Nonduality & Consciousness: A Very Simple Introduction
Simply put, this paradigm holds that what we are on the inside (i.e., mind) is fundamentally separate from the world we experience on the outside (matter).
Many argue this sense of separation is the root cause of many of the crises facing our world today — whether it’s environmental degradation, factory farming, a pervasive sense of disconnection, nihilism and apathy in our culture, or the growing mental health crisis.
But is it true? And is it scientifically accurate?
Or might the nature of reality have more to it?
Emerging evidence from the fields of quantum physics, the neuroscience of consciousness, and analytic idealism are beginning to show a more interconnected picture of the world — one that sees mind as primary, and each human life as a microcosm of a larger whole.
Interestingly, this view parallels with the teachings of many of the world’s greatest wisdom traditions, as well as the non-dual perennial philosophy.
In this post, we’ll provide an accessible introduction to nonduality, look at the scientific evidence in support of it, and examine its implications for improving our everyday quality of life.
But first, let’s define what we mean by “consciousness”.
What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is that which makes all experiences possible, but is not itself an experience.
It is the background awareness in which all experiences and events unfold.
It can help to think of it like a cinema screen on which movies are played.
Although countless films are played on the screen and its contents are ever-changing, the screen itself always remains the same.
In the same way, our thoughts, feelings, experiences all temporarily appear in consciousness, the same way that different images, stories, and characters appear on the screen.
But these are all temporary and passing.
Consciousness is the screen itself.
It’s the “I am” that has remained constant throughout your life; the witness of all your experiences.
It was there when you were 8, it was there when you were 18, and it will be there when you are 80.
Why is this important?
Every experience we have in life is filtered through this “screen” of consciousness.
It’s our interface with the world.
Yet very rarely do we stop to ask: “What is the nature of this screen?”
There can be nothing more important to understand.
Because until you know the nature of the thing through which everything else is known, you can’t really know any particular thing — whether it’s a molecule, a thought, or another living being.
As Rupert Spira puts it:
“Everything that is known is filtered through the medium with which it is known, and appears in accordance with its limitations.”
Think of it like going skiing with orange-tinted glasses which make the snow look orange.
As you gradually become engrossed in the skiing, you forget you’ve got glasses on, and start to think that the snow is orange; forgetting your glasses are giving it this colour.
In the same way, our consciousness “colours” everything we experience, and is the medium through which everything is known or experienced.
Therefore, there is nothing more important than understanding its nature.
What this isn’t – Solipsism v Nonduality
Many confuse nonduality with solipsism.
This is the belief that reality exists only inside your individual mind.
According to solipsism, the only thing that is “real” in the entire world, is what is happening inside your brain. Everything (and everyone else) are simply avatars; illusions created by your imagination in the movie of your life.
Sort of like the “Truman Show” on steroids.
Conversely, the nondual perspective does not suggest that reality only exists inside your individual mind.
Instead, it assumes that everything exists in one larger mind.
That everything is made of consciousness.
And each individual mind is just one expression of that consciousness.
Dreams, Whirlpools, and Galaxies
One of the best illustrations of the nondual understanding is often provided by Rupert Spira in his talks.
Imagine the following scenario.
You go to bed tonight and dream that you are a person called Alex who lives in New York.
In the dream, you have the subjective experience of feeling like you are Alex and that you are in New York.
You visit Times Square, hail a yellow cab, and go for a walk in Central Park.
The experience seems so real to you, that you completely forget that you’re fast asleep in bed at home.
In the dream, when you close your eyes, you no longer see New York — only darkness.
And when you cover your ears, you no longer hear the sounds of the bustling city.
So, you start to think that who “I” am is the centre of awareness located just behind your eyes.
You call this “mind”.
And everything outside of the boundary of this subjective “me” (buildings, trees, cars, etc) “matter”.
The two are differentiated.
Meaning you walk around New York thinking that there is “you” (mind) and then there is the world outside you (matter), which causes you to feel disconnected from it.
But then, a few hours later, you wake up and realise that everything in your dream was one indivisible reality created by your imagination.
In the dream, you felt yourself to be the subjective entity of Alex, separate from the contents of the dream (Times Square, Central Park, the cab, etc).
But in reality — and this is the most important point, so please read slowly — the whole experience; both the subjective experience of being Alex within the dream, and the streets of New York, were all made out of one “substance”: your mind.
Now, if we take this analogy one level up, the nondual understanding views each of our subjective experiences (mind), and the world we experience around us (matter), as belonging to one larger mind.
And sees this mind as “dreaming” our subjectivity into existence, in the same way that you dreamed up Alex and temporarily identified with him.
Just as the separation between Alex and the world around him was an illusion created by the dream state, the separation between our subjective experience (mind) and the world around us (matter) are also illusory.
Another helpful illustration is the “whirlpool” metaphor often provided by philosopher and former CERN scientist Dr Bernardo Kastrup.
Each whirlpool has boundaries that differentiate it from the rest of the river and a unique pattern.
This allows us to point to the whirlpool and say: “It is there, but not here.”
But you couldn’t say that the whirlpool was “separate” from the river.
A more accurate way to describe it would be as a “localisation” of the entire river in one place.
In the same way, the human brain does not generate consciousness by itself out of nowhere.
Instead, it is a localisation of the stream of consciousness — just like a whirlpool is a localisation of the river.
And you can delineate its boundaries and say “it is here, but not there”, in the same way that you can delineate the boundaries of the whirlpool.
Yet just like there is nothing to a whirlpool but water, there is nothing to the body but consciousness.
You can’t lift the whirlpool out of the river, and you can’t separate the body from the consciousness from which it came.
In other words, each individual mind is a microcosm of a larger macrocosm; an expression of the whole.
Now, if this is the case, you would expect to find the same patterns at a micro-level that you do at a macro-level.
An interesting finding in this regard concerns how the structure of the brain correlates with the structure of the universe.
Using the tools of network topology and information theory, scientists have discovered that the neuronal network of the brain – with its 86 billion neurons, is uncannily similar to the cosmic network of galaxies in the universe.
In other words, we do find the same “structure” at the micro level of the human brain that we find at the macro level (galaxies in the universe), which suggests that both are of the same source, and that perhaps the universe produces minds, in the same way that an apple tree “apples”, a river “whirlpools”, and the ocean “waves”.
Now, let’s look at how nonduality fits with the latest neuroscience.
The Neuroscience of Consciousness
“We half perceive the world and we half create the world.” – William Wordsworth
Recent developments in the neuroscience of consciousness have shown that the world we experience (i.e. everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste) is a combination of two things:
Incoming sensory information from the environment (photons of light, vibrations of air, etc).
And our brain’s best predictions about what caused those signals.
This means we don’t see the world as it is.
Instead, we receive sensory information from the environment (photons, vibrations, etc.,) and then our brain uses our past experiences to predict what that particular configuration of stimuli mean.
Then, it puts these two things together (stimuli and predictions) to create a 3D mental representation of the world around us.
And we call this reality.
Alan Watts put it succinctly when he said:
“In a world where there are no eyes, the sun would not be light, and in a world where there were no soft skins, rocks would not be hard, nor in a world where there were no muscles would they be heavy. Existence is relationship, and you are smack in the middle of it.”
To illustrate this, let’s examine the age-old question of whether a tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it makes a sound.
According to the non-dual understanding and the neuroscience of consciousness, it does not.
If the tree falls, it will cause vibrations in the air around the area of impact.
But if there are no eardrums around, then those vibrations aren’t converted into sounds.
Sound requires a perceiving entity with eardrums.
And the same goes for photons of light too.
Photons of light from the sun “illuminate” the tree. But without eyes to convert them into an image, they’d remain as photons.
Kind of like the 1s and 0s used to create computer games:
Therefore, we are co–creating the world all of the time.
The world is an interaction between an infinite reality and the perceiving agents within it.
Without the agents (i.e., minds), you don’t have worlds.
And I say “worlds” here deliberately.
Because different sensory systems create different worlds entirely.
Why our intuitions mislead us
“The world is not what we see, it’s the way we see..” — Rupert Spira
All that you can ever experience happens through the “window” of your five senses:
Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting.
These five senses provide human beings with our particular version of the world.
However, have you considered that other realities might exist outside of these five senses?
In other words, that we don’t see the world as it is, but only a partial version of it; that which our five senses give us access to.
And it might well be that we co-exist with other realities simultaneously, but simply don’t have the “sense” to tune into them.
If this seems far-fetched, consider that other animals have access to sensory information that is completely outside of human perception. In An Immense World, author Ed Yong provides ample evidence for this. For example, did you know that snakes can detect infrared radiation? That bees can sense the Earth’s magnetic field? Or that mantis shrimp can see ten times as many colours as humans?
These examples show us that we don’t see “reality”.
We only see a tiny fragment of it; that which is available to the human sensory system.
If you had a different sensory system, you would experience a different world.
Therefore, it’s plausible that we co-exist with multiple realities that lie outside of our conscious awareness, and that when we alter our state of consciousness (e.g., via meditation or psychedelics), we briefly “tune in” to these other realities.
Psychedelics and Head Traumas
Many report their psychedelic trips as being some of the most meaningful experiences of their lives.
Under their influence, people claim to experience new realities, report feeling connected to something larger than themselves, and often see rich visual imagery.
Psychedelics are now being used clinically to break severe addictions, cure treatment-resistant depression, and heal PTSD.
Now, if materialism is true, you would expect these experiences to correlate with huge increases in brain activity.
However, since 2012, a consistent finding across multiple studies with many different groups, has been that psychedelic use leads to significant decreases in brain activity.
Which leads some to suggest that the psychedelic experience may be a model for death.
This is obviously a big leap, so let me explain…
Proponents of this view suggest that when in the psychedelic state, the brain activity being reduced is the activity which causes us to feel separate from the world around us.
And this reduction allows our consciousness to temporarily reintegrate with the larger mind it has been disconnected from.
Sort of like a “mini-death” you get to return from and tell the tale.
Interestingly, a study from John Hopkins University involving more than 3,000 adults, found that participants reported significant decreases in their fear of death after having a psychedelic experience.
Furthermore, new advances in cognitive science and evolutionary biology are pointing towards our ordinary egoic-state of consciousness as being a kind of filter shaped by natural selection to help us survive and reproduce.
Therefore, it filters out anything not relevant to these goals, meaning we only see only a tiny fragment of the world, which also fits with the nondual understanding.
Further evidence in support of this view are the multiple cases in which head traumas have led to enhancements in consciousness.
A particularly interesting story involves Jason Padgett – a futon salesman, who after receiving blows to the head during a violent robbery, became a maths genius with savant-like abilities and perception.
When researchers put Padgett in an MRI scanner, they discovered that he could access parts of his brain that were normally unavailable, and that his visual cortex was now working in sync with the area that does mathematics.
This enabled him to produce extraordinary fractal drawings that Padgett believed “held the key to the universe”.
Or there’s the story of Jill Bolte-Taylor, the neuroscientist who experienced a stroke in her left hemisphere, and was suddenly opened up to a completely new reality.
As Taylor describes it in her TED talk:
“…It was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I’m the person on the machine having the experience, to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience.”
These examples support the idea that we are part of a larger mind and that our everyday state of consciousness acts as a kind of filter, causing us to feel a sense of separation from it — in the same way that someone having a dream gets so caught up playing the character in the dream, that they forget they are dreaming in the first place.
Implications of the Nondual Understanding
If you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you’re wondering:
This might be interesting — but how does this impact our everyday experience of life?
There are three primary implications of a nondual understanding.
Firstly, it leads to a deep sense of connection with all of life.
Without realising it, we’ve all grown up with the materialist assumption that who we are — fundamentally — is a skin encapsulated ego, and that there is no inherent purpose, meaning, or intelligence to life.
That life is really just the result of blind, unconscious, automatic processes, and that somehow, by some fluke, managed to “spawn” consciousness out of matter.
So we feel alienated from the world around us.
However, when you take the nondual perspective, and see everything as mind, and yourself as just one microcosmic expression of that universal intelligence, you start to feel embedded in the world; realising that everything you experience is an extension of you.
Instead of feeling alienated, you have the sense that you are participating in the great unfolding of life.
Marcus Aurelius said it well nearly 2,000 years ago:
“Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.”
Secondly, the nondual perspective can provide a deep sense of meaning and purpose to our lives.
When you understand that who you really are is the universe experiencing itself subjectively through you, your identity shifts, and your motivations shift too.
Life is no longer about “what’s in it for me?”
Instead you start asking questions like:
“What can I contribute to the larger whole of which I am a part?”
“How can I alleviate unnecessary suffering — both in myself and others?”
“What does the universe want to learn through my eyes?”
“What might life want to bring into the world through me?”
In short, you realise that your true nature (i.e. who you really are) is nature itself, and your motivations and actions follow suit.
Thirdly, this also has implications for our understanding of death.
According to the nondual perspective, death isn’t the end – it’s merely the end of a temporary state of separation.
And that perhaps, when you die, you “reintegrate” again into the larger mind from which you originally emerged — in the same way that a dreamer wakes up to realise that they were not just the avatar of their dream.
In other words, maybe death isn’t an extinction of awareness (as materialism suggests), but rather an enrichment of awareness.
Follow Up Resources
If, after reading this post, you’re interested in a “deeper dive” into nonduality and want to learn directly from three of the world’s leading experts on the topic, check out TWU’s upcoming Psychology and Nonduality Conference.
Nonduality and the Nature of Consciousness — Rupert Spira
Is Everything Made of Matter or Consciousness? — Rupert Spira & Bernardo Kastrup in Conversation
Matter and Consciousness — Dr Iain McGilchrist
Non-Duality and the Mystery of Consciousness — Peter Russell
The Idea of the World — Dr Bernardo Kastrup
Essentia Foundation —Website
Science and Nonduality — YouTube Channel
*Image credit: Brittanica.com
About the Author:
Niall McKeever, MSc is a writer and entrepreneur with a passion for making great ideas more accessible. He does this via his blog and The Weekend University, which aims to make the best minds and ideas in psychology more accessible to the general public. You can follow the project on YouTube or listen to the podcast.