The philosophy of non-duality has enamored me since I was in my early twenties. The idea of everything being interconnected at the deepest level is enthralling, and the prospect of merging with that oneness experientially has been the North Star of my spiritual practice for decades. Recently, though, I have begun to doubt the practical nature of this philosophy. As my teacher, Yogi Shanti Desai, said two weeks ago, while we were working together on his latest book, “When one merges with everything, one stops functioning.” That made me wonder. Can the philosophy of nonduality be life-affirming?
Non-Duality and Emptiness
At the deepest level, the concept of oneness is synonymous with space. I have explained this in detail in a recent article. In spiritual literature, nonduality is characterized by two qualifications – it never changes and is always present. These two characteristics also apply to space, which existed before the Big Bang. No matter what changes occur within space, space itself remains unchanged. Merging with nonduality means merging with the background of the universe, from which everything arises. Due to its unchanging nature, nonduality provides a great sense of peace.
But Yogi Shanti Desai was right. Merging with that energy means that one stops functioning in the world. The nonduality of emptiness has no skin in the game of life. As the Bhagavad Gita states, essence is not burned by fire or wet by water, meaning that it remains uninfluenced by the cycles of creation. And this makes sense. Traditionally, those who have sought absolute immersion have been ascetics living in caves and monasteries. Their very lives have been structured to remove all attachments to the world so they can stop functioning in their deep meditation without disappointing anyone.
I Don’t Want to Stop Functioning
Being fascinated by the philosophy of nonduality has created a genuine struggle in my life. On the one end, I’ve wanted to merge with infinite peace. On the other end, I decided to have a family and attach myself firmly to this life. Naturally, attachment to the family has always won because it has been more pressing. But the longing for nonduality has been in the back of my mind. I’ve often wished I could stay there longer when I’ve experienced brief moments of absolute peace in my meditation practice. This struggle between being in life and resigning from it (in a way) has been a persistent paradoxical pebble in my shoe. I need a new way to view the philosophy of nonduality that is life-affirming.
Types of Nonduality
In my book Experifaith, which I wrote in 2017, I talked about four different types of oneness: symbiosis, unity, energetic oneness, and nonduality. I argued that three types of oneness were dualistic.
Symbiosis means experiencing a strong symbiotic connection between the forces of nature that can feel like oneness. Many pagan philosophies are based on this foundation.
Unity means experiencing a strong bond between two forces, such as oneself and God, so it feels like the two are merged, yet a slight separation remains (think about the Yin Yang symbol). This is the foundation for many mystical approaches to worshiping a deity that is perceived as separate.
Energetic oneness is based on understanding the nature of energy, which is never destroyed, only changes outward form, and is interconnected (as in, all matter is energy). In the book, I made the case that since energy changes form, it does not meet the criteria of being never-changing and always present.
The last type of oneness, which I’ve already described, is nonduality. Nonduality is devoid of duality, which means there is no up or down, left or right, good or bad, only being. This is what I’ve been attempting to merge with in my meditation practice, and it has led to the problems I outlined above.
What About Energetic Nonduality?
When I was nineteen, I had a peak spiritual experience that I described in detail in my 2019 memoir, Spiritual in My Own Way. During a guided meditation, I felt a profound sense of merging with light. As the meditation progressed, I experienced myself as a wall of light engulfing darkness.
The experience was both blissful and terrifying because I felt like I was disintegrating into atoms. It took me a long time to understand it. In some ways, I’m still trying to make sense of it.
However, the memory has helped me establish a new relationship with the philosophy of nonduality. I’ve come to realize that energetic nonduality is just as significant as space nonduality. Energy may change its outward form, but it remains the same at its core. The same fundamental energy that powered the beginning of the universe during the Big Bang is still present today. Therefore, I’d rather identify with that energy than the space in which creation occurs.
Already Feeling the Effects
Today, when I practice both active and passive meditation, I identify with the Big Bang’s primal energy and am already feeling the life-affirming effects. Instead of detaching from the world when I reach into my spiritual toolkit, I feel more energetic, alive and involved when I merge with what is always present, never changing, yet ever-revolving.
This is my new way of experiencing nonduality in a life-affirming manner.
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Relevant books by GB:
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)