By Judith Blackstone, Ph.D. and Zoran Josipovic, Ph.D.
As a couple, we have been attempting to create a shared understanding of the experience of the underlying oneness of God and creation, of ourselves and our environment, of self and other — what is often referred to as “nonduality” — since we first met at a Zen monastery in upstate New York, 29 years ago. Much of our courtship involved sitting up late after the evening meditation, poring over the texts, and batting these strange, subtle ideas back and forth between us. Since then, we have continued to explore and open to this profound spiritual essence in our roles as a spiritual teacher and a research scientist.
The Path of the Teacher
I (Judith) was brought up in an atheist home, but since childhood I had felt a kind of spiritual presence in the air. I became a professional dancer in New York City, and I often centered myself before going on stage by drawing this spiritual feeling toward me. But then I injured my back. Not only could I no longer dance, but I could no longer experience this type of communion, and the loss of this spiritual presence was as painful to me as the loss of my ability to dance.
Gradually, it became clear to me that in order to let go of the tensions in my back, I would have to contact myself on a much subtler level than my physical body, and so my search for physical healing became a spiritual quest. I went to India and began to study the nondual teachings. After seven years of intensive self-healing and meditation, I came to live at the Zen monastery. Later that year at the monastery, I went down to a nearby creek. Sitting on the rocks, I realized that the spiritual presence was no longer outside of my body, no longer something that I had to draw toward myself. Instead, it was all the way through my body. I felt like I was made of the conscious spaciousness of this presence. And everything around me — the moving water, the sky, the trees, even the rocks — was made of the same space, the same presence.
Because I was teaching dance for a living, I began to explore with my students how they could open to this presence and how that might deepen and enhance their movement. Around that time, I also became a psychotherapist, and the techniques I was teaching became further refined. This was the beginning of what became the Realization Process, an approach to realizing nonduality. It was my dual need to both realize my true nature and heal my physical body that allowed me to find, for myself and others, a way to open to nondual reality through the whole body.
The Path of the Neuroscientist
I (Zoran) came in contact with nonduality quite unexpectedly when I was about 18 years old. It happened on its own, most likely induced by teenage angst and by the complications of my first longer-term relationship. I remember attempting to cross a rather tricky intersection, where several streets of slow-moving traffic encountered a steep off-ramp, onto which all sorts of vehicles descended at maniacal speeds from a nearby bridge. I was about to put my foot in the gutter, when all of a sudden I had a sensation, as if the top of my skull had been blown off, and I had eyes on all sides of my head. I was seeing in all directions at the same time! The bizarreness of it made me nauseated, but in the next instant a strange kind of peace engulfed me: I was not watching the intersection anymore; instead, I felt I was somehow witnessing the primordial Being itself, that which is eternal and always here, silently existing in the background of our world. It was so immense and so real, that my own angst, which had until then completely consumed me, seemed no more than silly, self-imposed mind chatter.
After this experience, I became interested in Asian philosophy and started experimenting with meditation. Later, after meeting the 16th (previous) Karmapa at his monastery in Woodstock, New York, and then living at the nearby Zen monastery in Mount Tremper, and even later while traveling to India, I encountered different views on nonduality and practiced different meditation styles before I eventually settled into a Dzogchen-style practice. What resonated with me in this approach was the emphasis on the inherent freedom of one’s essential nondual awareness — freedom from habitual conditioned patterns of experiencing and the possibility of arriving at an authentic being, not just as a conceptual exercise but as lived experience.
For many years I supported myself as a bodyworker and a counselor, but I eventually had the feeling that I wasn’t using my brain in the way that I needed. So I went back to school and got a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. What really prompted my interest was a possibility of more objective measurements for various meditative states that were being reported, in the hope that these could perhaps clarify some of the cultural and individual constructs surrounding the realization of nonduality. In the course of my studies, I connected with the Mind and Life Institute and eventually came to New York University, where today I teach and conduct functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research on meditation.
Two Views of Nonduality
Over the centuries, different contemplative traditions have developed a variety of ways to describe the underlying oneness referred to as “nonduality.” But all of these views of oneness can be seen as belonging to two different perspectives.
1. One group of traditions claims that the universe is a single field of Consciousness (or God), a unified Self that is being, awareness, and bliss. Within this vast field, the multitude of phenomena, including ourselves, arise and subside like waves in the ocean. This is the original insight of the Hindu seers, enshrined in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. It is also found, expressed in different terms, in many of the Western mystical writings. An extreme version of this view is the claim that only pure consciousness, devoid of any content of experience, is real. All phenomena, all forms in nature, are unreal and mere illusions.
2. The second group views nonduality as the interdependence of phenomena: all things are connected to each other through causes and effects. Nothing has an unchanging essence, including ourselves. This view is 55found in the early schools of Buddhism and in the so-called “self-emptiness” doctrines. It is also the basis of scientific materialism. These two camps, which can be called the absolutists and the relativists, respectively, have been at odds with each other for centuries. A more integrative view, currently advocated by the Dalai Lama, is based on the understanding of interdependence, while maintaining that there is a continuum of pure awareness that is not dependent on the physical body.
Our View of Nonduality
In our view, nondual realization is the lived experience of ourselves as pervaded by a very subtle dimension of consciousness. It is the clear-through openness of our whole body. At the same time, everything outside of ourselves also is experienced as pervaded by this same consciousness. As this all-pervasive, nondual consciousness, there is no barrier between ourselves and our environment, no boundary (no duality) between our internal and external experience. This does not mean that there is no internal experience, and it does not mean that there is no external experience. It means that internal and external events register in the one unified space of nondual consciousness.
When we reach this most subtle dimension of ourselves, everything appears to be transparent, made of empty, luminous stillness. This is a distinctive, unmistakable shift in the way life appears to us. For example, if we look at a table, we will see the table with all of its weight, color, and texture, and at the same time, we will be aware that the table is “transparent.” It appears to be pervaded by — or made of — luminous space.
This ground of being is not something that we have to create or imagine. It arises spontaneously when we reach a degree of openness to life. We can employ many techniques to achieve the openness that unveils this aspect of our being, but nondual consciousness itself is not a volitional experience. It is not something that we do; it is who we are. That is why it feels completely authentic, as if we have finally found reality.
The more fully we come to know ourselves as the stillness and spaciousness of this dimension, the more effortlessly, deeply, and vividly the movement of life occurs and flows. This means that nondual realization is not a particular state of being or a way of paying attention. For example, nondual realization does not eradicate the capacity for reflection. Nondual consciousness encompasses and surpasses reflexive consciousness but does not eradicate it.
This full-body openness to the flow of life gives us a sense of being present to each moment. All of the sensual stimuli, such as the sights and sounds in our environment, seem to emerge directly out of the vast open space of nondual consciousness without any effort on our part. In other words, we don’t need to listen in order to hear, or to look in order to see. We simply receive the moment (including our own responses to it), just as it is.
It is important to understand that nondual consciousness, as the primary level of our being, is not something separate from the “content” of experience flowing through it. It is not a detached transcendence, not merely an impersonal witness, for it is right in our experience. As this subtle consciousness, we are both the witness and the experiencer at the same time. We are disentangled from the content of our experience only in the sense that we do not grab onto it; we do not clamp down on it; we do not deny or distort it. We allow it to flow. For this reason, as nondual consciousness, we gain — at the same time — both more ability to witness and more capacity to experience. We become both more disentangled from life and more directly, potently immersed in life.
What’s Happening in the Brain
A major new discovery in the field of neuroscience has enhanced our ability to understand nonduality, not just from a subjective point of view but also from an objective, scientific perspective. Around 10 years ago, Marcus Raichle and his team at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, were studying the resting state of the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They discovered a network of areas in the brain that are more active during eyes-closed rest than during the performance of a task. They termed this network the “default” network of the brain. Soon after, studies by other researchers showed that it is also active during self-referential processing, when we reflect on ourselves and on our experience [areas in yellow and red]. But when we are involved in a task that demands our attention or are engaged in a vivid sensory experience, such as watching an absorbing movie, a different network that underlies cognitive control and attention [areas in the blue] becomes active and suppresses the default network.
Because of this difference in what these two networks process, they also have been termed the intrinsic and the extrinsic, one being responsible for processing information from our internal experience, while the other one from the external environment. Another interesting feature of these networks became evident: if a subject was left to rest in the fMRI scanner for a few minutes rather than a few seconds, these two networks would undergo spontaneous fluctuations in their activity — when one network was “up,” the other one was “down” [blue and red graph]. These fluctuations are quite slow, usually slower than one per 10 seconds, and are driven by as yet unknown physiological mechanisms.
It is believed that the antagonistic dynamics between these networks serves a healthy function; for example, allowing us to focus on a task and refrain from being distracted by daydreaming. “Intrusions” of the default network into the functioning of the task-positive network — having both systems up at the same time — may be experienced as difficulties in staying focused or in a loss of cognitive control. Impairment in the connectivity between different areas of the intrinsic network also have been found in disorders such autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and attention deficit disorder.
However, the results of my fMRI research at New York University led to the hypothesis that an increase in correlation between these networks may not necessarily be a sign of disease. Quite the contrary: my preliminary results at the Center for Neural Science at NYU show that while focused attention drives the networks in the opposite direction from each other, nondual consciousness results in an increase of correlation. In other words, having both systems up at the same time can reflect a more unified consciousness, with less fragmentation between self and other, or internal and external experience.
Realization Process is a method to facilitate nondual realization by opening one’s whole body to this dimension of unity and wholeness. When we can inhabit ourselves all the way through the internal depth of our body, the barrier between internal and external dissolves. Inhabiting the body is not just a matter of being aware of or scanning the body but of actually living within it. This means that the mind and the body are unified; the mind is everywhere in the body. When this happens, the whole body feels transparent, as if it were made of empty space. Interestingly, this sense of emptiness also feels like presence, or being. In nondual consciousness, we are both empty, like an empty vessel, and vividly present at the same time. It is one of life’s greatest mysteries that we experience this sense of presence, of truly being here, even more palpably as we experience ourselves as made of empty space.
When we inhabit our body, we also attune to the essential qualities of our being. All of the various parts of our body, and all of the functions of our being associated with these parts of our body, have a quality, a “feel.” We all know what love feels like, or sexual arousal, but even our intelligence has a feel to it, even our sense of personal power has a quality. To experience these various internal qualities facilitates a shift from an abstract idea of ourselves to a qualitative experience of ourselves.
This is an interesting paradox of nondual realization. We come alive within our own body, within our individual human being, at the same time as we transcend our individual body. We come to know our individual self at the same time as we discover that there is no separation between self and other. Therefore, the realization of nonduality is not a negation or a “falling away” of our personal self. It is a fruition of our personal self, an inward ripening.
3 Steps Toward Realization
1. Inhabiting the Body
In Realization Process, we attune directly to nondual consciousness by inhabiting our body, finding the space outside our body, and experiencing that the space inside and outside of our body is the same, continuous space. Then we find that the same space that pervades our body also pervades everything around us. This is a volitional attunement exercise; it is not yet the realization of nondual consciousness, but it can greatly accelerate the openness that is required for the spontaneous arising of nondual consciousness.
2. The Central Channel
Another Realization Process exercise attunes to nondual consciousness through a subtle channel that runs through the vertical core of our torso, neck, and head. Sometimes called the “wisdom channel” or “central channel” in Buddhism, or the “yogi channel” or sushumna in Hindu yoga, this subtle core of ourselves is our entranceway into the vast subtle expanse of nondual consciousness. We access this channel because many of the fixations that obscure nonduality are not just conceptual. They are also rigid holding patterns throughout the whole body, limiting our capacity for emotional responsiveness and physical sensation. Living within the central channel can help us disentangle from these rigidities. We can let go of our fixed patterns of self and other so that they actually dissolve. Then we are open to the present moment, without any effort, throughout our whole body.
3. Sharing Nonduality
When two people attune to nondual consciousness together, they experience mutual transparency: a single expanse of consciousness pervading them both as a unity. They also experience resonant connection between the qualities of their being, including the qualities of intelligence, love, and physical sensation. This resonance occurs without leaving their own body and without intruding on the other’s person’s body. Touch is also enhanced by inhabiting the body. If two people both inhabit their hands, for example, and touch each other’s hands, the contact of the touch will be richer. This is not merging and loss of identity but rather a simultaneous experience of individual being and oneness with another person.
For more information on the Realization Process, visit www.judithblackstone.com.