Q&A: Greg Goode, Author of After Awareness

This November, Non-Duality Press is pleased to present the latest from Greg Goode: After Awareness: The End of the Path.

Goode is known for his unique combination of penetrating insight, comfort with both Eastern and Western sources, and a down-to-earth sense of humor. A member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, he serves as the technical consultant for their peer-reviewed journal Philosophical Practice.

Here, Goode discusses non-duality, the Direct Path, love, inquiry, “joyful irony,” communication, freedom, and more.

What does non-duality mean to you, and why are there so many different approaches?

I use the term to signify lack of dividedness. And as you mention, there are lots of ways to realize that. And what’s duality? Examples of important dualities would be the classic pairs of opposites that come up in spiritual teachings, such as I/not-I, self/no-self, divine/earthly, subject/object, one/many, mind/body, substance/attribute, good/evil, and enlightened/unenlightened.

Here are two approaches I like that address dividedness, separation, or cosmic suffering. One approach is substantialist. The teaching, like the Direct Path, would explain and show how my individual “self” and all other things in our essence are nothing other than this same knowing, loving substance. In this teaching, the student’s reliance on this one substance must fall away at some point, or else there’s more separation and clinging.

In the case of the Direct Path, the substance is called “awareness,” and it does depart the scene after it has done its job in freeing the student from all the other dualities. My new book (After Awareness) contains one story of how that departure can happen. I’d call this approach “non-dual” because, in a very intuitive way, it shows how there is no basis for dividedness or dualisms anywhere. What seem to be dualisms are pacified into the “oneness” of awareness. And even then, “awareness” becomes too much to say.

Another approach I like is very different. It is non-substantialist. It doesn’t go for oneness. It doesn’t propose one thing as the basis for everything else. Rather, it highlights the fragile, interdependence of the self and other things. It shows how things may seem solid, whole, and independent, but if we really look for them, they can’t be found. In the non-finding we discover a vast and exhilarating freedom. I write about this approach in Emptiness and Joyful Freedom. Even though this approach doesn’t attempt to find “oneness,” I consider it “non-dual” because it deconstructs all dualities, including the classic ones I mentioned above.

Why are there so many approaches? I think because people have so many different affinities, abilities, languages, and backgrounds. Every so often, I hear someone saying there are just too many spiritual paths in the world. “It’s just too complicated!” Trying to reduce this confusing variety, the person suggests one particular path (usually their own) as the best one for everybody. It has never worked! It seems that diversity is with us to stay! I like that a lot!

Your first book, Standing as Awareness: The Direct Path, contains dialogues from “Nondual Dinners”—tell us more about those gatherings?

These are teacherless gatherings with no favored path and, often, no agenda. They began in the mid-1990s when a lot of traveling satsang teachers would come to New York City. We called our gatherings “nacho satsangs” because they’d take place at a restaurant and were very un-satsang-like. Being truly teacherless, they were a different kind of gathering where anyone could speak. One didn’t need to be famous or considered “enlightened,” and one could still talk about the non-dualiverse.

Sometimes it was just spiritual gossip. But over the years, we began to give planned talks. We had talks on sex and tantra, bhakti versus jnana, pharmaceutical and herbal substances, the new phenomenon of huge non-dual conferences, clairvoyance, Western mysticism, “What is enlightenment,” Buddhism versus Advaita, quantum physics, “How I survived a non-dual cult,” and scores of other topics. A few times, the discussions developed into fascinating debates, with people heatedly arguing that their path is better than someone else’s.

I’m speaking of all this in the past tense, because for the last several years I haven’t had time to organize these gatherings. But they were great fun, and some folks have been participating for decades.

Your second book is called The Direct Path: A User Guide—what is the Direct Path, and how does it differ from a progressive path or other spiritual paths?

What is “direct” about the Direct Path? The word means that we don’t need to try to become something. We don’t need to improve or polish anything. We are already THAT loving knowingness to which things appear. The path consists of discovering it in a deeply experiential way. If anything changes, it’s a perspective. This “direct” is contrasted with so-called “progressive” paths. In those paths, we need to progress along a measured gradient—to become clearer, more meritorious, less reactive, more “Christlike,” et cetera.

Just because the path is direct doesn’t mean it is quick or automatic. There are lots of inquiries and associated activities and contemplations. For example, the path actually allows us to experience the body as awareness in a freeing new way, and this may take some time. Being “direct” just means that the path doesn’t require us to become something else.

Is the Direct Path for everyone?

No, and I don’t think any path is.

Who seems to be drawn to the Direct Path?

I’d say it appeals to people who feel the intuition of a vast clarity, a sweetly luminous knowingness behind what seems to be the everyday world. Or sometimes people feel a connection to the Indian Vedanta tradition and find the Direct Path closer to hand. Some people feel drawn by its experiential rigor—in its investigation of experience, this path leaves nothing out.

The Direct Path (the book) discusses love and the concept of “falling in love” with awareness—what does love mean in these contexts, and does it include intimate relationships?

The intuition I mentioned in my comments on the previous question… When we have this intuition—of a vast clarity, an embracing knowingness—it feels warm and sweet. Not in a literal or sensory way, but as something appealing, something that draws us. When I was doing my non-dual inquiry, I felt gently and sweetly summoned to this inquiry in all my spare moments. Whenever I wasn’t working, reading, exercising, or talking, I felt drawn by a wonderful warm openness to be near whatever this path was talking about. I felt something calling me, as if I were going home, or as if a monumental discovery would await me. In terms of Vedanta, one could say that this is the “ananda” aspect of awareness becoming manifest for me. In more Western terms, it’s usually called “love.”

I wasn’t falling in love with the concept of awareness. There didn’t seem to be an object present that I was homing in on. That would have felt too clinical. I actually had no word for what was going on. I was just sweetly drawn to inquiry. If I wasn’t actually doing inquiry in the moment, then even just thinking about this whole thing felt good.

Others have reported this as well. It’s something that gets under your skin. To me it never felt erotic or romantic. But it did have ramifications for interpersonal relations. I felt like I loved everyone in a strange way, as if being of the same essence. The warmth I mentioned was blossoming throughout my life.

It also affected romantic and intimate love.

I was in a very difficult romantic relationship at the time I was beginning to taste this sweetness. I noticed that I was becoming more generous, more understanding, and more forgiving. My romantic love began to feel more “unconditional,” which doesn’t make any logical sense, since being with one person rather than another depends on many conditions. But I felt the love broadening.

We ended up splitting apart (more “conditions”), but I felt willing to remain friends. And it turns out that we have remained friends to this day, after several decades. Without this kind of falling in love with awareness, I would probably have harbored anger. I’d probably have felt resentful and indignant.

How can non-dual inquiry or experiments be combined with everyday activities?

The Direct Path has several kinds of activities that we can do.

For focused inquiry, I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, walking down the street, riding a bike, or operating machinery! But if you are waiting for an appointment, riding in a train, or walking in the park, you can do lots of inquiries. You can pick out an object, like a magazine on the table, and investigate. If you seem to be “seeing” the object, do you have any experience that the object is existing there separate from the knowing of it? Of course we believe that we are “here” and the magazine is “over there.” But apart from that belief, what does vision tell us directly?

Or when you’re sitting at a restaurant and waitstaff ask you what you’d like to order. You may feel a moment of indecision. You may feel an effort to decide or choose something. Let’s say you end up ordering…nachos! After you communicate your order, you may have time to consider: Do you have any direct experience of a chooser having done the choosing? Do you have any experience that the choice of nachos was truly a choice? There may be an accompanying belief that nachos were chosen. But do you have any direct experience that the nacho-idea was chosen? Perhaps it arose spontaneously from awareness along with a thought that said, “That was a choice you made! You chose nachos!” And this is a situation you can look into later as well, when you have more time.

Those are examples of focused inquiry. Another kind of inquiry is shorter and quicker. It’s called a “reminder.” Reminders are mini-versions of inquiry. Let’s say that during your focused inquiry, you realized that there is no direct evidence that the magazine is separate from you, or that there is no indication of a chooser choosing nachos.

With the reminder, which may only require a few seconds, you bring this moment of realization to mind. Remember that you had realized that you have no evidence of existing apart from an object or of existing as an independent chooser. Doing reminders strengthens your understanding and realization.

How does your new book, After Awareness, differ from Standing as Awareness and The Direct Path?

Good question! The titles do sound similar. But this book is different. Instead of presenting the teaching, this book deconstructs the teaching. The first two books take a perspective from within the teaching and invite the reader through a series of steps. This book takes a perspective partly outside the teaching and discusses the teaching in a critical way. The first two books are experiential. This book is more theoretical; it looks at the teaching in a balanced way that doesn’t regard the teaching as either true or false.

What is “joyful irony”?

Joyful irony is a combination of happiness and freedom.

The “joy” refers to the happiness and love that are the fruition of the path. Happiness and love are global, which means that nothing is left out. In everyday terms, the happiness and love would include all others, even though there are no objective others.

The “irony” is the emancipation from conceptuality. This includes freedom even from the spiritual teaching that brought us freedom.

Joyful irony is a notion that I adapted from anti-dualist philosopher Richard Rorty’s concept of “liberal ironist.” Rorty defined “liberal” as a person who believes that cruelty is the worst thing that we can do (as opposed to non-liberals who might believe that violating the laws of God or nature is the worst thing we can do). And he defined “ironist” as a person who doesn’t believe her view of the world is any closer to reality than any other view, and who has been impressed by other views.

In my use of the terms, “irony” is very similar to Rorty’s, but my “joyful” has a much more spiritual sense than his “liberal.” Joyful irony is not unique to any particular path—I’ve met joyful ironists in many paths. Key features are love, kindness, and a profound lack of dogmatism about one’s favorite spiritual teaching.

Why is communication such a significant part of After Awareness?

Several reasons! This interest is something in my background. It’s something I think relevant to non-dualism, and most people don’t talk about it.

My parents were artists. I grew up in a house full of books, blueprints, sketches, and art projects. While I was studying philosophy in graduate school, the topics included philosophy of language. During those same years, outside of my formal studies, I was deeply involved in film and literature. I read a lot, saw a lot, went to conferences, and wrote a lot. It seems that for my whole life, I’ve felt attuned to the manner of communication in addition to the content. In fact, the terms “style” and “content” form another classic duality that dissolves under close scrutiny.

For over the last twenty years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the Internet, babbling about these topics. I’ve been part of non-duality e-mail forums that went back to the early 1990s and sometimes earlier. I’m still friends with several people I met back then. In those days, most of the forums had very general topics. You didn’t see specialized forums like “Shri Atmananda’s wisdom from Atma Darshan” or “Tibetan Madhyamika.” Forums were simply about non-duality or liberation. So you had a wide variety of members. You had Vedantins, Buddhists, Taoists, Western mystics, psychologists, New Age participants, scientists, adherents of indigenous religions, and followers of individual spiritual teachers—all in the same group.

In these open forums there was no single dominant vocabulary. I noticed that talking about liberation quickly became talking about talking.

For example, on one forum back in the late 1990s, I reported an event that had happened in the Pentacostal church I used to attend. One Sunday during a very emotional service, many of us saw the Holy Ghost. It appeared as a misty mighty wind descending from the skylights in the sanctuary. “Mist” and “wind”—those were terms that had some scriptural warrant in reference to the Holy Ghost. No one thought to say, “I just had a visual hallucination.” To us, it was the Holy Ghost. And why not?

After my post appeared on the forum, it was answered by a person from a different background, yoga. The yogini disapproved. She said, “Holy Ghost? No, that’s not it. What really happened was a mass kundalini experience. Kundalini rose for several of you that day.”

Holy Ghost? Kundalini? The next several messages were attempts to clarify our terms and assumptions, since not everyone had the same spiritual background. Those open forums had many dialogues like that. We were like the Parliament of Religions. Many years of those discussions made me even more attuned to communication.

Of course in non-dualism there is a goal to get beyond words and concepts. Indeed, the deepest realizations do just that. But we can’t avoid the fact that those same realizations are prepared for, framed, and passed on with the help of communication, non-dual teaching.

I think non-dualism and communication cross paths in three important areas, and I’ve tried to highlight these in my book.

1) Love and kindness—They can express themselves itself in communication. This can happen in talking or writing, as well as in the listening or reading. There is a vast opportunity for heart-filled openness in the communicative situation.

2) The insubstantiality of language—I talk a lot about this in the book. Through non-dual inquiry, our relation to language and thought become what I call “nonreferential.” The old expectations that language depict the absolute in a literal way dissolve. And we discover that it’s not just the absolute, but that everything is like this. Deeply discovering this insubstantiality brings on a dizzying array of freedoms, and helps bring on the joyful irony I talk about in the book.

3) Creativity—The love I mentioned above, combined with the discovery of nonreferentiality in language, has a way of unleashing creativity. We feel free and empowered to say things about non-duality (and anything else) in new ways. For some people, myself included, the arts might become more important. In fact, I’ve been thinking of incorporating art, photography, music, and writing into the teaching of non-duality. With creativity, the possibilities seem endless.

These elements crisscross non-duality in so many ways, and I don’t see them discussed a lot. That’s why communication became important in this book.

Can you tell us what comes after awareness, or what one finds at the end of the path, without spoiling the book?

Freedom from the teaching itself. That is one of the main reasons I wrote the book. Ever since I’ve been interested in non-dual teachings, I’ve seen lots of different freedoms discussed. At the same time, I’ve seen proponents of non-dualism in discussions with people from other paths, but speaking as if it were a generally accepted fact that non-dual teachings are the best for everyone. To me, this doesn’t represent freedom from the teaching. So I thought that particular freedom deserved more emphasis.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d say to someone looking around at paths, keep it light and don’t take things too literally. Instead of looking for a path that is “true” or “accurate,” look for one that resonates deeply, even if you can’t explain why.

Learn more about Greg Goode and his books (Standing as Awareness, The Direct Path, Emptiness and Joyful Freedom), and check out After Awareness—available November 2016.