A Non-Definitive Guide to Non-Duality
A primer on unsplintering your reality
Editor's Note: Hey! Dan here. Generally, at Every we try to stick to writing that's directly written for founders, operators, and investors in tech. We break this rule on two occasions: for pieces that are really good, or really important. This piece ticks both of those boxes for me.
I practice some form of non-dual mindfulness almost every day—and the experiences and techniques that Sasha writes about in this essay are real, reachable, and profound. They're also feasible to practice with just a few minutes a day. They're a key habit that helps me run Every, write weekly, and feel pretty good doing it. I hope it's as helpful for you as it has been for me.
You may have heard about this “non-duality” thing, or “non-dual meditation.” Perhaps you have heard rave reviews of a meditative state sometimes referred to as “non-dual awareness,” or “big mind” or “the natural state.” Maybe in connection with exciting-sounding phrases like “spiritual awakening” or “enlightenment.”
Sometimes, people hype it up in a way that can seem far-fetched. For example, nearly a full half of people who learned how to achieve non-dual awareness through a Sam Harris meditation course said it was the most important skill they’d ever learned in their lives. Presumably, these people have learned some important skills before, like job skills that allow them to feed themselves. So that’s quite an assessment. Also, non-dual teacher Loch Kelly says, “It gave me a way of relieving my underlying suffering and connecting to an inner joy that I didn’t even know existed.”
Okay, what is this thing? How is it done? What is “non-duality”?
This document will try to provide an entry-level answer to that question. I’m writing it because non-dual practice can be hugely rewarding, but it’s often explained in ways that are alienating to secular people who aren’t open to mystical woo-woo, or even religious people who aren’t open to mystical woo-woo.
This document intends to be a non-definitive intro. I’m not a non-dual teacher, I am just a guy who likes this stuff; this is just one loose take on the subject. I’ve played with different non-duality teachings on and off for about a decade, which is a longish time on the scale of hobbies, but nobody is about to call me Sensei or whatever, nor should they. (Note that this is also long.)
One thing about my take is that it is somewhat generalized—I’m averaging between a bunch of traditions. That makes this guide, I think, a nice first look at the subject. But the topic has a lot of depth, and it goes in different directions depending on who you ask.
Also, quick warning. Any kind of meditation can be mentally destabilizing, particularly if done in large doses (and especially if you’re currently not doing well mentally). I believe that it’s very unlikely that a brief interaction with meditation instructions will be destabilizing, but it’s possible.
During this guide, I will be offering some pointers on how you can achieve altered states: if you are in a state of acute mental distress currently, or were recently, maybe don’t poke at your consciousness (or at least do so extremely carefully). Interestingly, meditation teachers seem to find non-dual meditation less mentally difficult than other forms, but disturbances still occur.
Usually, the best way to respond to any meditation-related mental disturbance is just to Stop Meditating. Instead, do something grounding: take a walk and listen to music you like, talk to a friend, maybe literally touch grass. Note that mild-to-moderate disturbances, like feelings that perception has become slightly unusual in one way or another, typically resolve quite quickly.
If you intend to dive deep into any contemplative practice, it’s worth taking a look at Cheetah House’s material, or at least bookmarking it. It’s an organization devoted to helping meditators who have adverse experiences. Also, a friend of mine reported that the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness was helpful for him after a disruptive meditation experience, especially this passage.
What are we talking about here?
The idea of “non-duality” is, on one level, incredibly simple and concrete, and, on another level, wickedly complicated and fuzzy. So I am going to give you a first approximation, and then tell you why it’s incomplete and oversimplified.
Okay. So we all know that the hard boundary we place between ourselves and the world is somewhat artificial. Sure, on one level you are a separate being, different from any other. You can move your own arm, you probably can’t move my arm. On the other hand, your life is a product of an incredibly complex enmeshment of influences that can be traced back long, long before you were born. At any given moment, your consciousness is being influenced by many things that are not “you”—the global political climate, the societal memes you absorbed in childhood, the words on this page.
And, though you may feel that you are an agent with free will—and maybe you do have free will, I don’t know—the vast majority of your life’s circumstances are totally out of your control. You are living in a tiny flash between a past that has been determined and a future that is unknowable.
So, this boundary (this “duality” of self and other) is maybe not super solid. Also, “you” are hardly an unchanging thing. You are different from moment to moment. Different when you’re alone, different when you’re with friends, different when you’re dreaming, different tomorrow.
Instead of thinking of yourself as a separate object from the world, like a pinball in a machine, it’s maybe just more accurate to think of yourself as a drop in the ocean. This can be a scary idea, in the sense that it forces you to confront the arbitrariness and flux of existence. But it can also be a relaxing alternate frame—it’s a way of looking that can bring a sense of letting go, as well as greater empathy for you and others: we are all just trying to ride this wave together and none of us is totally sure what’s going on, or totally in control.
Another thing that you also might know already: sometimes there are moments of conscious experience when it seems to be easier to recognize this non-separation. Experiences in which our sense of separateness is mitigated—when we feel like we are part of the fluid dynamics of existence. The protective layer around the self comes off.
For some people this happens when walking in nature—your sense of “you” diminishes, the volume of your thoughts is turned down, and it’s almost as if you’re melting into the forest. For some people, this can happen on a dance floor, or when marching with your fellow troops, or during really absorbing conversation, or sex. It’s a big part of what a “flow state” is. For many religious people, it’s a feeling that arrives during prayer.
These moments can be really nourishing. Your problems and fears and worries, which seem so big, can seem less imposing. Or, instead of seeming like “your” fears, they can seem simply like a variety of noise or weather passing through the universe. You might have that most precious intuition, the sense that it will All Be Okay.
And that’s it, really. That’s all we’re talking about. Non-dual experiences are experiences of feeling like the self/other boundary has thinned dramatically, or even dissolved. Non-dual practice is a way of intentionally bringing about this quality of experience, increasing its depth, and, eventually, perhaps, after some amount of practice, installing it as the default flavor of consciousness.
EXCEPT THAT’S NOT QUITE EVERYTHING…
Because that’s just the first layer, this duality of self and other. Non-duality also refers to the process of transcending other dualities. Sometimes this is also an experiential process, like cutting through the self/other boundary. Sometimes it’s more of an intellectual matter.
This can include seeing through the duality of:
- "Good feeling” and “bad feeling" by embracing emotions we might refer to as negative, or even, potentially, seeing that they possess wisdom. (The book Spectrum of Ecstasy is a great primer on this from a Buddhist perspective, and my favorite woo new age book, Existential Kink, is also sort of about this.)
- "Sacred” and “profane” by trying to see beauty or even dignity in what we might normally regard as ugly or undignified—and/or, if you’re a religious type, seeing the presence of God in everything, a la Meister Eckhart or Advaita Vedanta.
- "Past” and “present” by noticing how, in meditative stillness, it appears that all time is just an oscillation in an eternal moment, which never really passes or arises.
- "Form” and “emptiness” which is… hellaciously hard to explain and will be pretty arcane to most readers, but something kind of like: “Reality is a subjective fluctuating dance of ephemera which we never see the objective bottom of, like flashes on a screen. But this doesn’t mean it’s unreal, in fact, that ephemeral dance is, itself, the miraculous substance of existence.” Note that this is a weird Buddhist thing that weird Buddhists have been arguing about forever; if you want more on this, I like David Chapman’s writing, which relabels the duality “pattern and nebulosity.”
Which dualities are focused on is a matter of taste; different traditions/practices place their emphasis differently.
The self/other duality tends to be one of the most pertinent in everyday experience, and one of the most fun to play with. Also, breaking it down can be really helpful in starting to break down the others. Like: the spacious, generous quality of non-dual awareness is a great place from which to see your emotions in a more nuanced way. And: it’s a state in which the sacred can seem more imminent.
For these reasons, it’s the first one that non-dual practice tends to focus on. And thus, often, when people say “non-dual experience,” they mean a state in which self/other boundaries have broken down.
So, for the sake of this essay, I will largely be talking about the non-duality of self and other, unless I specify otherwise. But you should know that this isn’t all that “non-duality” implies.
The different traditions of non-duality
There are a number of different non-dual contemplative traditions, like, traditions that emphasize non-duality as the goal, or the truth, or the way. They are different in many respects. But they definitely share a point of view. And what I love about their point of view is that it is a bit trollish.
What I mean by that will become clear by talking about other traditions.
Many meditative traditions are progressive, in the same way that a video game is progressive: you go through stages and gain abilities. Slowly, you develop a series of mental skills, which allow you to successively perceive your consciousness more and more finely.
Like, you might start by meditating on your breath to improve your ability to focus, then you might use that focusing ability to start getting a better sense of how physical sensations arise and pass away, and so on. And then, after turning yourself into this beautiful meditative microscope, you might begin turning the microscope on itself, by deconstructing the sensations that you usually call “yourself.” Thereby, you achieve non-dual experience.
In comparison, many non-dual traditions say: “Instead of trying so hard, you could just sit down and notice that you’re already one with everything and that you’re already enlightened. Lol. Lmao.” And that actually… works?
What I mean is, you can teach someone who’s never meditated before to break down the self/other barrier. It is a mental move that is often easier for meditators, but it is available to non-meditators. And once you know the mental move, you can often make it quite quickly.
Now, the mental move is not the end of the story. Cultivating and deepening the resulting state takes time. Also, what that cultivation looks like differs from tradition to tradition; it can look like just sinking deeper and deeper into the perfection of existence, or it can look like using non-duality as a jumping-off point for other meditative activities, like cultivating feelings of loving-kindness within this state of expanded consciousness. But that initial step, towards a feeling of spacious interconnectedness, can be almost instantaneous.
When you make this mental move, it can be subtle at first. But sometimes it is striking. Sometimes, your peripheral vision can suddenly feel quite a bit larger. Discursive thoughts tend to quiet down a lot. There can be a feeling of freshness or childlike delight, a novelty seen in familiar things. Sometimes, a sense of palpable realness presents itself, as if you’ve woken up from a dream.
Sounds amazing, right? However, there is a catch. The mental move can be tricky to teach. Remember when I mentioned that half of those who learned non-dual meditation from a Sam Harris course said it was the most important skill they’d ever learned? The rub is that only about 10% of those who took the course learned it successfully!
One way to put it is that you’re teaching someone to loosen a muscle they don’t know they’re tensing. That is bound to be difficult. Also, there is significant individual variation here: some people “get it” almost effortlessly, some people have a much harder time. Another difficulty: the mental motion is a mental relaxation motion, in some ways opposite from more concerted mental efforts, like “trying to figure out that crossword clue,” or “trying to model someone else’s thinking.” So, trying to get it can create a mental obstacle to getting it.
Different traditions have different ways of surmounting this difficulty, by teaching different approaches to the mental move. Some go after it directly, some sort of sneak up on it.
Some traditions have hands-on facilitation, like Tibetan “pointing out” instructions. Broadly speaking, this is where you go to a guru, and they say, “Hey, have you ever noticed the true nature of reality?” And they prod you to notice how your conscious experience is stitched together, with different cues and questions. It’s a peer-to-peer meditation, in which they attempt to transmit the state to you personally. There are all sorts of different methods and styles of facilitation. Sometimes, the effects can be quite spectacular and fun to watch.
In Zen, they have you sit down and do nothing a lot until the non-dual state happens to you all by itself, and they also break your brain with interesting and beautiful riddles. This reportedly actually has a fairly high success rate for those who stick with it, although some people bounce off the deliberate vagueness of Zen pedagogy. (Henry Shukman’s memoir is a really lucid introduction to Zen, in my opinion.)
3. Good cheer
Some current teachers, like Loch Kelly, have developed modern versions of pointing out instructions, like the ones in his book The Way of Effortless Mindfulness. Part of Loch Kelly’s method is also an Irish-American good cheer where he tells you it’s easy and you’ll get it in no time, and sometimes, that appears to work on people. There are other books along these lines.
The Realization Process is an interesting approach that aims to get students to non-dual states through deep absorption in bodily sensations. I’ve only played around with it a bit, but I’ve heard good reviews from those who have engaged with it deeply.
5. Core Transformation
Another thing I’ve heard good reviews about, but haven’t played with too much, is Connirae Andreas’ Wholeness Work. She is the inventor of Core Transformation, an emotional work modality I think is fairly effective.
Some teachers, such as Ramana Maharshi, recommend “self-inquiry” practice, an investigative meditation in which you ask yourself questions like: “Who am I?” or “Who is having this experience?” You then look for the answer—not the factual answer, but the felt answer. Like: allow yourself to notice that you exist right now. What was the feeling of noticing that you exist, the feeling of “I am”?
Can you extend that moment of noticing? Can you feel what it consists of, as you would break down the component parts of a piece of music, or a taste in your mouth? Multiple meditative traditions include some form of self-inquiry, which is evidence that many find it effective. For me in particular, self-inquiry has been really effective, though at times bracing; I would not recommend diving deeply into it if you are unprepared for a little mental weirdness.
7. Headless Way
The Headless Way is a really fun and funny set of pointing out instructions with an Alice in Wonderland aesthetic, which feel very different from traditional meditation stuff. There’s a great Headless Way course on the Waking Up app. Some people find this exercise especially psychoactive.
Alexander Technique is best known as a weird posture thing that is taught to actors. But in the hands of some teachers, it’s a practice of expanded awareness that gets you to a flavor of non-duality in a couple of ways, like deconstructing your experience of moment-to-moment volition, untraining your habitual contractions of awareness, and freeing you from needless “efforting” in movement. I really enjoy my friend Michael’s course on this.
There are many, many more examples – like how non-duality pops up in Christian and Sufi mysticism. But this probably gives you a flavor of what’s out there.
The mental move: A tutorial
You may have noticed that I haven’t described the mental move yet. I am hesitant to, because it will probably make no sense in text form. Also, as mentioned earlier, embracing non-dual awareness is a relaxing motion, which can be inhibited by thinking about it too hard, or even by reifying it with a label, like, oh, say, an explanation of what it is.
But maybe I can describe it in really rough terms.
If you start paying attention to it, you can notice that the “sense of self”—like your sense of the shape and location of your awareness itself—is typically somewhat fixed and small. If you are like most people, it probably feels like “you” are a small space in your head.
This is optional, though. That smallness and fixity is a mental contraction, almost like a muscle contraction. After you notice this, you can learn to relax that contraction, and something else happens.
There are multiple ways to get to the mental move. One approach is to look for the boundaries between you and the world around you, and then notice what happens when it’s hard to find them, or when they move around upon examination.
Maybe I could give you a tiny taste of this with some lightweight consciousness examination cues, cobbled together from some of the sources above. If you don’t want to play with your consciousness right now, maybe skip to the next section.
But if you do, try to slow down a bit as you read this next part. If anything you read causes a change in awareness, try to linger there for a moment. (Also, rather than taking anything I say about consciousness as a philosophical argument, try taking it as an invitation to a way of looking.)
Ideally, the mental move starts from a place of not trying terribly hard. So at the outset, it’s nice to remember that conscious awareness makes itself happen. You don’t have to create your experience: sensation comes to you all on its own.
Okay. Cool. So: intuitively, we perceive that the “center” of consciousness is in our head. Like, that we are “looking out” from a control room. But this doesn’t make much sense. You’ve seen a photo of a skull before. Is there any golfball-sized “empty space” in which the theatre of consciousness resides?
There is not. This “mental space” is a fabrication. Interesting: we conjure an artificial “theatre of experience.” This might be a good time for another reminder of something you already know: everything you are perceiving, right now, including that fabricated sense of a “center” of consciousness, is an output of your mind.
Sound is an interpretation of vibrations in the air, it’s a murmur of your awareness. Color isn’t a property of wavelengths, color is something your mind concocts so that it can differentiate objects.
If everything you’re perceiving is a cinematic production optimized for utility, then when you look at this page, you’re not really seeing a raw report of the light hitting your eyes, you are seeing what’s coming out of your mind. Therefore, everything you perceive as “the world” is a perception of your model of the world, which is to say, you.
Without thinking about it too hard, see if you can feel that this is true. Like, see if reading this text feels different if you regard it as an output of you, rather than an input from me.
Maybe your fingers are touching a screen or a trackpad right now: you could become aware that the coolness and smoothness of it is your creation, just like the motor feedback from your hand. Maybe there’s ambient sound around you right now, or you’re listening to music: you could notice that this is your awareness, transmitting a message from you to you.
Allow yourself, for a moment, to realize that this is true, also, of anything you associate with a “sense of self.” That is a production as well, composed of ephemeral sensations that come and go.
Let’s examine it.
- Try to figure out where your “sense of self” is located. Like when you say “I’m here,” what is that referring to, specifically?
- Like: if you have the intuition that you are looking out from inside your head, what sensations is that intuition constructed from? The feeling of something “back there,” in space, behind the lens of vision? Does this feeling have a texture, a shape, or a size? Or is it just a vague sense of something?
- Can you examine that sense itself, by asking, “Where am I?” Then make the answer an object in consciousness.
- If you pick up on anything: great. Hold it there for a second.
- Then: play with the idea of allowing that object—that felt sense of self—to expand. See if you can let it stretch out into your awareness of the space around you.
Did reading any of that do anything? Did any of those instructions produce a shift in consciousness, even for a second?
If so, and if it felt good or interesting, maybe try to see if you can find that shift again and sink into it, right now. Try to do so with as little effort as possible: just, like, casually relax into it. Making little “shifts” like this, repeatedly, is one way to do it more easily and in more situations.
If reading that didn’t do anything and it just seemed like a bunch of silly nonsense, don’t worry. This can be elusive.
How do I learn this?
If you’re interested in trying non-dual practice, I think the best thing to do, at first, is play around. Different instructions tend to be differently psychoactive for different people. So, lightly interface with a lot of non-dual teachers and their writings. Pay attention to what reading their work does to your inner world, and follow what works, and ignore what doesn’t.
Also: it’s possible that you’ve already had a non-dual experience, and you just didn’t recognize it as such. Lots of people spontaneously have moments of mystical connection and then don’t systematically investigate it, or don’t return to it for one or another reason. Zen teacher Henry Shukman had a spontaneous and dramatic moment of non-dual awakening in his youth and then just kind of forgot about it for years afterward.
One day, a friend of mine (who is fairly casual about meditating and hadn’t delved deeply into non-dual practice) had a sense of herself dropping away for about an hour, of “being the world.” People around at the time noticed—one said something like, “You seem… better.” She was surprised when I said, upon hearing about the experience, “Oh yeah, that thing. I do that, it’s a whole tradition.” She imagined that it would be a really difficult state to replicate.
This is worth mentioning because, if you’ve had an experience like that, sometimes just remembering it in detail can bring you back to a similar mental state.
Finally: flavors of non-duality pop up in psychedelic experiences all the time. For a lot of psychedelic users, my pitch is as follows: “Remember that time on shrooms, when you felt like you were more smoothly blended with the world, more connected with everything? Okay, great, yeah, that. You can have that without doing drugs if you want, it just takes some practice. Sick, right?”
But is it good for anything?
I don’t know that there’s any super hard scientific evidence saying that non-dual practice is good for anything beyond the way it feels really nice. Like, it can be considered a subset of “meditation” writ large, and there is plenty of research that seems to indicate that “meditation” is good for you, and also lots of qualitative data about people having all sorts of emotional/spiritual breakthroughs with contemplative practice.
However, it must be admitted that there’s no longitudinal data demonstrating that people familiar with non-dual meditation have better outcomes in some area or another, compared to a similar cohort without such experience. This may never change; that is hard data to come by.
Anecdotally, though, people experienced in non-dual states tend to report:
- Less emotional activation
- A greater sense of sacredness
- More absorption in surroundings
- A heightened sense of interconnectedness
- Less preoccupation with neurotic thoughts
- More available feelings of meaning and purpose
And they have been reporting such things for a long, long time. This is much of what people are talking about when they discuss “mystical experiences.” It would be really weird if there were no signal there, and also weird if there were no practical benefits of these effects.
Also anecdotally, it appears that non-dual practice can be nicely synergistic with therapy of all kinds. Feeling less subjectively “stuck in your head” also appears to decrease the amount you feel “stuck in your stories” and thus can help you interface more powerfully with your background life narratives, or perhaps even traumatic content.
Interestingly, there can be a feedback loop effect, too: I’ve heard many reports of people having spontaneous non-dual experiences upon making therapeutic breakthroughs, or having an easier time with non-dual practice after resolving trauma.
Long-term, playing with non-duality can have interesting effects. After a certain amount of non-dual practice, it is often the case that practitioners have a permanent mental “flip” in which the boundaries of their world are redrawn. After this “flip,” the intuition that there is no perfectly solid boundary between “self” and “other” remains; the sense of self still does arise, but it seems less solid, less heavy.
This might sound totally crazy if you haven’t hung around communities of people who meditate. But it’s happened to many, many people. For example, it actually happened to me. It did not give me superpowers, but my life is definitely more pleasant after it.
This permanent erosion of the self-other boundary, by the way, is far from being the “end” of non-dual practice. There are many refinements beyond it, and I am told there is no bottom, no capital-e Enlightenment after which there’s nothing more to learn. (I like Ken McLeod’s take on this.)
What is it, neurologically?
We don’t know too much about that. But there is some neat research coming out on the neural correlates of non-duality.
This paper, for example, is almost too convenient and cute in the story it tells. Roughly: fMRI imaging of meditators doing non-dual practice suggests that non-dual meditation is associated with increased activity in normally anti-correlated regions of the brain.
In other words, there is a network in the brain devoted to inner experience, and a network devoted to exterior experience, and usually activation in one is associated with reduced activation in the other. Typically, being lost in your interiority means being less attuned to exterior experience, and vice versa. But during non-dual experience, when you feel that outside and inside are merged, the neurological reality reflects that. Like I said though, this sounds almost too cute; I like it too much, so I’m suspicious of it.
Learning to see through the self
At this point, a careful observer might be asking the question: excuse me what the fuck? Like, you are just telling me that there is a mode of perception that I can activate which liberates me from neuroticism, that some people experience spontaneously, and it’s just sitting around in the brain until I access it? How could this be the case?
I don’t know. But here is one interesting hypothesis, based on an off-hand remark by Alexander Technique teacher Peter Nobes, who, during a lesson, said something to me like, “If you’re on the savannah, you will starve if you’re blocked off from perceiving and acting freely.”
Perhaps the natural state of human beings is fluid interconnectedness without abstraction. Primitive people had to be in a state of constant enmeshment with their environment in order to survive, and didn’t have much need for the sort of complicated self-identities that we see on, say, LinkedIn.
Meanwhile, the intricacy of modern society, with its constant delicate balance of honesty, deception, and hypocrisy, relies on a lot of thinking about “the self”: modeling your reputation, how you are doing socially, whether you have correctly ascertained the preferences of others, et cetera. What determines whether you can feed yourself is social gaming, not environmental attunement.
Now, this is not inherently a bad thing! Having complicated narratives about the self can be great. And this is all inseparable from our miraculous abstract thinking abilities, which allow us to, say, master geometry and get to the moon.
But! Perhaps there is some sort of mental tradeoff. Perhaps living in this layer of abstraction and simulation actually imposes a felt boundary between you and experience. Like, the mental workspace is formatted in such a way that it actually feels like there’s a layer of self-consciousness and self-doubt between you and the richness of sensate reality. This isn’t so weird to imagine: we all know that in situations where we feel especially self-conscious, our experience feels more contracted and tight, like we’re squeezed into a smaller box.
Perhaps non-dual practice is a way of learning to see through that layer of self-model, at least partially and temporarily. Or it’s a way of “updating” that self-model by pruning it to some degree, sanding the edges off it, removing the layers that don’t need to be there right now.
So this is a miracle, right? As my friend Hormeze says, it’s a stroke of cosmic luck that we can build up this complicated self-model, and then transcend it through non-dual experience. We can have it both ways.
It is interesting and suggestive that lots of non-dual traditions call the non-dual state something like “the natural state.” It can, indeed, almost feel like a homecoming—to some more essential feeling, something basic that was “there all along.”
This post, which I stumbled on recently, is a further exploration of the hypothesis that primitive humans possessed less duality. I have no idea whether to believe it, it’s just a fun idea.
But are there any disadvantages?
When I first really started getting non-dual practice, I was fetishistic about trying to maintain a state of floaty expanded awareness all the time. During this time, I did notice some seeming drawbacks.
1: In a state of expanded awareness, you can feel more sensitive to the vibes of others. For example, I spent about an hour in the desert in the company of a schizophrenic person, an hour in which I maintained a state of expanded awareness. For the rest of the day, I felt somewhat crazier, almost as if some of his conceptual looseness had spilled into me. Maybe this was not ideal. It seems healthy to “block off” your sense of self in hostile or imposing environments.
2: Persistent experiences of non-duality do something funny to your memory. During non-dual experience, there tends to be a de-emphasis of that stressed-out inner monologue, and—as we all know—the stressed-out inner monologue can help you remind yourself of things like, “Fuck, fuck, I hope I don’t forget the milk, if I forget the milk again, I’m a fucking failure.”
Qualitative research has shown that people who have persistent experiences of non-duality tend to keep a lot of to-do lists, for this reason.
3: As previously mentioned, just about any meditation can be mentally destabilizing, especially in large doses. (And, again, I’ve been told by a few teachers that non-dual practice seems to create far less mental instability than some other practices, like vipassana—but it can still happen.)
4: Sometimes, glimpses of non-duality can seem a little disorienting and dissociative at first, like you’re floating out of your body. There is a straightforward way to deal with this, though: consciously include bodily sensations, and feeling-tone, in the sense of expanded awareness. Also, if things are feeling too stiff and emotionless in my head, I find that mentally screaming the word PEANUTS in an angry tone can help, especially if I do it repeatedly. A friend of mine recommends literally lying on the ground face-first and feeling the solidity of the earth, which sounds fun.
To me, these drawbacks are piddling in comparison with the upsides. But your mileage may vary.
Non-duality as a philosophy?
As with non-dual practice, non-duality as a philosophy takes many forms. But the high-level pitch is similar, a lot of the time: “All of that stuff you’re so interested in dividing into categories, like the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ or the ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ might be part of one continuous mosaic, with a richness betrayed by any categorical assessment.”
This might sound banal in our postmodern age, which has a background assumption of relativity and interrelatedness, and a much looser sense of stratification than many traditional societies. However, viewed in context, it can be seen as a radical philosophical move that bubbles up in moments when existing dualisms dominate.
Consider non-dualistic traditions in Buddhism. Classically, Buddhism was like, “This world of suffering, samsara, is a shit-hole, so let’s all get the fuck out, let’s all meditate super hard to escape reincarnation and get to nirvana.” Then, less dualistic flavors of Buddhism completely turned this on its head, by saying that samsara and nirvana are one and the same—which is to say, roughly, that there is exquisite beauty and sacredness in the seeming agony and arbitrariness of mortal existence.
Also, it is often a radical way of looking at one’s own life, or one’s emotions, compared to the default. We often look dualistically at things that trigger us emotionally, because, during moments of stress, we tend to resort to binary thinking. Like: we try something ambitious, and we fail. Others notice. It sucks.
We go for a binary story: I have failed and people hate me. Or: they are wrong and I am awesome.
But a non-dualistic view can help you cut through overly simplistic views of your experience—black-and-white narratives that flatten the beauty and texture of your life, like “I’m a failure,” or “I regret that relationship,” or “I am definitely this variety of person.” Maybe such statements can be both true and not true: perhaps there is freedom in allowing that tension to exist.
This can also be true of your attributes. Maybe all the stuff in your life that you’re so tempted to divide into categories like “definitely me” and “definitely not me, go away, reject, bad, bad,” are all part of one continuous mosaic. What you see as, say, your “horrible need for attention,” you could also see as a desire to personally make the world a more vibrant place, and/or a value placed on beauty and interestingness. It could be all of this. However fucked up your desires, coping strategies, and neuroses are, there is probably at least a little wisdom in their connective tissue—something noble, lovable, interesting.
This is not always an easy viewpoint to implement. But it is worth playing with.
Okay, so what do I read now?
I think non-duality is best appreciated as an experiential or emotional truth, rather than an intellectual interest. Reading a pile of text about it is not necessarily the way to go if you want to understand what it’s about.
Instead, find some instructions that sound compelling to you and try them. The Headless Way stuff, which I previously mentioned, is particularly fun and beginner-friendly. Or just do the lightweight, self-administered version: mentally wander around your own life, and try to notice the arbitrary boundaries you draw, between “self/other,” “acceptable/unacceptable,” etc.
I have read piles and piles of text about non-duality. Occasionally, my practice has been enhanced considerably by a couple of tossed-off sentences that the authors probably didn’t even think about.
Here are some of my favorites that I haven’t already mentioned. Please enjoy!
Michael Taft is my favorite living meditation teacher, and this is his fantastically clear and helpful non-duality page, with links to his non-dual meditations, which are great. His teachings made a huge difference in my practice.
This book, a collection of teachings by the renowned Nisargadatta, is sort of famously psychoactive. Reading it, for me, is a funny experience; it’ll seem fairly straightforward and obvious for a few pages, and then a little phrase or explanation, here or there, will have a profoundly mind-altering effect.
Dzogchen is a non-dual tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that is beautiful, intricate, and also, at times, really esoteric (sometimes on purpose). This book is a super clear introduction to the subject and has some of my favorite non-duality writing ever.
This is a whimsical and disorienting graphical exploration of the stitched-together strangeness of consciousness.
This is a fascinating account of a spontaneous enlightenment experience that is blissful, then destabilizing, then blissful again.
Alan Watts is nearly always approachable, eloquent, charming, and funny on the subject of non-duality; this is his most focused work on the subject.
This paper is the only substantive qualitative research (that I know of) on different levels of persistent non-dual experience in individuals, here called “persistent non-symbolic experience.” Really fascinating stuff. Note that I do not necessarily endorse this author’s other materials.
Sasha Chapin is a writer who lives, with some reluctance, in the Bay Area. His newsletter is the best way to find more of his writing, and his Twitter is a source of something or other. He is the author of a memoir about being bad at chess.