freedom in nonduality

By Milena Braticevic

Observing the world through the senses typically involves experiencing life in terms of dualities. This includes perceiving a self that is separate from others; life and death; happiness and suffering; qualifications such as big and small; good and bad. This sensory-driven viewpoint introduces thoughts of separation and fragmentation, leading to suffering, to basing life on moral judgments and social conditioning, and to questions about being in the world. Teachings of non-duality describe a different way of looking at existence. The focus is on accepting every-day reality as it is, while learning to cultivate a new perspective of events by realizing that the world may not be the way it appears. While the non-dual perspective does not deny reality, it challenges concepts such as separation, causality, moral judgment, and the existence of time and space. By questioning the reality created by a conditioned mind, the non-dual approach creates an open space for awareness to reach beyond concepts and conditions, thereby unveiling an infinitely complex web of intertwined occurrences in which there is no beginning and no end. With this questioning, non-dual thinkers discovered a new reality not bound by reasoning, thereby finding a way to end the suffering of the mind, and creating a revolutionary way of being in harmony with the way things are.

Accepting What Is

One of the first steps in the process of seeing reality from a different, more holistic perspective is to challenge the way things are perceived. In the book True Meditation Adyashanti (2006) described an approach to end the war with the mind by ceasing to try to attain perfection in meditation, and in life in general. Adyashanti (2006) explained the importance of allowing everything to be as it is, emphasizing the need to relax into a natural state of being. Contrary to teaching meditation as an altered state of consciousness, Adyashanti (2006) taught that resting in the natural state and experiencing the oneness of all things is, in fact, an unaltered state, while all other states of mind including experiences of separation, sadness, happiness, depression, fear and anger are altered states. Adyashanti (2006) stated, “Most people think enlightenment is some altered state of consciousness. This is a profound misunderstanding. Enlightenment is the natural state of consciousness, the innocent state of consciousness, that state which is uncontaminated by the movement of thought, uncontaminated by control or manipulation of mind” (Adyashanti, 2006, p. 18). Adyashanti (2006) explained that cultivating the attitude of innocence, and the awareness of who one is, meant not trying to change things or fix anything, but allowing everything to be as it is, in the state of great inclusion:

This awareness is totally inclusive. It is a state of being where everything is okay simply the way it is…We start to feel unity within ourselves. We stop feeling that we are divided within ourselves, because we see that ultimately there is no dividing line between awareness, or spirit, and our ego personality. There’s really no separation between the two. (Adyashanti, 2006, p. 61)

A methodology for living in harmony with the way things are was also described in the book A Thousand Names for Joy by Byron Katie. Katie (2007) proposed deep inquiry into the mind by encouraging questioning into whether thoughts were indeed true. This simple, yet powerful, inquiry consisted of four questions and a turn-around. The four questions and the turnaround were:

1. Is [a thought] true?

2. Can you absolutely know that [a thought] is true?

3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without the thought?


Turn it around, and find three genuine examples of how the opposite is true in your life. (Katie, 2002, p. 19)

After the questioning, the individual could see potential faults in their thinking, and open up to scenarios other than what they initially believed to be true. Suddenly, they could find themselves no longer attached to the story they had been telling themselves before the inquiry took place, and they could see that their life held many possibilities - just as it was. As Katie described it, “Life on the other side of the inquiry is so simple and obvious that it can’t be imagined beforehand. Everything is seen to be perfect, just the way it is… Earth turned out to be the heaven I was longing for. There’s such abundance here, now, always” (Katie, 2007, p. 26). Aside from bringing to light the fact that a thought was not necessarily true, inquiry also had the benefit of allowing for unlimited possibilities, by showing that nothing was completely true while at the same time everything was true. Emphasizing the wonder of inclusivity over separation, Katie concluded, “There is nothing I am that is not beautiful. I appear as all things, the old and the new, the beginning and the end. I’m everything. I’m you.” (Katie, 2007, p. 234)

The principle of acceptance was also addressed in the book The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. Watts (1957) explained the importance of living in the present moment by exploring the Zen Buddhist notion that there is never anything but the present, and since one does not live in the future, the pursuit of any future goals must lead to disillusionment. Watts (1957) emphasized the futility of such thinking by stating, “This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going” (Watts, 1957, p. 125). To seek anything other than reality is therefore misguided. To look deeper into the reality of the moment, however, may lead to a spectrum of possibilities never before thought possible.

The Story in the Mind

One of the obstacles to seeing things the way they are lies in the stories individuals believe about themselves and the world. When the mind creates reasons, explanations, rationalizations, and judgments, it obscures the truth of what really is happening. As a result, individuals may become so deeply invested in their stories, that they are unable to see the world clearly. In the book The Diamond in Your Pocket, Gangaji (2005) explained that the mind can create the story around life’s occurrences as a result of the fear of truly experiencing these occurrences as they are. This story “has immeasurable power, because it becomes the filter of all experiences of reality” (Gangaji, 2005, p. 217). This filter distorts reality, and individuals see themselves as separate from others. Instead of perpetuating the story of separation, Gangaji encouraged her students to open to whatever was present, in order to fully experience reality. The opening of the mind resulted in any particular story dissipating into nothingness, as the person became able to see beyond the limitations of their judgments. “In the instant of simply opening, you experience that whatever you were struggling with is no longer there. True openness reveals that the struggle – the problem, the demon, the wound – is actually non-existent. The story is not transformed by openness; it is revealed to be actually non-existent” (Gangaji, 2005, p. 27). Gangaji further pointed out that the story created in the mind was ego itself, which feared non-existence and therefore kept creating polarities and separations in order to feel alive. Unfortunately, the story that the ego created was very limiting, as it kept the person locked in their beliefs, creating a sort of false character, not allowing the person to see the full spectrum of their being. Gangaji explained this in the following way:

Both the particulars and the whole of all personal suffering stem from overlooking the truth of who you are in favor of the story of who you are, which is ego… Invariably, in the belief that you are limited to being a character in a story, there will be suffering. It is a lie. You are not just a character in a story. You are the totality of being. (Gangaji, 2005, p. 149)

If individuals could take responsibility for how they experience the world, they could see that they have the option to be free. Once they stop creating stories based on judgment and separation, they can stop engaging in the war in the mind, and take control of their experience, creating a more peaceful, loving, and understanding reality. Gangaji (2005) pointed out that an important realization was that the war was not outside, but inside the person, and since there was no separation the two were one and the same. She encouraged students not to choose problems, but to cease thoughts of suffering and victimization, and to be conscious of the choice to be free. She explained that an individual could be present as nobody – and that this was a freeing choice: “The willingness to be nothing, to defend against nothing, can lead to exceedingly intense feeling. A great fear can arise… Are you willing to not be reborn? If you are, then you can recognize what is unborn, what remains alive without story, without suffering, without problem” (Gangaji, 2005, p. 220). Gangaji (2005) believed that individuals need to discover what is deeper than the story and to connect with the source of all life – plant, animal, and sentient. Connecting to the source of being within could ultimately bring connection with all.

Only One Thought

It has been stipulated that the human mind has limitations regarding the quantity of thoughts it can process at any given time, due to its limited power of concentration and focus. In the book Wake Up and Roar, Papaji (2007) explained that the mind can hold only one thought at the time, and if it is not a thought of freedom, it will be a thought of suffering. He proposed that a desire to be free is of utmost importance in preventing suffering: “It does not require any effort to give rise to this thought. The thought ‘I want to be free’ is itself free. This thought will take you to freedom” (Papaji, 2007, p. 1). Papaji (2007) believed that individuals were already defined by their true nature; that they did not need to attain or acquire their true nature as it was already available to them. Suffering, however, was always a desire for something else – it arose as a result of fragmentation. When individuals identified with one part, they suffered trying to understand who they were. Identifying with anything at all therefore was identifying with a part, and instantly initiated samsara, and confusion. If a thought arose, the world arose with all its definitions and fragmentations. Therefore, according to Papaji (2007), if an individual was to have any thoughts, it should be a single thought – that of freedom. This thought could activate the will to be free of any other thought that may be a source of suffering. Papaji (2007) believed that there was no karma, since there was no past, future, or existence outside the Self. The Self, which is the totality of being, exists outside of the constraints of all concepts, including those of space and time. The only rise of karma occurrs in the realm of the ego. Papaji (2007) said, “The man who has no doubt has no karma. He has found liberation here and now. He is not born, not incarnated. It is what has been all the time, no changes have occurred” (Papaji, 2007, p. 43). The presence of the ego initiates doubt, separation, suffering and samsara. Papaji (2007) denounced the reality of the mind and the ego, noting that they never really existed. He explained that these are just concepts, and like anything else, have been handed down from generation to generation “In reality, the ego doesn’t exist, the mind doesn’t exist, and samsara doesn’t exist” (Papaji, 2007, p. 59). Therefore nirvana, or transcendence and the opposite of samsara, cannot exist either. Nothing exists outside of the Self, or one’s true nature. Papaji (2007) explained that one need not negate any part of their true nature, but simply understand what that true nature is by choosing freedom over any form of fragmentation.

Who Am I?

In order to find out his or her true nature, an individual would first need to travel the road of discovery to who they are. In the book Ramana Maharshi and the Path to Self-Knowledge, Osborne (1970) described Maharshi’s philosophy based on non-duality and the discovery of the true self. Maharshi explained that a person could not possess two identities – they could either be identified as the individual ‘I’ or the universal Self, which is not contained in a body. The inquiry ‘Who am I?’ therefore is important because it dictates an individual’s identification and their life path. Maharshi defined the Self as the “universal deathless Self, which is the Spirit and the Self of every man” (Osborne, 1970, p. 19). Maharshi explained how being transcended all levels of existence, and how understanding this required breaking the habit of seeing things in conditioned ways, other than what they really were. Maharshi explained, “One has to cease calling things ‘things’, and must call them God; and instead of thinking them to be things, must know them to be God” (Osborne, 1970, p. 104). Insisting on the inquiry into the true nature of being by asking “Who am I?" Maharshi pointed out that individuals must first understand themselves before attempting to understand the world. Questioning the world is a waste of energy if they did not know the truth about themselves, and could easily lead to illusion. Maharshi said, “First find out the Truth behind yourself, then you will be in a better position to understand the Truth behind the world of which yourself is part” (Osborne, 1970, p. 155). Maharshi believed that understanding the part of the self that pertained to the ego was important, as then the individual could see more clearly into the thoughts, behaviors, and actions that were driven by ego’s demands, and once that truth was reveled, they might be able to see into the deeper truth of their existence in the world as a whole.

Becoming Who One Is

When individuals question who they are, often they identify with their thoughts and feelings. This, in turn, awakens a kind of insatiability as they constantly try to ‘correct’ themselves – if they feel sad, they wish to be happy; if they are cold, they wish to feel warm; and so on. They may feel the need to change who they are, or to control a situation or someone else, in order to prevent a disaster from happening. In the book Codependent No More – How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, the author Melody Beattie explained the futility of this way of thinking. Beattie (1986) claimed that when individuals attempted to control a situation, they were in fact being controlled. In this, they forfeited the power to think, feel, and act in accordance with their best interest (Beattie, 1986, p. 79). This led to a loss of self, and to worry, or addiction, depression, or despair. Beattie (1986) explained that control was an illusion, and that it did not work because it involved a denial of what was; a giving-in to the desire to correct what was perceived to be outside the self. This fractional view often led to a realization that there must be more to life than a struggle to control external circumstances. In his book I am, Jean Klein (1989) explained that, if a person realized that their actions were merely mechanical reactions to the environment, they would have a need to overcome this impediment by questioning more deeply, and seeking their real nature not outside, but within themselves. Klein (1989) explained:

What you are looking for is what you are, not what you will become. What you already are is the answer and the source of the question. In this lies the power of transformation… Looking for something to become is completely conceptual, on the level of ideas. It has no reality and no effective power. The seeker will discover that he is what he seeks and what he seeks is the source of the inquiry. (Klein, 1989, p. 68-69)

Klein explained that the ego sought only what it already knew, therefore it was bound by the same conditions which prevented the person from learning something new. Being stuck in their need to control, “The person is of the same nature as the object he wants to control” (Klein, 1989, p. 118). One’s true nature, being eternal, is beyond the conditioned mind. It is discovered in the state of wonderment, through awareness, listening, and simple observation. In this state, there is no projection, nothing appears as a known entity, and there is openness to new learning, which brings new vision and clarity. Klein stated “It is as if you had suddenly opened the windows of a dark room full of objects, and in streams daylight. Everything becomes clear in an instant” (Klein, 1989, p. 121). As long as the intellect is involved in identifying who the person is, there will be identification as ‘somebody’. Klein (1989) believed that this in itself was a limitation; identification was limited to qualities of the past, closing off the possibility of being truly whole. According to Klein, the answer lay in a thought-free state, or full presence, or in the “absence of the absence” (Klein, 1989, p. 122).

Freedom from Conditioning

In order to be truly free, the Zen teacher Huang Po encouraged students to halt the “concept-forming activities of the mind” (Blofeld, 1958, p. 63). Huang Po taught that practicing being aware of thoughts and developing the ability to resist conditioning of the mind would ultimately result in a spontaneous transcendence of samsara or wandering of the spirit. Due to the changing nature of the mind, however, this practice is extremely difficult. Individuals are therefore often looking to ‘study the Way’, and try hard to attain the wisdom they believe to be beyond their immediate comprehension. Huang Po stated: “So the sutra says: ‘What is called supreme perfect wisdom implies that there is really nothing whatever to be attained’. If you are able to understand this, you will realize that the Way of the Buddhas and the Way of devils are equally wide of the mark” (Blofeld, 1958, p. 63). Huang Po (1958) explained that the universe cannot be limited in concepts, that it is essentially beyond both ignorance and enlightenment. His teachings showed that there was nothing in reality, that reality was a result of a conceptualized activity of the mind. Therefore, since there was nothing, nothing was lacking. Huang Po further stated, “The fundamental doctrine of the dharma is that there are no dharmas, yet that this doctrine of no-dharma is in itself a dharma… Whoever can understand this deserves to be called a monk” (Blofeld, 1958, p. 65).

Huang Po’s teachings illustrated that the mind’s conditioning was what created a perception of the difference between samsara and nirvana. In the absence of this conditioning, individuals can start to question the reality of both states, and the possibility that they are contained in one and the same totality of being. Without samsara, there is no nirvana, as their existence is relative to one another; transcending one creates a requirement to transcend both. Huang Po taught that the cessation of conceptual thought is the Way. He stated:

Once you stop arousing concepts and thinking in terms of existence and non-existence, long and short, active and passive, and suchlike, you will find that your Mind is intrinsically the Buddha, that the Buddha is intrinsically Mind, and that Mind resembles a void. (Blofeld, 1958, p. 67)

Huang Po (1958) explained that attempts to gain enlightenment were all karma-forming activities and therefore defeated the purpose of the pursuit. Instead, the way to enlightenment was to “realize the nature of one’s own mind – in which there is no self and no other” (Blofeld, 1958, p. 68).

Wrong views and skewed perceptions may be the root of suffering. The great Indian Buddhist Nagarjuna believed that the problem lay in trying to ascribe an inherent existence to things, which was not there. In Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas, David Koss Komito (1987) outlined Nagarjuna’s philosophy that all things are devoid of inherent existence. Nagarjuna explained that all things had mutually dependent origination; therefore there was no definite cause for an occurrence, and no independent result. Nagarjuna stated, “…One cannot use the cause of a result to prove that the result has inherent existence because the cause of the result originates in dependence on the result, and so is devoid of inherent existence” (Komito, 1987, p. 138). Thinking that things exist independently can lead to the conclusion that phenomena are more than they actually are, and qualities are erroneously attributed to them that overestimate their nature. Due to this view, attachment is created and peace is lost. Nagarjuna believed that beings were bound to suffer as a result of this ignorance; and that they could become free with the dispelling of ignorance through the acquisition of wisdom (Komito, 1987, p. 36). Nagarjuna (Komito, 1987) concluded that things exist interdependently, and only in relation to one another. He said: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence” (Komito, 1987, p. 109). Nagarjuna (Komito, 1987) explained that if one could remove this ignorance, and see things as they truly were – which was empty – peace (nirvana) could be regained. He believed that when the real nature of phenomena was seen, grasping after phenomena would also naturally cease: “With the elimination of wrong views [one] will have abandoned attachment, closed-mindedness and hatred and thereby attain nirvana unstained by wrong views” (Komito, 1987, p. 181).

According to Jay L. Garfield in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, following Nagarjuna’s philosophy of the Middle way led to engagement in the world without attachment (Garfield, 1995, p. 223). From a dualistic perspective, things either exist or they do not exist. If an individual believes that things exist, this does not account for impermanence, and it leads to attachment, grasping, and suffering as loss is experienced. Also, believing that nothing exists does not account for the arising of phenomena, and may lead to a nihilistic view of the world, which fails to acknowledge life.

To say ‘it is’ is to grasp for permanence,

To say ‘it is not’ is to adopt a view of nihilism.

Therefore a wise person

Does not say ‘exists’ or ‘does not exist. (Garfeld, 1995, 224)

An individual from a nondual perspective would therefore hold the view that things can both exist, and not have inherent existence, in other words that they are changeable and not separate from the whole. This way, an individual can engage in the world, while not suffering from illusions of perception; their wisdom guiding them to know that there is more to occurrences than appearance.

Pure Essence

If senses do not bring real knowledge of the world, an individual may wonder if there is a reality that supersedes perceived phenomena and holds everything together. In the book Natural Perfection – Lonchempa’s Radical Dzogchen, Keith Dowman (2010) outlined Longchempa’s philosophy: everything is pure essence, which is beyond thought and expression. According to Longchempa (Dowman, 2010), any deviation from the pure essence in perception will lead to endless samsara, and longing for nirvana. It will create the illusion of cause and effect, create karma, and contribute to further confusion. Longchempa (Dowman, 2010) claimed that this essence could not be improved upon, therefore virtue and vice were both pointless; as pure essence superseded everything, including moral conditioning. Inner and outer experiences manifested as pure essence, which did not depend on space and time, but was infinitely open. Everything internal and external, animate and inanimate, arose in spontaneous creativity. Longchempa stated:

The actual essence, pristine rigpa,

Cannot be improved upon, so virtue is profitless,

And it cannot be impaired, so vice is harmless;

In its absence of karma there is no ripening of pleasure or pain;

In its absence of judgment, no preference to samsara or nirvana;

In its absence of articulation, it has no dimension;

In its absence of past and future, rebirth is an empty notion:

Who is there to transmigrate? And how to wander?

What is karma and how can it mature?

Contemplate the reality that is like the clear sky! (Dowman, 2010, p. 82)

According to Longchempa (Dowman, 2010), this knowledge could be gifted to those who aimed for supreme awareness, who had faith and perseverance, and were not interested in the temporal life.

The non-dual idea of pure essence has been contemplated for centuries by Buddhist monks, reportedly bringing peace and happiness to non-dual meditation practitioners who had very little in terms of material possessions or wealth and may have otherwise lived impoverished lives (Koch, 2013). In the publication Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation, Zoran Josipovic, Ph.D. (2013) explored the effects of non-dual meditation techniques. According to Josipovic (2013), non-dual meditations facilitated realization of the natural unity of human experience, which was free from fragmenting into opposing dualities of, for example, inside-outside, self-other, and good-bad (p. 4). Josipovic (2013) explained that the term non-dual was used because the level of awareness preceded conceptualization, without fragmenting the experience into dualistic opposites. The result of the meditation research was a “reported decreased fragmentation of experience into subjective-versus-objective, or self-versus-other, poles encountered in mystical states of union” (Josipovic, 2013, p. 8).

Scientists have also tried to explain non-fragmented phenomena such as clairvoyance and telepathy, when a person can see or experience an event that is happening at a different time or place. In his book Entangled Minds, Dean Radin (2006) discussed theories that explained such psychic phenomena based on scientific research. Describing something similar to the concept of pure essence, Radin stated, “At a level of reality deeper than the ordinary senses can grasp, our brains and minds are in intimate communion with the universe… [the medium] extends beyond the bounds of ordinary space-time, and is not even a substance in the usual sense of the word” (Radin, 2006, p. 263-264). Radin (2006) proposed that this ability to grasp a non-local, a-temporal reality was possible because at some level the brain and mind of one individual already coexisted with other individuals’ minds, and with everything else in the universe. Radin (2006) explained that this medium could be accessed through intention and awareness of the entangled nature of reality.

Life of Service

Upon deep questioning the nature of being from a non-dual perspective, gives a glimpse of an all-encompassing quality of life. As the conditioned response to the sensory stimuli subsides, so does the desire to live a life based on attachments to external stimuli and the material world. The question of how to live in harmony with the universe becomes a burning one. Peace Pilgrim (1993) described her journey to a life of meaning in her work Steps toward Inner Peace – Harmonious Principles for Human Living. She talked about cultivating a pure way of life through simplification, right attitudes, positive thoughts, as well as purification of body, beliefs, desires, and motives. Peace Pilgrim chose a life of service, as she believed that everyone plays a part in the world, and can live in accordance with their good motives by doing positive and meaningful actions, over superficial ones. She taught that the most valuable things are often lost in the world obsessed with material possessions, and that to be free sometimes means being courageous enough to live differently from the norm: “Freedom is not displayed, not health, not happiness, nor peace of mind. To obtain these, my friends, you too may need to escape from the ordinary and risk being looked upon disdainfully” (Peace Pilgrim, 1993, p. 50)


The view of the world through sensory perception is driven by thoughts of separation and fragmentation, good and bad, samsara and nirvana. This polarized thinking creates the impossible task of reconciling divided experiences. An individual, unable to clearly see the way things are, or to understand their role in the world, may feel the need to escape their day-to-day reality, which can bring tremendous suffering. Nondual approaches encourage deep inquiry into the true nature of reality, and one’s own thought processes. Non-dual approaches advocates accepting things for what they really are, without attachment to an ego-based story; allowing for a level of experience that supersedes mental conditioning. In non-dual views, there are no polarities, no good or bad, and no self that is separate from the whole. Things simply are. By understanding the non-dual nature of reality, one can elevate themselves from the suffering of the thinking mind, and allow themselves to truly be. Free from conditioning, one can see the limitless possibilities in every moment, and can choose to live a life of meaning. The simple question Who am I? can stop the futile chatter of the mind, and open the door to a realization of bliss.


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