Giving Attention to Nonduality

If we study nonduality – through the lens of A Course in Miracles, say – because we believe it’s right or true, or more right and more true than some other spiritual concept – then we are likely to end up disappointed. Nondual spiritual practice may be helpful according to the context in which we find ourselves, and that helpfulness may appear to be “right” and “true” (indeed, it sort of has to appear that way) but it’s still just an appearance.

details in the forest . . . a scroll of birch bark I would never unfurl for fear of losing the fundamental message.

I am saying something like this: there are many ways to get to Boston, and no one of them is “right” or “true.” They all work and are all helpful according to the one making use of them. Some people walk; some take a bus. Some people need maps, some are okay with trial and error.

You want to find the way that is most helpful in terms of getting you to Boston.

You don’t want confuse the way that is most effective for you with the “best” or “most right” or “truest” way. You want to be wary of defending your preferred way, of trying to force it on others, or of otherwise judging others’ choices. That’s a distraction that either slows you considerably or sends you down some pretty gnarly side roads that eventually dead-end.

And you really really don’t want to confuse your “way” with “Boston” itself. That delusion can mess one up for lifetimes, apparently.

The Boston analogy can be confusing because in fact our authentic spiritual practice – if one wants to call it that – isn’t actually leading us anywhere. It’s more in the nature of spit-polishing the window we already are and, in the process, reminding us that we are, in fact, windows – not landscapes, not houses, not dwellers in houses nor walkers through landscapes.

I first saw this in a clear and sustainable way in Cambridge, Massachusetts last year. There were several glimpses before but they were dramatic and self-inflating. They felt like special moments that belonged to me and nobody else. I was elated, enlightened, amazed, with the focus ever on the “I” to whom the experience seemed to be happening.

(That, by the way, is a variation of confusing one’s mode of travel for the destination).

In Cambridge I saw that the self isn’t really a discrete stable object but is more akin to (but not precisely being) an information loop – many such loops, actually, seamlessly intersecting – and that those loops extend through the body into the world (and its other bodies), the whole of which is also comprised of loops, all shimmering, unified and radically equal – and that this loopiness (which I have most effectively described as eddies in a brook), this oneness, appears simply as this life of this human observer: it is this. This this.

light and shadow in the clover

And it still is this.

By “clear” I mean that intellectual understanding was integrated with embodied awareness. There wasn’t an “understanding” of “something out there.” The something and the understanding were patterns in the same sea. The separation of physical / spiritual disintegrated (the one not privileging the other). You could say – adopting a Christian or ACIM motif – that Heaven wasn’t elsewhere, temporally or spatially. It was simply this.

And by “sustainable” I mean that the insight didn’t disappear after a few minutes. It didn’t run down the drain of the ego. It was more like riding a bike. At first you only get the thrill of balancing for a few yards here and there. It’s wobbly and frustrating. But then all of a sudden the whole experience comes together and you are riding a bike. And you can’t ever go back to not being able to ride again.

Often, in A Course in Miracles discussion groups and similar dialogue circles, folks will talk about how the body and the world are illusory. There is textual support for this position, of course (e.g., W-pI.132.6:2; W-pI.199.8:7-8). It has a certain appeal; it probably always will.

But it is more accurate to say that our relationship with the body and the world is illusory. The body, as such, isn’t so important. Nor is the world. It’s our identification and alliance with them as something fundamental that matters. That’s where the confusion – and the illusion – lie.

The body is more like a pair of glasses than vision or eyes. It helps see but it doesn’t bring seer, sight or seen into existence. And the world is more like a user interface than an actual external environment. It’s useful, not truthful.

If we pretend the world and the body are illusions – like mirages or a stage magician sawing somebody’s legs off – then we are deceiving our self. The body and the world are very practical and have their place. Don’t worry so much about bodies. They actually take care of themselves very nicely. Same with the world. Let it show you what it was made to show you, in the very way that it shows you.

places to sit, places to write

That said, it is helpful to investigate – by whatever means are most resonant and helpful – the apparent discrete self. Who are you? What are you? These are nontrivial questions that underlie the whole religious/spiritual program that human observers have been working on for thousands and thousands of years now. There are lots of helpful curriculums and teachers, new and old. And somewhere out there are students and teachers who need your presence and insight.

For me, after Cambridge, the work was simply to keep reading and thinking and sharing about all this material, and to see what happens. I am not so concerned about the outcome of the work, per se. Strictly speaking, there are no outcomes. Just loops – loopiness – coming and going. I use the phrase “give attention” to describe what I loosely think of as a spiritual practice. There are no secrets and no mysteries, which is not to say that there’s nothing to learn. Or to remember. But the stakes are not at all what we feared they were.

Looking at “I AM”

One has the sense that there is a kind of permanent presence – a unified whole – that attends this experience of existing. Before anything occurs – any seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – there is this awareness, this boundless flow in and to which all phenomena and sensation appear.

more violets
I cannot believe these violets! Such a vivid profluence!

In contemporary nondual traditions that include A Course in Miracles this is often named “awareness” or “consciousness” and we are told that “we are that.” It is the great “I Am.”

For example, here are a few lines from one of Nisargadatta’s talks that are generally consistent with this theme.

Give attention to how this “I Amness” has appeared – then you will know. Accept this identification only: that you are this manifest pure beingness, the very soul of the universe, of this life that you observe, and presently you are just wearing this bodily attire.

Robert Adams, a devotee of Ramana, often shared with his students an essay he wrote entitled Confessions of Jnani, which included the following paragraph.

I am infinite, imperishable, Self-luminous, Self-existent, I am without beginning or end, I am birthless, deathless, without change or decay. I permeate and interpenetrate all things. In the myriad universes of thought and creation, I Alone Am.

I am not insisting that Nisargadatta and Adams were confused. I am asking if reading their work as if they were confused is at least as valid as reading it as if they were clear and correct.

Clearly both men came to an insight about identity that was premised on the enduring nature of the experience of “I am,” which they did not associate with temporal material processes. And one can understand that! When we make contact with this “I am,” it feels and seems both infinite and eternal.

But the way a thing feels or seems may not be the way it actually is, right? If I hold up my hand I can neatly blot the distant hill from my field of vision, but my hand is not larger than the hill. It just looks that way, given the physics and biology involved.

In the middle of a moonless night when I go out to see the horses, they appear faint and hazy, even up close. They are not actually spectral quadrupeds – it is simply how they look given the physics and biology involved.

The question is: can we extend this fact to our experience of “I Am?” Can this sense of “I Am” which Nisargadatta and Adams (and countless folks in that contemporary advaitic tradition, broadly defined), simply be how it feels to be a human observer?

these little garden paths, like secrets . . .

What if “I am” is explicable not in grandiose spiritual terms but rather in physics and biology? This is just what it sometimes feels like to be a human observer – with these specifically human perceptual and cognitive abilities? It’s just what it is – no more and no less. This – this this.

That would strip the “I am” experience of its spiritual gloss, wouldn’t it? It would take God and Christ and Samadhi and the Buddha right out of the equation . . .

Would that be okay? Why or why not?

Against Conclusions, Spiritual and Otherwise

Experience is a continous whole that functions as a perspective. Experience provides an observer with a lot of phenomena – mental, emotional, physical – to observe. It owns the curious apparent paradox that it consists entirely of change and yet itself never changes.

one of the buddhas I put together on the trail out back

There are ways to experience this change-that-never-changes. You might consider experience as a kind of container: everything that occurs, from the passage of ants in the garden to the ideas in your head to the moon in the sky, are contained by experience.

In this mode, you might give attention to experience: can you find anything that is not contained in it? Doesn’t everything show up in experience?

Upon perceiving this awareness in which and to which all appears – we might begin to explore the container itself. What, if anything, do we find? What does it feel like to find it? Or to not find it? Or are those misguided questions?

I do not disparage those exercises and others like them. It is important to make sustained contact with the subjective nature of experience, and the way it feels so utterly infinitely whole.

I also want to be careful about the conclusions that I draw from that experience.

The experience we have is the experience of a human observer. There is some variety built into this but in a general way it is isomorphic across the species. Importantly, we want to be clear that other observers bring forth different worlds – different cosmos – in their observation. If you and a butterfly look at a flower, you see two different objects. If you and an ant look at the sky, you see two vastly different ceilings. Who is right? And since the obvious answer is that both are right according to the particular observer they are, then can we actually draw objective conclusions about the flower or the sky?

We really are constrained from drawing conclusions, including those that sound like “there is only this” or “I am that.” The very fact of our existence as human observers means that while we can make educated guesses and estimate probabilities and so forth, and can manage varying degrees of confidence in our scholarship, the whole – at least as we have long understood it in spiritual terms – is foreclosed to us.

Seeing this clearly is often experienced as painful, especially if it arrives after we’ve had the shallow enlightenment experience of “there is only this” and “I am it” et cetera. Again, I don’t disparage those experiences or insights. They are part of the overall human experience, and they are helpful in their way. They are even delightful in their way. It is simply that we tend to be confused by them, to objectify and cling to them through the form of adoration, worship and so forth. They can subtly be cherished as accomplishments, evidence of spiritual growth, and so forth.

Really, “this is it” and “I am that” are simply ways of expressing what it feels like sometimes to be a human observer. If those phrases are helpful in terms of making us gentler, kinder, slower to judge, more helpful, less argumentative and so forth, then great. But they aren’t dispositive. They don’t end the inquiry. They are more in the nature of a sign than that which is being pointed at. That is, they’re like the sign that says “river,” rather than the river itself.

containers in which all phenomena appear

If we want the river, then we have to allow for the limitations imposed on us by virtue of being human observers. We get AN experience, not THE experience. It’s not even THE experience relative to other humans. Lots of people are happy, insightful, peaceful, helpful, generous and kind without ever having to resort to nondualism or Christianity or pop psychology.

Right now, this is how it is happening for us – this this – which is okay because it is a way of being human. It is one filter among many, all of which can be misused, confused, abused and so forth. All of which can be helpful and productive, too.

The work really is to go slower in terms of concluding. That is, we want to just let life be what it is without rushing to decide what it is or what it should be. That is a real practice! It takes time, energy, attention, commitment. Becoming the loving being that we naturally are is the work of the one life we are living.

Oneness Functions as Perspective

Part of what I am saying is that a human observer is essentially a perspective, A way of seeing rather than THE way of seeing. If I am sitting by the river I am not mucking the horse pasture. I am weeding the strawberries I am not writing poetry under the apple tree. If I am gazing at a sky full of stars I am not gazing a mushrooms in the compost.

tendril ghosts sprouting from and falling back into the compost after rain

At any moment, the observation of which you are comprised is both local and partial. At the sensorimotor level it includes whatever data is allowed by the intersection of the local environment with the particular organism. At the cognitive level, it includes your vast knowing predicated on all the years of your learning to be the particular human observer you are.

For example, my perspective on cows includes my father’s relationship with cows, which was complex and lifelong, and my own history with cows, which cannot be disentangled from my father. Nobody can experience cows the way I experience cows, and I will never experience a cow apart from the specific way that I experience cows.

Right now I am writing on the back porch while it rains. The sky is soft gray like the belly of a trout. The lilac is just beginning to bloom. The grass is rich and green, like the first time I flew over Ireland. The neighbor’s sheep are bawling. I am thinking about what one does when faced with disagreement, with a particular focus on some of Hugh Gash’s ideas about spirituality in a constructivist context.

That’s Sean – or was Sean, a couple of hours ago. Who are you?

If we can see the way our observing constitutes a perspective that is biological, mental, psychological, spiritual and so forth, then we can perhaps begin to also see how this is true for all observers. You are a perspective. Your neighbor is a perspective. Robins in the backyard are a perspective. A bee is a perspective. The lilac is a perspective.

The significance of this is that it loosens our stranglehold on truth or reality. It eases up our conviction that there is a 1:1 correspondence between our experience as observers and an external cosmos. There isn’t the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There are many ways and many truths constituting many expressions of Life. This is disconcerting at first, given our particular investment in being special separate selves, but as we come back to it over and over, its potential for peace becomes clear.

If there are only many perspectives – as opposed to a singular truth that can be known – then we don’t need to argue as much. Disagreements arise but they needn’t devolve into estrangement or worse. Of course someone has a different view than us. They also have a pair of feet that aren’t ours. Are we going to get bent out of shape over that, too?

So we relax a little and see a way in which to build a world in which it is easier for people to be good, forgiving, gentle, patient. A world in which it is easier to be loving. And we can build it together. That is the real work of being human – to build together a world in love.

purple blossoms along the strawberry beds

Too often, we perceive differences as signals to defend ourselves or prove others wrong. It becomes a way of deciding who is valuable and deserving and who is not as worthy. That is a world in which love is constrained and denied its full expression.

When we appreciate that differences arise naturally as a fundament of the human observer, then some space opens up in which we are quieter, gentler, kinder and more nurturing. After all, this other could be me. To see that clearly is love. To let it be is love.

On Oneness

Perhaps we might consider the difference between oneness and one, and see the way the observing organism has a tendency to translate the former into the latter, and then to forget its translation, and – inevitably – defend against any effort to instigate remembering.

the world through an apple

(The fragment longs to be whole. The human desires union – sexual, dialogic, communal, spiritual. Poetically, the jagged shard dreams of the clay pot of which it was once a part. Yet, any return to that state necessarily ends the fragment’s discrete existence. And any “whole” that subsequently emerges will have seams and cracks that recall its fragmentation).

How can we think about this? And how can our thinking inform our living?

First, we can say that “oneness” reflects a state of equilibrium. Picture a town hall full of citizens carefully listening to a speaker make the case for passage of a certain article, or a church in which the faithful attend the deacon’s homily. All are present, all are giving attention, all are committed to the shared nature of the experience, observing the rules which facilitate mutuality.

We might say that this state or condition of mutual attendance is one of harmony, in which the part neither regrets its “a-partness,” in the sense of needing to solve or amend or undo it, nor longs to aggrandize any apparent whole. That is, the citizen or church-goer is neither wishing they were elsewhere or otherwise (regretting their apparent separation) nor trying to colonize the shared experience in order to possess it as her “own.”

Yet obviously that regret and that colonization happen. Why? How? How does the simple harmony of “oneness” become the rude invader named “one?”

Here we might consider that “one” is a set. It is a bounded unit that includes itself and, by definition, excludes others. If we look again at the image of the town hall or the church, the “oneness” is composed of parts that are balanced. Yet any one part can take “oneness” and declare it “mine.” Our sensorimotor subjectivity allows for just this way of being. Separation is easy to perceive and, once seen, easy to identify with and, once identified with, easy to defend (including through aggression).

Can you see this in your own experience? The way you can be a singular you? Pitted against the world? Can you feel the sense of fear and guilt that naturally correspond to this separation? Can you see what you have done account of this fear and guilt? Can you imagine what you would do? Or could do, if pushed just so?

And can you see how if you shift your attention, even a little, this experience of “one” merges into something less threatening? It is happening right now – in this shared experience of language. You reading what another wrote, and understanding it, and responding to it, in whatever way – slight, dramatic, affirmative, doubtful – you respond.

It is always the other who reminds us of wholeness, and who makes our return possible.

Each person has a responsibility to love one another – to look upon his fellow man only as God created him – because he has discovered there is no difference between himself and his brother.

This responsibility is yours.
To accept that responsibility
will transform your life

(Tara Singh The Future of Mankind 156)

In essence, I suggest a delicate dance. Any human observer can experience herself as singular and discrete. Her subjective experience allows her to claim oneness as “hers.” “We” peacefully coexisting is translated into one with boundaries that need defending.

Yet at any time, one can instead give attention to oneness. Most of our spiritual discipline – those of us in the tradition of A Course in Miracles and other contemporary expressions of oneness – can be understood as perceiving oneness rather than one. If you look for harmony, it will show itself. But this looking – this giving of attention – needs to be liberated from ideas of what oneness looks like, feels like, acts like, et cetera. All of that are weapons in the war of the one. Beat them into plowshares, if you will.

We overlook oneness because we see instead our presumptions about oneness. That is, rather than experience a state of equilibrium (which requires the other), we look for a personal experience that is our own – that we have, possess, commodify, et cetera. Either is possible but given a choice, why insist on pain?

shelves, books
shelves, books, safe places

When I say – as I sometimes do – “this this,” I am simply observing that we cannot simultaneously stand with both feet in the river and both feet on the bank. We cannot simultaneously be on the trail to the summit and on the summit. Our capitalist culture will sell any insight, which can appear to cheapen it, but “be here now” is truly good advice, and giving attention to it as a practice is really all one needs to do.

Thus, through the gift of attention, “one” remembers “oneness,” which includes the other, who is “not-one.” Here it is helpful to remember that “the other” does not experience herself as “other” but as “one.” And that “one” experiences us as “other.” What we call “love” is really just the realization that everything we say and do in our living is being done to, with and through others each of whom could be our own self. This realization restores awareness of equilibrium and ends the observing organism’s “detour into fear” (T-2.I.2:1).

Or so one says on a cloudy morning, writing in a reconfigured hayloft, for others one has never met, and yet meets in the sweet fields of language, which are always Love spilling and sealing the seams of us.

A Spiritual Experience of Nonduality

The situation that confronts us – to which a spiritual experience of nonduality is apparently a possible answer – is an old one. How do we know what is real? Or true?

Thousands of years ago, Xenophanes of Colophon pointed out that even if someone happened to acquire perfect knowledge of the one true world, they would never know they had done so. Why? Because in order to verify the truth of knowledge about the world, one has to compare their knowledge to the world, and we only have access to the world through our knowing.

In other words, we can never step outside of experience in order to verify that which gives rise to experience.

an old weather vane set just so among the raspberry bushes . . .

You can look into this for yourself. Pick a nearby object – a cup of tea, a flower, a sleepy cat. Prove that your perception of it is true – that there really is a cat “out there,” independent of your perception of it.

Every move you make to ascertain the object’s independent existence must occur within the realm of your subjective experience. You cannot ever get outside of it.

Thus, while you can surely testify that something is going on, and you can be a witness as to the nature of that something’s appearance, you cannot verify its independent existence.

How you respond to this fact determines the nature and extent of your happiness and helpfulness.

The suggestion I make is to see that this experience is simply inherent in human observers. Our perceptual and cognitive capacities operate within a given range and produce this experience. One of the aspects of this experience is that it appears dualistic but can be conceived of – on better than decent evidence, by the way – as nondualistic.

And the further suggestion I make is that this is no big deal. It’s not a spiritual mystery. It’s not a problem to be solved. It’s not a secret divulged only to the worthy. It’s merely an aspect of human experience of which it is helpful to be aware, because awareness of it tends to nurture kindness, gentleness, generosity, et cetera, which in turn nurture happiness, our own and everybody else’s.

Of course, there are other ways to frame this insight. Consider Sailor Bob Adamson, who I think is one of the clearer and more reasonable neo-advaitic teachers out there.

If you are seeking truth, reality, God or whatever you like to call it, I suggest that you start with the only reality you are absolutely certain of – that is, the fact of your own being . . . That knowing is constantly and ever with us . . .

Like most contemporary nondual traditions and teachers, Adamson points out that it is our belief in the self – the “me” or the “I” – that gives rise to literally all our problems.

Because of that enormous belief (in a ‘me’) there is this so-called human suffering. It is only a ‘me’ that can be fearful. It is only a ‘me’ that can be anxious. It is only this ‘me’ that can be angry or full of self-pity or anxiety . . . See that the ‘me’ is the cause of all my problems.

This is similar to the observation in A Course in Miracles that our one problem is our belief in separation, and once we’re clear that it’s not actually a problem, then we will realize that we have no problems and so must be at peace.

If you are willing to recognize your problems, you will recognize that you have no problems. Your one central problem has been answered, and you have no other. Therefore, you must be at peace. Salvation thus depends on recognizing this one problem, and understanding that it has been solved. One problem, one solution. Salvation is accomplished. Freedom from conflict has been given you (W-pI.80.1:1-7).

I appreciate what these teachers and traditions say. My own sense is that the way it is said can sometimes can confuse students by instilling in them a sense that a problem-free existence is possible and represents a pinnacle of spiritual wisdom. We end up chasing yet another metaphorical wild goose, when the point was to just settle down.

this spring’s pigs . . .

When we see the self for what it is – basically a recursive loop – what happen is not that problems disappear but rather that they are perceived from a new perspective. They are just happening rather than happening “to me.” Suffering in the personal sense abates. But still, if you get a cold, expect a runny nose. If you don’t get enough sleep, expect fatigue and crankiness. Just don’t expect to be so attached to the experience of fatigue or illness as “yours.”

Really, what changes is not so much the experience itself but our resistance to the experience. When you know that everything is coming and going, then the apparently isolated instances, good and bad, stop mattering so much. The need to intervene – to improve, amend, block, avoid, clutch – stops being so intense. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t.

This state of clarity about self and the corresponding nonresistance to experience is desirable. It makes us happy and we want to be happy, at peace, et cetera. Don’t feel guilty for having this goal. It’s part of being human.

More to the point, it’s attainable. Lots of folks reach this state of inner peace, achieve fluency and efficiency with it, and are able to pass it on. Only some of those folks do so from a spiritual or religious perspective. There are many trails to the summit!

If you want an apple, walk to the orchard and pick an apple. It is not a spiritual crisis and religion does not have a monopoly on orchard maps. By all means, pray and sing hosannas as you go, but don’t confuse your hymns and prayers for walking. Don’t confuse them with the orchard. And don’t confuse them with apples.

Happiness is inherent in the human observer because we are loving animals. Remove – through clarification, contemplation and service – that which obstructs love, and love will be what remains. Happiness will be what remains.

The surest way to do this is to make others happy. Devote yourself to service and to the extent you’re worried about self-improvement, try to improve those aspects of your being that make you more helpful to others. When you do, you will discover another old truth: only by giving love away will you know love.

Nonduality and the Nature of Desire

Yet ask: where does an object go and what does it do when it is not appearing in the unified flow of subjective experience?

When we look into nonduality – conceptually, experientially, poetically, et cetera – one of the first insights is that Being presents itself as unified to a center that is stable.

There are no gaps in experience and you are always present unto it.

For some reason, this is not instantly clear to everyone. It can take a while – giving attention, studying, practicing – to become aware of it. And then, after one has become aware of it, there seems to be a tendency to become fundamental and conservative with respect to it. That is, we consider it THE answer and protect it accordingly.

That is a simplification, of course. Lots of folks who make contact with the felt sense of unified subjective experience go on with great subtlety and care. Lots of folks recognize it as the beginning of a dialogue, rather than the solution to a problem or a mystery.

raspberry bush ascending unto Heaven . . .

Imagine you are climbing a mountain. With great effort and skill you claw your way to the summit and . . . discover that you have reached the base at which you began. You have executed a loop rather than an ascension. You thought you were going in a line – making progress, improving, advancing, closing in on a goal – and instead you were going in a circle.

Perhaps “awakening” as such is like that. One realizes the loop. The nature of the loop is that it does not have a beginning or an end. Even calling it “the loop” betrays an intention to declare the inquiry into ongoingness over. Errors abound! For there are no mountains, no Buddhas, no angels, and no sacred texts. There isn’t even an altar on which to declare the Loop a God.

What I am calling the “Loop” here, others might call a “self.” Yet others might call it “Christ Mind.” Or “Present Moment Awareness.” Or “I Am that I Am.”

gazing up through the apple tree . . .

The name is not the thing that is named. But naming things is helpful because it allows us to communicate – to be in dialogue, as I like to say – and we do want to be in dialogue. We very much desire sharing. It is almost like the other exists in order that we might be known unto them, as if the collective were an infinite sea of longing forever meeting itself in salty undulation.

Give attention to this desire, this longing. What does it want? How does it make itself clear? Is it separate from what it wants? What, if anything, can you find beyond the specific objects to which it is directed – the desire for this person, this school of thought, this activity, this tradition?

At the beginning of this post (this post), I asked where objects are and what they do when they do not appear in the present unified flow of subjective experience. Maple trees, Ursa Major, the small of your lover’s back . . .

Notice that in order to ask that question, I have presupposed the existence of space and time (i.e., things wait somewhere). What is the relationship between desire and this presupposition? Is the one possible without the other? Does the one owe the other its existence? Does the one want the other?

In the spirit of dialogue, I offer a final thought with respect to those – possibly unanswerable but certainly fun and interesting – questions.

There is in experience a sense of order, and this order appears to be purposeful. Without it, I cannot bake bread, throw a baseball with my son, muck a pasture with my daughters, walk with Chrisoula through the village, or even write this sentence.

It is almost as if, in the absence of order, love would have no means to know itself or show itself.

Thus . . .

Beyond Boundaries

Yet perhaps we cannot go beyond names. Perhaps to even try is to descend into a state of infinite regress. “This tree is a white pine.” But before we call it a “white pine” we call it a “tree.” And before we call it a “tree” we call it “it.”

Can we reach a state beyond names? Beyond labels of any kind?

turtles all the way down
turtles all the way down

Most folks schooled in the contemporary neo-advaitic tradition would say “yes, we can reach a state beyond names.” We can be aware of “awareness” itself. Or “God” maybe, if one tracks the language of A Course in Miracles. “That which cannot be named,” “Presence,” “I am that I am,” And so forth.

But notice that each time we do this, we are using language. And language is always referential. And the word is never the thing. And the thing always has a name. And the name . . .

So the snake eats its tail. So this sentence is not the next sentence you read.

Of course, we sense a beyond or behind or above or overarching. Of course there seems to be an All. But that is just the nature of infinite regress to a human observer. We can lay our fingers on the pulse of infinity, press the folds of eternity to our cheek. It is all within us as we are within all and . . .

And we are back in language again, as if we never left.

There is no starting point. There can’t be. How can you claim there is something without claiming there is something?

There is only this, which can be objectified, externalized, talked about, thought about, named, shared, hidden, found, modified, framed, reframed and reframed yet again. It is turtles – excuse me, “turtles” – all the way down.

When I say there is only this – this this – it arises in part from the understanding that saying anything more in an absolute sense is prohibited. Not prohibited by some authority figure like God or Emily Dickinson, but by experience itself. It’s just how it is, or how it appears (and what, really, is the difference?) to a human observer.

Yet it also arises from desire – a desire inherent in language and in our bodies, which are actually not separate either from language or from one another. There is something that longs to be expressed and received, a mutual gift-giving that seems to be the essence of us, as if love were what bodies were for, or even what bodies are, maybe.

This longing includes by definition both self and other and it arises as a unity. My desire to speak presumes you: you are my desire.

Why get lost in the whether we call it dual or nondual, God or not-God, this or that or something else altogether? It is simply joy: our joy, given and received by giving again. And without the other – who could be our self – it is not.

On Descriptions of Spiritual Awakening

Heinz von Foerster once said – here paraphrased – that complexity is a consequence of language; it does not inhere in the world. I want to extend his insight and say that complexity is not a property of experience but rather is a property of descriptions of experience.

Basically, I am suggesting that experience happens – clear and simple to the point of purity – and then we describe experience and our descriptions are partial and relative to the individual observer and are thus complex. Often, what we say is literally incomprehensible to others, if not to ourselves, and vice-versa. It is like smashing a crystal, distributing the pieces, and then trying to describe how the shard fits a (now gone) whole.

Take our experience of a tree. Go sit by one or take a long look at one. Is there any ambiguity in the experience? Is there anything that is unclear? Even if you evoke gaps in understanding – “I don’t know what kind of tree this is” – the gap itself is clear. You know something is missing and how to describe its absence.

This clarity – which is inherent in experience – is often overlooked. Or perhaps I speak to my own confusion. But it is helpful to see that whatever is going on is always clear and direct: it is this experience, “this this” as I like to say. It is deeply present: utterly whole unto itself.

And then we go and talk about it! Then we describe our experience of the tree. We take the clear simple direct experience and atomize it in order to make a copy. That is what a description does: a bunch of details reassembled as a copy of the whole for purposes of dissemination.

If you are a professional forester, your description of the tree will be one thing. If you are a botanist, another. If you are a poet who has been writing under that tree for decades, another. If you are a photographer, another. If you are a squirrel, another. A nuthatch, another. And so forth.

Some of those descriptions will overlap but not always.
Some of them will be contradictory – the forester and the poet might vehemently disagree about the tree. Bipedal descriptions will necessarily be differentiated from those of quadrupeds or birds.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to nondual experience is the fact that a word and the object to which it refers are not the same thing. The word “tree” does not in any way look or act like a tree. Language always dropkicks us into this basic dualism. Indeed, we are only able to speak about nondualism by taking as our premise this basic division between word and object.

But maybe experience and description are in fact a nondual unity albeit without coinciding. Perhaps it looks like this:

Experience => Description / Experience => Description / Experience => Description / Experience => and so on . . .

That is, all description is an experience but is not a description of the experience it seems to describe. In other words, we experience a tree and then we experience describing the tree. Our descriptions are experience which are descriptions.

Once we no longer insist that description and experience align perfectly or truthfully in a static way, then the incoherency subsides. The description is not the thing. Yet it is a thing which may itself be described. In this way, description and experience flow with and into one another as a seamless whole. Maybe.

Often, when we give attention in a sustained way, we end up giving attention to attention which, in a certain sense, closes the loop, somewhat the way a serpent swallows its own tail. One catches a glimpse then of what perhaps cannot be spoken of in language and yet – oddly – longs to be spoken of in language. Else why would this very paragraph exist? Why would you be reading it?

(And what loop have we closed – me writing and you reading – here?)

So we hold description loosely, as we hold experience loosely, and give attention in gentle and sustainable ways. We see what we see: we extend it: extention becomes us seeing what we see.

Oneness as Human Observer Balancing

Yet ask: if the stories we tell ourselves matter – and they do – then don’t the distinctions we draw (constructivist/realist, believer/atheist, Christian/Buddhist) somehow also matter? After all, they are part of – influential parts of – our stories.

Our brick outdoor bread and pizza oven . . . apple trees in the background . . .

Distinctions are inevitable. A human observer cannot help but make distinctions. When we become aware of a distinction, it has already been made at levels of which we are not aware.

Thus, the issue is not ridding ourselves of distinctions – which we cannot do – but rather noticing the way in which we relate to distinctions. How do we order them? How do we name them? Who helped us develop this way of thinking about distinctions? Are there other ways? Who might help us find them?

Perhaps most significantly is the importance of noticing how it feels to make the distinction that we made. That is, in conjunction with thinking about distinction – this distinction in particular and the process of distinguishing in general – we want to explore how it feels to live the distinction being distinguished.

To be a human observer is to be observing. Observing is a process. We do not recall its beginnings (because of the way human observers evolve in time) and we will not experience its conclusion (because of the way human observers end in time). We do not control it though the process does provide a sense of being this entity in charge of this process.

When we use a term like “self,” we are applying it to that part of a process that feels most intimate and clear to us. It is what is always there, no matter what is going on externally – when we are buying ice cream, when we are making love, when we are studying, when we are arguing, when we are lost in a strange city.

There is a always a sense of that-which-never-leaves.

That sense is the tip of the process of being a human observer. It is akin to a surfer riding vast waves. The surfer is in relationship to the ocean and to this wave, but has no control over what the ocean does or the wave does. The surfer’s control really only applies to the balancing act, which is to say, the experience of experiencing riding the waves.

That balancing act is important to the surfer! Thus, doing it skillfully and efficiently matters. But it matters to the surfer – not the ocean, not the waves, not the weather system that creates waves, nor to the moon that creates tides, nor to . . .

Part of our balancing act includes becoming knowledgeable about it. This, in turn, can mean studying any number of belief systems, self-improvement strategies, philosophies and so forth. There is nothing wrong with any of this – and a lot helpful – so long as we understand that the limited nature of its application.

compost piles dusted with frost . . . the further one will be integrated into gardens this spring . . . the nearer one has a year or so to go . . .

Thus, we want to give attention to the distinctions that appear. Do they nudge us in the direction of happiness? Creativity? Service? Sustainability? If yes, how can we nurture them? How can we open yet more interior space for their fluorishing?

If no, how can we discover alternatives? Who or what can help us do that? What impedes us from seeking or embracing these alternatives?

Thus, our focus is on the coherence of the process of human observing because that, more than what is observed, is what we are in truth. As Francisco Varela pointed out, “everything that works is true.”

Absolute reality, in my eyes, does not dictate the laws we have to obey. It is the patriarchal perspective to proclaim the truth and to decree absolutely valid rules that constrain, limit, and eradicate opportunities. What might be called absolute reality tends to appear to me as a feminine matrix, whose fundamental quality is the opening up of possibilities.

He added later in the same interview

. . . what is not prohibited is permitted. There are natural limits but there is no densely woven, blocking, and stifling system of rules. This is the soft and space-creating quality of a feminine matrix.

So we give attention to the narratives and to the distinctions that underlie them. Our giving attention is akin to surfing a vast ocean. Our awareness does not reach the whole, even as it participates – is in relation with – the system that is the whole. Our balancing is the closest we come to oneness, and it shows up as sustainable happiness and helpfulness.