A Beginner’s Guide to Nonduality: Integrating the Experience With Daily Life

The experience of nonduality comes with bells and whistles. For me, it was a revelation, an epiphany, a cosmic parting-of-the-curtains. 

There are lots of jokes about spiritual teachers experiencing “Oneness.” My response is: Hey, don’t knock until you’ve tried it. 

When the boundaries of the self dissolve and your body becomes the whole world, there comes peace and completeness. For a moment, it is the end of searching. 

Yet I’ve struggled to integrate this experience with the rest of my life. 

One challenge is simply talking about nonduality while sounding grounded and sane. Another is understanding the true impact of the experience. Failing to do this can create some thorny problems. 

The following perspectives help me a lot.

Avoiding the observer trap

For years I believed in something called the Witness self, a detached observer somewhere “inside” me. Thoughts and physical sensations came and went, but the Witness remained to sit back and watch it all. 

I now see this as an error. Meditation teacher Michael Taft calls it the observer trap, or meditator ego

In nondual experience, the observer also falls away. It is also just a bundle of passing thoughts and sensations. 

Ironically, mindfulness teachers sometimes talk about “becoming a witness of experience.” This preserves the meditator ego, which can become a barrier to deeper awakening. 

To learn more, see Michael’s instructions for watching the watcher.

Seeing through the ego

Transcending the ego does not mean getting rid of it. Rather, it means seeing through the ego.  

We need a functional ego to carry out the tasks of daily life, such as working and building healthy relationships. We can also function at this level while knowing at a deeper level that the ego is not who we really are

More precisely, the ego is constructed by the mind. It is a concept overlaid on the stream of sensations that appear and disappear in awareness. This concept is useful but not ultimately real. 

Avoiding claims about the nature of reality 

My experience of nonduality initially left me feeling like a prophet. I believed that I’d discovered hidden meanings about the nature of reality as pure Oneness. Books like The Tao of Physics reinforced this viewpoint.

This, too, was delusion. Seeing nonduality offers many benefits, but it doesn’t make anyone an expert in physics or astronomy.  

Meditation reveals much about direct experience — how sensations get mixed up with thoughts and desires, which drive us to act in compulsive ways. 

However, meditation does not confirm that the world outside our head is Pure Consciousness or Absolute Mind, Being, or any such hifalutin thing. And vague references to quantum mechanics will not change that.  

Let’s leave cosmology to the scientists and get back to meditation. 

Continuing to practice

One framework for meditation is immediate enlightenment: We are already enlightened, and there is nothing we can do to become enlightened. All we need to do is see this fact in a single instant. No practices are necessary. 

Another framework is the gradual enlightenment: Our mind is clouded by layers of clinging, aversion, and ignorance. We practice for a life time to penetrate these layers and reach ever deepening layers of awakening. 

Buddhist monks and scholars have spent centuries debating the merits of these approaches. After searching for a resolution, I finally let go of it all. 

Is enlightenment immediate or gradual? My answer is yes: Both views are useful. This is a paradox, not a contradiction. 

If anything, I choose to “err” on the side of the gradual path. If I’m still suffering in a particular area of life, this is a cue to keep practicing. 

Keeping nonduality in perspective

Nonduality is no panacea. Meditators with deep spiritual insight can still struggle with the tasks of daily life — choosing a career, making money, forming relationships, recovering from addiction, and more. 

Meditating more is not always the answer. Sometimes our practice is to gain new skills, get counseling, and change habits

Insight into nonduality grants me a sense of wonder, reduces my emotional reactivity, and lessens my fear of death. It lightens the load as I get on with the rest of my life. This is enough, and for all of it I am grateful.