Non-duality requires us to open up to experiencing the full richness of life without putting up our defence systems. It is like a sincere presence that arises from going with the flow of life and being open to all experience. The more open and clear we are, the more aligned we feel with our intentions and the world around us.
Some of the things it can manifest as are a direct knowing, an ease, a sense of experience all flowing together through one sense-door, a not being separate to the world around us and a deep sense of faith and trust in life.
This sense of connectedness and alignment with the Universe comes from our heart and the gateway emotion into opening our hearts fully is joy.
Joy is different to happiness in that it is a state of being rather than an emotion. It is a way in which we open to receiving the world – it is a subtle, loving quality that infuses things with the sense that experience is enjoyable and we are connecting with it fully.
Joy in inherently non-dual – it’s not something that we can get and keep to ourselves it is something that is a shared experience with the people or environment around us.
Joy can be very light and beautiful, but it can also reach down into the darkness of life. Sympathetic joy allows us to feel joy even when we are the losers in a situation or there is something dark or painful in our experience. It is the capacity to let go of our self-view, connect with the wider picture of life as a whole and see that overall, in the entire eco-system of the Universe, even what is difficult for us can be joyful overall.
We are in on the absurdity or the joke of life. We are able to laugh at ourselves or take the situation in with a glint in our eye. We feel painfully separate to the rest of the world, but that separation is part of what makes life interesting or funny.
Non-duality needs to include this understanding of life. While we are all interconnected in an expression that could ultimately be described as Buddha Nature or love, this also includes all the suffering and cruelty of life. Non-duality can’t only be about connecting to the light, or even about transmuting the darkness to light – it is about seeing that all aspects of life come together. It is all part of the deal.
Non-duality is also not an intellectual concept that our minds can understand. It is a way of experiencing the world that comes from showing up whole-heartedly to our lives and immediate experience.
It is worth saying explicitly that we do have a literal self. Our bodies are physically separate from the rest of the world and each one of them is unique and creates our own personal experience. They are non-dual in the sense that there wouldn’t be an experience if there wasn’t an experiencer, rather than being physically one with the Universe.
A lot of Buddhist teaching focuses on the concept of perceiving the non-duality of life – this is one part of the picture, but here I am talking about experiencing it throughout every aspect of your being.
This comes from a deep honouring of our emotions and intentions in life; a respect for our bodies’ needs, desires and limitations; and an ability to be clear and open-minded.
All of this comes from a commitment to being present both with what is inside of us and what we find in the outside world, even when what we find is painful or difficult in some way. Even when we want to turn away. As it is non-dual, this commitment also needs to be towards other people and their experience too.
Experiencing non-duality is not a sudden realisation that occurs out of the blue. It takes time, courage and effort to slowly unpick all the things; like judgement, assumptions, fear and armour; that keep us separate from the rest of the world.
Over time we will slip into a way of being where we are receiving the world and our experience in the same way.
This doesn’t mean that everything is equal – our beings have natural preferences for things, we have intentions in life, there are things we need to avoid to keep ourselves safe and things naturally have different weighting of importance and meaning. All of these things are allowed to be present too. They are part of the non-duality.
Experiencing non-duality is a process of allowing every aspect of experience into our hearts – to keep ourselves open and let it impact us in this moment. To allow our natural response to arise. In this way we learn to trust our nature and our body wisdom.
This is a complex process of hoovering up all the ways in which we resist experience, including the ways we resist resistance. It’s like an endless fractal of tiny bits of experience that we are gathering up and bringing home, so that we can integrate them back into our being.
The more we have done this, the less we need to be managing or controlling the situation anymore. We are free to just be here with everything as it is; whether it is hard and we are unhappy or it feels easy and we are full of joy.
Here are some practices that help us experience non-duality with whole-heartedness.
For most people the primary thing that is stopping them tapping into their joy is a lack of space and time. We are so overwhelmed and bombarded with stuff that we are constantly on the back-foot, rather than being open to allowing stuff to impact us and flow with it in an open-hearted, non-dual way.
This is because we live in a culture that is utterly obsessed with stuff and productivity. For most of history, humans have had a whole lot of time for sitting around not doing much.
Our culture has been carried away with capitalism and growth and we have normalised drowning in an utterly absurd amount of belongings and commitments that suck all of the life force out of us. We are so numb to the absurdity of it that is has not only become a badge of honour in our culture to be insanely busy all the time, it has become a source of shame to NOT be busy all the time.
I cannot stress this enough. We are going to be the period in history that people will look back on and say,
‘WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING WITH ALL THAT STUFF?!’
Our environments are so important in shaping how we feel and it is possible to create one that supports us being open, connected and joyful.
The simple rule for this is asking, ‘does this spark joy?’ for literally everything in your life and cutting away anything that the answer is not a resounding yes for. Be ruthless as fuck.
I would definitely recommend reading Mari Kondo’s book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’ in order to develop your skills in decluttering and to help you understand some of the common resistances that we have to doing it.
Make some space-time in your life. Namaste.
Arriving in Our Hearts
In order to experience non-duality we need to be able to be present in our heart-space. I have recorded a quick heart-awareness practice, talking through the basics of this, on my guided meditations page.
Once you have a sense that have placed your experience or you awareness in your heart-space, you can spend some time hanging out here.
In order to be present in our hearts, we need to be able to develop a level of sincerity. Cynicism, judgement and analytical thinking all get in the way of us being in our hearts.
We want to develop a degree of emotional openness and ability to be creative with how we describe and experience our reality here. This can take some practice if we are not used to it. Anything that is gently going in this direction is helpful.
Once you feel connected to your heart is some way you could ask yourself these questions:
- How does your heart feel?
- How would you describe the landscape of your heart?
- What colour would you describe your heart-space is at the moment?
- What feels important to your heart?
Shame is the biggest barrier to being present with experience as it is. It is the sense that our feelings and desires aren’t valid.
Know that your feelings are valid and that you are worthy of your desires. It is always worth learning more about shame and freeing ourselves from it. I would recommend Brené Brown’s TED talk and books if you want to explore this further.
The brain has a habit of rail-roading the heart and trying to convince it that it is wrong. Remember that your brain is there to serve your heart: to generate ideas and solutions that serve your heart’s intentions. Not to run the show.
Trauma leads us to close our hearts in order to protect ourselves. We refuse to receive certain information into our hearts and this causes us to form judgements and prejudices against certain information.
Rather than recognise this within ourselves, we project this back out onto the world. This practice is about recognising these judgements and consciously dismantling them so that you can receive information more openly and respond with more clarity.
We need to recognise the things that cause us to close our hearts. Notice things that annoy you or frustrate you or make you cynical or aggressive.
Spend some time digging in to what is happening underneath. How does it make you feel or put you at risk? What is the thing you are trying to protect yourself from?
The purpose isn’t to invalidate or bypass those feelings, but to be able to be with them more directly, when we are in a situation where we know we are safe.
Rather than feeding the idea that the situation or person is bad, we can learn to sit with the emotion and/or desire that is arising in us underneath the judgement.
We won’t find these prejudices sat on a cushion. We need to go out in the real world in order to allow the world to impact us. It can be difficult to spot our own prejudices, so it takes an intention of opening to the world and noticing when our defence systems are up.
It takes a level of honesty and vulnerability to look at ourselves and see the dynamic for what it is.
We also apply judgements to ourselves. If you free-write about your emotions and what you most want in the world you will find parts of yourselves that you are not allowing. Practice sitting with the emotions and sensations that this brings up and see if you can push through the resistance to express what feels most true.
Our judgements are one of the things that keep us safe. Letting them go can make us feel exposed and vulnerable. If we can do the work to reintegrate these painful parts of us, we develop a degree of resilience and stability in experience.
We expand our comfort zone so that we can be present with a wider range of emotions and we aren’t relying on other people to accept us, agree with us or perceive us in a certain way.
Learning the process of removing judgement from our experience allows us to receive the world more freely and to respond with less hate and more love towards ourselves and others.
Non-duality and our heart spaces are where we are most connected and least separate from each other. This makes it the most beautiful relational space to be in when you are aligned and the most difficult relational space to be in when there is conflict.
It’s really hard to separate ‘my stuff’ from ‘your stuff’ because we are so interconnected. Our emotional responses and intentions are so tied up in everyone else’s that it takes practice and skill to be able to include all this and still be clear with ourselves and each other.
We resist including conflict in our experience, because we are tribal animals. We have evolved to rely heavily on keeping the peace at almost any cost because being rejected from the tribe or causing rifts was deeply dangerous throughout most of our history. Now we are physically safer, we can create a more spacious and mature approach to conflict. We can learn that mostly the consequences are not as bad as our brains would have us believe.
In order to achieve inclusion in a group setting or between two people this is what you need:
- Make space to listen to everyone. Make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to say what feels important to them in their experience, and that they feel they are able to speak honestly even if it makes others uncomfortable.
- Everyone needs to feel heard. It is vital that everyone’s emotions and intentions are accepted as being valid.
- Everyone who wants to input to the conversation needs to have the courage to speak clearly and openly about their emotions and what they want. This can feel vulnerable, but it is vital that people don’t fall into blame and control i.e. ‘you should think this/ behave like this/ treat me like this’
- Recognise that it is possible to validate someone’s emotions and intentions without accepting any blame or responsibility for how they feel or whether they get want they want.
- Problem solve together – i.e. how can we achieve a solution together that meets everyone’s needs and desires?
Often a resolution will arise that can meet everyone’s needs, but not always. If not, the resolution needs to include recognising the conflict. This can be a really hard conversation to have, but an example of how a resolution could look is:
‘I understand that you don’t want me to do this because it will upset you AND I am going to do it anyway because it is important to me’
The ‘and’ is really important. If you use a ‘but’ in the middle of the sentence, then you are undermining the other person’s emotions and/or intentions in order to make your decision seem easier or more right. If you are using an ‘and’, you are including the conflict within your state and explicitly using this to inform your intention.
The essence of what you are trying to achieve here is that non-duality includes our desires and needs as individuals and our desires and needs as a group. If you go too far towards one or another you end up with selfishness or co-dependency.
If this is something that you would like to learn about in more detail, I would recommend the book, ‘Having Difficult Conversations’. It’s a game-changer.
The intention around this practice is to open to ourselves and our experiences in a sincere and indiscriminate manner.
All of the practices in the practice guides will help towards this. Here are a few practices that specifically help us realise that we are not separate from the world around us in the way that we typically think:
- Notice that our thoughts and emotions are arising and passing without us doing anything, they are being evoked by the environment we are in. We aren’t creating them.
- Notice that we go through emotional ‘seasons’. Sometimes we feel deeply connected to the world around us, other times we feel disconnected. The purpose is to allow these seasons to pass through us and for us to be a sacred witness: giving them your blessing that this is a valid season to be in.
- Notice that we pick up on other people’s thoughts and emotions and they end up in our experience. We are much less separate than we think.
- Expand your awareness outside of your body to include the room and everyone or everything in it. Experiment with expanding your awareness as far as it will go. Notice that you can diminish your sense of a separate self by doing this.
- Use the mantra ‘open, open, open’ to set an intention to keep opening your heart. Allow everything you find inside and outside of you to impact you and be included in your experience.
- Imagine all time since the beginning of the Universe and leading to the end of the Universe, with this moment as the central point between the two. What does adopting this perspective do to your experience?
Separation can be a great source of pain for us but there are two ways to experience our separateness from the world and differences from the people around us.
One way is to judge everything as better or worse, which will always motivate us to try and be in the better camp and make us feel bad when we are in the worse. The other way is just to experience everything as different, which will motivate us to find joy and opportunity in these differences.
Even when there are explicit ‘winners and losers’, it is possible to find joy for all parties. There are lessons to be learned, jokes to be had, life experiences to be felt, benefits to the system as a whole to be appreciated.
You are taking that gap between how things are and how you want them to be and rather than focusing on how life isn’t exactly as you want it to be, you are using the space to allow for a creative response to arise.
This perspective comes from a desire in us that we want to entire system to do well, we want to see the whole tribe thriving, and from a perspective of the Universe that things are geared towards working out for the best in the long run.
This allows us to feel happy to see others succeeding and laugh at ourselves when we fail.
Part of us being in the world as human animals is that we have intentions. We have ways in which we want the world to be different.
Rather than experiencing this as something that makes us separate, we can bring it into the present moment and incorporate into the way in which we are non-dual with the world.
The Universe also has a huge desire and intention to grow and thrive, otherwise we wouldn’t exist. This aspect of experience is one of the most sacred parts.
In order to connect with our intentions in a non-dual way, we want to let go of fixed ideas and plans of how we need things to pan out. This turns us into a mini dictator who can’t flow with life.
We want to spend time with being present with what desires, needs and intentions are here for us in this moment. This also helps us see life as a process that can be enjoyed, rather than a goal that can be reached. We never arrive anywhere final and even when we get somewhere significant it often feels different to how we imagined it.
We each hold lots of scripts about what we should be doing, which come from our brains, and ideas of things that we need, which come from our bodies. We can incorporate these things into our understanding of our intentions, but we also want to make space for our heart’s deepest desires.
In order to do this, it can be helpful to boil our intentions and desires down to single words and images, which encapsulate what our hearts want to experience and manifest.
Here are some ways you can explore your intentions. It may be useful to set a 2 minute timer for each of these in order to stop yourself over-thinking and allow yourself to just let it flow out:
- Make a list of all the things you think you should be doing with your life. You don’t necessarily need to forsake them, but getting clear on where the intention comes from (a should, rather than a desire) is helpful.
- Make a list of all the things you think you need in life. Again, really useful to incorporate so that you can be clear where you’re moving from and know you have your needs covered.
- List all of the things you would love to have in your life, try not to filter this too much with realism, let your imagination run wild just for this exercise.
- Once you have done these three steps, look at this list of values. Notice which ones you feel drawn to and which ones you feel encapsulate some of the things on your lists.
- Choose 3 – 5 that feel most important to you. These can become like your inner compass, the things that you are orienting towards cultivating in life.
One of the important things to recognise with intentions is that we never ‘arrive’ at our destination. Our purpose is to create an environment where we are with the people, places and activities that allow us to feel a sense of belonging and to enjoy the process of life.
I have written a guide to intention setting for spiritual practice, here, and a blog post about identifying your values as a spiritual teacher, here.
Impatience is one of the biggest killers of non-duality. Not only do we want everything to be different to how it is, we want it to be different now. It pulls us away from the present moment and stops us feeling like we are immersed in our experience.
There are three types of impatience – the brain’s impatience, the heart’s impatience and the body’s impatience.
Brains have fixed ideas and schedules of what they would like to be achieving and when. It is helpful to recognise this as mostly nonsense. Almost all projects change scope and over-run because we can’t take everything into account before we start and things always go wrong in one way or another. The more flexibility we can give ourselves to respond to things in the moment, the less impatient and frustrated we will be.
Hearts don’t have access to the past and the future in the same way that brains do. This is one of the reasons it’s important to understand intentions as values, so that we can be finding small ways to express our desires in the present moment, rather than be working towards long-term goals.
Bodies have an impatience around getting our core needs met. When we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, for example, they will keep bugging us until we get that need met. They won’t let us forget about it. This is in order to keep us alive.
Loneliness is the most difficult one of these in modern society – even without a pandemic the world was suffering from chronic loneliness. People’s lives are far more separate and less connected than they’ve ever been. This has bought us a huge amount of independence but it has come at the cost of getting our core emotional need of connection met.
It’s really important to recognise this feeling in us and be able to be with it on some level. To offer ourselves some compassion that this is a difficult aspect of modern life and we want to work towards things that give us a sense of nourishing connection.
If it remains hidden, or in shadow, we will find sneaky ways to try and get this need met – through addiction or narcissism.
If we can bring things our loneliness (and other needs) into the fold with the understanding that this is also part of the non-dual Universe expressing itself through us, we can become at home with feeling like we aren’t at home. This helps us weather discomfort and difficulty on our paths.
Synchronicity & Time
One aspect of non-duality is that everything in the Universe is moving in sync.
In this way we can understand ourselves not as individual beings that are making decisions in the way we think we are, but as parts of a larger organism that is the entirety of humanity, the Earth and the Universe as a whole.
In a micro-phenomenological abstract way this is like a kaleidoscopic fractal that is unfolding in each moment creating our reality through it’s process of unfolding through time.
In a more day-to-day level it is like a flock of starlings where how they are moving together can’t be pinned down to each individual birds’ decision making process – they are moving as one body.
As you deepen on the spiritual path, you may start to experience more synchronicity showing up, or you may not. It seems to be important to the way some people experience the world and unimportant to others. As someone who has been through an insane degree of this, I can share that it is both a blessing and a curse.
It can invoke a lot of existential dread, which is worth examining and being with, if it is the case.
It can also invoke a deep sense of relaxation. An understanding that experience doesn’t say something about you in the way that you think it does. A deep forgiveness for mistakes that you and others have made in the past. And a sense of faith that you can trust the timing of your life.
It’s important that this is not used as a way to spiritual bypass experience. You may be exactly where you need to be, but exactly where you need to be can still be a pit of despair where you have lost all sense of faith, sense, meaning and purpose. That’s just how it is sometimes. Sucks to be human.
But the in-between times, where we can access this sense of faith, can be resourcing and offer us a sense of purpose and interconnection with a deeper meaning in life.
Well-held shared practice is inordinately helpful for deepening pretty much all aspects of experience.
It is particularly helpful for feeling into and experiencing the non-dual nature of experience.
Being accepted is such a core human trait that it basically dictates our entire behaviour. When we feel loved and accepted for how we really are in this moment, as opposed to having to adopt a specific persona or certain traits, we can suddenly relax into experience.
We are no longer in opposition or separate from the world – we are allowed to be present with our real experience as it is, without it needing to be any different. This experience can be incredibly simple and yet truly life-changing for people.
It reveals how we belong in this Universe, exactly as we are. We can open our hearts and let experience in. Simple as that.
The Big Picture
We live in a world with a huge amount of separation and trauma. Lots of spirituality likes to paint this as bad and show how this is not the true nature of reality.
However, if we approach all of reality with a radical, open-hearted acceptance; with an understanding that everything actually is non-dual, including all this trauma, then we can arrive at the realisation that all this separation is actually in service of the Universe.
If everything was just beautifully aligned and at one with itself, then there wouldn’t be an experience. Like drops of water in the ocean, it just becomes one thing that can’t experience itself. When there is more difference, and more detail in the way that things are different, this provides more opportunity for connection.
The Universe wants to connect with itself and know itself. It wants love and understanding to grow. In order for this to happen separation had to come first.
Adopting this perspective can be incredibly helpful for coming to accept the more difficult aspects of experience.
I have written more about this here.
Reflection on Non-Duality
An experience of non-duality arises with whole-heartedness – the capacity to show up and allow all of what is happening both inside and outside to impact us.
It comes with an attitude that we are here to receive and experience all of life, even the bits of life where we feel like we are separate or in control. That’s the paradox.
There is a simple version of it though. And that is this: if we all focused on cultivating joy, then we would live in a much more joyful and equal world where people would be able to be present with their experience more whole-heartedly, more often, which would lead to a deep sense of non-duality and peace with the world around.
Joy is not something that we can hoard to ourselves in the same way that money can be hoarded. It is a shared experience and often the deepest joys come from directly helping people or contributing to society. So if we can all learn to cultivate it better, the entirety of humanity and our home planet would become a joy to take care of.
Here are some reflections on your practice and experiences of non-duality:
- Are you able to accept yourself more whole-heartedly?
- Are you able to be more sincere as a result of the practices?
- Are other people able to be more sincere in your presence?
- Do you feel more connected to yourself?
- Do you feel more connected to the world and people around you?
- Do you feel confident honouring your boundaries while also connecting with others in a meaningful way?
- Are you able to give yourself to the eco-system of life more freely? Can you feel sympathetic joy for other peoples’ happiness and successes?
- Do you feel connected to your physical surroundings?
- Do you feel clear in your perceptions?
- Do you feel open in your emotions?
- Can you relax into a sense that everything is happening by itself?
- Do you feel joy at being an inextricable part of the Universe?