From the Sacred Mirror, Paragon Press, 2003
NONDUALITY AND THERAPY: AWAKENING THE UNCONDITIONED MIND
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to possess what you do not possess,
You must go by the way of dispossession. In order to arrive at what you are not,
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
T.S. Elliot (1963)
Even though the exploration of the interface between traditional forms of nondual wisdom and contemporary psychotherapy is only a few years old we are already in the midst of a principled debated about whether we should allow the notion of nondual wisdom and psychotherapy to contract into the concept of nondual therapy or nondual psychotherapy.
My thinking is at odds with some of my collaborators in this volume who acknowledge that nondual wisdom can make a powerful contribution to psychotherapy, but are uncomfortable about introducing the concepts of nondual therapies and nondual therapists into the lexicon of psychotherapy. I understand their concern. Nonduality isn’t a method. Nor can it be specified by a way of acting or functioning at a physical level. Nor is it a way of thinking. In the technical spiritual sense nonduality isn’t even an experience. The nondual approach cannot be contained by any technique, concept or idea. As Subhuti (Hixon, 1993), the famous bodhisattva disciple of the Buddha said, “This radical teaching of truth is openly presented as a nonteaching… It is a nonteaching without any path to its realization, because no separate mode of access is recognized to exist inherently.” The radical teaching he is talking about it the teaching of nondual therapy. Subhuti uses the term Perfect Wisdom (prajnaparamita), but the nonteaching of his teaching is identical to the nonteaching of nondual therapy. They can’t be different because nondual therapy is the nondual wisdom of prajnaparamita. It is the insight into the empty and insubstantial existence of every conventionality, and the insight which automatically empties itself of any substantial reality or function.
As a non-therapy, nondual therapy casually reveals itself on park benches when down and outs, with leisure time and nowhere to go transcend all ambition and join each other in the pure, ecstatic recognition that nothing has any intrinsic value, and that there is nothing beyond the present moment. Nondual non-therapy also arises in clinics, peer-support groups and nondual therapy conferences when earnest, well-educated and like-minded women and men come together for the specific purpose of cultivating nondual wisdom within a psychotherapeutic environment.
So short of talking about nondual therapy as a non-nondual therapy, what can we do beyond acknowledge that nondual therapy unfolds in every culture, time and era; and inside and outside of any formal therapeutic training. Is there a relationship between nonduality and psychotherapy, and more specifically, can we talk about nondual therapy?
I believe we can look to Buddhism for an answer. When the Buddha was teaching in India 2,500 years ago Buddhism did not exist. During his lifetime people undoubtedly spoke about the “teachings and example of the awakened one,” but probably not about Buddhism. Buddhism most likely came into existence some time afterwards when his follows and disciples wanted to refer in a generic way to the corpus of teachings and methods that the Buddha taught. The Buddha himself said that he taught 84,000 different dharmas. A dharma in this context is—a device, a teaching, a method, a key, an admonition, an advice, a reward, a reprimand— anything, in fact, that brings someone closer to experiencing nondual awareness.
In using the symbolic number of 84, 000 the Buddha was inferring that the ways of Buddhism are limitless, but not limitless in the sense that Buddhism is anything and everything. What makes a method (or non method) Buddhist is the fact that it promotes the final awakening that Buddha experienced—the awakening into the nature of consciousness as pure and unstructured.
When we understand Buddhism in this way two things become apparent. First, “Buddhism” exists outside of Buddhism, since many people have realized their real nature having never heard about the Buddha or Buddhism. Second, many of the teachings, methods, interactions, and institutions that are called Buddhist, are not Buddhist, because they don’t awaken people to their ultimate, unconditioned nature. Instead, they condition people’s experience, or leave them with a set of beliefs.
The term “nondual therapy” is like the term “Buddhadharma.” The term “Buddhadharma” signifies that among the many different types of dharmas, or spiritual paths, there is one that has its origins in the awakened experience and teachings of the Buddha. Within the Buddhadharma there are, as the Buddha said, countless different dharmas—schools, traditions, approaches, etc. The term “nondual therapies” similarly indicates that within the vast range of therapeutic approaches there are approaches that are explicitly sourced in the nondual experience. And within this there are a countless number of possible approaches.
We can already discern differences between Buddhist- and Advaita-inspired approaches to nondual therapy. They use a different language and emphasize different methods. And undoubtedly this new development in therapy will quickly become varied and highly nuanced. We can see this already in the contributions to this volume. In the same way that we can talk about Buddhism, schools of Buddhism, Buddhist traditions, and the realization that Buddhism doesn’t exist, similarly I believe we can talk about a nondual form of therapy. Within this we can discern a variety of approaches, emphases and orientations. And at the same time we know that there is no such thing as “nondual therapy.” What makes nondual therapy unique is that is doesn’t exist!
This paper is divided into four main sections. The first section identifies some of the general characteristics of therapies that are inspired by the nondual experience. The second section talks about some of the barriers that are typically encountered in accessing and stabilizing an experience of the unconditioned mind. The third section very briefly presents some practices that can support people in cultivating the unconditioned mind. The final section describes some of the important conversations that occur in the trainings and sessions that I offer in nondual wisdom and therapy.
THE INSPIRATION FOR NONDUAL APPROACHES TO THERAPY
In its most essential form, nondual therapy is the unimpeded and uncontrived expression of a contentless wisdom that instantaneously and effortlessly reveals the free and open nature of all structures of existence. As the Perfect Wisdom tradition of Buddhism states (Hixon, 1993):
When the universal panorama is clearly seen to manifest without any objective or subjective supports, viewless knowledge awakens spontaneously. Simply by not reviewing any appearing structures, one establishes the true view of what is. This viewless view is what constitutes the Buddha nature and acts dynamically as the mother of wisdom, revealing whatever is simply as what it is—empty of substantial self-existence, unchartable and uncharacterizable, calmly quiet and already blissfully awakened.
The nondual approach to therapy is inspired by the example of masters and sages from nondual spiritual traditions. These traditions are mainly found in India and Asia. They include various traditions of Mahayana Buddhism: Zen, Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Madhyamaka. Outside of Buddhism, nonduality is found in the Advaita form of Hinduism and Chinese Taoism. The most illustrious of the masters are well known: Buddha, Lao Tzu, Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, Saraha, Tilopa, Padmasambhava, Atisha, Shankara, Milarepa, Longchenpa, and many, many others. But there are also tens of thousands of masters about whom we know nothing. They lived their lives as “realized governors,” “enlightened mothers,” “illumined farmers,” and “awakened artists.” Though they differ enormously in their personalities and influence, these masters all share in an identical experience of the unconditioned mind.
Many terms have been used in nondual traditions to refer to the experience of the full evolution of consciousness. The names include Self-knowledge, witness consciousness, no-mind, primordial mind, reality, openness, pure awareness, buddha-nature and the unconditioned mind. In this chapter I will generally use the term unconditioned mind. Longchenpa in The Treasury of Wish-Fulfilling Gems writes that:
This reality has names of many different kinds. It is "the realm " that transcends life and liberation. And the primally present "natural spontaneity," As the "essential realm" obscured by defilement, As the "ultimate truth," the condition of reality, As the originally pure "stainless translucency," As the "central reality" that dispels extremisms, As the "transcendent wisdom " beyond fabrications, As the "indivisible reality" clear-void-purity, As the "Suchness” reality free of death transitions. Such names are accepted by the clear-seeing wise (Thurman, 1996).
When I use the term "unconditoned mind" I am just as much speaking about Zen no-mind, Advaita self-knowledge and Buddha-nature. As a result of their embodied experience of the unconditioned mind, nondual masters create an energy-field that has a potency and immediacy that is rarely encountered in conventional forms of healing and therapy. Their presence produces a therapeutic perturbation on those around them. Their words can be especially powerful. Often, just a sentence or two from a master can act as a key—opening up a new possibilities that can extend for months or years into the future. In the space of a few seconds certain nondual masters can accomplish what may take months or years of conventional therapy.
The nondual approach to therapy uses the teachings and embodied presence of nondual masters as a model for how to manage our own evolution and thus make a powerful healing contribution to others. This model is based on the healing capacity of the unconditioned mind. The common element in nondual approaches to therapy is a focus on awakening an experience of the unconditioned mind for the therapist and client, and the ongoing cultivation of this experience.
THE HALLMARKS OF NONDUAL THERAPIES
The nondual approach to therapy and healing makes a radical departure from more conventional forms of psychotherapy. Nondual therapies are based in the possibility that we have everything we need, simply by virtue of being conscious. Other forms of therapy tend to assume that we need to be fixed because something is wrong with us. We suffer because we’ve had a dysfunctional upbringing, are genetically predisposed to mental illness, have suffered a traumatic experience, or simply don’t have the resources to cope with life. In contrast, the nondual approach to therapy invests in the healing power of the unconditioned mind. This approach is designed to awaken us to, and root us in, the ever-present experience of pure-bliss-consciousness.
The unconditioned mind
Whether we realize it or not, the unconditioned mind is the ultimate goal of all human endeavors for one simple reason—when we rest in the unconditioned mind, there is nothing we need. We are complete. Nothing needs to change. We are fulfilled exactly as we are. In the nondual approach it isn't necessary to remove thoughts or emotions in order to become free. When we are present to the unconditioned mind, thoughts, feelings and perceptions arise, but they no longer condition us. Even though this sounds extraordinary, the unconditioned mind isn’t something that is removed from our everyday life. It is an experience in which we discover total freedom in the midst of our conditioned existence.
It’s a way of being in which our conditioning—our age, sex, history, education, physical condition and financial situation—not longer limit us. We find ourselves intimately connected with everything within and around us, yet we’re beyond being disturbed in any way. The nondual approach to therapy directs people to the experience of the unconditioned mind as a way of transcending suffering, and healing the psychological wounds of the past.
The experience of the unconditioned mind is a very precise experience. It’s the only experience that is totally open and without any structure. This is why it is sometimes called “contentless wisdom.” The experience can also be spoken about in terms of its purity, depth and durability. By purity we mean the absence of objectifying structures. By the depth of the experience, we mean the extent to which the unconditioned pervades or infuses our conditioned existence. By duration, we mean how long we can rest in this state.
The function of nondual therapies is to introduce people to the unconditioned aspect of their existence, and then deepen and stabilize the experience. This very simple intention is identical with Garab Dorje’s quintessential summation of the Dzogchen tradition. According to Garab Dorje, Dzogchen can be summarized through three vital keys. These are:
1. Direct introduction to one's own real nature
2. Clearly recognizing this unique state
3. Continuing to abide confidently in this state of freedom
In the context of therapy:
1. We introduce people to a space of contentless awareness in which there is nothing that needs to be done and nothing that needs to be thought about or understood.
2. We identify this state when it is present by demonstrating that there is nothing to do and nothing to know, nothing that can be enhanced or degraded, etc. The authenticity of this state can be determined through questions that reveal whether people are resting in a structured or unstructured state.
3. Finally we assist people to remain in this experience by observing how they move out of this experience by making it into "something—anything—which can then be lost and gained. This "making it into something" can occur in a number for ways, for example, by trying to work out what it is, wondering how to maintain it, wondering how to discover it, in other (future) situations.
The “ultimate medicine”
In Buddhism the experience of the unconditioned mind is called the “ultimate medicine.” The is also a wonderful book of dialogs with the Advaita master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (edited by Robert Powell) titled The Ultimate Medicine: Dialogues with a realized master – a message and example that can awaken us to our original nature (1994). The dialogues in this book clearly demonstrate the unrelenting way in which Nisargadatta’s unconditioned mind interacts with the conditioned minds of his students.
Other types of medicine—that is, other types of therapy—have limitations. They work for some people and not for others, and even then only some of the time. The ultimate medicine is universally healing. Every mind touched by the experience of its unconditioned nature moves closer to the experience of real freedom and liberation. Sometimes the experience may gently encourage us to acknowledge our higher potential. In other instances it may produce a radical reorientation of our experience of reality.
The unconditioned mind heals in different ways. Firstly, when we rest in the unconditioned mind we are healed. We’re cured of whatever it is we’ve been suffering: an illness, our fears, losses, or thwarted ambitions. The unconditioned mind can’t eliminate a fear, a virus or abject poverty. That’s true. But when we rest in the unconditioned mind it is impossible to worry about a fear. We don’t need to find a miracle cure for an illness, and we are satisfied wherever we are. When we rest in the unconditioned mind, we are free of the need to be ill or healthy. We might still have a diseased body or experience confusing emotions in our lives, but we are no longer battling our condition. No matter what our physical and mental conditions might be, we aren’t limited by them. This is not a state of denial. If anything, we are more aware of our circumstances. But we don’t relate to them as “something that shouldn’t be happening.” When we rest in the unconditioned mind we are in total harmony with ourselves and the world. We are at home with ourselves in a totally effortless and uncontrived way.
In therapy, people arrive at a point where there is nothing left to do—not because they’ve reached the limit of their therapist’s competence or exhausted the capacity of a therapeutic method, but simply because it is impossible to construct a problem. They have no energy or interest in creating deficiency. Even the knowledge that they may suffer in the future is meaningless, because, in nondual awareness, future suffering is experienced simply as what it is—a thought.
Of course, it’s also true that if we are in pain it can be difficult, even impossible, to connect with the unconditioned dimension of being. And this is where there is a clear role for other forms of healing and therapy.
A homing instinct
When we spend time savouring and appreciating the unique quality of the unconditioned mind we develop a homing instinct. The more time we spend resting in our ultimate nature, the more familiar we become with the experience. When opportunities arise to let go of our preoccupations and daily concerns, we find ourselves moving effortlessly and without resistance into a more open and accepting way of being
We recognize the value of the unconditioned mind and head straight to it when conditions support this. We don’t waste time in petty distractions or superficial intellectualizations. We value the deep peace and spiritual nutrition we gain from abiding in the unconditioned mind. Our values and priorities change naturally. We grow in our capacity to accept more freedom, love and happiness in our lives.
The unconditioned mind reconditions thought-patterns and emotions
The experience of the unconditioned mind also percolates through the layers of our conditioning long after people have been enjoying the experience itself. The experience changes the very structure of our habitual conditioning. We become less reactive and defensive—and hence better able to release our fears and insecurities.
The Yoga Tradition of Buddhism which goes by various names, the Yogachara, Vijnanavada and Chittamatra describes this process as the “transformation (paravrtti) of the structural foundations of our being (asraya).” The term “paravrtti” is sometimes translated as “revolution.” The energies and mechanisms that are purified are called bijas. The same idea is found in the Pali Canon in the concept of the alayasamugghata or “uprooting of the alaya.” Un-alaya or “no-alaya” is a synonym for nirvana.] Through contact with an unstained stream of pure being, the energies and mechanisms that condition our present and future existence lose their power to distort our experience and cause us suffering. Other nondual traditions describe how the experience of the unconditioned mind infuses the conditioned mind like a sweet perfume or a soothing breeze.
We can’t predict in advance how this deconditioning will unfold. It occurs at its own pace and rhythm. Sometimes it is smooth and gentle, at other times rough or abrupt. At time we might even think we are moving backwards: returning to an earlier stage of our development which we felt was complete. Each of us is infinitely complex and our path to full evolution is unique and often mysterious.
Living in the here and now
Another characteristic of nondual approaches to therapy is a focus on what is happening in the here and now. This feature isn’t unique to nondual therapy. Other therapies, for example, Gestalt and Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing, bring attention to our immediate experience. They invite us to feel our experience in the present moment. A difference is that in nondual approaches to therapy, attention is given to the presence of attachment and aversion, as well as the structure and flavor of our experience.
The nondual approach to therapy focuses on enhancing the quality of the present moment, rather than on processing problems. They tend to cut through stories about what has happened, should have happened, or what might happen, and identify what seems to be missing in the present moment rather than reactivating past memories or an anticipated future.
The reason nondual therapists don’t get caught up in speculating about the future is because the future is only a theoretical possibility. It may not happen. Certainly, the futures that we project often do not happen. The most direct way to create a more fulfilling future is by creating fulfillment in this moment. It’s a matter of conditioning. The future evolves as a function of the present moment. We can’t touch the past and can’t touch the future. If we are attracted to processing the past, or devising strategies for coping with the future, we predispose ourselves to repeat the same strategies in the future.
If the choice is one of continuing to rest in a state of complete fulfillment, or clearing our past, or wondering about how to sustain the experience in the future, the most responsible things to do is to enjoy the present moment, rather than degrade it with worries and anxieties. There is only the present anyway, so it’s best to just be content and complete. At the same time, nondual therapies also recognize the paradox that the here and now is all there ever is. We don’t have to do anything to be in the here and now. We can never be anywhere else. Yet, we keep struggling to be where we already are!
Embodied transcendence: an integrated approach
The nondual approach to therapy takes a different shape in the hands of different practitioners. The form I will focus on shortly is inspired by Mahayana Buddhism. In this tradition the experience of the unconditioned mind is cultivated in the midst of our everyday existence. It isn’t an experience of being “spaced-out”, “up in the clouds” or disconnected from other people. The wisdom of Mahayana Buddhism fully engages the complexities of our human drama and permeates the structure of all of our relationships. Embodiment is integral to the bodhisattva ideal. The experience of the unconditioned mind lets us transcend the slightest traces of human suffering and expands our capacity to identify and release the suffering of other people. As Subhuti says in the Perfect Wisdom Teachings (1993):
The enlightened and enlightening art of the bodhisattva is to move in the transparent sphere of conventional characteristics and harmoniously functioning causality, while remaining totally merged in the signlessness and causelessness of sheer Reality.
In the Mahayana approach the conditioned and unconditioned dimensions of being are integrated throughout. The very structure of our personality reveals the transpersonal nature of being itself. In fact, any attempt to resist or escape our conditioning blocks us from experiencing our unconditioned nature. In the nondual approach there is absolutely no effort, struggle, or need to escape from who we are, since this is our unique expression of transcendence. Every aspect and dimension of our experience is an exquisite expression of freedom and transcendence. In this way, the nondual approach closes the traditional rift between physical embodiment and spiritual transcendence.
As the Buddha says (1993)
The sublime purity of transcendent insight is identical with the natural spontaneous purity of the countless configurations that present themselves as the universe in all its multidimensionality. The intrinsic purity and peacefulness of al structures of relativity and the blissful purity of total awakeness are not two separate realities.”
This integrated approach removes the possibility of producing experiences which put people at risk. It automatically corrects any personal bias that might lead someone to disconnect from their physical, embodied and social existence.
The union of love and wisdom
Another way in which the unconditioned mind unites with conditioned existence is through the union of love and wisdom. In a nondual approach to therapy a therapist simultaneously identifies and dis-identifies with a client’s experience. The capacity to identify is love. The capacity to disidentify is wisdom. Both arise simultaneoulsly and without any conflict. Ideally therapists experience their client’s immediate reality – thoughts and feelings – as intimately as our own. As The Perfect Wisdom teaching (1993) say, “Diamond beings are neither obsessively involved in the play of structures nor dispassionately distant from the evolutionary careers of living beings.” They see that there is suffering and, at the same time, recognize that there is no suffering. This pure love is empty of any pity or sympathy.
There is an experience of profound connectedness in which there is no resistance at all to whatever someone is experiencing. Therapists identify with their clients’ suffering and let this dissolve into their own experience of nothingness. We could say that therapists offer a clearing for a client’s suffering. From this experience of pure spaciousness therapists can authentically question the structure, the texture, the nature of someone’s suffering in a way that begins to dissolve a contracted and self-serving interpretation of the present moment. If a client stays intimately connected with a therapist who is in this state, they have no choice but to observe the evaporation of their problem.
OBSTACLES TO EXPERIENCING THE UNCONDITIONED MIND
Because we are deeply identified with our conditioned way of being—our beliefs, values and preferences—initial access to the unconditioned mind can be obscured and obstructed. The most common psychological phenomena that hinder access to the unconditioned mind are:
Our attachment to suffering
The habitual need to be doing something
The need to know—what is happening and where we are
The need to create meaning
Fearful projections about the unconditioned mind
Attachment to suffering
It might sound strange to say that we are attached to our pain and our problems, particularly given the amount of time and energy we spend complaining, privately and publicly, about our circumstances, and dreaming about a “better life.” But if we are so averse to suffering, why does it continue to plague us, year after year? It seems we feel quite at home with our worries and concerns. Often it is easier to soak in miserable stories about how we are unloved and unappreciated than to live in a free space where praise and blame, loss and gain, simply can’t touch us. Even psychotherapy—the very discipline that is meant to free us from our problems—can oblige us to have problems. An important function of nondual therapies is to reveal attachment to problems, and through awareness create the possibility of releasing those attachments.
The habitual need to be doing something
One of the characteristics of our modern Western culture is a need to be active and busy. There are strong cultural disincentives to simply being—in sheer unproductive fulfillment! We continually create projects: material projects, relationships projects, lifestyle projects, and of course the big one—the enlightenment project! Our actions don’t even need to be productive. In the absence of interesting stimuli we doodle, sleep, even trace hair-line cracks on a wall with our eyes just to keep busy. If we have a problem, the stock response is: “Well, we need to do something about it!”
The invitation in nondual approaches to healing is to let of all effort and struggle and experience supernal peace in this very moment. As Longchenpa, the great Dzogchen yogi writes (1998)
Since effort – which creates causes and effects, whether positive or negative – is unnecessary, immerse yourself in genuine being, resting naturally with nothing needing to be done. The expanse of spontaneous presence entails no deliberate effort, no acceptance or rejection. From now on make no effort, since phenomena already are what they are. Even the enlightenment of all victorious ones of the three times is spontaneously present as a supremely blissful state of natural rest.
The opposite to not needing to do anything isn’t doing nothing. It doesn’t mean that we freeze up and become inactive. It doesn’t mean we resist the idea to pick up the phone and communicate with someone, or sit at home when we could invigorate ourselves with some fresh air. “Doing nothing” means that there is nothing we need to do, or not do. We are free of all compulsion. Nondual therapies reveal our predisposition to do, and open up the possibility of simply being.
Needing to know
The need to know can also function as an obstacle to resting in the unconditioned mind. There are two types of “not knowing.” There’s the situation where we don’t know what can be known, for example, a foreign language, tai chi, and so on. And there’s the situation where we don’t know because we’re in a space where there is nothing to know—where we can just as well say, we know “nothing.” This is the unconditioned mind. The first type of not knowing produces feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Of course, sometimes we can acquire the knowledge we are missing. But this still requires work and effort. The second type of not knowing is liberating because it frees us from the need to know anything more, or less, than what we do. In the space of the unconditioned mind nothing needs to be worked out, thought through, or acted on. We are fulfilled, integrated and complete without need to know anything. Yet, everything that we know remains immediately accessible. We continue to feel, talk, identify and relate. However, simultaneously, we are also present to the fact that there is no object of knowledge. It is the simultaneous arising of form and pure openness. This type of “not knowing” is complete because there is nothing to know. As Subuti says, (Hixon 1993):
Dear friends, you cannot understand because there is absolutely nothing finite to understand. You are not lacking in refinement of intellect. There is simply nothing separate or substantial in Prajnaparamita to which the intellect can be applied, because perfect Wisdom does not present any graspable or thinkable doctrine and offers no describable method of contemplation.
Closely related to the need to know is the construction of meaning. Often it takes just the slightest encouragement to trigger a well-honed multi-chaptered life-story, or bring forth a virtual dissertation on spiritual metaphysics! We are spring-loaded to construct stories and interpretations.
In nondual therapies, the creation of meaning is just one possibility. We aren’t compelled to make everything meaningful. It is also possible to just be with “what is,” without needing to understand it, or to make it significant. We can be present to “what is,” without creating somewhere we have come from and somewhere we are heading. Nondual therapies explicitly open up this possibility by giving us less encouragement to think and interpret.
Fearful projections about the unconditioned mind
The concept of an unconditioned mind can trigger both positive and negative associations. In many ways it is attractive as a concept because it comes bundled with ideas of freedom and liberation. But it can also trigger fearful projections. People can think that by cultivating the unconditioned mind you will lose touch with the real world, and become less interested or capable of fulfilling your daily commitment
People can think that because the unconditioned mind is spoken about as having no structure or content, it might be like a vast, barren empty expanse of darkness without life or humanity in it. People also become concerned that if they transcend their preferences and desires, and just accept what is, life will become bland, boring and uninteresting. “What motivation would I have to do anything?” “I might just sit on my chair and starve to death!”
These projections have nothing to do with the experience of the unconditioned mind. In the unconditioned mind nothing changes. At the empirical level nothing drops out of our experience and nothing unusual enters it. We continue to think, to feel, to see, to touch, etc. In fact, all of the senses are as active as they ever have been. Yet everything is totally different.
PREPARATORY AND SUPPORTING PRACTICES
Before moving on to describe some of the practices that are central to the nondual approach I offer to mental health professionals, I will briefly mention some practices that prepare and support people in cultivating nondual awareness. These practices deserve a full description but I am limited by space.
The most central insight of the Buddha was that we suffer because of our attachment or aversion to what we are experiencing. Nondual therapies take this core insight seriously. They apply it in the here-and-now. When we do this the results are radical. In nondual therapy we observe and release our fixations, as they arise, moment by moment. It is sufficient to simply observe and acknowledge their presence. A recognition of our reactions releases us from their influence. As this awareness grows, an uncalculated correction occurs. Feelings of attraction no longer magnetically grip our body, and feelings of aversion no longer repel us.
The nondual approach reveals our attachment to, or rejection of, different feelings and sensations, or to different thoughts, beliefs and values. For example, in therapy, clients are invited to recognize that every time they think, “I want this to continue,” it points to an attachment. And every time they would like their experience to change they are rejecting what is happening. They see how fixations distort their thinking and cloud their perceptions. At a subsequent point this opens into the recognition that there is nothing to cloud or distort!
Fixations also manifest in our bodies and nervous systems. They determine where we move and how we hold our bodies. Our preferences draw us into some situations, and hold us there, and repel us from others. Nondual therapists use their own body as a sensitive instrument for detecting the presence of cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral reactions. They sense the presence of fixations by tuning into the movement of subtle
energies in you body.
Discovering a desireless way of being
According to many spiritual traditions, real fulfillment can only be achieved when we are free of desire. This accords with the wisdom of the famous British psychiatrist Wilfred Bion, who said effective therapy unfolds from a state that is free from desire and memory. Nondual approaches to therapy encourage people to discover a place in their experience that is free of strong desire, and learn to acknowledge and respect this place as the source of the most effective actions we take. Desirelessness is one of the most effective ways to decondition our experience. Far from being boring or bland, the experience of desirelessness open us to far deeper levels of intimacy, trust and confidence than can be built on attraction and aversion. From the therapists point of view desirelessness expresses itself as detached commitment to awakening the unconditioned mind.
Achieving completion in the moment
In order to awaken the unconditioned mind we need to live in a state of on-going completion. We need to be complete with the past and fearless about the future. When we are complete we don’t need to think about what we’ve done, or what we’ll be doing. This allows us to fully encounter the next moment.
There are two ways in which we create incompletions. Either we don’t do what needs to be done. Or, we do what doesn’t need to be done. Often we only find out some seconds, minutes, hours or days afterwards, when we sense that we have been careless or unconscious with our words or deeds. When our actions come from the conditioned mind they’re not optimally responsive to the needs of the moment. We’re unable to read and respond to the uniqueness of each situation because we’re operating from a model of what has worked in the past. But it’s also possible to tune into the present moment with a subtlety and depth that lets us sense the potential of our speech and behavior to condition the future. In fact, this sensitivity and care arises naturally when we connect with the unconditioned mind.
Broadening the river of life
In nondual traditions the nature of the spiritual path changes from one of avoiding suffering and pursuing pleasure to one of expanding our capacity to be present to everything that human life can produce—open to the full force and richness of our conditioned existence. We develop a capacity to receive all experiences without fear or addiction. In Buddhism this is called broadening our spiritual horizon to include the bliss of nirvana and the full range of samsaric experiences. Longchenpa (1998) says, “There is no better or worse, so there is no rejection of samsara or acceptance of nirvana.” This is what differentiates the nondual liberation from the goal of dualistic spiritual paths.
In the nondual approach to therapy, suffering is not presented as something wrong—as something that shouldn’t happen to us. Problems are natural. We all suffer, and will probably continue to until we die. It is a part of life. The nondual approach supports people in cutting through the fantasy that something is wrong when we suffer. We stop making a problem out of having problems! We accept the basic structure and patterns of our experience—our life circumstances, not in a defeatist way, but with dignity and grace. We welcome what is as a gateway to the unconditioned mind.
When we try to escape the burden of boring and limiting thoughts it’s difficult to be effortlessly present. This is why the time-honored wisdom of Asia’s nondual traditions recommends that initial access to the unconditioned mind can be greatly enhanced by slowing our thinking down so that we feel peaceful and serene. In nondual therapy, if a person’s thoughts are racy or disturbed, a crucial step is to help them slow down and discover a place where they are more composed and less urgent. We don’t need to eliminate thoughts completely. We just need to arrive at the point where thoughts can float through awareness without producing disturbance. In Buddhism this is called the practice of serenity or shamatha.
The most direct and effective way to slow down our thinking is to give ourselves nothing to think about. This is logical. If we have nothing to think about we have fewer thoughts. And thinking about nothing also reveals the unconditioned mind. The two practices support each other. In Buddhism this is recognized as the interdependence of serenity (shamatha) and clear seeing (vipashyana).
In therapy thoughts are thinned out by not feeding the interpretative process, by not digging for problems, by not offering anything to think about. Therapists stay in intimate communication and relationship without encouraging their clients’ mental processes.
Resting in healing-bliss
In nondual traditions experiences of bliss arise in the slipstream of the unconditioned mind. As Longchenpa says (1998), the “supremely blissful state of natural rest—is sublime meditative stability, spontaneously present without having to be cultivated.” These experiences occur like clockwork when our thinking slows down and we move into more subtle states of consciousness. These experiences can be profoundly healing, especially for people who deprive themselves of pleasure. They are medicine for the mind and the soul. They sooth our minds and repair the damage done to our nervous system by pain and trauma. Therapists recognize their healing power and let people rest in these experiences for as long as they arise.
However, like all conditioned experiences, bliss comes and goes. From the nondual perspective, when people experience healing-bliss, there is still further to go. Therapists let these experiences do their work, and then gently ease people forward into the ultimate experience of the unconditioned mind.
SOME DISTINCTIVE FEATURES
The nondual approach to therapy is paradoxical. There are no methods in the nondual experience because there is no work to be done. Yet, if this is introduced to a client as a mere theoretical possibility, without any experiential recognition, there can be a disconnection in the relationship between a client and therapist that damages the capacity for dissolving suffering. For this reason alone techniques, interpretations, practices and observations can have a provisional role in nondual forms of therapy. In what follows I will outline some procedures that I feel are consistent with a nondual approach to therapy. In presenting these guidelines I fully acknowledge that a nondual approach to therapy can unfold without reference to anything I present here. The nondual approach is not confined, or defined, by these guidelines.
Pure listening and speaking
Pure listening is a quality of being that therapists with an affinity for the nondual may bring to their interpersonal relationships. It is a type of listening that neither adds to, nor takes away from, what is being communicated. There is no need to encourage or subvert the client’s communication. This listening is pure because the therapist hears without any interference. There’s no static. They “get things” exactly as they are. When someone listens with this degree of purity, they “listen from nothing.” They are like a clear mirror, receiving exactly what is communicated—nothing more and nothing less.
Normally, when people communicate with us, we listen through a filter of reactions and assessments. Whether or not we overtly express them, we constantly validate and invalidate what people are saying and doing. But, validation and invalidation also have more subtle expressions. For example, simply thinking, “I understand,” is a form of agreement. Saying, “Yes,” or even just nodding, can be interpreted as signaling agreement. In contrast, spacing out, looking restless, or just thinking, “How much longer are they going to go on?” are forms of invalidation. They express some level of intolerance and nonacceptance.
When we listen through a screen of judgments and assessments we distort the natural flow of people’s experience. A positive listening pumps energy into a construction. A negative listening takes energy away. Whenever we agree with someone, we tacitly encourage them to continue what they are doing. Our contribution prolongs an emotional or intellectual construction by giving it attention and energy. On the other hand, when we disagree we interrupt the flow of someone’s experience. We undermine a construction.
When we listen from nothing, we hear everything! We are in an equal and intimate contact with ourselves and the people with whom we are in communication. There is no distinction between ourselves and others. The space of pure listening contains all speaking and listening without privileging either. Communication arises as a beautifully coordinated display of non-manipulative speaking and listening. It is the only form of communication that respects the integrity of the speaker and the listener. And the only form of communication that can take us beyond our conditioned identities, into an experience of the unconditioned mind.
Natural release: the practice of noninterference
In many Asian spiritual traditions, healing occurs through the practice of noninterference. This is a central method in Taoism, Dzogchen and Mahamudra spirituality. When we let things be as they are, contracted emotions can often dissipate more quickly than if we meddle and interfere. The ability to let things be, without judgment or reflection, is an important component of the nondual approach to therapy. We simply create space around a problem, let it run its course and dissipate of its own accord. As Longchenpa says (1987):
Do not condition your mind by (trying) to suppress your experience, apply an antidote, or mechanically transform it, but let your mind fall naturally into whatever (condition you find it). This is the incontrovertible essence of what is ultimately meaningful.
Conventional therapies assume that the release of intense emotions involves work and effort, either through progressive change or cathartic release. The nondual approach to therapy opens up the possibility of liberating disturbing thoughts and feelings by doing nothing! In the nondual Dzogchen tradition this is called “self liberation” or “natural release.” It is based on the practice of "leaving what is, just as it is.”
How does this work? Behind every experience of suffering is resistance. We’re either resisting what is happening, or resisting losing it. When we identify what we’re resisting and let go, we are immediately free and complete. For as long as we resist, our suffering persists! Emotions and limiting beliefs liberate naturally from within themselves once they are experienced without resistance. When there’s nothing to fight against, there is no fight. There’s no struggle. Instead there is peace and freedom. This is a very gentle way to release suffering and conflict. It’s a “stopping” rather than a “doing.” We simply stop trying to confront or avoid what we’re experiencing. We let go of the tremendous amount of energy we expend, each and every day, trying to control and manipulate our existence.
In the nondual approach to therapy, therapists facilitate the natural release of fixed beliefs and frozen emotions by creating a space that is free of all pressure to change or to be the same. They offer people an open and nonjudgmental space that lets things be, just as they are. This is an extremely respectful way of working with people because they don’t judge where they are, or how they should be. They give permission for things to be exactly as they are. With this we experience freedom and release. Giving permission for things to be as they are, doesn’t mean that a therapist endorses who we are. They are not telling us we are perfect. Rather, they acknowledge who we are, as the starting point of our relationship. And once we recognize who we are there is no one else we can be—not need or possibility to be anyone else—and hence full self-fulfillment of a path. At the real point of departure there is no where else we need to go.
Often we can’t just let go of our resistance in one bold gesture. It feels too risky. But we can learn to recognize the point where problems naturally dissolve. Each time we energize a potentially stressful situation we also have the opportunity to let it return to a harmonious state. In a nondual approach, therapists tune into the points where problems and heavy emotions begin to dissolve by themselves. By recognizing this process they can assist us to return to a point of equilibrium and balance. They recognize the seed of harmony that lies at the heart of every conflict and anticipate the blending and dissolving of conflictual beliefs before they disturb us and throw us into alienating and painful situations.
Deconstructing fixations: the Madhyamika way
A feature that is found in many nondual approaches to therapy is the use of conversations that directly reveal the unconditioned mind. In many ways these are the same conversations that go by the name of “inquiry (vichara)” in nondual spiritual traditions. These conversations are rarely encountered in daily discourse. I call them deconstructive conversations. They can be spoken and silent. Deconstructive conversations dismantle the foundations of our conceptual constructions, and thereby allow us to experience the unstructured mind. They penetrate the seeming reality of feelings, emotions and sensations in a way that dissolves their existence.
These conversations move in the opposite direction to most of our conversations which unfold as a commentary on our experience. One thought follows the next as we elaborate, modify, develop, rework, add detail, change direction, validate, invalidate, approve, disapprove, etc. Deconstructive conversations reverse this process.
The most powerful technology for deconstructing fixations was developed in the 2nd century by Nagarjuna; Buddhism’s greatest philosopher and founder of the Madhyamaka system. The Madhyamaka system offers a very comprehensive set of deconstructive tools. They are used by yogi-philosophers in their private meditation and transformational debate. The Madhyamaka method for dissolving limiting constructions is called deconstructive analysis (prasanga-vichara) or unfindability analysis. This type of inquiry lies at the heart of Mahayana insight meditation (vipashyana). These traditional methods are a form of cognitive surgery. They presuppose a level of concentration and thought-control that exceeds the capacity of most people. This makes them relatively inaccessible to most of us.
In therapy, suffering is deconstructed in a conversation, rather than through a meditative or debating routine. The final experience—that our problems can’t be found—can be delivered with an informality that is consistent with the repartee of therapeutic conversations. The conversations may have an air of casualness about them, but they are also highly precise.
Normally, when we listen to people talking, we assume that what they’re actually telling us means something: that there is some truth or reality to what they are saying. There’s a strong consensual pressure to listen in this way. When we don’t understand what people are saying, we still assume it’s meaningful. We typically try to work out what they mean by inviting them so say more.
When we listen to a “story” from the unconditioned mind, there’s no intrinsic meaning. We no longer assume their suffering is real or fictitious. What seems to be happening, may not be happening. This opens up the possibility of engaging with someone’s constructions from a place of total innocence and freshness. We learn to speak and listen from the “beginner’s mind.” This is what Tilopa is describing when he poetically sings (Hixon 1993), “Gazing with sheer awareness into sheer awareness, habitual, abstract structures melt into the fruitful springtime of buddhahood.”
In therapy, therapists identify the core concept upon which a limiting story is constructed. They then inquire into the existence of the reality behind the concept, and dissolve the painful feelings associated with fixed ways of thinking.
Another simple way to deconstruct a problem is to disidentify with it. We do this by shifting our perspective and seeing what we are doing from a more spacious and detached point of view. Some people call this, “going meta.” One way to affect this shift to a metaperspective is to ask a question, such as, “What am I doing right now?” If we were inviting a client to go meta, we could say, “What would you say you’re doing now?” This is an invitation to see what we’re doing, as though we were observing from the outside. Often, with no prompting or suggestion, people will say, “I see. I’m complaining.” Or, “I’m indulging in self-pity.” “I’m justifying my rage.” “I’m invalidating an accomplishment.” And so on. When we move to a metaposition, we see what we’re doing, in contrast to just doing it. This produces detachment and peace.
In order to facilitate this change in perspective, a therapist appreciates the structure of someone’s experience, without being pulled into is significance. They listen, with care and compassion, but without becoming involved. Therapists distinguish between the content and function of a story. Sometimes they focus on the content. They’ll closely track the structure of a story and dismantle it from the inside. At other times, they’ll bring awareness to feelings and intentions, and invite a client to observe their behavior from a metaperspective. If clients can’t see what they’re doing, therapists may offer their own observation, and encourage clients to see it for themselves.
From the viewpoint of non-dual therapy, what is most significant is not the structure or the details of the problem ⎯because we’re always creating problems. We have this never-ending set of circumstances and memories we can draw upon to construct problems. What is significant is the fact that we are doing it. We are using the energy available to us, using our mind and emotions, to construct a problem. We are constructing that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening.
We share with the client that, from our own perspective, we have a very real experience that there is actually nothing wrong with what is happening. We are unperturbed. There is no problem. The Perfect Wisdom teachings (Hixon 1993) describe this as, “the vision which simultaneously sees and sees through all subjective and objective structures without remaining to grasp or even encounter them.” In therapy the therapist become a role model for that possibility—not because they create or invent that vision as therapeutic obligation or professional identity, but because it is real and true for them. They share this by staying connected and in relationship with the client, through the simultaneous expression of empathy and non-involvement.
Koan practice is usually associated with Zen Buddhism. Koans pose questions that cannot be solved—at least conceptually. In Zen, koan practice has been formalized and institutionalized. The entire koan system of Rinzai Zen is a form of contemplative inquiry that deconstructs the conceptual mind in order to reveal unstructured awareness – an experience that in Zen is called “no mind”. But koans are actually timeless. Koans arise
naturally in our minds when our experience of the conditioned mind expands to include unconditioned awareness. When our familiar points of reference dissolve, questions arise such as: What is this? Where am I? Am I moving forwards or backwards? Am I moving at all? Is there something special I should be doing? Who am I? These questions are all koans because each one of them is a key that can unlock the conceptual mind, and take us into the unknown.
In some forms of nondual therapy, these naturally arising koans are used as tools for deconstructing our habitual ways of thinking. The silences that punctuate nondual therapy often give birth to a gentle cascade of natural koans. By letting our thoughts ride on these koan-type questions, fixed ideas about who we are, and what we are doing, can dissolve into the infinite expanse of unconditioned awareness.
With skill, these questions can also be consciously introduced into therapeutic conversations. This is a delicate skill because the same questions that can be used to release us from our thinking, can also embed us further in our thoughts. Generally, we need to be in a fairly unstructured state of mind before we invite someone to contemplate these koan-type questions. If they are introduced prior to a threshold point, the effect can be counterproductive. They produce more thinking rather than a disidentification with thoughts. However, if the questions are well-timed they lead directly into an unmediated experience of the present moment.
Checking the purity of the unconditioned experience
Natural koans arise spontaneously in a one’s mind. Sometimes these same questions can be introduced by a therapist in order to check the quality and purity of the unconditioned experience. When they are used in this way I call them “checking questions.” We can direct these questions to ourselves, and to clients. Normally we only ask these questions when someone is in a fairly open and spacious state of being. These questions reveal whether a person is resting in a structured or unstructured state. An example of a “checking question” is: Could you enhance this experience? If we discover the presence of conceptual residues within the experience of the unconditioned mind, we may choose to go one step further, into the fully unconditioned state and enjoy the feelings of peace and serenity that arise when our thoughts dissolve.
For example, we can ask: “Is there anything we need to be doing at the moment?” This will give us direct feedback on where the client is. If they say yes, then they are still inside the construction that something is missing. If they don’t say anything, or say no, then there isn’t anything to do. There is no work to be done – we can talk, or we may not talk. Or, we might ask if the client’s experience is pleasurable or peaceful. If it is either, then the state is still structured and different from the state of unstructured awareness, which is neither pleasurable nor painful, neither peaceful nor turbulent.
In asking these “checking questions” we also need to take care that they do not provide a trigger for a conceptual construction. If the client begins to think about our question in an elaborative way then the question has missed its mark.
Dancing in the paradoxes of nondual logic
In the West we have a long-standing habit of being very earnest and serious about our psychological and spiritual development. We feel compelled to communicate without any hint of inconsistency or inner contradiction. This habit comes from our Greek philosophical heritage. If we are “seen to be” saying one thing is one sentence and contradicting ourselves in the next we fear that people will judge us negatively. They might think we are confused, superficial, or even crazy! Unfortunately, this is very limiting way of thinking.
In contrast, Eastern sages move fluidly and confidently in the paradoxical domain without any trace of self- consciousness or distress. They know, from their experience, that paradox and contradiction are inevitable when we enter the space of unconditioned awareness. They welcome paradox because it points to the reality that cannot be captured by our thoughts.
In nondual approaches to therapy paradoxes can arise in two ways. Firstly, if we try to describe the unconditioned mind with real accuracy and precision we are often led to use sentences that contain internal contradictions. The more rigor and clarity we bring to our descriptions, the more we are compelled to use paradoxical formulations.
Secondly, if we speak from within an experience of the unconditioned mind, about the unconditioned mind, paradoxes can flow forth as a joyful and exuberant expression of mental energy that is usually trapped by the need to appear sane and sensible. In a group setting, an engagement with these paradoxes can also produce an explosion of hilarity and laughter that shatters our seriousness and releases the energy that gets tied up in maintaining a rigid image of ourselves and of others. If we let go of our need for conceptual consistency these paradoxical thought-forms can lead us directly into the unconditioned mind. They also allow us to experience the unconditioned mind as a highly discerning and dynamic state of consciousness.
One of the most obvious paradoxes that emerges is a recognition that the unconditioned mind is simultaneously something and nothing. It is because it isn’t. And it’s the only thing that is because it isn’t. Everything else is because it is. What are we doing now? We are playing in nondual thinking. We are letting our thoughts be shaped by the nondual experience. Instead of arising within the conditioned mind, our thoughts arise from a point where the conceptual touches the nonconceptual.
Further paradoxes arise with the realization that the experience of the unconditioned mind is neither conditioned nor unconditioned, and that it is neither one nor many. Another characteristic of the unconditioned mind is that it can’t be lost or gained (because it isn’t anything), yet we repeatedly enter it and then lose it!
One of the most delightful paradoxes is that at the end of the nondual path we realize that we haven’t traveled any distance—that no path has been traversed and that we haven’t attained “anything”. But we also realize that if we hadn’t believed that there was a path and made the effort we have made, we wouldn’t have arrived at the point where we are at. Even though we realize that our struggle and commitment has been pointless, in the absence of this effort we would still be drifting in the illusion that there actually is somewhere to go and something to achieve. Without doing what we didn’t need to do, we wouldn’t realize that we didn’t need to do it.
T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, London: Faber and Faber, 1963.
Longchen Rabjam, Chos nyid rang drol, unpublished, 1987.
Longchen Rabjam, The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding, Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1998.
Lex Hixon, Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra, Weaton: Quest Books, 1993.
Robert A.F. Thurman, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, New Delhi: HarperCollins Pub. India, 1996.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (edited by Robert Powell) titled The Ultimate Medicine: Dialogues with a realized master – a message and example that can awaken us to our original nature, Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass Publishers, 1996, first published by Blue Dove Press, USA, 1994.
Copyright ©, Peter Fenner PhD, 2006 – 2014.