A simple way of thinking about spirituality is that there is an outer practice, an inner practice and a non-dual practice1. When you have all three your spirituality will really flourish.
Let’s explore these three levels and reflect on how they apply to our own practise.
This is the outer form of the religion or spiritual practice. It includes the rituals, images of the divine, the holy books, prayers, commentaries, community, language and customs.
It also includes how we visualise the divine as separate from ourselves: Jesus on the cross or at the resurrection, or a Buddha floating in the sky, or some abstract image of God. How do you imagine the divine? If you want to pray, who do you pray to and how do you visualise him, her or it?
Inner practice is how you transform the experience in your body into an experience of your divine nature. How do you experience the divine in your body? How do you experience your own body as a temple of the divine? If God is everywhere, God is in your body. How can you transform difficult feelings in your body into something that feels more aligned with life? How do you grow love in your heart? How can you share your own experience of being divine with someone else, seeing them as divine? In a marriage or committed relationship, is your love-making a meeting of the divine in you, with the divine in them?
In Buddhism, consciousness itself is considered to be the Buddha, your Buddha-nature. Consciousness often gets represented as clarity or luminosity and thus, each nerve ending in the body can be seen as a point of light. As consciousness itself is the Buddha, then each nerve ending is a Buddha. Your body is thus a Buddhafield. The problem is that we have forgotten our true nature. Even though our true nature has been covered by a thick film of residue from our difficult experiences of life, underneath all of that our true nature is pristine, pure and untarnished. In theistic language, God is your divine nature and although your experiences of the world may have tarnished you, your underlying divinity remains pristine.
Mindfulness and meditation in all the mystical traditions of the world leads to an experience where there is no inner and no outer, no me and no you. Everything is one. Time disappears, there is no past and future just the pristine eternal moment, no cause and effect and therefore, no suffering. This isn’t Nirvana (heaven), but beyond conceptualisation of either Nirvana (heaven) or Samsara (the world of suffering). With such freedom, bliss naturally arises, and compassion for all the people and beings around you who continue to suffer.
This can only be discovered through the experience of worship and or the practice of meditation and attempts to describe this rationally are superficial at best. As the poet and playwright Samuel Beckett said, “Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”². So, superficially speaking…
In Buddhism, Awareness (consciousness) itself is the Buddha, or Buddha- nature. Given that the only way we can perceive the universe is through consciousness, consciousness is everywhere. Everything is God³. Through the practice of meditation, a great mystery is resolved: The universe arises out of emptiness, the space from which phenomena arises. Yet this great space of phenomena, which we might called God, can only be perceived through Mind (awareness or consciousness). Everything arises as Mind. Buddhism makes a distinction between the “little mind” of rational thinking and the “vast” mind of awareness.
In the Christian contemplative tradition, an anonymous 14th Century monk wrote The Cloud of Unknowing as a guide to non-dual practice to a younger monk. “The cloud of unknowing” is when you face directly into God without any concepts. You then wait for God to penetrate through this cloud to meet you. This meditation is combined with a process of letting go of theological concepts that the author calls “the cloud of forgetting”. Your meditation gets paired down to a “a naked intent direct to God… without anything else”.
“Lift up your heart to God with a gentle stirring of love. Focus on him alone. Want him, and not anything he’s made. Think of nothing but him. Don’t let anything else run through your mind and will. Here’s how. Forget what you know. Forget everything God made and everybody who exists and everything that is going on in the world until your thoughts and emotions aren’t focused on reaching towards anything…”4
Do you have a mindfulness or formless meditation practice? Have you experienced moments of the non-dual?
As soon a you notice the non-dual, you are being dualistic again, distinguishing dualistic experience from non-dual experience. If you say “Oh! I have just experienced ‘everything is one’” then you have a subject “I”, an object “everything is one” and a verb “experienced”. You are in the dualistic realm again. Tricky, eh?
What you have recognised is the footprint left behind by the non-dual.
Nevertheless, over time, the many moments when you recognise this footprint builds confidence in the non-dual, and confidence is key to learning to rest in it.
Garab Dorje, founder of the Dzogchen tradition in Buddhism says5 that first we must directly meet our own nature (Buddha-nature, God, or Awareness). Then we have to make a single decision that there is nothing else other than Awareness (Buddha-nature or God). Thirdly, we have to develop confidence that through resting in Awareness (Buddha-nature or God), all the difficulties of our life will be resolved and we will be free.
So how does this relate to you?
• Are you a religious person – mainly an outer practitioner?
• Or an inner practitioner, a yogi?
• Or do you have a mystical orientation, seeking to be a non-dual practitioner?
Most people are some combination of the three.
How could you deepen your practice? Which of these elements would be useful to you?
It is worth noting that every religion or spiritual tradition has outer, inner and non-dual practices, but the easiest way to find all three in one community is to look for the non-dual schools, as they will also have outer and inner teachings. It is hard to be just a non-dual practitioner – we need an outer practice and community, and that involves having a language and a way of talking about the practice. It will probably have teachings or practices on how to deal with emotions, the body and sexuality, which is inner practice.
For example, I participate in retreats with Movement of Being6, an embodied awareness school which teaches a very direct approach to observing awareness itself. Yet there is an outer community, a descriptive language, some simple frameworks, meditation structures, paired exercises (which they like to call “inquiries” rather than exercises) and a group sharing format where we sit in a circle and debrief inquiries. They have a particular approach to being in the body and emotions that is similar to humanistic psychotherapy, yet different from the energy systems of the East. They have distinct outer, inner and non-dual practices. Also, you may have realised by now that we need training in non-dual practices. Colin Harrison of Movement of Being runs a retreat called “Nowhere to Go” and my joke is that you have to go somewhere (to attend the workshop) so you can go nowhere.
This article is part of a series of articles and if you are interested in the topic of spirituality, you may want to read the others in this series. These blogs are being written to create the material for the fourth part of the Life Talent book which I am currently in the process of writing. The four principles are 1: Make the most of yourself and your psychological resources; 2: Overcome obstacles to happiness and success; 3: Take action; 4: Feel the support of life itself.
Articles in this series include on 4: Feel the support of Life itself include:
…As well as others still to be conceived of and written.
Let me know if you have any feedback, advice, thoughts or questions!
1. Buddhists usually refer to this as “outer, inner and secret”, but without providing additional explanation on what they mean by “secret” it seems to me simpler, for westerners at least, to call it “non-dual”, which describes the essence.
2. Gruen, J. (1960). Samuel Beckett Talks About Beckett. Vogue Magazine, December 1960, p.210.
3. Michaelson, J. (2009). Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism. Boston [etc.]: Trumpeter.
4. Butcher, C. (2018). The Cloud of Unknowing. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala.
5. Garab Dorje (n.d.). Three Words Striking the Essence. [online] Available at: http://jungcircle.com/mist/buddhism.htm [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].