Actually, it might be, but who knows?
by Michael W. Taft
If you’ve ever practiced in a nondual tradition, you’ve heard the phrase, “The Universe is ONE,” probably a few million times. It’s a staple of how nonduality is communicated, “we’re all connected,” “there is no separation,” “it’s all one big consciousness.” In the traditional versions of these teachings, they pretty much leave this helpful pointing out instruction at that. But in the modern West, we’ve taken it further. Much, much further, into a realm where it was never meant to be taken. To the point where, in my opinion, it becomes completely misleading.
The misstep here, and it is an epic one, is to think that what your experience in your meditation (a first-person, subjective experience) has anything at all to do with how the external universe works (a third-person, objective reality). You think you are discovering the hidden truth underlying reality, but that is not what’s going on at all. Instead you’re discovering the hidden truth behind all of your experience, the secret of who you really are—which is arguably much more important. This misunderstanding leads to all kinds of problems, and, worst of all, simply wastes your time and fills your brain with a lot of useless ideas.
When you have a nondual experience (and, yes, I know that it’s not strictly proper to call it an experience, but we’re restricted to using human language here), there is a profound collapse of subject-object duality. In the smaller, but still significant version of this there is a collapse of the difference between you and any other object in the world. In the larger version of this, there is a collapse of the difference between you and the world, on the one hand, and the Ground of Being or God or the Source on the other. Everything appears to be composed of one, undivided universal consciousness. The entirety of the world is simply one. To call this experience profound doesn’t do it justice. It is radically reshaping of your life and is utterly transformative.
What is going on here? How could it be that all things appear to be equal, composed of consciousness, and connected? There are two possible explanations:
- That it is the literal, external, objective truth, or
- That it is true from the subjective experience of a mind.
If you land on the first explanation, which is the standard one (in most but not all nondual philosophies), then hopefully you will just accept that and leave it alone. If not, you will be stuck forever trying to find all sorts of scientific justifications for this belief. There is a huge zoo of these so-called explanations, most of which rely on some sort of quantum mysticism. In QM, you use a fundamental misunderstanding of quantum physics to postulate an underlying “connection between all things” as well as a “substrate of pure consciousness” out of which the universe is supposedly created.
Scientific Explanations Required?
I’ll leave it up to others to debunk these misunderstandings in detail, but what I’d like to say here is this: Why is it important to you to even try to make these elaborate “scientific” claims? Such claims will not deepen your nondual awareness, nor will they somehow give you any more abilities to “create the world you want” than you have already. All they leave you with is a half-baked belief system which you’ll spend the rest of your life arguing with others about. At best, you can make a fairly decent living trying to explain it to others who will then believe that you are deep. But it is my contention that you are actually misleading people.
The second explanation, on the other hand, is simple, clearly true (while not negating the possibility of first one), and actually can benefit you and other people. Let’s look at it more closely. It seems as if everything is actually one thing (which is not a thing, but…). It seems like everything is infused with or made of consciousness (or emptiness). It seems as if a perfect, pure, endless, timeless, awareness unifies everything. As Nisargadatta puts it in one of a thousand similar quotes: The world you perceive is made of consciousness; what you call matter is consciousness itself.
How is that possible? Does he actually mean that consciousness is the only reality, or is he saying something much more direct and comprehensible? Let’s look at it from a secular and scientific perspective. First of all, no human being has ever experienced the actual world. Your experience of the world comes to you through the signals of a group of peripheral devices, called “senses.” Those signals are then assembled in the brain into some kind of experience. It’s important to remember that this experience is a brain-generated representation, not the actual outside world. It’s just like a really high-resolution VR.
Secondly, no human being has ever experienced their own body for exactly the same reasons listed above. The nerve impulses from your body are assembled in the brain into an experience, but this is just a virtual representation of the body. Thirdly, the same is true for even your thoughts and emotions.
Let’s look at the situation then. All sensory experiences of the external world, your own body, and your own thoughts are just brain-generated representations. (There probably really IS an physical reality out there, and a physical self that houses your physical brain, but you’ve never experienced any of that directly. ) Instead, what you are experiencing as yourself and the world is a very compelling, convincing VR generated by your brain. This is not me speculating here, this is just standard neuroscience of perception — that’s how brains and bodies work.
Under those conditions, noticing that all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sensory experiences are “one” is utterly clarifying. They are in fact all generated by one brain — yours. They are in fact pervaded by one consciousness — yours. Your experience of life and the world is in fact a dream — your dream. This fact is utterly liberating when experienced from within. It is in fact total, seamless, stainless, pure nondual reality. One Taste. It.
Here, neuroscientist Anil Seth describes this viewpoint of conscious experience:
Nondual Quantum Nonsense
When understood intellectually, in the way I just outlined it, you will probably not have a strong nondual awakening. The real thing is a first-person, non-intellectual direct “knowing.” A collapse of the VR into pure wakefulness. But it has two advantages over the usual intellectual understanding of nonduality. The first is that you won’t get lost in endless speculation about “creating your own reality.” Yes, your brain generates your experience of the world, and that is a highly-slanted version of the world, filtered and mediated through a lot of unconscious biases. But, no, that doesn’t equal the actual, external world. Those are two different things.
I hasten to add here that, Yes, there almost certainly is real physical world out there with real physical humans in it, with you living among them. And, yes, your senses are probably reporting a fairly accurate version of that world. It’s crucial for survival that they do so. So, yes, the world is probably real—it’s just that you’ve never experienced that world.
Secondly—and I think this point is extremely ironic—you can quit being so sure you know how the Universe works. It may in fact be all one, and composed of pure consciousness. I’m not saying it isn’t—except in the title of this article, which is intended to be provocative. All I’m saying is that you don’t know. And you definitely don’t know because it looks that way when you close your eyes and sit quietly. Landing on one fixed interpretation of How Everything Works is the epitome of what nondual experience teaches you to avoid, isn’t it? The whole damn point is that you don’t know in concepts and that you can never know in concepts how the universe actually works. The underlying construction of the universe, what is called “deep reality,” is forever beyond the ken of science, and certainly beyond the ken of your meditation experience.
Thirdly, and this is the most important point, you can stop wasting your time attempting to slap together kludges of pseudo-science and poetry into some kind of Theory of Everything. Such theories are just embarrassing to you and everyone else and are almost certainly wrong. They won’t help you to build a better airplane, or cure cancer. They will only cause you to squander your one precious life on this planet.
Of course, in practice letting go of all of these concepts is crucial. This is true of all ideas about how the brain works, how the world works, and how the universe works, too. For me, the understanding that even the experience of the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain makes it much easier to let go of, and come back continuously to the consciousness that supports it.
For those of you who feel like enlightened nondual masters, try this experiment: Just for a few days, let go of all your theories about the supposed scientific validity of nondualism. Let go of being convinced that the world is composed of consciousness. Recognize that even if these are both true, they only exist in your mind as concepts. Don’t just drop them provisionally, drop them utterly and entirely. Allow yourself to be truly concept-free during this time, fully immersed in not-knowing. My guess is that you will discover a level of freedom that you have never experienced before.
“I want you to know that there are no colors in the real world, there are no fragrances in the real world, that there’s no beauty and there’s no ugliness. Out there beyond the limits of our perceptual apparatus is the erratically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup. And we’re almost like magicians in that in the very act of perception, we take that quantum soup and we convert it into the experience of material reality in our ordinary everyday waking state of consciousness.”
~ Sir John Eccles, Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist and philosopher
mountain photo by HD Wallpaper
quantum foam by Alex Sukontsev