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Non-Dual Perspectives on Awareness

The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part Two
by Dr. Rick Hanson

Non-Dual Perspectives on Awareness

Part Two: Non-dual Perspectives on Awareness

. . . consciousness, or awareness, and its object are one. – Stephen Bodian


In the non-dual literature, the terms duality, nonduality, and awareness can mean different things in different contexts.

We found that a little confusing, plus it makes it easier to stumble into what the Buddha called “a thicket of views.” So we thought it would be helpful to clarify these four domains:

  • Ordinary Duality
  • Objective Oneness
  • Subjective Oneness
  • Transcendental Oneness
Defining the Four Domains

In brief:

  • Ordinary Duality refers to the everyday distinctions apparent in the world between things such as hand and cup, wolf and rabbit, and sperm and egg. All life requires a fundamental distinction between organism and environment. The brain operates fundamentally through the distinction between excitatory and inhibitory processes, and through distinctions between the functions of different parts of it.

For mental health, some dualisms are beneficial, such as those involving theory of mind – that the inner states of other people can differ from those of oneself. Other dualisms are harmful, such as setting parts of the self against each other.

  • Objective Oneness refers to the fundamental property of all the contents of the physical universe that they all arise interdependently, with no absolute distinctions between any of them. Consequently, as we shall see, the world and the body and the brain and the mind are all one . . . not dual.
  • Subjective Oneness refers to the integration of the contents and processes of mind. It can also reflect a kind of philosophical position that the apparent physical, objective reality does not actually exist but is entirely made up by mind in some metaphysical way. The subtle version of Subjective Oneness is that the physical universe exists, but it is a skillful means to relate to it entirely as it is constructed and represented in the mind by the brain.
  • Transcendental Oneness refers to the view of reality that underpins numerous religious traditions, including Vedanta in Hinduism, Dzogchen and other schools of thought within Buddhism, and some forms of Christian mysticism, as well as recent expressions in teachers such as Nisargadatta, Adyashanti, Byron Katie, Adi Da, and Ken Wilber. To quote Richard Miller:
  • I use the concept, Awareness, interchangeably with Consciousness, Presence, Being, Unborn, True Nature, Self, and God to represent the non-mental, nonphysical ground that everything is made of.

Ordinary Duality – “I am not the spoon.”

As we all know, at one level of analysis, dualities clearly exist. For example, past is distinct from present, the wolf is not the rabbit, we walk through the door instead of the wall, and we put the spoon in the hot soup but not the hand.

The sensible, or wholesome, usage of dualities enables all living beings to exist, including humans.

In physical terms, from viruses and protozoa on up to dinosaurs and NFL linebackers, every successful organism needs to maintain a kind of boundary between inside and outside.

It needs that boundary to organize internal states, to protect itself from its environment, and to define a kind of platform – a “secure base,” in the terms of developmental psychology – from which it can act upon its environment and get what it needs from it.

In short, that boundary establishes a fundamental dualism of “self” and “world” that is absolutely necessary for survival. We are here in this room today because our ancestors maintained that dualism and because we ourselves have maintained it throughout our lives.

In neurological terms:
  • There is a fundamental distinction between excitatory and inhibitory neuronal activity. At the micro-level of individual synapses, and at the macro-level of large-scale circuits comprising billions of synapses interacting together, the brain is essentially organized by that distinction between excitation and inhibition.
  • Different regions of the brain have different functions. For example, one small portion of your left temporal lobe is responsible for generating complex speech while another small portion is responsible for comprehending complex speech.
  • Signals are distinguished from a background field of ongoing noise.

In psychological terms, numerous activities are based on the presumption of dualistic distinctions in the physical world, and the presumption of an individual self distinct from the world and other individual selves.

Many of these have wholesome results. For example, to take just three:

  • Agency – The organism must act upon the world if only to swat away the fly or bring the baby to the breast. That requires an actor distinct from the object upon which it acts.

Further, through their use of tools, humans have refined agency to an extraordinary degree: the one stone is used to chip the other into a blade, the blade is used to sharpen a stake into a spear, the spear is used to hunt and kill the deer for dinner.

  • Theory of mind – The important developmental accomplishment by age 4 or so that recognizes that other people have mental states distinct from one’s own. Similarly, empathy – so beautiful and so important for a human life – has its power because we “feel felt” by another person.
  • Unilateral virtue – When we resolve to be kind no matter how others act, that distinguishes self from other selves. Similarly, when we commit ourselves to anything – such as making the Bodhisattva vow or taking refuges – that is meaningful precisely because a particular person is identifying with, claiming ownership of, those aspirations.

On the other hand, we know as well that many aspects of psychological duality have unwholesome results. As a quick sampler, consider:

  • Setting self against the world (e.g., trying to make the impermanent permanent, not accepting what is).
  • Setting self against other selves (e.g., “us” vs. “them,” harsh speech, contentiousness with others).
  • Setting self against self (e.g., disowning or repressing parts of the psyche, being ashamed of parts of oneself).
  • The three poisons named in Buddhism – greed, hatred, and delusion – all involve dualities.

Objective Oneness – “My hand and the spoon are one.”

Of course, the dualities we just explored are all contained within several kinds of non-dualities, or kinds of oneness.

First, there is what one might call “Objective Oneness.”

This is what we see when we consider the universe in its physical, and physically-based qualities, and take the philosophical stance called “Materialism” that there is an objective reality which includes our body and brain.

For example, as observed by many people, including the Buddha, Einstein, quantum physicists, and many poets: everything is connected to everything else. Nothing in the physical universe arises entirely on its own, but depends on preceding causes and conditions.

For example, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, and the oxygen we breathe were all born in the heart of an exploding star 5 to 10 billion years ago.

As a result, nothing has an inherent, absolute self-nature, so all apparent dualities are “empty.”

This means that there is no ultimate distinction between one person and another, between, let’s say, you and your best friend, between therapist and client, between Democrat and Republican, and so on.

There is no “us” and “them.” It’s all “us.”

In the same way, our bodies are not fundamentally separate from the environment. They depend on continuing exchanges of energy and matter – which are, as we know, themselves one – with the environment.

Similarly, the brain is not fundamentally separate from the rest of the body which feeds and breathes and carries and protects it.

Therefore, the brain is not separate from the world. In a deep sense, the brain and the world are one.

And as we have written about extensively elsewhere (see www.WiseBrain.org), the most prevalent, scientific view of the mind and the brain is that they are also one integrated system.

This means, of course, that the mind and the world are also one unified process.

The mind – including much mental activity we will never be aware of – is continually stimulated by the world, continually receives the world. And it acts upon the world in turn, including through action plans built up from lower-level activities both inside and outside the field of awareness.

The mind and world are one. Not based on a mystical view, but the conclusion of a straightforward empirical, scientific analysis.

There are many pathways to realizing this experientially, even to the point of being liberated permanently from the illusion of self as fundamentally separate from the world.

The clear conviction derived from your own reasoning that mental activity apparently “in here” – sensing, thinking, feeling, wanting, etc. – is truly not apart from the physical movements of the world “out there” can serve you greatly in just about all of those paths of liberation.

And, to make the obvious point in passing, all of the apparent dualities named a little earlier are contained within Objective Oneness.

We might also add that the view of Objective Oneness is the one that predominates in the Pali Canon (Pali being the language in which the earliest surviving record of the discourses of the Buddha were written), which is the basis for the Theravadan strand of Buddhism (which also includes many streams of teaching from the perspectives of Subjective and Transcendental Oneness).

In terms of everyday personal psychology, regarding the mind and brain as a unified process grounded in material reality can promote benefits such as:

  • Accepting, including all aspects of self, all contents in awareness. Not disowning, not repressing. A sense of being undivided.
  • Emphasizing the direct, embodied awareness of experience, with minimal conceptualization of it.
  • Finding rest, peace, and insight in abiding as choiceless awareness, conscious of the various contents of mind without grasping after or resisting any one of them.

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2007


This is Part Two of a six-part series.

Part One: The Evolution of Awareness

Part Two Continued- Non-Dual Perspectives on Awareness

Part Three- Taking the Body for a Walk

Part Four- The Neurology of “Self”

Part Five- The Evolutionary Origins of Self

Part Six- Transcending the Self

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