Nonduality and its central role to understanding meditation

The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.

Nondual understanding, the key to understanding meditation
Non-duality, the foundational principle of Buddhist meditation methods

Where to begin? Where to begin when there is no beginning? To merely approach the concept of nonduality, several volumes of definitions, meanings and precedents could be used to establish the common ground required for a meaningful introduction. Consider that in traditional training systems, an ‘introduction’ to nonduality can comprise a decade or more of study and meditation. Even then an intellectual understanding might not be achieved, and a genuine experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges,  I’m going to attempt to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of nonduality and Buddhist meditation.

library high angle photro

From the Western academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more.1 However, as this is a discussion of duality and nonduality in contemplative science, I can try a short-cut and align these thoughts to theoretical frameworks from traditional meditation systems. Crucially these established understandings have stable ontologies with reliable supporting and supportive epistemologies. Such theoretical frameworks can be found throughout traditional meditation schools, but are explicitly taught in nondual approaches such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.2 I disagree with Capra’s generalisations about the shared world view of Eastern mystical traditions.3 But I take his point that there are fundamental conflicts between positivist and mystical understandings of mind and matter. This is not to give the first or last word on nonduality to any tradition, school or sect. Put simply, the tension between duality and nonduality is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. However, some mystical traditions have established literary and oral traditions explaining the nature of explicit nonduality and the methods that may be used to establish nondual awareness (NDA).

As most forms of meditation shape the cognitive processes underpinning conscious experience, they can be considered as tools able to influence our concepts of duality-nonduality. However, a point of clarification is required, everything we think, say or do also exerts a force upon our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to NDA. So when we talk about meditation in a traditional context, nonduality is generally (intrinsically and extrinsically) part of the process and method being used. It is also important to stress that Buddhist meditation is a broad church (several different churches), some meditation approaches may not articulate any position about dualistic concepts. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated that the Buddhist scriptures reject the pursuit of dual or nondual states.2 The motivation of practitioners is also a critical factor in this discussion, people may meditate for many years without ever encountering the path to NDA. Conversely, several people have reported ‘accidental’ insight into nonduality without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Reassuringly, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes leading to NDA, which are congruent with (some) scientific understandings of cognitive training.

Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century) is yet to create authoritative understanman standing on rooftop facing brown highrise buildingdings of the relationship between dual-nondual consciousness and meditation. One of the limiting factors in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual awareness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the scientific method are objective, assertions that have been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, NDA challenges the ontologies of many approaches trying to understand how traditional mediation mediates consciousness.

So given the preamble, how to explain dualism to a person neurologically committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The typical cognitive response to this question is that the executive function (EF) holds this task (of self-monitoring). But in reality, we know (at the level of psychology and personal experience), the EF is both participant and observer of the drama of our lives. This supports the view that humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. This takes us back to the drawing board because it is clear we often see the world in both dual and nondual frames according to a range of causes and conditions. NDA isn’t an abandonment of duality. Instead, it offers an experience-based understanding of the full scope of our conscious engagement with the world.

silhouette of person holding glass mason jar

Preliminary work by scientists like Josipovic and scholars such as Dunne has indicated that nondual meditation methods possess a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of Buddhist meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). This is the main point, we have a number of neural networks that drive our experience of life. Humans privilege parts of these networks over others, leading to a false certainty or reliance on those privileged domains. Over time these positions become dominant in terms of brain functions and structures. This is why so many of us are oblivious to the limitations of duality, we lack the cognitive software or neurological hardware to access it.

I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness has been recorded scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. A training in NDA is typically a work of years, and few people ever fully complete this journey. The full potential offered to humanity by nondual forms of meditation is dependent on grasping the nature of highly elusive mental states, considered to be the ‘result’ of meditation practices. The notion that the benefits of meditation can be found in the method alone reflects a dualistic understanding of mystical approaches.

The good news for both meditation scientists and secular practitioners is that a meaningful understanding of experience-based NDA is not essential for the research and practice of meditation methods. That regular meditation can alter brain function and structure is now widely accepted. In some cases, a pressing clinical need may lead to the practice of meditation as symptom focussed brain training, in the way that we could use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this has little relationship with traditional and transcendent forms of meditation. A foundational limitation in the scientific study of meditation is also the absence of an appreciation of explicit and implicit nondual mental processes.

If you’re still wondering what duality and nonduality are, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky subject to work with, many experienced meditators are aware of the concepts but still fail to engage consciously with them. For a basic introduction into nondual concepts, you might find the NDA podcast helpful, download it here.

 

Notes
1. Loy, David. Nonduality: A study in comparative philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2012.

2. Josipovic, Zoran. “Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 9-18.

3. It is a complex task to define precisely which Eastern mystical traditions are nondual and which are not. The very proposition is a binary concept that makes no real sense from the nondual perspective. Perhaps at a later point I will attempt to set out distinctions between relative and absolute nonduality and how these can be further divided into explicit and implicit forms (realistically this is a book project rather than a blog post). Capra, Fritjof. “Modern physics and eastern mysticism.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 8, no. 1 (1976).

4. With all respect to the Bhikkhu, the abandonment of the pursuit of relative conscious states such as dual or nondual appears close to the integration which is one goal of the explicitly nondual traditions. Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Dhamma and non-duality.” Access to Insight (2011).

 

Essay edited on 14th May 2020.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Private research of how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

4 thoughts on “Nonduality and its central role to understanding meditation”

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. A key issue is that although in the open field of Vajrayana an understanding of all reliable knowledge is possible. By comparison, cognitive psychology attempts to narrow knowledge to its own terms. The nondual view represent a real opportunity to develop behavioural sciences into a new direction.

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