareness (emptiness) and its object (form) is seen to be non-existent.
This collapse of all apparent separation or otherness in experience is what the Buddhist Sutra is referring to but is more commonly known as the experience of love, peace or happiness.
SK: We start out in life believing that things exist in their own right, apart from whatever makes them up, apart from our cognition of them, apart from thoughts, emotions, and sensations. When we go looking for “things” that exist in this way, as separate things in their own right, we don’t find them existing that way at all. We find that things lack an independent or separate existence. Things exist only conventionally, like little stories we tell. They don’t exist in a vacuum, which is how we normally perceive them. For example, think of yourself. What appears is a separate object, as if that object, “self,” can exist separately from the air, from the earth, parents, culture, from the body and mind, from the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that make it up, and from others and the world itself. When we look for these things that seem to exist as separate things, we find only their emptiness.
But this emptiness is not a substance or substratum. It is not a thing. In the way I view emptiness, it points to a lack of an object existing in the way we think it does—as its own separate thing. It’s the emptiness of things that allows things to arise in the first place, and to change and flow. If things existed as solid, permanent, separate things, we would not experience the miraculous, seamless flow of changing forms. It is the emptiness of forms that allows life in all its glory and mystery to be, move, change, and flow. What a celebration of life it is to see that emptiness is none other than form and form is none other than emptiness. It leaves nothing out. Emptiness and form are totally dependent upon one another. A form is needed in order for us to find its emptiness. And its emptiness is realized through the form, through seeing that it doesn’t exist as a solid, separate, permanent thing. These two—emptiness and form—depend upon each other, leaving a seamless, ever-changing existence.
N: This is a wonderful quote because it is so impossible to hold the truth it is pointing to with our mind. Trying to understand this quote with the mind is like trying to put a whole lake into a teacup. Instead we can simply touch or feel our way into emptiness itself, and into form itself. What is this empty space in front of me right now? What is this body and the object I am sitting on right now? How are the space and the objects really different? Where does one really stop and the other begin?
Words do not contain the truth, they only point us to it.
GC: It points to the fact that our mind divides “wholeness” by forming concepts. “Form” and “void” are concepts, and are never that toward which they point. Concepts are dualistic and thereby always have an opposite. It points to the minds tendency to create dualistic concepts, such as a perceiver and that which is perceived. It is wholeness (nonduality) that results from their mutual negation. Ultimately, there is no perceiver separate from that which is perceived. There is only the perceiving of this-here-now, which is what you ultimately are, continually.
“That’s all it is!” said the sage, upon awakening to enlightenment. He then laughed and went on with his daily business. Now you can go about your usual business, as the perceiving of this-here-now as what you are. Do notice that everything has changed and nothing has changed, since it’s what you have always already been.
RF: Appearance is essence, essence is appearance. Not-two.
GG: By itself, this verse has several profound meanings:
- Form and emptiness are inseparable. You never have one without the other.
- Specifically, there is no emptiness unless there is form. You don’t have emptiness existing beyond the realm of form. Form does not arise out of emptiness or subside back into emptiness. Rather, form is of the nature of emptiness, which is that there is no nature.
- Emptiness itself is empty, because it does not exist apart from form.
Right after this verse, the Heart Sutra goes on to say basically that everything is like this, and is beyond dualistic opposites:
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
Sensation, thought, impulse, consciousness are also like this.
Shariputra, all things are marked by emptiness –
not born, not destroyed,
not stained, not pure,
without gain, without loss.
It seems a lot of ND authors/teachers refuse to use the term EGO because of the differences of meaning among seekers. How do you define ego, if you use the term? What is the relationship between the ego and non-duality?
RS: Ego is not an entity. It is an activity of resistance and seeking.
There is no relationship between that which is not and that which is. The activity of resisting and seeking that is sometimes called the ‘ego’ appears to veil the non-dual nature but in fact does not. Therefore, the ego is only real from the point of view of the imaginary ego.
From the point of view of reality, if such can be said to have a point of view, reality is never veiled. Therefore ego, separation, ignorance or whatever we want to call it, that is, the apparent veiling of reality, is non-existent as such.
Therefore ‘ego,’ as such, is unreal and there can be no relationship between something that is unreal (and therefore non-existent) and that which is.
However, any appearance of the so-called ‘ego’ is the shape that this very reality is taking. As such, there is still no relationship because reality (or non-duality) does not have a relationship with itself. It is itself.
Again, it is like asking what is the relationship between the character in the film and the screen. There is no relationship, because there is no character. There is only the screen.
SK: I like Paul Heddermans word “selfing.” Instead of thinking of ego as a noun, it’s like a verb. There are movements of selfing (like blaming, complaining, being greedy, clinging) but they aren’t happening to a self, as an object or noun.
Nonduality is seeing through all separation, so it would include seeing that there is no separate self. There is only selfing and even that tends to quiet as it’s seen that the selfing is not an object at all. It’s just movement, thinking, feeling, etc.
You can never find the actual object “self” or “ego.” You only find the movement that seems to refer to an ego.
N: Ego is another word where we have given a noun or name to something that is actually a verb or function. Ego is the function of identification and also suffering. Since we never actually become the limited identities we form, we are always having to do the identifying over and over again. And we do this mostly through trying to change, get rid of or keep our experience.
We never succeed at changing, getting rid of or keeping our experience, so we just keep trying. It is this movement of effort that I call ego, although again there are probably as many definitions of this word as there are people using it.
GC: My work defines “ego” [quite clearly] as “the illusion of free-will.” Period.
But don’t be fooled, this illusion is the most prized of all human possessions. And it’s a very enticing illusion, or else it would be easily discarded. Thus, all ‘round and ‘round.
The illusion that there is some magical entity with a separate independent volition, whose experiencing is not bound within the unwinding chain of cause and effect like everything else in the universe, is all that the ego is.
RF: Ego is the constant self-image that needs to be propped up, inflated, added to, constructed, like a storefront. The bushes need to be trimmed, the sidewalk should be swept, the awning must be perfectly pressed. That assertion comes with a mutual belief that there is something outside your “self”. The ego is the expression of individuality.
There really is no such “thing” in existence as an ego. It’s just a word, like all others, used to describe. It is the very description itself which asserts the separation – the ego is just a name applied to that idea of separation, that sense of being separate, the manifestation of the belief.
GG: This is a good point. I’m not sure why others don’t use the term “ego,” but for me, it’s pretty vague. It ties in to all kinds of psychological assumptions and associations. It suggests Freud and Descartes, with their notion of the self as separate, independent, walled-off and contained in the body. I don’t see how I would use the term “ego” as part of an explanatory language without encouraging and validating these assumptions. In fact, these assumptions are an important part of what you become free of in nondualism.
Instead of “ego,” the emptiness teachings have the notions of the “mere I” and the “inherently existent I.” The mere I exists conventionally, in a transactional, everyday sense. The inherently existent I doesn’t exist in any way at all. We only feel that it does.
The mere I – This is the one that goes to the grocery store, eats dinner, gets attracted to nondualism, and finds freedom from suffering. The mere I is said to exist conventionally in an everyday, pragmatic way, as something that can perform functions. The mere I exists by imputation, agreement and convention, and as such, it is empty.
The inherently existent – This is the one that seems like it has to be more than just imputed. This is the I that we feel and think exists as a pre-formed, independent and self-sufficient entity. This is the I that makes us feel that the universe sucks if we get insulted. This is the I that seems to be individual and independent from the mind and body.
The idea of emptiness meditation is to untangle the mere I from the inherently existent I without falling into extremes. Affirming the inherently existing I would be the extreme of eternalism. Denying the mere I would be the extreme of nihilism. Realizing emptiness is freedom from both, and brings great love and joy.
*This was quite the undertaking. From organizing, to creating the questions, to contacting folks or “rounding up” (pun intended) all of their answers and then compiling into some sort of “organized chaos” for your reading pleasure. I had a blast though, and if you enjoyed this special feature [and are still reading this post] then please share it with your friends and by all means, feel free to post your comments and jump into the “discussion” below.
Special thanks to all who participated and to Sarah Pollak for the late night photo frame and Ernie Resendes for the NDA thumb.
Stay tuned for Round Two, where we will be talking about EXPERIENCE…coming soon!