Nonduality Without Apathy: How I Keep Non-Attachment from Turning Into Indifference

Nonduality Without Apathy: How I Keep Non-Attachment from Turning Into Indifference November 28, 2022

I fell in love with the concept of nonduality in my early twenties. The concepts of Brahman—the One Without a Second—and Atman—a drop in the ocean—resonated deeply, especially because they seemed compatible with modern scientific understanding of the universe, physics chief among them. As Aldous Huxley noted, the more discerning the mind, the more it is attracted to nondual spiritual philosophies.

Practicing Non-Attachment

A primary practice related to nonduality is non-attachment. The idea is relatively simple. Since the nature of nonduality is always present and never changes, the goal is to release attachment to all things that change until nothing is left except that which does not change and is always present (as in, thou art that, Upanishads).

Am I the body? No. Why? Because the body changes. Am I my emotions? No. Why? Because emotions change. On it goes until nothing is left except that which does not change; the witness, pure consciousness, spirit, Atman, self, soul… whatever you want to call it (which really doesn’t matter because language changes).

Can Lead to Apathy

The downside to this practice is that it can lead to apathy if you are not careful. I’ve gone through several periods in my life when that was the case. I had become so adept at letting go that I could detach from just about anything. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t care.

Waking Up to an Important Truth

Just like I had woken up to an important truth in my twenties—namely that life was temporary and ever-changing, that only the nondual essence remained unchanged—I woke up to another truth in my forties.

Life is attachment.

Between moments of peace and nondual experience, I am attached to my body, which is attached to the Earth, intertwined with all life and dependent on my relationships with other human beings. I cannot escape this reality, however temporary it may be. Even those who renounce regular human activities and become ascetics in the mountains or retreat to monasteries remain attached to the body.

Finding Balance

The most difficult spiritual question to answer is this: How can I remain aware of nonduality and detach from everything that changes while also living in the reality of attachment?

I always refrain from providing the answer, the definitive conclusion, but I have found my answer, a way to practice that helps me do both.

Just like standing on one leg is a never-ending process of micro-corrections, finding a balance between nonduality and attachment requires intention and awareness. In rare moments, I’ve achieved a perfect state of balance, but it rarely lasts. That’s why we call it a spiritual practice, not a spiritual destination.

My Practice

Because I’ve been meditating for almost thirty years now—with some breaks—I’ve utilized a variety of focus points from the breath to Sanskrit mantras, physical awareness, mindful acceptance, and more. My go-to mantra for years was So Hum (which means I Am That). Recently, I’ve settled into a longer mantra that allows me to straddle the line between attachment and nonduality.

My body is a tool. I take good care of it.
My emotions change. I feel and let go.
The mind is my control center.
I am spirit.
Never born and will never die.
Unchanging.
Always present.
I am pure consciousness.

Acknowledging the body, emotions and mind has allowed me to experience detached attachment. It’s a paradox, for sure, but it helps me to think of my body as a tool I take good care of—just like I take good care of my car, my lawnmower, and my hammer—instead of thinking of the body like a mirage or illusion, like some spiritual teachers have urged me to do. The same is true of my emotions and mind. They are extensions of me, just like other tools, but not who I am.

Pure Consciousness

I’ve had several profound experiences of pure consciousness and hundreds of shallow ones. I liken the difference to snorkeling versus deep diving. Although different in quality, those moments of peace have shown me the power of nonduality, which is why I keep returning to my meditation practice.

Without my experiences, the above-stated mantra is just a collection of meaningless words. The experiences give the words meaning, just like the idea of tasting chocolate first gains meaning after tasting chocolate. Before tasting chocolate, it is just an idea you cannot relate to.

Awareness Remains

When I say I am pure consciousness, I am referring back to personal experiences. And just like thinking about your grandmother’s chicken recipe brings back memories, my mantra reminds me of sensations that bring me closer to the experience of nonduality. Still, the experience itself is beyond words. A state of oneness only occurs in between the repetitions of words.

When I open my eyes after the practice, I am fully immersed in the world of attachment, yet a sense of oneness lingers, making me aware of who I am at my core while I do the dishes and drive my kids to school.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Coach, and Mindfulness Teacher
Amazon Author Profile

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