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.
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.
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.