Q&A: Richard Sylvester, Author of Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers

New this September, Non-Duality Press presents Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers, the latest book from humanistic psychologist, therapist, and lecturer Richard Sylvester. With compassion, respect, provocation, and humor, the book explores non-duality from a variety of angles, addressing questions on a wide range of topics—from A Course in Miracles to gurus to madness to zen and so much more. Here, Sylvester provides answers to many of our questions about non-duality.

What does non-duality mean to you?

This is the briefest way I can sum up non-duality: There is no self. There is no separation. There is nothing to find and there is no one who seeks. There is only This, whatever is apparently happening. This is it and This is enough. There is unconditional love. If This is seen, it will be the end of what you think is your life.

Would you call non-duality a tradition, a philosophy, or a movement; a stage, an absolute, or something else?

As soon as we turn non-duality into a tradition, a philosophy, a movement, or even worse, into a religion, we have turned it into yet another story, like the story of Buddhism, the story of Christianity, or the story of Existentialism. Immediately we have deprived it of its aliveness and turned it into a dead thing, a thing which the mind now feels it can safely deal with.

All that can really be said is that non-duality is an attempt to describe what is seen when the self is seen through. As this is actually indescribable, this attempt must fail. I think it was Alan Watts who put this most neatly when he said he was “trying to eff the ineffable.”

Ultimately we could say that those like me who write or speak about non-duality can only offer pointers. Yet even here, if we’re being honest, we have to add that we are pointing at that which cannot be pointed at.

How does non-duality differ from other spiritual paths (if it can be considered such a path)?

Non-duality is not a spiritual path and the seeing of non-duality renders all spiritual paths redundant. Spiritual paths are invented by the mind as a way of filling up the time between birth and death. The easiest way for the mind to stay in control—which is where it wants to be—is to set up an impossible goal and then persuade us that it can help us to reach it.

To this end, the mind creates the idea of a higher self, which must be developed, and a lower self, which must be eschewed. Now we are engaged in a war of purification with ourself and the mind can amuse itself with this war for years.

But there is no higher or lower self. There is only This.

Do you subscribe to a direct-path or progressive approach to non-duality (or something else)?

There is no path to non-duality, either direct or progressive. How can we approach that which already is the case? How can we get closer to what we already are? Both direct and progressive paths are invented by the mind to entertain ourselves with. They may be particularly needed for this purpose on wet Sunday afternoons.

What do you see as the main areas of controversy in the world of non-duality?

The monkey mind will always create controversy and the closer people are to each other in their view of the world, the more fiercely they will fight each other over the minor distinctions in their beliefs. Freud called this “The narcissism of small differences.”

The main areas of controversy where non-duality is concerned could be summed up like this:

There is such a thing as liberation. There is no such thing as liberation.
There is such a thing as a path to liberation. There is no such thing as a path to liberation.

Endless arguments take place on the Internet over this, sometimes generating a great deal of “web rage,” which is the Internet equivalent of road rage. In this way the mind is kept busy and therefore happy. Meanwhile This just goes on being This and none of this controversy matters in the least.

One of your previous books is titled I Hope You Die Soon—what does that title mean to you?

At a time in my life when, like many other people, I experienced a considerable amount of despair, I sometimes talked to Tony Parsons, author of The Open Secret. One afternoon I went up to him after one of his meetings, as usual in despair, and he gave me a warm hug and said, “I hope you die soon.”

What he meant was that he hoped that my sense of self would die, or in other words that my sense of being a person would disappear so that I might see liberation. Later on, this seemed like an appropriate title for my first book about non-duality.

Another of your books is titled The Book of No One—what inspired that title?

When liberation is seen, it is seen by no one. Indeed, it is the very presence of the sense that “I am a person, a someone” which prevents liberation being seen. When the sense of self collapses, there liberation simply is. So again, it seemed an appropriate title.

What was the motivation for your new book, Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers?

I had no motivation in the usual sense. I have no teaching, path, or practice to offer. What’s more, if you come across someone writing or talking about non-duality who does offer a teaching, path, or practice, I’d suggest that you run away from them as fast as possible.

I am simply trying to describe something. And I enjoy writing, particularly if I am sitting in a comfortable leather armchair in a coffee bar. Many individuals had written to me with questions over the years and I felt that the answers I had given to all these individuals might be of interest to a wider readership.

I have now written four books about non-duality and I feel that Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers will probably be my last. The book I am writing at the moment is not about non-duality. Provisionally titled Confessions of a Seeker: Adventures in Spirituality, Therapy, and Belief, it gives a rather naughty account of my thirty years of seeking before I came upon non-duality. So it is quite different to my other books. I suppose it could be considered to be the prequel.

You could say my motive was to have fun. Or we could just say that writing the book simply happened, that it is a book about no one, written by no one.

Learn more about non-duality with Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answersavailable September 2016.

New Harbinger Is Proud to Announce Its Acquisition of Non-Duality Press

What’s New for Non-Duality Press?
This season, we’re happy to announce that Non-Duality Press has found a new home with New Harbinger Publications. For decades, New Harbinger has published books to help people heal, find balance, and live more fulfilling lives, promoting wellness in both body and mind. Now, New Harbinger is proud to offer support for the spiritual seeker and continue Non-Duality Press’s original mission—to provide authentic and accessible writing on the subject of non-duality, a term that comes from the Sanskrit word “Advaita,” meaning “not two.” Our emphasis is on the lived experience and the integration of insight and realization with the miraculous ordinariness of daily life.

Coming This Fall
This fall, we’re excited to bring you new books from some of non-duality’s leading voices, including Greg Goode, author of Standing as Awareness and The Direct Path; Richard Sylvester, author of The Book of No One and I Hope You Die Soon; Scott Kiloby, founder of the worldwide Living Inquiries community and cofounder of the Kiloby Center for Recovery; Fiona Robertson, a senior facilitator and trainer of the Living Inquiries; and Ilona Ciunaite, a Lithuanian-born tattoo artist and cocreator of the Liberation Unleashed forum.

These books provide clear and direct pointers to who you really are and what the world really is, encouraging you to explore within your own experience and draw your own conclusions about reality without the need to subscribe to traditional beliefs or rely on secondhand revelations. Whether based on explorations of respected traditions and philosophies, investigations of contemporary approaches, personal stories and intimate experiences, or some combination of these, each book points you toward the source of your own being, inviting you to look deeper, to question and learn—and to be compassionate and radically honest with yourself as you honor your history and your dreams while transitioning into an ease of being that is purely present, now and always.

Books and Posts and Events Arise
Non-Duality Press is proud to offer books and resources for anyone interested in non-duality. Whether you’re just beginning your journey on this transformational path or your seeking has come to an end, Non-Duality is for everyone. We’ll be using this blog to highlight the work of our authors and keep you posted with information about new books and events, so please check back here to stay up to date with us, and thank you for your continued support.

Coming Back to Life

by Richard Bates

Once I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. Then I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now… I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.
Adapted from a translation by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism

This statement, for me, signals the end of the road concerning the spiritual search. This is the whole point of everything that you have encountered on your journey. What drove you to seek and search was the promise of a sense of ease and fulfilment in your life. Basically, you wanted to be content and happy. You wanted to feel whole, rather than separate and divided. You wanted to interact with other people and with the world with more confidence and spontaneity. You wanted to be less anxious and less depressed. You wanted to love more and accept love from others without feeling undeserving of that love. You wanted to express your unique talents out into the world and have others respect you for who you are.

All of these things you can claim and enjoy now; mountains are mountains once again. It is vital you re-enter the world of appearances and enjoy every last bit of it. No longer are you trying to stay neutral and claim the world is illusory. The world is allowed to appear separate and you are allowed to interact with it as if it exists independently. Your journey has questioned the absolute nature of the world and exhausted every avenue to make sense of it. You’ve been scared of it, denied its existence and then been isolated from it once more. It’s time to enjoy it now and foster spontaneity. You have been on a quest to find yourself.

You’ve read this book and that book and sat in meetings where your questions were ‘answered’. The mental structures that were assembled to protect the child that you once were are no more use to you. You mature. You enter into the adult world with your head held high and feeling that you belong with everything that appears.

There is a sense that everything will be taken care of by life itself. The fear of death subsides. You no longer ask the mind to work it out for you. You are simply here because the world has produced you; the universe has produced you. You never asked for this; it simply happens.

Look at a new born baby with fresh eyes and see the miracle of life. It’s right under your nose. A baby has appeared, assembled from energy that has coalesced to form novelty and newness. Tiny fingers and toes, from matter and molecules that seem to know just what to do without diagram or notebook. Chemical bonds are being made and broken all the time and yet the baby is thriving, developing, existing. The baby needs food. It needs the warmth of the sun’s rays and the warmth of an adult’s embrace. Life is creating nurturing tendencies in you to be its carer by proxy. When you care for a child, nature is caring for a child. When you speak kindly and with respect to a young person finding their feet in this world, nature talks kindly to them.

This is what non-separation really means. You get stuck into life and feel every last bit of it. I can assure you that continuing to read about non-duality and liberation is a pale reflection to what’s on offer when you come back to life. Non-duality is a red herring. It has nothing to say. It just sends you on a journey that has no destination. If you have found yourself looking for spiritual truths it’s because you’ve been living in a dream all your life, a dream that turns out to be painful and terrifying.

Nothing has any essence. All things appear because of all things, not because something is doing everything. There is no source to all this and nothing is superior to anything else. But you do not have to deny your own self-centre either. Feeling yourself to be private and in your body is pleasing. There is nothing wrong with a constructed conceptual world as long as you know that there can’t actually be separation. Pretending can continue all the time your body exchanges material with the environment that created it. You don’t have to stop doing anything. Just realise you are not doing anything.

I have found that I have been much more willing to explore myself with much more intensity now and I have appreciated theories of self-development that were only briefly touched upon when I was scared of the false structure falling apart. Thinking of yourself as a separate individual existing independently creates internal structures and also prevents you from looking at yourself. Any attempts to fix yourself and feel better are always under the terms of this idealised creation born out of an inadequate early environment.

You might be asking yourself if the sense of separation has been seen as non-existent, then what is there left to explore? I would suggest that there may be a residue. Something can still hang around even after liberation. Thoughts, feelings and emotions from the past can still have an impact on the day-to-day. The difference is that the exploration is not done from the viewpoint of a false entity, an internal structure. You have at your disposal life itself. Life itself will explore any feelings of regret, sadness and inadequacies. If you think that the falling away of separation is all that needs to happen to feel happy and content, you are mistaken. I see nothing wrong with sitting with a therapist or using some kind of self-analysis to clean you from the inside out.

There may be some that disagree with me and feel I’m not fully grasping non-duality. I disagree. For me non-duality is empowering. It gives the strength to face life and not be scared. You might say I’ve contradicted myself in the words I have previously written. So be it. Wholeness can be a strange creature at times.

You are a unique expression of the entirety. You are alone and whole. Your thoughts are your thoughts. Your choices are your choices. Your free will is your free will. Give yourself the power to choose life instead of avoiding it. Looking to neuroscience to establish whether you have free will or not, although startling and thought provoking, can leave you scared once again of powers that are pulling you this way and that. Who cares whether the brain decides six seconds before you know anything about it? It changes nothing. The incredible thing is that when you have explored and found no one inside you running the show, the show still goes on. I see nothing wrong with feeling that you are at the helm steering your ship through choppy waters. Be anything you like and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

I have noticed that over the last year or so the non-dual message, or at least its delivery, is changing. Some authors have withdrawn books and rewritten them to take a less extreme stance. There seems to be a sensitivity to people and problems and not the death blow punch that come with rigidity and the wanting to be right about a particular teaching or non-teaching. They and their expressions have become more open and all encompassing. Their regular postings have moved to a more flexible approach with a lot more respect for people who suffer when trying to grasp non-duality. It feels as if humanity has returned to these writers and speakers. You will find that they do not spend most of their time criticising others’ words, but accept things as they are.This is surely unconditional love weaving its magic and not the imprisoning of people with faulty teachings.

In my mind an effective expression of non-duality is one that uses the mind to explore and discover for itself. To be encouraged to work on yourself is simply not a contradiction. It’s way beyond any notion of contradiction. I found my own mind the best tool in my box, especially when it had no way of grasping Wholeness and to own it in some way. And I think that this is the real benefit of enquiry.

The mind loves to work—so let it. You will never get this from a book or teaching, but there are some excellent ones that will take you as close to the edge as you can get. A good one will let go of your hand and allow you to fall unaided and with no safety net. By falling you will see that you are life itself and not a fragment that has a time or place.

When you see for yourself, write your own book. That’s what I did. That’s freedom for you. There is no reading and re-reading someone else’s. You become your own authority and simply please yourself. If someone else reads it and gets something out of it, then I see no better definition of compassion than that. If they don’t like it, then give them the biggest hug you have ever given someone and thank them for just being there. Love them for who they are — warts and all. Most people wouldn’t give non-duality the time of day. I fully respect that in someone and it makes no difference to how I see them. Just be satisfied that non-duality came and found you in your hour of need and rescued you from prolonged misery and anxiety. Leave other people alone and you have left yourself alone. Alone to just be.

Coming back to life and being normal, while at the same time knowing the impact the journey has had on me is beyond words. Feeling special is unnecessary and will find you out. Feeling special is unfinished business, in my mind. Feeling special is separation all over again in another form.

I’ve deliberately refrained from scare quotes in this post around the words you would normally find in non-dual writings. It’s time to stop that nonsense and speak freely with any words that pop up. Writing using guarded language and loads of quotation marks and capital letters really pisses me off. Sometimes they do help to clarify and express, but for goodness sake not all the time. It’s a pleasure now that I’ve come close to the end of this book to throw them out. Like the teachings, they were important at the beginning but are now surplus to requirements.