I started to practice yoga and meditation when I was 20 years old. Forty-one years later, I'm still at it: trying to find the real me and the truth at the heart of the cosmos.
Along the way, in 1990, I married a woman who has taught me as much, or more, about reality than meditation has.
Laurel is a psychotherapist (now retired). She helped me understand that attempting to transcend this world is crazy if you haven't first come to grips with yourself and how you relate to other people.
This is a central theme of John Welwood's essay, "Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience."
The tag line of Welwood's web site is Integrating Western Psychology & Eastern Spiritual Wisdom. A worthy goal.
During the decades I was an active member of a mystical/spiritual organization headquartered in India, I met many people who fell into a general diagnostic category of Seriously Screwed Up.
Like me, they'd spent countless hours on their meditation cushion. Yet all of this gazing inward hadn't made them either comfortable with themselves or capable of having warm, open, egalitarian relationships with other people.
Welwood does a good job of analyzing how a single-minded focus on transcending this world so Oneness can be revealed is more than a little contradictory.
On the human plane, our lives evolve and unfold through the relative play of duality — otherwise known as relationship. Indeed the central, defining feature of the human realm is relationship— the network of interactions with others that supports our life from the cradle to the grave. Relationship only happens when there are two— who engage in a dance that continually moves back and forth between twoness and oneness.
In this way, the human realm serves as a bridge linking samsara— the experience of separateness— and nirvana— nonseparateness. This is why being human is a living paradox, and also a field in which a vast range of feeling— from unbearable sorrow to unthinkable joy— is possible.
However, there is a one-sided perspective circulating in the contemporary spiritual scene that uses the absolute truth of nonduality to disparage or belittle the relative play of duality in human experience. This perspective casts nonduality in a primarily transcendental light, regarding only absolute truth— the nonexistence of separate entities— as real, while seeing phenomenal existence — the play of duality— as unreal, illusion, untruth.
...In the name of nonduality, it creates its own form of dualism by setting up a divide between absolute truth and relative human experience.
This pretty much sums up Welwood's message, but he's got a lot more to say in the essay's twenty-one pages.
I don't claim to understand what nonduality is all about, though I hear the word used a lot.
I'm baffled by what an experience of nonduality would be like. Duality I get: it's the world of separate stuff that I know now. Oneness I sort of get, though I don't see how it'd be possible to be conscious of One, because then there would be two: One and an awareness of it.
Welwood doesn't do much to help me grasp what nonduality is, but I liked his warning about over-emphasizing it.
Nondual teachings that mainly emphasize the illusory quality of human experience can, unfortunately, serve as just another dehumanizing force in a world where our basic humanity is already under siege at every turn.
What is needed in these difficult times instead is a liberation spirituality that helps people recognize nondual presence as a basis for fully inhabiting their humanity, rather than as a rationale for disengaging from it. We need a spiritual vision that values and includes the central playing-field where our humanity expresses itself— relationship.
"Oneness" or "nonduality" are concepts. The reality in which we live and breathe is dual. There's us, and there are others. Other things, other people, other living beings.
When we recognize and accept these differences, that's wisdom. And, truth. Whatever we're experiencing, that's what's true for us. Our notions about some transcendent ultimate reality -- God, nirvana, enlightenment, heaven -- are just that: notions.
This kind of perspective avoids two major pitfalls on the spiritual path — spiritual bypassing and the spiritual superego — which are ways of imposing on oneself a higher spiritual perspective that lies far beyond one's actual state, thus creating further inner division.
When people try to bypass, or prematurely transcend, their current psychological condition by trying to live up to some noble spiritual ideal, this does violence to where they are. And it strengthens the spiritual superego, the inner voice that tells them they should be something other than they are, thereby reinforcing their disconnection from themselves.
I've always felt that for a man, being married is the surest and fastest route to losing his ego, because once the honeymoon is over it doesn't take long for him to realize that from this point forward, he must submit to a higher power. (One example among many: I hadn't realized that I'd been hanging up towels the wrong way, but Laurel has enlightened me.)
So I enjoyed this section of Welwood's piece.
Swami Prajnanpad recognized the significance of this discrepancy between people's spiritual practice and their ability to embody it in their relationships, often telling students who wanted to study with him to "bring a certificate from your wife."
He saw marriage as a particularly powerful litmus test of one's development, because in it one is "fully exposed...All one's peculiarities, all of one's so-called weaknesses are there in their naked form. This is why it is the testing ground." In solitary spiritual practice, the spiritual aspirant "may accomplish perfection and feel: 'Oh! I am at ease, oh, I can feel oneness.' "
But in marriage, "everything gets confounded." Yogis discover that their so-called realization "was only on the superficial level. It had not percolated deep within. It simply appeared to have gone deep. Unless you are tested on the ground where you are fully exposed, all those outward achievements are false. This is the point, and you have to grasp this completely."