What is nondual awareness like? What does it feel like? That is the question that I have been asked several times recently. This episode is an attempt to answer that question.
What is nondual awareness like? What does it feel like? That is the question that I have been asked several times recently. Of course that is what Jesus was trying to describe in his parables. “What is the kingdom of God like?” he asks rhetorically. “To what shall I compare it?” By the Kingdom of God, Jesus was referring to what I call unitive awareness or nondual awareness. Jesus answers with parables, which are sometimes stories but often simply similes or metaphors.
His indirect response to the question is really the best we can do. The question can only be answered obliquely. We can’t describe nondual awareness directly. It is like pointing to light. Light is all around us. How can we point to it? We could point to the sun as the source of light, but the sun is not light. How does one point to God who is Spiritual Light? It is like pointing to space. Any pointing happens within the space you are trying to point to.
Myths attempt to communicate nondual awareness in symbols and stories. I have been talking about the myths found in the early chapters of Genesis for the last few episodes. Today I am going to take a break from Genesis and try to speak as directly as possible to what nondual awareness is like.
Recently someone emailed me and asked, “I have a question for you that I hope you will not feel is impertinent. The question is ‘Are you conscious of a Presence within, meaning that you feel your life is being lived for you?’ I am not speaking of the truth of Christ, or about having a belief in Christ, but of having the experience of Christ living within.” I responded to him in an email, and I will try to give a better answer now.
In short the answer is “Yes.” I – in the sense of a separate self – am not living this life. That is absolutely clear. Life is being lived but I – as a separate self - am just along for the ride. Like the apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Christ or Spirit or God or whatever you want to call the Divine – Tao, Brahman – lives in and through this body-mind.
The mind is aware of this happening. Sometimes more than others. But the Presence of the Spirit is always present – sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background. It is usually like ambient noise or the background soundtrack of life. Always present, but the mind is not always focused on this presence. It is like multi-tasking. Part of the mind is aware of this Presence while another part is focused on the activities at hand. Like I am focused on speaking here now.
Recently I was on a Zoom call with someone who asked me to describe as directly as possible what nondual awareness feels like. First I had to explain that this is not a feeling, even though feelings may accompany it. It is not even an experience. So if you are running after a feeling or an experience or a mental state you will run in circles forever. It is that within which all feelings and experiences and mental states happen. But that sounds like I am avoiding the question, and do not want to do that. So let me try to describe this as directly as possible.
I will start by saying what it is not, which is easier to do. It is not a state of consciousness, even though I sometimes use that word. Sometimes nondual awareness is referred to as a higher consciousness, for want of a better term. But it is not consciousness in the way people normally think of consciousness. It is much deeper and wider and higher than any state of consciousness. It is the root of consciousness. Consciousness is a function of the brain and nervous system. This is more basic than the body and mind. It is not a state of consciousness, although there can be a state of consciousness that notices that there is something deeper than consciousness. It is the Source of all, including our being and our consciousness.
Nondual Reality is not an object to be aware of. Nondual awareness is actually being aware AS this foundational reality which is the Source of the Universe and all that is in it, including us. We are aware we are not ourselves. We are this. We know this intuitively. We know with absolute clarity that we are not this little finite human consciousness. We know that we are much more ancient and expansive. The human self is aware that it is not what we are, and we are aware as this No Self.
What does this feel like? It feels normal in the way that regular human living does not feel normal. Regular human life feels off. That restlessness is the impetus for the spiritual search. Buddha called it suffering. He said that human life is suffering. He uses the word Dukkha, which means not centered. Nondual awareness on the other hand feels centered.
Christianity calls it fallenness. Jesus called it sin. But without the guilt-ridden connotations of later Christian theology. The Greek word used by Jesus in the New Testament – harmartia – is very similar to dukkha. It means missing the target. Missing the bullseye. Off center, by which he was saying the same thing as the Buddha. Uncentered. Unbalanced. Off target. Another word Jesus used is par-ap'-to-mah, often translated trespass, but literally means to fall beside or near – as in an arrow falling beside or near a target.
Centeredness is restored by eating of the Tree of Life which Genesis says grows in the middle of the Garden of Eden. To eat of it we have to go to the Center. The center of the Garden of Eden, which itself was pictured as the center of the world. The axis mundi, the naval of the earth, the center of the universe.
Nondual awareness feels like being centered or grounded or rooted. The story of the Buddha has the Buddha under the Tree of Life, the Bodhi tree, and says that the Buddha touched the ground and the earth responded. That is what it feels like. You are grounded, touching the ground of your being, the Ground of Being.
There is no more seeking. The seeking is over. That does not mean there is no more growth. There is endless growth. You never completely arrive. That is why it is called the Way, not the destination. But there is no more restlessness in the spiritual life. The spiritual life becomes learning and growing in how to live more completely from this center.
It is not constant bliss - walking around like a spiritual zombie in a peace stupor. Emotions still come and go, including strong emotions. But they do not endanger the sense of wellness or wholeness or centeredness or groundedness. Feelings are like the winds that buffet an ancient oak or cedar or redwood. The storms come and go but we are not in any danger of being uprooted. That is peace in the storms.
There is a hymn I love called, “It is well with my soul.” “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.” That sums it up.
It is not emotional invincibility. It is vulnerability. It is vulnerable compassion, which means to suffer with those who are suffering, bearing each other’s burdens. It does not solve all human problems – personal or social. But it solves the root problem of the human condition.
That is the dominant sense I have. It is a sense of knowing without a doubt that we are so much more than we can imagine. So much older than earth. So much more ancient than our species. So much larger than this universe. This sense of Beingness puts everything in cosmic perspective. Our human lives are seen as just a tiny part of what we are. We see that we are much more than human bodies and psyches with all their seemingly important issues.
This awareness takes the sting out of death. It makes all human problems seem puny. It puts human life in the perspective of the vastness of the universe and billions of years of time. It does not mean that individual human beings and human history are not important, but their importance is put in perspective.
This shift in perspective changes everything. It changes our thinking and our feeling and our actions. We are not what we think we are. When we know what we are, then everything changes – yet everything remains the same – because we see this is the way it has always been. We just didn’t notice it. It is like having our eyes opened, like waking up, like leaving the cave of shadows, like being born again. That is what it feels like.