Experiencing nonduality means cultivating or creating a state of nondual awareness. These states are tranquil and open, free of judgement and full of possibility. Anyone can experience nonduality, at any time, and in this article we’ll explore three ways of doing so. But before we get into the practical methods, it can be helpful to understand nonduality conceptually.
What is Nonduality?
Nonduality is the fact that your conscious experience is one continuous process with the rest of the known universe. There is awareness of a certain subset of phenomena in this flow, and this makes up the subjective experience of an individual.
To understand this better, it helps to see that the way we normally perceive the world is not how it comes “naturally”. We imagine the world to be divided into separate objects, people, or events – but material reality doesn’t come “chopped up” into separate pieces. This is all a human invention.
Human minds layer over the fluid, interconnected contents of experience with conceptual dividing lines. Draw a dividing line and create a dualism: light/dark, up/down, inside/outside, good/evil and so on. But each member in a pair always requires the other to exist. One simply cannot have light without dark, good without evil, or up without down. Opposing halves of pairs are interdependent, and together create a uniform whole. This is sometimes called the “paradox of opposites”.
Opposing dualisms are the simplest form of abstraction, as they require only a single conceptual dividing line. Abstractions of any further complexity are just a matter of adding more lines to one’s perception of reality. From a nondual perspective, opposites, and all abstractions, exist only in the minds of humans and are not fundamental to conscious experience. For a deeper look at this, see chapter two of Ken Wilber’s book No Boundary.
Conceptual thinking evolved in our ancestors to help the species survive and reproduce.1 However, the evolutionary environment was radically different from today’s world. In modern times, for most of us, there’s no threat to survival – but the way our minds work hasn’t changed. To feel content or fulfilled in life, or to understand the human experience as clearly as possible, the mode of cognition evolved for the ancestral landscape is not always best.
The Core Dualism
The fundamental dualism referred to by the term “nonduality” is that between self and other, or subject and object. A certain subset of phenomena in conscious awareness is perceived to be “me” (subject) and the remaining phenomena “not me” (object).
An object of perception demands a subject to perceive it. For human minds, objects of perception are interchangeable – another person, the table where one sits, the party next weekend – but the perceived subject is always the same. The felt subject of experience is the sense of self, the “ego”.
Distinctions between self and other are in large part arbitrary, both physically and phenomenally. The felt sense of agency, or free will, reinforces the sense of self but is itself another process unfolding within subjective awareness. For more on this, see No-Self as Counterintuitive Truth.
The perception of duality can thus be seen as a kind of layer, superimposed on top of conscious experience. Dividing lines between objects in the world, events in time, people and one another, or self and other are abstractions consciously or unconsciously applied by the human mind. Duality is the default mode for us, and unless we make a deliberate attempt to see through it, we are like the fish who never knows the water it is swimming in.
Nondual awareness is therefore not a matter of adding anything to experience – rather it is to see through these conceptual layers. Nonduality is experience without abstraction. This becomes possible with certain methods and techniques, which we’ll discuss now.
Meditation for Nonduality
Meditation is the simplest way of experiencing nonduality. The process involves placing one’s attention on a meditation object, usually the breath, while relegating the other contents of consciousness to peripheral awareness.
This is simple, but not easy. It doesn’t take long to discover that the mind is a thought-generating machine, running of its own accord. Later, it becomes clear that there is no singular agent creating, causing, or “thinking” the thoughts. There is no agent behind the thoughts any more than the beating of the heart or the digesting of food.
Experiences of nonduality can emerge naturally from meditation practice, but certain forms of meditation are more likely to bring them about. Meditation focused explicitly on examining the sense of self, for example, can more readily collapse the subject/object distinction and lead to nondual awareness. See the video below for an example.
That said, any consistent meditation practice based around mindfulness and maintaining stable attention will in time lead to the sense that subjective reality is not a collection of separate objects, events, or selves. Rather experience, free of conceptual layering, is a single continuous process unfolding through time.
With meditation, the perception and felt sense of duality gradually recedes over time, in both regularity and intensity. This makes meditation a reliable, slow but steady path to experiencing nonduality. If you’re interested in learning to meditate or advancing your existing practice, I would highly recommend the book The Mind Illuminated.
Experiments for Spontaneous Nondual Awareness
There are a number of techniques intended to shift perception and spontaneously bring about nondual awareness. The experience may only last for a moment, but can still be valuable. Once one has accessed a nondual state this way, it becomes easier to return to later, in meditation or in daily life.
The best known of these techniques is to look for your head or imagine that you have no head. It was developed by a man named Douglas Harding and described in his 1961 book On Having No Head. Personally, imagine that you have no head works better for me than look for your head. If you’re wondering what the hell this means, I wrote about this technique in more detail here.
Harding’s work has been carried forward by the organization The Headless Way, who have a large number of related techniques listed under “experiments” on their website. These experiments may work for you, and they may not. If they do, you will experience an immediate, intuitive sense that the distinction between the observer and observed in your experience has disappeared. This sudden collapse of the subject/object distinction spontaneously brings about a state of nonduality. Remember the “paradox of opposites” from above? Subject and object are just that!
The visual field as analogous to conscious experience
Most of these experiments make use of the fact that the visual field is in many ways analogous to the entirety of conscious experience. For example, the field of vision exists by virtue of being human with a functioning pair of eyes. We don’t need to do anything to create or maintain our vision. Consciousness is the same way.
The contents of the visual field changes constantly, as physical phenomena move freely in, around, and out of it. Watch throughout the day as your surroundings – people, cars, trees, buildings – arise and pass away. Subjective phenomena of all types operate this way.
The sense of self is encouraged by the first-person perspective of sight. It feels like we exist inside the head, looking out from behind our eyes. But there is no “see-er” – only the fact or process of sight. In the same way, there is no experiencer of experience – just experience itself.
The Headless Way experiments are designed to (literally) point this out in the visual field, with the hopes of a follow-through effect on the rest of consciousness. Again, the effect is often only momentary before the usual cognitive processes return. But once this has been experienced once or a few times, nondual states become more readily available in meditation or daily life.
Psychedelics and Nonduality
Long hours of meditation may be required for an experience of nonduality, and the perception-shifting techniques above may or may not work. Psychedelic substances, in sufficient dose, are a straightforward and essentially guaranteed method of experiencing nonduality.
Psychedelics are generally well-tolerated, non-addictive and physiologically safe.2 However, they do not come without their risks. Psychedelic experiences can be challenging and, in rare cases, may trigger the onset of mental disorders in those who are predisposed.3. But for most people, a psychedelic experience with the proper precautions in place is completely safe.
The range of possible psychedelic experiences is wide, but certain properties are common to many, most, or all psychedelic states. Among these is a loss of the sense of self, sometimes called “ego death” (in its more violent forms) and, more technically, “ego-dissolution”. Through this, psychedelics can bring about states of nonduality in varying flavours and degrees of intensity.
Unitive Mystical Experience
The best understood of these states is the unitive mystical experience, which has been a major focus of study in the resurgent field of psychedelic science. This experience involves blissful unity with what is felt as the divine, infinite cosmos, and senses of timelessness, awe, and self-transcendence. It is a complete merging of the self with the totality.
Unitive mystical experience has been shown to be the catalyst for many of the extraordinary, unprecedented results in psychedelic research, including the successful treatment of anxiety, depression, and addiction, as well as improvements in subjective wellbeing and positive social behaviour.4567
Here are some accounts of psychedelic-induced mystical experiences from research participants:
Rich joy and awe. My body melting and becoming one with the universe felt both painless and profound… Feeling complete as a person and physically a part of all things.8
The sense that all is One, that I experienced the essence of the Universe and the knowing that God asks nothing of us except to receive love.
Freedom from every conceivable thing including time, space, relationships, self, etc… It was as if the embodied “me” experienced ultimate transcendence – even of myself.
The complete and utter loss of self… The sense of unity was awesome… I now truly do believe in God as an ultimate reality.9
Unitive mystical experience is, by definition, completely nondual. For more on its history, study, and neurophenomenlogy, see Mystical Experience and Psychedelics: Meaningful, Measurable, Life Changing
For practical steps, see How to Have Mystical Experience: A Research-Based Guide
Psychedelic experiences can bring about ego-dissolution, a “disruption of ego-boundaries, which results in a blurring of the distinction between self-representation and object-representation, and precludes the synthesis of self-representations into a coherent whole.”10 Ego-Dissolution can be measured with the Ego-Dissolution Inventory, a scale developed by the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London. It correlates strongly with the mystical experience described above: “experiences of ego-dissolution, unity and dissolved ego-boundaries may be conceptually inseparable, occurring together during “peak” psychedelic experiences.”11
One need not, however, have a full mystical experience to lose the sense of self with psychedelics. There are plenty of possible psychedelic states where consciousness is empty of that usual sense of selfhood, to greater or lesser degrees, and one can still function relatively normally. Because of the speed, intensity, and reliability of their subjective effects, psychedelics are a highly effective way to experience nonduality. For more on psychedelics, see Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind.
In closing, I think it is important to highlight that nonduality is not some mysterious, esoteric state of consciousness available only to mystics or mountain cave dwellers. The simple truth is that nonduality is right here, all the time, any time you like. The methods outlined above are direct, effective ways to enter into nondual states, but they are not the only ways. Ultimately nonduality is just a matter of allowing experience to unfold of its own accord, free from conceptual dividing lines and consciously or unconsciously applied abstraction.
Good luck :)
- Heyes, C. (2012). New thinking: the evolution of human cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1599), 2091–2096. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0111 ↵
- Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., & Griffiths, R. R. (2008). Human Hallucinogen Research: Guidelines for Safety. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 22(6), 603–620. http://doi.org/10.1177/0269881108093587 ↵
- Johnson et al. (2008) ↵
- Griffiths, Roland & Johnson, Matthew & A Carducci, Michael & Umbricht, Annie & Richards, William & Richards, Brian & P Cosimano, Mary & Klinedinst, Margaret. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 30. 1181-1197. 10.1177/0269881116675513. ↵
- Carhart-Harris, Robin & Bolstridge, Mark & Rucker, James & Day, Camilla & Erritzoe, David & Kaelen, Mendel & Bloomfield, Michael & A Rickard, James & Forbes, Ben & Feilding, Amanda & Taylor, David & Pilling, Steve & H Curran, Valerie & Nutt, David. (2016). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: An open-label feasibility study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 3. . 10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30065-7. ↵
- Garcia-Romeu, Albert & Griffiths, Roland & Johnson, Matthew. (2015). Psilocybin-Occasioned Mystical Experiences in the Treatment of Tobacco Addiction. Current drug abuse reviews. 08. . 10.2174/1874473708666150107121331. ↵
- Griffiths, Roland & Richards, William & Johnson, Matthew & McCann, Ud & Jesse, Robert. (2008). Mystical-Type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England). 22. 621-32. 10.1177/0269881108094300. ↵
- Garcia-Romeu et al. (2015) ↵
- Griffiths et al. (2008) ↵
- Nour, Matthew & Evans, Lisa & Nutt, David & Carhart-Harris, Robin. (2016). Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 10. . 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00269. ↵
- Nour et al. (2016) ↵