A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Ways to Talk About It

I’ve already posted about my first experience of nonduality, a life-changing taste of awakening. 

Almost immediately, however, I faced the inevitable problem — trying to tell people about it. 

Honestly, I do want to tell you about this. But every attempt seems ridiculous. 

As William James noted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences are both noetic and ineffable. They have the force of revelation — and they defy description. 

Some meditation teachers simply refuse to discuss any of this. Who can blame them? If you keep pressing for an answer, they might just deflect the question and walk away. (A Zen master might give you a nonsense reply or a stern slap on the face. )

Being human, however, we can’t resist talking about the things that matter most to us. But what we can do is talk about nonduality in ways that prevent misunderstanding and point to the experience of it, beyond all words. 

Following are two ways that help me. Both of them are examples of the via negativa approach used by theologians: While we cannot define what God is, we can discuss what God is not. This applies to nonduality as well. 

What’s left when everything passes away

Given the subtle nature of nonduality, we might assume that it takes years of meditation practice just to get a glimpse of it. 

Not so, says Michael Taft (whose teachings about nonduality are the clearest I’ve found). Instead, we might simply notice nonduality in any moment:

You know all the feelings in your body? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the words in your head? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

You know all the pictures in your imagination? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. 

Any other content of sense experiences—like smells or tastes or whatever—just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away, too. 

What’s left when all that passes away? Nondual reality. 

Like Ajahn Sumedho says in The Mind and the Way, the teaching of the Buddha is simple, really. There are conditioned phenomena that arise and pass away. And there is the Unconditioned, which does not arise or pass away.  

Again, this description might leave you disappointed. All I can do is encourage you to learn meditation, which offers a direct way to experience the Unconditioned. 

Removing the subject-object distinction

We typically experience the world with a sharp division between subject and object. 

We call the subject me or I. These words refer to the sensation of standing back “inside” our skin and looking “outside” at the world. 

Everything other the subject is an object — the people, things, and events that seem to exist independently of us.

The subject-object distinction seems obvious and undeniably real. And yet in deep meditation, this distinction simply disappears. This is what happened to me during that retreat when my body suddenly became the world and there was no “inside” or “outside.”

This is not to say that we should abandon the subject-object distinction. We need it to make sense of the world most of the time, and to meet the demands of daily life. 

However, we can hold this distinction lightly and use it in a flexible way. In the experience of nonduality — the satisfaction of being complete in the present moment — we are free to let subjects and objects fall away.