How do you give meaning to non-duality?

Corné van Nijhuis

In recent years, my vision of existence has become increasingly deeply rooted in the wisdom of the Advaita Vedanta tradition. In the conversations I have about this, I notice that for many people the concepts of duality and non-duality are often understood as concepts, but that their essential meaning for daily life is not really understood. When the conversation is about duality, the duality of body and mind is generally referred to with regard to our humanity. Entities that are distinguishable and separate from each other, despite being intimately connected. However, when the conversation then switches to non-duality, it appears that it is mainly explained as the ‘non-existence of duality’. Or, as the denial of duality, rather than a formulation that is directly descriptive. In a favorable situation it is formulated as the idea that ‘all is one’ and ‘all is connected’. But how to give this concept of a non-dual reality more concrete meaning in your daily life feels like a great mystery and dilemma to many.

Although many have provided me with various tools to get a grip on this dilemma, I felt the need to formulate my own approach, which I would like to share here. The specific reason for this was the following question that was recently asked to me: If (absolute) reality is non-dual, how do you deal with that in (relative) worldly reality?

Human language and logic are rooted in phenomenal experiences
and can never be applied to the ultimate reality that transcends that experience.

Before answering the question specifically, I will first describe some building blocks of my image of reality. In my view, nothing we know is absolute – the essence in the ultimate sense cannot be known – there are only ‘pointers’. By a ‘pointer’ I mean an indicator or sign, something that provides interpretation without describing the essence of what it hints at. For example, if I say ‘table’, then that is also a pointer, because it is, for example, ‘wood in the shape of a table’ (in other words, a manifestation or it is just ‘form’). No indication is truly and completely “the truth.” Now in everyday reality we ignore this and completely identify the things around us with the pointers we use for them. This way we can communicate and function excellently with each other in the (relatively) dualistic daily reality. But as soon as we talk about the non-dual, where everything is one, qualities such as form (space), time and causality no longer exist. How can we get a grip on this, so that we respect its non-dual essence in our daily actions?

My answer to that lies in recognizing and using pointers formulated in the form of a principle. Before I give my principles, I describe the design of my view of reality. Every person has his own “mental representation” – matrix – that he uses with regard to reality. In essence, this is a collection of pointers about relative (daily) reality, as well as the relationships between them. My “matrix” also includes the idea that the underlying absolute reality is non-dual, which in itself is not knowable and of which therefore by definition no concrete representation is possible. So the question then is: how do you integrate this non-dual perspective into your matrix? This can be done by formulating pointers that can give us a hint, provide an explanation about the non-dual reality, without wanting to make the unnameable essence explicit. For me, such pointers are preferably formulated in the form of a principle, a fundamental principle that serves as a basis for someone’s thinking and behavior.

To know what something is, we must also know what something is not

If I go back to the question “how do you give meaning to non-duality?”, I could reformulate it into: “how do you deal with the principles of non-dual in the “dual” life? Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly the challenge that life throws at us. It is up to us in life to gain a more fundamental interpretation of existence and then to live more in accordance with it. In my life I use as many “principles” as possible that show me the way to the non-dual. These principles guide my thinking, choices and decisions. The most essential principles that I apply in this regard are the following:

• Explore the basic essence of your true self.
• Consciously use the present moment.
• Maintains your body and your mind.
• Keep your actions, words and above all your thoughts pure.
• Realize that Life lives you and you do not live life
• Realize that any excess is harmful.
• Realize that ‘what is needed’ is already present.
• Realize that everything in existence is intertwined.
• Realize that Love is the cosmic all-connecting principle.
• Realize that you are a manifestation of the Absolute or the Divine.

However, the fact that I have formulated them does not mean that I always live by them… if only it were so. There is nothing human or worldly strange about me either. But I often try to make sure of it and who knows… who knows, this might turn out to be something. In any case, I hope that this contribution will help others in their challenge to give meaning to non-duality in a dualistic life.

Corné van Nijhuis is a scholar who has travelled widely, has wide interests and has studied Vedanta deeply for several years. His contributions to this magazine are well-known to all.