Sitting on the beach. One moment caught in thoughts. And then – in an instant – there is simply experience. There is no you. Ocean, beach, wind, sky, sun, sounds are not something out there. There is just experience, moving. No self. No other. Not separate. Not two.
It’s as simple as can be and as close as immediate experience. In this article, we’re going to talk about something that can’t be talked about. Direct awareness. The nondual. The direct path. But, because we’re what we are, we’re going to talk about it anyway!
Pointing Out What is Already There
Read the following and whatever arises, let it be there.
Rest as awareness.
That’s it. That’s the instruction.
That’s the flavor of the direct path.
If this is where you are, then you don’t need anything else, because nothing is missing. If you read the instruction and it triggers something in you, then let that be there, without manipulation. However, if you read the instruction and “try” to do it, you are soon faced with a seeming paradox. You are faced with the difficulty that emerges in willing something to happen that does not require your will – and which, in fact, becomes more obscure the more you try.
In essence, the nondual reality is the reality of one’s already awakened experience. But it’s not even – really – an experience. Because that presupposes a separate experiencer. Rather, it’s a reality that feels like an experience that appears to have certain qualities to what we’ve thought of as our individual self.
Awareness is – all without your doing anything.
Let me make a quick, but imperfect, analogy. In vision, your sharp focused attention is drawn to different things in your field of sight, and we can even choose where to focus our attention (focused vision). This part of our vision feels more “under our control,” even as we’re aware our eyes are often drawn to things we haven’t chosen (say, a person walking by catches our eye). At the same time, there is a broad kind of peripheral vision (awareness) that we are not controlling, but it is happening all the time. And it’s happening whether we’re conscious of it or not. In some ways – again, an imperfect analogy – we are deciding to increasingly rest in the broader awareness that is always happening.
That’s it. Rest as awareness.
The Gateless Gate
We “get to” the experience of awareness by letting go, not by forcing it to happen. This is the “gateless gate” so often referred to in Zen. We cannot see the gate, but we can know when we have stumbled through it because the other side of the gate is very unlike our everyday way of being. It’s also called the “pathless path,” or the “open secret.” This approach is often called the direct path because we “practice” a direct simple unadorned awareness that is ultimately the end that we seek.
Yikes. How do you do something that you don’t know how to do? If you could “do” the end, you wouldn’t need to practice. Right?
Paradox is evident in most ways of talking about this direct path.
It is said that this direct awareness (Being, the nondual) cannot be found through seeking, but only seekers will find it. Rediscovering it involves a kind of doing without doing. There’s an intent – if you will – to be available to the emergence of simple direct awareness. This intent, in a way, is the intent to remember. But it is not the kind of intent that can make it happen.
There is nothing to do, because what you already really are is presence.
You already are awareness. So, there’s nothing to do. In our imperfect analogy, peripheral awareness is happening all the time whether you know it or not.
What a mess!
It’s a bit like trying to fall asleep. We all know how that goes.
This paradox is one of the reasons I often put “practice” in quotes when talking about direct approaches to the Mystery, to the nondual. We can’t will letting go. There’s nothing to be done, and therefore there is no “practice.”
We are what we seek. We go out looking for something new – something other than us, and different – that can give us insight or awakening. But it’s so close we can’t see it. It is the immediacy of our experience in this moment. Everything already is in awareness, whether we know it or not. Infinity is not out there. It is this… very… moment. It is not infinitely large, or small, or out there, or in here. It is. Nothing else.
As we try to reach this experience of pristine awareness, the problem is the “I” that is trying. This “I” that is trying is a fiction. It’s a small part of the self that looks at you critically and believes you need to be something else.It imagines it wants something else out there that can give it this new experience. So, it tries and tries to get from here to there. It believes that with just a little more effort, a little more will, it can get there and finally feel good, finally feel content. This “trying I” believes it can acquire the thing that will lead to happiness. This “I” wants to be more awakened, more spiritual, more free, more happy, more powerful, more knowing, more capable, more connected… more something… and it wants it as soon as possible.
This is the will of a little “I” (and there are many of them) that wants to feel better and wants the discomfort to stop.
Elsewhere, in my article Depression, Low Energy, and the Hazards of Living by Will Alone, I’ve talked about some of the hazards of willing life and of being out of touch with one’s whole self.
To find and fall through the gateless gate is more about willingness than about willfulness.
It’s something like the “allowing will.” Still, the question keeps coming up, “Yes, but how do I let go?” Say this with a wry smile and you’ll have the right spirit, because you’re very close to getting that the part of you that wants to let go is the self that won’t let go – that believes there’s something needed other than what is in awareness right now.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, in spite of the direct path injunctions to “not correct” or to “let go” or to “do nothing,” there’s been a whole lot of practice, and there have been a whole lot of practices evolved over the centuries to help us become “ripe” for direct awareness.
Let go. And keep letting go. Unclench your fist, over and over.
The Nondual, the Direct Path, and Natural Awareness
In short, the “experience” of the nondual is the experience of the collapse of the subject-object dichotomy. In other words, awareness just is. There is not someone being aware of something.
When talking about the nondual, I often put “experience” in quotes, because some people will note that without a distinction between subject and object, to talk about “experience” makes no sense – because there isn’t an “experiencer.” Fair and good. Language and logic do often struggle with capturing the nondual. I’ll still use the word “experience” at times, while acknowledging this is a concession to the limits of language.
The direct path is often contrasted to the progressive path to greater awareness. The direct path is seen as simply awakening to the “already here” reality of this natural awareness that exists without a distinction between subject and object. The direct path, and direct awareness, are not mindfulness. Mindfulness – which has many benefits in its own right (discussed in my article Mindfulness Basics – Everyday Life as Practice and the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation) – may also potentially lead to the experience of the nondual, if the practitioner is so inclined. As we’ve noted elsewhere, mindfulness can also end up with a very subtle and stable “observing self” that continues to create a distinction between self and other. This is not inherently a problem, but can hinder remembering one’s way to simple direct awareness.
Most psychospiritual and religious traditions have something to say about this direct awareness – or as some refer to it, the nondual.
The reality and nature of it have been described in Indian thought (the Upanishads, Advaita Vedanta), schools of Buddhism (Dzogchen, Zen), Taoism, and by Christian mystics, Jewish mystics (Kabbalists), and Islamic mystics (Sufis).
As Michael Taft has so clearly said in NonDualism: A Brief History of a Timeless Concept, there is a distinction to be made between nondual awareness (the experience) and philosophies (-isms) about the nondual. Thus, nondualism talks about the experience and meaning of the experience and at times makes conceptual assertions about what the experience means about the nature of Being, or the Mystery, or whatever you want to call it. Let me be clear. We are talking about nonduality here in this article.
Additionally – and it’s not possible to go into it here – but all perspectives on nonduality are not the same. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the inherent difficulty in putting words to a nonconceptual experience. Some perspectives on nonduality, for example, refer to the nondual experience as “oneness.” And “oneness” is, indeed, an experience that people have of the deeper mystery that is Being. “Oneness” sounds, of course, like “not-two,” which it is in a certain way. However, from another perspective, nonduality is decidedly not the same thing as “oneness.” From this other perspective, duality and oneness are not the same, nor are they not not the same, nor are they different, nor are they not different.
Whew. Hopefully this points to the difficulties inherent in conceptual maps. This way of working with experience removes, over and over, assumptions about the maps we make of our experience. As soon as we think we have “it,” we’re challenged to question what we’re thinking about “it” – about Being, about the Mystery.
All words come with associated meanings and baggage. The word “nondual” is no different. As we’ve noted, equating “nonduality” with “oneness” is one perspective (and not necessarily wrong!), but just because it’s difficult to put into words doesn’t also mean that everyone’s experience is the same. Is Being or the Mystery limited in this way? Who knows? Who knows?
Neither can we deny that – across cultures and time – people often describe the experience of the nondual in similar terms. But perhaps we cannot conceptually grasp how it might be possible that differences in the experience of the nondual could simultaneously reflect real differences, unreal differences, both real and unreal differences, and neither real nor unreal differences. Sigh. Here we are again.
Some people talk about the “reference-less” quality of resting in presence. I find this frame extremely valuable, even if for the purpose of helping us not hold onto a moment of awareness and reducing it to a particular map or experience. Let go of reference as soon as you notice you’re holding on.
This, by the way, can be a very disruptive experience! Not all sweetness and light, as they say.
As an aside, some teachings and approaches “point to” the nondual by affirming some quality of it, e.g., “it is oneness.” Other teachings and approaches point to the nondual by stripping away all assumptions or conceptual maps, e.g. “it’s not this, and it’s not that.” These are, respectively, the positive and negative “ways.”
I like the words “Being” and “Mystery” and “Presence,” but that’s just me. And those words, too, come heavy with meanings, and not even the same meanings for all of us! Pick your poison. The difficulty of putting this deeper experience into words has long been understood in psychospiritual traditions, and writings.
Logic struggles with nonduality – which doesn’t mean that logic has nothing valuable to say.
In some ways, it’s really best not to say too much about nonduality (and I’ve said so much already!), especially if one intends to discover it in a nonconceptual way. How does one compare nonconceptual experiences? Well, when you try to do it via words and intellect, it often comes up sounding contradictory (e.g., It felt like being everywhere… and nowhere). Just to be clear, intellectual discussion does have merit and value. But sometimes such discussion ends in chasing one’s own tail but getting nowhere. And we want to be directly there. Or nowhere… as you wish.
One final issue before we move on. Earlier, I said that the essence of the nondual is the collapse of the duality between subject and object. There is another collapse, too. It’s the collapse of the duality between (1) the subject/world “over here,” and (2) Being (or the Mystery, or God, or Spirit) “over there.” This is the deep end of the pool. So enough of that for now.
This is not the article to go deeply into the possibility that Being has many facets, the nondual being one way in which the Mystery expresses itself. Notwithstanding that even what different people refer to as “nondual” may not be referring to the same experience, or facet of expression. Taste, for example, is nonconceptual, but salty and sweet are not the same.
Ah, sweet and salty confusion. Word, ideas, and explanations all chop up Being. They carve up the nondual, encourage fixation, and can obstruct us instead of pointing us to the gateless gate.
So, we just practice. And keep letting go of our assumptions about self, and experience, and the Mystery. Or we just remember, and that’s it. And we keep remembering.
Enough philosophy. Let’s play!
Yes, I Understand, but How….?
We’ve been talking about direct awareness, but again, part of us asks how we get there. This is understandable given how we commonly identify as a self that needs something else. Let’s try something…
Set aside ten to fifteen minutes for the following exploration…
- With your awareness, mindfully follow the sensation of the rising and falling of your stomach or abdomen with each in- and out-breath. Gently let your awareness rest with the sensation of that motion – in and out – for a couple of minutes.
- As you feel some stable sense of following the breathing sensation, begin to sense the part of you that is observing this sensation of breathing. Can you “locate” this observing part of you? Are there words, images, sounds that come with it?
- Note the locus of sensation of that observing self. Can you feel from where you seem to be observing? You might notice a subtle tension in that area. Often, it’s a point in the head, but perhaps it’s located somewhere else.
- Once you’ve heard and felt where this observing self seems to be “standing,” note to yourself (wordlessly) that if you can hear/sense/feel that observing self, then it’s just another object of awareness. It’s not really the observer. It’s just another idea, another content of awareness.
- Ask yourself (inwardly), “Who is this ‘I’ that is aware?” Feel into this question. Feel into it.
- Keep exploring that question until you run out of words and fall into a sensation-experience that is wordless.
This “Who is aware?” question is a direct approach based on enquiry. In this instance, it’s not an intellectual enquiry, but rather, an experiential and nonconceptual investigation – a “feeling into.” I equate it to riding a bike. We can talk and read books about bike riding all day long, but to ride a bike, we must get on one and feel into the experience to discover “how.” Intellect only carries us so far.
There are many ways that teachers have evolved of pointing us to the direct experience of awareness.
- Pith instructions. In nondual traditions, there are short, direct, helpful questions and instructions that invite us directly though the “gateless gate.” These are called pointing out, or pith instructions. Some have already appeared in this article. When you find one that moves you, sit with it, and with the experience that is revealed as you explore it.
- Rest as awareness.
- Let things be as they are. Don’t correct. (Don’t even correct your corrections, or judgments. Let them be as they are.)
- Just this.
- Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.
- Only when you stop seeking will you find it.
- Who is seeking awareness?
- The via negativa. Earlier, I mentioned the “negative way,” which is a method of progressively unfixing our identity from parts of our experience. In brief, you sit and feel your body and note “I am aware of my body, but I am not my body.” You do this progressively with your emotions, the contents of your thinking, memories, roles, gender, goals, and any other experience that comes into your awareness. You are essentially saying, “I am not this” and “I am not that” to all parts of your experience. Note that I said we are unfixing our identity from these things.
- So, to say “I am not my body” is not the same thing as saying “My body doesn’t exist,” or “My body is not part of me and my experience.” But to transcend and include parts of our experience often means we have to first unfix our awareness and sense of self from that experience. Just to be clear, we include the experience of the body because we don’t want to dissociate from the experience of the body (e.g., we don’t want to have an ongoing sense of the body being “over there”) – because this dissociation is just another kind of resisting the here and now reality of our experience and sets up an “observer” that’s disconnected from the body.
- Enquire into the nature of the seeker. Sometimes in pursuit of a more enlightened or developed self, there is an increasingly subtle lurker/observer who wants us to be more enlightened and developed. In this enquiry, when we feel something in our heart, mind, and experience “trying” to get somewhere, or critiquing our “performance” as a seeker/meditator, it pays to enquire, “Who is the imagined one seeking an experience of direct awareness? Who is the one thinking I should be there, or be there faster? Who wants this more enlightened self? Who wants to awaken?” Answer? It’s another subtle set of thoughts. Enquire and discover it. Then, let go of this observer, too.
- Meditate on vast, spacious awareness. Remember that this is always already there. Sitting in nature – by the ocean, on a mountain, looking over a vast plain – all can help with discovering this vast, open awareness. Sit with letting vast spacious awareness include all the experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations) that arise within it (you). Sense that awareness is in front of you, behind you, out to your sides, above and below you, and includes you. And that awareness is already there without your doing anything at all.
- Do nothing. This is a very straightforward (and simultaneously the most difficult) practice. The instruction? Sit and do nothing. And keep doing nothing. This is amazingly difficult to do with awareness. You sit, preferably in a more upright position where you won’t drift into sleepiness, and notice anytime your mind tries to do anything. And then you gently let go of that attempt to do something. You don’t concentrate, you don’t try to meditate. You just become aware of your mind trying to do something (this includes letting go when you become aware that you’re trying to let go).
Getting trapped in a train of thought is also a “doing,” so let go of that too. When you feel tension, let go. Let go of trying to do anything, and also stay gently alert in a relaxed way. To be fair, there is a slight doing here; it’s noticing when you try to do something, and then letting it go. Don’t grasp. Let go, in the sense of letting go of your grip, not in the sense of trying to put it away.
- Listen. Sit and listen in an environment that has some sounds (but sounds that are not too overwhelming or distracting). Nature is a good place to practice, but you can do it anywhere (e.g., sitting in a car where sound from the outside can be heard). Let awareness be in listening. Listen to the sounds that come to awareness. Keep listening and let inner narratives, thinking, etc., just go by and return to listening. Listen until, perhaps, there is just listening – and no distinction between listener and sounds.
- Stop reading and dive in. Pick an instruction that touches you – and then sit with it for a few moments. Stop reading and remember, it’s already there!
One of the difficulties with approaching the nondual is that it’s as close as awareness itself. It’s so simple, we miss it. Awareness doesn’t need to be created, or constructed, or understood intellectually. It’s already there. We simply need to let go of our constructions about it.
Right now, in this moment, let yourself be aware of what is happening around you. Catch the moment of returning to that awareness. Just take in the freshness of the moment, before words or other constructions enter in.
It is available and present at every moment. It is ordinary, simple and always right here and right now. Infinity is not a large expanse of time. Infinity is right now. It is non-time. This moment is always an opportunity to just be who you already naturally are.
Do nothing. Don’t do awareness. Be the awareness that you fundamentally are.
Sometimes this all seems so mystical and woo woo. But, really, it’s not a particularly mystical or obscure statement to say that “awareness is” – always and already. It’s simply a fact of our experience. Are you aware of reading this page? If the answer is “yes,” then that’s it. Simple, direct awareness. Now remember that’s there, all the time. And remember it, and remember it!
Ultimately, words can only point to direct awareness.
And hearing, reading, or understanding the words intellectually isn’t the same as actually resting as presence, resting as awareness. Additionally, trying to intellectually grasp the concept of direct awareness, or make intellectual distinctions can create an intellectual distraction from actually resting directly in awareness.
Trust me, I’m not anti-intellectual. I’m just particularly familiar with the problem of how spending time cogitating about direct awareness is not to be confused with awareness itself. In addition – and acknowledging we often must use words to point to awareness as such – I’m loathe to reduce direct awareness to singular intellectual constructs (e.g., oneness, spaciousness, emptiness).
There is a valuable distinction to be made between mindfulness and direct awareness – if it highlights for us how we might need to collapse any subject-object experience that is subtly present in our practice of mindfulness. However, let me repeat, mindfulness is an extremely valuable state of consciousness. I’ve gone into its practice and benefits in the article Mindfulness Basics – Everyday Life as Practice and the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation. Mindfulness practice can potentially lead to the experience of direct awareness, but that is not how it is often practiced, at least initially. As they say in Zen, “No need to put another head on your head.”
OK. Right now, ask yourself in this moment. “Who is aware…?” Feel into the first moment as that question recedes and you return to fresh awareness.
If nonduality and direct approaches interest you, here’s my strong recommendation.
If you’re drawn to read something about direct awareness, or to listen to someone explain something about direct awareness, then please do. But read and/or listen just a little, then reflect on it, and then sink into the contemplation of it. It’s all only talk until you experience the truth of direct awareness yourself. Once you have a taste of it, you will still get lost in thoughts, distractions, other agendas – but over time you will increasingly remember to return to what is always there.
To Meditate or Not to Meditate?
Some teachers who talk about nonduality and direct awareness – and who pointing out this experience to others – may downplay the necessity for meditation practice, or for practices of any kind. This is a valuable and understandable teaching device because it can help shake assumptions about the “doer,” about “doing” (or willing as I noted earlier), and about the separation of a doing self from a sought-after experience.
Still, though, there is something to be said for the long history of practices that have helped people remember their way to Being. Many people who had a sudden enlightenment had also put in quite a bit of time wrestling with the vagaries of their consciousness via meditation, contemplation, questioning and so forth. In addition, humans are story tellers, and there is power, connection and value in our stories, histories and oral traditions. There is context and direction too.
OK, yes, but do I need to meditate or not?
To quote one teacher, “What is there to meditate on? And from what is there to be distracted?” Sit with that a moment. Note what this evokes in you. Don’t go to your intellect. Sit with what sensations, what experience, it evokes.
Nothing to meditate on. And nothing from which to be distracted.
A fine instruction, that. So, from my perspective…. Brief moments of enquiry, often, along with some extended periods of contemplation or meditation. All set the stage for the moments of pure awareness that cannot be willed.
There is a modern extension of the Advaita approach – known as Neo-Advaita – that often asserts that no practice or meditation of any kind is necessary to rest in the nondual awareness. Like any other “approach,” this perspective has its upsides and potential downsides.
One upside is the relentless focus on the ground of Being – and calling into question the reality of “who” is questioning. In this way, it undermines over-analysis. One downside is that it can be insensitive to the real-life struggles that people face even as they seek something deeper (e.g., There’s no one who has experienced trauma. Just let it go.).
Another downside is the encouragement of spiritual bypass – believing you’re enlightened or spiritually evolved in a way that allows you to take no responsibility for your own psychological blind spots (e.g., narcissism, dissociation, intellectualization).
To repeat, there has been a whole lot of consciousness practice (e.g., meditation) over the centuries among those who have stably tapped into the nondual.
So, to meditate or not to meditate?
For now, I would say, practice however you are drawn to do so. Tune in to your instincts. If something isn’t working, then try something different. Perhaps, too, your practice consists in reminding yourself that there is a “you” that wants to be enlightened and this “you” bears examining. If you feel a bit lost with no direction and you are not meditating, then try meditating. If you’re trapped by too-rigid adherence to your meditative practice or method, then try letting go.
Finally, too, even the “difference” between duality and nonduality can be seen as an artificial illusion. The nondual is not a separate place from where you are right now. Perhaps the same may be said of drawing a distinction between meditating and not meditating. Who knows? Who wants to know? Hah!
At any rate, here’s my take. Read and listen. Contemplate. Rest in awareness. Enquire (“Who is the one who….?”). Repeat.
There are many writings today on nonduality and direct path practice. You can Google “nonduality” and find plenty. You can also go to Amazon and search “nondual” and you’ll have more than you can – or need to – read. There are many wonderful YouTube videos with teachers talking about natural awareness, Being, presence, the nondual.
There are many current-day teachers in this realm, each with their own style and perspective on the direct path. Some will speak to you, others won’t. Follow your instincts. Given what I’ve said earlier about different perspectives on the Mystery, you may also notice that some people will talk about nonduality synonymously with “oneness,” while others will not do that. After all, it’s hard to give words to the wordless. Again, listen to what speaks to you and follow your instincts.
- Read original material. There are teachers – ancient and modern – from a variety of traditions who have pointed to this direct nonconceptual nondual experience. There is great power in reading original material from such teachers as Dogen, Longchenpa, Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, Lao Tzu, Plotinus, St. Teresa, Meister Eckhart, Rumi, and so forth.
- Collect pith instructions, and contemplate them. As we’ve said, pith instructions are direct and practical pointing-out instructions intended to communicate the essence of “where to find” direct awareness. “Rest as awareness” is one such instruction. It can be very helpful to collect such pith instructions that speak to you. You can then return to them over and over – rather than reaching for more to read or more to hear.
- Have friends and teachers who share your interests. Meet, work with, and practice with spiritual friends and/or teachers who have some sense of this direct experience. If you’ve tasted direct awareness, it can be… difficult… to talk about it with people who don’t already know what you’re talking about.
- Take time away to meditate and enquire. I won’t even say “retreat.” Just having a regular half hour or hour with no interruption is powerful. Even a day at home by yourself (if possible!) can be extremely powerful.
The Direct Path and Psychological Work
How does the direct path to awareness and how does nonduality fit with what we typically think of as “psychological work?” You might have a guess. They’re not different!
Direct awareness doesn’t mean there isn’t something like a self. It’s just that we mistake this sense of self for something solid, separate, boundaried, and permanent in a way that includes such certainties as “I am this” and “I am definitely not that.” Self-observation will reveal that we often experience thoughts, feelings, and motives that are part of us – and that we didn’t know were there. It’s called the unconscious! Further, we often have conflicting urges (e.g., to look out for ourselves versus being nice), or urges that are difficult to accept (e.g., sexual attractions, destructive desires).
Psychotherapy helps us examine and work with problematic schemas – which are the unconscious maps/stories we harbor about ourselves and the world. In therapy, we can unlearn and relearn things we’ve unconsciously taken for granted (e.g., whether we’re a good person or not, how powerful we are, how connected we are, how relationships “always” are, etc.). Direct path awareness practices work with this sense of “who we are” in a quite deep way – but in a way that allows more freedom as we do psychological work. Mindfulness and direct awareness practices both work quite nicely in conjunction with the work of psychotherapy.
Direct path “practice” can help us relax around the idea of a seemingly fixated separate sense of self – the everyday “self” – and help us uncover and work with barriers to feeling stable, connected with others, having healthy boundaries, being able to be assertive, having empathy, enjoying healthy self-esteem, feeling a sense of meaning and purpose, and so on. These are things we often think of “working on” when we think of psychotherapy in a traditional sense. In addition, even as we’re doing direct path “practice,” we can work with such concrete and troublesome experiences as trauma, depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship struggles, and many other difficulties. The field of psychotherapy has developed many good tools for working with these kinds of issues.
Sometimes, too, in therapy, we may discover this “unconscious” and find that there is more to us than we imagined. We may discover that we’ve had hidden sadness or anger for many years, or the desire to hurt someone who hurt us, or a longing to connect that we’ve repressed. In our quest to be happier, we travel even further and begin to wonder just how much else might be amiss in our assumed-to-be-true world.
As I’ve written elsewhere in The Experience of Freedom – Mindfulness and Direct Awareness, nondual approaches have sometimes been referred to as “the ultimate medicine” in that they work at the very root of our pain and unhappiness – that is, the assumptions about being a separate self and preconceptions about what is one’s “real self.” Direct awareness (nondual) practices can help us go to the “root” of our struggles by working with assumptions about the very nature of the self, awareness, experience, and reality.
In doing so, we can begin to relieve some suffering (though to be fair, upending our assumptions about ourselves can be uncomfortable in its own way). Most all good psychotherapy involves a certain amount of discomfort.
For people worried about undermining their ability to be in the world effectively, I want to say that it’s not that the “self” is gotten rid of, but that the self/not-self duality no longer holds us rigidly fixated. This is freedom of an entirely different order. Direct awareness can help us be less reflexively reactive, and so we become freer to make good choices.
At the very minimum, open spacious awareness supports us in exploring our concerns in therapy. Hidden aspects of our experience (e.g., our repressed anger or sadness) can more easily show up if we can let go of the tight grip we have on which experiences we want and which we don’t want to have. If we’re very fixated on the belief that we’re a nice person, without some open awareness, it’s difficult to let in the very real repressed anger we’ve tightly repressed in our body-mind.
Psychotherapy also informs awareness practice in that there are common (psychological) difficulties that can emerge in the context of mindfulness and nondual practices.
- Spiritual bypass. Sometimes “higher states” are sought in a way that leaves ongoing personal struggles untouched – or even avoided. This is referred to as “spiritual bypass” and deserves a lengthier explanation in another article. For now, let’s say that one of the dangers of any psychospiritual practice is in using it to help us avoid (not address) our pain and our struggles in everyday life. Examining underlying assumptions about the fixed nature of the self is work that can go hand-in-hand with therapy that helps us address concrete everyday difficulties.
- Premature deconstruction. A healthy “self” needs the right balance of boundaries and openness. Practices that emphasize openness and/or deconstructing our everyday sense of self can potentially lead to a surfacing of old pain and could tap into a sense of nihilism and groundlessness (not in a good way). Such practices can surface pain that is part of the person’s history – and it may do so in a way that doesn’t offer a balancing sense of being resourced and settled. The remedy? If someone has a great deal of trauma, sadness, or loss in their life, there can be great value in working with a stabilizing kind of concentrative practice (rather than a deconstructing one) for a time. Practices that stabilize attention (e.g., focusing only on the sensations of the breath, and that’s it) can lead to a greater sense of groundedness, centeredness, safety, stability, and even tranquility.
- Understanding direct awareness only intellectually. Every path has potential hazards, and one of the dangers of direct approaches is getting stuck in the side path of understanding the fruits of the path only intellectually. In this scenario, the person’s language becomes “nondual” (e.g., “there is no self doing anything”), but the person is only performing awakening rather than actually resting in awakening. This can be a form of spiritual bypass, where emotions and emotional issues remain untouched.
- Putting “an extra head on your head.” One of the dangers of mindfulness and other awareness practices is in creating a somewhat tight and fixated (and subtle and critical) observing self. This is referred to as the problem of “putting an extra head on your head.” As they say, once you have used a boat to get to the other shore, you can leave the boat behind. Once attention is stabilized mindfully, there can be great value in letting go of the mindfully observing self by deconstructing the observer. Many will pursue this direct awareness without ever having had a sustained mindfulness practice. This is fine, of course, if the person can indeed simply “rest” and not be gripped by the content of their experience, or be “blown around” and mistake that for spaciousness.
Any one of these topics deserves its own article, but the focus of this article is on direct path “practices.”
Psychotherapy, Coaching, and the Direct Path
For those who are themselves on this direct path, psychotherapy can be a helpful additional tool. Therapy can help us catch our unconscious fixations and unique ways of avoiding our discomforts – and therefore avoiding the present. Examples include intellectualizing, falling into numbness, distracting ourselves with exciting things, getting things done, and so forth. Therapy can help us discover the unconscious “I” that imagines a “something next” that will make things better. It bears saying again that counseling and coaching work with the individual self is not separate from this deeper kind of awareness work, if it’s done in context of that deeper work.
If mindfulness practices, nonduality, and direct approaches to awareness speak to you, there is space for this kind of exploration in the context of psychotherapy and coaching work. Perhaps, too, you’re already on this “path” of direct awareness, and you also need concrete work with your very real humanity – your fears, irritations, unacceptable feelings, confusion, troubled relationships, or other pain.
If you struggle with issues of anxiety, depression, self-esteem, relationship, or meaning – and you also want to work with a therapist or coach who is sensitive to issues that emerge on the paths of awareness, contact Dr. Martin here.