The Universe Is NOT One

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.

What is nonduality? Click here

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 God or the Source on the other. Everything appears to be composed of one, undivided universal consciousness. That’s why it’s called “nondual,” because there is only ONE, not two, or three, or four things. 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:

  1. That it is the literal, external, objective truth, or
  2. 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 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 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. 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, comprehensible, and materialistic. 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. 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 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

 

Related articles: Nonduality and Mindfulness: Two Great Traditions that Go Great Together , Follow the Threads—Mindful Awakening

Check out Michael W. Taft’s book Nondualism

 

mountain photo by HD Wallpaper

quantum foam by Alex Sukontsev

Comments

    1. I’d say that he’s making a fundamental mistake of trying to prove his religion scientifically. That’s a waste of time, and a misunderstanding of religion.

      1. But, from his perspective, _advaita vedanta_ isn’t a religion, but an interpretation of the perspective that arises out of a physiological state of consciousness.

        You read the essay, I assume.

  1. Michael, this is a great article. I was thinking along the same lines but you formulated the point perfectly.

  2. Hi Michael, loved this article (and your new book, btw).

    I attended SAND for the first time last year and spent the much of the day feeling baffled. Just couldn’t figure out why so many of the sessions involved a speaker theorizing about (or baldly claiming their ultimate understanding of) the physical universe, based only on his or her subjective experience. After about the 10th mysterious invocation of quantum physics I decided the confusion might not all be my own. But it’s reassuring to see this sort of analysis from a 10,000x deeper practitioner… thanks!

    On a somewhat related note, it seems to be a pretty explicit teaching in much of the Vipassana world that by practicing insight meditation, we’re able to experience the “ultimate truth” of our subjective/sensory experience. Certainly I’ve found that by paying close attention, over time, I’m able to make finer and finer distinctions about how my subjective experiences appear to relate to one another (for instance, noticing how a mental image arises or dissolves in response to an external sight or sound, in a mechanical and essentially empty way).

    I can see how following this path further could result in a yet more direct subjective experience of this emptiness, a complete unraveling of the ‘self’ into constituent sensations, etc. One interpretation of that might be that I’m closer to apprehending some absolute reality and seeing through a huge “delusion”. But it seems to me an equally useful, equally valid, and more easily supported interpretation is simply that these practices tend to change one’s subjective experience in a characteristic way (which has many desirable qualities 🙂 In other words, not that I’m getting closer to the reality of subjective experience, so much as the reality of subjective experience for people who meditate a lot! What are your thoughts on this?

    Cheers and thanks for the great site!

    1. Thanks, Otto. Thanks for the feedback.
      Regarding your Vipassana question, I think that Vipassana really can deconstruct your subjective experience to a pretty high degree. And that experience can be utterly liberating. Whether it’s the “truth” of experience or not is a big question and a high bar. But I do agree with you that the practice changes your experience of your own experience in a very desirable way.

  3. “It’s important to remember that this experience is a brain-generated hallucination or fantasy, not the actual outside world. It’s just like a really, really high-resolution VR.”

    Sorry, but this is bullshit
    I study neuroscience and what you just said is pure bullshit.
    You obviously experience the outside world, there is no other escape for you, you get signals and information from external objects. It is not like playing a game and imagining that you are there using devices, IT IS OBJECTIVE REALITY IN FRONT OF YOU, there isn’t any images in the brain, what you see is not an image, but the actual object.
    So I suggest you to edit this post.
    All the rest is fine.

    Have a nice day.

    1. Yes, yes, don’t get upset. I’m not denying the existence of objective reality. I’m not using the language of neuroscience here, because I’m not speaking to an audience of only neuroscientists. I’m using the language of the meditation community to describe what you would call “indirect realism.” As I mention twice in the article, I’m not saying that the external world does not exist. We can all agree on the existence of some external object. What I’m saying is from the subjective perspective you are not actually seeing a rock, you are encountering a stream of sensory data about a rock. When I write “image” here, what I mean is the subjective experience of a stream of visual information. There’s nothing in what I’m saying that disagrees with standard neuroscience.

  4. That’s clearly not what you said

    “that this experience is a brain-generated hallucination or fantasy ”
    No, It is not a hallucination, nor fantasy, there is a big difference between hallucinating and you seeing what is in front of you.

    “For me, the understanding that even the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain”
    Here, you are just saying that the brain is creating the external world, this is beyond absurd.

    To me, this is philosophy, not neuroscience.
    Direct realism is what works, in direct seeing, not two images, but the actual thing.
    What you think about saying this is hallucination, isn’t wrong to say that?
    Or that the unconscious brain is creating instead of PERCEIVING only. what is there.
    The brain is a perceiver, not a creator.

    1. The act of perception is an act of creation. The brain uses its memories, interpretations, filters, and expectations to help parse the incoming streams of sense data. Of course. Although this sense data is coming from the real external world, you are only every perceiving a facsimile of the world, not the real world itself. In that (limited and metaphoric) sense, this facsimile of the world is like a hallucination or fantasy or dream. You have never experienced the actual external world, only your perception of it, and the two things are different (albeit related). The argument you are making is like saying that the senses are windows and there is a little man in your head who sees the real world directly. (Never mind that you then have to explain how the homuculus would see it.) I’m never saying that the external world doesn’t exist, just that you’ve never experienced it as it is — only as your brain perceives it. Again, notice that I’m talking about a first person, subjective perspective, not a third person objective one.

  5. The speculative probabilities regarding our universe is an exciting path to follow. We must
    always remember that new “concept realities” are being discovered, and the more of them
    we study the better we will be at honing in on an answer. We as a global species have been
    trying to answer this question since the beginning of time…so keep on the path that you think
    is best. Thank-You to all that have shared their own “concept realities” with us.
    (Each step we take gets us one step closer to finding the answer)
    It may be that the answer can never be proven only believed.
    Enjoy the journey!

  6. “For me, the understanding that even the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain”
    that is even more nonsense, no, it isnt.

  7. I think you are spot on. Some people say you are arguing for representationalism (indirect realism), which is true, but it seems to be the conventional belief from the neuroscientists nowadays, in oppose to the common sense view of ‘direct realism’. I just disagree with the “virtual” or ‘high resolution’, representationalism does not say anything about being “virtual”, or in “high resolution”, like as if we were in a video game, haha, our retinas do in fact a great job processing light, to get the whole view of what is external to us with the best sight. But I do in fact believe that we don’t experience reality 100% as it is, visual illusions and color illusions prove it. Unconscious part of our brain must be the subconscious do in fact create illusions, it doesn’t create real objects around us, but if you smoke DMT it can indeed create visual hallucinations which we can call ‘objects’ of our own perception, so yes, our unconscious can indeed fabricate some sort of reality when we are tripping, but not reality tho.

    1. Thanks, Mina. I get what you’re saying, but I think you’re missing an important point. Even if the eyes (or retinas) are extremely accurate in processing light, as you say, they are still converting that into electrical impulses, which are then parsed and processed by layer after layer of the brain. That processing is creating a visual image (i.e. a representation) within the brain which is, when you consider it, 100 percent constructed. This does of course bear a close relationship to whatever is being seen by the eyes (and must, for us to survive and thrive). It is not that we are hallucinating, in the sense of seeing something that isn’t there, but it is something somewhat like a hallucination, in that our experience is of the representation, not the actual, external object we are seeing. In an actual hallucination, we’re seeing a representation of something that isn’t there. In ordinary perception, we’re seeing a representation of something that is there. In both cases, we are seeing an internally-generated representation. This is just obvious, and is—in fact—standard, conventional neuroscience of perception.

  8. “I’m never saying that the external world doesn’t exist, just that you’ve never experienced it as it is”
    that’s also false. you could be experiencing as it is , and you would never know it. and you do, since hallucinations differs from when you are dirrectly seeing it as it is, do you wanna argue against it? if u would, there would be no common sense reality that we all share and see as it is, and hallucinations and brain and eye color illusions would not exist.
    you are arguing for representationalism, just admit it, no neuroscientists agree with you, we would still not know everything on how we see and how our eyes and brains work for us too see reality around us.

  9. but I think you may be saying sometimes we do not see as it is, or some sort of unconscious interpretation based on the past, can alter our directly knowing or perception of what we are seeing , or maybe even drugs can do that

  10. Just want to point out that the main technique of Advaita Vedanta (self enquiry) very much agrees with your article, and also with the modern understandings of metaphysics via quantum mechanics (see the journal of neuroquantology). I utilize self enquiry as one would with any sort of ‘neti neti’ meditation and it always comes back to the same point. Ask who am I? Then ask who is the I that am? Find the I within you and youll see that it is not, it is just the mind/ego. It is the pure, unconditioned consciousness out of which the I comes that is. And that isness is likely an all pervasive aspect of reality that we truly are. So tough to explain in words but I hope I conveyed ‘my’ point in a comprehensible manner. It does not disagree at all with this article.

  11. Hi Michael!
    Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it very much.
    I want to ask some clarification questions to see if we share the same understanding, one of your sentences got me thinking.

    You wrote:
    “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.”

    Would you agree that experience is by definition virtual/representational and therefore by definition non-direct?

    I assume that by *directly* you mean to say *without mental representation in working memory*.
    If so, would you consider an amoeba (for example) to be a being that does experience the physical reality *directly* (assuming it does not make use of a representational model of its environment)?
    Does an amoeba have an experience (a consciousness)?
    If not, does it imply that you can be alive but unconscious?
    Or that it might be more proper to adjust the definition of life to *life = having consciousness* and an amoeba should be regarded as not-alive, like a virus?

    I hope you understand my line of thought, I’m curious as to what you think.

    Cheers,
    Amir

    1. Hi, Amir ~
      1. Yes. Experience is meditated through software and hardware (mind and brain).
      2. The short answer is that I have no idea. However, as just a guess, I’d say that there is a large class of animals who are alive, but not conscious.

  12. and I might add something more. You are ONLY seeing something internally- ̷ ̷̶̷g̷̶̷e̷̶̷n̷̶̷e̷̶̷r̷̶̷a̷̶̷t̷̶̷e̷̶̷d̷̶̷ ̷̶̷r̷̶̷e̷̶̷p̷̶̷r̷̶̷e̷̶̷s̷̶̷e̷̶̷n̷̶̷t̷̶̷a̷̶̷t̷̶̷i̷̶̷o̷̶̷n̷̶̷ when you imagine with your mind; When you see something EXTERNAL, you are seeing it EXTERNALLY. If you still have problems or are still confused. (Take a LSD and start seeing a clown in front of you, if you can’t differ the real external clown, from the internal representation clown that the LSD just created, then you need a doctor to check your mental healthy)

    There is no ‘high resolution’ there is no VR glasses in your brain with a button of high resolution, this is all fanciful nonsense you just made up. Your pupils will adjust for the brightness that is external, the rods/cones detect colors that are external, and so on………… where is the high resolution thing you talk about? where is the button and the vr glasses in your eyes?

    And none of what you said obvious, nor is it standard, conventional neuroscience of perception. Neuroscience of perception STILL has the naive-realist view. Just ask the other neo-advaita religious troll called “Steven Lehar”, he argues for the same BS you do, and he tried to pushes his agenda to the mainstream physics of perception. He ended up being discarded. Do you know why ? Because representationalism (what you both argue) is 100% false. You know Anil Seth is not conventional science right? He is another new-ager ready to be refuted on youtube.

    1. 1. If you are seeing something externally, then maybe you should check your mental health. I submit that your brain is actually internal to your head, not external.
      1.b. Please go learn about how perception works, specifically, how the brain uses memory and context to make guesses about what visual input represents, and then fills in the massive gaps using memory.
      2. Please go learn about brain plasticity, and how practicing a skill increases the brain matter thickness and density in the areas responsible for that skill.
      3. Please show me this 100% proof of the falsity of representationalism that you have.
      Please return when you have something useful to contribute.

  13. Michael, you write: 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, really high-resolution VR.

    You appear to be assuming something for which there is no evidence. What evidence is there for the existence of something purely non-mental, or “physical” as some philosophers put it, while admitting they have no definition of the word “physical”

    How would you describe, for example, a ‘stone’ without referring to anything associated with experience or as some refer to it, phenomenal qualities?

    Dozens of philosophers familiar with these questions have, by the way, attempted to engage Anil Seth and he has not given any evidence he understands what they are talking about.

    1. I want to clarify, I’m taking a thoroughly agnostic position here. I don’t mean to imply there is “only” consciousness. I’m simply asking why you posit something unknowable in principle, something that is ultimately indefinable, incoherent and thus, as Pauli famously said, “not even wrong.”

      1. There are four reasons I make these claims in the way I do:

        1. I’m positing this in this overly certain way because it instantly removes a tremendous amount of mythology, bullshit, and confusion from the process of awakening. If you want to add in mystical elements after initial awakening, then fine. But get there first, and hacking through the morass of worship, religion, and complicated-but-unsupported theories in a single stroke is the best way to do that. We can also clear away the pseudo-scientific and totally unhelpful quantum nonsense I write about in the article. Notice that everyone making extravagant claims about the nature of reality (worlds of devas, demons, reincarnation, karma, etc.) also claim these without support. Let’s cut right to the chase with awakening.

        2. I assume you, like me, regularly do thing—like drive an automobile and take allopathic medicine—that require positing a physical world with the properties described by chemistry, physics, etc. Do you require each of these to prove their existence philosophically before you make use of them? If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time before getting your medicine. So why should awakening be any different, or depend on some extra level of surety? Get there first, then ask that question.

        3. To be provocative.

        4. Because we do not have an infinite amount of time before we die. If these questions are unsolvable, currently, and we cannot posit anything with certainty, then let’s experiment with different sorts of temporary or conditional certainty and see what happens.

        In short, I understand the point you’re making. I’m taking an overly-certain stance in the article to provoke discussion and questioning.

Let us know what you think