Mar 20, 2018 - 5 minute read

Non-Dual Philosophy: A First Taste

Lines of reasoning about the nature of experience, based on self-enquiry and self-verification, that question and invalidate the separation we habitually assume and feel between us and the rest of life: between us and other people, between us and our work, and between us and nature.

This is how I might answer a friend casually asking what non-dual philosophy is. Conducted in the plane of subjective experience, this study is quite different from science—there are no table of results to interpret, no phenomena to measure, and no special tools to conduct experiments with.

Why do we care? Because some of us are curious, and after looking into it some, find that the ideas therein resonate with our experience. The skier amongst us finds that they give expression to their unnameable ecstasy on the slopes, when they feel their soul between the skis and the snow. The accountant, to their disappearance into the sea of numbers on the spreadsheet straddling their dual-monitors, becoming one with the data. Non-dual philosophy provides a conceptual framework that helps with extending these experiences of non-separation out, from situations where it comes naturally to us to those where it’s not-so-much.

Albert Einstein riding his bicycle in Santa Barbara, 1933.

Why don’t we do a little non-dual philosophizing now, to get a flavor for what it’s like? I am listening to some music on FM radio (yes, I am old-fashioned; WQXR if you are curious). Let’s investigate this experience, of I am listening to music. What exactly is happening, and how are the various elements of this happening related?

There’s an I, there’s listening, and there’s music. First, let’s tackle the I. Since we say I rather than my ear as the subject of the experience, we can set aside our physical body as what we mean by I. We mean rather our consciousness, that to which perceptions appear. That which is aware. So let’s settle on my awareness as a working definition of I. There are whole tracts of analyses on the topic of I, but we’ll save exploring them for another time.

Let’s now look at the other end of the statement I am/my awareness is listening to music. Music is made of sound. Without sound, there’s no music. Music is sound in some form of arrangement. Pretty uncontroversial. Similarly, there is no such thing as sound without the faculty of hearing. I am not saying that there is no sound if there’s no one to hear it. I am saying that if we were all deaf, humans didn’t have ears and no one could hear, we won’t even be able to imagine sound. We might be able to measure its effects, and track sound waves with lab equipment; but we won’t be calling it sound. We will be calling it pressure waves in air, and nobody would be the wiser. Just like music is just not possible without sound, sound is not possible without the faculty of hearing.

How about hearing? Hearing cannot exist without our being aware of it. If there is no awareness, there is no hearing. If we were all unconscious, there was no life on earth to be conscious, and no consciousness in the universe, and there was no awareness to be found, it would be impossible to talk about hearing. You may go Duh at this. But the point is that hearing is inextricably entangled with awareness. Just like a sandcastle is basically sand in some form, hearing is basically awareness in some form. And sound is basically hearing in some form, just like music is basically sound in some form.

If we grok this, we get to an aha moment: music is then basically me in some form! Because we have just back propagated from music->sound->hearing->awareness, and we’d earlier decided that my awareness is a good proxy for I!

This little enquiry may well have bored you, sounding like armchair philosophizing (well, some of us find armchair philosophizing fun…). But there can be experiential consequences too. For those who take to these techniques, it brings them closer than they thought possible to an other. The accountant and the skier, if this investigation spoke to them, may now sense the experience of gliding down the slopes, the experience of swimming in numbers, in music too; and be newly moved to dance to it!

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“All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking persons possess) and all truth is one.”

-Marcus Aurelius. Meditations VII. 9, trans. Staniforth.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

-Albert Einstein.

Here we have the eponymous philosopher king, and the eponymous genius scientist, each with their personal expression of non-dual philosophy. The wise ones in our shared history, from every epoch and every corner of the globe, have again and again relayed these ideas. The baton is now yours. Explore and enquire at will.