Nondualism in the Clinic: Can Psychotherapy Help Two People Find the One Reality?

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A basic premise of the book is that a client’s essential, nondual nature can be reflected back to him or her by the therapist, hence the metaphor of the mirror in the title of the book, as well as in Prendergast’s own chapter, “The Sacred Mirror: Being Together.” Sheila Krystal elaborates on this idea in her chapter, “A Nondual Approach to EMDR: Psychotherapy as Satsang,” referring to nondual therapy as the process in which “the Self meets itself in the sacred mirror of satsang.” She defines satsang as the “coming together in the company of God (as lovers of the truth) . . .”; which is to say, being in a loving relationship with God. Consequently, “The Sacred Mirror” is unusual as a clinical text, for it is willing to include God as a significant agent in the healing process—although most chapters remain tentative in this regard, preferring theistically neutral accounts of nondualism. Indeed, apparently because of its lack of reference to an explicit divinity, Buddhist nondualism dominates in “The Sacred Mirror”. With this approach, any potential controversy over the appearance of God in psychotherapy can be more readily side-stepped.

Time and again in my own clinical work, I have seen the benevolent effects of a spiritual communion that acknowledges and respects nonduality as its ultimate truth. To put it simply, love is the healing principle. Only in overcoming the divisive act of separation between people does love actually emerge into this difficult world. Nondual therapy can be understood as the intention of relinquishing one’s sense of being a separate self, allowing the living presence of love to embrace and pervade both client and clinician, replacing the sense of separation from which they each otherwise suffer. As this living presence informs their relationship, the wisdom of love inherent to each one’s own deepest being comes to the fore. In this way clinical practice becomes most auspicious for the client.

However, in therapy it is easy to confuse the experience of heightened human intimacy with that of the nondual reality. That being so, it is fair to ask whether the authors have succeeded in their efforts to establish nondualism as a viable base for clinical practice. It seems to me that in their attempt to make this most difficult material accessible to a contemporary clinical audience, they have fudged a little. Prendergast, for example, describes the transformations wrought in the client by nondual psychotherapy like this: “In time and without any conscious effort or intent we become like stained glass, more adequate forms for the transmission of light. Our individuality is liberated and enhanced as we knowingly share this common ground with all beings.” It seems misleading to speak in terms of liberating or enhancing one’s individuality, for egoic individuality is precisely what is transcended in nondualism. Likewise, becoming stained glass (which, almost by definition, is multicolored and therefore suggests form or defination)  is a questionable metaphor. The realization of the nondual state is better understood as the realization of the very Light Itself.

The literal translation of the Sanskrit term advaita, from the initial Indian spiritual tradition of nondualism, is not-two, more commonly referred to simply as Oneness.  However, there are two very different types of Oneness found in spiritual literature: (1) holism, in which we are connected to or intimately a part of some larger spiritual reality, while retaining our distinct identity; and, (2) nondualism, in which are sense of being a separate self disappears completely and we realize that we literally are this larger reality. Overall, “The Sacred Mirror” favors the former over the latter. In doing so, it would appear that “The Sacred Mirror” is not so much offering an innovation of psychotherapy, as merely elaborating on psychotherapy that is already taking place.

Humanistic and existential psychotherapies advocate holism, not nondualism. They speak of treating the “whole person”. Transpersonal psychotherapies also generally align with holism, although they expand the term’s reference to include spiritual dimensions. Stanley Krippner offers a particularly compelling definition of this latter sense: “[A]n individual’s sense of identity appears to extend beyond its ordinary limits to encompass wider, broader, or deeper aspects of life or the cosmos—including divine elements of creation.” Abraham Maslow tends to speak in terms of “peak experiences”, in which one’s awareness of reality is suddenly heightened to include ecstatic and perhaps even mystical states. Likewise, Carl Rogers feels that life has the potential for transcendental intuitions that increase our capacity for healing. He describes moments in therapy in which “my presence is releasing and helpful to the other . . .. [I]t seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger.”

These are the kinds of experiences described in Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal’s book. Although their work may add to the techniques of psychotherapy, all this stops short of authentic nondual states, however much the authors advocate their innovations as manifestations of nondual wisdom. In reality, what they are describing seems more akin to the temporary states—heightened well-being, feelings of intimate relatedness, or even, on occasion, mystical absorption—that most spiritual traditions have long regarded as well short of nondual Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, “The Sacred Mirror” never clearly differentiates the valid but non-ultimate experiences of associated with holism from the more profound nondual intuition of our native egolessness. Theirs is an understandable mistake, for nondualism in no way excludes the experiences characteristic of holism. As Prendergast puts it: “While essentially without qualities, [nondual reality is] commonly experienced as being vast, free, spacious, heartfelt, and present-centered. Many people report feeling a subtle joy, love, compassion, peace, gratitude, and sense of connectedness with all of life when they directly attune with it.” Clearly, these attributes resonate with the most ordinary and common goals of clinical practice.

One way to resolve the ambiguity between holism and nondualism is by contemplating a familiar experience: the sense of us. It is precisely the sense of us that is emphasized throughout “The Sacred Mirror”. For example, John Welwood’s chapter, “Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience,” even pays homage to Martin Buber’s vision of the I-Thou relationship: “The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.” This orientation to intimacy understands the human psyche in the manner of holism, in which you and I maintain our individuality but relax into a kind of communion with one another, a sense that we form a greater or larger whole. We become an us. In nondual realization, however, “you and I” drop out altogether. To the nondual realizer you literally are me. From this point of view, holism only approximates nondualism.

In a sense, holism could be thought of as preliminary or transitional to nondualism. That Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal should conflate the two doesn’t invalidate the holistic approach toward treatment they advocate, just so long as we understand its limitations. Indeed, “The Sacred Mirror” could be thought of as specializing in the holistic contact point of a bridge they are building to nondualism. Although the healing agencies they invoke may not be full-borne advaita, they clearly are of real value.

There is a feature of nondualism often overlooked in the standard view that merely defines nondualism as not-two. In his book, “Vedanta and Christian Faith”, the late Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths used a traditional formula to define the essential features of the nondual Godhead: “Ultimate reality can be said to be comprised of certain discernible attributes: . . . ‘sat’—being, ‘cit’—consciousness, and ‘ananda’—bliss . . .” This benevolent set of attributes—the living presence of free awareness and love—has clinical application. Effective clinical practice seems to follow the formula “the greater the awareness, the greater the love”. Like most clinical texts, “The Sacred Mirror” is self-conscious about directly addressing love as a viable therapeutic intervention. Occasionally, love is mentioned in a nondual sense, as when Fenner, building on a Buddhist orientation toward nondualism, states: “Another way in which the unconditioned mind unites with conditioned existence is through the union of love and wisdom . . .. The capacity to identify [with the client] is love. The capacity to disidentify is wisdom,”. The book’s only specific reference to love as an essential aspect of the nondual process, however, appears in an interview with Adyashanti in a chapter titled, “Love Returning for Itself.” Unfortunately, even this chapter is pretty short on instructions for therapists. In “The Sacred Mirror” love remains a largely unthematized idealism.

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