Dualistic and Nondual Thinking
Rewiring Our Brains
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Today’s guest writer, CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault, shares the phenomenology of nondual consciousness—what actually happens in our brain as we move from dual to nondual thinking.
What if this shift is not primarily about what one sees as how one sees? That it indicates not so much a new level of conscious attainment as a permanent shift in the structure of consciousness itself—as it were, a rewiring of the “operating system?” This approach allows us to look at the concept or experience of nonduality not through the lens of personal spiritual attainment but through the lens of the continuing evolution of consciousness.
According to this way of looking at things, the “lower” levels of consciousness all work with increasing refinement of the classic binary hardwiring, i.e., differentiation). In this operating system, you develop your identity based upon what differentiates you from everything else; to be “self-aware” means to be able to stand outside yourself and reflect back on yourself, or to be able to navigate your way forward or backward along the arrow of time through your memory and imagination. This is what allows us to read, calculate, and think objectively and critically. The “binary hardwiring” is how we’ve been able to make so many technological and scientific advances. It is, to be sure, an extraordinary evolutionary breakthrough. But it is not all there is, nor is it even remotely the endpoint.
Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on splitting things into inside and outside, subject and object. Instead, one would grasp the entire pattern as a whole—holographically—through a way of perceiving that is sensory and embodied. Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness—not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, “translator” mechanism of the binary brain has finally been superseded. You see oneness because you see from oneness.
This would be my own working definition of nonduality.
I believe the West’s key contribution to the understanding of nondual perception is that this highest-order (“third tier”) level of consciousness is not a mere extension of the mind. It implies and requires the shift to an entirely different operating system, which is anatomically located in the heart—or better yet, in the mind in entrainment or in tune with the heart. This may be what the ancient spiritual masters from the Christian East meant in the Philokalia by “putting the mind in the heart.”
I am hopeful that a growing appreciation of heartfulness within the meditation community will encourage a shift in the focus of scientific research from brain alone to brain/heart connectivity. Perhaps then the data will begin to affirm Christianity’s mystical intuition that nondual attainment is not merely a new level of consciousness, but a new seat of consciousness.
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), 48-50, 53, 95, 114.