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 meditation.

library high angle photro

From the academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more. 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. This is not to give the first or last word on nondual understanding to a particular tradition, school or sect. Put simply, the tension between duality and nonduality is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. It is not owned, invented or discovered by any one individual or group. Although a sustained investigation by adepts over many centuries means that large bodies of knowledge have already been created.

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 force upon our ability to recognise the dualism that permeates our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to nondual awareness (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 meditation is a broad church, some methods may not articulate any position about dualistic concepts. 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 NDA 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 can be seen to be 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 get to grips with understanman standing on rooftop facing brown highrise buildingding the precise nature 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 mediation mediates consciousness.

So given the preamble, how to explain dualism to a person 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 started to indicate that nondual meditation methods may have a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But a pivotal point to make is that NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). This is the 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. I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness (that characterises most forms of meditation), 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 a decade or more, 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 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 known. In some cases, a pressing clinical need may lead to the practice of meditation as a symptom focussed brain training, in the way that we could use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this has little relationship with traditional forms of meditation. A foundational limitation in the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness is not only a failure to recognise or understand NDA. But 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 with them on the level of experience. For a basic introduction to non-duality, you might find the NDA podcast helpful, download it here.

 

Notes

Essay edited on 24th March 20120.

Mirror neurons – embodied cognition

Mirror neurons may have significant implications for meditators and spiritual practitioners.

macaque
Macaque monkeys were used for the first mirror neuron experiments

Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.

Year: 1992

Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study

Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.

If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond  our own motor repertoire.

Stephen Gene Morris

In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:

  • Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
  • Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain.  It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.

I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.

Perspective: Embodied cognition, neuroscience, mirror neurons

Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00230027