Meaning and Nonduality

In a world that places such emphasis on meaning and purpose, the teachings of non-duality challenge all spiritual seekers who attempt to unravel their paradoxical wisdom. When we hear that our lives have no significance, we can easily start to see life bleakly and nihilistically, as meaningless altogether. When we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the world is sacred. It can’t be improved,” our cherished ideas of progress, improvement, and making a difference immediately come into question. We must understand, however, that our qualms arise because we are looking at all of this from the perspective of the doer in a world of divisions. Without the ego that reigns in this reality, there would be no fear of a meaningless life.

Does a flower have meaning? Standing naked and fragile for the short span of its existence, the flower makes no pretence of playing a role or making a contribution. When we look at its delicate form and catch the light scent it unreservedly shares, we don’t ask what purpose it serves; the question of meaning does not arise. The flower is perfect as it is and need make no apologies. Alan Watts argued that only words and concepts have meaning, because they point to something other than themselves; they are symbols, significant only as a conduit for communication. This is not the case with life. As Watts would say, the flower doesn’t have meaning. It is meaning. Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale would add, however, that the unfolding of a seed to the perfection of a blossom, and its subsequent decay, reveal a deep truth about all life. There is nothing haphazard in the process of nature, and according to Teasdale, the comprehensive purpose reflected in a flower suggests a similar truth embodied in our own spiritual pilgrimage to the source and origin of all that is. As he makes clear, this purpose is not of the parts but of the whole—“the divine drawing all things to itself first by the interconnectedness of everything, then through its cosmic symbolism, and finally through the communion and union of the mystical journey itself.”

People go round and round looking for meaning, never realizing that the seeker is the sought. Meaning is found in being, nowhere else. As long as there is one who is chasing it, the chase will never end. Like the flower, we are meaning. We cannot find it in objects or accumulate it through accomplishments. We can only be it. For this reason, Jesus declared that those things hidden from the wise and learned have been revealed to little children—and watching young children at play shows us just what he meant. They are so fully intent on what they are doing, so caught up in what Zen calls the “isness” of being, that the question of meaning never occurs to them. With the innocence that precedes the appearance of the ego, they are the truth so often repeated: life is in the living. When as adults we can return to this oneness, with the wisdom gained from having thought it lost, we will have closed the circle of life.

Nonduality and the Divine

Seekers who are new to the mystical traditions are often taken aback when they first discover that some of the spiritual paths make no mention of God. But the lack of the familiar concept of a supreme being is not the same as the denial of the Divine found in the theories of some modern thinkers, such as Marx or Nietzsche or Freud. Nondual traditions, lacking any concepts for the holy, nonetheless have no lack of holy awe; they simply explore and interpret the indefinable without attempting to attach labels to it. It reminds one of Victorian author and thinker Samuel Butler’s remark about God, “I cannot tell which is the more childish—to deny him, or to attempt to define him.”

Nonduality is a return to wholeness, going back to the source from which all manifestation evolves. The return entails a perceptual shift from the dualistic reality of our conventional world to the nondual, where boundaries no longer divide what is. In our everyday experience, concepts create in our minds a world of seemingly separate objects and events, which we then organize and make sense of through the framework of space and time and the dynamics of cause and effect. When the dualistic paradigm is applied to the spiritual realm, the deepest feelings and concerns of humanity often find substance in the concept of God. Concepts shape our deepest yearning and intuition into an image of God that is separate from us. The particular image to which we respond depends on our conditioning and capacity, but it is a fundamentally dualistic relationship. There is an unbridgeable ontological divide between the worshipper and the object of worship.

In esoteric traditions, such conceptual schemes are considered a function of conditioning, not an inherent part of what is. Nonduality abides no contrast or comparison, no distinction between this and that, and no sequence of before and after. Beneath the surface play of phenomena, there is a formless, undifferentiated realm invisible to the naked eye; devoid of all parts, there remains only the unceasing flow and energy of life. Any concept of the Divine, therefore, is misleading, as it stands in the way of the deepest insights into the nature of reality. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, expresses it this way: “God is being-itself,” as opposed to a “being.”

Thus, there are no images or descriptions of the Divine in the esoteric literature that play more than a metaphorical role. There is a shared conviction that to name the unnamable is to close ourselves off from truth. Just as assumptions of individual existence dissolve in the ascent to the nondual, the traditional images of God likewise cease to be relevant. When we talk about the source of those aspects of life considered most holy and sacred, those which fill us with profound reverence, joy, wonder and awe, only abstract ideas or terms can convey a sense of their boundlessness. Whether we say the Tao, the Unborn, Being, or any of the numerous other designations, there is no division, either explicit or implied.

Over and over, the mystical teachings tell us that we cannot know the truth intellectually, but we can be it. Experiential as opposed to conceptual, esoteric spirituality has been compared to falling in love—something else that’s impossible to adequately express in words. It is a matter of union with what is—with what we are in the deepest sense. Judgment, good and evil, heaven and hell, and the myriad distinctions that make up our conventional worldview fall away when we realize what is. It comes with the shift from figure to ground. Only when our focus shifts from the external trappings of spirituality can we discern the ground of our being.