The folk theory of nondual enlightenment explained

This essay is based on a talk I gave at the 2010 Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, CA

I’d like to talk about something you could call the folk theory of nondual enlightenment. It seems to be a component of almost every ideology of any system of mystical spirituality that posits the possibility of being one with the universe, or, God. This is the popular definition of nondual enlightenment, and it may be presenting more of a problem than has been recognized by the nondual spiritual community.

I first encountered the idea of a folk theory when reading George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. In it, they argue that primary (or embodied) metaphors and folk theories provide the fundamental material of human reason. According to them, folk theories are “basic explanatory model[s]… that make up a culture’s shared common sense. There are often good reasons for these models, and in many cases folk theories work sufficiently well to serve everyday purposes.” Folk theories can be explicit, like the folk theories of nondual enlightenment, but they also operate implicitly, becoming “unconscious and automatic, taken as background assumptions and used in drawing conclusions.”

While folk theories may help us to make sense of our lives, they are often full of noncritical assumptions. We could talk about a folk theory of the human soul. It posits that we exist as beings apart from our body, and when the body dies, we will somehow continue, whether in a good or a bad place. Clearly, there are a few holes in the idea when you consider there hasn’t really been much, if any, definitive proof of an existence after death, at least as a disembodied soul carrying our essence. But because the idea of a soul has deep roots in our culture, we all pretty much take the folk theory that explains it to us for granted.

When applied to nondual spiritual understanding, however, folk theories fall flat on the floor. The reason is simply that nondual spiritual understanding cannot be rendered in any language, with any emotion or gesture. When I say enlightenment, or nondual understanding, I’m referring to the moment when attention develops the ability to discern our own awareness apart from the contents of our thoughts and feelings. This triggers a recogntion and we find ourselves permanently able to focus our attention on our own awareness without the contents. When this awareness without content is seen to be the source of one’s personal identity, that person can said to be nondual enlightened. In this way, it’s not a peak experience, or spiritual experience as they are most commonly understood. It’s a recognition of what has always been present in our awareness, rather than some shining moment of glory when we find ourselves to be divine.

But there is just no way to communicate exactly what the recognition of nondual awareness is like as an experience, which we’ve characterized as attention resting on awareness without objects of cognition. However and unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped many folks from speculating about it or embellishing it, especially spiritual teachers looking to make their teachings more attractive to us. The end result is a rich and fantastic mythology that “explains” to us what nondual spiritual enlightenment is like. For instance, Yogananda once confessed:

A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and the floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being.

Swami Chidananda claims that:

To the enlightened one, the world as he knew it ceases to be, and everything now stands enmantled (shrouded) by a shining vesture of divine effulgence, hitherto invisible to his normal vision.

Swami Shivananda tells us that:

A Sadguru [enlightened spiritual master] is endowed with countless Siddhis (psychic powers). He possesses all divine Aisvarya (powers), all the wealth of the Lord.

The idea of “siddhis” is a component of the first piling to which the folk theories of enlightenment are docked. It is the popular acceptance of the existence of siddhis that has given the folk theories much of their staying power. The notion of siddhis is popular in nondual spiritual culture because they are discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a very famous text of Hindu philosophy that also provided one of the main roots of present day new age spirituality.

According to Patanjali, siddhis are special powers that are acquired by way of the performance of demanding spiritual discipline and cultivation of moral purity. Some of these powers enable one to “levitate, walk on water, swamps, thorns, or the like.” One may “radiate light… gain distant hearing… become as tiny as an atom,” etc. But in much of nondual spiritual culture, the concept of a siddhi has been expanded to cover just about any unexplainable power that a person may possess. Because many of the more commercial gurus perform “miracles” as a part of their duties and marketing efforts, it has become a common assumption that nondual enlightenment is accompanied by the emergence of siddhis. In fact, for many who follow gurus who purport to teach enlightenment, the possession of siddhis is practically the most important qualification.

What all this leaves us with is the common expectation that nondual enlightenment will be accompanied by siddhis. When I fell into Jerry Katz’s Nonduality Salon in the late ’90s, I found a substantial number of individuals who were clearly “in the know” with regards to nondual spiritual understanding. However, none of them confessed to or discussed anything along the lines of a siddhi. From their regard, siddhis had nothing at all to do with their understanding of nondual awareness.

I’m not saying that anything that could be considered a siddhi in Patanjali’s sense of the word does not exist. But clearly, there just aren’t that many people who walk on water. And while many people, enlightened or not, may claim to be able to read minds, they just can’t seem to make it stick for the million dollars that James Randi is offering to them.

The idea of siddhis leads one directly to idea of the powerful divine guru. This is the person who has climbed the highest mountain of wisdom, often beginning in their early childhood, to finally become the godman or woman they were born to be. These may be satgurus, or avatars, believed to be direct incarnations of God Him/Herself. An avatar is a super-sized guru with an extra complement of siddhis, and while there’s only supposed to be a few running around the Earth at any one time, at the moment there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, who would claim the mantle for themselves.

Purna Avatars are born with an extraordinary array of supernatural powers, and possess an inexhaustible ability to perform divine miracles or miraculous deeds. They use these supernatural powers of theirs with the highest motives for both spiritual and temporal good of other beings, especially human beings. They never use these powers to benefit themselves.

As quaint as this description might seem, there are many thousands of adherents in nondual schools of thought who would believe this word for word. These ideas are literally woven into the fabric of nondual spiritual culture. Even those who might dismiss these notions in a discussion will still cower in the direct presence of a successful guru, believing they are feeling the emanation of God’s own power.

Many commercial gurus use the idea of their possessing siddhis as a marketing conceit. This isn’t necessarily accomplished by any kind of direct declaration by the guru, although that happens frequently, but simply by feeding into the local organizational gossip stream. Thus, the recounting of miraculous healings and events spread quickly through the guru’s devotional community, without the guru having to do anything except to suggest the possibility of such an occurrence.

Another pillar of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment is the idea of the perfected being, which is closely associated with the notion of purity. This concept is somewhat removed from the idea of siddhis, but is still square in the category of super special divine person. The perfected being is literally perfect because they are nondual enlightened, or they are nondual enlightened because they have made themselves perfect. They can do no wrong as their every action is God’s alone. They are clear vessels of God’s love, lacking any ego, or only having the faintest trace of one. They have conquered all desire, even though many who have been held as examples of perfected being have been caught with their hands in one cookie jar or another. Fortunately for them, since their every action is divinely ordained, they can simply claim that it is impossible to understand their actions, no matter how repugnant those actions may appear to their devotees.

A third pillar of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment is the notion of non-existence. These ideas are generated within the context of the more pure strains of nondual spiritual culture, and are therefore especially insidious. Among them is the idea that the self is not real. This is in fact true from a regard, but to apply the idea as a model of self, besides being completely paradoxical, only serves to foster a kind of denial of our cognitive and bodily realities. This in and of itself is a popular nondual teaching, but I’ve observed that to apply this teaching outside of an experiential understanding can result in a self-image built upon an abject denial of self-image, resulting in a kind of identity double-bind, an “I’m not real but I still look both ways before I cross the street” kind of denial. Additionally, if you believe you don’t exist, how are you going to recognize yourself as the existing nondual awareness from which your not-existent self arises?

Where I worked at the Institute for the Future, we made what we call “maps” of the subjects we research for our clients. So, I’ve gone ahead and attempted to map out some of the folk theories of nondual enlightenment to show some of the relationships between the different container metaphors that the folk theories are floating on.

The first pair of containers is the idea of being non-existent versus the idea of being God. You could map a roughly Buddhist/Hindu boundary here, as well as an atheist/theist one, although certainly not in any way that is precise. On the “being God” side of the map, there is a further distinction between power and purity, or the divine being and perfected being metaphors. There are plenty of folks who see these as one and the same, but they are likely to be employing these notions as their working model of authentic spirituality. Over the “God” side of the map we can now overlay the “qualities” of being God, such as love, power, omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, and of course, perfection. And now on these branches we can hang the fruit, those being the ideas of the various siddhis and qualities of purity that an enlightened individual is expected to possess.

To some (and perhaps many,) this may seem obvious and quaint, and maybe somewhat to entirely unnecessary. Perhaps they are right, but to my mind, these conceptual structures are likely to exist as neurological structures, and it seems possible to me that a neurological structure which represents nondual awareness could play an active role in blocking — or occluding — the experiential recognition of nondual awareness, by way of a mechanism we could call perceptual displacement.

Most of those who are members of a nondual spiritual community can attest to a dearth of members who are sitting in a place of experiential understanding. Of all the devotees of all the gurus who are believed to be enlightened, there are remarkably few success stories in terms of an honest production of enlightenment. The normal reason given is that it’s a very tall mountain that requires a saint-like purity to ascend. But perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Maybe the ideas we hold about nondual enlightenment do nothing but prevent nondual enlightenment by way of a neurological mechanism. The reproduction methods of the common cowbird come to mind.

The cowbird finds an active nest of another species of bird, and then it waits until it has a chance to sneak in and lay some eggs of its own. The victimized bird assumes the eggs are hers, incubates and hatches the cowbird’s eggs. The cowbird chicks are then raised as the victim’s own offspring, often knocking the victim’s surviving natural offspring out of the nest.

Concepts of nondual enlightenment may work against us in much the same way. If we don’t know what we’re looking at, it’s easy to mistake the counterfeit for the real. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no point of comparison from which we can discriminate nondual awareness against that which we know as our everyday awareness. Throw in the idea that we need to get somewhere else (the top of the mountain,) or become someone else (a powerful, perfected divine being) in order to know nondual truth, and we’ve just displaced our perception of nondual awareness topographically, temporally and qualitatively.

I’m not suggesting that occlusion is the only reason that folks don’t appear to be noticing their own nondual awareness in an experientially authentic way, but I’m convinced it may bear at least some of the responsibility in some, if not most cases.

So, I just told you that by thinking of an elephant, you’re not likely to see the elephant. How do you go about not thinking of the elephant? There aren’t many options here, but there are a few approaches one can take.

One is to give up the search. Please note: this isn’t saying give up meditation or whatever spiritual practices you might be engaged in. But it is saying to forget the goal of your practice. The Bhagavad Gita says, “those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” If you have the goal of nondual enlightenment, you’ve just precluded the recognition of your immediate nondual awareness as it exists within the moment you are considering it as a goal. You can still enjoy all the benefits of meditation without that goal in your day-to-day life, and by not having your enlightenment as a goal, you might bring its ever-present reality that much more into your field of understanding.

Another potential avenue is mindfulness. This is primarily a Buddhist practice, although Vedanta provides something similar, albeit in the form of negation. Mindfulness is simply watching the mind without attachment or reaction. That’s the hard part, not reacting. But if you do it enough you’ll get pretty good at it. That’s going to foster a certain clarity of insight. The more you know about yourself, the more you’ll know about yourself, and since nondual enlightenment is the ultimate knowing yourself, it makes sense that there’s a viable path to be trod in knowing yourself as much as you are able. Mindfulness is a simple (although initially difficult) way to arrive at self-knowledge of any kind.

Finally, there is the application of attention to imaginal ideas of God. In this, the goal is a state of surrender to whatever idea of God one might hold dear. Ramakrishna said, “bhakti (devotional yoga) is the easiest path,” for just this reason. For a sincere devotee, the will of God is paramount, and a surrendered devotee isn’t going to be asking for enlightenment, they are going to keep asking for more surrender to the will of God. In this way, you aren’t searching for anything, you are striving to be in ever more complete states of surrender. What those are will be completely self-determined, but since your mind is off nondual enlightenment, it might just sneak up on you and present itself unexpectedly. It’s certainly happened before.

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