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What Is Nonduality?

If you were to ask any number of writers, teachers, or speakers who use the term to describe their own perspective what they each mean by “nonduality,” you’d undoubtedly get a bunch of very different definitions, some of which would probably be quite contradictory. So, as with all words, and especially words like “nonduality” that have no clear and obvious referent, it’s important to understand what a particular person means when they use this word.

To me, as I use it, nonduality means that everything is an unbroken whole in which eveything belongs. It is important to clarify that wholeness is not uniformity. Right now, in present experience, there are infinitely varied, ever-changing qualities of experience—different colors, shapes, textures, sounds, aromas, tactile and somatic sensations, tastes—and there are apparently separate and distinct forms (me and you, dogs and cats, tables and chairs, hearts and brains, planets and stars), each vividly and uniquely itself, and we don’t confuse them with each other or mix them up. There are also different dimensions of experience, from the relative world of personal relationships and everyday practical life to the subtlest realms encountered in meditation or yoga. But all of this infinite diversity and variation is appearing as one whole picture, one whole movie, a holographic fractal field of seamless experience, one whole undivided happening. And the closer we look, the more we discover that the boundaries between apparently separate forms don’t actually exist, and the forms themselves are never really solid or persisting. None of them can be pulled out of the whole. In our actual experience, THIS is an infinitely varied seamless whole that never departs from Here-Now. Impermanence is so thorough-going that no-thing ever actually forms to even be impermanent.

Nonduality points to the ungraspable and inconceivable nature of reality. Whatever words or concepts we use to describe it, they are never quite right, because no word or formulation can capture the living reality. Life itself simply can’t be pinned down. Nothing we say or think is the truth.

This living reality is nondual in the sense that it includes everything, and also in the sense that the apparently opposite polarities go together and only exist relative to each other—they are not separate or opposing forces in which one can or should defeat the other. Nonduality thus includes (and transcends) apparent duality. It doesn’t get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide, such as oneness or multiplicity, individuality or unicity, mind or matter, self or no-self, free will or determinism, powerlessness or responsibility, practice or no practice, it is or it isn’t. Nonduality doesn’t land anywhere. It might be described as “not one, not two,” or in the words of Zen Master Dogen, “leaping clear of the many and the one.” It might be called groundlessness.

Nonduality recognizes that nothing ever actually resolves into a persisting form, and that the apparent self at the center of our experience, the apparent “me” who is seemingly authoring “my” thoughts, making “my” decisions, and performing “my” actions, is nothing more than a mirage with no actual substance.  It is a phantom created by a mix of ever-changing thoughts, sensations, feelings, stories, mental images, and beliefs. Everything is happening by itself. There is no actual boundary between inner and outer. The inner weather is as impersonal as the outer weather. None of it is personal, none of it means anything about the imaginary "me."

Even any idea we might have of a larger self, a Big Self—like Consciousness or Awareness—is actually unfindable. There can even be a compelling intuitive or felt sense of this unseen seeing or Ultimate Subject, this Eye (or True I) that cannot see itself, but even the subtlest sense of this open aware space is itself another appearance in present experiencing that cannot actually be separated out or pinned down. All we have is just THIS—present experiencing, from the most apparently solid to the most subtle and transcendental. This unfindable aliveness or no-thing-ness never actually forms into some-thing substantial that can be separated out from the wholeness of just this. Any ideas of meaning or meaninglessness, purpose or purposelessness, are thought-created add-ons with no actual reality.

“Nonduality” is, of course, a word, a conceptual idea, but it points to the nature of reality itself. It points to something that cannot actually be conceptualized! It points to THIS, right here, right now, just as it is!

The thoughts and ideas about this living actuality are always dualistic, but THIS is nondual. In other words, the conceptual maps of this living actuality are always in some way dualistic, but the territory itself is nondual. Of course, mapping is something the territory is doing, and this living reality includes thoughts and ideas and maps—but from a nondual perspective, they are recognized as simply appearances or waves of energy, without mistaking the content of them for the actuality they claim to describe or re-present. They are useful within everyday relative reality, but they are never really true.

Getting lost in philosophy and metaphysics and trying to think our way to liberation is not, in my experience, what liberates us from our imaginary bondage. What liberates us is the falling away (or seeing through) of the imaginary problem, which never actually exists in the first place!

By giving open attention to the bare actuality of what is, prior to all the words and explanations about it, by relaxing into the simplicity of just this, it might be noticed that no problem and no self remains. There is simply hearing, seeing, thinking, sensing, etc. And when the thought-created confusion pops up, it can be seen for the illusion that it is, and in the seeing, it dissolves again quite naturally. And nothing is ever really a problem. Everything is included—even the apparent confusion, contraction, suffering, and identification as a separate, encapsulated self is simply another wave-like movement of this indivisible shoreless ocean. Conditioned thought may label what shows up “confusion” or “ego” or “awareness” or “unicity,” or any other word-label-idea. But the actuality never resolves into any persisting form, and nothing can ever really be pulled out of the whole. No one is doing any of it, and nothing is ever what we think it is.

These words are only pointers or maps. The juice is in the aliveness itself, and that cannot be captured by any words or concepts. Words can only suggest, point out, or invite the recognition of nondual actuality. But here’s a big clue: it’s always already the case. Nothing needs to be different from exactly how it is, and how it is never holds still. The living actuality is NOW, right here, utterly simple, obvious and immediate. It is never absent or hidden in any way. It’s not something in particular (this, but not that). And it’s not nothing. It’s this inexplicable aliveness—the astonishing presence and marvelously freeing no-thing-ness of everything.

Nonduality is not a philosophy. It’s the sounds of traffic and the taste of tea, the fragrance of blossoms and the smell of garbage, colors and shapes and movement—breathing, heart-beating, sensing awaring thinking feeling being – ever-present, ever-changing – not one, not two – just this.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021 --

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