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#5036 - Friday, September 27, 2013 - Editor: Gloria Lee

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  • Gloria Lee
    #5036 - Friday, September 27, 2013 - Editor: Gloria Lee The Nonduality Highlights http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NDhighlights/ Among the Nonduals: Exploring the
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      #5036 - Friday, September 27, 2013 - Editor: Gloria Lee
       
       
      Among the Nonduals: Exploring the True Nature of Mind
      | Jeff Warren | September 2013 - Issue 8
       
      A man sits on a chair in front of a blank white screen. His hands are clasped in his
      lap and he speaks slowly and carefully. The conference audience in this quiet
      corner of Holland is rapt.
       
      “Perception is conventionally believed to be divided into two essential ingredients:
      an inside self or subject, and an outside world or object. The belief that all
      experience is divided this way underpins our entire world culture – how we think,
      feel, act, perceive and relate.”
       
      His voice is gentle. “Look around you. We think we see a room. In fact, all we know
      or experience is our perception of the room or world. Do you ever know or come
      into contact with anything other than the knowing of your experience? It’s not
      possible. All we really find in experience is knowing.”
       
      The speaker’s name is Rupert Spira. He’s an Englishman, a ceramicist by training.
      His interest in perception comes by way of his art, and by way of his other career
      as a spiritual teacher and author.
       
      Although it is unlikely Spira would put it in these terms, this part of what he is
      describing is, from a neuroscientific perspective, actually quite conventional. The
      world comes in all broken up via the senses and is assembled by the brain into a
      coherent model of reality. All we ever experience are these images and sensations
      and perceptions, which we take to be an honest accounting of a world beyond
      ourselves. Of course we do – that’s why perceiving is worth the bother.
       
      For Spira, this recognition is the departure point for a radical reorientation in
      how we experience self and world. What if, Spira says (Spira and the other two
      dozen or so speakers), what if we don’t immediately rush into that very reasonable
      assumption of externality? What if we take a bizarre chance, and practice living
      our lives from the technically more accurate truth of direct experience, which
      presents to us only one thing: our own awareness? If we actually do this, if we
      reframe experience in this way and patiently explore not the world, but our own
      personal world filters, then we will not find any sort of division between a self and
      a world, an inside and an outside. In fact, we will find no limits at all.
       
      If this sounds like an unwanted excursion into freshman philosophy – at best an
      indulgence, at worst a solipsistic derangement – then that may be because you are
      trying to use common sense to follow and critique Spira’s argument.
       
      Try some uncommon sense instead. Because it turns out that when you trust the
      instructions and actually begin to feel into this kind of questioning with your body,
      something very interesting can happen. You may have heard the phrase a million
      times before – something about oneness, something about the dream-like nature of
      reality, something about the outside being no different than the inside – except
      this time there is a slippage in your conceptual guard. In Zen they call these
      well-timed phrases “turning words.” A bright shot of vertigo enters the system. The
      camera of your awareness lurches and resets and suddenly you are conscious of the
      weird fact – and breadth – of your existence in a fresh and more immediate way.
       
      Maybe you’ve experienced something similar in nature: a sudden view that pulls
      your breath from your body and resets your mind, an unexpected convergence of
      intimacy in the forest or sea. This “reorientation” is the opposite of exotic; indeed
      its very familiarity is said to be one reason it is so often overlooked. For many, the
      experience is accompanied by a sense of lightness and spaciousness and – for me
      anyway – of comedy. I usually giggle. Others describe it differently.
       
      For some – call them the accidental few, although as the saying goes, practice
      makes you accident-prone – their perspective shifts and stays that way. It’s as
      though they crossed their eyeballs for too long, just like their mothers warned
      them about, and now – whoops – they went and got enlightened. Or awakened. Or
      whatever you want to call it. If the shift begins as a very subtle and ordinary
      thing, the more years one percolates inside it, the more profound it can get,
      eventually uprooting all kinds of familiar structures of consciousness and leaving
      the former seeker just another chunk of vibrating cosmos, free and unbounded and
      participating in what they say is a paradoxically more accurate reality.
       
      At least, that’s one way to talk about it. Welcome to the Science and Nonduality
      Conference (SAND), which I attended in Doorn, Holland last June, the sixth
      installment in four years, a California export that every year finds a larger and
      larger international audience.
       
      “Four hundred crazy people just like you!” says conference organizer Maurizio
      Benazzo, who introduced the proceedings. Maurizio is a tall and radiantly
      sentimental Italian, given to public displays of grateful weeping. Everyone loves
      him, even the normally stoic Dutch.
       
      “One day science will try to understand this nonduality – not to prove it, not to
      find The Truth, but to participate in The Mystery!” The crowd cheers.
       
      The particular challenge of writing about nonduality is not that there is too little
      information about the subject; it’s that there is too much. There is so much noise
      that the signal is obscured. Technically, anyone writing about “oneness” – and this
      includes popular spiritual writers like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Deepak
      Chopra and a legion of disorderly New Agers – is expressing a form of nonduality.
      Indeed, a version of the idea – often camouflaged in very different assumptions
      and language – can be found in all the world’s contemplative traditions, from Greek
      philosophy through to Buddhism and Taoism and each of the mystical branches of
      the Abrahamic religions. It is the centerpiece of the so-called Perennial Philosophy,
      which argues that all religions point to the same underlying reality, whether you
      call it God or Emptiness or Tao or the True Self.
       
      Nonduality also has a much more precise meaning in the smaller inter-disciplinary
      world of consciousness studies. It is a direct translation of “advaita,” part of the
      Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, one of the oldest and the most
      rigorous branches of Indian thinking and practice. Vedic purists would never
      translate “Advaita” as “oneness;” the more precise meaning, they insist, is “not-two.”
      If that distinction seems like hair-splitting, then this may not be the genre for you.
      Because nonduality is all about subtlety – all about exploring very fine paradoxes
      that, over time, are said to change the way you experience self and world.
       
      For a journalist, it’s a slippery area to research, for everyone has a slightly
      different take on how to arrive at that underlying nondual reality, and what that
      reality actually entails. Different teachers emphasize their own way in, and usually
      disparage the other routes, which is why the elitist Tibetans roll their eyes at the
      gnomic Zennies, who smugly dismiss the striving Theravadans, who are enraged by
      the absolutist Vedantans, who make fun of the devotional theistics, who weep with
      joy and confusion and don’t actually care what the others say, because, like the
      famous “masts” of India, their engorged neural-circuits are sloshed on Divine love.
       
      “I am not a nondualist. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know anything, and the
      not-knowing just gets thinner and thinner and thinner,” says Shantimayi, a
      charmingly candid former seeker from Ohio, now a spokeswoman for living without
      boundaries or fixations. You get the sense that many of the speakers don’t even
      know why they are there – the experience just seemed to happen, and here they are
      on stage, looking bemused at the an equally-bemused audience, spontaneously
      manifesting their bafflement or their certainty or, in some cases, their nihilism.
       
       
      So: why is all this worth the bother? There are many answers to this question. The
      first and most nondual is: I have no idea, nothing is worth the bother. That’s the
      absolutist view, which is extremely annoying and probably why no one talks to
      “neo-Advaita” extremists at parties.
       
      A better answer is it matters for understanding the nature of mind. Some version
      of nonduality is the where all spiritual practice leads: meditation, prayer, koans,
      ecstatic dance – you name it. If you believe these people – and until there is a
      proper neuroscience that can address what is happening in the nondual brain, all we
      have to go on are first-person descriptions of experience – then by all reports the
      nondual operating space is fundamental to understanding who we are, how the mind
      works, and why we suffer.
       
      And that is the other very good reason: human happiness. Life is hard. People are in
      pain. For two and a half thousand years contemplatives in every era and culture
      have repeated the same basic message: all mental anguish is descended from our
      unwitting and false identification with a limited self. We think this is a religious
      message; they say it’s empirical. As we learn techniques for metabolizing the
      mercurial layers of interference and bias that come between ourselves and the
      world, not only do we suffer less, but so do all those we come into contact with. Far
      from being escapist, which is the usual 21st century dismissal of spiritual practice
      (we are impatient to act – call it our deepest bias), in an interconnected world,
      helping ourselves is actually the departure point for helping others.
       
      So, that’s the Kool Aid – the pitch. As a meditation teacher, I basically buy it. I’ve
      seen how practice can open people, can wake them up. But I’ve also seen how it can
      rewire them, sometimes in ways many of us would find disturbing. This is the other
      part of why I attend these conferences; I’m interested in the specific and
      particular ways nonduality affects how people live – the so-called benefits, the
      challenges, the impact on relationships. To that end, in Holland I hosted a panel
      called “Filling in the Details” with three people who teach and identify with with
      the nondual perspective.
       
      I found, not surprising, three very different understandings and experiences. For
      Lisa Cairns, nonduality is the end of “stories” – the end of projecting onto other
      people your ideas and assumptions about who they and what they experience. Life
      for her is just happening, and the idea of creating any kind of continuous narrative
      out of it seems to her damaging and false. For Gary Weber, at a certain point in
      his practice his whole pattern of relating changed. “When you let the “I” fall away,
      what happens is there is no one there to hold the other end of “I need you,” or “I
      want you” or “I love you.” I have no attachment to my family anymore – but my
      wife would say I’m a better husband for it, and my daughters that I’m a better
      father. I’m much more present than I used to be.” For Tim Freke, reality is
      paradoxical. He lives with one foot in the perspective that everything is perfect,
      and another with the sense that, as the famous Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi once said,
      we “could always use a little improvement.” His attachments are what make him
      human; for Tim, the nondual project, if you can call it that, is not just to know
      ourselves, but to show ourselves, in a more fully human and loving way.
       
      To the uninitiated, the language and the ideas at SAND are strange and sometimes
      frustrating. It may be hard to see how this boutique clique of 21st century
      practitioners and explorers might have anything to contribute to a proper science
      of mind. But I believe they do. Something very interesting happens to the human
      mind over the course of dedicated spiritual practice. When you strip out the layers
      of interpretation and religious dogma (not to mention the endless if
      well-intentioned appeals to quantum physics), what you are left with is the raw
      evidence of people’s experience. Culturally-conditioned, yes – you can’t get around
      this. And yet, even so, they are real as experiences.
       
      Spira has an interesting line. “Let experience be the test of reality.” We may not
      be quite ready for that, but we can at least take direct experience more seriously.
      After all, “empirical” means experience-based. It’s where science began.
       
      Here is a link to my own Science and Nonduality talk:
       
      (See video at link, I won't attempt to embed a Youtube video. Yahoo has gotten more strange.)
       
      JEFF WARREN is an award-winning writer and public speaker. His primary
      subject is the mind – the neurobiological mind, the meditative mind, the
      technological mind, the animal mind. He even has a philosophical position: “radically
      fun empiricist,” not unlike William James, except with more jokes and fewer smart
      parts. He is the author of The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of
      Consciousness(Random House 2007), an acclaimed travel guide through sleeping,
      dreaming and waking consciousness that critics called “exhilarating,” “audacious,”
      “hilarious,” and even “visionary,” (though perhaps that was a typo).

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