As the Dalai Lama noted, “We all want to be happy and avoid suffering.”
Nondual wisdom traditions point out the cause of suffering as confusing the many separate things we think about with reality, what is really happening.
In fact, things are always just as they are. Reality, what is actually happening, is just what it is, neither inherently divided nor unified. However, we usually think about reality in terms of imagined separate things such as you and I, good and bad, what is and what should be, which can then be in conflict with each other. This gives rise to avoidable mental tensions such as frustration, anger, envy, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
These imaginary divisions are arbitrary and have no real basis. The world as it is can never be in conflict with anything because there is nothing else for it to be in conflict with. By grasping that both we and our thoughts which create this illusion of separate things are just part of reality, thoughts lose their absolute validity for us, the splitting or duality ceases and we rest from mental conflict. There is no need, or indeed possibility, to change anything, just to grasp deeply how things really work. This is non-meditation, natural meditation, “resting in natural awareness” as the Tibetan yogi Longchen Rabjam put it.
By recognizing the nature of reality, we are able to live, love and benefit ourselves and others more easily as we no longer grasp at imagined parts of our experience or try to remove them.
There are basically two ways to improve our differentiation between thoughts and absolute reality, the truth. These can be used separately or combined.
The first method is to pay attention directly to what we experience each moment using our senses and noticing the occurrence of our thoughts. In Buddhist practice this is called calm abiding meditation, or shamatha.
The second method is to deconstruct non-reality until it dissolves naturally. We investigate our mental constructs and processes including all thoughts, beliefs, judgments, memories and expectations to establish clearly for ourselves that all perceived identified external phenomena, thoughts, the mind and “I” are just ideas with no basis in reality. In Buddhism, this is insight meditation or Vipashyana. Ramana Maharshi stressed the use of self-inquiry, or Atma Vichara, to investigate the question, “Who am I?”
When we combine these we find ourselves in non-meditation or natural meditation, very close to the absolute truth, reality as it is. Thoughts are seen, as it were, from the outside, just as neurological events, the magical play of the mind or brain. Looked at like this, thoughts are just part of reality, part of what is going on.
Here are some few simple ways to distinguish thoughts from reality. For example, when we look at whatever arises:
- If we know what it is or can identify it,
- If it has a structure (has parts with any relationship between them),
- If it relates to time (happens in the past, present or future)
- Is conditional (what should be, what must or must not happen, what might have been),
- If it is knowledge, opinion or belief,
then it is a thought , a mental process, and not actually happening.
When we do not confuse reality with what we think, we do not suffer from imagined problems.