AWAKENING FROM THE DREAM OF NONDUALITY
Why spiritual awakening can never be an ‘end point’, no matter what we think.
by Jeff Foster
I very rarely use the word ‘nonduality’ these days. The word is so deeply misunderstood, and so often misused, that it seems pointless to even utter it. I’ll use the word occasionally, but with great care.
Just spend a few minutes on Facebook and you’ll find so many people arguing about whether or not there is a self, about which nondual teacher is the clearest, and how free from personal stories they or their teachers are – which is all deeply and thrillingly ironic, of course.
As I’ve always said, “That’s just a story!” is the biggest story of all, and the best way to totally invalidate someone else’s experience, validating your own story in the meantime. The irony deepens…
The discovery of the absence of a separate self can be a shocking, often life-changing insight that pulls the rug from under our feet. But many are now taking this momentary insight to be the destination, the goal, rather than a new beginning. Many are taking “there is no me” to be some kind of final truth, or final event, state or experience, rather than a temporary insight that needs to be integrated with its reflection. Without the balance, nonduality just remains some conceptual understanding that does not truly bring rest to the weary seeker. It simply becomes another burden for the seeker to carry. It becomes a new dogma. And causes new conflict, both internally and between each other.
There are so many people – teachers and students alike – who believe they are finished, done, complete, fully awakened and free from the self. And often, holding onto this mental conclusion, they become missionaries for a nondual truth, going to war with anyone who doesn’t see things in the same way, either on Facebook, or in public, or behind the scenes when nobody is listening and the image of the peaceful teacher does not need to be upheld. Oh, if we could only see how the ‘awakened ones’ behave behind the scenes, it might shatter many of our spiritual illusions.
Yes, nonduality so easily becomes a war against duality. “You’re stuck in your individuality! That’s just a story! That’s so dualistic!” So deeply ironic, once again.
I speak from experience. I have been there myself. I spent a long time stuck in that nihilistic place where nothing matters, where there is no world and no relationship and everything is disconnected. I have written about this ‘Advaita Trap’ extensively. At the time, I thought it was freedom. I see now, it was another identification. It was totally lacking in love and compassion. In the end, it wasn’t nonduality that saved me and ended seeking. It was the discovery of this love beyond form, beyond words.
Some six or so years ago, when I began to write and talk in public, my language was much more ‘nondual’, in a sense. I spoke about the absence of the self, how life had no centre, and how choice was merely an illusion. I was actually not speaking from mental conclusions, but from a real-time, alive, moment-by-moment, fresh seeing. It was poetic language for an experience (or non-experience!) I had no words for yet.
My words were never meant to be taken as dogma, as truth, as I always took great pains to explain. I was simply sharing from my own experience, not trying to convert others. I did not see myself as a teacher, but as a fellow human being, who perhaps saw things in a fresh way and wanted to share from that freshness. I never wanted people to blindly believe what I was saying, or take my words as a new religion. I wanted them to look for themselves, to discover what I had discovered, that’s all.
I was not heavily identified as a ‘teacher’. I was more of a musician, singing my song for others who were drawn to it. Others called me a ‘nondual teacher’ but I really had no idea what that meant. I had never had a formal ‘teacher’ myself and so that wasn’t part of my conditioning.
It took me a long time to realise there was a whole ‘nondual’ community out there, a nondual club, so to speak, with a certain language, rules over what was nondual and what wasn’t, what was true and real and what wasn’t, with leaders and followers and even its own police force! I hadn’t realised that nonduality was quietly becoming a new religion and end-point for people. I hadn’t realised that my words were being heard through a nondual lens. I hadn’t realised how I had been judged.
I really have met so many people over the years for whom nonduality has become a new religion. They believe they have no self, that there is no choice and everything is just a story, and they repeat these memorised phrases endlessly. They even fight with others who do not see things in the same way! They cannot see that they are stuck in a new dogma, which is not releasing their suffering but merely justifying and even feeding it. “I’m suffering, but there’s nobody here suffering, and there’s nothing I can do anyway, and there’s no choice either way. And all the rest of you are dualistic! And if you think I’m angry, that’s just your projection. There’s nobody here getting angry.” A recipe for devastation, and deep blindness to truth. And endless conflict.
For actually what we are talking about here – and what I have always been pointing to – is the true end of suffering and conflict, not as a time-bound position, but as a fearless and radical opening-up to life. Not a hunkering-down (as my friend Scott Kiloby says) on a new ‘nondual’ mental resting point, but a fresh discovery of mystery. This is about discovering our total inseparability from life, knowing ourselves as the vastness in which every thought, sensation, feeling and sound is a welcome friend. We are not talking about believing there is no self and no choice, we are not talking about new conclusions, but coming to recognise this freedom and rest moment-by-moment, no matter what is happening in our lives.
This is not a religion, but a real-time recognition. A fresh and curious looking at our experience, without conclusions, without history, without memory, even the memory of nonduality.
Over the years, I began to change the way I communicated. If in the early days, I was emphasising the ocean in my talks and writing, I began to emphasise more and more the waves that arise in that ocean, and the fearless welcoming of those waves, and our not-turning-away from them. It is this welcoming, this embracing, this YES to life, that truly frees and brings deep inner rest. Yes, the discovery of the absence of the separate self – the unlimited ocean – is a profound insight. Some even call it an ‘event’ or a ‘final seeing’. But awakening doesn’t stop there. It cannot. Life is not time-bound. Indeed, the discovery of ‘no self’ is just the beginning. As I have always been saying, that absence of ‘me’ is not really an absence at all. It is an extraordinary absence, full of life. It is a wild ocean, full of waves! The absence of a separate self is the total embrace of present experience. The emptiness is form. The void is overflowing. It is abundant with the moment.
I speak these days not about nonduality (although my teaching is still grounded in that profound nondual truth) but about the invitation of life. It is a movement away from dogma, and towards what is truly alive.
Life is a constant invitation, to recognise yourself as the vast ocean of consciousness in which every single wave – every thought, sensation, feeling, sound – is deeply welcome. What you are may be a non-dual ocean of consciousness, but as that ocean, you welcome – already welcome – every wave without conditions. This is not an achievement, but your very nature, the way you are actually built. Awakening is not an achievement, it is a real-time remembering of how you are ‘built!’
We may believe that we woke up yesterday. We may believe that we have no self, or that we are the expert on consciousness, or that we are the perfect disciple of our perfect teacher and everyone else is so ignorant. But life is always inviting us to drop all conclusions about ourselves and see afresh.
Life gently whispers, always, “How deeply can we meet?”
What interests me these days is not the ‘event’ or story of awakening, but how that recognition of who we really are moves in our lives. Yes, you may have no self, and yes, you may recognise that there are no others. But those are just words, right now. Tell me, how does that knowing move in your intimate relationships, with your partner, your mother, your father, your loved ones, your friends and acquaintances on Facebook and in the workplace? When someone disagrees with what you say, do you rush to defend a conceptual position, an image of yourself, or are you able to stay radically open, deeply listening from a place of nonresistance? Or do you feel hurt, and rush to hurt someone back? Do you feel attacked, and rush to defend yourself, forgetting that who you are is never an image, and doesn’t need defending? Do you remember that who you are is the vast ocean, always deeply at rest, always deeply allowing the upsurge of thoughts and feelings? Or do you fall back into some spiritual cliché, spouting words like “there is no me” or “choice is an illusion”, secretly suffering and boiling with hurt and anger but unwilling to take a fresh look at that? Have you come to conclusions, or are you willing to drop all conclusions and look again? Are you willing to drop all stories about yourself, including the story that you are awakened, and meet this moment as a dear friend to be embraced, rather than an enemy to be rejected?
Are you able to meet the one in front of you, and for a moment, not try to fix them, or heal them, or spout nondual clichés at them, or try to win some argument, proving your identity? How deeply can we meet?
It is possible to come down from your “I am nobody” perch, to leave your “I am pure consciousness” castle, to stop protecting yourself with the “I am not a person” personal identity, and rediscover your deep humanity?
Oh yes, there is no question – this is a call to total humility.
And so, my friends, here’s what I would say. Nonduality in itself does not provide true rest and peace. Don’t settle for less than you deserve. Yes, nonduality it is a beautiful insight and philosophy, but not a way to live. Beyond all our notions of nonduality, beyond all our stories, this true peace comes through a real-time willingness to radically welcome our experience. The nondual understanding then does not stagnate and become dogma, but moves deeply and freely into our lives, extinguishing suffering in its myriad forms, bringing the light of deep acceptance to every little subtle pocket of suffering. We are awake, and continue to awaken, without contradiction. Both are true. We are both the ocean, and all the myriad waves that arise and dissolve, without contradiction. Nonduality does not deny the astonishing play of duality. And this constant welcoming of present experience is not something that we ‘do’ – it is what we are. We simply commit to remembering who we truly are, real-time, no matter what is happening. Not mentally, but experientially. Now.
I always come back to this statement by the illustrious Nisargadatta Maharaj:
“Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything. Between the two my life flows.”
Nondual clarity without love is not really worth talking about anymore.
And so, mental certainty and all of those second-hand nondual concepts melt into this love and acceptance and compassion beyond words, and all that is left is an invitation, constantly renewing itself in the furnace of intimacy…
Come closer, come closer…