Dualistic and Nondual Thinking
Oned with God
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Over the next few days I’d like to share insights from my fellow CAC faculty members, Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley. I trust Cynthia and Jim because they are truly grounded in the Christian and wider wisdom Tradition, Scripture, and their own authentic experience. They are part of the vibrant movement that is rebuilding Christianity from the bottom up, reclaiming long-forgotten or misunderstood teachings and practices.
Today Cynthia clarifies the various meanings of nondual consciousness:
If you find yourself a bit confused about what nonduality actually means, you’re not alone. A good deal of the confusion originates in the fact that the term nonduality is not a part of the innate vocabulary of the Christian spiritual tradition. It’s a “loan word”: a term imported from Eastern religions, which first became widely popular in the West during the second half of the twentieth century. A good deal of the confusion has emerged as folks have tried to discover what, if anything, in our Western Christian experience most closely corresponds to what the East is intending by nondual.
Within the Christian tradition, nonduality is sometimes described as nonpolarization or the capacity to be open, inclusive, and tolerant of paradox. This is an enormously practical understanding and a fundamental prerequisite for any kind of skillful prophetic work in today’s pluralistic culture. However, many schemas for the stages of development suggest that the capacity to tolerate ambiguity emerges long before the actual nondual or unitive stage is reached.
Another popular approach is to equate nonduality with a mystical experience. By definition, all mystical experience is nondual: the classic descriptions of mystical experience inevitably feature that brief, overpowering sense of the boundaries dissolving and finding oneself at one with everything. The problem, however, is that most mystical experiences are temporary. And since these mystical experiences are by definition ec-static (i.e., taking one outside oneself), they tend to create the impression that nondual is by nature blissful, exotic, or an “altered state of consciousness”—all of the above being categories that betray an “experience/experiencer” dichotomy still firmly in the driver’s seat—and hence, alas, no nondual attainment.
The third major approach is to see nondual as basically the same as what Christian tradition has classically known as “the unitive state,” the highest level of spiritual attainment according to the traditional map of purgative, illuminative, and unitive. Both Eastern and Western traditions hint at a permanent, irreversible shift in the seat of selfhood and in the perception that flows out from this new identity. The former sense of self dissolves, and in its place there arises a capacity to live a flowing, unboundaried life in which the person becomes “oned” with God (as Julian of Norwich famously expressed it) and oned with one’s neighbor. However, in the East, the experience tends to be monistic: one discovers one’s own deepest essence and nature as identical with that Oneness—“I am that.” In the West, the unitive state is looked upon as relational: a mystical marriage, in which one is fully joined to God in love, subsumed in God through that love—but one does not become God. In the Western Christian tradition, nondual realization is always one of union (“two become one”), not identity.
Gateway to Silence:
We are oned in love.
Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 43-47.