Total Effort, Total Surrender: The Way of Nonduality

Brad Pitt at Everglades National Park – GQ Style

by Jinen Jason Shulman

The word “nonduality” as used in a spiritual context comes from the advaitic principle of “not-two.” In actuality, nonduality is another name for what reality is doing all the time: being a single thing. So why doesn’t it seem like that to us? And why is the word nondual associated with the concept of awakening? And what is it that we are awakening to?

Let’s make two lists:

List A:

  1. Realize that you are a suffering human being.
  2. Decide to do something about it.
  3. Begin to meditate (or pray, or sing, or dance, or do yoga, etcetera)
  4. Make progress.
  5. Continue.
  6. Make more progress.
  7. Notice the change in your life.
  8. Become more peaceful and at ease.
  9. Grow older.
  10. Help others.

Here is the other list:

List B:

  1. The singing rain falls on everything even when it is under the roof of the shed and is completely dry.
  2. I do something holy.
  3. I forget to do something holy.
  4. It’s time for breakfast: I tend to eat too much!
  5. My head hurts and I think about death. I am growing older and I wish I could live forever.
  6. I am a bodhisattva because I try.
  7. You are a bodhisattva without trying.
  8. I am a Buddha watching television. Sometimes I watch old shows for the fun of it.

What is different about these two lists? Some of the differences are obvious. List A is pretty linear. It’s easy to follow the ideas. They move from one thought to a logical next thought. They are about a spiritual subject. They are true and they are something I believe to be true.

List B seems more poetic. Is that good? Does it make it more truthful or on a higher plane? I can’t tell. It is not linear. The thoughts don’t seem to follow from one another. Is it confusing? I’m not sure. It seems very alive while List A seems, well, rather dull in a way.

List B is very human. It contains successes (I do something holy) and failures (I forget to do something holy).

List B might be a little whiny: all that stuff about being a bodhisattva! List A is pretty much grown-up and devoted to its path. Which list would you like to take your spiritual coming-out party?

The position of nonduality is that either one would make a good companion, as long as the other one was invited to a future event! Nonduality does not command you, but it doesn’t wine and dine you either. It makes no suggestions but watches carefully as you walk the path, suggesting all the things you’ve forgotten to remember, suggesting the opposite when you’ve settled down and made a home in only one place.

In doing this, it shows you something vast and real. It gets more and more real until all the superfluous stuff falls back and you become very interested in the invisible, silent one who through and throughout all this stuff is moving; who is walking through it, as well. He or she has no name or gender, but tends to see a shimmering light in the world – in herself as well as in the world – whenever her heart is open.

Nonduality is not a path to being happy or jolly. It is a path to being real. There have been awakened jolly people and awakened curmudgeons. One Indian teacher I am thinking of could be a pain in the ass. One Zen teacher I am thinking of could be a drunkard. One rabbi I know could be a little narrow-minded sometimes. But they all watched this place with rapture.

On the other hand, List A has a lot to recommend itself. After all, do we really need more curmudgeons and drunks and narrow-minded teachers in the world? While some would say “yes,” I would say “no.”

So another thing about these lists is that they represent two branches of a single path. We could say one represents work on the personality and the other the realization and play of the self.

Nonduality, despite what you may have heard or interpreted, needs both lists and both approaches to the real, awakened, human state. Total effort and total surrender. List B is best experienced by the falling into being that is often associated with the nondual approach but is mistakenly taken to be the entire approach. Being. Learning to be. Trusting being even when it gets you into trouble.

When I sat in my blue room and had absolutely no place to go, I was invited into the Absolute, that large and not large, dark and light, place and no place that has no characteristics.  It was there that I learned the great shimmering of all of creation.  It was there I saw that suffering was an illusion. It was there I woke up.

At the same time, it was there that my real suffering began, as my wounded personality came out stronger than ever since the defenses I used to hide these wounds from myself, the defenses I used to dissociate from them, no longer worked as well. Waking up was easy. Staying awake, with my personality’s pressure to co-opt this awake-ness as part of my ego’s trophy room was very, very hard.

The human path of awakening requires that we work both on the glorious sense of being that humans are heir to and the vehicle our humanity inhabits, which is our separate sense of self, our ego-personality. Without this, we only have a simulacrum of what awakening truly is, a dog and pony show of the glitzy part of awakening, the showman or showwoman part of awakening and not the true bodhisattva part that is willing to forgo the ornaments and bangles of awakening to put on shoes and walk the territory of this human life. If you sit in Zen and never talk to another person your path is only half right. If you only talk to other people and never sit alone with everything you are, your path is only half present.

Human awakening is about human healing. Awakening is not the highest paradigm: healing is. Healing means to become whole and enlightenment means to wake up to who you are. Whether you are half a person, a good person, a lazy person or an over-energetic person, you must wake up to who you are.

But to be able to stay there, to be able to meet each moment, you must also be working on the separate individual you are. Not only to see that it doesn’t exist, since the separate individual sense is both real and not real at the same time, but to hold this sense of self, this miracle combination of billions of cells and connections all working to make this unique thing in the universe: a person. You. To hold it dearly. To see that duality is not the enemy. That oneness-only is not the answer. That the dance is taking place, impersonally, transcendently, amazingly, wonderfully. And even more wonderfully, it is you who are dancing!

To Be Yourself is the answer to the meaning of life. All else flows from that as the personality becomes richer, fuller, more healed, more able to bend, more able to let reality in without cutting it into bite-sized pieces. As you yourself become real, other people become truly real. As you see yourself as the world, the world becomes itself again. All things arise together when we do not split being and doing, total effort and total surrender. Then the reason we are made comes forth and speaks its name. It’s your true name and true face and finding it is your true vocation.



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