Is nondual meditation good for your health?

Despite the health potential of nondual meditation, this is the area of contemplative science that we know the least about.

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The inseparability of self and other; nondual

What is nondual meditation?

Although explanations of nondual meditation are often complex, the broad concept is accessible to all of us because we think in the dual and nondual all the time. The human brain has structures that emphasise both the relationship and separation of people and concepts.  So, for example, when you decide to recycle your bottles, you may be thinking about just yourself, or your family, the community or perhaps even the whole world. The focus only on yourself is an example of dualistic thought, but to consider the needs of others and the environment is nondual thinking.  Humans fluctuate between the dual and nondual all of the time; we all carry the potential for greater or lesser nondual thinking. Some forms of meditation can teach us to recognise nondual thoughts and use nonduality systematically. We call the ability to recognise the difference between our dual and nondual thoughts nondual awareness (NDA). Although many meditators claim to have NDA, it is relatively rare and can be simple to spot in a meditation teacher when you know what to look for. With training, NDA gives way to the nondual view (NDV), a more permanent condition where nondual cognitive processes become established as mental states.

Is nonduality good for health?

NDA and the NDV are under-researched in the West, but extensive work has been done in Buddhist spiritual traditions to study, document and explain nondual cognitive processes. However, science indicates abnormal levels of dualistic thinking are likely to be linked to many health problems. Put simply, if your only concern is for yourself and your short term needs, this can give rise to several physical and mental health problems. It will impact how you relate to people and society more generally. We associate NDA with a balanced outlook on life, where the wellbeing of self and others are equally important. Some anecdotal evidence supports the theory that nondual meditators live longer, happier lives.

How does it work?

From a scientific perspective, we know that there are brain networks that regulate our interaction with others. It seems highly likely that we humans have developed to care both for ourselves and those around us. Society would not function without significant levels of cooperation between individuals. The phenomenon of super-rich individuals uncaring for the needs of those around them is, in terms of human evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon. Attending to those brain networks that allow us to care for ourselves and others may represent the ‘natural state’ of being human, and one where we can be happiest and healthiest.

How to find out more

This explanation is only the briefest introduction and hasn’t dealt with key concepts such as integrating the dual and nondual and the correlations between brain networks. Modern psychological research barely recognises NDA and although all Buddhist meditation is either implicitly or explicitly nondual, we have few scientific studies on which to consider these states. Many spiritual texts (perhaps thousands), particularly in the Mahayana, Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism, offer explanations about NDA. But most traditional roads to NDA begin with compassion training.  

The most important meditation method is one you never heard of; nondual compassion

Despite eighty years of meditation research, science is still trying to understand what nondual meditation is.

It’s a wrong view to consider nondual compassion merely a method; it is really an entire approach to lived experience. Thus from the outset, we need to define what we mean by nondual. You will find many different ways of thinking about the ‘nondual’ in Western academic literature, but traditional forms of meditation use the term to describe one of three primary states of human consciousness. As the name implies, ‘nondual’ consciousness exists in relation to the ‘dual’, and as every new generation of nondual practitioners ‘discovers’ this means nonduality is part of a binary system. This binary system of dual and nondual describes human consciousness. Most humans spend their entire waking (and sleeping) experience fluctuating between the dual and nondual without ever realising. All Buddhist (spiritual?) meditation challenges the belief that the most common configuration of consciousness, the dual, is the only or most important way to experience life.

A happy mind in a healthy body

Several Buddhist schools have developed meditation (mind-training) methods that explicitly reduce our dependency on dualistic consciousness. Many of these nondual approaches are linked to permanent and enduring states of happiness which also have profound health benefits. What’s more, there is clear but preliminary evidence from neuroscience that the dominance of the brain network responsible for dualistic experience is linked to poor health. Unfortunately, because neuropsychology and neuroscience see the world from a dualistic perspective, only a handful of scientific studies demonstrate the importance of nondual meditation.

Many people find this subject challenging, but altering consciousness is actually the point of meditating. The way we see the world, reduce stress, increase happiness, create less damaging psychological habits are all linked to the dual-nondual relationship. There is almost nothing you can do to explain what nondual consciousness is to someone rooted in dualistic thinking (most of us). Several crucial Buddhist texts describe this problem through abstract teachings and metaphors. But as helpful as these guides are, they can take a considerable time (years) to master. However, one naturally occurring human mental state that we use every day can help us resolve the dual-nondual dichotomy; it is compassion.

Most Buddhist practices cultivate compassion, not just because it leads directly to a reduction in suffering but also for its potential as a nondual teaching aid. From both Buddhist and scientific perspectives, we know that compassion has the potential to be active in the dual and nondual brain networks. Over time this can increase the nondual experience of life. This state offers a wide range of mental and physical health benefits but can also lead to rapid spiritual development. Unfortunately practising the method alone will not necessarily develop nondual compassion, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Similarly, meditation is mainly in the mind, so the method alone won’t guarantee positive results without the correct approach and motivation. This is one of the main reasons why a reliable teacher is essential. When we begin these practices, we can easily mistake the experience of dualistic compassion as our goal, and by concentrating on this form, we create new barriers to nondual consciousness. The danger of getting stuck in dualistic meditation is why many experienced practitioners recommend finding a reliable teacher before committing to a specific meditation practice.

Does compassion meditation work?

There is growing interest in compassion based meditation and mind training, but what is it and does it work?

Can compassion training support your health and wellbeing

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, the term compassion is poorly defined and chronically under-researched. So at the outset, a priority is to explain what is meant by ‘compassion’. For many years I have been using a popular definition linked to Buddhist meditation from the Tibetan traditions:

Compassion: may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

This explanation fits my understanding, my meditation goals and is consistent with what I have learned for the cognitive and neuropsychological evidence. A second clarification; I only practice the nondual forms of compassion meditation. There are other (dualistic) approaches that may be more appropriate or desirable for beginners. In this narrow context, and thinking in relative terms, nondual compassion is the wish that all (self and other) don’t suffer. The majority of medicalised meditation methods are dual, primarily focussed on self or other. I have extensive experience of compassion for other practice, with a reliable method and teacher they can be very beneficial. Meditation based on compassion only for self (self-compassion) is an approach I don’t have direct experience with, and it’s not something I would personally recommend.

In common with many meditation systems studied by psychology (including mindfulness), the scientific evidence for compassion meditation is mixed. However, this weakness reflects theoretical and methodological limitations in the way we understand meditation rather than the utility of compassion-based mind training. A recent strategic review of the evidence found that compassion meditation increased feelings of compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being. It also reduced the sense of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.1

From a personal perspective, I have experienced (and expect to see in my students) several changes related to regular (nondual) compassionate practice.

  • Lower levels of stress and anxiety often reflected in physiological changes such as lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a general feeling of increased well being
  • Increased energy levels and a greater sense of one’s potential
  • Awareness of positive relationships and interconnectivity with others
  • Improved sleep patterns (not necessarily longer but definitely better)
  • A greater sense of self-efficacy in professional and personal matters
  • Better levels of concentration and focus
  • Increased tolerance towards and concern for others
  • A greater sense of proportion, unimportant matters tend not to increase stress and anxiety
  • A stronger sense of happiness and a more fulfilling experience of life

The key to compassionate meditation is to remember mind training is all about your mind. How you sit and breathe, where you meditation and who with are all secondary. The practice aims to create new and improve compassionate function and structures in your brain; you can’t fake it. A good teacher and/or method are essential.

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

Notes

  1. Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-based interventions: Current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior Therapy, 48(6), 778-792.

Trump, Biden and meditation: staring the nondual in the face

Politicis is in crisis, polarisation is leading to harmful unproductive divisions. Nonduality is the only solution

Trump and Biden cannot both be always right or wrong, so what’s happening?

By the time you read this, the US 2020 election will probably be over, but it is only after the crisis, the battle, where taking stock can begin. In most of the polls I saw, support for Biden and Trump was almost wholly polarised. In America as elsewhere, we face a political landscape where as much as 90% of the voting population holds opposite views on the same subjects. This reality, of course, defies all reason; polarised sectarian views can never represent the full potential of any situation. I guess most people realise this already. The reality of this level of partisan discipline is that at times, people are advocating policies which are against their own best interests. Such behaviour can only be fully understood from the perspective of human consciousness. External conditions, extraordinary people and times, cannot be entirely blamed for the way we create reality. It is at the intersection of the external world, and our consciousness that meditation technologies are of most use, both from curative and heuristic perspectives.

Let’s be clear; the object of this short article isn’t to promote any particular political position. I, of course, have my views about politics but that’s not an issue here. If we can agree that it is irrational to support a course of action that leads to harm for ourself and others, then the concepts of duality and nonduality may be useful to you. If you devolve your thinking, your rights, your self-determination to a politician (of any persuasion) you might want to look away now. The simplest way of understanding the extreme polarisation present in much of world politics is duality.

In terms of human consciousness, we constantly fluctuate between dual and nondual states. From our perspective, this presents as a completely normal and natural state. However, many philosophical and spiritual traditions have understood that the tendency towards dualism correlates with several problems, including mental conditions of unhappiness and suffering. There is a deal of neuropsychological evidence that supports this basic premise, particularly in terms of intrinsic-extrinsic network correlation. But there is a much simpler way of understanding the increasing duality present in public life; the metaphor of gods and demons. The idea that one politician is the complete problem or solution to complex issues is naive in the extreme.

Although I concede that some public figures appear to act out of self-interest and pursue agendas very different from mine, how can I imagine that they are always wrong and I (or my politician of choice) is always right? The polarisation that is influencing many people is ultimately self-generated. External conditions matter in the creation of duality, if you surround yourself with concepts of ‘enemy’ ‘evil’ ‘threat’ and ‘harm’, dualistic brain networks are likely to be more active. Alternatively, if you protect yourself from such extremes, maintain objectivity, your ability to make real choices is much greater. I’m not suggesting compromise or capitulation to the aggression of others. Instead, the best option is to keep the freedom to choose the most appropriate response in every situation.

Many of the most reliable traditional meditation methods target harmful dualistic mental processes. A desire to reduce tendencies to hate and division is not an attempt to create an impossible utopia; it is a concrete movement towards reducing suffering and harm—both for ourselves and others. I’ll repeat again; this is not a manifesto for inactivity and compromise, quite the opposite. Nondual training, in its fullest sense, leads to the abandonment of refuge in concepts such as political parties and institutions, concepts we know are flawed. What remains is reason and the ability to distinguish what is meaningful to us beyond simple partisan mantras.

Harm does exist; governments produce damaging polices. The lessons of nondual meditation are that until we address our own harmful and damaging tendencies, we may struggle to do more than simply react by entering the downward spiral of polarisation.

As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below. For a simple introduction to the nondual, try the nondual podcast.

Meditate in Canterbury, meditate anywhere!

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News this morning that Canterbury was successful in its bid to bring a medical school to the city has been widely acclaimed. For those that don’t know, the city is an important global centre of education. It boasts three universities, a regional further education college and a wealth of private educational institutions along with some excellent primary and secondary schools. This latest announcement underlines what a great place the city is to live and work in. Teaching meditation here feels like a privilege, there’s always new meditation students, as well as interaction with scholarly Buddhist academics and advanced practitioners.

And yet the numbers of homeless people in Canterbury has never been higher (in living memory), the inequality in living standards is shocking and there are a number of areas described as economically deprived nearby.  The local NHS trust is also one of the most lowly ranked in the UK. So what is the real picture? There are opportunities and challenges everywhere, how you view where you live and the people you live with is central to your happiness and wellbeing. If you are not happy with your conditions you need to try and improve them… but the worst option is to be unhappy and not do anything about it.

This is not about blind optimism, don’t ignore the problems and issues in your community, try to contribute to the improvement of your environment. But to denigrate your conditions and to imagine the grass is always greener somewhere else won’t make you feel great with life. You need to find real positives and build upon them. One of the root causes of unhappiness that I encounter in my day to day life is the idea that the conditions aren’t right for development and progress. In reality the conditions to improve things are never perfect, it’s much more a question of making a choice rather than waiting for your problems to resolve themselves.

“find real positives and build upon them”

choose happiness
Happiness !

From the nondual perspective thinking of things constantly as better or worse builds  limitations, particularly if you apply this thinking to yourself. Relatively there is no perfect time to meditate, no perfect place to meditate and no perfect meditation practice. You have to work with what you have and progress to where you want to be. If happiness is your goal, start to think about your own happiness and the happiness of others, work towards greater happiness generally and disengage with things that you know create unhappiness or harm.

Abandon unhappiness; understanding forgiveness

Let go of resentment, abandon negativity, move towards enduring happiness.

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The rewards of nondual practice are immense, this form of meditation opens a window into a world where suffering and joy become a choice rather than mere chance. That doesn’t mean that challenges don’t arise for nondual practitioners, rather the conditions that give rise to problems, and the approaches of dealing with them are altered. Buddhist forms of meditation have defined theoretical frameworks describing the degree of non-duality in different practices. Secular meditation is a bit more problematic to explain. For students embarking on meditation for the first time, it’s essential to set realistic expectations whilst explaining how the system works.

A useful starting point is to talk about forgiveness, although we don’t teach forgiveness practice per se’,  it is a useful way of describing the secular non dual approach.

How would it feel if you forgave yourself for every negative action you had ever carried out?

The idea of forgiving yourself is generally compelling for most people struggling to make sense of the world. The nondual approach take the same view of the negative actions carried out by yourself and others. But to release all regret and resentment is not to abandon common sense. Whilst you may wish to unburden yourself of  negative feeling towards others, you may still be aware that certain people might not be useful to know or engage with. Forgiveness isn’t passive, it’s about giving you control. You may not be able to change how other people act but you can choose how you feel about their actions. By forgiving, you ‘let go’ of your negative emotions, you don’t forget or accept what people may have done, you just stop preciously preserving negativity in your emotional baggage.

Self forgiveness works in a similar war, if you carry around negative feelings about things you have done in the past, they don’t cease to exist. You still remember what they are but you don’t have to beat yourself up over what is passed. Learning from the past is essential for personal development, blaming oneself for past actions is not.  The nondual approach is to integrate forgiveness of self and other as inseparable. The process should be liberating, one chooses to disengage from resentment and blame, not ignore unproductive or foolish behavior. Whilst there are systems that can focus on forgiveness of self or other, the nondual approach treats blame as a limitation irrespective if it focussed on self or other.

The three rules of non dual forgiveness:

  • Forgive completely but don’t necessarily forget, don’t repeat mistakes or permit others to engage you in a manner that’s not beneficial.
  • Let go of resentment, let go of blame, there are no scores to settle just lessons to learn.
  • Actively choose the path of sustainable happiness.

The non dual approach is neither simple nor quick but it offers the opportunity to experience life as a joyful learning experience, where you have both the right and responsibility to be happy.

Nondual meditation: path to lasting happiness and joy

Nondual meditation is an established goal of authentic meditation practice. Leading to greater joy and clarity.

nondual awareness
Self-other duality, a path towards detachment.

One of the characteristics of traditional meditation methods, and other forms of spiritual  practice, is their ability to demonstrate the limitations of artificial constructs, such as the separation of self from other. Ideas that polarize our thinking of self and other into distant opposites, are generally thought of as forms of dualism. There are a range of explanations for how dualist thinking develops but we know that it doesn’t effect everyone in the same way. It’s also broadly accepted in both psychology and contemplative science that it is possible for people to access and work with their own world view (mind world) in this regard.

If all this sounds very theoretical and not of relevance to people who simply want to meditate to improve health or wellbeing read on! In materialist societies self-other dualism is everywhere, inequality, poverty and sexual harassment often manifest because a person or a group of people are working on the basis that their needs must be supreme. Unless you stop and think about it, this may seem to be a natural order. The fact that ‘I’ and ‘you’ exist, and that we are not the same person is a commonsense way of looking at the world. However the idea that my needs, thoughts and opinions take priority over all (or most) others is problematic. The interrelated nature of society means that not to recognize that others are in fact like ourselves, with real and pressing needs, is a great limitation. I’m not talking about any practical concerns in this regard, simply how we are able to understand the world and function within it.

I remember talking to a successful entrepreneur about the benefits of meditation. He explained to me how he was self created, his success was based only on his hard work and endeavor. I asked him about his education, work experience, family life and anything else that was important to him. He had been to good state schools and a leading  university in the 1980’s, his first job was for a large international employer within a graduate recruitment and training programme. He said his childhood was “OK” but mentioned that significant financial support had come from his relatives. He spoke of the importance of his family. He also told me that the sport of cricket was an influence in his life.

To embrace self-other duality is to turn you back on partnership, mutual support and co-operation with every other living being in the universe.

Stephen Gene Morris

Just by talking about his past he started to unravel his own narrow view of the world. He acknowledged the benefits of a state funded education system, his debt to teachers, nurses, doctors, colleagues and friends. He never used the concept of ‘self made’ in my hearing again. This wasn’t an epiphany, and didn’t lead to any great change in his life (as far as I know). But is shows the persuasive and subtle nature of self-other duality. Inside our heads we can create a ‘mind world’, running in parallel to the actual world. The clearer our understanding of the real world, the better we function within it. This does not mean an abandonment of all of our individual concerns, but their integration with the real or material world. We do have agency, we can choose what we do and work towards our goals. But the idea that other people don’t have a right to the same freedoms is not helpful. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean we have to accept negative or disruptive influences into our lives.

Many people come to meditation to resolve conflicts between their ‘mind world’ and their material world. Problems develop when our view of self and other becomes detached, disengaged. We may think that others should be doing (or not doing) things for us, that life is unfair, or that something is really not working for us. It may be true! People don’t always do what they should and life can be hard. However if we have developed a disengagement between self and other, the chances are that we are not seeing the real world, rather interpreting it through our ‘mind world’. This is an ancient problem described in different cultures including contemporary western psychology1.

If you want to gain greater clarity and to reduce the distortion between your ‘mind world’ and the real world. Meditation can broadly help in three ways.

  • When a method tackles one side of self-other dualism, typically self cherishing or lack of compassion, it can only be one stage of the practice (an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling stage).
  • When an authentic practice and the guidance of a reliable teacher are conducted in an implicit nondual context. This working over time can demonstrate the empty nature of dualistic concepts.
  • When the method and the teacher offer authentic, explicit nondual training.

Meditation can allow you to gain a greater clarity of how things fit together in reality. If you can subtract problems linked to self-other duality from normal day to day challenges, life becomes more joyful and dynamic.

Also consider that traditionally, addressing the distortions encountered through dualism can be supported by reasoning as well as meditation. Although accounts of the process suggest reasoning alone generally fails to deliver full clarity. However it does mean that through reliable observations we can become aware of dualistic phenomena and how they limit our thinking. Tools such as metaphors and thought experiments may be useful in this regard.

 

Footnote

  1. A range of perspectives in western psychology acknowledge the limitations of self other duality. Elements can be found in areas such as classic psychoanalysis, cognitive, embodied cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, critical psychology and phenomenology. A problem is however that the basic theoretical frameworks (ontologies) of some of these approaches are dualistic. For further information look into subjects like, mirror neuron theory, theory of mind, fundamental attribution error and phenomenology.