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

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.”

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2 Responses to “Cognition and nondual consciousness”

  1. Well done… as always.

    Let me toss in a few ideas.

    1) We believe in the idea of illusion, including the notion that we are somehow “more than we think” or that we have a “true nature”, due to the neural feedback loops, the time it takes for sensations to be processed (let alone delivered to our awareness), and a subtle awareness that everything we experience is “post-processed.” In other words, we can tell that our experiences have, at the very least, a time delay. Deja vu, in fact, seems to be a situation where we get both the post-processed experience as well as the not-fully-processed information, leading to that feeling of having experienced something before (without ever being able to do anything different).

    2) The idea that we are non-dual entities is a conceptual one, not a perceptual one. That is, it has nothing to do with any experience, but is something we learn through education. Sure, certain experiences can predispose us to considering it, but those same experiences also bias us to an immature interpretation of what “non-dual” means (e.g. “oneness”). I equate this with learning that the sun does NOT rotate around the earth, despite the obvious perception that it does. Once we learn the “truth,” we can no longer see anything else, even though it’s contrary to our actual experience.

    3) We have an “extrapolation/exaggeration problem.” To the extent that we can conceive of a “better” future, we extrapolate from our history of “better” experiences what’s required to create it. That is, if having chocolate, or sex, or money made us happy in the past (according to our faulty memory), then we extrapolate that we need that in the future. If the amount we had in the past wasn’t enough for sustained happiness (another bit of faulty reasoning), then we exaggerate and assume we need more the next time. When it comes to psychological states, this leads to the idea that there is — and we can attain — some permanent psychological state of extreme happiness.

    4) And because we can imagine something (in this case the permanent state change), we therefore assume that it MUST be possible to attain.

  2. great post and excellent comment.

    Just wanted to respond to point 2 above. I understand where you are going with this and in some ways I agree. To the untrained eye it does seem that the sun goes around the earth. But as we refine our vision we see that there are subtle hints that point in the direction that all is not what it seems.

    The transition to a “nondual” perception is even subtler. But I wonder if those feelings of connections to nature – our closest experience of something beyond the scale of perception- or losing ourselves in play as children are the fertile soil that the cognitive idea of “nondual” falls on.

    Is it too self-serving to say that we are cultivating subtler vision and understanding about one aspect of the creation? The world is both dual and nondual. Only one of those states lasts.


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