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Non-Dual Perspectives on Awareness

The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part Two, Continued

written by Rick Hanson December 3, 2019
Non-Dual Perspectives on Awareness

Subjective Oneness – “There is no spoon.”

This is the view that treats all of the contents of awareness as purely subjective phenomena.

First, the strong version of this view is that subjectivity is indeed the fundamental nature of existence, that the ontological nature of reality is that it exists only in the mind.

In philosophy, one classic debate in the early 1700s regarding this view, called Idealism, in contrast to Materialism, involved the question whether the rock you stub your toe upon is real, independent of your own mind.

More recently, variations of this view are given in books like The Secret, or some interpretations of the est training in the 70s, that you create your own reality.

Personally, we think there are a lot of problems with the strong claim. For example, it violates the principle of Occam’s Razor – “take the simpler of two explanations” – in its presumption of both all the material components of the universe and the purely mentalistic fabrication of these; why add the mentalistic fabrication part when a purely materialistic explanation will do?

The strong claim can also be used to imply that the Jews created the Holocaust, that the millions of children who die each year from hunger made that happen, or that your friend is the cause of her breast cancer.

But, there is no way to prove which view is right, Materialism or Idealism, since, in principle, even proof of Materialism could be fabricated within the imagination.

Second, there is a subtler version of Subjective Oneness, which says that there could be an objective reality “out there” – but we can only know it through our own perceptions.

Therefore, the subtle version says we may as well treat our phenomenal reality as the “real” reality, and move on from there.

There is some absurdity to taking this viewpoint too seriously since we routinely act upon objects “out there” – like the food you ate this morning – but it is certainly consistent with the way the brain works.

For example, our sense organs can receive only a tiny fraction of the information available in the electromagnetic and auditory wavelengths. We do not see in the ultraviolet or infrared ends of the spectrum, nor do we hear the ultrasonic sounds a dog might. Similar facts exist for our senses of smell, taste, and touch.

To extend the metaphor of the spotlight of awareness surrounded by a vast and shadowy stage of unconscious mental activity – that stage itself is surrounded by a far larger realm of events that the brain will never know directly.

And then, within the spotlight of what we could be aware of, most of it is filtered out of actual awareness at any one moment. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed with incoming data – and less likely to notice the slither in the grass or the shadow overhead that might ruin our chance of having grandchildren . . .

In addition to the ways in which this subtler version of Subjective Oneness is valid, in terms of the brain, it can also be employed as a skillful means – independent of whether it is true or not.

In other words, treating the phenomenological reality – the one we experience – as the only meaningful reality is an effective means to the end of several benefits:

  • It makes us more open to what we don’t know about the world, and less likely to jump to conclusions; more capable of resting in “don’t know mind.”
  • It can help bring us to peace with the world – since we feel ourselves to be it in our subjectivity, from the inside out.
  • It can help us take appropriate responsibility for what happens in our phenomenal world since we are so intimate with it.
  • It can enable us to treat important contents of awareness – such as perceived images of celestial beings – as real, just as real as the perception of an orange in our hand. By giving them that heft of “real reality,” we naturally become more open to their influences.

You can find versions of both the strong and the subtle view of Subjective Oneness in Vedanta, and in the Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) strands of Buddhism – especially the emphasis on this view as a skillful means to awakening, independent of whether it is actually true.

In these traditions, the logical extension of the radically subjective view – combined with Objective Oneness, that recognizes the emptiness of the apparent individual self – gets us to our next subject, Transcendental Oneness.

Transcendental Oneness – “God is the spoon.”

In this view, “Thou art That.”

By whatever name – the Deathless, God, the Divine, the Mystery, the One Self, Buddha Nature – something/some process/some consciousness/some bliss/some..?? Transcendental is the Ground of both the material and the mental realms.

It infuses these realms and is them in a fundamental way.

It is the underlying nature of the universe and consciousness. All apparent physical and mental phenomena are simply the play of the Transcendental.

They are all, at the bottom, the Transcendental. It is in this sense that Ramana Maharshi said, “There are no others.”

Commonly, this union of conventional reality and Transcendental Ground is most immediately sensed in the meeting of personal, psychoneurologically rooted awareness and universal Awareness.

Our understanding is that much nondual psychotherapy is the facilitation of that meeting.

Our personal belief is that there is indeed a transcendental oneness that contains material and subjective oneness, and all apparent dualities. We can think of nothing more important or more sublime than to become ever more transparent to that Light, ever more animated by that blissful Love.

In terms of the brain, two capabilities stand out as useful for that process, which are aspects of the two central subjects of this essay:

  • Abiding steadily as awareness
  • Releasing the self

And if one stops short of presuming a transcendental principle – which is certainly an intellectually respectable position, as well as one’s right – it is still valuable to become increasingly capable of steady awareness and self-release within the frames of ordinary duality, objective oneness, and subjective oneness.

Be still.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your

to the living walls.

Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?

Thomas Merton

The Nondual Brain

So, to re-cap the central points of the discussion in Part One of the neurology of awareness, from a nondual perspective:

  • Awareness is produced by physical structures and processes within the brain.
  • The architecture of those structures and processes is built up in layers, moving from simple to complex, that track our evolutionary history.
  • Much as there is a continuum within the animal kingdom of the neurological machinery enabling awareness, there is likely a continuum among animal species of awareness capacities – and thus a continuum of the experience of awareness . . . from the awareness of a spider to that of a dog to that of anyone here in this room.
  • Within the brain, many sub-systems work together to enable awareness. There is no single place where awareness is constructed within your brain – or inside the brain of a dog or a shark.
  • That which is represented and the representing of it within the nervous system co-occur in the brain. This is remarkably consistent with what the Buddha taught with regard to the elemental moment of experience he called “contact,” which he defined as the meeting of sense-object, sense-organ, and sense-consciousness: the known and the knowing co-arise based on preceding causes and conditions.
In other words, within the normal functioning of the brain, there is no awareness without an object of awareness.

The object of awareness may be the quiet background hum of bodily maintenance activities, such as the “nadi sound” that Ajahn Sumedho refers to, which is likely the resonant frequency of some of the auditory circuitry of the brain.

Or even more subtly, in the “formless jhanas” described in the Buddhist canon, the object may be “the base of infinite space,” or “neither-perception-nor-no-perception.”

It is noteworthy that even in these profound, even mystical states, there is still always an object of awareness – and never awareness without an object.

It is only when one moves beyond the jhanas, into what is called cessation, that one enters territory that is by definition indescribable – perhaps all that can be said is that you’re not in Kansas anymore! And that the ordinary mental and neural processes of awareness are suspended.

And from a much more down to earth, purely evolutionary perspective, this integration of awareness and object within the brain makes sense, since there is little to no apparent survival benefit in being purely aware.

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2007


This is the second-half of Part Two from Rick Hanson’s six-part series.

Introduction- The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Introduction

Part One- The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part One

Part Two- The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part Two

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