The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.
I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.
I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.
This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.
In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.
I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.
This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.
This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.
The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.
We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.
We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.
Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.
What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.
It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.
The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.
In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.
Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.
It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.
Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.
Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?
How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?
This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.