A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: ‘Intimacy With All Things’

During my first formal meditation practice, I disappeared — not physically, but spiritually. 

It happened on a sunny fall day at a former convent in southeastern Minnesota. The event was led by Shinzen Young, who followed the traditional schedule for Vipassana retreats — 12 to 14 hours of sitting or walking meditation per day, with 5-minute breaks every half-hour. 

You cannot meditate that much and remain unchanged. Something is bound to happen, and it’s impossible to predict. 

In effect, you are sending out an invitation to the universe: Here I am. If you’d care to send a cataclysmic life-changing experience my way…well, I’m open

Eventually the borders of my body disappeared. There was experience with no center — awareness not confined to a body.

At first, there was disorientation and fear. Then deep peace flowed in waves. Fear of death disappeared, and there was no question of wanting anything. I was everything.

How long did this last? A few seconds, perhaps, or a few minutes. It’s impossible to say, because time disappeared.

By the time Shinzen signaled the end of the meditation period, I was back in my body and safely located on the space-time grid. I was a person with a name, a personal history, and not the slightest idea about what had just happened. 

Eventually I described this to Shinzen. He told me that it was an experience of no-self, or nonduality

In the decades since that retreat, I’ve talked to other people about nonduality and read everything I can find about it.

Eventually I stumbled on a post by Michael Taft, a meditation teacher and colleague of Shinzen’s. Michael gave the best words to my retreat experience:

Nonduality is the experience of intimacy with all things…. In this experience, the sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding. You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong.

Ironically, millions of words have been written about nonduality — an experience that transcends language. (The Ashtavakra Gita is one key text, but there are many more.) 

Well, I’m about to add few thousand words more to the mix.

This is the first post in a series about nonduality, with some ideas about the potential benefits and pitfalls of this path. I hope you find it beneficial.