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

image Transpersonal psychology—the umbrella term for psychotherapies that view human beings as more than just skin-encapsulated egos—has greatly expanded the scope of human psychology. In his review “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”, a pioneering anthology about the application of nondualist spiritual views in the clinical circumstance, transpersonal psychologist D. B. Sleeth wonders if some practitioners are overreaching.

by D. B. Sleeth

For well over a half century—in an exotic, for some perhaps even quixotic, trend—Eastern spiritual doctrines have been finding their way into Western clinical psychology practice. In all likelihood, the first to hand-carry the message of Oriental mysticism to this country was Swami Vivekananda, a revered dark-skinned spokesman for India’s vast Hindu tradition. His eloquent, powerful, and unprecedented appearance at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 caused an immediate sensation, the effects of which are still reverberating today. In psychology, a steady stream of interpreters of Eastern mystical revelation have been hard at work, starting most notably with William James and Carl Jung. As a result of their and others’ spiritual insights, transpersonal psychology has come to be accepted as a formal member of the American Psychological Association. Continuing this tradition, John J. Prendergast, Peter Fenner, and Sheila Krystal have compiled an anthology of psycho-spiritual writings in “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”, bringing a much needed focus on nondualism, one of the most difficult mystical doctrines of all.

However, like many attempts to expose Western people to the core doctrines of Eastern mysticism, “The Sacred Mirror” offers an interpretation of their nondual teachings that highly transforms their original meaning, compounding the difficulty. What makes nondualism so troublesome is that it runs counter to our usual intuitions of reality.  Fundamentally, the problem Westerners have with nondualism is twofold: (1) its core contention that there no absolute separation between one person and another; and, (2) its controversial implication that there is no fundamental difference between the true self of the individual and the Ultimate Self or God. (Obviously, the Absolute of nondualism—whether it be described as Consciousness, Self, Void, or even “God”—is of an entirely different order than the Deity of the Semitic religions.)

“The Sacred Mirror” aims to explore the implications of nondualism for the practice of psychotherapy. It is an extremely difficult task, especially in Western culture. Where it is entertained at all, the notion that there is no ultimate separation between self and other is sometimes thought of as too abstract and even alien an idea to be useful in clinical practice. And the idea that human beings might, in their very nature, actually be divine is anathema to prevailing Western sensibilities. However, this is core contention and controversial implication of nondualism. Futher, perhaps surprisingly, nondual points of view can be found in Western mysticism. For example, a famous medieval Christian monk, Meister Eckhart, exhorted spiritual aspirants to his own highest intuition: “I discover that I and God are one.” But Meister Eckhart was severely chastised by the Holy Roman Church for his “heretical” views. Other nondual mystics have fared worse. Some have faced forced ritual “purification”, torture, or, as in the examples of Giordano Bruno and Mansour al-Hallaj, even death. Clearly, identifying the very Self of human beings with God (however conceived) is an extremely controversial claim. This is why nondualism has been kept something of a secret within Western spiritual traditions, if not held to be a pure heresy. As David Loy puts it in his excellent book on the subject, “Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy”: “[In the West,] claims about subject-object nonduality, like the broad mystical tradition where they have found their most comfortable home, have survived as a puzzling subterranean undercurrent . . . a seed which, however often sown, has never found fertile soil . . .”

Nevertheless, the notion that our usual presumption that the ego-self and its every other can and should be transcended is seriously entertained by the contributors to Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal’s daring attempt to introduce therapists to the potentially auspicious benefits of nondualism. In their introduction they tell us that all of the chapters were written for this volume by authors with first-hand familiarity with nondual awareness. In addition, many of them know each other and have participated in a living synergy through various contacts, including the presentation of their work at an annual conference, called “Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy”. The authors, who are either seasoned clinicians or established spiritual teachers, are quick to point out that this volume is neither synoptic nor gospel, but an exploration in progress, one that the reader is emphatically invited to join.

The nascent flowering of nondual wisdom now underway in the West is thought to represent new challenges and opportunities for the field of psychotherapy. Indeed, the authors suggest we are witnessing the emergence of an entirely new genre of psychotherapy. Prendergast makes this striking observation about the significance of this new genre: “Awakening nondual awareness adds a depth dimension to any of the existing schools of psychology, regardless of their orientation . . .. It is not so much that therapists integrate Being, as they are absorbed by it. As they more deeply attune with and embody the ground of Being, Presence is enhanced.” The author’s define “Presence” as “Being aware of Itself, whereby one’s ordinary sense of self and reality are literally nothing more than a dream from which we can potentially awaken. In fact, even while dreaming it is possible to be cognizant and thereby engage in lucid dreaming, the first stirring of nondual awareness.”

Clearly, the authors have chosen a formidable task: take the unusual mystical doctrine of nondualism and make it user-friendly for clinical service providers. To do so, the various chapters provide specific clinical techniques, or “skillful means”, whereby the clinician might effectively intervene with the client, enlisting the aid of traditional nondual practices. Peter Fenner suggests in his chapter, “Nonduality and Therapy: Awakening the Unconditioned Mind,” that the fundamental clinical goal of nondual psychotherapy is to awaken clients to their own true nature, which is thought to be the source of healing power. In fact, the unconditioned mind is said to be beyond suffering and ailment, literally, the very state in which healing occurs. We come to know our inherent nature through a letting-go or pruning process, similar to the idea of postmodern and phenomenological approaches to therapy. This approach is one with which Stephan Bodian explicitly concurs in his chapter, “Deconstructing the Self: The Uses of Inquiry in Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice.”
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.
Clinically, a host of therapeutic interventions build on the awareness/love equation, attesting to the essential role awareness and love play in the therapeutic process. In one guise or another, many of these appear in “The Sacred Mirror”. Interventions of this nature, which are common in clinical practice, are generally referred to as supportive technique, whereby the sense of us can be specifically engaged therapeutically. Examples include: accurate empathy and unconditional positive regard, mirroring and empathic immersion, focusing, communicative attunement, sensitivity to the intersubjective field, empathic resonance, gestalt awareness, and mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness could be thought of as the appropriate rubric for all of these approaches to developing awareness, which is no doubt why mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular as an intervention in clinical practice. Indeed, the infrequent references to mindfulness in “The Sacred Mirror” constitute a notable absence in the book.

Even so, “The Sacred Mirror” places an inordinate emphasis on awareness, either in the sense of concentrated, focused awareness (i.e., attention), or a more diffused, merely observing state referred to as “witness consciousness”. Leaving aside the authors’ likely confusions about the latter (most of what is described as witness consciousness seems much like the state of an intelligent and alert but nonetheless egoically identified observer), tt at no point does “The Sacred Mirror” come right out and state that love is the healing principle—or explain how love is directly related to awareness. “The Sacred Mirror” engages in a secondary focus that values a vague affective orientation on the part of the client, generally referred to by the following array of desirable attributes: equanimity, peacefulness, kindness, compassion, empathy, and occasionally even self-esteem. Perhaps the taboo in our culture and professional psychology against the appearance of love in therapy has made doing so too controversial for the contributors of this anthology.

In nondualism, the presumption of being a separate self not only misguided, it is impediment to love and happiness. In David Loy’s words: “[T]he nondualistic systems also agree that our usual sense of duality—the sense of separation (hence alienation) between myself and the world ‘I’ am ‘in’—is the root delusion that needs to be overcome.” Yet some contributors to “The Sacred Mirror” assume that this is a reductive, even anti-human view. For example, in her chapter, “Dancing with Form and Emptiness in Intimate Relationship”, Jennifer Welwood argues:

Love does indeed come from beyond us, from pure being, from the absolute source that shines through us and those we love. And the essence of love does involve a dissolving of the boundaries of separation. Yet, defining love purely as a mutual recognition of transpersonal being is incomplete and unsatisfying in human terms . . .. Nondual teachings that mainly emphasize the illusory quality of human experience can, unfortunately, serve as just another dehumanizing force in a world where our basic humanity is already under siege at every turn.

Unfortunately, this way of understanding nondualism takes away the very essence of what is it is to be nondual. Speaking equivocally about the separate self only undermines the ability to address its limitations. Yet, it is understandable how this objection might occur. Attaching meaning to experience is usually thought to be extremely important for human beings, perhaps even our most crucial enterprise. Nonetheless, it is precisely by putting our egoic humanity to the test, indeed, by ultimately transcending it, that the reality of nondualism can make its incontrovertible appearance—and, in doing so, replace our egoic complications with the divine healing properties of awareness and love.

In conventional approaches to psychotherapy, it is often thought that the objects or conditions of one’s love are the source of happiness. As the famed nondualist spiritual master Adi Da Samraj argues, however, being in possession of the objects of your love is not the source of happiness. Love, rather, requires a far more significant gesture of submission: we are obliged to give love—regardless of what happens as a result. Knowing this out front puts us in position of learning the essential lesson of life—which is not merely to be loved, or even to be loving toward this or that other, but to be unqualified love itself.

Ordinary clinical interventions attempt to improve our capacity to adapt to the conditions of ordinary life, but that does not put people directly in touch with the very source of love. Even spiritual orientations can confuse the issue. Simply put, there is an intimate—indeed, a nondual—relationship between awareness and love. The two are inseparable. They are born in us together when self and other truly yield to the greater Love.

In the words of Swami Vivekananda:

This mighty attraction in the direction of God makes all other attractions vanish for him; this mighty, infinite love of God which enters his heart with the divine waters of the Ocean of Love, which is God Himself; there is no place there for little loves . . .. He sees no distinctions; the mighty Ocean of Love has entered into him, and he sees not man in man, but beholds his Beloved everywhere . . .

Obviously, this represents a high standard for clinical practice! Indeed, it could be said that nondual psychotherapy is not really about being better adjusted or espousing a better social ideal—even if for the admittedly useful purpose of getting confused and willful people to behave better. Rather, the purpose of nondual psychotherapy is actually this: enlightenment. Certainly, such is the case for the spiritual traditions from which nondual doctrines are culled. It remains a very open question whether or not any therapeutic measures can measure up to this ultimate task.

Of course, it is perhaps not surprising that “The Sacred Mirror” should be reluctant to address such issues head-on. To date, nondual practices such as mindfulness have to be sanitized of any improper alliances with love, much less spiritual submission to be accepted into clinical practice. Nevertheless, to honor the nondual spiritual traditions from which such practices originate, both love and spirit must surely play as large a role in treatment as any other intervention. In so doing, therapy can perhaps further expand itself across the soul’s continuum. It should be enough for now to ask for the intimacy of a holism brave enough to kneel before the ultimacy of non-dualism, something “The Sacred Mirror” amply delivers.

D. B. Sleeth received an MA in humanistic and transpersonal psychology from Sonoma State University, an MA in counseling psychology from Argosy Graduate School in San Francisco, and a PhD in clinical psychology from Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. He currently practices family therapy with disadvantaged youth and young adults in Northern California. D.B. Sleeth lives with his wife of 11 years, both of whom are active members of Adidam, the spiritual community of the nondual spiritual master, Avatar Adi Da Samraj.

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