Nonduality Redux

“There is only One machine.

The web is its OS.

All screens look into the One.

No bits will live outside the web.

To share is to gain.

Let the One read it.

The One is us.”[1]

Kevin Kelly

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.  If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.”[2]

Henry David Thoreau

I create out of a need to experience. My work as an artist is a present presence centered practice. I have a nondualistic and process oriented approach. I cannot say that my art has meaning per se, as it is not a goal in my practice for my work to have meaning; rather if there any goal at all it is that in the creation of art I can practice being present to what is. I share the thoughts of Thoreau as written above, “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  The best of this means that I do not separate “my art” from “my life.” I am not an artist; you are not the viewer of my art works.  We are one immeasurable landscape of being. And in the best of moments, I am awake to this reality. This paper will explore my experience and understanding of nondualism; how this is expressed in my art practice; those who have and continue to influence me, philosophers, mystics, and artists alike, and how I reconcile the seemingly separate parts of myself into a nondual reality.

Just a few short years ago, I would not have said that my philosophical leanings were nondualistic.  In fact it was quite the contrary. I had spent a great deal of time living and exploring dualistic spiritual traditions, especially Christian monastic ones. After an experience which I can only describe as a spontaneous and effortless awareness, I experienced what I have come to know as nondual reality. I saw my connection to all that was around me.  There was no separation either from myself or from anything outside of me.  In truth there was no me, and as such no “inside” or “outside”.  I felt I had a momentary understanding that there was just One Consciousness, One Being. And quite honestly, this Oneness was overwhelmingly wonderful. And truth be told, I wanted to experience this Oneness more.

I am aware that as I talk about nondualism and attempt to define and explain my experience it seems that I talk myself back into dualism. It is the paradox of nonduality. That said outside of my personal experience I see nondualism as the realization and awareness that any perceived separation is an illusion; essentially everything we experience resides only in One consciousness.

A simple way of explaining nondualism would be comparing it to a hologram. “Each point in the hologram contains light from the whole of the original scene, the whole scene can, in principle, be reconstructed from an arbitrarily small part of the hologram. To demonstrate this concept, the hologram can be broken into small pieces and the entire object can still be seen from each small piece. If one envisions the hologram as a “window” on the object, then each small piece of hologram is just a part of the window from which it can still be viewed, even if the rest of the window is blocked off.”[3]

There are many names for and words used to describe nondual reality: Oneness, Self, Atman, Realization, Absolute Consciousness, Enlightenment. In this reality there is no you or me, there is no subject, no object, no observer or observed, no other…just One.  Dualism is an illusion. Mind/ego is what keeps one in that illusion.  Some say that in letting go of ego one can realize nondualism. Nondualism, however, is always present, it is what is, all that changes is our Realization of it.

I am unsure how and why I came to experience nondualism. I can only speak to my experience and say it came with the sudden understanding that the dualistic or binary belief systems of my old reality just didn’t make sense. The Oneness had come to me without any effort, without invitation, without ceremony. It had just simply revealed itself. Effort was the key in my former dualistic practice and I believed that effort would eventually be rewarded if not in this life, most certainly in the next. With an understanding of nonduality it now appears to me that this just isn’t true. In fact, I came to see that world I had known was full of “traditional binaries”: good and evil, beauty and ugliness; worthiness and unworthiness; right and wrong.  This belief in the binary tradition/dualism was the cause of much suffering.  Reality as I had come to experience it, this Realization/Consciousness/Self, was without these binaries.  I can only describe this experience as supreme equanimity or boundless Love.

And while, I am often at a loss to explain what it is I believe and have come to live; I am comforted by discovering others who have come to experience as I have.

My practice as a process-oriented artist has evolved alongside my philosophical leanings.  My philosophical leaning grew into what some might consider a spiritual practice. I developed a yoga and meditation discipline that has come to affect all areas of my life. How does this relate my practice as artist?  It guides my process. Psychologist Rollo May said,“ We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity and commitment.”  From a nondual perspective, I employ my will to influence the quality of my life and experience, my encounter. I believe the commitment May speaks of is a commitment to the experience of being. As such, Eastern nondualistic thinkers, specifically Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lao Tzu, Oyang Hsui, and Ksemaraja; profoundly influence me and I am inspired by the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Patanjali, and H.W.L. Poonja. I have also found common ground with Freidrich Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My art is perhaps most directly influenced by my yoga practice and the yogic teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Patanjali, and Poonja. When I speak of yoga, I mean more than the practice of asana (the physical postures for which yoga is most known).  Yoga encompasses many life practices all of which affect the quality of my life. Specifically, yoga facilitates equanimity, joy and compassion.   My yoga is essentially cross training for my work as an artist.  Both are expressed best when I have a sense of exploration; my practice is mindful (aware, present, conscious); I am not overly concerned with the outcome; there is a sense of give and take–engagement and then stepping back; and I am present with “soft eyes.” Each of these “steps” is also a way of letting go of my ego.  And letting go of my ego is how I realize nondualism. Each of these steps also creates a meaningful experience for me.  As an artist, letting go of my ego also means letting go of the idea that my art has to mean something; has to be liked; has to be good.  This is not always easy; in fact, this is why art is a practice for me.  What I practice is being present in the moment of creation.  Thoughts about the outcome of my work, albeit persistent, take me out of the possibility for Consciousness and into the realm of dualism, and generally this leads to suffering.

It is the process of creating art that is self-affirming, not the outcome of my efforts. There is a Sanskrit word ‘pratibimba’ which means “the spontaneous expression of joy.” Laughter is an example of this.  My art practice at its best is pratibimba. In the best of circumstances I create with a genuine presence; and I am in touch with a universal creativity and energy that is boundless. These moments come and go, but they are what sustain my practice. How I create art is more important to me than what I create.  While I am not always able to create with a perfect nondualistic process, when I look back at my work, it is those pieces that I have created through this process that hold my interest and that I am drawn to over and again.

Yogi mystic Poonja once said of nondual reality, “There is no depth. It is immaculate emptiness. No inside, no outside, no surface, no depth. No place to go. Everywhere you go is here. Just look around and tell me the limits of this moment. Go as far as you can go. How is it measured? Its length? Breadth? Width? This moment has nothing to do with time or depth.”[4] I especially like the idea “everywhere you go is here.”

Anything outside of the present takes us away from away from Consciousness.  In addition, it is this “measuring” that is found in dualism, a constant comparison of what is better and worse, significant and  meaningless, and so on.  When creating from a nondualistic perspective, the emphasis shifts from the perceived value of the outcome to the inherent experience of the moment.  It is enough, it is all…to be.

Albert Einstein once said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” My ego, my mind, is easily swayed back into that illusion. From the teachings of Ksemaraja, I was given language to explain my experience and tools for finding my way back to realization of nondualism. Ksemaraja was a disciple of tenth century mystic Abhinavagupta, the founder of what is now known as Kashmir Saivism.  Ksemaraja authored several texts, one of which was the Pratyabhijnahrdayam, The Secret of Self-Recognition. This text contains 20 sutras, or aphorisms, which essentially explain “autonomous consciousness” (nondual reality) and the path to liberation (freedom from ego and union with absolute consciousness). The eleventh sutra speaks to the dissolution of the perception of separateness. The experience of looking at an object, seeing it, connecting to it, perceiving it, gives rise to something inside you…a recognition of the elemental truth that all that is this object resides within you, and you in it. There is no separation.  It is with mindful seeing that one is able to break the veil of dualism.  As an artist the act of viewing is essential.  What I see in the world resides in me; what I create resides in everything around me.

Several of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas resonate with me as well.  In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche gives an introduction to his philosophy.  What I believe he is saying is that what a society judges as good or bad does not reflect on what is being judged, but rather it reflects on who is judging.  There is no inherent value/meaning in anything; there is only the judgment we place upon it. This judgment only reveals a person’s/society’s biases. In another chapter Nietzsche talks about the Four Great Errors, number one of which is “the error of confusing cause and effect. ”Do this and don’t do that and you will be happy.”  The idea of cause and effect can be used as a means of influencing the behaviors of ourselves and/or others.  Often people mistake the effect for the cause. We don’t act badly (cause) and have “god punish us” (effect), sometime the case is that we have bad things happen to us (cause) and react badly because of them (effect). “The second error is that of false causality.” Essentially this would be creating and using God as the cause or answer for any unexplained effects in our lives. The third error is that of “imaginary causes.”  Nietzsche explains this as our way of giving ourselves the illusion of having control over our lives. This gives us comfort, relief, and a sense of power. Finally the last error is that of free will. Nietzsche sees this as religion’s way of making us feel guilty, that we are free to choose our behaviors and when we choose poorly, we are falling away from that religion, falling away from God.

In The Gay Science, it is Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence that I find most compelling.  Essentially Nietzsche asks you to consider the possibility that you must live your life over and over again, nothing new; every day the same, like the movie Groundhog Day and you are Bill Murray’s Phil.  Would you despair or rejoice at the opportunity? In the Hindu tradition, one would liken the eternal recurrence to samsara, a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  To release yourself from samsara, one must let go of personal identity, ego. The self becomes itself through what it is not. I think Nietzsche is really asking us, “How would you live if you had to live the same day over and over again?   Where would you find meaning and even sanity?”  If the circumstances of my life and days could never change, I would choose to affect the quality of my living.  I would choose to not suffer. For me that path would be nondualism, letting go of my ego, my identity, all which separates me from realizing Absolute Consciousness.

I practice this on a daily basis, not only when I make art, but also in the work I do outside of my art.  I have worked for over ten years with marginalized populations in Portland.  I have spent most of those years working with homeless and prostituted women. Presently I work with adolescents in a dual diagnosis residential treatment center. The path out of addiction and prostitution is long and difficult, and to anyone working in the field, the days can seem impossibly the same. What I have come to experience is that I cannot “make a difference” or “hope to facilitate change” in someone’s life. It can be easy to hold on to my ego, want to believe that my actions cause some desired effect. But I don’t believe this to be true. What I can do is be authentically present, leave my ego at the door, and affect the quality of my own experience. This is where change takes place. Not a cause and effect change, but a change in perception, in Realization. What changes in me, changes in All.

I bring up my work above for several reasons.  First, I find that I am sometimes challenged for my nondualistic beliefs.  How do I reconcile “the bad” in the world if I do not believe in duality in the first place? I would say that I recognize what is in the moment. It is not easy; I struggle with ego routinely.  I am not Enlightened. Whether I am painting or knitting, going grocery shopping or administering a UA to kid at work, I can choose to be mindful and present. These are opportunities to let go of my ego, to realize nondualism.

I also bring up my work as I feel it relates to the some of the topics we have discussed this quarter. We read and talked about Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto; in it she expresses her hope and the need for a paradigm shift, the rewriting of old narratives.  I think this can and does happen, not in one big grand event, but rather over and over again in smaller moments. I have found that in my work, that the teens and women I come to know have no frame of reference for a life outside of addiction.  Everyone they know uses drugs, has been in jail, and experienced violence. They believe that everyone lives as they do. And in a sense we all have that same belief. We believe our experience is everyone’s experience. We accept the narratives Donna Haraway is asking us to rewrite, because we don’t always have a picture of another narrative. When we are introduced to new realities, we have different reference points to drawn on. Before I experienced nondual reality, I had no frame reference for it.  One instance changed that for me.  And while it was beautiful and sustaining in the moment, that experience faded.  I have moments of nondual reality now; I can help facilitate them through yoga and meditation, and my paradigm is shifting, little by little. The nineteenth sutra of the Pratyabhijnahrdayam states “In vyutthana which is full of the after-effects of Samadhi, there is attainment of permanent Samadhi by dwelling on one’s identity with cit (the universal, supreme consciousness) over and over again.” [5]Essentially this sutra states that after you experience nondual reality you will once again return to ordinary consciousness, but that by bringing your awareness back again and again to that memory of nondualism you can eventually find your way to it permanently.

I believe for the western narratives to change permanently, as Donna Haraway wants, we must bring ourselves back and again to the memory of what it is we have experienced and want to experience again.  Sometimes that experience first begins in the imagination; other times it just a small and seemingly insignificant moment. As an artist, I am fortunate to sometimes create pieces of art that are tangible records of my moments of nondual realization. I can then use my art as a tool to bring my awareness back to that state of being. Haraway’s writing and her personal life experiences are touch points for the new narrative, a way of bringing back awareness to the reality she wants to experience permanently. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “ Our faith comes in brief moments, our vice is habitual.  Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”[6] If we want to create new reality, shift paradigms, we must create new habits, new routines and ways of being, which are in line with that new narrative.

I have turned to the writings of Emerson many times. His essays speak of his experience with his Oneness with nature.  I am especially drawn to his essays titled The Over-Soul and Circles. He writes, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”[7] Our ability to connect with this ONE allows us to experience and express the true nature of ourselves.  In Circles, Emerson touches on the idea of impermanence, the fluidity of nature. I like to think of my own self in terms of that fluidity.  I try not to identify myself as any one thing, at least any one thing permanently.  I am what I am in the moment. I don’t want to create from an ego-identified place. I just create.  I just am.

Other artists and philosophers whose practices have influenced my own work include Chogryam Trungpa Rinpoche, John Cage, and Walt Whitman. Chogryam Trungpa Rinpoche was the founder of Shambhala Buddhism; his teachings included specific writings and practices on Dharma Arts, an outgrowth of which is Shambhala Arts. The purpose of Shambhala Arts is the exploration of the creative process as a contemplative practice.  My exposure to this practice directly influenced my own process as an artist.  Specifically, I’ve learned ways of viewing the world for what it is, rather than for what I believe it to be. These techniques have helped me to see the world through the lens of nondualism. In these classes we learned through experiences ways of viewing the world without judgment, expectation, or intent.  We trained ourselves to see the true nature of our surroundings and ourselves.  I learned to view the world with “soft eyes;” looking without judgment: with no preconceived idea or expectation; and with no value placement. This way of seeing is essential to my practice as an artist. I learned to view the process of creating art as “the goal.” When I am working in Consciously, I care not for the outcome, I eliminate judgment in all regards, and I practice being present to what is.  Artist and composer John Cage is an artist whose work is also influenced by Buddhism.

Cage spent several years studying Zen Buddhism and was a student of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. One of the qualities I find most interesting about Cage’s work is the inclusion of the world in his pieces.  The sound of the audience shuffling in their seats, the noise of traffic in the background, or children crying were as essential to the work as were the notes Cage played himself.  Each sound was important in itself, and in its relationship to everything else.  There was separation in the music from the audience, from the experience of listening to the experience of creating the sound.  Nondualism in practice.

Suzuki explained this with the idea of interpenetration “Every individual reality, besides being itself, reflects in it something of the universal, and at the same time it is itself because of other individuals. A system of perfect relationships exists among individual existences and also between individuals and universals, between objects and general ideas.”[8] This network of interpersonal relationship, this interpenetration, is what Cage is experiencing in his music.

Cage viewed the world, his life, as art.  When asked by someone how to recognize a work of art Cage responded, “you just start looking; in other words you start going out of yourself and looking at the world, and then your mind changes. There is no need to cautiously proceed in dualistic terms of success or failure or the beautiful or the ugly or good or evil but rather simply walk on “not wondering.’ ”[9] Cage also felt that art didn’t have to mean anything; he just wanted it to be. He found it absurd to force an idea of how one’s life should be, or how anything should be, it already was/is/being.  Anything imposed on this would be artificial.  It was Cage’s belief that “chasing after aesthetic constructions, we miss life.”[10]

Walt Whitman is another artist whose practice as a writer helps to inform my work, his writings remind me that as an artist one can create and express in a nondual process.  In Song of Myself Whitman writes,

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loaf and invite my soul

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of grass.”[11]

Whitman writes of the paradox of nonduality and how to live in.  He recognizes the One, and celebrates in it. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman utilizes free verse, every verb tense and narrative voice, as well as traditional poetic styling, which could have only been unsettling at first. It forces the reader to relate to the work on an emotional level rather than a hermeneutic one, which I believe is what Whitman wanted. Whitman includes the reader in his work, not the viewer/subject and his writing as the object, rather a part of, as in Cage’s work. The reader is experiencing the reading rather than interpreting it.

It is sometimes difficult to explain my motivation for creating art, especially when I say that my art doesn’t have meaning.  I am drawn to create on a deep level; my practice has included many forms of medium from paint to fiber; from dance to social practice. In all of these, I am given the chance to experience life, and it is good.  American philosopher and conservation William deBuys, wrote in his memoir The Walk, “he clung to a species of hope that was based not on an expectation of outcome… but on a visceral faith that good inhered in what he was doing, that it was intrinsic, and that because of it, what he was doing was right and necessary whether it succeeded or not.” When I am “making art” I feel connected to a greater Self. I expect nothing other than experience itself. And that feels inherently good.  The purpose of life is to experience being. In the moment the world may consider me “the artist” or “the mom” or “the milieu counselor.” I am all of these and none of these; if I could label myself anything, I would hope to say, “I am present.”

[1] Kelly, Kevin. “The Entertainment Gathering.” 12/4/2007. (accessed 3/1/2011).
[2] Thoreau,Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. p 85-86.
[3] “Holography.” (accessed 3/3/2011).
[4] Ingram, Catherine. “Dharma Dialogues with Catherine Ingram.” 1992.
[5] Trans. Singh,Jaideva. Pratyabhijnahrdayam The Secret of Self-Recognition. 4 ed. New Delhi: Moyilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2008.
[6]Selected Writings of Emerson . Donald Mcquade. New York: Random House, 1981.p. 245
[7] Ibid. p.246
[8] Revill ,David. The Roaring Slince John Cage: A Life. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992. p 111
[9] Ibid p113
[10] Ibid.p 119
[11] Whitman,Walt. Leaves of Grass. The “Death-Bed Edition ed. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.p33.

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