Awakening to Non-Duality and a Deep Acceptance of the Present Moment
- By Jeff Foster
“Wisdom tells me that I am nothing.
Love tells me that I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.”
– Nisargadatta Maharaj
This article originally appeared in Kindred Spirit Issue 117
Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that you are not really who you think you are? That you are not what the world says you are? That you are not your name, your job, your gender, your social status or lack of it, your looks, your race or religion, nor the contents of your bank account? That even the face that stares back at you in the mirror while you brush your teeth in the morning cannot really tell the truth of who you are? Have you ever truly doubted your existence in this way? Well, if you have, it might not necessarily mean that you’re depressed or that you’re going crazy. It might mean that you’re beginning to glimpse the timeless truth of non-duality, a truth that goes beyond belief, religion, ideology, and beyond spirituality as we know it.
We live in exciting times. Modern physics is now finally confirming what spiritual teachers throughout the ages have always been trying to tell us – that in reality, nothing is separate from anything else; that right at the heart of life, there is a wholeness, a Oneness, an inseparability – call it what you will – that cannot be put into words. That in reality you are not a separate ‘self’, not a limited and incomplete ‘me’ cut off from the rest of life, but a vast open space, an ocean of present-moment consciousness in which thoughts, sensations, images, sounds and emotions are allowed to arise and dissolve.
Confused? You should be! This non-separation at the heart of creation is impossible to understand with the human mind. For now, simply allow any confusion to just be there, and read on. I will try to put this ancient and often misunderstood teaching into simple language for you.
THE EVER-PRESENT MIRACLE OF JUST BEING YOU
Let’s begin by asking the most fundamental question of all: “Who are you?” Find a photograph of yourself as a child. Who is that in the photograph? “That’s me!”, you may reply. But your answer begs the question, who or what exactly is this “me” that you say you are? Is the “me” that’s there in the photograph the same “me” that you are right now, in this moment?
All the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing right now are certainly not the same as those that were there all those years ago. Your ideas, feelings and judgements about yourself and the world have changed since then, perhaps beyond all recognition. Back then you wanted to be a fireman or a ballet dancer. Back then you were terrified of the monster in the closet, and you believed that tiny pink dinosaurs lived in your neighbour’s back garden. These days your priorities have changed. You no longer spend time thinking about pink dinosaurs. You worry about making enough money to put your kids through school. You worry about your pension, about the latest terrorist scare, about not becoming enlightened in this lifetime. Your body has evolved and aged – in fact, there is not a single cell that remains from the “me” of all those years ago. Your face, your voice, your hair, your desires, your tastes—nearly everything has changed.
But you still somehow still feel like you, in a way that you can’t quite explain. There is an undeniable sense of being here, a sense of “I Am” that hasn’t changed at all. You are like a timeless ocean, that has remained fully itself, even though all sorts of waves have come and gone.
Gently turn your attention now to this timeless and very intimate sense of being you. Again, by ‘you’ I don’t mean the thoughts, judgments and images of yourself that come and go. I don’t mean the memories of your past, or the thoughts about your future. I don’t mean all the sensations in your body. I am directing your attention to something that comes before all of that – to the sense of just being you, something that has been there since you were a child. I am pointing to a sense of presence, a feeling of being awake and alive, a deep and abiding knowing that has never left you, no matter what has happened in the story of your life. I am not talking about a higher self, or an awakened self, or any kind of special version of the self – I am talking about the very ordinary feeling of being you. It’s so simple and ordinary, in fact, that you’ve probably spent a lifetime overlooking it.
As you have been reading this article, have you noticed the paper behind the words? To the human mind, the text in the foreground is far more compelling than the paper in the background. However, without the ever-present background, these words would not exist at all. Who you really are is just like the paper on which Kindred Spirit is printed – ever-present, rarely noticed or even appreciated, and yet absolutely essential in every way.
When we forget the ever-present background of consciousness in our lives, when we forget our true identity prior to form, we get lost in the foreground, in the content of our lives, in thoughts, words and worries, in a mind-made, time-bound story of ourselves. We forget that what we are is always whole and perfect, and we begin to seek wholeness and perfection outside of ourselves. We reject ourselves as being incomplete here and now, and we seek a future completeness. Suffering begins when we forget who we really are.
WAKING UP FROM THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE
When we talk about ourselves, what we are usually talking about is the story of ourselves, the story thought tells about our identity: “I am good; I am bad. I am black, white, short, tall, handsome, beautiful, rich, poor. I am successful; I am a failure. I am intelligent. I am stupid. I am Jewish. I am a Christian. I am a Buddhist. I am spiritual. I am enlightened. I am not enlightened.” And so on.
But if somebody knows the time-bound story of your life, the details of you, do they really know who you are? If they know who you were last year, or five minutes ago, does that tell them who you really are now, in this moment? In truth, all the thoughts in the world cannot touch who you really are in this moment. As consciousness itself, as the silent background of “I Am”, you are not what you have been or will be. You are not the story of your achievements or failures. You are not the story of your wealth or poverty. You are not the story of your illness or disability. You are not the story of your happy or sad childhood. You are not the story of your race, your sexual orientation, your religion, even your spiritual insights. You are not this, not that. You are not a thing at all. As consciousness itself, you cannot be defined, and you cannot be separated from all that you see and hear.
Underneath our roles—as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, doctors, shopkeepers, artists, spiritual seekers, teachers, Buddhists – we are all One. As individual waves in the ocean of life, we may all be very different in shape and size, in colour, beliefs, backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and skills; but as the ocean, we are all equally water. We may each be unique expressions of the ocean of consciousness, but our essence is always the same, no matter who we think we are. This is how we can love people as they are, even when they appear very different from us in shape, size, colour, or belief. Oneness is not separate from diversity, however paradoxical that sounds. A great sense of equality with all creation begins here.
FINDING DEEP ACCEPTANCE IN THE PRESENT MOMENT
Now, most people are peaceful and happy when things go their way and according to plan, and stressed and unhappy when things ‘go wrong’. I want to point you towards a place of peace and happiness that is not dependent on the story of your life. So take a moment now and bring your attention back to your very own present experience. Gently begin to notice everything that is happening right where you are, without judging it, without trying to change it in any way, and without expecting it to change (and this effortless noticing is the essence of true meditation). Notice thoughts appearing and disappearing in awareness. Notice all the feelings and emotions that come and go – confusion, sadness, boredom, frustration, anger, fear, excitement – and for a moment just allow them to be there. Notice sensations happening all over the body – tingling in your fingers and toes, pressure in your head. Notice all the sounds appearing where you are–a television buzzing, your own breathing, a bird chirping outside – tweet tweet! Notice the miracle of life that is all around.
Thoughts, sensations, sounds, feelings – these are all the waves of life appearing in the vast ocean of present-moment consciousness that you are. What you are is always this vast open space in which all waves are allowed to come and go.
A wave – a thought, sensation or feeling – can only appear in you if on some level it has already been allowed in. Here is the amazing revelation of non-duality: what you are has already allowed everything in this moment to be just as it is! These thoughts, sensations and feelings; even this pain, fear, sadness, or anger; even the uncomfortable waves, even the ones that we call ‘dark’ or ‘negative – who you really are has already said yes to all of it. You are not a separate ‘person’ but an unconditional acceptance of all life. Light and dark, good and evil, positive and negative waves – you are vast enough to encompass every apparent opposite. You are the Light that goes beyond light and darkness – you are enlightenment itself.
And as the ocean, even when the waves of life become strong, uncomfortable and intense, you know deep down that you cannot be hurt– for the waves are not separate from yourself. This realisation totally changes how we relate to pain and suffering. Grounded in the knowing of who you are, you can now fearlessly face every wave that comes your way, seeing them as friends to be embraced, not enemies to be rejected.
This way of seeing things certainly goes against much of our conditioning, which is often about escaping or getting rid of the ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ or ‘imperfect’ waves in ourselves and becoming a whole and complete and perfect person in some distant future. But the wholeness I talk about has nothing to do with getting rid of waves, or repressing them, or escaping them in this way. I speak of wholeness as a total embrace of every wave that appears in the present moment, an unconditional acceptance of every thought and emotion. This acceptance is not a passive surrender, but a fearless encounter with reality, from which all creative, intelligent and loving action naturally flows.
Yes, you don’t have to try to allow this moment, for this moment is already allowed to be exactly as it is. You don’t even have to accept this moment, for this moment has already been accepted. Acceptance is not something that you ‘do’ – it’s what you are.
DISCOVERING A LOVE BEYOND WORDS
Non-duality can often sound like a very abstract, complex philosophy, but in the end, what I am really trying to share with you is something very simple: unconditional love. One of my favourite things to do is to sit with my elderly father. It’s a beautiful thing just to sit with him, without trying to change him, or control him, or fix his experience in any way. I just sit, and listen, without playing the role of ‘the son who knows best’. And here, in this intimate place where we are not-two, I recognize myself as the deep ocean of consciousness in which every wave is allowed, and I notice a profound embrace of any thought, feeling or emotion that arises in my own present experience. If pain, sadness or discomfort of any kind arise, I gently and effortlessly notice that they are already deeply allowed to be here. All thoughts and feelings have a home in me, and this allows me to love my father unconditionally, and not shut off from him even when our relationship becomes challenging.
The discovery of non-duality has completely changed my life and relationships in so many ways – more than I can tell in a short article like this. In my mid-twenties, after so many years of depression, anxiety and social phobia it was such a relief to discover that I am complete just as I am, perfect even in my imperfection. I know beyond all doubt that this is also true for every human being on this planet.
These days, in my books, on my website, and in meetings and retreats around the world, I share this message of intimacy and non-separation with those who are open to going beyond everything they believe. I don’t see myself as a guru or even as a spiritual teacher, although some people like to call me that. I see myself rather as a friend who simply reminds you of what, deep down, you have always known: that there is nothing wrong with you… and that you are loved beyond words, always, just as you are.
Jeff’s new book The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life, will be published in November 2012 by Sounds True. His previous books An Extraordinary Absence and The Wonder of Being are available from Non-Duality Press www.non-dualitypress.org
Jeff Foster studied astrophysics at Cambridge University. After a long period of depression and illness, in his mid-twenties he became addicted to the idea of spiritual enlightenment and embarked on an intensive spiritual quest for the ultimate truth of existence.
The spiritual search came crashing down with the clear recognition of the nondual nature of everything and the discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary. In the clarity of this seeing, life became what it always was: intimate, open, loving and spontaneous, and Jeff was left with a deep understanding of the root illusion behind all human suffering and with a love of the present moment.
He presently holds meetings, retreats, and private one-to-one sessions around the world, gently but directly pointing people back to the deep acceptance inherent in the present moment. He helps people discover who they really are, beyond all spiritual concepts, beyond all thoughts and judgments about themselves, even in the midst of the stress and struggle of modern-day living and intimate relationships.
Jeff was voted number 51 on Watkins Review’s 2012 list of the world’s “100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People.” He lives near Brighton, England. To find out more about Jeff and his teachings, and to view his event schedule, please visit www.lifewithoutacentre.com.