If you are wondering “What is non-duality?” Here is a teaching for those who are new to non dual understanding.
Making a start of your non dual learning journey.
As you begin your non dual path it can help to be very clear on the single focus of this journey.
You are the focus of this path.
This is an invitation to know what the word “I” really means. When we know the self, we know reality.
- Enlightenment is natural and it is a gift.
- Enlightenment is about finding and then living the love, peace and content joy of the true self.
Maybe you’re here because you have an intuitive feeling that there is more to life than what meets the eye.
Perhaps like many of us, you have not been happy to just blindly accept the marketplace of beliefs that life offers.
If you are a seeker, and questions burn in your heart and if you have a sincere interest in finding your own answers as a “knowing”, instead of just believing, then my heartfelt welcome to you.
When starting this important journey into studying non-duality, which is also the study of self-realization and enlightenment, it might be helpful to know what the focus is.
The main focus is simple and it remains the same at the beginning of this journey, throughout this journey and at more mature stages of understanding.
If we were to put this whole self-enquiry into one question, into one focus it would be—“Who am I?”
Non-duality starts and ends with the question “Who am I?”
The Sage Ramana Maharshi, who is highly regarded in the non dual community, was known primarily for two styles of teaching.
The first was silent teaching, where his presence alone embodied the truth of what he had discovered. And the second was his favourite line of questioning.
Most often, when a visitor would ask him a question—regardless of the topic—he would offer a question in return.
The question he asked in various forms was,“To whom do those thoughts arise?”
He was pointing the questioner back to what was before—prior to the question itself. To pure awareness—the true I am.
So whether you are a beginner or an advanced non-duality student, the question remains the same. “ Who am I?” and a big clue as to where to find the answer is to look in the direction of, “To whom do these thoughts arise?”
This is the study of the self. It is an invitation to discover what the word “I” truly refers to.
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What does “I” mean?
We use the word “I” from the youngest age, we assume that we all agree about what is meant by the word.
We point to the body and we say “I”—claiming all of the body’s experiences as “I”.
We identify strongly with the physical appearance of the physical body.
We take the body as the location for our existence.
All thoughts and feelings that seem to operate like the weather in and around the body are also claimed as the self. Memories of life experiences are the story of the “I”.
Until enlightenment, we intuitively long for something. Some name their longing as a longing for answers, others as wanting to find their true self, some might say they want to find God.
We might think that qualities like freedom, happiness and peace will be found when we find what we are looking for.
Our intuition is accurate about what we will find, but our minds point us in the wrong direction. The enlightened mind is a mind that rests, it rests because it has come home to the ocean of the true self.
Like a river that finds the ocean that it has been seeking for so long, the mind has its questions answered when it finds its home in the non dual true self. This is enlightenment.
The true self is love, happiness, peace and freedom. Which means that you are already everything you are looking for. It is the very seeking of these things that can keep them hidden.
While ignorance is still in power, you must Seek.
It is important to honor the hunger for truth.
So let’s unpack this enlightening question; “Who am I?”
Every major world religion has a traditional counterpart where followers practice an inward path to directly know and experience their spirituality. In Christianity this is Gnosticism, in Buddhism this is Zen, in Islam this is Sufism, in Judaism this is Kabbalah and in Hinduism this is Vedanta.
Advaita Vedanta is a teaching focused on non-duality and non dual enlightenment.
The word ‘Advaita’ means not two in Sanskrit. It is the Sanskrit word for non dual.
In many traditions, and most specifically in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the process of enlightenment is a process of negation. In other words, we remove everything we are not, to reveal what we are.
The metaphor that is often used for this teaching, especially in Advaita Vedanta circles, is of a cloud covering the sun.
To reveal the sun we only need to remove the cloud. The sun is self-illuminating and self-revealing. Just so, the non dual true self is self-illuminating and self-revealing.
The cloud represents ignorance—simple ignorance of our true nature. By removing ignorance, we reveal the self. Vedanta teaches that we need self-knowledge to remove self-ignorance.
The Sanskrit phrase for this process is “neti neti” which means “not this, not this”, or “neither this nor that”.
Each neti neti step is a realization—it’s a falling away of an old belief replaced by the discovery of what is already there. And these beliefs are all centered around false identification—false identities.
The direct path non dual teacher Adyashanti says that this process is like waking up in a set of Russian dolls.
First, we wake up in the smallest of the Russian dolls—then we wake up from this confined identity. After a while discover another Russian doll which we wake up from. Each waking gives us more space more freedom from the limitations of the previous identity —until we are free from all identities.
There is usually a steady progression of realizing what we are not. Realizing we are not ultimately a physically limited body. Realizing we are not our thoughts. Realizing we are not our personalities, feelings, likes and dislikes.
The process of this negation is also called Subject Object discernment. It can be a valuable and important step.
Meet your spiritual teacher on a bridge of understanding.
Part of this journey is agreeing on the meaning of words. It’s important that when learning from a teacher that we first learn what the teacher means when they use specific words.
Letting go of our prior experience and education. Being open to meeting our teachers on the bridges of their understanding.
The word that needs constant investigation, that will likely shed old meanings continually through this journey of non dual enlightenment is the simple word “I”.
When a Sage uses the word ”I”, they are not referring to the ”I” that most people are.
This is why so many misunderstand enlightened teachers. It could be said that the process of Enlightenment is simply the revision of our deeper understanding of the words that we use.
It can be helpful to admit that our understanding of the word ”I” is open to investigation. To be open and interested is an essential ingredient. It is said in the tradition of Vedanta that the Seeker needs a burning desire or hunger for freedom—for the truth.
Nisargadatta, a Sage from India taught that earnestness was required.
When you come to the point when you understand the word “I” as non dual, open present ordinary awareness, then you would have met the non dual teachings on the bridge of understanding. And it is not enough just to understand this intellectually—this truth asks to be embodied and lived.
Non-duality for beginners teaches that practicing Subject Object discernment is essential.
Subject Object discernment is an essential understanding. It supports non dual enlightenment.
First, let’s understand what is meant by subject and object. Let’s meet on the bridge of understanding to make sure we are clear on the use of the words.
Subject means you. You as pure awareness.
Object means anything you can be aware of.
Objects include what we call physical objects like people places and things. Objects also include subtle objects like thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, characteristics and personality tendencies.
To practice Subject Object discernment first be clear on the definitions above. Then invite yourself to start applying this discernment in your daily life.
- Asking what is the subject?
- And what is the object?
It is important to apply this discernment in a practical way, as in contemplation, meditation and gentle curious observation.
Ask is this the subject or an object?”
Which is another way of saying “Is this myself as awareness, or is it an object in awareness?”
Objects appear in awareness.
Our attention is usually so fixed on objects that we miss ourselves as awareness. Objects are the contents of awareness. Awareness is not an object.
You are not an object.
The direct path, non dual teacher Rupert Spira uses the metaphor of a screen. The movie, with its pixel, formed characters, colours, shapes, sounds and movement, are the objects.
The screen which is invisible is representative of the subject, the self, pure awareness. In one of his metaphors, to make a certain teaching accessible, he says to think of the screen as being a self-aware screen.
As awareness—we are self-aware.
Rupert also teaches that almost anyone when asked “are you aware?” would say yes. We don’t need thoughts or objects to simply know that we exist and that we are aware. In this way, Rupert highlights the non dual teaching that the self is self-evident.
The mistake we make, the ignorance that is spoken of in non dual teachings, is when we think we are an object. When we think that we are a separate object in awareness.
We forget or overlook that we are indeed awareness and that objects are known to us as awareness. Even the objects as subtle as thoughts are known to you as awareness, as the subject of experience. You are aware of thoughts, thoughts are not aware of you.
You are aware of thoughts, thoughts are not aware of you.
What is self-enquiry?
Self-enquiry is a term used in non dual teachings to contemplate the existence and nature of consciousness. This is an essential practice and foundation teaching when seeking non-duality for beginners.
In other words to contemplate the question “who am I?” I recommend that you not work with this as a mechanical disciplined thinking exercise—but rather with heartfelt hunger and interest.
Reality as unchanging
Along with Subject Object discernment, another lens of perception that can be helpful is to discern what is real from what is unreal. So I have a new definition to introduce to you.
In non dual teachings, the word “real” or “reality” has its own set of meanings.
The word “reality” or “real” is ascribed to what is unchanging—what never changes.
What is unreal, or not real in the context of ultimate reality, is that which changes.
So think about, what changes? What undergoes transformation, growth and decay? If you take a moment to ponder this you might say ‘everything changes’. Thoughts, personalities, the human body, planets—all objects are subject to change.
Tibetan monks honor this truth by creating beautiful intricate sand mandalas on the floors of their temples.
Often taking weeks to complete the artworks. When their artworks are finished, they sweep them away to the wind. They do this to remind themselves of the impermanence of things, to remind themselves not to cling and attach to that which is not real.
Then you might ask, “So what is real? What is left?
You are left.
Awareness is left. But most have spent very little time investigating the subject, awareness, so they don’t have much understanding of themselves—as pure open awareness.
I’ve heard Rupert Spira use an example that I also use in my teaching. So often you hear older people say, “ I don’t feel old.” Intuitively they are aware that they’re not old.
When our bodies were younger and our minds were younger, was there not a sense of being aware? And was that awareness not exactly the same as it is today? Indeed.
You have always been aware/awareness. You were aware of your young body, of your young thoughts and young feelings. But the texture and sense of “you” as awareness was and still is not subject to age, not subject to the limitations of objects.
You are unchanging—You are real.
There is more to teach than these few introductions can do justice, but this page should give you some idea of the path, especially when asking “What is non-duality?”.
Eventually, after separating subject as awareness from objects which are the contents of awareness, there is a new call, to take back the objects and collapse this distinction. This collapse of perception is a natural part of the process that occurs after we realize the self as non dual.
Once established in oneself as pure awareness, as subject, as the self-aware screen, it is necessary to rediscover the objects of awareness.
I agree with Rupert Spira, that to remain in this understanding of being the subject, apart from objects, can leave one aloof. There is a coolness to this perceptual position. When we claim our position as subject and divide against objects, this is a more subtle form of duality.
I have seen this in non dual communities. The mind has now built a wall to divide again. This new wall of division can make us feel at odds with life, disconnected, sometimes even adrift.
When I’ve asked deeply in contemplation and intuitive enquiry about this, I was shown that what is missing is love. I’ve since come to see that this understanding is echoed by teachers who speak about going the full distance.
Reclaiming, rediscovering and collapsing the Subject Object divide takes courage. The embodiment of truth is the collapse of Subject Object divisions. The texture of this, the movement of this, is holy love—pure bhakti (the Sanskrit word for devotion and love).
I join the non dual choir, to add my song of love to the truth, from the self to the self.
All are welcome.