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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. What follows is what the word means to me.

Nonduality means wholeness, and 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 variation is appearing as one whole picture, one whole movie, one whole field of 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.

The One Self (the Totality or the single “I” to which we all refer beyond name and form—primordial awareness, Here-Now, pure potentiality, aliveness, emptiness, intelligence-energy, no-thing-ness appearing as everything) is boundless and inconceivable. It cannot be pinned down or objectified. It is nondual in the sense that it includes everything, and also in the sense that opposite polarities in the manifestation go together and only exist relative to each other—they are not separate or opposing forces in which one side can or should defeat the other.

Nonduality thus includes (and transcends) apparent duality. Nonduality recognizes oneness and multiplicity, form and emptiness, relative and absolute, individuality and unicity, personal and impersonal, light and dark, good and evil, joy and sorrow, the (inevitably dualistic) maps and the (always nondual) territory as indivisible aspects, or ways of seeing, one reality. Nonduality doesn’t get stuck on one side of any conceptual divide (e.g., self or no-self, mind or matter, free will or determinism, powerlessness or responsibility, practice or no practice, it is or it isn’t). Nonduality 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” 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 are always dualistic, but THIS is nondual. In other words, the maps of THIS are always in some way dualistic, but THIS (the territory itself) is nondual. Of course, mapping is something the territory is doing, and THIS includes thoughts and ideas and maps as happenings, appearances or waves of energy, but without mistaking the content of them for the actuality they claim to describe or re-present.

Getting lost in philosophy and metaphysics and trying to think our way to clarity and peace is not, in my experience, what liberates us from our imaginary bondage. What liberates us is direct insight here and now, open attention to the bare actuality of what is, prior to all the words and explanations about it—relaxing into the simplicity of just this, allowing the thought-created confusion to melt away naturally in the light of simple awareness.

These words are only pointers or maps. The juice is in the aliveness itself, and that cannot be truly captured by any words or concepts. Words can only suggest, point out, or invite the recognition of nondual actuality. Here’s a big clue: it’s always NOW, always right HERE, simple and obvious and never really absent. 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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