The difference between imaginal and attentional spirituality and why both are important

There is a distinction to be drawn between what we could call imaginal versus what we’ll term attentional spirituality, although it could be argued that the attentional isn’t necessarily spiritual at all, even though it forms the seed from which practically all mystical spirituality has grown.

Imaginal spirituality includes all beliefs and presumptions about reality and our place in it as it is transmitted by the burgeoning variety of spiritual outlooks which have arisen over human history. This includes all religion as well as the “spiritual but not religious” ideas that people hold about themselves and the universe they reside in. When we look at the sheer diversity of opinion about spiritual truth, all of which must be working for their proponents to some degree, one must arrive at this conclusion: it’s not what you believe as much as how you believe it.

This is the secret of imaginal spirituality. You decide what to believe, and then you believe it. If you are sincere, there will come positive effects in your life. That’s why people are religious, because despite the sectarian conflicts and the clinging to tragically outdated traditions, religion works for those who believe because they have drafted their own unconscious minds to be their window to the mysteries within.

Things get iffy when we hold too many ideas about those mysteries rather than letting those mysteries reveal themselves to us. There is a whole folk theory of nondual enlightenment, a set of ideas resident within mystical spirituality from which aspirants can draw to help them understand what the end result of their practice should look like. Tragically, these notions can only at best, be useless, and probably much more often, actively prevent the spiritual understanding that is being sought.

This is where attentional “spirituality” can be mightily helpful. By “attentional,” I refer to simple, positive object meditation practices like breath-watching, mindfulness, saying a mantra, etc. The goal is very simple: keep attention on the object. Invariably, the default mode network in the brain grabs attention for mind-wandering. Then a salience network kicks in and the mind-wandering is recognized, so now attention can be put back on the object.

In this way, the goal is built right into the practice. There’s nowhere to go and no reason to believe that you should be getting “better,” you’re just moving attention back to object after you realize your mind has wandered. Everytime you catch your mind wandering and you bring attention back to object, you’ve won.

The reason this is important is because if you are looking for what is nominally termed your higher self, it actually turns out to be something that is always right in front of you as your awareness of the world. That’s right, you are always looking through your own enlightenment at all times, for all your time, no matter what you are doing or have done, regardless of how holy or sinful you might be.

This is why it’s so hard to find, it’s like trying to see something that you’ve never not seen. Now imagine that, but covered up by acres and acres of flotsam of ideas about what it is like, none of which are adequate as description, but all of which are believed to be true by millions of practitioners of the various approaches. It’s almost as if you’ve gotten lost right at the onset if you pick up too many of these ideas. Unless you add an attentional aspect to your practice.

After all, meditation in one form or another has been the very root of almost all mystical spirituality. It may not always be a simple meditation like I’ve described above, but it’s very likely to be an attention strengthening practice to at least some degree. Improving one’s attention has a myriad of cognitive and emotional health benefits as well, so it’s never time wasted even if it might seem so at first.

You don’t have to be religious about it, but if you can take a few moments every now and then during the day to focus on your object, you too can be the beneficiary of an easy yet proven effective meditation practice.

Imaginal spirituality is the field in which we sow the seeds of our transformation, and attentional spirituality is how we can water those seeds and clear away the weeds. The marriage of the two can result in a rich and interesting inner life and the birth of a clarity of mind which can make life a joy in all but the most dire circumstances.

The folk theory of nondual enlightenment explained

This essay is based on a talk I gave at the 2010 Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, CA

I’d like to talk about something you could call the folk theory of nondual enlightenment.  It seems to be a component of almost every ideology of any system of mystical spirituality that posits the possibility of being one with the universe, or, God. This is the popular definition of nondual enlightenment, and it may be presenting more of a problem than has been recognized by the nondual spiritual community.

I first encountered the idea of a folk theory when reading George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. In it, they argue that primary (or embodied) metaphors and folk theories provide the fundamental material of human reason. According to them, folk theories are “basic explanatory model[s]… that make up a culture’s shared common sense. There are often good reasons for these models, and in many cases folk theories work sufficiently well to serve everyday purposes.” Folk theories can be explicit, like the folk theories of nondual enlightenment, but they also operate implicitly, becoming “unconscious and automatic, taken as background assumptions and used in drawing conclusions.”

While folk theories may help us to make sense of our lives, they are often full of noncritical assumptions. We could talk about a folk theory of the human soul. It posits that we exist as beings apart from our body, and when the body dies, we will somehow continue, whether in a good or a bad place. Clearly, there are a few holes in the idea when you consider there hasn’t really been much, if any, definitive proof of an existence after death, at least as a disembodied soul carrying our essence. But because the idea of a soul has deep roots in our culture, we all pretty much take the folk theory that explains it to us for granted.

When applied to nondual spiritual understanding, however, folk theories fall flat on the floor. The reason is simply that nondual spiritual understanding cannot be rendered in any language, with any emotion or gesture. When I say enlightenment, or nondual understanding, I’m referring to the moment when the nondual nature of personal awareness is recognized. This recognition brings a permanent ability to notice nondual awareness as the basis of ordinary awareness in the context of one’s personal consciousness. In this way, it’s not a peak experience, or spiritual experience as they are most commonly understood. It’s a recognition of what has always been present in our awareness, rather than some shining moment of glory when we find ourselves to be divine.

But there is just no way to communicate exactly what the recognition of nondual awareness is like as an experience, which is characterized as attention resting on awareness without objects of cognition. However and unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped many folks from speculating about it or embellishing it, especially spiritual teachers looking to make their teachings more attractive to us. The end result is a rich and fantastic mythology that “explains” to us what nondual spiritual enlightenment is like. For instance, Yogananda once confessed:

A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and the floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being.

Swami Chidananda claims that:

To the enlightened one, the world as he knew it ceases to be, and everything now stands enmantled (shrouded) by a shining vesture of divine effulgence, hitherto invisible to his normal vision.

Swami Shivananda tells us that:

A Sadguru [enlightened spiritual master] is endowed with countless Siddhis (psychic powers). He possesses all divine Aisvarya (powers), all the wealth of the Lord.

The idea of “siddhis” is a component of the first piling to which the folk theories of enlightenment are docked. It is the popular acceptance of the existence of siddhis that has given the folk theories much of their staying power. The notion of siddhis is popular in nondual spiritual culture because they are discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a very famous text of Hindu philosophy that also provided one of the main roots of present day new age spirituality.

According to Patanjali, siddhis are special powers that are acquired by way of the performance of demanding spiritual discipline and cultivation of moral purity. Some of these powers enable one to “levitate, walk on water, swamps, thorns, or the like.” One may “radiate light… gain distant hearing… become as tiny as an atom,” etc. But in much of nondual spiritual culture, the concept of a siddhi has been expanded to cover just about any unexplainable power that a person may possess. Because many of the more commercial gurus perform “miracles” as a part of their duties and marketing efforts, it has become a common assumption that nondual enlightenment is accompanied by the emergence of siddhis. In fact, for many who follow gurus who purport to teach enlightenment, the possession of siddhis is practically the most important qualification.

What all this leaves us with is the common expectation that nondual enlightenment will be accompanied by siddhis. When I fell into Jerry Katz’s Nonduality Salon in the late ‘90s, I found a substantial number of individuals who were clearly “in the know” with regards to nondual spiritual understanding. However, none of them confessed to or discussed anything along the lines of a siddhi. From their regard, siddhis had nothing at all to do with their understanding of nondual awareness.

I’m not saying that anything that could be considered a siddhi in Patanjali’s sense of the word does not exist. But clearly, there just aren’t that many people who walk on water. And while many people, enlightened or not, may claim to be able to read minds, they just can’t seem to make it stick for the million dollars that James Randi is offering to them.

The idea of siddhis leads one directly to idea of the powerful divine guru. This is the person who has climbed the highest mountain of wisdom, often beginning in their early childhood, to finally become the godman or woman they were born to be. These may be satgurus, or avatars, believed to be direct incarnations of God Him/Herself. An avatar is a super-sized guru with an extra complement of siddhis, and while there’s only supposed to be a few running around the Earth at any one time, at the moment there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, who would claim the mantle for themselves.

Purna Avatars are born with an extraordinary array of supernatural powers, and possess an inexhaustible ability to perform divine miracles or miraculous deeds. They use these supernatural powers of theirs with the highest motives for both spiritual and temporal good of other beings, especially human beings. They never use these powers to benefit themselves.

As quaint as this description might seem, there are many thousands of adherents in nondual schools of thought who would believe this word for word. These ideas are literally woven into the fabric of nondual spiritual culture. Even those who might dismiss these notions in a discussion will still cower in the direct presence of a successful guru, believing they are feeling the emanation of God’s own power.

Many commercial gurus use the idea of their possessing siddhis as a marketing conceit. This isn’t necessarily accomplished by any kind of direct declaration by the guru, although that happens frequently, but simply by feeding into the local organizational gossip stream. Thus, the recounting of miraculous healings and events spread quickly through the guru’s devotional community, without the guru having to do anything except to suggest the possibility of such an occurrence.

Another pillar of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment is the idea of the perfected being, which is closely associated with the notion of purity. This concept is somewhat removed from the idea of siddhis, but is still square in the category of super special divine person. The perfected being is literally perfect because they are nondual enlightened, or they are nondual enlightened because they have made themselves perfect. They can do no wrong as their every action is God’s alone. They are clear vessels of God’s love, lacking any ego, or only having the faintest trace of one. They have conquered all desire, even though many who have been held as examples of perfected being have been caught with their hands in one cookie jar or another. Fortunately for them, since their every action is divinely ordained, they can simply claim that it is impossible to understand their actions, no matter how repugnant those actions may appear to their devotees.

A third pillar of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment is the notion of non-existence. These ideas are generated within the context of the more pure strains of  nondual spiritual culture, and are therefore especially insidious. Among them is the idea that the self is not real. This is in fact true from a regard, but to apply the idea as a model of self, besides being completely paradoxical, only serves to foster a kind of denial of our cognitive and bodily realities. This in and of itself is a popular nondual teaching, but I’ve observed that to apply this teaching outside of an experiential understanding can result in a self-image built upon an abject denial of self-image, resulting in a kind of identity double-bind, an “I’m not real but I still look both ways before I cross the street” kind of denial. Additionally, if you believe you don’t exist, how are you going to recognize yourself as the existing nondual awareness from which your not-existent self arises?

Where I worked at the Institute for the Future, we made what we call “maps” of the subjects we research for our clients. So, I’ve gone ahead and attempted to map out some of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment to show some of the relationships between the different container metaphors that the folk theories are floating on.

The first pair of containers is the idea of being non-existent versus the idea of being God. You could map a roughly Buddhist/Hindu boundary here, as well as an atheist/theist one, although certainly not in any way that is precise. On the “being God” side of the map, there is a further distinction between power and purity, or the divine being and perfected being metaphors. There are plenty of folks who see these as one and the same, but they are likely to be employing these notions as their working model of authentic spirituality. Over the “God” side of the map we can now overlay the “qualities” of being God, such as love, power, omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, and of course, perfection. And now on these branches we can hang the fruit, those being the ideas of the various siddhis and qualities of purity that an enlightened individual is expected to possess.

To some (and perhaps many,) this may seem obvious and quaint, and maybe somewhat to entirely unnecessary. Perhaps they are right, but to my mind, these conceptual structures are likely to exist as neurological structures, and it seems possible to me that a neurological structure which represents nondual awareness could play an active role in blocking—or occluding—the experiential recognition of nondual awareness, by way of a mechanism we could call perceptual displacement.

Most of those who are members of a nondual spiritual community can attest to a dearth of members who are sitting in a place of experiential understanding. Of all the devotees of all the gurus who are believed to be enlightened, there are remarkably few success stories in terms of an honest production of enlightenment. The normal reason given is that it’s a very tall mountain that requires a saint-like purity to ascend. But perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Maybe the ideas we hold about nondual enlightenment do nothing but prevent nondual enlightenment by way of a neurological mechanism. The reproduction methods of the common cowbird come to mind.

The cowbird finds an active nest of another species of bird, and then it waits until it has a chance to sneak in and lay some eggs of its own. The victimized bird assumes the eggs are hers, incubates and hatches the cowbird’s eggs. The cowbird chicks are then raised as the victim’s own offspring, often knocking the victim’s surviving natural offspring out of the nest.

Concepts of nondual enlightenment may work against us in much the same way. If we don’t know what we’re looking at, it’s easy to mistake the counterfeit for the real. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no point of comparison from which we can discriminate nondual awareness against that which we know as our everyday awareness. Throw in the idea that we need to get somewhere else (the top of the mountain,) or become someone else (a powerful, perfected divine being) in order to know nondual truth, and we’ve just displaced our perception of nondual awareness topographically, temporally and qualitatively.

I’m not suggesting that occlusion is the only reason that folks don’t appear to be noticing their own nondual awareness in an experientially authentic way, but I’m convinced it may bear at least some of the responsibility in some, if not most cases.

So, I just told you that by thinking of an elephant, you’re not likely to see the elephant. How do you go about not thinking of the elephant? There aren’t many options here, but there are a few approaches one can take.

One is to give up the search. Please note: this isn’t saying give up meditation or whatever spiritual practices you might be engaged in. But it is saying to forget the goal of your practice. The Bhagavad Gita says, “those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” If you have the goal of nondual enlightenment, you’ve just precluded the recognition of your immediate nondual awareness as it exists within the moment you are considering it as a goal. You can still enjoy all the benefits of meditation without that goal in your day-to-day life, and by not having your enlightenment as a goal, you might bring its ever-present reality that much more into your field of understanding.

Another potential avenue is mindfulness. This is primarily a Buddhist practice, although Vedanta provides something similar, albeit in the form of negation. Mindfulness is simply watching the mind without attachment or reaction. That’s the hard part, not reacting. But if you do it enough you’ll get pretty good at it. That’s going to foster a certain clarity of insight. The more you know about yourself, the more you’ll know about yourself, and since nondual enlightenment is the ultimate knowing yourself, it makes sense that there’s a viable path to be trod in knowing yourself as much as you are able. Mindfulness is a simple (although initially difficult) way to arrive at self-knowledge of any kind.

Finally, there is the application of attention to imaginal ideas of God. In this, the goal is a state of surrender to whatever idea of God one might hold dear. Ramakrishna said, “bhakti (devotional yoga) is the easiest path,” for just this reason. For a sincere devotee, the will of God is paramount, and a surrendered devotee isn’t going to be asking for enlightenment, they are going to keep asking for more surrender to the will of God. In this way, you aren’t searching for anything, you are striving to be in ever more complete states of surrender. What those are will be completely self-determined, but since youe mind is off nondual enlightenment, it might just sneak up on you and present itself unexpectedly. It’s certainly happened before.

Rehabilitating the idea of having an ego

One of the greatest casualties of the folk theory of nondual enlightenment is the attack on individuality and the notion of having an ego. We are told it’s not real, but also that this illusory, predatory, and parasitic thing is all that is keeping us from being enlightened Gods. It’s time to recover the notion of ego from its demonization by the misinformed culture of nonduality. Ego isn’t the problem, nor is the thought of being your ego.

The simple truth is that nonduality is present in any context of human awareness. The sense of being an individual is not the hurdle to knowing one’s nonduality, it’s the lack of recognition of the nonduality present right now. It’s not a problem of who you are, or who you think you are, it’s entirely a matter of what you are seeing when you look out through your point of view. Nonduality is always right there, in every perception you experience, in-between and underneath your feelings, thoughts and thought stream. Having an idea of being a person changes none of these truths. Unless of course, you’ve learned that is does and have decided to believe that, thus generating another conceptual displacement from the truth you’ve always lived in moment-to-moment.

The whole problem of “ego” began with a mistranslation of the Sanskrit term ahamkara, otherwise known as the knot of the heart. The semantics of this term are more akin to the feeling that serves as the belief in being our egos. We have every reason to believe we are our egos, so telling us we aren’t doesn’t really map well to our experience. However, we can recognize that it is only by this belief that we only seem to know ourselves as our ego. If we can recognize this belief within the context of nondual realization, the ahamkara is broken, and we are left with an always-on “sense” of being the nonduality—in a direct yet not describable way—and the ego, at once.

After all, it’s all you’ve ever known about yourself. That’s not something you can necessarily do away with. It’s the house the brain made for life’s incessant need to find comfort, the building materials being your life’s experiences as recorded by memory. Seems like that’s a lot to lose, compared to the much more compact notion that your individuality is a kind of absolute border to your sense of being, when in fact, it has never been anything other than borderlessness itself.

A looming ubiquity

The Sanskrit term avidya translates loosely as “ignorance,” but more specifically, an ignorance of the nonduality of one’s own awareness. The cause of avidya is attributed to many things in the literature of the nonduality traditions, but if we’re going to move forward with the idea that nonduality becomes known when attention is able to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects, we have to admit that avidya can only be comprised of those things which prevent attention from resting on awareness without objects.

We’ve already talked about conceptual displacement, the tendency for conceptual objects about nonduality to be enlisted as proxies when one is imagining what nondual enlightenment is like as an experience. But this is only a problem for those who have already decided to believe that their consciousness is nondual. If you found somebody who had no inkling about the nonduality of their consciousness and asked them to put their attention on their awareness apart from conceptual objects, there’s very little chance they’d be successful, for the simple reason that avidya seems to have an origin that’s a priori to an awareness of conceptual objects.

I’m going to surmise this is due to the simple fact that nonduality has been completely and utterly ubiquitous as the source of our awareness. We can’t see it primarily because we have never seen without it. It’s not that the nonduality is somehow hidden, it’s more because it’s always been right here in front of us. This makes avidya a function of the lack of contrast between awareness with and without conceptual objects. Or put another way, we are and have always been too close and familiar with our nonduality to be able to notice it easily. Thus, an inattentional blindness arises from the looming ubiquity of nonduality, putting us right back into an appeal to grace, because that seems to be the only way that attention comes to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects. This is why the famous and rather unusual 19th-century Bengali Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna said, “Bhakti (devotion to God) is the easiest path.”

We’ll expand on that in a future essay. Suffice to say there is great value in an openness to be surprised rather than an attempt to meet what is often an ambitious personal schedule for nondual enlightenment. After all, everything you experience is already sopping with nonduality, so even if it remains unrecognized, you’ll always remain as close to it as anyone can ever be.

The grace conundrum

By defining nonduality as that which is known when attention is able to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects, we basically pull it away from its native ideological habitat, i.e., a spiritual culture primarily informed by superstition. In doing so, it becomes a neuropsychological problem; how to fix attention on awareness apart from conceptual objects. But making it so doesn’t necessitate withdrawing from spiritual culture right away, as while perhaps being a large part of the problem for seekers of nonduality (by way of the folk theory of enlightenment), spiritual culture has also provided a few solutions which definitely seem to have been helpful.

These then must also fall into the neuropsychology chute: meditation, self-enquiry, mindfulness, and the other metacognitive strategies which have been taught within the bounds of various nonduality traditions. Fortunately, the cognitive science of meditation and metacognition is a very hot field, and much of what they’re finding mirrors what has been suggested by the traditions they arose within. That’s all well and good. However, there is an additional problem that’s yet to be well-investigated. We may be learning a lot about what meditation and metacognition look like in the brain under an fMRI scanner, and what they can provide for its practitioners in terms of their own feelings of happiness and well-being, but we know nothing about what happens in the brain when attention is able to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects. And here lies the conundrum, for the first time attention finds a way to recognize awareness apart from conceptual objects, it’s almost always reported to be a spontaneous occurrence, aka, an act of grace, which throws us right back into the purview of spiritual culture.

That is, at least until we can get a handle on what an awareness of awareness without conceptual objects looks like in the brain. I believe this can be done with a fairly simple experiment done in an fMRI scanner. You’d have three groups: non-meditating controls, experienced meditators who do not report nondual realization, and a group of folks who do report nondual realization. Once they are being scanned, you ask them to consider the notion of nondual realization. The controls and non-reporting meditators will have to invoke imagination, while the realizer group should be able to simply allow their attention to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects. I’m no neuroscientist, but I’m quite sure this is going to look completely different than what might be seen in the other two groups.

While the information gleaned from such a study won’t necessarily solve the grace conundrum, it is likely to reveal some of the parts of the brain which are, and perhaps more importantly, which are not involved when attention comes to rest on awareness apart from conceptual objects. By noting the differences between the not- and reporting groups, we may be able to infer what has been changed in the brain by that spontaneous moment when attention first comes to rest on awareness apart from objects. Only then can the philosophy of nonduality finally begin to shake its overwhelmingly superstitious origination and come to be regarded as a fact of normal everyday human experience.


Nailing it down

I’ve been using the term nonduality to point to something that’s true about ordinary human consciousness—that its source is nondual. That source is recognized within an individual’s phenomenological envelope when attention is able to rest on awareness without objects, resulting in the neurological event we can call nondual realization.

What we’ll never nail down is what the nonduality actually is. In other words, we can know the nonduality of our own consciousness in a way that we can experience, but never in a way that we could ever talk about. This is because where nonduality is, a subject is not. Nonduality is experienced as nonduality, not as a person having an experience of nonduality.

But the person persists, and when they decide to discuss nonduality, they must make choices about what to say. Most of the time, they find quotes in the Hindu and Buddhist literature, or out of a spiritual tradition they adopted along the way. Maybe they’ll talk about a “presence,” or “silence,” or “emptiness.” These will all be utterly unsuccessful attempts at conveying what nonduality is to itself.

The Hindus came up with the composite term sat-chit-ananda for the job, otherwise known as being (or existence)-consciousness-bliss. One of the reasons it’s better than “silence” is that the latter term is bound to rise as a conceptual object—the cognitive explication within the scope of the definition of the term—since we have a much more definitive knowledge about what “silence” is like as an experience. The former will also result in a conceptual object, but since these are unfamiliar terms, or when translated, much more abstract, they are therefore not as potent as a cause of conceptual displacement.

The other thing I like about sat-chit-ananda is that it puts consciousness both inside as an embodied bliss, and outside as existence itself. You could almost say that “existence” is the cause, “consciousness” is the effect, and “bliss” is its signal. If we agree there is such a thing as awareness without objects, we have to come up with an origin for it. A materialist would say “the electrical activity of the brain!” A spiritualist would say “God, the Cosmos, whatever!” But what if it was a force of nature, like gravity? What if being was “equipped” with consciousness as a resource that could be “employed” by sophisticated biological systems?

These are pretty much the main presuppositions of this writing project, that awareness without objects exists, that it’s a feature of reality as much as biology, that it can be known within the phenomenological envelope of an individual’s life, but that it is only known as itself, rather than as an object of perception or a “state of consciousness.”



The amazing image-generating power of the term “indescribable”

The most accurate words that can be spoken about nonduality are awareness apart from conceptual objects, or variations along these lines. The idea of “being one with God” does not describe it. Nor does “being one with the universe,” or “being nothing at all.” The term “indescribable” is often employed, but with little or no regard for how that may generate a conceptual object in the perceptual theater of the reader. If you asked me, the term “indescribable” is used to convey the notion “too fucking big and great to be able to say anything about,” not that this has ever stopped anyone from trying. This idea is fully-supported by the folk theory of nondual enlightenment, and it serves as a basis for a widely-varying set of conceptual objects which are just as effective at producing a conceptual displacement as anything else you may care to believe about nonduality.

Awareness apart from conceptual objects is the ready condition of every human mind. It exists in every being, whether or not they’ve ever practiced meditation or any other form of spirituality or religious belief. It’s utterly cognitively normal rather than a special case of super-humanity, as the FTOE has characterized it. But normal is not pretty, nor does it sell, which is why you’ll encounter descriptions like this:

My body became immovably rooted. breath was drawn out of my lungs. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage and streamed out like a fluid light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead; yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap.

The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive. Through the back of my head I saw men strolling far down Rai Ghat Lane, and noticed also a white cow that was leisurely approaching. When she reached the open ashram gate, I observed her as though with my two physical eyes. After she had passed through the brick wall of the courtyard, I saw her clearly still.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of forms, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation. An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized is exhaustless bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and the floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being.

The divine dispersion of rays poured from an Eternal Source, blazing into galaxies, transfigured with ineffable auras. Again and again I saw the creative beams condense into constellations, then resolve into sheets of transparent flame. By rhythmic reversion, sextillion worlds passed into diaphanous luster, then fire became firmament. Blissful amrita, nectar of immortality, pulsated through me with a quicksilver like fluidity. The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.

That sure sounds like a lot more than mere “awareness apart from conceptual objects,” and for a young Hindu guru in America, struggling to make a name for himself in the shadow of the much more popular Hindu guru (Swami Vivekananda) who preceded him, it makes sense that Paramhansa Yogananada would resort to imaginary nonduality travelogues like this in the effort to sell himself in the spiritual marketplace.

Today, the nondual spirituality marketplace is brimming over with characters who want to sell you on the idea of their special divinity and its power to bestow on you experiences just like that described above. All that’s required is your devotion to them as living Gods, along with a lot of your money and free labor to help them continually expand their cults of personality. The sinister beauty of their efforts is that upon your accepting their descriptions of nonduality as truth, they’ve just cemented your repeat business by providing a set of conceptual objects to keep you looking up and out for what’s always right under your nose. The nonduality business is in most cases a prophylactic against realization, rather than the solution it’s being presented (and sold) as.

So when you hear the term “indescribable,” don’t think big. Awareness apart from conceptual objects is right here with us as the very awareness that was employed to read these words. It can’t be described because it’s non-conceptual, rather than too big to be conceptual, so any description you may encounter can always immediately go right into the round file.

Defining the starting point

I think it’s safe to say that the behavioral starting point for most who begin to seek their nonduality (inclusive of most Buddhist- and Hindu-based notions of spiritual enlightenment) is to arrive at a greater degree of psychological comfort than they may presently enjoy in their lives. Due to the scope of what nonduality is proposed to be within the literature of its traditions, the conceptual starting point (frame) is almost always one of these three notions: nonduality is being one with God, nonduality is being one with the universe, or nonduality is simply being nothing. Thus, at the very onset of their search, the brain of the seeker immediately generates a conceptual object—an attempt to imagine what nonduality might be like as an experience based on one or more of these notions—within the scope of their perceptual theater. This object now becomes the proxy for nonduality in the perceptual theater, and can now occlude—or conceptually displace—awareness in a way that can best be described as causing an inattentional blindness to the nonduality they seek.

By nonduality, I refer to human awareness apart from conceptual objects. That is, mind before it becomes identified with its contents. This is what is called the Atman by Hindu Advaita Vedanta or Rigpa by Tibetan Dzogchen. We may also use the terms the absolute or pure awareness, among many others. These describe an ongoing condition of being which sets the stage for all cognition, regardless of whether nonduality has been realized, that is, recognized as the perceptual theater of the individual, or not. There are several factors which appear to inhibit realization, the aforementioned conceptual displacement being one that becomes active the moment a description of nonduality is believed to be true. There is also the problem of ubiquity, or, the always-on condition of nonduality, along with the notion of the human soul, or idea of me, which itself is a compound derived from knowing our name and the simple notion we hold for containment.

While a few of the nondual spiritual traditions, particularly Hindu Advaita Vedanta and Japanese Zen, attempt to mitigate the problem of conceptual displacement by a careful and measured disclosure of a very specific set of descriptive notions, very few individuals are able to begin their training this way. Thus, a set of notions we could call the folk theory of nondual enlightenment (FToE) becomes the primary means for understanding and communicating about nonduality, and also, a primary cause for the prevention of nondual realization. In this way, the FToE is usually the starting and end point for the search for nonduality, and by end point, I mean the end of any chance for success.

So, it appears there needs to be a new starting point, one that doesn’t rely on or offer any descriptions of nonduality, but one that accepts the reality of nonduality as the basis of our ordinary, day-to-day awareness and cognition.

If there is one thing we cannot deny in this moment, it’s that we are here within the context of our embodiment, experiencing our awareness of reading these words. And as a being who is able to read, we are certainly a being that will one day die. This may seem horrendously counterintuitive to the average consumer of nondual spirituality, one who seeks to find their immortality by finding themselves to be God, the universe, or nothing. But regardless of whether you accept any of the ideas I’ve just shared, you must accept that you are here, reading these words, right now. That is our starting point, our embodiment as an individual being, not a cosmic one, a being who seeks comfort for themselves and those they love, and one who should always look both ways before crossing a busy street if they want to continue in their existence.