Nonduality Explained, by James Traverse
What is Non Duality?
Non duality is the English rendering of the Sanskrit term Advaita of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita means without duality; Dvaita means duality and the prefix 'A' at the beginning of Advaita means without. Vedanta literally means end of the vedas; veda means knowledge and anta means end. The vedas are a huge body of Sanskrit knowledge texts from ancient India. Advaita Vedanta is the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta, which is one of six classic Indian philosophies regarding the true nature of being.
Non-duality also refers to the approach of other eastern wisdom traditions such as Yoga, which means union, and Buddhism where the term Advaya signifies the non duality of conventional and ultimate truth. In modern western terms nonduality, non-duality, is also known as nondualism, and the most common definition is that it means not-two or non-separation.
Can you give an example of Nonduality?
Nonduality, like spirituality, is experiential in nature. A good example of Nonduality is Awareness and Consciousness. Many people use these terms interchangeably, yet a distinction can be made that is both helpful for their use and the understanding on Nonduality.
Nondual Awareness is the homeground of Consciousness. Consciousness is the expression of Awareness.
The primal experience of being is the experience of being aware. This is what sages like Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj spoke of as 'I am' and it is also what the Biblical expression 'I am that I am' means. In Kashmir Shaivism Nondual Awareness is spoken of as having the quality of spanda, which means vibration.This is illustrated in the image on the left above - note that it is not moving and yet it appears to shimmer. This represents the potential motion of awareness.
You can test that this is true by asking the question, "Am I aware?" and then taking note of how you answer it. Notice that you do not have to go anywhere to answer this question as it is self-evident that you are aware [note that this is not the same as being aware of being aware described below]. This is what the Biblical direction 'be still and know' means.
Consciousness is the motion of Awareness. Motion is energy, it is called prana in yoga and chi or ki in other wisdom traditions. The whirlpool image on the right above depicts motion in an ordered form.
You can test whether Consciousness is the motion of Awareness by asking a question like, "What was your paternal grandmother's maiden name?" and then taking note of how you answer it. Notice that in order to answer this question that there is motion as you search memory for the answer. This experience illustrates that Consciousness as the motion of Awareness means being aware of something [this includes being aware of being aware, because in this case it is necessary to objectify the experience of being aware and that objectification is motion]. Sages like Sri Ramana Maharshi and Jean Klein used this approach by directing you to ask the question, "Who am I?" and not accepting a mentally generated answer, which exhausts the motion generated by the question and thereby you rest and take your stand as Primal Awareness [Primal Awareness is the experiential, non-verbal answer to the question "Who Am I?"].
In this light Awareness and Consciousness are not-two.
The true nature of being is prior to, includes, and transcends duality.
Ultimately it is not possible to speak about the true nature of being, yet we objectify it to be able to point to it. In general this means stating what the true nature of being is not and then attempting to directly point to it with names like Nondual Awareness, while understanding that this naming is for functional purposes [for example to say that Awareness is prior to Consciousness is ultimately a mis-statement, because temporal and spatial term do not apply to the true nature of being, by whatever name it is called].
It is the nature of a
mistake to end once it is clearly seen. In the case
of Non Duality the mistake is
deriving identity via the content and activity of
the mind, which causes the duality of 'me' and
'not-me' [separation as subject and object] that
veils the true nature of being. Clearly seeing this
is insight that unveils the true nature of being and
there is mental functioning without duality.
In the image above the background space represents Nondual Awareness. The whirling waves represent appearances [like whirlpools in a river], which is Consciousness as the expression-motion, of the true nature of being. The mistake is to identify with appearances. The solution is to see the mistake such that it ends, which unveils the true nature of being.
You refer to wisdom traditions like Advaita Vedanta, Yoga, Buddhism and Kashmir Shaivism are there other pointers to what Nonduality, Nondualism or Spirituality is in these traditions?
You mean is Nonduality explained in these traditions. Yes. In fact there are too many pointers to list here, yet I will share a couple.
The invocation of the Isha Upanishad is one pointer [the Upanishads are spoken of as a summary of the vedas; the knowledge of the vedas is said to be so vast that it would take lifetimes to properly study them].
Here is the invocation of the Isha Upanishad followed by my translation and commentary.
Om Purnamadah Purnamidam
Om shanti, shanti, shanti
Om, That is the whole, This is the whole;
from That whole, This whole comes;
yet That whole is not diminished in any way,
the whole remains whole.
Om. Peace! Peace! Peace!
Om, Awareness is the whole, Consciousness is the whole;
from Awareness, Consciousness comes;
yet Awareness is not diminished in any way,
Awareness remains whole.
Om. Peace! Peace! Peace!
What is being described here is what scientists call a hologram, which they describe by saying, "all of it is in every bit of it". It is clear from the text that the wholes named 'That' and 'This' are not-two. [note that although all of the image is represented is smaller and smaller pieces of a hologram that some resolution is lost, yet in this invocation it is clear that the 'whole remains whole'][it is also helpful to note that when one candle lights another the first candle is not diminished in any way].
Another example is the Om symbol.
The Omkara that is believed to be the most ancient depiction of Om clearly illustrates motion. The dot, called a bindu, and sem-circle at the top of the image represents apparent separation [actual separation would be represented by the dot being completely enclosed in a circle]. The wavy lines at the bottom, which look like a flowing river, and the three levels of waves above them represent degrees of motion. The background space represents the stillness out of which motion arises. This ancient image is said by many to represent mother nature, the divine feminine energy [the womb of creation], which is seen as a pregnant woman giving birth.
The Sanskrit word for sound is Nada, which has the root Nad and that means to flow. The Sanskrit Nada Brahma is rendered in English as the world is sound. This corresponds to the Biblical creation story that begins with the words "In the beginning was the word..."
These images illustrate that just as Consciousness arises out of Primal Awareness as its expression, the universe arises out of the silent space of Primal Being as its expression [in this case Primal Being is a verb not a noun]. In this way Silence and Sound are not-two. This is pointed to in the statement of Avalokitesvara in the Heart Sutra that says "Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form" and all of the Buddhists teachings on Sunyata [the closest English rendering of Sunyata is Full Solid Emptiness].
Om as it is depicted today
Today Om is represented as the image above. It is said to be the primal sound and its wave nature is more clearly emphasized in this version. The dot and semi-circle continue to represent apparent separation and the three waves represent the Great Triad, which can be interpreted as Waking Consciousness, Dream Consciousness, Dreamless Consciousness or Deep Sleep, and other trinities.
The more ancient Om symbol has wavy lines at the bottom that look like a flowing river and when you consider the nature of waves it is evident that there is no such thing as half of a wave. In other words it is the nature of a wave to wave, which means that it consists of opposites as ebb and flow, rise and fall, etc. A flowing wave folding back and harmoniously interfering with itself is called a standing or stationary wave by scientists. Although the wave appears to be standing still its substance is motion, like the whirlpool shown above that is sustained by flow, which is also its substance.
"Curving back on my own nature I create, again and again, all this multitude of beings under the regime of Nature." ~ Bhagavad Gita Chapter 9 verse 8
In this light waves are motion, which is energy, that is functioning in a pattern, and, energy functioning in a pattern is what modern science calls matter. Modern scientists also say, "everything vibrates" and "at the core of all matter is energy", and, Albert Einstein not only stated that matter and energy are not-two, he quantified the relationship with his famous equation E = mc2
I understand that your background is in yoga, how is Non Duality and spirituality approached in yoga practice?
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means union. There are many forms of yoga and they all involve an understanding of nonduality in one way or another. One pointer is the definition of Yoga given in the first four sutras of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
Here are the first four yoga sutras followed by my translation and commentary.
Sutra 1.1 atha yoga nuasanam
Sutra 1.2 yogas citta vrtti nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of deriving identity via the whirl of the thinking mind
Sutra 1.3 tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam
then true being abides in its own nature
Sutra 1.4 vrtti sarupyam itaratra
at other times being assumes the waveforms of the mental fluctuations
In paragraph form this reads:
Now Yoga. Yoga is the cessation of deriving identity via the whirling of the thinking mind, then true being abides in its own nature. At other times being assumes the waveforms of the mental fluctuations.
A way to understand the nondual nature of Yoga is to explore these sutras in reverse order such that you begin with being that has assumed the waveforms of mental fluctuations. Sutra 1.4 points to the global cultural conditioning of deriving one's identity via the content and activity of the mind. This mental activity is a way of seeing as an understanding that is like a veil or cloud that obscures the true nature of being. Like all so called things the substance of this understanding is Consciousness as the motion of the thinking mind and the form that appears is what is called the ego.
The practice of yoga is a means to clearly see this situation whereby the very seeing of the situation is the ending of it. Then true being is unveiled. The cessation of deriving identity via the content and activity of the mind is spoken of in other sutras as the distinction of seeing with the mind and seeing through the mind. Seeing with the mind means seeing that is filtered by memory and knowledge; seeing through the mind is clarity or insight that flowers when there is the right turning of the mind.
There is a parallel here to the Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths: 1) there is suffering [the Buddha's term for suffering is dukkha]; 2) suffering has a cause; 3) the cause of suffering is the wrong turning of the mind; 4) there is a solution to suffering and that is the Noble Eightfold path [the first step of the Noble Eightfold path is Right Understanding, which can be described as the right turning of the mind, the other seven are derivatives of this].
The Buddha gave an analogy to help folks understand suffering, dukkha, its cause, and the means to end it as follows: You are riding in a vehicle that has an axle that does not fit properly into the centre hub of a wheel [at the time of the Buddha the vehicle would have been a cart or a chariot]. In this case you will suffer a bumpy ride as compared to the experience of a smooth ride in a vehicle that has an axle that fits properly in the wheel's hub.
The suffering of the bumpy ride is what the Buddha called the wrong turning of the mind and what the Yoga Sutras speak of as seeing with the mind. The right turning of the mind means that there can be mental activity, a smooth ride, as Sound that does not break Silence, which is insight that is experienced with the cessation of deriving identity via the content and activity of the mind. Then Yoga is Now.
Another nondual pointer is the Bhagavad Gita's definition of Yoga as skill in action.
"One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is a yogi; she/he is in the transcendental position [perspective], although engaged in all sorts of activities" ~ Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 18.
Singing and music are examples of sound that doesn't break silence; dance and play are movements that don't disturb stillness; art and architecture are examples of objects that do not displace space. Action in these examples is yoga as skill in action, which is the action of the right turning of the mind. In other words, these are examples of non-separation of seeing and doing as seeing is doing; there is doing yet no doer.
I can relate some personal experience that helps show that Nonduality and Yoga are the same as the experience of non-separation.
Utthita Trikonasana - James Traverse
I studied Iyengar Yoga for some 15 years and was one of just 40 people worldwide to qualify for the last 3 week intensive study that B K S Iyengar himself would lead in his home studio in Pune, India, before stepping back somewhat and letting his daughter, Geeta, do more of the teaching. I am not sharing this to brag, rather it is point out that all the participants of this intensive were advanced practitioners of the Iyengar Method of Yoga and therefore aware of his teaching style.
On the second day of the intensive I was doing the pose pictured above, Utthita Trikonasana, and Mr Iyengar was observing me. He didn't say anything to me about my alignment or technical detail as they were correct, yet he was not impressed with how I performed the asana, because he could see that I was in my head. He promptly hit me on the top of my head, just above my forehead [it was not a forceful blow, yet it was more than a mere tap], and said "Drop your brain!"
This kind of thing happen a couple of more times during the first week until I got it and understood the yoga of this approach. Once I understood Mr Iyengar never did anything like that to me again [note some folks are uncomfortable with the fact that Mr Iyengar hit folks as I just described; my experience is that the rap on the head he gave me was very precise, like a surgeon's scalpel that removed something that was strugglesome and hindering my understanding - this experience happened more that 30 years ago; I moved on to study other yoga approaches, Mr Iyengar's teaching has stayed with me throughout and I am grateful].
Still another pointer that is tremendously helpful, because of its experiential nature, is the practice of Yoga Nidra. Get Nonduality via Yoga Nidra here