Spirituality and Nonduality

Roadside Musings

Spirituality and Nonduality


Realizing nondual Aliveness in, with, and as all reality is at the heart of all authentic spiritual awakening.

In my recent essay “Spirituality & Grokking,” I wrote a bit about nonduality. I seemed to have confused more readers than I helped. So let me try again.

My understanding of nonduality is this: All life is a manifesting of Aliveness (in Hebrew Chiut) the way all waves are a manifesting of the ocean that waves them. This Aliveness is called by different names: God, Nature, Brahman, Mother, Allah, YHVH, Dharmakaya among many others. Nonduality refers to the fact that Aliveness is all there is: Everything is a form of Aliveness, and while each form is unique and distinct, no form is other than the Aliveness taking that form.

Realizing nondual Aliveness in, with, and as all reality is at the heart of all authentic spiritual awakening.

[Read: “Spirituality and Aliveness.”]

Indeed, it is this realization that makes spiritual awakening authentic. Any realization that posits either absolute monism (erasing the uniqueness of things in a greater oneness) or absolute dualism (affirming the separateness of things from each other and from a greater whole) is, in my estimation, inauthentic. Sadly, religious dualisms that pits person against person, person against planet, and divides the world into camps such as chosen and non chosen, saved and damned, believer and infidel, high caste and low caste, etc. are the norm.

I was introduced to nonduality in my twenties by a beloved Zen teacher who, during a meditation retreat, met with me privately, laid a piece of rice paper between us, and drew this shape on it with a brush filled with ink:


“Look at this shape,” he said to me. “Is it convex or concave? If you say it is convex, you are missing half the shape. If you say it is concave you are missing half the shape. So, missing nothing, is the shape convex or concave?”

My initial response to this query was silence; I was, quite literally speechless. For a moment I felt myself smiling inwardly and knew that whatever triggered that inner smile was some ineffable realization of nonduality arising deep within me. Sadly, I felt my smile became a smirk, as my silence devolved into cleverness and I picked up the brush and drew another symbol below that drawn by my teacher:


This is what you might call Clever Zen. Whenever I play the game of Clever Zen, I hope to convince my teacher (or my students and readers) that I have at last achieved enlightenment. It has yet to work, and this time was no exception. My teacher laughed, scrunched the paper with our drawings on it into a ball, and tossed it into an open trash bin. He then sent me back to my cushion in the meditation hall as if sitting on my butt would somehow cleanse my mind. That too has yet to work.

If you avoid cleverness, you might see that the symbol is neither convex nor concave but rather both convex and concave. And, since this is a blatant paradox, the symbol is something else entirely. What that something is cannot be articulated, but it can be—and for a fleeting moment may have already been—perceived. What is perceived is nonduality.

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