Cognition and nondual consciousness
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.”