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.

What About Love?

This Is It. This Is Enough. This Is What It Is (And It Isn’t Anything Else)

by Richard Sylvester


Seeing non-duality means seeing that our most basic assumption about our life, that we are separate, is only an appearance. We seem to be the subject of our life, moving through a world of objects, including those objects known as ‘other people’. But actually there is no separation, there is no subject and object, there is only seamless oneness. Recognising this is sometimes called ‘liberation’, and although there are no rules, seeing liberation has a tendency to re-configure our psyche. Liberation may be seen suddenly or it may be seen gradually and, as Nisargadatta said, “The quick is not better than the slow.” However, if liberation comes about quickly, the changes in the psyche tend to be more noticeable, precisely because they are sudden. There is no advantage to this, it just makes them easier to describe.

This re-configuration of the psyche tends to bring about a changed view of reality. At this point I’m going to drop the word ‘tends’, because it is tiresome both for me and for you to keep on using it. But of course in spite of anything that is written here any possibility can happen in liberation. If it couldn’t, it wouldn’t be liberation, it would be imprisonment.

We can sum up this changed view of reality in three sentences. Firstly, it is seen that This Is It. It is recognised that this, whatever is arising, is the entirety. This is the cosmos. This is the universe. This is nothing becoming everything. Time and space are seen through. Past and future are seen through, here and there are seen through. Neurotic thoughts and feelings about the past and future, such as guilt, regret, nostalgia and anxiety, diminish or disappear.

With the neurotic energy that attaches to the separated person reduced or gone, it is also seen that This Is Enough. The neurotic personality sees this as Not Enough, because there is so little engagement with whatever is actually happening when it is seen through the veil of separation. In separation, our attention is focused so much on the past, the future, our own concerns and our own projections, that of course whatever is actually arising seems to be too thin and insubstantial to be satisfying. Most of the time we are engaging not with life, but with our own spectral imaginings. The result is often boredom or depression, and a constant searching for something more exciting to happen. But with separation gone, the complete aliveness of every moment is seen, and so this becomes sufficient. The desire for something more exciting to happen diminishes or dies away and joy is taken in the simplicity of whatever is – the aroma of coffee, the sound of the wind in the trees, the texture of a cat’s fur. Because we no longer have a need for excitement and drama to ward off boredom, a more simple and a quieter life is often led.

The third change in the way the psyche views reality in liberation can be summed up in the words “It is seen that This Is What It Is (And It Isn’t Anything Else).” In separation, the psyche often adds meaning and purpose to what is, precisely because what is in its simplicity is not experienced as fulfilling enough. We want What Is With A Cherry On Top. So we invent endless stories about What This Is About. For instance a fall in the street may be turned into A Punishment From God. A win on the lottery may be turned into The Fruits Of Good Karma, or The Grace Of The Guru. We live as the star of our own movie, in a story moving meaningfully towards some kind of purposeful resolution. Meaning and purpose are seen as justifying our existence.

But just as a flower needs no meaning to be a perfect flower and a cat needs no meaning to be a perfect cat, we need no meaning to be a perfect Jim or Mary or Bill or Annie. We are already oneness expressing itself as whoever we are. How could that possibly be improved upon? When this is seen, everything is simply what it is, and it isn’t anything else.

In liberation, the dramas of meaning and purpose that the separated mind thrives on die away, or at least they are seen for what they really are – as stories such as we might tell to entertain a bored child on a rainy afternoon. Our need to Save The Planet, or Please God, or Perform Seva For Our Guru To Cleanse Our Karma disappears. So does our fascination with purifying our chakras, balancing our aura and having therapy for our past (and maybe future) lives. And it is also seen that if any of these stories continue, that’s O.K. too, that is also “Liberation doing its thing”.

So what about love? Now we come to the deepest mystery. What most radically re-configures the psyche in liberation is the recognition that Everything Is Unconditional Love. It is realised that unconditional love cannot be understood by the personal mind and is, like everything else to do with liberation, impersonal. In other words, unconditional love has nothing to do with me or you. Unconditional love simply is. It excludes nothing. If it did, it would not be unconditional. The mind is baffled by this. The mind can only live in conditionality, dividing up experience into what it likes and what it dislikes. But there is no need for the mind to torture itself with its inevitable failure to love unconditionally, because in liberation it is seen that unconditional love is simply the case, regardless of what you and I might be thinking and feeling. Always unconditionally there is love. When this is seen, even the most ordinary moment becomes vividly alive.