Monthly Archives: March 2013

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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.