The Right Subject

Congratulations to Non-Duality Press on their new site and new format. This publisher has shown itself to be a respected source of nondual expression. Having enjoyed their offerings in print, I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the realm of the cyberverse. I am also grateful to Non-Duality Press for this chance to write.

The subject of this blog entry is the right subject. I spent many years of my life pondering this issue, actually beginning decades before hearing about nonduality. Where does subjectivity reside? Where is the “I” or the seat of Being actually located? What is the right subject? This issue is so central that if your inquiry were only about this one point, it would take you all the way to your goal. It also can help stabilize love and happiness, which are other ways of experiencing this very same “I”.

Brain = Subjectivity?
Just last weekend I was teaching an all-day workshop, and a very earnest person plied me with questions along the line of this idea: “I feel that awareness is created by the brain.” Of course this way of speaking may be fine in conventional science and medicine where “awareness” is understood as a kind of biological reactivity that comes and goes with the life of an organism. But in nondual inquiry one wants to go deeper and discover what this reactivity appears to.

The “Wrong” Subject
Traditional Advaita Vedanta even has a name for “the wrong subject.” It’s called “Adhyasa” or “superimposition.” It means among other things “mistaken attribution.” When you superimpose in nondual inquiry, you mix things up. Specifically, you attribute to the subject certain attributes that properly belong to an object. For example, when you feel that the person or the brain is the subject, you are attributing separation and spatial location to unbounded clarity or awareness.

Superimposition also contains an ironic duality. Superimposition is not only mistaken about the subject, it is also mistaken about the object. It attributes to the object certain qualities that properly belong to the subject. For example, when we feel that the brain is the seat of clarity, we attribute to the brain the quality of “seeingness” or “being appeared to.” It goes both ways.

Avoiding Superimposition
So how does one avoid this mutual, dualistic superimposition?

By following direct experience. Sure, there are psychological and biological theories that say awareness happens in the brain. But in direct experience, do we actually witness the brain having objects appear to it? Do we see the eye seeing? Is it our direct experience that things happen like this? In direct experience do we actually experience awareness to be localized inside a skull?

Often, people who object to nondualism dream up concretely aggressive scenarios imagined to be knock-down arguments, such as,

“Well, if I removed your brain, you wouldn’t be aware.”

But this formula doesn’t establish where awareness resides, for two reasons. First, one can say the same thing about oxygen, blood, food and life.

“Well, if I removed your oxygen/nutrition/water/life, you wouldn’t be aware.”

And second, the kind of waking-state reactivity measured in science is not what nondual inquiry means by the subject. In nondual inquiry, that measurable reactivity is actually an object. It arises and is witnessed by the clarity of subjectivity. And this subjectivity is never an object because it is never experienced to arise or fall away. It is never an appearing experience but rather that to which experiences appear.

Books published by Non-Duality Press such as my Direct Path are full of pointers and tips along these lines. In fact, this particular book has 40 very detailed experiments. Every single experiment was designed around deeply heartfelt questions like the one about the brain. They all have a way of working with direct experience to clarify what the subject is. One learns through direct experience that there is nothing to attribute anything to. When all the attributions and superimpositions relax, you experience that there is no “there” there – only this identical, right subject that is your very self.