Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
[An expanded version of this essay will be published in 2015 in the journal Creativity & Collective Enlightenment]
As one outcome of my posting an essay on the origins of my proposal to create the state specific sciences, in the previous post, my friend and colleague, Russell Tart, physicist and parapsychologist, sent me some very stimulating comments. He is not only one of the pioneers of the remote viewing technique, which was used by US government intelligence agencies for decades, but also a student of Buddhism and other non-dual spiritual paths. The core of his comments had to do with “non-duality.”
Non-duality is a big deal in a spiritual seeking circles in the West today, such a big deal that you could call it a buzzword. Put “non-duality” in the title of something and it immediately looks like the highest kind of spiritual material, deserving special attention. But, I’ve never felt I understood what the idea is really all about, much less experientially understanding it. Sometimes when I don’t understand something I write about it, in the hope that having to write clearly will clarify my own thoughts, and I’ve done that occasionally with non-duality.
This is one more attempt to grapple with non-duality. Has it made me clearer? Well I think I’m somewhat clearer on what I don’t know, and that’s probably progress. I present it here for whatever stimulation value it has, and hope someday I will write something based on a real understanding of it. Whatever I don’t understand, I do know that the people who write and talk about it say non-duality is very important!
Here (with his permission) is my correspondence with Russell Targ, with his excerpted words in blue.
You’ve put that word “non-duality” in my mind with your email of the 6th, Russ, and while I usually try not to confuse myself by thinking about it, I’ve decided to grapple with it some here in the hope that that might clarify things for me, and if I put this is an essay on my blog, perhaps clarify things for someone else. I would value your response, of course, but if this is more than you wanted I understand! 🙂
Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
For the reader who understands something of this, the title, evoking the dualistic image of a grappler and something to be grappled with, may make you think the following will be a sophisticated discussion of non-duality, or immediately demonstrate that this writer doesn’t have a clue as to what non-duality is about. I don’t know which it is. Hopefully it will be useful in stimulating thought.
Duality and Non-Duality:
> I am emphasizing the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing. <
Ah, you challenge me nicely Russ! When you say “… take to be the same thing,” my rational mind is used to dealing with that sort of statement, but, as you point out later in your email, I don’t think our ordinary rational mind can never satisfactorily define or understand what we mean by non-dual teachings. My ordinary mind has certainly tried it over and over again for decades and not gotten anywhere!
I’ve never been sure exactly what “duality” means.
In some contexts, the meaning is obvious. If I’m meeting someone for the first time, for example, and besides what I hear from them and say to them I’m desperately thinking and worrying about “Am I making a good impression? Will I be liked? Am I making a fool of myself?” I’m certainly in a highly dualistic state of mind, evaluating most, if not all of my perceptions of the moment in relation to how it reflects on me and my hopes and fears.
While there are certainly occasions in real life when you do need to be concerned with what kind of impression you’re making on people, as it has consequences for the relationship and your life, to have this kind of thing happen compulsively much of the time can certainly be a source of useless suffering. If someone says to me “Look to the north, there’s some really beautiful cloud formations there,” and I look to the north and to see and enjoy those beautiful cloud formations, I’m fairly well centered in ordinary reality and functioning well. If I don’t really perceive those clouds very well and am caught up in my worries about the impression I’m making, it’s totally useless suffering. I’m missing something beautiful, and reinforcing my habit of worrying about what kind of impression I’m making.
So far I’ve been talking about what we might call in conventional Western terms neurotic dualism, and it’s quite understandable. We think it’s generally helpful and intelligent to pay some attention to how you are presenting yourself in various situations, but neurotic or downright crazy to be stuck in that.
Mystical Experience of Unity and Flow:
On the other hand, I know there are numerous reports of “mystical experiences,” at the other end of the spectrum, where people report that they felt at one with the universe and that this feeling of unity was quite wonderful. Not having had that experience myself, I doubt that I understand it very well, even though it sounds very desirable. And I suspect there may be a variety of experiences that are all described as “non-dual” but may be significantly different. Extraordinary experiences are rare for most of us, and we aren’t trained in a good vocabulary for describing them or discriminating one from another.
In between these two ends of the spectrum, neurotic duality to mystical oneness, I think we’ve all had lots of experiences that, in retrospect, we might describe as at least a somewhat non-dual, because all of our conscious experience for a while was involved with our perceptions of the situation we were in and whatever actions we took that, hopefully, were appropriate to the situation. I think this is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow experience that started getting described in psychology a few decades ago, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced such flow occasionally. At the times it’s happened to me, I don’t particularly think of it as any special kind of experience, I’m involved in what I’m doing, I’m usually doing it reasonably well, that’s nice, but it’s no big deal.
I can imagine a person having more and more flow experiences, and that would be very rewarding. Is continuous flow experiences what is meant by “enlightenment?” Of course that word enlightenment is used in a variety of ways, but I imagine this may be a part of what is meant sometimes.
My understanding falters, though, when what we’re talking about seems to jump from qualities of experience to ultimate statements about the absolute nature of reality. I know people who have had mystical unity experiences certainly think that’s the way reality really is, but what that means for those of us who haven’t had it, I don’t know. And when the Tibetan Buddhists especially go on and on about it, I find it kind of inspiring, but it doesn’t really make any sense to me. Sometimes when they stop talking so grandly about the absolutely pristine and wonderful nature of rigpa and also casually mention that it’s all quite “ordinary,” I think they mean something like a flow state — which, at least in my limited experience, is no big deal at all at the time that you’re in it. Although sometimes I think they’re using “ordinary” in a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive manner, you’re supposed to develop in a way so you’ll always be in that kind of state. Except of course you shouldn’t be striving for anything, as any kind of striving is inherently dualistic and prevents that state from happening….and intellectual honesty for me when I think about that is to say “Huh?”
Thinking about duality from an ordinary perspective, the practically useful working perspective that the physical world has a reality independent of our beliefs about it, duality is essential for life. If a friend says “Let’s eat!” it’s important that I instantly discriminate that my arm, even though it’s made of meat, is me, and it would be very bad to take a bite of it, whereas the sandwich on the table is not me, and it’s fine to eat it.
Along another line, thinking about duality and non-duality from a spiritual perspective I’m somewhat familiar with, Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teachings, the primary way of psychological and spiritual growth I understand there is to deliberately split your awareness into several aspects, you could call it a dual or triple. Typically you keep about 10% of your moment to moment awareness on body sensation, such as from your arms and legs, about 40 or 50% on what you’re seeing, and the rest on what you’re hearing. In my experience, this produces a very useful form of what we might call dualism, in that there is a clear distinction and more accurate perception of sensory input, primarily vision and hearing, while keeping some consciousness grounded in immediate body sensation. Although there is no conscious emphasis on striving for the following outcome, this makes you, in my experience, more sensitive to fleeting feelings and emotions that might otherwise be missed, and so more accurate in your engagement of the world, as you’re less likely to be carried off by emotional reactions that if you weren’t doing this practice.
> Padmasambhava, in the Eighth Century is teaching the non-dual view that mind is spaciousness, just as there is no separation between waves and the ocean. Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
While I have a lot of conceptual trouble with “non-dual,” I’m much happier thinking about and using the word “spaciousness.” Spaciousness (and, more usually, lack of it) is something I have direct experience of. My ordinary mind is not spacious. Perceptions of the outside world or my body keep coming in, each generates one or more internal reactions, and there may be no apparent gap between these internal reactions, so my conscious experience seems continuous but hardly spacious.
I remember years ago when I took a class (several times) from Lama Tarthang Tulku at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley on basic meditation. He occasionally used the phrase “the gap between thoughts.” I thought that was a fascinating concept! But it was only a concept for me, there were certainly no gaps between any of my thoughts! Back then when trying to learn various basic forms of concentrative and insight meditation, I thought one had to learn to create quiet spaces between thoughts, and I was so bad at it that I eventually gave up even attempting to meditate, assuming it took some kind of special talent that some people had for creating a quiet mind, but which clearly I didn’t have. It was only years later after instructions from meditation teacher Shinzen Young, who I think is one of the best meditation teachers in the world, that I actually found vipassana meditation to be a pleasant and useful activity, and now I do it regularly. And while I don’t make a big deal of it, I do occasionally observe gaps between thoughts. It’s possible, and spacious.
Qualities of Spaciousness:
Returning to the idea of spaciousness, though, I would distinguish at least two qualities of spaciousness in my own experience. One is the obvious one of less active thoughts or even apparently quiet temporal gaps between distinct thoughts. Not unconsciousness, as I’m still aware that I exist in a quiet way, and I may be receiving sensory input, but there are noticeable drops in the intensity of my internal processes, sometimes such that I would even call my mind momentarily quiet. The second quality of spaciousness deals with the way I experience what I might call the “stickiness” of thoughts. My ordinary experience is that one thought automatically and forcefully generates other thoughts, reactions to sensations generate more thoughts or emotions, the process is continuous and seems like it will never end. But sometimes when I’m experiencing some spaciousness, the quieter periods between ordinary thoughts and perceptions are not empty, there may be other thoughts or perceptions that come and go, but they don’t automatically grab my awareness and force further reactions the way they normally do. They are just less sticky, they flow through my mind without stimulating other thoughts that stick to them…
Naked Awareness, Finding Mind:
>Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
If I take “naked awareness” to be the basic nature of mind to experience things, things get interesting. There is a meditation exercised used in Tibetan Buddhism where the student is asked to try to find their own mind. I have tried it occasionally, and, as the texts state, I can find anything in particular! If my mind is in its usual active state I can certainly find content of mind in any instant, and that content is normally pretty continuous even if I’m not particularly aware that I’m experiencing content at the moment. Sometimes I suddenly look for mind when my mind is relatively quiet and I still can’t find anything, that is I can’t find any thing in particular that I would say this is mind*. Yet I am aware that I’m aware, but this awareness is, while kind of obvious and not at all special when I practice it, not at all like the kind of awareness of mental content, of specific things, either specific things perceived through the senses or generated internally.
* In some ways I am intellectually convinced, though, that if I could mentally “spin around” fast enough I would catch something that might be my mind, but I can never do it.
There is a spacious quality to this kind of awareness of mind. In my limited experience I wouldn’t say there’s any specific quality to it, like ordinary things or thoughts or emotions have, and yet it’s there. The table to my right as I write this, for example, has a specific size and location, my looking for something to illustrate had intentional qualities, there’s a slight feeling of satisfaction that this is a good illustration.
Sometimes when I wonder about the value of meditative training that lets you experience spaciousness more often, I find myself creating an analogy that it’s like a button early home computers had on the front panel labeled Reset. Early computers often froze up because too many programs were running simultaneously and conflicted with each other for limited resources, and pushing the button cleared out all running programs from memory, so you were reset back to zero, back to the full spaciousness of your computer’s capacity.
This is certainly parallel with what happens in ordinary life. So often we have several things on our mind at once, they get into recursive loops that are sticky and drawing more and more of our mental resources, attempts to quiet things down and focus create more reactions, and were stuck. To be able with some skill, that I think develops from gaining some proficiency at concentrative or vipassana meditation, to “back up” to the spaciousness the constitutes the basic nature of mind may let those things die down, may reset your mind so you can now focus in a more useful and desirable way. So, yes, ”Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.” Makes some sense to me, although I’m sure there’s far more being referred to by Padmasambhava* than what I’ve written about here.
* Amusement note: my Dragon Dictate program on hearing “Padmasambhava” typed in “pod my some Baba.” 🙂 Pretty good try!
…. the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing.<
Picture: John Bamberger, Fluorescent Waterfall
Non-dualism and State-Specific-Sciences:
Coming back to the question of how much my proposal for the establishment of state specific sciences is advocating the importance of internalizing non-dual teachings, yes and no, no and yes.
I don’t think much of my understanding of non-duality now, and when I proposed developing state specific sciences several decades ago my understanding was far less. What I basically did in my proposal was review the basic procedure of scientific inquiry for acquiring and refining knowledge. (1) Observe what you’re interested in carefully, always try to improve the quality of your observation. (2) Devise theories that make sense of your observations, use sensible logic in them so your ideas hang together. (3) Don’t stop with the satisfaction of feeling that intellectually you understand things, but work the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you haven’t seen and go out and test those predictions. If they come true, great, keep developing your theory. If they don’t modify your theory or come up with a new one altogether. And (5) meanwhile, since your mind may have all sorts of peculiar quirks you have no idea exist, keep sharing all these steps with peers who can check your observations check your thinking check your predictions. That way we go from poor observations and fuzzy ideas about why things happened to more clear and precise observations and understandings that make more sense of them. Which in most cases will allow us to then apply our understandings for human benefit.
A basic point of my proposal, though, was that science is normally done in “normal” consciousness, but we now know that there are many arbitrary, culturally constructed aspects of culturally normal consciousness that sensitize us in some ways and blind and bias us in other ways. We also know that there exist altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in which perception and thinking seem to work quite differently, so if we could apply basic scientific method in a variety of ASCs, we would get a much wider range of understandings. I didn’t say too much more about this potential outcome, because I knew most of my readers would be biased toward a materialistic view that only what is physical is real. So if they would want to think I was talking primarily about altered states observations of physical phenomena fine, but the proposal left it quite open to take internal experiences as primary things you observed, experimented with, and theorized about. Thus all sorts of systems of yoga, meditation systems, and the like could become “inner sciences,” rather than simply religious beliefs or, as I argued in the proposal, not remain state specific technologies but become specific state specific sciences. So yes, systems which led people to experience non-dual consciousness could have its practitioners practice essential science and lead to all sorts of other new knowledge. In terms of acceptance of the proposal for publication in Science, I think the one referee, who I later found out to be pioneering psychophysiologist Elmer Green, was very aware of this revolutionary opening up to inner experience, but the other referee and the editor of science probably didn’t get it.
It would take us too far afield now, but I could argue that the proposal for state-specific sciences is actually wider than any particular spiritual path in some respects, unless we assume that the “enlightenment” which can result from a spiritual path constitutes a permanent state where everything worth knowing is known so no more acquisition, refinement and application of knowledge is need…
Okay, there are many interesting places we could go, but I’m sure this essay is already overly long. Good thinking!