WARNING: If you’re unfamiliar with nondual philosophy and practice, this post may not make much sense. Or it may be perfectly obvious. I wrote a slightly more accessible piece about nonduality here.
For the past fifteen years or so I’ve explored spiritual practice from two directions: top-down and bottom-up. “Bottom-up” means developmental practices like Buddhist insight or concentration meditation, where you are slowing working through limiting patterns and building up various qualities and capacities of mind. “Top-down” means mostly Hindu Advaita-style “nondual” practices, where again and again you return to simple knowing / Being / awareness, with the enormously liberating understanding that nothing else needs to happen. Bottom-up says there is something to do and somewhere to get to. Top-down says there is nothing to do and no where to go. These are known as the progressive and direct approaches, respectively. Both are industrial-strength ways of addressing human suffering.
There is a long and confusing and ultimately useless debate about which approach is correct. The debate is useless because both approaches are right. It’s a paradox, and there is no getting around paradox in the wooly and contradictory world of spirituality.
The confusion stems from two ways of looking at the human condition. On the one hand, we are creatures bound in time: we are born, we move through developmental stages of growth and maturity, we notice our bodies age, our friends grow wiser and droopier, and then we croak. This is common-sense and of course it is true. But every single contemplative tradition, in their own way, argues something else, something that you might call uncommon sense. They say it’s possible to orient to what is timeless and unchanging in our experience, and that is Being / awareness / knowing itself. In this post, each of these three are synonyms, for what knows Being is awareness, they are three ways of saying the same thing. Awareness (as opposed to mind) is “empty” or open – it has no qualities, it is the blank screen on which the content of our lives plays out, and it is also the “stuff,” the pixels, out of which all that content is made.
This isn’t another intellectual idea to argue with, for of course from an intellectual point of view there are any number of legitimate objections (many having to do with language and terminology). It is, rather, an understanding you orient to within your actual moment-to-moment experience. This orientation is immediately available all the time. All you need to do is adjust your perspective one millimeter out, to the weird fact of your Being / awareness, instead of your Being’s / awareness’s content, and you are there.
Stop reading and actually try this for a moment: you exist.
Try to notice this – not the circumstances of your life in this moment, not the sounds and sights and thoughts, not the adulation or the pain, but the utterly simple recognition that somehow you are alive and blinking inside this mystery. Doing this is like drawing an existential highlighter under your life. You do a mini-double take – whoa, existence exists – and for a very short time bask in the weirdness of this realization. And then, five seconds later, your mind rushes in to ponder / claim the experience and immediately rationalizes it away and / or move onto more pressing subjects, like the bus that is about to run you over. And that’s OK (the thinking, not the bus), because you can also notice your whole rumination process from the broader perspective of Being. That’s sort of the trick. But instead, most of us forget the Being part, and get lost in our thoughts and ideas about it.
At first the practice is no more exotic than this. You notice the weird fact of your Being, again and again. Every time you do this, in that moment the ratio of “content” to raw open awareness shifts, so that whatever agony is preoccupying you in the foreground of your life is now a figure sitting on top of a larger ground. Where a moment before your attention was 100% preoccupied with content – with your problems, with the taste of your hamburger, with whatever – now your attention is, say, 60% occupied with content, and 40% resting in the recognition that you exist. Or some other ratio – it doesn’t matter, the point is your own Being is something that attention can rest in, and when it does there is often a subtle feeling of lightness or space or openness or unreality or even detachment that accompanies this shift – different people describe it, and experience it, in different ways. Actually, I just thought of one way to explain how it sometimes feels for me: it’s a little like when you emerge blinking into the afternoon sunshine from a movie matinee. You look around at the too-bright world and it’s a little unreal – like you are still half in the reality of the film, and not yet habituated to the reality of the outside world. How does this place work again? There’s a combination of freshness and strangeness and heightened existential sensitivity in your experience. And then of course you slip into your habituated life groove and the moment is forgotten.
The ordinary-strangeness and accessibility and completeness of your own Being is what the nondual teacher points us to, again and again. The idea that there is somewhere to get to actively prevents us from seeing the freedom that is all around us. My own opinion is this top-down nondual understanding should be central to every practice – it is a necessary corrective to the striving and angst of long developmental processes. Where top-down “work” feels to me like a relaxation or a melting backwards, bottom-up work feels like a pushing forward or a breaking through.
But here is the thing: developmental processes like meditation in turn seem to be a necessary corrective to the complacency and blind-spots that nondual teachers and practitioners can fall into. What’s more, despite that truth that in one sense we are all of us already free, every single nondual teacher on the planet moved into their wakeful perspective developmentally. They had to have, otherwise there’d have been no contrast.
Most of them moved through a set of terrains – effort, breakthrough, challenge, equanimity – that look a lot like the ones I talk about here. They stated out as seekers, agonized about their sense of alienation, moving from satsang to satsang, reading the requisite texts, efforting. They got glimpses – breakthroughs – sudden simple recognitions that the freedom they’re looking for so desperately is always all around them. But then the insight fades and the mind thinks ‘no it can’t be that easy’ and all the momentum of the old conditioning reasserts itself. A period of challenge follows – ‘oh God I’ll never get there! why have you forsaken me? etc etc’ Separateness never felt so lonely and so bleak. Except, here is the grace bit: every time they dip back into that simple open perspective, again and again, it acts as a solvent. Little by little the habitual identification with figure instead of ground begins to erode. Gradual integrations happen. And sometimes, always a bit unexpectedly, there is a sudden larger shift and they’re able to rest permanently in what feels like a baseline of openness and non-separation. It seems as though everything has been worked through and consolidated and they are free. Nothing more to do.
Are they right? Well, who knows – maybe some are. And of course from the absolutist nondual perspective nothing needed to be done in the first place. But from the perspective of being an awake, optimally-functioning non-deluded human being – then I very much doubt that everything has been worked through and consolidated. Most honest nondual teachers that haven’t been indoctrinated by absolutist assumptions will admit to some version of the above story. They’ll also tell you how after their big awakening they still needed to embody it, to expand that freedom into all areas of their life. More shifts and awakenings usually follow, a process of many years that in all likelihood never ends.
A mature understanding of awakening recognizes that awakening has many facets and domains. As a process it takes a long time – it is IN time, however much awareness itself may be outside of it. The classic nondual trap is you wake up one little part of yourself, think everything is perfect, and in your grand liberated indifference start acting like an asshole, totally oblivious to how you are still acting and reacting from great blocks of unconsciousness. This is one big reason I like the Buddhist paths of insight and of compassion. There is always more delusion to investigate, and more friendliness to deliberately cultivate.
Progressive paths teach us something important: whatever else it may be, life is also a training. It’s an opportunity to learn skills and explore the amazing inheritance of your body and your mind and your heart. We don’t need to learn to dance, or rock-climb, or play the bass guitar, or speak Lakota, or waterski on a human pyramid. But doing so is fun, it expands the repertoire of what we can experience, it’s part of the adventure of life and of learning. The same is also true of mental and emotional capacities: we can learn to be more concentrated, more loving, more intuitive and energetic and imaginative. We can learn rad skills to celebrate life and help people and the planet. We don’t need to do this. We can orient to the nondual perspective and then sit on our asses enjoying the perfection of Being. That is everyone’s right, and for those who have suffered they certainly deserve a break, to rest in whatever peace they can find. But to then turn around, as some nondual teachers do, and blindly criticize anyone who meditates is pure ignorance.
So those are some thoughts about that.