What is Non-Duality?

An interview with Jeff Foster

by Nic Higham of Nonduality Network

What does the word ‘non-duality’ point to?

The world created by thought, the world of words, language, and concepts, is the world of opposites‘Up and down’, ‘this or that’, ‘inside and outside’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘black and white’, ‘true and false’, ‘positive and negative’, ‘me and you’ and so on. The world of words, language, thoughts, concepts, is a dualistic world of apparent opposites. But, in reality, do opposites exist?

What we are really pointing to when we use the word ‘non-duality’ is something that goes beyond all of these mind-made opposites. But how can we talk about something that goes beyond opposites, when even our attempt to talk about non-duality is dualistic?

So, what the word non-duality actually means is really very difficult to describe or put into words. In fact, you could say it’s impossible. For we are not talking about non-duality as opposed to something called duality, we are not talking about pro-duality as opposed to anti-duality.In fact the non-duality we speak of is not the opposite of anything. This is impossible to understand logically or rationally. To see what is being spoken of, we must go beyond our ordinary way of thinking and seeing.

OM‘Non-duality’ is actually a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘Advaita’, which simply means ‘not two’ and points to the essential oneness (wholeness, completeness, unity) of life, a wholeness which exists here and now,prior to any apparent separation. It’s a word that points to an intimacy, a love beyond words, right at the heart of present moment experience. It’s a word that points us back Home. And despite the compelling appearance of separation and diversity there is only one universal essence, one reality. Oneness is all there is – and we are included.

What we are really trying to do when we say ‘non-duality’ is point to life as it is right now, before the appearance of concepts and labels; before thought creates a world of things: table, chair, hand, foot, fear, me, you, past, future. What is life before thought? Can we even talk about that? Is it possible to capture non-duality into words?

When we speak of non-duality it can sometimes seem like we mean ‘anti-duality’, that we are against duality or that it’s wrong or false or even dangerous. This can then lead to dogmatic thinking and religiosity and to the proclamation of rightness: “You are dualistic and I am non-dualistic! I am more non-dual than you!” That is the religion of non-duality. We are more interested in the truth of non-duality.

Is non-duality a religion or belief system?

Non-duality isn’t a new belief system, a religion or a ‘how to’ guide to living. It makes no promises about the future. Of course, it canbecome a belief system or religion, however, like anything can. You could start to believe that there is “no self, no ‘me’, no time or space and that everything is an illusion” – and non-duality could become your new belief system.

That’s what happened years ago in my own experience; non-duality had become my new belief system, although at the time I actually believed I was free from all belief systems! When someone subscribes to non-duality as a system of belief, there’s just someone there – a separate person – believing that they’re no longer a separate person! And then perhaps they go round telling everyone that they are not a separate person. Secretly they experience themselves as a separate individual but they have taken on a set of concepts, they are living with a new image of themselves as beyond all images.

You can believe you are not separate, but you can still feel separate, and experience yourself as separate. There’s a world of difference between simply believing that you are not separate, in other words, intellectually taking non-duality concepts on as a new belief system, and really seeing what those words are pointing to in a very deep way. Here, we are interested in the seeing of non-duality, not just talking and arguing about it. We can talk and argue about non-duality concepts until we are blue in the face, we can argue about who is right and who is wrong and who is more ‘nondualistic’, but we would really be missing the point of all this.

Is it possible to reach a non-dual state or become spiritually awakened?

HandsIsn’t it fascinating how automatically thought (or ‘the mind’) tries to turn what we are talking about into some kind of special state or experience. Thought hears about ‘non-duality’ and wants it. And it asks, ‘How do I get it? How do I reach it? How do I see it? Who can take me there? Who can transmit it to me? Who can teach me it or give it to me? Where will I find it?’ It starts looking for something called ‘non-duality’. It starts waiting for it. It lives in hope.

That will inevitably happen because the individual is always a seeker. A separate person is always looking for something. We might seek wealth, success, power, fame, or we might seek for ‘spiritual’ things instead – but really it’s all the same seeking. The spiritual seeker might seek awakening, enlightenment or a non-dual state instead of money and power and success – but deep down, it’s the same movement.

Time is always involved in seeking. What we search for is always in the future. We say, ‘One day I will find non-duality. I’ll get into the non-dual state or have an awakening experience or my person will drop away magically.’ So, stop right there! You’ve already turned non-duality into a future goal. Stop and look and see where this seeking begins.

So, this incessant seeking takes on different forms?

Yes. Ask anybody on the street what they are looking for, and they’ll probably say they’re looking for peace, happiness, success, popularity, power, love, acceptance, understanding, fame, glory. Someone who identifies themselves as a ‘spiritual person’ might be looking for an altered state of consciousness, or some kind of transformation, or an enlightenment experience, or they may be seeking to no longer seek anything anymore!

Everyone is looking for something. This seeking takes many forms but really it’s all the same seeking. It seems as though everyone is looking for different things, but actually what we are looking for, deep down, is the same. Basically, everyone is in pursuit of the same wholeness (or oneness, or completeness, or whatever you want to call it) – a wholeness that is already here, but is ignored in our pursuit of a future completion. That’s where it all begins: looking for something better in the future. Looking for the next moment that will be a better moment, a more full moment, a more complete moment. And of course, non-duality could just become something else you are looking for. We could turn non-duality into our new goal. But the word ‘Non-duality’ actually points to what is already present here and now, within this present experience, as this experience. We’re not talking about a new goal for the seeker. We’re talking about life as it already is. non-duality is not in time.

If life ‘as it is’ is already perfect why do we continue to seek?

The real question is ‘Who is seeking?’. What is this seeker? Where is it? Can I find it now? And is this seeker who I really am? I seem to be a separate individual who is looking for something to complete myself, but is that really who I am? Does this seeking really define me? Am I really something that is incomplete, something that seeks completion in the future? You pass through all these different layers of questions and ultimately you get to the fundamental question: ‘Who am I?‘ That’s where everything leads to in the end.

masksSo, who am I?

If you ask most people that question, they’d probably reply with a story about who they think they are. They’d give you a description about what they’ve done in the past and maybe what they dream of doing in the future. They might tell you a story about their role in life – that they are a father or mother, or a business person or baker -where they work and live, and how many children they have. They’ll quite literally tell you a story about the past and future. They’ll basically tell you a story about who they were in the past and who they think they will be in the future – not who theyare in this moment. But the question is, ‘Who are you now?’ Normally that question is answered by describing the past or an imagined future.

We are living with a thought-created story about ourselves. I am a shop keeper, a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a spiritual person. (Someone who calls themselves a ‘spiritual person’ might even tell a story about how they are not a person, that they’ve transcended time and space and that they have no relationships because they have no self and there are no others. Despite the content of the ‘I am’ story, it’s still a story! Maybe, if you see yourself as ‘enlightened’ you have convinced yourself that you are not telling a story, that you’re beyond stories. But isn’t that just another story? We all seem to live with an image of who we are.)

It’s a case of mistaken identity?

Exactly. Is the image of yourself who you really are? Does it define you?

And here’s the problem. When you live with an image of yourself, that image can always be improved; you can always have a better story. If you have the identity that you are successful business women and you’re making a lot of money, maybe you hope that one day you’ll make a fortune and be a famous millionaire. Or the story could be that you’re a spiritual person and one day you’ll become enlightened.

So, are you saying enlightenment is just another story?

Well, it’s always about ‘me’ completing myself in time, isn’t it. The enlightenment story is equal to the ‘one day I’m going to win the lottery’ story.Within the story you are always incomplete and always moving towards a future completion.

On some level we feel incomplete now – there’s a sense of lack, or of not being whole. Everyone lives with that, although not everyone admits it or realises it. This is how the search begins: the sense of being incomplete now, that something is missing now. Then there’s the urge for a future fullness, a future completion. Something wants to complete itself in the future, but it begins with a present sense of incompleteness, a sense of lack. That goes right to the root of it all – a sense of lack that everyone is trying to escape in various ways.

The sense of lack doesn’t seem to go away, it might for a while but it soon comes back.

Well yes, this is the problem. Even when you get what you want and you think you’re satisfied, very quickly dissatisfaction starts up again: ‘I finally got what I wanted but it didn’t complete me.’ After twenty years of spiritual seeking you finally have the awakening experience you always wanted, but you still don’t feel complete. You make a million dollars and then you realise you still feel a sense of lack. You finally find the man or woman of your dreams, and you still want more. This is the problem with trying to complete yourself in time, trying to complete yourself through getting stuff and having experiences. There’s always more. There’s always a future.

Why does the seeking, or the sense of lack eventually start up again?

Buddhists see that everything is impermanent. However amazing, blissful, or apparently fulfilling something is, it will pass. Whatever you have you can lose. If you finally got all the money you wanted, it wouldn’t be enough because you can always have more money. You can be more successful, more famous, move loved, more spiritual, and so on. You attain the tenth level of consciousness (whatever that means) and then you want to be on level eleven. You want to get to the top! The self wants to be bigger, faster, stronger, more. Basically, we want to be special in some way – the self wants to stand out against other selves, and complete itself. It wants to be something, not nothing. We want to be certain about who we are and have a fixed and complete story about ourselves. But the nature of stories is that they can never be complete. And so the seeking goes on and on – always waiting for a permanent sense of total completion that never comes.

How exhausting!

I don’t think people realise how exhausted they are! We live on autopilot and we don’t question our seeking until this way of living breaks down, and we call that suffering. When everything is going your way and you’re getting everything you want – if the seeking mechanism is working for you – why would you question your reality? But what tends to happen is that it sooner or later life stops going your way! Then we find out that we are not in control of life and that we can’t have what we want. This whole seeking mechanism starts to break down and we suffer. When you are suffering you might start to ask, ‘Is this who I really am? Do I really need all this stuff I believe I need?’

So, we are all suffering in some way?

SufferingYes. Some people appear to suffer in extreme ways and others seem to suffer less, but everyone is suffering in their own way, even if they don’t realise it. Like we’ve said, ultimately life brings you to the question: ‘Who am I?’ Everyone comes to that question in their own way. Eventually you might start to ask why you’re suffering and question all these fundamental assumptions we’ve been talking about. Often people come to the message of non-duality through suffering, pain or distress. In other words, when the seeking begins to fail on some level, something else can begin to open up.

What does the message of non-duality have to offer the suffering seeker?

The wholeness or completeness that you are looking for is not be found in the future. The wholeness that everyone is looking for is actually already here within this present experience, within this present moment. The wholeness that you’re looking for – is what you are. It sounds like a total paradox when you try to understand it with thought and it really goes against everything that we are conditioned to believe. It’s not about understanding this with the mind, with thought – it’s about really seeing this for yourself, in your own experience. In a way, this offers nothing to the seeker – it is the experience of being a seeker in the first place, that’s the illusion. And it’s that illusion that this message exposes.

If we ultimately cannot understand this message intellectually is there anything that can be done?

No one can give this to you or teach it to you. You need to see it for yourself within your own present experience because that’s all there is. You won’t see it in someone else’s experience. It’s not a second-hand thing. It’s about this experience, right now.

It’s not something to find in the future. The wholeness you look for is already appearing as everything that’s happening now: as these thoughts, sensations, feelings, sounds, smells. Perhaps this is the wholeness we’ve been seeking. And perhaps wholeness doesn’t look, sound, smell, feel or taste anything like your idea of wholeness – your concept of wholeness! Everyone is looking for their concepts of wholeness (or enlightenment, freedom, love) but true wholeness is not a concept. It’s what is already here prior to concepts. So again, here’s the paradox: perhaps there is only ever wholeness, and within that wholeness we go out into time and space and look for wholeness! Within Home, we’re all looking for Home. Everyone is trying to come Home, but they are already Home. They are what they seek, and do not realise it.

So, the message of non-duality points to this ever-present completeness – in the midst of present experience.

We are like waves on the ocean, looking for the ocean, longing to be part of it?

Yes. That’s a great metaphor. You are like a wave in the ocean experiencing itself as separate from the ocean. The wave asks, ‘When and where will I find the ocean? Who can give the ocean to me?’ But the wave was always the ocean, from the very beginning, even in its seeking! It’s the ocean looking for itself. Even within the ocean’s failure to find itself it is still the ocean; every wave is one hundred per cent water. As all the authentic spiritual teachers have been telling us for hundreds and thousands of years, you are what you seek.

Although ‘non-duality’ is just a word, what it points to is the possibility that you are not who you think you are. It’s the possibility that what you are is not this seeker, broken or incomplete. What you are is simply this open space of awareness (consciousness, awakeness, Being) in which absolutely everything seems to come and go, and that space is already at rest; it’s already Home.

Is this open space that I am impersonal or personal?

Well, it’s neither and both – unfortunately that question implies that it could be one thing or another thing. But space is not impersonal as opposed to personal. Thought creates opposites but in reality there are no opposites. When thought appears in the space, immediately there appears to be a world of opposites: up and down, light and dark, inside and outside, or impersonal and personal. All opposites depend on each other;all the pairs of opposites arise and fall together, and the open space holds all of this. The personal life story is just something that is appearing and disappearing in the open space that you are. ‘You’ appear and disappear in you! Does that mean that the space is impersonal? It’s impersonal in the sense that it holds all personal stories as they appear and disappear. But at the same time it’s not opposed to the personal, because that would be another story! The open space is not a rejection of anything. Like we said before, non-duality is not against duality; it’s the open space in which every thought, feeling and sensation is allowed to appear and disappear. It is the ocean that does not reject any waves, because it is all the waves. So it’s not really personal or impersonal – it holds all these concepts as they come and go.

Anything can become a new form of seeking for the individual, a new identity.

Yes exactly and if we’re not careful the ‘impersonal space’ state can become food for a new form of seeking! ‘One day I’m going to reach or become an impersonal state of pure consciousness.’ It’s another way of being special: ‘Everyone else is stuck in the personal but I’ve transcended it!’ It’s the same seeking, the same game; it’s just taken on a more subtle form. This open space is not something that the individual, the character, the seeker can attain. It’s the same seeking mechanism as: ‘I have gone beyond the self.’ Only a self would proclaim that! It’s like a wave claiming that it’s beyond the ocean. The seeker is very sneaky! The seeker cannotreach this open space for the seeker appears in this open space.

Why do we need to tell any story about ourselves?

Yes, and why can’t we just be the space in which all stories are allowed to come and go? Why do we need to hold on to any one of these stories? At the same time, we do not need to reject any story. Again, if you’re not careful, non-duality just become a new war -a war against images: ‘I’m not that image!’ But the very moment you say you’re not something you’ve defined yourself! You’re defining yourself again, and again, and again when you say ‘I’m not that! I’m not that!’ You start to see the genius of this seeking mechanism. It’s absolutely, infinitely ingenious!It wants to be something, anything: ‘Let me tell a story about myself, any story! I don’t care what it is!’

What is always open to be discovered is that what you are is not an image. It’s not any image; not even the image that you’re beyond images! Not even the image that ‘I am not an image’. You are not the things that come and go, but at the same time (and this is crucial) what you are is not separate from everything that comes and go. What you are, as the space in which everything comes and goes, isintimate with all of those things, in the same way that the ocean is inseparable from the waves. So, ultimately there are no separate waves. The ocean is appearing as the waves. The ocean is the waves. Then you can’t even distinguish between the ocean and the waves.

In present experience, the waves of the ocean appear as thoughts, sensations, images, feelings, sounds – everything in present experience is simply a wave. What you are as the ocean is the waves as well! You are not the thoughts, sensations, images, but at the same time, what you are, as the open space in which all of these appear and disappear, is totally intimate with all of this.

So, awareness and the contents of awareness are the same thing?

DandelionYes, awareness and all that appears in awareness are absolutely intimate! The ocean cannot reject the waves, why would it? Awareness, wholeness, oneness, or we could call it consciousness, takes form as everything that appears. Consciousness is not some blank empty slate behind everything. That’s how the mind interprets it. The mind interprets these words asthings. Consciousness is not a thing – it is everything that appears. This is why you cannot talk about non-duality! You cannot talk about intimacy.

Rooted in that knowing that this is impossible to put into words, we are still free to play with words. We know we cannot use words to capture non-duality; we’re just using them as pointers. We are pointing to something that ultimately cannot be understood by the mind, it cannot be captured.

Every wave that appears contains the ocean. That which we are pointing to is within every experience; whether you are in the office or sitting on the meditation cushion, walking in a supermarket or attending a non-duality lecture. Whether there is extreme pain, or intense sadness, that is still the ocean. It is the ocean appearing as pain, the ocean appearing as sadness. Oneness is not limited to a particular experience. It expresses itself as all experience. So, the invitation is to come back to present experience, and rediscover the ocean, and that invitation is always there, in every experience, in this experience. This present experience is the ocean that you have always been seeking without realising it.

What is actually happening right now? What is appearing in this present experience? I don’t mean the story of what’s happening to you, I don’t mean what do you think is happening; I’m saying look at what is actually happening now. Come back to the present thoughts, sensations and feelings and rediscover who you really are in the midst of these waves of experience. What you truly are must be there within every experience, otherwise it can’t be who you really are. If it’s something that comes and goes, it can’t be who you really are. Who you really are, as the ocean, does not come and go.

Where does suffering come into this? If who we really are is complete why do we suffer?

Suffering is forgetting who you really are.

We suffer when we don’t see this completeness – this intimacy – within the present experience. When we don’t see that every wave that’s presently appearing is part of the ocean and therefore allowed in the ocean, we start trying to escape this moment to attempt to reach the next moment. We experience ourselves as not whole or somehow broken so we attempt to move away from this moment. In truth, that movement is not actually possible but we try anyway because that’s how we are programmed. We try to move away from this moment to get to the next moment, to tomorrow or next year or to ten years time. We start to use time to achieve this. This is the origin of suffering. We try to escape what’s happening now. We try to run away from aspects of our present experience. We try to escape these thoughts, sensations and feelings and get to a future place where things will be better. That’s the movement of suffering.

Within suffering you’ll always find seeking. Seeking is the basic mechanism behind all of our suffering. We label certain elements of experience ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ or ‘dark’ or ‘dangerous’ or ‘unhealthy’ and that’s because of our conditioning. We have been conditioned to label things as ‘fear’, ‘sadness’, ‘anger’, and do on, and to judge these as negative, or not-okay, or bad, or sinful – basically as expressions of incompleteness, as threats to completeness. Because we don’t seethe completeness in these waves, because we can’t find the ocean within these so-called ‘negative’ waves, we try to escape them and that movement ‘away from’ creates the suffering. Then we create stories and identities around this suffering: ‘Oh, I’m a victim of my suffering. I’m a victim of fear and pain! Why is this happening to me? How can I escape this experience?

Suffering is a great teacher. Maybe it’s the best teacher but we often don’t see that, because we don’t realise what suffering really is. Normally, we do all sorts of things to avoid, deny and numb our suffering. We take medication, drink alcohol or try to distract ourselves. Of course, there’s ultimately nothing with doing these things either! But suffering is always an opportunity; it’s an invitation to discover the completeness in what you are running away from. Which aspects of your experience right now are not okay? Which waves (thoughts, sensations, and feelings) of the ocean are being rejected right now? Which waves are not being seen as part of the ocean? Basically, what are you at war with? This is always the question that suffering leads you to.

Within the experience of suffering you’ll always find seeking. You can believe as much as you like that you’re not seeking, or that you are free from the self, but whenever there’s suffering there’s seeking. It’s the story of ‘me’ looking for something, escaping something; it’s the story of incompleteness or of feeling that there’s something wrong with you. So, the invitation – not a demand – is to take a look at what you are at war with right now. What’s the story? What are the images you are trying to hold up? What are you defending? What are you rejecting? What are you running away from? Look a little deeper. Perhaps these images of yourself are not who you really are. Maybe these stories don’t define you.

We suffer when we try to hold up images of ourselves – ‘I’m strong, I’m enlightened, I’m a success, I’m loving, I’m kind, I’m happy’ – which conflict with life as it is. And in the end, all images conflict with life as it is – no image can match this moment. This moment is the fire that burns up all images. In this moment there could be pain, sadness, fear –any image that says that what’s appearing shouldn’t be appearing, that you should be happy, or free from pain, is a false image.

Is this about cultivating more presence?

Man SunsetWhat I’d say is forget about trying to become more present; that can just be another form of seeking. It’s a beautiful idea, but it’s still the same seeking mechanism. ‘One day I’ll be present!’Ultimately, you cannot become more present; for you are presence itself. Like the word ‘non-duality’, presence is just another pointer to life as it is. It’s another pointer back to who you really are. There is already presence and there is only presence. Everything is already appearing inpresence.

There is only this moment. The past and the future happen now; they appear in this presence, asthis presence. There are memories about the past and thoughts about the future appearing in this presence. It all happens now. Every sound is a present sound; you’ve never heard a sound that wasn’t now. You’ve never heard a sound in the past and you don’t hear a sound in the future! You’ve never smelled anything that wasn’t smelled now. Ultimately, you’ve never seen anything that isn’t seen now. It’s all present!

So, it’s not really about a separate entity becoming more present; it’s about rediscovering presence here and now. Presence could just be another word for consciousness, awareness or Being; pick your favourite word! What you are is presence itself, so you cannot become ‘more’ present, just as the wave cannot become more or less ‘ocean’ than it already is. And that’s always there to be discovered. Life is the constant invitation to discover this in the midst of present experience. Life is the constant invitation to discover who you really are in this moment. Who discovers this? Well, who asks that question!


Thanks to Nic Higham of Nonduality Network