When my wife says I’m the only person she knows who could happily curl up in bed with a 20-pound medical text, I like to point out that I also enjoy books on philosophy. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve read a work of fiction (except to my kids), but I find nonfiction so fascinating, and it constantly challenges my worldview. I know most people find these subjects dry and heady, so I try to tackle them in our newsletters with the aim of making them more accessible and digestible.
Today I’d like to share some thoughts on one of these dry topics – the philosophy of nondualism. Wait, don’t leave! I promise I’ll make it interesting – controversial even. Just bear with me. It might even change the way you see the world.
In a nutshell, nondualism is the notion that everything is essentially one – that all the apparent differences and separation we perceive in the world are an illusion.
Nondual philosophy has many different forms; I can’t deliver a comprehensive analysis in an article this short. Instead, I’ll speak to the perspective of a single Eastern source – Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis – and a single Western source – A Course in Miracles (ACIM) by Helen Schucman.
The first is a study of Tantra, a group of spiritual traditions that arose mainly between 300 and 1300 A.D. They had a significant impact on the development of yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but “tantric sex” is the tiniest fraction of what Tantra comprises.
The second, which might be understood as nondual Christianity, was written by an American in the 1960s and 70s and is presented as a “channeled” work dictated by Jesus.
Though seemingly very different, these two traditions actually have a lot in common. And what they share is a perspective that would alleviate a lot of suffering if it were more widely known.
Both schools of thought focus on discovering the unity within all the apparent differences in the world. They say that when we see a world where some things are godly and others aren’t, where good and evil, wealth and poverty, sickness and health, virtue and sin, life and death, and a host of other “dualities” yank us around and define our experience of life, we’re wrapped up in a dream that obscures the real truth.
And that truth, they assert, is that all things are an expression of one Consciousness (God, Spirit, Universe, Divine Light, Highest Self, or whatever other word you care to use), which is synonymous with Love. These systems hold that everyone and all things are connected, equal expressions of God, and there is nothing to fear and no reason to suffer.
ACIM often pushes non-Christians’ buttons by using terms like Jesus, Christ, and Holy Spirit. For me, raised Jewish, the terminology presented some hurdles at first, but it gets easier the more I recognize that these names – as well as those of most other traditions – are all pointing to the same thing.
ACIM also pushes Christians’ buttons because much of what it teaches flies in the face of Christian dogma. It states that God isn’t outside of us or different than us. It holds that there is no duality of heaven and hell; only heaven is real and we’re either conscious of it or lost in stories of our own making. It says there is no sin – only mistakes made out of confusion. It claims that God doesn’t forgive – because God doesn’t condemn.
Despite these potential objections, I feel it’s a worthwhile study in Western nondualism. It might be a more natural leap for someone with a background in an Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam are the main three) rather than adopting a completely foreign Eastern nondual tradition. However, some find the reframing of deeply entrenched Abrahamic concepts too difficult to swallow, or the terminology too loaded, making the Eastern traditions something of a clean slate in comparison.
Central to ACIM’s narrative is the idea that you sought to break apart from God, to be independent, and in so doing, you gave your power to your ego. (This might be likened to the biblical story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, whereupon the mind was given authority and we lost the “Eden” state of consciousness.) The ego protects this idea of independence by asserting that the world is a place of separation, where everything is disconnected, where all things are in competition, and pain, suffering, and loneliness threaten us.
The perpetuation of this dream depends on the ego’s continually empowering itself by generating conflict – with the world and yourself. Meanwhile, the belief that you cut yourself off from your Highest Self (keep substituting words you like) is a source of deep self-blame, which you also project onto the world and its inhabitants.
The primary means of resolving this dilemma, the Course teaches, is forgiveness. By forgiving yourself and everyone else, conflict dissolves, the illusion of separation fades, you see that you were never actually alone or vulnerable, and the world becomes a different place.
Nondual Tantra takes a slightly different view of the origin, but presents a similar human conundrum. In its conception of reality, there is one Divine Light (again, you can call this God, Goddess, Awareness, Spirit, Dao, etc.) that expresses itself in all possible ways – including as seven billion humans – through what is called krida, the doctrine of divine play. The word “play” is used because the Source manifests an infinitely diverse world for its own sake – for the love of it – rather than for some end result.
In order to have an immersive experience as each of these facets of the world, the Divine imbues them with only a fraction of its total awareness. That is, so that you can really experience being you – believing you’re on your own, thinking you’re limited by this body, feeling the full spectrum of human emotion, triumphing over obstacles – you can’t know all along that you’re actually God acting like a human.
You have to forget, so the play feels that much more real – and so that you can later remember. It’s the ultimate game: to dive into a world where you’re blind to the connections and safety nets, where there’s so much potential to feel alone, afraid, and attacked, and yet, to find the light. To remember that it’s all You. To wake up to what you really are, with revelation, relief, and awe.
I have no agenda of convincing you to subscribe to either of these schools of thought. But knowing that our readers are open-minded people who are looking for deeper peace and an experience of connection, I thought you might find it compelling that two traditions from such different times and places offer such a similar message. (And these are just a couple examples of many.)
Both systems declare that you’re so much more connected to the world and your Highest Self than you realize, that the death of your body isn’t the end of life, and that the fundamental matrix of the universe is love. Perhaps there’s room in your worldview for a little nondualism. What do you think?
Dr. Peter Borten