Nondual inquiry leads us to look at ourselves; to try and see this life clearly rather than just accept concepts about it or what appears on the surface. It’s not easy, this inquiry takes time and it encompasses not only our personal life experiences but also the cultural or social conditioning we’ve grown up with. One aspect of that culture is our belief that pretty much everything can be fixed; our ‘fix it’ tendency. When our car is broken we take it to the garage, when our tooth hurts we go to the dentist, when we have a headache the pharmacist can give us tablets. It creates an unconscious bias that whatever the problem, if we ask the right person the problem can go away.
Some people bring this tendency to their nondual inquiry. In fact it might be said that the whole notion of guiding is an expression of it. In one way a guide is like a physical fitness trainer, they can support you to get yourself fitter but they can’t give you fitness. You have to do the work and therefore you are the one to be credited with the results, not the trainer. In terms of nondual inquiry you awoke though your own efforts, whilst expressing gratitude for the support the guide offered. And some things just take time, don’t they? It might be the singularly least popular message in the whole of nondual inquiry, but the gradual unfolding of this realisation takes time.
I heard a talk by a senior Buddhist nun, Ajahn Sundara who reported that she would sometimes reply to the urgent inquiries of her novices with the suggestion, ‘Give it ten years and see how it looks then.’ Can you imagine a nondual guide suggesting that?
But the fact is that some things do take time. When we have a strong attachment to the position that we can fix or change this if we just keep running it at we might never consider the possibility that this might be about as useful as a gardener shouting at her plants to blossom. This is especially true for those who have been guided and who give credit to their guide for awakening. It’s rare for such a person to be able to stop and consider that whilst the guiding dialogue can be helpful at times, at other times it’s of very little or even no use.
How we relate to a nondual shift or awakening can depend on our tradition or path (or belief we have no path). For some once the sense of self is seen through, that’s it, that’s all there is to do. For others the unfolding of awakening flows on and deepens. The Buddha presented a model of this unfolding process called the Ten Fetters. In this model, even when we see through the sense of self, desire and aversion can still arise (the fourth and fifth fetters). So what does this mean? For the Buddha it meant that suffering could still arise and so this awakening was not yet fully realised. The Ten Fetters model is a guide to some of the things we might encounter along the way, but like all teaching tools, it’s just a model and not to be attached to.
Alan Watts once reportedly said, ‘We are not born into this world, we are born out of it.’ This is a useful insight when it helps us to see that the patterns that form this human experience are reflected in other things and in other ways. The Buddha noticed that all living things follow a pleasure/pain principle: we want more of what pleases us and we want to avoid that which we find displeasing. All living things exhibit this tendency, us included but of all of them only human beings have the capacity to dispel our ignorance of this tendency. So to overcome these Three Poisons as the Buddha called them – desire, aversion, and ignorance – we must dispel ignorance through inquiry and see clearly how these tendencies of desire and aversion operate or manifest in our lives.
It might sound like too simple an insight to be bothered with but it is absolutely fundamental to seeing clearly. I think the trick to this aspect of our inquiry is to take a clue from its simplicity. This doesn’t require mental cogitation, it’s not philosophical and it doesn’t need or rely on any ascetic practices. It requires mindfulness, that’s all.
We don’t go to war with our preferences, we don’t need to try and make the pleasant unpleasant and vice versa we simply have to practice confining our attention to this present moment. Here we run up against another cultural tendency, our predilection for thinking. You may believe you have to plan the future and you may be habituated to reliving the past. Of course thinking happens and you do need to plan in order to buy tickets or do shopping, that not what I mean. What I mean is scripting every possible conversation over and over, as if you can’t just talk to a person when you meet them. Upon examination it is very much a tendency left over from the ego that we pick up without realising it. If we can set it aside, if we’re able to practice here and now, judgement-free awareness – and it does take practice – we find that desire and aversion cease to arise over time. They cease to arise because our frame of reference shifts to: in the moment it is this way.
I know that sounds ridiculously simple; far too simple but before rejecting it, if that’s your inclination, may I suggest at least trying it. You can’t discuss your way out of desire and aversion, dialogue is not the right tool for this job, you’ll just talk your way around it. This has to be seen and it can only be seen by one who is fully present with this as it is, free from thoughts about how it should be or shouldn’t be.
I have a lot of compassion for anyone at this stage of their inquiry. It is not easy to let go of the tools of intellect and trust in another way. It’s like realising your trusty old bicycle won’t get you there, you need to take a boat but you really don’t want to leave it behind. Even if you embark on this with trust, with faith, patiently bringing your attention again and again to: just this, just this, it will take time. It might take years. Are you prepared for that?
I said above that the pleasure/pain principle (desire/aversion) is fundamental to all expressions of life. I also said it’s absolutely fundamental to this inquiry. Why? Because it is this tendency that gives birth to us. This movement is the underlying cause for apparent separation*. That’s why when it is fully realised in the Buddhist tradition we cease as one who can be born into this world. I’m sure you understand I’m not referring here to physical birth but rather to the repeated birth of the sense of self that is accompanied by our getting lost in the content of experiencing.
So where we get to is the expression of this which is able to compassionately view all that arises without the tendency to adopt a position in relation to any aspect of it. That’s really not a small step but it is a beautiful freedom.
*For those following a Buddhist path it is this point which marks ‘crossing the bridge’ between liking and desiring; the bridge between the sixth and seventh stages of the cycle of dependent origination. At this point ‘birth’ becomes inevitable and we are trapped in the rest of the cycle.