A Non-Dual Paradox
On my recent “ashram-hopping” adventure in South India I came across an important paradox in the commonly termed “non-dual” (or Vedanta) spiritual systems of thought. Being most versed in the Tantric way of viewing reality I was obviously not the most fluid follower of the more conventional approaches to spirituality found in India. Basic things like feeling great about my body and my sexuality were inherently disapproved of, and I began to look into their ascribed set of beliefs for answers as to what gave these doctrines justification to discern my actions’ spiritual validity. What I came to is a paradox in their philosophy.
So what is this paradox? First I will need to explain what a “non-dual” worldview means in my understanding. A non-dual worldview refers to a cosmological belief that the whole universe is at its most essential level one unified whole which is indivisible in essence. Though the nature of this unified whole is indivisible it appears as divided into parts only by the cosmic force called maya, which in these non-dual sects is translated as illusion. All the appearances of separation into parts (subjects and objects) is considered to be a grand illusion of the ego-mind. And so, the practices of these sects are based in detaching from, or transcending beyond, identification with the parts at all. The goal being to return one’s awareness to the Infinite Whole perspective and no-longer identify with the sense-perceiving organs and mind/intellect.
This all sounds nice right? So here’s the paradox. Inherently embedded within this sort of practice, one of reaching for one perspective and thus simultaneously away from another, is the implication that there is after all a dual reality. What’s more in favouring and naming one point of perspective (the so-called non-illusory state of awareness) over another (the world after maya, or, the infinite forms) is that a hierarchy is immediately implied. By claiming one state of consciousness as better than another, the consciousness of the perceiver (the practitioner) is divided and subjected to belief in the duality of good over bad. Which is the essence of duality in the first place.
I started to really sense this paradox intuitively during my ashram escapades. For example, in the Sivananda tradition of Yoga (which consciously follows a Vedantic perspective), while philosophizing a non-dual reality the actual practice is completely laden with subjective value judgements concerning right and wrong conduct. Even in the very yogic precepts called Yamas and Niyamas (the code of conduct) the yogi subjects himself to a dualistic judgement of his every action. How, if the world is One Unified Whole, indivisible by nature, can there be a universal “good” or a “bad” way of doing anything? Isn’t the very projection of such a judgement only possible by the very ego-mind the Vedantic yogi is supposed to be freeing himself of? How can we truly liberate ourselves from the bind of duality if we constantly partake in dogmatic rules for our expression?
This is where I feel the Tantric perspective provides meaningful answers. In the Tantric traditions the world is also considered as essentially an indivisible whole, a unified field of infinite potential (Brahman). For the Tantric though, the force of Maya is not translated as illusion, but rather as a Goddess in her own right. She is the Goddess who bestows the blessing of differentiation and thus illuminates the universe with Infinite realities. She veils the perceiver’s view of Absolute perspective,revealing instead the myriad defined perspectives to allow for infinite potentials. Rather than viewing the world of forms as something “less” than the state of Supreme consciousness, a mere illusion, the world of forms is honoured as a reflection of that Supreme Consciousness. The world is the defined version of the undefined. As a reflection, the world of forms is regarded as equally sacred and holy as the undefined Absolute.
This holistic perspective allows the practitioner to honour the Absolute through the manifestation. This looks like honouring the body, not as something “impure” that needs to be detached from, but as completely Sacred and “in God’s image”. The way this impacts the practices is that both transcendent, expansive awareness mediations and inquiries are practiced alongside active, dynamic, body-based practices. This integrates the Whole of the person rather than conditioning the person to believe that the manifestation of the self is something to be overcome and moved beyond. This is perhaps epitomized in the fact that in Tantric traditions the art of sex is considered a sacred practice. Whereas in most yogic and non-dual traditions the very urge for sex is considered something which needs to be moved beyond, we might even say denied.
While I honour and practice the art of transcendent stillness meditation, I feel that a one-sided practice of this style creates rigidity, fear, judgement and actually more “ego” over time as the practitioner begins to view his/her higher self as objectively better than the gross the world. Where a balanced Tantric practice conditions the practitioner to view the world as whole and complete, I feel that the strictly Vedantic practices condition the practitioner to view the world as fragmented. It is a fragmented worldview I believe which leads to more and more opposition between people and within oneself. It also leads to more and more fear. Because the view that what is known through the senses is not-real, and what is perceived only through transcendent states of awareness is real, the world becomes a dual reality of real and not-real. For the Tantric, everything is real, in so much as the expressions and materializations are complete reflections of the Divine un-manifest. Perhaps we could say to a Tantric, everything is both real and unreal simultaneously.
Let us consider this in relation to sex, since many people only think of sex when they think of Tantra. A Tantric considers sex to be Divine. As everything is essentially the Divine One, everything (including one’s natural urges) is the creation of God,the vision of God. Thus, sex cannot be outside the realm of the Divine. This leads the practitioner to honour and worship their own bodies and the body(ies) of their partner(s) as the very Body of God. For an orthodox yogi, sex is regarded as something which must be avoided and repressed until it is transcended. Because that is simply not natural for most people, often the yogi becomes obsessed and rather than relax and enjoy the sexual expression of the Divine, they fight against their nature and culture in themselves a sense of self hate. Then, loaded with oppressed charge, their energy leaks out in confused, unconscious ways. Think of the priest and guru scandals. Other times it seems that people who are dissociated from their bodies and feel uncomfortable in their sexuality are drawn to these restrictive practices not as a way to actually liberate and transcend their limitations, but as a way to hide behind spiritual dogma and justify their suppressed connection to their own humanity.
The other point of interest I came to is how this kind of value judgment around what is “right” and what is “wrong” leads people to follow only the so called “positive” side of things. But how can we possibly live in a world of only “good” if there is no “good” or “bad” in the first place? By continuing to worship the light over the dark, the nice over the miserable, we deepen our conditioning into the perception of the world as dual. The most essential truth that all spiritual sciences point to is the One Whole, and yet almost all practices of these sciences involve favouring one aspect of the Whole over the other. This is what I find crazy, and to be a huge aspect of the rampant dissatisfaction we are experiencing socially. Why not practice to see all of life’s diversity as the unified Brahman? This holistic approach would allow you to relax into the endless ebb and flow that naturally will exist for eternity. The ebb and flow being the very nature of the cosmos.
When we favour one expression of life over another, we set ourselves up to be in constant battle with our realities. If I only support happiness for example, in the sense of feeling “good” all the time, I am equally not-supporting unhappiness or feeling “bad”. The thing with polarity is, all poles are interdependent to one another. To seek one expression of the Divine over another is to put your perspective in disharmony with the natural laws of existence.
I think where people often become confused in this is the translation of the word “Ananda” from the Sanskrit language referring to one of the three properties of the Divine Brahman, as “Bliss”. When our human ego-minds get a hold of the word Bliss, we completely miss the deeper understanding of the word in reference to the Divine. The Divine Ananda is not at all referring to a feeling of elation, think “Man, I’m really Blissed out!”. The Divine Bliss refers to the complete perception of the Whole in perfect harmony. It is actually the absolute knowing of everything as perfect, which includes all the possible manifestations of what we as thought-constructing beings would mentally term and thus perceive as “awful”, “disgusting”, “bad”, “evil”. Think of the wrathful image of Kali (pictured at the head of this article) being worshiped as Divine to help you get an idea of what this kind of all-accepting devotion looks like.
Moving your perspective beyond the conditioned mind of judging the world into good and evil parts is what I consider the most essential meaning of abolishing sin. This is the most transcendental, non-dual perspective I have come across. I feel it is truly a Medicine that can cure all ailments, in that no matter the expression, no matter the manifestation that one might be looking at through their limited view finder of the ego-mind, the picture can be perceived as perfect. To see the world through the glass of “Everything is Perfect” is, I believe, the closest we can come to beholding the cosmos the way God does. Perfect here does not at all mean nice, or pleasing, or pleasurable. Rather it is an art of letting go of the thought-constructing, defining way of naming reality and thus the loop of desire and aversion so we can live honestly free of limitation.
And still, here I am judging the “non-dual” way of thinking! I guess we just have to laugh at ourselves, shake our tail feathers and pray. Whatever that looks like for you! Can I get a Hallelujah!?