The Essential Non-Duality

How are we to understand the essential non-duality? The best way of approach is with a serene mind. A serene mind is one that is willing to give some attention to the deeper philosophical questions about life. By philosophical questions is meant those questions which seek to achieve a detached overview of life as a whole. Their aim is to find out whether there is not more to our experience than meets the eye. What meets the eye, so to say, is what might be called duality. Duality does not just mean the existence of two principles, like mind and matter, the world and its creator, or the pairs of opposites like good and evil. From this duality arises the almost infinite variety of phenomena that we experience as individuals, and normally take on face value.

As for our own position, we don’t question our separateness as an individual and we take it for granted that the multiplicity that we experience represents the final truth about how things are. Our enquiry into non-duality challenges this apparent finality of multiplicity by raising two questions in particular:

Is there a deeper reality underlying the universe—a reality which is one without a second, the essence of our experience, and is ever complete and fulfilled?

The second question comes nearer home:

Is there in our own being, with its many qualities and multiplicity of thoughts, something that corresponds to that deeper reality underlying the whole universe?

This enquiry into a deeper reality assumes that such a discovery is not of merely academic interest but leads to the greatest fulfilment possible.

All this suggests that the non-dual philosophy may claim our interest for several reasons. Though ancient, its wisdom is timeless. It is as fresh and relevant now as it was in former ages. Though its original texts—the Upanishads— are composed in Sanskrit, they are not at all sectarian. Their message is universal, open to all those who wish to study and practise the teachings. There is a way of practice based on well tried, traditional methods. These methods will enable us to cultivate our mind so that we grow in wisdom towards realisation.

Not least, the appeal of the teachings is that they have a definite goal. This goal is to free us from all fear and suffering by awakening in us knowledge of the wholeness and transcendence of our own innermost being—of what we truly are. The way of non-duality is therefore practical. It has a fruit—a definite result or reward. Its main concern is ultimate truth, not as a matter of intellectual speculation, but as a direct, irreversible experience. This philosophy is referred to by the term darshana, a Sanskrit word which means sight or seeing. This word indicates that the experience of non-duality is immediate and direct, not dream-like or tentative. The knowledge it reveals is as definite as sense perception, yet more true and real because it is free from the transiency of sense experience and also free from the errors and distortions that sometimes condition our way of looking at things.

What is it that inspires such an enquiry, leading to such a far-reaching outcome? We might ask a parallel question: What prompts small children to ask question after question, some of which are truly philosophical in their implications? The prompter or inspirer is our own deeper nature, which desires expansion in knowledge, and abhors the feeling of not knowing. But this pure spirit of enquiry, which manifests so early in life, is usually eclipsed by other factors. Those in whom it continues to burn brightly become lifelong questioners and investigators. Ultimately, this questioning tendency brings them into touch with sources of higher knowledge.

The non-dual teachings, being universal, are echoed, to a greater or lesser degree, in all the great wisdom traditions. In the New Testament, for example, we find sayings such as: ‘And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ ‘Seek and ye shall find.’ The essential point realised by all who have an illumined understanding, is that what is real and true in the deepest sense is to be found within our own being.

Let us return to the philosophy of non-duality and its practical nature. Here we find the teachings are the result of a sustained and triumphant inward quest. That quest is to discover who or what we really are in the deepest sense as conscious beings. It is a quest motivated by the urge to expand in knowledge. But by expansion in knowledge is not meant accumulating more and more facts about non-duality and other philosophical subjects. It is rather the search for the essence of knowledge, the ultimate depth of understanding that will satisfy forever our desire to know. In the Upanishads it is called the knowledge through which one becomes all-knowing. Therefore our quest is for knowledge of the essence, the substance, —that in us which can never be erased.

This leads to the idea that true knowledge, or truth or reality generally, must be something which is unaltered in the three periods of time—past, present and future. But this quality of unalterability is not enough to foster our sustained interest in this quest. The way of non-duality also meets the challenge of how to deal with suffering, which is part and parcel of every human life. One of the early teachings viewed suffering as being of three kinds. Firstly, there is the suffering that is inflicted on us by other creatures—not least, our fellow human beings. Secondly come the sufferings that spring from our own body and mind, like illness or mental distress—often the consequence of our own actions. Thirdly, we encounter the suffering brought about by natural disasters.

If suffering can be viewed objectively and classified in this way, we are already, in a sense, rising above it. There is the possibility of calmly looking at the situation, not being surprised by what happens, and therefore not being wholly identified with it. So we need not view suffering with resignation, still less with despair, but as a practical problem that has to be dealt with.

The ultimate aim of the non-dual teachings is to realise the greatest freedom possible. Its practice meets our need for the ongoing expansion of knowledge; for communion with truth and beauty—the kingdom of heaven within; and, not least, our natural desire to find a way of freeing ourselves from suffering. This is achieved, not by going to a different place, but by finding a region within our own being that suffering itself cannot penetrate.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refers to the highest knowledge as the death of death (3:2:10). Just as water extinguishes fire, so does the higher knowledge banish death. It does so by awakening us to a deeper reality within our own being which is totally beyond the range of change and decay.

We have referred to an inner quest or enquiry. Obviously it is not a case of simply closing our eyes and looking within. For when we do look within, all we notice are our own thoughts and feelings. More often than not, our present mental activity gives no hint of any higher experience awaiting discovery within us. How to search more effectively? One lesson at least can be learnt at an early stage. The idea of researching the mind, while it remains in its active uncontrolled state, will not take us very far. Our progress is not just gaining the ability to turn away from outer things. It is also necessary to learn how to withdraw our attention from the inner mental activity that persists even when the ‘doors and windows of the senses’, so to say, are closed. For our mind is still full of images that make it restless and unfocused. These thoughts of various kinds keep our attention on the mind’s surface and stand in the way of our deeper understanding. So it is essential that the mind filled with thoughts should be quietened. In quietude we can determine with certainty whether there really is a deeper principle concealed beneath the flux and fullness of our mind. Our inner enquiry is thus aided and advanced by our ability to silence the mind, or at least to quieten it sufficiently to allow a deeper focus for concentration.

Let us now pause briefly and reflect on this meditation text, which indicates our way forward.


The ultimate aim of the non-dual teachings is lasting fulfilment based on direct knowledge of the true nature of the Self. We have identified the goal as one that satisfies the deepest human urges: to expand our knowledge, to discover the kingdom of heaven within, and to find a way out of suffering. Any study of non-duality is valuable because it gives us new perspectives on life. But its real worth is revealed when we make the goal of liberation our own personal goal, supported by our own regular practice.

So far it may look as if we are capable of pursuing these aims unaided, relying on our known powers with no higher source of help. But this is not the case. The helping power, ever present, supporting all, is called Brahman, meaning the Absolute. It includes, yet transcends, the conception of God. And in that inclusion there are teachings which give our mind useful ways of contemplating the supreme being. Such teachings affirm that this supreme being, or presence, is the mighty, immutable power in which the universe lives, moves and continues in a state of harmony and order. This great force is our dependable helper, and we can look upon it as an ever present refuge, which relieves us of doubts and anxieties and inspires us with new strength for our ongoing quest.

The supreme reality or power is, in a certain sense, within all the appearances and living beings. It is, so to say, the being of our being, and is the most immediate and direct element in our experience. It is the inner ruler of all, the divine principle or essence that ever dwells in the human mind, but whom the mind does not recognise. Such is the inner ruler, our own immortal Self.
This kind of insight of the supreme power as the abiding and essential reality in all, is found in the old English prayer which begins with the words:

God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes,
And in my looking…

From the non-dual perspective we do not need to pray to the divine to enter into our being. What is necessary is to recognise this presence as fundamental to our nature at all times. Our task is to adjust our thinking, which also means quietening our thoughts, so that this self-evident truth may no longer be concealed by the inner distractions and restlessness.

Therefore, in the non-dual tradition, there is scope for adoration of the supreme being and for viewing that being as a friend and helper on our path. As another verse states: ‘it is the protector of all beings…’ For Brahman is present as the indispensable and in-extinguishable power in us. And as the inner ruler, it is the supervisor and guardian, so to say, of our own progress in understanding. Thus there emerges a kind of partnership with that supreme power based on our recognition of its presence at the core of our own being. This partnership, this bonding, means that Brahman is not some abstract metaphysical principle essentially separate from us. Brahman can be conceived of as a source of inexhaustible warmth, support and comfort, accessible whenever we sincerely turn in that direction.

It is the dedication of our own mental powers to that supreme Power that opens the way to complete inner illumination. The consummation of this devoted partnership is the realization that all being, including our own being, has its source in the being of Brahman. Therefore Brahman, the Absolute, is the being of our being. What is to be realised is the perfect identity of our innermost Self with that supreme reality on which the whole universe rests.

So far we have established that Brahman is the reality at the ground of our being. The non-dual teachings and our own enquiry will reveal something further about the nature of Brahman. It is that Brahman, as Self, is the pure conscious principle, our consciousness, the light behind the mind, before which mental activity takes place, and in whose light it is revealed.

At this point we discover what seems to be a most significant distinction. It is the distinction—the fundamental difference— between the conscious light and the mental world it lights up. We become aware of what seem to be two selves, or rather two different levels within ourselves. How is this distinction, this apparent ‘two-ness’, to be fitted into the understanding we reached before—that the reality in us is Brahman, the absolute, in which no divisions arise, which is unchanged in the three divisions of time? To answer this, let us consider each of the two apparently distinct ‘selves’ we seem to have discovered within.

One of them is the ground of pure consciousness, unchanging, without qualities, never viewed objectively, so that nothing relating to individual existence can be said about it. This is the real Self, immutable awareness, never appearing objectively in the mind because it is never an object, and because it is not an object, it is ever free from qualities. And this means it is ever free from limitations.

The second ‘self’ is that which the pure consciousness witnesses, our individuality, with its unique collection of qualities: qualities of character, of appearance, qualities derived from our education and experience. It seems obvious that we live and function in a world that is full of variety—which is another word for duality. And as human beings—human minds—we also vary from one another. Each of us is unique and different from the rest. We may agree with each other about certain things. We may have much in common. But our mind functions as a collection of personal qualities, and on this level, all minds are different and unique. It cannot be otherwise.

Let us remember that all these facets of our personality, which seem to make us what we are, are revealed under the light of the innermost witnessing consciousness. Is this witnessing conscious-ness also tied to an individuality like the qualities it reveals? No. It is beyond personality. As it is our real Self, then we too in our ultimate nature are beyond personality. Being beyond personality, we are beyond limitation, free from the limited consciousness of self and other, of me and you, of us and them.

All qualities and limitations belong to what is witnessed by the conscious Self, never to the conscious Self itself. The conscious Self has no boundary, because boundaries belong only to what it views as a witness: the world of qualities.

This is the dimension of self which cannot be affected by suffering, because suffering too is known objectively as part of that field of experience that is witnessed by the conscious Self, but which never affects that Self in any way.

We are now in a position to answer the question of how an apparent distinction can arise between our self as consciousness, and our self as the collection of personal qualities witnessed by consciousness, even though we found that the reality in us and in everything is Brahman, which is both the Absolute being on which the universe rests and the pure conscious principle.

The answer is that the apparent distinction is just that— apparent. It arises only when reality is ‘viewed’ from a particular point of view. The limited, subjective, changing, separative aspects of experience are all associated with the viewpoint of an individualised mind, not the highest reality. The waves of the sea seem to reflect a myriad suns, and our eyes need protection from all of them; but all have their source and reality in the one sun alone. As our understanding deepens, through meditation and devotion, we will find the vision of multiplicity giving way to the realisation of perfect wholeness, Brahman alone, the one-without-a-second. On the stage of Brahman the world of multiplicity is an appearance, with the quality of a passing show.

We can now better understand the apparent relationship between the transcendent principle—the conscious Self, the witness consciousness—and Brahman as that which in a certain sense is present within us as the inner ruler.

We said that this Brahman includes the concept of God, yet also transcends it. When viewed as the inner ruler, Brahman is precisely that—the source of the light and life within us. On the other hand, when Brahman is considered in its ultimate nature as transcendent and without attributes, there is nothing to distinguish Brahman from our own true Self, which as pure consciousness is also transcendent and free from attributes. Similarly, when we are identified with our individuality and our conviction is that there is a God who we can have ideas about, there is duality. This is a provisional stage in our understanding. There is also the deeper standpoint, in which we realize our identity with the infinite consciousness in its freedom and perfection. For from the ultimate standpoint, there is no duality whatsoever. What is revealed is the eternal identity of our own innermost consciousness and the absolute, the one reality underlying and animating the whole cosmos. As a classical text expresses it:

There is no non-dual reality except the Self.
There is no Self except the eternal witness.
Naishkarmya Siddhi of Sureshvara

The non-dual philosophy is summed up in the great sentence from the Chandogya Upanishad: ‘That thou art,’ that is: ‘Your true Self, in essence, is not different from the ultimate reality which underlies and reveals the entire world of appearances.’ Thus we are awakened to the nature of Self as the immediacy of being and consciousness, free from all qualities, and its true identity as Brahman, which likewise transcends all qualities and limits. To realise the non–duality of Self and Brahman is the eternal wisdom that brings complete fulfilment because it awakens us to what we truly are in essence, always have been and ever shall be.


This article is from the Summer 2020 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.