Many of us who are attracted to nonduality messages can't explain why we became interested in the first place. We may be fed up with certain aspects of life, or have a nagging realization that our models of reality are not valid and will never lead to peace and harmony. Some are introduced to nonduality after they have gone through a specific crisis that opened them up to new possibilities.
At the beginning of our exposure to nonduality, what we read and hear might sound like lunacy. So much of what we took to be real is now being questioned. As the investigation unfolds, our beliefs are being demolished, and we are thrown into "not knowing." All of our apparent foundations are crumbling, making room for a new way of seeing.
The wild thing about nonduality is that amidst the chaos that arises initially, there is something in us that knows we are being introduced to the truth about ourselves. This doesn't always happen until there is some openness to investigate our true nature. It seems possible to "bail out" of nonduality teachings if you are not open and willing to investigate. But once you even start to engage in an honest inquiry, you wind up being hooked.
Once hooked, there are signs along the way to keep our attention on the nonduality messages, and that allow us to continue even when confusion and discomfort arises.
For me, one of the most important early signs came from reading books by Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle. I was led somehow to pick up the book, Loving What Is (Three Rivers Press) by Byron Katie (often referred to as "Katie"). Katie, while in her mid-40s, was in a dark, deep depression and full of rage. She checked into a halfway house for women.
One morning, she had been sleeping on the floor and woke up without any concept of who she was. She said "there was no me." All was well -- depression gone, rage gone. Something else was looking through her eyes but it was all joy and peace.
In an instant, and through no effort on her part, the individual identity had spontaneously combusted. She no longer saw herself as a body/mind, but rather as the Awareness or Consciousness in which this body/mind Katie was appearing. She has remained with that peace and joy for more than 20 years, and shares her insights through books and by conducting workshops around the world.
Then I was drawn to re-read Eckart Tolle's book, The Power of Now (New World Library). I read the book when it first came out about ten years ago, but it didn't mean much to me. I did the usual underlining throughout, but I wasn't ready to hear what he was saying.
About three years ago, when I picked up the book again, I was open to receive his message. In the Introduction, Tolle talks about a period in his life in his late 20s when he was suicidally depressed. One day he woke up early in the morning and felt intense dread and lost all desire to continue living.
He experienced intense fear and then it passed. He then found himself in a state of peace and bliss and the sense of personal identification had vanished. As he describes it, "what was left then was my true nature as the ever present I AM: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form."
Another spontaneous combustion of the personal identity! And here again, the individual, having lost the sense of personal identity came to a realization that what he or she is....is the Consciousness or Awareness in which all objects are appearing.
This was my reaction: This is so preposterous it has to be true.
Nobody could make up a story like this. "I was just minding my own business (or suffering or whatever) and I woke up to the fact that what I am is not the personal body/mind -- but rather an impersonal, intangible, field of Awareness which is peace and joy."
This is so preposterous, I thought, that it has to be true.
What is even more startling is that Katie and Eckhart claim that they had no spiritual teachers and didn't read spiritual books. It's not that they had been reading and studying about nonduality, Zen or eastern religious traditions. There were no apparent reference points in their conditioning to explain this incredible, sudden shift in their perspective.
Who could make up a story like this? And now I had read TWO of them. Simply preposterous.
Now, I could see someone claiming to be the second coming of Jesus. In fact, I have seen several people claiming this on the streets of New York City. These deluded people have a reference point for such a story. They have read or know about the Bible and are familiar with some of the beliefs of Christianity. They have some tools from which to concoct their story.
But how does someone with no background in nonduality come up with a story where the personal ego vanishes and there is a realization of the true nature as Awareness itself? I know I'm repeating myself, but it is truly mind boggling.
It is so preposterous.....it has to be true.
After reading the accounts of Katie and Eckhart, I went on the internet and found several more accounts (including interviews) with people who had this same experience. One moment the personal identity was there -- the next moment it had vanished. Most of the accounts I saw were from people who were not spiritual seekers and who had little or no exposure to anything resembling nonduality.
In most of these cases, the belief in the personal identity returned for some period of time. However, eventually, these people settled into a realization that their true nature is Awareness and not the personality or ego.
I also want to make it clear that those who have these realizations do not deny or run away from the personal identity. If you call these people by name, they will answer you. Their lives go on much like before; it's just that they realize their true position or essence is not the body/mind but rather the Awareness in which this amazing play is unfolding.
Of course, most people who are drawn to nonduality don't have a spontaneous combustion of the personal identity at the outset. The Katie and Eckhart instances are probably one in a billion, or close to that. I wouldn't recommend waiting for a spontaneous combustion of your ego.
On the contrary, most people who find themselves exposed to nondual teachings go through what appears to be a process, with a roller coaster of openings and insights, mixed with lots of frustration and confusion along the way. In the relative play of existence, it often takes years for the nondual realization to mature.
When I first read the accounts of Katie and Eckhart, what they said sounded preposterous. Now what they said seems entirely natural and resonates as truth, even though I haven't fully realized what they have come to see so clearly.
What now seems preposterous are the beliefs I held before about being a separate individual running around in a world of separate objects.