What is Nonduality?

RUPERT SPIRA: Non-duality could be said to be the experiential understanding that experience does not comprise two parts, a perceiving subject and a perceived object, but is rather one seamless whole. In this revelation the distance, separation or otherness between oneself and all objects, people and the world is seen to be and to have always been utterly non-existent.

Love, peace and happiness are some of the names that are sometimes given to this experiential realization but are usually misinterpreted by thinking. In conventional dualistic thinking we feel, “I love you.” In the living experience of non-duality, the I and the you dissolve, leaving only love.


SCOTT KILOBY: A seeing beyond or through separation in all its forms.


NIRMALA: Nonduality is simply a word and a concept. And like all words and concepts it can be more or less useful depending on whether it helps point someone to a direct experience of something, or if instead it catches them up in pure conceptualization.

In my experience, the word nonduality is sometimes confusing for people because it implies that it is either the absence of duality or the opposite of duality. Perhaps a better word would be “totality”. This points to the totality of existence, and of reality, which includes all of what we call duality and more. In this view nonduality or totality is not something apart from or opposed to duality or any aspect of our everyday experience. Instead it is simply pointing to more of the truth about our life and our existence: that everything is really one thing appearing as many.


GARY CROWLEY: “Nonduality” is a label that attempts to describe the non-separate experiencing of living. “Non-separate” is a label that attempts to describe your unique experiencing of this-here-now as the everythingness of what you are.


RANDALL FRIEND: Nonduality is an expression which attempts to remove duality as reality. It points away from the false towards what is true. Yet the false IS the true also. What does this mean?

Duality is what we know – the opposites – thing-ness… That is our idea of the world – duality is the template upon which our reality is built. We live in a world of “things” – many things – each possessing it’s own existence. When a thing arrives, it EXISTS. To us, that means it takes on it’s own existence. That means the thing is a thing of itself, standing alone – it’s existence began with the arrival of the form. It’s existence will end with the ending of the form.

Nonduality points out that this viewpoint is not the absolute reality. The world of things is only an apparent reality. We take appearance as absolute, as if we had the premium view of what IS. As if our view of “things”, our view of the “universe” is the Absolute Viewpoint – all others are less-than, less correct, less accurate. We miss that our limited view of what-IS is just that, limited.

But we are measuring what-IS. This is where so many so-called “teachers” miss the boat. Duality isn’t the enemy. Duality IS reality, only known with limited means. When the means changes, the view or appearance changes. With no means available, there is only what-IS without anything to say, without any way to describe. There is only existence as it is – oneness – wholeness – the Absolute nature of existence or Brahman. A form is a form OF THAT. When a form is gone, nothing happens to existence, to that from which that form arose and that to which that form returns.

We aren’t trying to do away with duality. We only see that duality is the play of existence itself – forms OF emptiness – expressions of one intelligence. This person you take yourself to be is just an expression of the whole – therefore what you are isn’t that expression but the whole itself – the intelligence which IS duality and nonduality. Then both duality and nonduality fall away as irrelevant.

You are the whole itself. The world is an expression of what you are. You have no opposite – this is the true meaning of “nonduality“.


GREG GOODE: In the last few years I’ve encountered more and more people who don’t resonate with the usual teachings in which nonduality is explained as singularity, unity or awareness. They feel a deep yearning to realize that they aren’t limited to an objective, pre-existing body or mind, but don’t have the intuition that the basis of everything is awareness. The idea can seem arbitrary.

So for these folks, I’ve used the emptiness teachings descended from Nagarjuna. There has been great and intuitive response where the awareness teachings didn’t hit the spot. Since these are fairly different from the teachings on awareness, I’ll switch gears here and discuss these round-table questions as from the emptiness teachings. The awareness teachings are already quite well represented here on NDA!

In the emptiness teachings, nonduality is a mode of existence. It’s how things exist. They exist like the jewels in Indra’s Net or like a magician’s illusion. Things aren’t substantial and they aren’t lacking. Things don’t exist in an independent, self-powered way, and they don’t utterly lack existence either. Things are contextual; they’re present in a way that can perform functions. Emptiness-style nonduality avoids both of these extremes. Things exist in a sort of pragmatic way. When I was in the Army, we said we were done with a project not because it had an absolute, fixed endpoint, but rather when it was “good enough for government work!”

The direct realization of emptiness is a non-conceptual nondual experience in which subject and object don’t appear, not even in the most subtle way. After this experience, the self and world of phenomena return, but forever changed. There are no more afflictive emotions, no more metaphysical or cosmic yearnings, and no more gestalt that says things are really truly there or truly missing. Instead, things are free, light, and joyful.


Is nonduality another word for consciousness —how would you define consciousness or awareness? Are these words you use, if so, what are they referring to? Please take the reader into a direct pointing to what these words are pointing to.

RUPERT SPIRA: I use the words Consciousness and Awareness synonymously. Are you present now? Obviously, yes. We may not know what we are but we know that we are. That is, we know ‘I am.’ In order to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Am I present?’ (and it is not possible to legitimately answer that question in any other way) our own presence or being must be known to us. In other words we must be aware of our own being.

Now what could be aware of our own being? Our own being is not known by something other than or outside of our self. It is I that knows or is aware that I am. In other words, the ‘I’ that I am, is both present and aware. The suffix ‘–ness’ means the presence of. Therefore, Awareness means the presence of that which is aware.

In other words, the word Awareness denotes the simply knowing of our own being, more commonly known as ‘I.’ It is the most obvious, intimate and familiar fact of experience. It is never not known although sometimes overlooked.


SCOTT KILOBY: Nonduality means no separation in any way. Awareness is the borderless, nonlocatable, timeless cognizing space to which all phenomena come and go. Awareness or Consciousness is sometimes confusingly associated with the term “nonduality.” One can recognize awareness as that space to which all appearances come and go and still be buying into duality as real, for example, believing that there is a real line between awareness and what appears to awareness. That’s still dualistic. I use words like awareness, but always with the caveat that it’s just a teaching tool. In the end, when the belief in separation in all its forms is seen through, awareness and the world are seen to be inseparable.


NIRMALA: I use these words and a lot of other words to point to the mysterious Being that we all are. There is a funny thing we do with language where we use a quality or function of something or someone as a name for that object or person. For example we call someone a teacher when that is something they do. Teaching is a function they do, it is not what they ultimately are because they still are themselves even if they stop teaching. And similarly, we call plants greens or greenery when again that is a particular quality of their nature. There is a lot more to plants than their green color.

So we use words like awareness of consciousness to point to the mystery of Being because these are such fundamental qualities of the mysterious Being that cannot be completely described or contained in the words we use to point to it. Other fundamental qualities of Being are things like space, presence, aliveness, existence and oneness. At times Being also expresses the particular qualities of peace, joy, love, compassion, and clarity. So at times any or all of these words can be used to point to this bigger mystery, but what is also being pointed to is the mysterious source of these qualities.


GARY CROWLEY: I prefer to use the term “experiencing” or “experiencing this-here-now.” It reduces the confusion and the tendency for people to go off on tangents of abstraction that end up being a distraction.

Excessive abstraction is the surest way to distract from the simplicity of that which is being sought.


RANDALL FRIEND: There are many ways to point this out – and these words are used in different ways.  The true “I” is that aware-ness or conscious-ness, that present activity of knowing – but this still asserts “I” as a thing – an awar-er or know-er, subtly.  We must see that this “I-ness” has no objective qualities WITHOUT trying to give it objective qualities in imagination.  When we see the obviousness that this “I” has no content, no appearance, no objective attributes, we naturally try to give it some.

That’s the nature of identification – it is fear – it is the unknown.  We can find ourselves objectively so we apply that “subjectivity” to some “thing” – to the concept of a body or mind or person.  In spirituality we do the same thing – we might begin to recognize that the “I” has no appearance or qualities, but we assert that it is some “blue light” or supreme blissful state that I haven’t reached yet or some feeling.  It’s almost impossible to NOT do this.  But when we’ve truly had enough of it, we simply rest in our own absence, in the lack of anything objective – we recognize our fullness as the present activity of knowing.

Then there are no conditions or resistance – the world simply arises within this absence or “container” – we might be happy there but there is still the subtle duality nipping at our ankles.  There are still objects in the world which oppose “what I am”.  Therefore we look a bit deeper and notice that this activity of knowing we call “I” and the experience we call “world” are truly the very same reality.  We notice the irresistible compulsion to divide in order to communicate, to describe, to make sense.  It’s a natural and innocent expression, an expression of the whole – it isn’t wrong – it doesn’t need to be done away with.  It is simply recognized for what it is.


GREG GOODE: The notion of consciousness hardly plays a role in emptiness teachings. Taking cues from Buddhist psychology, the Madhyamika emptiness teachings posit many different consciousnesses in a person. There are eye consciousnesses, ear consciousnesses, tactile consciousnesses, mental consciousnesses, and more. Each consciousness is clear and knowing and empty. Consciousness is not treated as a global substratum of existence or knowledge. Things aren’t said to be made out of consciousness. Consciousness is merely said to be a subject that knows an object. And even then, the consciousness is empty because it depends on the object known.

During my childhood in the 1950’s I remember thinking that my parents were really self-formed, truly just like that, inherently existent. They seemed perfect and invulnerable. I never saw them have a severe problem, get hurt, go naked, go to the bathroom or have sex. Any of these things would have shocked me.

Many years later, and slowly, these images of self-formed perfection and stasis began to crack. My parents argued loud and into the night. Or my father got mugged one day and had to go to the hospital. Or I came home from school and saw my mother sitting at the dinner table, crying. I came to realize that they were just people, with human problems, trying to do the best they could.

Amazingly, this gradual lessening of immaturity on my part led to my loving them more. How precious! A fragile, delicate pair of human beings setting out a family and helping others, dependent upon a wide variety of conditions. The utter fragile sweetness of this can bring tears to my eyes even now.