Nonduality Q & A

Dialogues with James

Q: Can you explain what you meant when you said that the only difference between a realized person and an unrealized one is that the unrealized one believes there is a difference?

James: If you understand when I say that there is no such thing as liberation— because bondage is a fiction—you couldn’t possibly ask that question. Bondage isn’t something real and independent. Bondage is a bunch of thoughts in the mind that tell you you’re an individual. Bondage is a bunch of thoughts that tell you that when some great experience happens you’ll be whole and complete. In fact you’re already whole and complete. It’s the thoughts and feelings and moods that have you believe something is missing.

The first important thing Sailor Bob told me was this: What you are seeking you already are. Now, if that’s true, then how could there really be a difference between a so called “liberated” person and an “unliberated” one. There could be an apparent difference, but we’re talking about what is real and true. And in essence, in reality, there is no difference between a Buddha and an ordinary person. Do you want to live appearance or live reality?

Notice, by the way, that you may have heard the statement “What you are seeking you already are” many times but you never actually got it. Or you didn’t believe it. Or the statement simply had no meaning. That’s how it is for almost everyone. People hear non-duality teachings but so often don’t comprehend them.

Q: Why is that?

James: Because the conditioning of the appearance is so strong. The world and all our moods and feelings and experiences appear real, even though they’re not. They’re transient. They come and go and therefore they can’t possibly be real. The definition of reality is that which is permanent. The definition of phenomenon is that which appears to be. We all say we want liberation, but what we really want is to bring the world of appearance—especially our individuality—with us and be liberated. Well, belief in illusion doesn’t fit with liberation or freedom. Liberation is the realization that there is no individual present. Do you want to live appearance or live reality?

Q: I want liberation, but I want my life to be better. I want my dream to be happier.

James: Non duality is nothing if not paradoxical. When you finally stop believing in appearance and illusion, life does generally get a lot better and happier. But it’s still a dream. Happiness and ease and grace are just as much a dream as struggle and strife and sadness. Life will never be controllable. Everyone has moods and ups and downs. Everyone dies. Everyone watches others die. It’s just that for the gnani (realized soul) nothing in the appearance is taken very seriously. And because of that, the moods and ups and downs pass extremely fast. So, there’s less suffering.

One reason people sometimes don’t grasp non duality is because they have lots of misconceptions. I certainly did. I thought liberation was some awesome, miraculous state of consciousness. That’s what I always heard. I thought it was all about miracles and psychic ability and powers, and so on.

Q: That’s false?

James: Maybe some people have them. Anything is possible. Most spiritual seekers, myself included, have had some paranormal experiences, for sure. But I would characterize them as occult or mystical abilities, not as enlightenment or liberation or whatever label you want to use. I’ve been around lots of people in spiritual movements talking about their wonderful experiences, but still feel incomplete—and are still seeking. A person can have none of those wonderful, dramatic experiences and yet completely grasp non duality. I had some incredible experiences during my years of long meditation. In the end, they were all meaningless. That’s why one of my all time favorite Nisargadatta quotes is: “The yogi comes to know many wonders, but of the self he remains ignorant. The gnani may look and feel quite ordinary, but the self he knows very well.”

“The yogi comes to know many wonders, but of the self he remains ignorant. The gnani may look and feel quite ordinary, but the self he knows very well.”

Nisargadatta Maharaj

Q: You said that you don’t fear death anymore. Does that mean that if some great danger was upon you it wouldn’t be a problem?

James: It sure would be a problem. I would try to get away from the danger as fast as possible. No one wants to die. The nature of life is enjoyment. It’s an instinct to want to continue living. What I meant about death was that I used to think about it and worry about it all the time. I used to ponder the idea that I would cease to exist. Now, however, it’s absolutely clear that James was never born. Who I really am never had a beginning and an end. My true nature, awareness or consciousness, has always been and will always be. The only things that were apparently born were a transient body, and a transient mind that gave rise to a bunch of transient thoughts and emotions about an illusory personality. Why should I care that a bunch of thoughts and feelings that will cease existing? The thoughts are not me. The body is not me. The emotions are not me. Those are appearances. They come and they go.

Who we are is space that has no beginning and has no end. Who we are is non-conceptual, but quite real. Who we are is actually permanent and independent. Everything depends on the consciousness or space that we are, not the other way around. We’re not bodies having consciousness, we’re consciousness having bodies. When the body and mind die, it means the movie is over. It doesn’t mean we are over.

Sailor Bob tells a story about a friend and student of his who had cancer, or some incurable illness, and stayed on Bob’s farm until he died. Bob said the doctors were amazed at the man’s lack of fear. If you grasp non duality, it’s understandable. I can see being concerned about loved ones who (apparently) have to go on after I die. But, as for the mind and body dying, it’s not huge anymore. If you really grasp that neither your thoughts nor your body are who you are, how can the idea of death be much of a problem?

Q: I keep reading that the world is an illusion or a dream. How am I supposed to grasp that when everything looks and feels real and solid?

James: Non duality isn’t blind acceptance or belief. It’s the result of an investigation into your true nature. An easy way to see the falseness of the world is to examine time. If all experience happens in the present, which means that past and future are mental concepts, then everything that happened in the so called past is a dream. It never happened. Or I should say it happened just like a dream. It appeared to happen, just like a dream at night seems to happen. But when you wake up, you realize it didn’t happen—it was a dream.

In science we see some illusory features of life. The walls of our house are made up of tiny microscopic molecules that are moving so fast they appear solid. They’re not solid, but they appear that way. They actually feel solid, even though they positively aren’t. Another strange fact is that the earth is spinning very fast, but we feel like the earth is stationary. How did scientists find all this out? By investigating what is true and what is false. Likewise, non duality is an investigation into what is real. That’s why we’re always using the analogies like mirages and rainbows and blue water.

Q: I hear those analogies and understand them, but they don’t have any effect.

James: Probably because you believe the explanation of reality but you also believe the appearance is real. Even though you know creation is transient and therefore an illusion, you want to still believe you’re an individual. If you’re seeking to understand oneness, you can’t have it both ways. That’s like saying you know rainbows are illusory and then living as if rainbows are solid. You need to decide what you want – appearance or reality.

Q: I get non duality, but I get it intellectually.

James: Some of the problem is just semantics. Sailor Bob Adamson has a good way of addressing that issue, which by the way, is extremely common. He asks the person “Do you know that two plus two is four?

How would you answer?

Q: Of course I know that.

James: Do you know it intellectually, or do you actually know it? Could anybody convince you that two plus two equals five?

Q: No.

James: Well, it’s the same with non duality. If you know that who you truly are is space or no thing, then you know it. If you know that consciousness is all there is, then you know it. A man once objected, saying “Just knowing that you are consciousness is not the same as being consciousness.” He thought he made a good point, but what he said was nonsense. If you can tell me how not to be consciousness, then I’m willing to listen. There is no way to stop being consciousness because consciousness is all there is. It’s possible for a person not to know he or she is consciousness, but there’s no way to stop being what you are – consciousness.

Q: I think I know what that person meant. Sometimes I feel really clear and conscious and sometimes I feel completely lost. There are times I am more aware of the fact that who I am is consciousness.

James: I understand that there are apparent experiences of feeling clear and feeling unclear. But your feelings and experiences and perceptions are irrelevant. You are, positively, consciousness or space or no thing, whether or not you know that every moment of every day. Do you want to live appearance or live reality? In reality, you are consciousness, not a physical body or a bunch of thoughts.

Q: I sometimes think that non duality is just another belief system. Am I supposed to believe non-duality statements without really grasping them?

James: I used to wonder the same thing, until I spent time with Sailor Bob. When you grasp non duality, when you see the truth of it, there will be discernable effects in your life. Psychological suffering is greatly lessened. And seeking falls off completely and leaves you feeling whole and complete. It doesn’t mean problems won’t arise or that you won’t have moods and feelings like anyone else. But you see them for what they are—passing energy patterns. You won’t get stuck in them.

Q: How do I make that happen?

James: Fortunately or unfortunately there’s no “you” to do anything. Within the world of appearance, however, just keep investigating what is real and what is unreal until the unreal falls away.

For me, seeing clearly seemed to have something to do with surrender or faith in my teacher or something. But that’s just appearance, it’s a conceptual explanation for what, in fact, simply happened. To advise you to surrender or have faith wouldn’t actually be helpful. It would leave you thinking that there is an independent you who could do the surrendering. And if you look within, you won’t be able to locate an independent you. Once you really get that there is no independent you inside—I mean really grasp that truth—your search will be over anyway. Remember, there’s nothing to get. All that really appears to happen is that concepts and beliefs are seen through and you’re left with the reality of your permanent self.

Q: So, there’s nothing I can do to get non duality?

James: That’s the paradoxical nature of it. When I say to keep investigating (or keep reading and hearing non duality teachings as), it’s kind of an absurd statement. In reality, you never decided to take this path in the first place. This is simply how you’re being lived in the dream. Of course, apparently, you are reading and studying non-duality, and as far as appearance goes just keep on doing that. In reality, you’ll either grasp it or you won’t. That might sound discouraging, but if you could actually understand the reasoning for the statement, your search would be over. You would grasp the fact that you’re not an individual. You would grasp that who you are is no thing or space or consciousness.

Q: I think I get non duality pretty well. But I still get angry, I still get depressed, I still get sad. Shouldn’t that stop?

James: Consciousness takes all forms and shapes. It expresses in every possible way. There’s a wonderful analogy that author Joan Tollifson uses. She points out that weather can be different in different places and we never blame the weather on the place. For example, Chicago is very often windy, Seattle is very often rainy, Florida has hurricanes. But we don’t go around blaming Florida for being angry, or blaming Seattle for crying, or Chicago for being irritated. We accept the fact that nature is different in different places. There’s no judgement. The weather is just what is. And if you wait a while, the weather inevitably changes.

Anything is possible. Depression can arise, happiness can arise, anger can arise. The idea is to be aware that whatever arises is not you. Witness the moods, don’t judge them.

Nisargadatta’s nature was intense and fiery. He would throw people out if he got exasperated with them. Bob is more patient and soft hearted. Anything is possible. Non duality is about Self knowledge, Self realization. It’s not about feeling this way or that way. I know that people chase realization so they’ll feel better, but they’re actually missing the point.

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