Non duality is an understanding of wholeness – a lived experience of feeling the divine both within ourselves and as everything around us.
There is nothing that is not God (or you could substitute this term with Consciousness, Awakened Awareness, Source, Shiva, Allah, Brahman, etc.)
- What is non duality?
- Difference between Tantra & Vedanta
- What does non duality mean for us?
- A non-dual practice
What is non duality?
The three views
There are generally three views presented in yoga and Eastern philosophy:
- Bheda = dualistic view (that there are two or more fundamentally distinct essences to reality)
- Abheda = nondual view (that there is only one thing that exists in reality – explored more below)
- Bhedābheda = ‘diversity-within-unity’, a mix of both. It’s the most common view that exists in India: God is in everything, but God does not make up the whole of everything. The idea that ‘we all have a divine spark’ – generally referred to as our Atman.
Non-duality is the recognition that underlying the multiplicity and diversity of experience there is a single, infinite and indivisible reality, whose nature is pure consciousness, from which all objects and selves derive their apparently independent existence.
The recognition of this reality is not only the source of lasting happiness within all people; it is the foundation of peace between individuals, communities and nations.Rupert Spira
Non duality is an experiential method for comprehending the essence of reality and the self. It doesn’t necessitate adherence to any particular religious or spiritual tradition but welcomes anyone with an inclination to explore the nature of their experience.
Non duality, though understood differently in various traditions and lineages, has the overarching understanding that everything is One. That everything that exists stems from a single reality.
There is no separation between God or self, me or you, subject or object, inside or outside, the form or the formless. Perhaps you’ve heard of this idea in yoga, in the terminology of the Atman and Paramatman.
In essence, what appears to be two (or many), is actually One.
On the surface, this might seem confusing, or even ridiculous. A large part of this may be to do with the fact that, in the West especially, we’ve been taught that God is a person. Or, at least, God has been personified and thus, He/She is separate from us.
E.g. the big bearded man in the sky!The understanding of non duality is different from this – everything is God! And as a consequence, everything is One.
It’s the understanding that the Consciousness that looks out of your eyes, is exactly the same Consciousness that looks out of my eyes (and everyone else’s).
“But, if everything is the same, why are there so many differences in the world? Doesn’t the nondual perspective just bypass diversity?”
The answer to this, from a nondual Shaiva Tantra perspective at least, is this idea doesn’t negate the existence of differences in our experience; rather, it offers a profound understanding of these differences.
In this tradition, Shiva/Shakti are recognized as the ultimate reality, often referred to as divine Consciousness.
Though this is indeed a singular, unifying force that pervades everything, the Oneness expresses itself through the play of duality and multiplicity. Although waves appear separate from one another, they all arise from the same ocean.
While there may be apparent differences in our experiences, they are all interconnected expressions of the same divine Consciousness.
Non duality does not diminish individuality. Quite the opposite, it sets us free from the tyranny of separation and materialism.
The perspective encourages unity: nothing is perceived as distinct from the self. Whether or not you’ve reached enlightenment isn’t relevant. This perspective serves as the roadmap for achieving integration.
To go deeper into defining non duality, watch this video.
A note on language
Language is inherently dualistic – our mind works hard to continue to create separation, categories, and differentiations through thoughts, concepts, and ideas. Words and language form a primary part of expressing these mind-created divisions!
The state of nondual awareness is a unity that transcends all divisions, and this is something you will come to see for yourself over time. Whilst this article may serve to increase your understanding of this state of awareness, it’s certainly no substitute for your own experience.
Indeed, the language we use can serve as a pointer, but no language can fully express the direct experience of non duality; hence personal practice is key!
To ‘know the truth’ does not mean to know it theoretically, but to know it as a direct and immediate experience.
In order to destroy the illusion that we are a limited individual consciousness, a person separate from the perfect whole which is called God, we must experience ourself as the unlimited and undivided pure consciousness ‘I am’.Tom Das on The Non-Dual Vision of Jesus Christ and the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
Differences between Vedanta and Tantra
(Side note: dualistic Tantra does exist. What makes something Tantric is the practices, not necessarily the non duality. In dualistic Tantra, the same practices are used to different ends. We are specifically discussing non-dual Tantra here.)
Though there is a divergence between the two, Vedanta has been highly influenced by Shaiva Tantra from medieval times right through to the present day.
1. Nature of Awareness
One of the primary differences between these two traditions is how they perceive the nature of awareness.
Nondual Tantra perceives awareness as a creative, dynamic force. The Self is not a detached observer of the world of matter, energy, and emotion; rather, awareness actively engages and transforms into the very essence of each experience.
Vedanta’s view of ultimate reality is Brahman – static, unchanging motionless awareness. In this approach, awareness is the witness, eternal and unaffected by the observed.
Secondly, Tantra and Vedanta differ in their view of illusion.
Tantra teaches that there is no illusion. The universe is genuine and invites us to engage with it, not to disregard it as false or an illusion – awareness transforms herself into all the phenomena of this universe.
Tantra embraces the material world and the body as pathways to spiritual realization and seeks to transcend duality through direct experience.
On the other hand, Shankaracharya, the renowned exponent of Vedanta, said: ‘Brahman is real (satyam), the universe is false, made up or illusory (mithya). The jiva (living being) is Brahman only and not different.’
Vedanta teaches that the world is a mirage, something that we take to be real but is actually unreal.
Vedanta is primarily rooted in the Upanishads and is considered one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (Shad-Darshana).
Many Tantrikas, like Abhinavagupta, don’t accept the Vedas (the Upanishads are part of the bigger body of Vedas) as a source of spiritual authority. Instead, they look to sacred sources like the Tantras.
Non Duality: What does it mean for us?
Transitioning states of awareness
You may have had a taste of non duality, you may have not. The likelihood is that, even if we have, many of us won’t have recognized it as an experience of non duality.
So, this begs the question, how can I subscribe to a nondual belief when I currently live in a yet-unrealized state of duality?
You might think, ultimately: when I operate from a dualistic perspective, my actions and perceptions are inevitably tinged with duality. I continually perceive the world through this lens of separation, seeing myself separate from everything else.
That is until non duality becomes my enduring state of being – a known and intrinsic aspect of my existence. But how do I get to this point?
It may make you feel better to remember that we all have to start from somewhere. Most of us are nurtured and conditioned within a dualistic framework, thereby shaping it as our primary lens for perceiving the world.
Seeing life from this dualistic perspective can actually facilitate spiritual transformation when you realize that duality is the springboard from which the mind frees itself.
The truth is, you cannot be dualistic. Dualism is not a reality, but a specific view. A discernment that our mind makes which fools us into believing there is separation.
I have a teacher who says the concept of awakening is best understood as a gradual spectrum rather than an abrupt shift. It’s not a matter of suddenly transitioning from a dualistic state to a nondual one; rather, it’s an ongoing process.
You might engage in nondual practices to cultivate a nondual perspective, or perhaps you may glimpse nondual consciousness through your kula, which gradually becomes integrated into your awareness.
Over time, this nondual process gradually becomes more natural and familiar, blending with your previous dualistic awareness. It’s a gradual journey, step by step.
Ramakrishna often used the analogy of a magnet and iron filings, explaining that God is like the magnet that draws the iron filings toward Him/Herself. Yet, when the iron is covered in mud, absorbed in the illusion that is Maya, it feels no attraction towards God.
Once the iron is clean, realizing its own true nature, ‘it is soon attracted to the Lord’.
May we all be magnetized through our sadhana!
Eventually, with the direct experience of your true nature, you may be able to find that there is no distinction between meditation and any other part of your life.
The goal is that abiding as awareness during meditation will feel exactly the same as cooking, shopping, or walking down the street. Though making the distinction between our self-awareness and the experience is useful at the start of the path, in time it will collapse.
Rupert Spira teaches that you are not just the awareness to which experience appears, you are that in which all experience is taking place. Further than this, you are not only the presence in which this is taking place, you are the awareness out of which everything arises.
Contemplating this over time will lead us to realize that the quality of our experience is always the same – the knowing of experience.
A non dual practice to try
The problem with a lot of spiritual practice is that we lose ourselves in the content of our experiences, instead of in the flavor of it.
We kid ourselves by thinking that there is something more, something we are missing – we must be ‘bad’ at our spiritual practice.
But therein lies the problem. You are missing that which is closer to you than your own breath.
There is no journey. This is it. There is nowhere else. This has always been it.
There never has been a past and will never be a future. This is all that has ever been longed for. This is it.Unmani Liza Hyde, I am Life Itself
As mentioned above, our experience is often veiled by the content of identity.
We constantly assess our experience through questions and thoughts like: what are my likes and dislikes, what am I self-conscious about, what am I confident in, what beliefs do I hold about myself, what traumas and baggage do I have?
All of these parts of our ‘identity’ stop us from seeing the Self as it truly is.
This is what teachers like Ramana Maharshi teach us, to constantly come back to the Self. Turn the awareness inwards, that is where the truth lies.
Relational self-inquiry can trigger a shift in perspective from an ego-centered view to a more expansive, inclusive one. This shift aligns with the non-dual understanding that there is no fundamental separation between self and other.
It invites us to transcend the illusion of separateness and recognize the unity that underlies all of existence.
A bonus is that, if we engage in self-inquiry, we often develop a greater sense of empathy and compassion for others. This arises from the recognition that their experiences, emotions, and struggles are interconnected with our own.
You have to ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’ This investigation will lead in the end to the discovery of something within you which is behind the mind. Solve that great problem and you will solve all other problems.Ramana Maharshi
Asking ‘who am I?‘ is a contemplative practice that’s often used as a nondual inquiry. When we consistently engage in this contemplation, egoic thoughts are gradually extinguished.
Eventually, even the ‘I’ thought dissolves, leaving only the state of the non-dual Self.
As Adyashanti says, we’re not just looking beyond the misgivings of our own deluded mind, “we’re looking beyond the delusion of the entirety of humanity“. Our practice is about “awakening from the dream state of separateness into the reality of the One”.
You can question, philosophize, and debate for the rest of your life. The true practice is to simply abide in your stillness and follow it home.
Non-duality will be discovered in direct experience. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy, but it’s important to have faith in and dedication to the path.
Grace will take it from there.