The Shimmering Dead End
Thoughts on the packaging and sale of nonduality


There is only one thing that holds all the world’s spiritual ideas in common, the fact that they are known by human beings. All the billions of relationships with God, a higher power, or a higher self of any conception, all find their point of rendering in the mind as ideation. In essence, cognitive neuroscience heralds the end of spirituality. It seems a foregone conclusion that we will soon know exactly which parts of the brain regulate religious feelings and how they operate, leaving the entire cultural artifact of religion across history as nothing more than a set of patterns we follow. The content of religion stands to lose almost all of its import from the coming biological view of the function of religion.

Of course, for most people, this won’t change a thing. There will be no death of spirituality. Indeed, there may arise ever more potent spiritual practices, only, they might not be called “spiritual” anymore.

Hopefully, we can look forward to a very large ding in the phenomenon of sectarianism. If the same parts of the brain light up for most folks’ religious life, the whole rationale for sects vanishes. It truly becomes a case of how you believe rather than what you believe. That sounds like a really good outcome, one that may become possible if neuroscience actually does show us that our deepest experiences of what each of us finds holy share the same pathways in our brains, finally proving what a certain mad brahmin of Dakshineswar once said: “As many faiths, so many paths.”


The roots of the idea of a ubiquitously-experienced shift in human consciousness extend to at least the late 19th century and the birth of European theosophy. Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy gave the idea many more legs in 1980, and recent speculation about the winter solstice in 2012 has it running like a jack rabbit.

Historically, such an event would be unprecedented. However, that doesn’t stop people from believing it’s just around the corner, and this is because of a metaphor system that makes it easy to believe.

The idea of a globally-experienced shift in consciousness is rooted in the metaphor “consciousness is energy” and its entailments. Since we know that energy can be transmitted across distances by electromagnetic waves, we believe our consciousness can be changed by being in the presence of an “enlightened” person, or by exposure to “energy” from extra-planetary or supernatural sources.

Another metaphor in play is “higher is better.” Thus, we seek to “raise” our consciousness, and when our consciousness is “higher,” it is better for us and the world at large. Consciousness can also be “quickened,” as this “raises” the frequency of the “energy.”

Finally, this all rests on the notion of containment: “I am in my body.” This allows us to believe we exist as mental beings made out of the energy of consciousness that exists inside our bodies, and that we can move to a higher, and thus, better state.

What is almost universally overlooked is that this set of notions work together to create an idea of distance from what is being experienced now as our normal, nondual consciousness, which isn’t actually higher, but can certainly be missed when we believe it is.


Our nondual identity is the one we are right now. However, unless we have already seen that this is true, we’re probably chasing a spiritual Xanadu or lonely outpost in emptiness. Why? What’s the barrier to a recognition of what’s always true in each and every one of us? The traditions almost universally put desire at the top of the list, and generally, anything else that has to do with being an individual after that.

But since desire is perfectly natural, and clearly remains a feature in the lives of anybody still breathing, I’m inclined to look elsewhere for the cock up.

First on the list is the simple notion of containment. Because we’ve observed that some things can be held inside other things, we have a basis to believe that we are something that is in our body. And since the notion of containment is fundamental to how we construct the world, being something in a body is likely a well distributed idea in the brain. Since our entire theater of experience takes place on a stage constructed out of our embodiment, it’s very possible that all of our ideas of identity—the ego, personality, our souls—are psychological constructions built upon the same neural framework that allows us to conceive of a firefly in a jar.

Another cognitive stumbling block is the conceptual metaphor “higher is better.” Since we believe we are something that is stuck in a body, we’ve come to believe we must escape that. The solution up to this point has been the notion of ascension, a movement from a lower, more base condition to a higher, more pure state. What has been consistently overlooked by the traditions is that this creates a psychological distance from what is true in our present condition. In essence, by putting enlightenment in our future as the anticipated moment at which we arrive at “higher” consciousness, we keep it there.

We can also talk about an “always on” problem. Namely, because our entire lifetime has occurred within the context of nondual consciousness, we are not able to recognize the most common feature of our existence as conscious beings. It’s just too “here” to see for most of us.

Finally, there is the “what is it” problem. Since nondual consciousness is beyond our ability to conceive, any concept about it will create psychological distance. These come in four general varieties: ideas about what it is to be God, ideas about what it is to be everything, ideas about what it is to be nothing, and stories which describe altered states of consciousness. Each of these come with a substantial number of entailments, e.g., the folk theory of enlightenment, which also happen to provide much of the content of mystical religion.

In fact, just the idea of finding enlightenment is itself a generator of psychological distance. It seems that any cognitive movement toward enlightenment is a step away from it. Perhaps this is why Ramana Maharshi once remarked, “A day will dawn when you will laugh at all your efforts. What is there to realize? The real is always as it is.”


The container metaphor is one of the central notions out of which our individual identity is constructed. The idea is simply that we have a body with an inside, outside, top, bottom, front, and back. There are things outside our bodies, such as the world, and things inside, such as our thoughts, feelings, etc. In other words, our state of consciousness.

The prevailing view in nonduality culture is that nondual realization is a change in our state of consciousness. Many would contend that it is the “highest” state of consciousness. Others would say it’s a recognition of an enduring condition of consciousness that is suddenly noticed. This removes the “change” from consciousness, to a change in the awareness of consciousness, and this is a different matter entirely.

When you think state of consciousness, you could think about your emotional state, the state of your perceptions, drug and meditation states, etc. But if nondual realization is a recognition of an ongoing condition of consciousness, the change occurs to the state of ignorance of this. Rather than being something that you feel or experience, it’s simply a matter of what you know. Rather than being able to imagine any and all kinds of experiences—usually based on the idea that you are now God, or the universe—you simply see the truth, a truth that has always been true in you, despite the fact you hadn’t noticed this before.

I believe that the idea of our “state of consciousness” is a primary occlusion of the truth of our nondual consciousness. If one is expecting some kind of radical and unordinary state of consciousness to occur at the moment of realization, it seems more likely that one could miss the quiet truth of nondual consciousness that always exists within our everyday consciousness. So, rather than expecting a big deal, it might be better to seek within the arena of our routine existence as it happens, day-to-day, and so on.


“[We’re] already in the state of awakening; we just have to discover that.” ~Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

I’ve found there to be two main schools of thought which attempt to describe the realization of nondual, or primordial consciousness: the ‘glorious mountaintop’ school and the ‘chop wood, carry water’ school. These denote the metaphor systems employed to make the description. The first makes heavy use the attributes “up,” “higher,” “greater,” “perfected,” “pure,” “chaiste,” and “divine.” The metaphor is one of having defeated the temptations of the world by conquering desire, thus allowing one to ascend the difficult path up the lonely mountain, arriving at a summit that is full of peace, happiness, perfection, magic power, divinity, and the absence of anything that could be considered suffering—but only after the complete extinction of our individual sense of self.

The ‘chop wood, carry water’ school is quite the opposite in terms of its use of superlatives and attributes. We merely see what has always been present, as the Rinpoche describes. When this moment occurs, there is a recognition of what has been ongoing in our awareness, albeit seemingly overlooked. While a subtle shift in personal identity may occur at this moment, nothing else really changes in a life. Why should it? Or more to the point, how could it? The neurobiological component in personal consciousness is subject to its biological processes. Shifts in mind may be immediate, but shifts in personality usually occur over a longer period of time, usually years in most cases.

The ‘glorious mountaintop’ is the defacto home of the folk theory of enlightenment. Most of the Vedic-based systems of thought are saturated with it, as well as their Western deriviates, the neo-Advaita schools. ‘Chop wood, carry water’ finds its purview in Zen, Ch’an, and Dzogchen Buddhism, as well as with just about every individual I have met personally who I regard to be a jnani, or knower of nondual consciousness.

I’d like to suggest that the main problem is simply that our embodied minds take these metaphors too literally. Thus, to make enlightenment something that is higher, greater, more perfect and/or more pure, is to remove it from ourselves in the moment, resulting in the occluding effect of the folk theory of enlightenment.

We cannot escape metaphor, but we can be more strategic in how we employ it. Thus, rather than being something that is higher than where we are right now, our nondual consciousness can be said to be the very heart of our personal identity in each moment of our lives, albeit one that seems apparently, momentarily obscured. Rather than being a journey up a difficult mountain path, we could instead explore our own inner forest. Both require the fearlessness that is a pre-requisite for any sincere spiritual exploration, but one keeps us where we are at, as well as keeping our goal inside us. While the difference may seem slight to some, to our embodied minds, the contrast could be like day and night.


Today I experienced a spectacular instance of inattentional blindness. Driving to the home supply store, I took a different route than my usual. I was picturing that the road I was on would be just south of the store I was heading to. When I came to the intersection and looked north, I saw a different store. So, without looking right, I made the left turn and went north in search. I soon realized that the home supply store was at the intersection I turned left at, only it was just to the right. It must have been clear as a bell in my peripheral vision, but because my mind’s map had it to the north of the intersection, I didn’t even bother to look.

This is perhaps more telling of my mental condition than what I’d really like to say, which is that nondual occlusion is just like inattentional blindness, and may even be a special case of it. By holding the ideas generated by the folk theories about our own nondual awareness, our attention is steered away from what’s always right there. We aren’t looking there because we’re imaging that it’s something else entirely, our idea of it. The truth is that anything we can imagine will always be something else entirely.


An aspirational spirit is one of the greatest gifts of human life, but when the aspiration is for “higher” consciousness, we couldn’t employ a poorer term to describe it. The higher=better metaphor forms the seed crystal for a significant chunk of the folk theory of enlightenment, and it appears to occlude a recognition of nondual awareness by defining it as something we are not—right now. But it appeals to our biological prerogative to ascend the hierarchy, which is probably where the whole aspirational thing got its start.

Nondual enlightenment is not a jump from lower to higher consciousness, it is a lateral shift in the perception of awareness, one that comes as a recognition of awareness that has been ongoing. Like the sailor who went around the world to find his greatest love in his old neighborhood, the question becomes, did he ever really need to leave? Some would say yes, perhaps out of an appeal to romance, but while many travel long and hard on the spiritual path, not very many ever seem to arrive at their intended destination, and this may only because their idea of where they were headed has always been entirely wrong.


Referencing the map for a moment, we can see that the entire constellation of ideas I’m calling the folk theory of enlightenment find their center of gravity in the notion of “no ego.” There are millions of people around the world fervently and sincerely trying to destroy their own sense of themselves as a path to nondual enlightenment.

Our sense of ourselves is our social nav system. Nondual enlightenment does not affect the nav system, as it’s always shining within the nav system’s functional awareness. Every enlightened person on the planet has a nav system. We experience our nav system, our sense of self and place in the world, as our personality.

But what we don’t need is to be that personality. We aren’t ever that anyway. None of us. But most hold an idea that we are. There’s a lot to support the idea. Here’s my body, I’m somehow in it. That’s all it takes—the idea of there being a “me” contained by my body—to make a me. That’s what the Upanishads refer to as the ahamkara, and that’s what’s been called the “ego” ever since Helena Blavatsky and others brought home the booty of the Vedas to misconstrue for the Western world.

So we can all stop hating on ourselves, and love who we are, and then learn firsthand that we aren’t. Expecting to lose our sense of ourselves in order to know ourselves can only result in an occluding idea about not knowing ourselves. The misuse of the term “ego” by gurus has traditionally been a significant business driver, but only by means of the prophylactic effect of the notion.


As far as gurus are concerned, there are a whole lot more dead ones than living. But ashes on the Ganges or in a grave somewhere else, dead gurus project great power into the present nonduality spirituality zeitgeist.

Fortunately, there are some good ones among the bad. But even these get deified, their simple lives transformed into ornate and fantastic hagiographies. While their nondual understanding remains unquestionable, the details of their lives as “recorded” by those who’ve written about them are usually blazing with 8 coats of white paint, and then detailed with all manner of assumption about their lives, all based squarely within the folk theory of enlightenment.

Basically, the life stories of the saints are stocked to the rafters with occluding notions about nondual enlightenment. As quaint and inspiring as they can be, they aren’t really helping people come to their own nondual understanding, and aren’t likely to have much one-to-one correspondence with the actual events of that life, anyway.

There is also the cross-cultural gap that exists between an Indian guru’s life and that of their modern western admirers. For instance, all the Victorian prohibitions against what is for most folks, an entirely normal sex life. Again, folk theory comes into play as the notion that sexual activity depletes spiritual energy, providing the occluding idea that as long as I’m having sex, I won’t come to enlightenment.

Most hagiographies contain stories of miracles. Some are almost entirely miracle stories. Our appetite for miracle stories is enormous. So much so that I’m going to conjecture that there is a neurological basis for being interested in and believing miracle stories. Miracle stories are the purest of the pure heroin of the folk theory of enlightenment. We can thank many living and most of the dead gurus for pushing it on us.


I’m convinced that the mere suggestion of what it would be like to be God, everything or nothing is the standing wave of the FToE in global culture. This wave has produced ripples in the form of mystical literature, most of which include descriptions of spiritual experience that support the inherent notions of the FToE.

And then there are the popular gurus, those men and women who have risen to godwo/man status in the media age. Their followers usually number in the millions, world-wide. Often, but not always Indian, these folks are banking on the notion that the devotees will believe them to be God. And all over the world, there are people who are neurotypically-driven to accept that a person can be more divine than themselves, the biological alpha. It’s in our genes to follow those we perceive greater than ourselves. But the horrible rub here is that any real guru knows that their enlightenment doesn’t make them any different, better or special than anyone else. But that doesn’t sell, while being special kills.

Which is why a guru will deploy the FToE in their satsang’s weltanschauung. By this we mean let slip little astounding facts about themselves and their spiritual experiences. These are almost instantly amplified throughout the org, reinforcing commitment to someone who is obviously a very holy person.

If we look at the current landscape of superstar gurudom, a few peaks stand above the rest. A brief list would include Ammachi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Sai Baba, Kalki Bhagavan, and the off-like-a-bullet newcomer, Nithyananda. All of these individuals are thought of as divine. While they may not openly admit this themselves, they sure as hell aren’t trying to stem that belief in their satsang, as evidenced by this example of one Swami Amritswarupananda’s bald-faced miracle-mongering on the Amma org’s official website:

What will I get from Amma? Of course, in this world, where everything revolves more around taking than giving, it is quite understandable that people want to know what they will get from Amma. Okay, let us think in the same line. What does Amma give? Amma gives everything.

“Be specific! I don’t have a house. Will she give a house?”
She will.

“I am sick and don’t have enough money to undergo the necessary treatment. Can Amma help?”

“I cannot afford my son’s education. What can Amma do for me?”

Amma only knows how to give. This giver of givers doesn’t take anything except our darkness, pain and sorrow. In return Amma offers the light of pure love and peace. To put it in another way, Amma gives life . She gives more life. More life means a deeper life, a deeper understanding of life, a life rooted in higher values.

All of the gurus I mentioned are using this kind of idea to cement their hapless followers into place. The effect of this is wild financial success, but at the expense of massive amounts of occlusion, and often a good deal of disillusionment. The divine guru metaphor is a sales driver made of dreams, when being awake is what most are really after. But the notions of enlightenment provided by the example of the divine guru keep us asleep and comfy in our ignorance. The best revenue stream is the repeat business.