The Primordial Confusion: How to See Nonduality in Duality

Life begins with and flows through the stream of experience. A permanent and necessary structure of this experience is that it is always the experience-of something that appears to be outside the experiencer. In phenomenology this is appropriately phrased as the transcendent nature of the objects of experience: things are always presented to consciousness as if they were outside of it. This chair, this table, that cup, etc., are all perceived to be “actually there.” This is the most obvious thing so that we don’t bother to even think or wonder about it. But the mystery, and the ultimate mystery, is always in the most obvious things. Truth is hidden in plain sight.

So, the mark of all experience is that it is an experience of something that seems to be transcendent to consciousness. Being transcendent, to be “out there,” and to appear to exist independently of the subject, is something so unquestionably accepted that we don’t recognize that it as prefigured into the nature of all conscious experience; we naively assume that it’s just the way the world is. But isn’t the world itself something we’re constantly conscious of? Isn’t the being of the world given to us in and through this same stream of consciousness? When we make a decision to study the world and its makeup (as in empirical sciences) we’re still moving through this same stream, in and through consciousness. But isn’t it absurd to use our empirical findings, i.e. the findings of consciousness, to try to explain the nature of consciousness! The data of empirical sciences are ultimately that data of consciousness, for science is done by human beings, it’s performed in and through and psyche of conscious agents. These empirical findings, whether in psychology or neuroscience, may give us useful, theoretical or practical, knowledge about the mind or the brain, or about world in general, all of which are contents of consciousness, but can they illuminate what consciousness is? To use the findings by consciousness about its content to explain consciousness itself is like trying to bite your own teeth. It can’t be done.

Thus, to become closer to the nature and origin of consciousness it would only make sense, at first, to cease looking in the wrong place, that is, looking among the objects that are constituted inside consciousness, to cease looking for consciousness in a world that is itself known and held in place in and through consciousness. The first stage is to stop looking outside and instead try inspecting and recognizing the universal structure of experience as such. Perhaps there’s a clue there that can tell us more about consciousness than anything else. A good starting point, as indicated in the beginning, is to recognize that it’s the mark of all conscious experience that it is an experience-of something appearing to be outside of consciousness. And we are all intimately familiar with this power of consciousness, for every time we dream, we have a conscious experience of a world (our own mind) that’s projected “outward” as if things are “out there,” an out-there that upon waking up we realize wasn’t really there. But what is this “out there”? It’s a transcendental meaning or mode by which consciousness reenacts its own content. Pure consciousness must differentiate itself from itself (the first split or duality) polarizing itself into a subject and an object (the world or the totality of the content of consciousness), and this object must necessarily be presented, or experienced, as outside of the subject. So the “out there” is not really out there in space but rather it’s the ineffable and unexplainable experience of space or separation itself. Space is that phenomenological non-entity that is perceived, of course not by the senses, in order to produce the illusory effect of transcendent objects.

So this feature of consciousness, that all consciousness is consciousness-of something “other” than and transcendent to consciousness, is what I call the Primordial Confusion. Experience always begins with the acceptance of this transcendence as ontological fact, as beings that are actually out there; to begin with this state of naive acceptance of transcendence, this is the primordial confusion. It is primordial because it has no beginning. We don’t begin experiencing nonduality and then make a distinction between subject and the world. Experience always begins with this presupposition always already in effect. However, though this confusion has no beginning, it can have an end. It’s possible to realize and see directly for ourselves the ultimate immanence of all things, and this is none but what mystics and philosophers have named ultimate realization or nondual experience.

What is the confusion about? It’s, according to a Vedantic Maxim, a confusing of the real with the unreal. There are multiple ways of addressing this confusion, perhaps as many ways as there are traditions and philosophies. Some have used terms such as “being”, “independent existence”, “awareness,” etc.. But precisely because of the overuse of these words, they have picked up misleading connotations and have created unwanted erosions in those philosophies rendering them less effective than originally formulated and intended. I personally like to reframe this primordial confusion as the confusing of the things (objects of consciousness, be it physical, mental, or spiritual objects) with their realness.

Reflecting on our immediate experience, and the stream of consciousness in general, it becomes clear that we are not just aware of objects, such as trees and people and other things. We do experience them as what they are, in their essence, but also as being real. The realness of things is an unquestionable and always present component of any conscious experience. Other ways that this realness is phrased include “the being-there-ness” or “existing independently.” But I’d like to avoid terms such as being and existence for reasons mentioned above, so instead I emphasize the realness as a necessary component of experience of things. This is not about whether things are actually there or not, whether a perception is actual or a hallucination. Even in cases of illusion or hallucination, the thing is at that moment experienced as real. In fact, if there was no realness component, things such as illusions and hallucinations wouldn’t be possible which are not experiences of unreal things but experience of misplaced reality.

The goal is emphasize, and to reflect on or contemplate, this realness over and against the content that we take to be real. With a bit of reflection it should become clear that the realness is not a property of objects. We don’t experience a collection of distinct realities, for even the distinction itself is experienced as real, as truly out there and existing independently of us. For example, we experience space and time itself, which are not things but conditions, as real in a unique sense. So, it should become clear that the reality which we always attribute to things don’t really belong to things themselves but to the fabric of experience. Wherever we turn, wherever the “I” orients itself, it perceives reality, an indivisible whole that’s falsely seen to belong to objects experienced. Even when we are experiencing unpleasant feelings, pain and suffering, we can turn our glance to the realness of the experience and become curious about it instead of accepting that the suffering or pain is actually out there, perhaps questioning with open curiosity the very ambiguous notion of “out there.”

It’s also possible to see, through reflection, that this realness that is wrapped around all facets of experience, is not something that is itself here and around you, as something in the world, as if realness itself was a thing and a part of the world. The world as a totality of things is always given and fused (or better, confused) with realness, so it’s the experience of the world that is deemed as real; this realness is neither here nor there; it just is; it’s not in time or space, has no dimension and can’t be conceptualized; it can only be seen and realized to be something falsely attributed to things but is in truth the nature of pure consciousness.

Turning the gaze of consciousness from its content to the realness that’s always present is the first step toward ultimate realization and nondual experience in which one realizes that the content of consciousness has the status of imagined reality, and that the superimposed/misplaced reality belongs truly to the subject, to the “I.” In short, the “I” and the “realness” of things are one and the same thing, and they are in fact one and the same thing as what mystics such as Eckhart have equated with the Godhead or God’s essence. They spoke within a religious context and out of the demands of the times. However, there’s nothing mystical or supernatural about this experience. What has been termed or experienced as god is really nothing but the experience of the pure “I” or the realness of things as above and beyond things themselves. So, the god of tradition is really not a supreme being or a creator; it’s the realness of things, which is experienced wherever you turn. The realness is in all things and yet transcendent to them, and there’s no wonder god is traditionally conceived of as both transcendent and immanent.

To awaken to this reality, to the sense of realness as something distinct from that which is falsely deemed real, one must train oneself to withdraw the gaze of consciousness from the apparently real content and turn that gaze toward the realness of that content. To see that the source of this realness is not the objects of experience; but rather these objects borrow this realness from us, from the “I.” That’s why wherever there’s “I”, there is also “realness” or sense of reality, and wherever the “I” is absent, there’s no such experience of realness. In dreams, the “I” is present and hence there’s experience of reality which we falsely attribute to objects in the dream; and in dreamless sleep where there’s no “I” there’s also no experience of reality or realness. Without this dimension of realness, there cannot be experience. The realness illuminates contents of consciousness, and hence producing experience, in the same way that light illuminates the seen objects. Visibility or being seen is not a property of objects but rather is mediated by light which is other than objects.

And so what? The ramifications are huge. We live our lives in a lot of fear and resistance. Upon closer investigation, we realize that it’s not situations that we fear but rather their realness. For example, the same challenge and drama that we avoid in our lives, we pay for to watch it on Netflix or in the theater. So it’s not the content of consciousness that makes us afraid but rather the realness of it, i.e. our own realness. As a bystander, the drama is actually rather attractive or even exciting but when it seems to affect us, when we directly experience its realness, that’s when we step back and hide and escape the world. But when we realize that realness belongs to us rather than the things outside us, when we realize that we are that realness itself, it’s only then that we become fearless, for we know that realness can’t hurt itself. Realness just is and and it is us. And that’s why he said “that which doesn’t kills us makes us stronger,” for when we face realness with courage and open heart we become even more real, which is in truth a case of reclaiming our own reality which we had lent to things outside of ourselves.

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