As a young adult I often stayed at the beautiful Marin Headlands hostel just north of San Francisco. I was there one weekend while a large group of missionaries was passing through. We were all sharing the same kitchen space and I was chopping some broccoli when a cute young woman around my age approached me. We started talking and I thought it was going well. I have always enjoyed conversing about spirituality and religion, even with people of different beliefs than my own.
At the time I was immersed in learning about Advaita – nondualism – which was blowing my mind. Nondual philosophy asserts that, although we perceive many things that may feel separate, in reality everything is an expression of a single Oneness experiencing itself in infinite ways.
Some people call this Oneness God or Goddess or Source or Divine or Dao. What’s important isn’t the name but the experience of this connection, and how it redefines how we see reality.
I had in my suitcase a book called Aghora in which an eccentric spiritual teacher explains that since everything is God, both sex and eating are simply acts of “putting God into God.” So, when this missionary woman asked me what I was doing, I guess I thought I was being clever by replying, “Oh, just chopping up some God.”
She was clearly taken aback, so I explained that if the whole universe is an expression of one God, then broccoli was of course included, and therefore I was chopping up some God to put into God (myself). She was speechless for a moment, then said – a bit louder than was called for, I thought – “God is not broccoli!” and walked away.
There were several lessons for me in this story, starting with (1) nobody likes a smug person pushing their buttons, and (2) if you truly want to make a difference in the world you need to meet people where they are. But aside from my social failure, maybe the most important lesson was that there’s often a huge difference between the description of an experience and the experience itself. In other words, to understand something intellectually tells us nothing of how we’d be affected by experiencing it.
In lectures, I used to explain how physics seems to “prove” nondualism, hoping that even the nonspiritual types in the class would be won over. I’d point out that while each of us feels we’re separate from everyone else in the classroom, we and the world around us are all just different configurations of the same fundamental stuff – subatomic particles or even more fundamental fluctuations of energy. It’s a powerful idea, but I doubt it’s caused many people to conduct themselves differently towards their neighbors.
For me and most people I know, life changes have come through direct experiences of this Oneness in non-ordinary states of consciousness facilitated mainly by meditation, yoga, ritual, self-inquiry, immersion in nature, music, acupuncture, art, pain, dance, conscious breathing, interpersonal connection, and entheogenic substances. Ordinary reality (even with impressive-yet-unactualized spiritual concepts) appears random and soulless by comparison.
I didn’t have the chance to ask, “If God is not broccoli, what is broccoli?” We tend to draw vague, subjective lines around life and then deem one side worthy of our reverence and the other unworthy, but the abolition of such lines isn’t automatically liberating. I’ve seen people, myself included, latch onto the idea that everything is Divine and then fall into nihilism. Because, if it’s all God, why try? Why care? Why choose one path over any other?
This kind of thinking is a sure sign that we’re operating from a mental concept and not actually experiencing what it represents. It would be similar to take a psychedelic mushroom and hold it between your teeth, telling yourself, “So this is what psychedelic mushrooms are all about. Meh.”
Your homework is to determine whether or not broccoli is God. Since “God” is a spiritual concept, it can’t really be assessed in ordinary reality. Everyday thinking needs to fall away. You can get there using any of the approaches I mentioned above.
P.S. I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes on nondualism from Tantra scholar Christopher Wallis in Tantra Illuminated (slightly abridged for space):
“Since reality is One, and everything is equally an expression of the one divine Light of Consciousness, every experience by definition is an experience of God… If we propose that some things are more God than others, like concentrated orange juice versus watered-down orange juice, then we must propose the existence of something that is not God that waters down divinity. But no such thing can be found, at least in this philosophy, because 1) the definition of God here is the unbounded Light of Consciousness, 2) everything that is known to exist is an object of experience, and 3) every experience is by definition pervaded by consciousness. Therefore, this – whatever is happening right now – is as God as it gets. Now, if you are in a miserable or banal life situation, you may be disappointed by this announcement. But notice I said, ‘This is as God as it gets,’ not, ‘This is as free as it gets.’ Freedom means actually experiencing the divinity in each moment.”