AN INTRODUCTION TO AWARENESS ITSELF
THE NONDUAL VIEW
BROCK TRAVIS Ph.D.
(Reprinted with permission from Noumenon:Newsletter for the Nondual
The nonduality of awareness and existence, or the unity of
awareness and the absolute, has been the central insight of my
pursuit of unity, revealing the way that self and all are one.
Writings by Alice Bailey, Edmund Husserl, Ken Wilber, and Padmasambhava1 offered directions, oriented me toward the subject of my study, introduced me to the subjectits location, identity and substancethus referring me to the point at which one accomplishes the movement from the notion of unity to the nondual reality. These teachings provide instructions to noticing awareness itself. Without hyperbole, I can state that I believe a serious student of the nondual view could study any one of these seminal teachings for countless lifetimes without exhausting the potential for awakening awareness to its own nature. Apparently direct knowledge of this subject unfolds itself continuously, for each reading provides fresh insight. Certain phrases and images from these teachings can be used as seeds for meditation, or points for conversation, opening endlessly, becoming clearer and clearer, in effect transforming one's consciousness as understanding deepens. These teachings are the theoretical pillars of my approach, but I cannot trace direct knowledge to any one source. My sense is that the teachings provide an introduction to the nondual view, along with instruction for how to attain direct knowledge, but at some point the student must realize the subject itself. For me, the process of direct knowledge, which is basically examining my own awareness, studying my subject, inquiring into my own being, has become and remains an everyday discipline, a way of life. Above all else, these writers and teachers provide inspiration and guidance for that endeavour. My intention has been to abstract the meaning of these teachings from sources that may seem archaic, arcane, sectarian, or just difficult, and to present the nondual view in a format accessible to a reader unfamiliar with these traditions and disciplines. I offer this effort in gratitude to the wisdom teachings that have led me to the nondual viewpoint, and with the intention of providing assistance to others who may find themselves pursuing similar inquiries.
Conversations with others who share the nondual view are precious and powerful moments in the course of this pursuit. Probably the primary reason that I have attempted to codify an approach to the nondual view is to create such conversations. Any meeting with another carries the potential to become an encounter with an expanded sense of one's own being. If that other by some chance shares the nondual view, then the potential of the meeting is vastly enhanced. Mutually conscious encounters can become extraordinary opportunities to engender awakenings and realisations. Intentional participants in nondual communication can enter into communion or union together. The possibility of meeting others in this nondual way motivates my efforts to contribute an accessible approach to the nondual view. To this end I developed a non-sectarian awareness practice and put it into application by inviting hundreds of others to participate in an integration of meditation and communication.
I began by establishing, along with colleague Kurt Hoffman, The Awareness Project, an informal research institute (now called The Awareness Institute) dedicated to the development of a non-sectarian awareness practice, based upon adaptations of mindfulness and dialogue. Over two years (and counting) we offered private consultations, community workshops and university seminars, lectured publicly, facilitated processes for other groups, and convened a regular monthly meditation. For me this was an opportunity to practice creating discourse with the potential for discussing the nondual view. I explored different formats for introducing the subject, and discovered different angles of approach for the varying levels of interest and ability. The awareness practice continues to evolve, but the essential elements are relaxation and attentionallowing whatever happens to happenwhile noticing exactly what is happening. This non-manipulative orientation is central to my approach. In fact, I now offer it as a basic means for inquiring into awareness and thus attaining direct knowledge of the nondual view. The problem with awareness practice, though, is that people are usually too distracted by personal concerns to focus on awareness itself. People tend to focus on the physical, emotional and mental issues arising within their consciousness, and so fail to notice the subject itself.2
During this period I also participated in The Livingroom Group, a loose association of educators, psychologists, consultants and artists, committed to the experiment in Dialogue proposed by the physicist David Bohm. We offered community workshops and a university seminar, co-facilitated a dialogue at a national conference for organisational development, and sustained a regularly meeting dialogue group. This was an extended opportunity for me to practice awareness in diverse circumstances, to engage in discourse with a variety of people, not necessarily familiar with the nondual view. A dialogue is a participatory conversation. Because it totally involves everyone present, and because it both demands and supports enhanced awareness, dialogue seems to offer great potential as a format for nondual conversation. My sense is that the most potent force operant in dialogical process is that it is intentionally structured to permit the emergence and resolution of multiple points of view, and I believe this is an appropriate means for encouraging the meeting of minds necessary for a nondual discourse. Whenever or wherever I am involved in an opportunity to discuss the nondual view, I tend to try to create a dialogue. The problem with dialogue, however, at least for the purposes of an intentionally nondual conversation, is that people who are unacquainted with the nondual view must be initially introduced to it, a process sometimes requiring extensive orientation.3
The real test of this approach was to apply it as a university curriculum in Consciousness Studies. In the Fall semester of 1993, at the Psychology Department of Sonoma State University, in California, I taught two classes based upon my approach. One was an undergraduate course of my own designConsciousness Laboratoryand one was a graduate course traditional to the departmentTools for Self-Discovery. I employed awareness practice and created lively dialogue in both classes. In both classes I oriented the focus of inquiry toward subjectivity, directing the students to investigate their own being, and, during the course of the semester, I attempted to introduce the nondual view into the ensuing discourse. I found this a delicate task, because although the groups were both small (five to seven students) there was a wide range of understanding, and of meditative and dialogical competence, and the differential between advanced and beginning students was problematic. I addressed this issue by organising the classes as participatory research, challenging everyone involved to practice mindful dialogue; to allow insights to unfold, noticing rather than attempting to control the flow of meanings, while maintaining awareness of the unified wholeness of the group. I composed several articles (presently available through The Awareness Institute) in response to the problems and insights arising from the process of implementing a consciousness studies curriculum, employing meditation and dialogue to investigate subjectivity, and, attempting to discuss the nondual view. The overall intention motivating this writing was to provide, in an accessible format, the theoretical and practical foundation necessary to accomplish an introduction to the nondual paradigm, and ultimately to accomplish an introduction to awareness itself.4
The primary learning derived from my attempts to apply this approach to the nondual view is this:
Almost no one notices awareness.
In order to study a subject, to direct attention toward it, the student must notice that subject, must become aware of it. The subject of the nondual view is awareness itself. Unless, however, some teacher or teaching refers the student toward this subject, it is unlikely that it will ever occur to the student to notice that which notices. This reference occurs very rarely within the average human lifetime. This is the reason the wisdom teachings are priceless. But even if the reference is provided, the tendency to be distracted by the objectal contents of consciousness bodily sense-data, feelings, thoughts, and personalitiesis so great as to actively prevent noticing the subjectal context of consciousness - awareness itself. Some degree of contemplative competence seems to be prerequisite to accomplishing an introduction to awareness itself, at the very least the ability to relax the attention and sustain an expanded focus is necessary. From my students, I have the sense that human beings are generally capable of developing this skill and accomplishing the initial movement of realisationnoticing awareness. I believe that the significant factor involved is motivation. Although nondual awareness is a natural state, the distracting tendencies of our personal and cultural conditioning militate against the realisation of that state. Even an abstract understanding of the nondual view requires a serious rather than a casual focus; awareness practice involves rigors, and certainly not everyone is interested enough to persevere toward the attainment of direct knowledge.5
Be that as it may, my attempt has been to render the nondual view accessible by synthesising the theory and integrating the practice into a generally workable approach to direct knowledge of the unity of existence and awareness.
Offered in thankfulness to the wisdom teachings (
May this work be of benefit and cause no harm.
Notes and Sources
1 Alice Bailey wrote within the esoteric, or occult (meaning hidden or inner) tradition.
Edmund Husserl founded Phenomenology, and wrote of Pure or Transcendental Phenomenology. Phenomenology, as a discipline for the study of subjective experience, is often cited as a rationale for qualitative research for the human sciences, but Husserls phenomenology is an attempt to establish the transcendent foundation of both Philosophy and Science. Husserls method of radical philosophic meditation is intended to lead to a fundamental ground of knowledge, the source of being itself.
Ken Wilber codified the spectrum of consciousness, the pre-eminent theoretical framework for Transpersonal Psychology. Wilbers efforts in the development of a philosophy of science that addresses subjectivity, experience, consciousness and spirituality, provide a rigorously argued rationale for consciousness research and spiritual science.
Padmasambhava is the ancient (eight century) legendary founder of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Padmasambhava is credited with the authorship of a number of esoteric treasure texts, including the work popularly known in modern culture as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as other works specifically intended to accomplish an introduction to the nondual state. (This state in known variously as primordial awareness, pristine cognitiveness, immediate presence, or great perfection. These terms refer to an intrinsic awareness, radically distinct from the consciousness conditioned into identification with sense-data, feelings and thoughts.) This nondual state is the natural condition of the individual. The teachings of Padmasambhava propose that ordinary awareness, our own present awareness in its natural state, is in fact perfectly boundless, or purely nondual, and suggests that one examines ones own awareness to determine if this is so.
2 The Awareness Project (Sonoma County, California):
Probably the most significant contribution of this approach is this simplified codification of nondual methodology, a formulaic set of instructions designed to direct the student toward the subject:
Relax the attention.
Allow all that is happening to be exactly as is.
Notice all that is happening, exactly as is.
Notice whatever it is that notices -
Notice awareness itself.
I developed this basic exercise to assist in the accomplishment of the movement from the notion of the subject to the subject itself. (The intention is to provide guidance toward direct knowledge.) This exercise is non-sectarian, trans-disciplinary, individually adaptable, appropriate for use in all situations, in short, accessible. I gratefully acknowledge the many process participants involved in the development of this exercise. I especially want to recognize Kurt Hoffman for his integrity and commitment.
Related to awareness practice (mindfulness):
Beck, Charlotte Joke. (1989). Everyday Zen: Love and Work. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
Goldstein, Joseph and Kornfield, Jack. (1987). Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Suzuki, Shunryu. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1975). The Miracle of Mindfulness: a Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Varela, Francisco, Thompson, Evan, & Rosch, Eleanor. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge & London: The MIT Press. (see pp 21 - 33)
Wilber, Ken, Engler, Jack, & Brown, Daniel P. (1986). Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development. Boston & London: Shambhala. (see pp 21 7 - 284).
3 The Livingroom Group (Marin County, Ca.):
Another significant contribution of this approach is that it isolates the principle that permits an inclusive dialogue to function:
Each participant must practice mindfulness of the group as a whole.
I facilitate dialogues by offering this challenge at the outset, and by reminding people of the responsibility of the part to the whole.
I gratefully acknowledge my colleagues in dialogue for the opportunity to discover and explore this principle.
Related to Bohmian Dialogue:
Bohm, David. (1989). On Dialogue. Ojai, CA.: David Bohm Seminars.
Bohm, David. (1985). Unfolding Meaning: A Weekend of Dialogue with David Bohm. London & New York: Ark Paperbacks. (see p 175)
Bohm, David & Edwards, Mark. (1991). Changing Consciousness. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Bohm, David & Krishnamurti, J. 1985). The Ending of Time. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Bohm, David & Peat, David. (1987). Science, Order and Creativity. New York: Bantam Books.
Bohm, David & Nichol, Lee. (1993). Conversations. Ojai, CA.: Bohm Archive Series.
Bohm, David, Factor, Donald, & Garrett, Peter. (1992). Dialogue: A Proposal. Mill Valley, CA.: The Institute for Dialogue.
Krishnamurti, J. (1973). The Awakening of Intelligence. New York: Avon Books. (see pp 475 - 507)
4 Consciousness Studies curriculum:
Travis, Brock. (1993). "Consciousness Laboratory" - Psych 490. Rohnert Park, Ca.: Sonoma State University.
Travis, Brock. (1993). "Tools for Self-Discovery" - Psych 520. Rohnert Park, Ca.: Sonoma State University.
I gratefully acknowledge the students in these courses for their perseverance in the study of their own being, and for their willingness to surface and share insights into consciousness.
5 Noticing awareness itself:
From conversations, both formal and informal, I have to conclude that very few of the participants in my processes, the meditations, the dialogues, the college courses, have accomplished direct knowledge. Several, however, reporting a sense of boundless awareness consistent with the nondual view, seem to have done so. I attribute this to:
a. A readiness on the part of the participant to undergo whatever rigors are necessary to prepare for the move to direct knowledge. A familiarity with the literary background is useful, but sustaining a focus without succumbing to distraction is crucial. There are certainly developmental factors involved, but again, I believe motivation is a powerful operant force. Some students get the point instantly, but some are willing to stay with the process as long as necessary, while many people apparently decide at one point or another to abandon this admittedly difficult pursuit. I have been impressed by the perseverance of several students who have sustained involvement with this evolving process for over two years.
b. The simplification of the instructions I have developed over the course of this project. Through the ongoing process of facilitating groups and individuals in awareness practice and dialogue around this subject, I believe I have been successful in reducing my approach to its fundamental principle. As the individual aspect of awareness becomes conscious of its participation in the absolute, realisation or awakening to the nonduality of individuality and the absolute is accomplished. The clarification of the basic formula, notice awareness itself, is the final result of the evolution of my approach toward facilitating inquiry into this subject. This phrase, if offered and taken as guidance, seems to have an effect upon a meditative dialogue, engendering an attitude of inquiry.
As a direction for further research I intend to become increasingly specific in the way I offer the invitation to become involved in this line of inquiry. Not everyone is willing to immerse themselves in wisdom teachings or to engage in an everyday contemplative discipline.
My sense is that if participants self-select according to their interest in the nondual view, then the facilitator can offer challenge for the rigorous and ongoing study of Perennial theories and the practice of awareness. I am intrigued by the potential of a program designed to structure support for long-term inquiry into this subject.
Noumenon:Newsletter for the Nondual Perspective