Think ‘not-thinking’. Meditate without trying to meditate. Seeking is the problem. The problem is not wanting it badly enough. Let go. Practice harder. You’re already awake. There’s no one to wake up. It’s a paradox that doesn’t make sense. Don’t you get it?
Anyone interested in awakening will soon find themselves drowning in a deluge of nondual nonsense. It doesn’t take any serious thought to spot the contradiction in every alternate sentence coming out of the mouths of nonduality teachers. The audiences seem rapt, so it’s often assumed that this isn’t a mistake: reality must be nonsensical in nature. Or perhaps it’s the attempt to be rational that’s the problem, and the nonsense is a strategy for exhausting discernment. Wink wink!
There is of course an uncomfortable, yet simpler explanation: these nonduality teachers have simply failed to make sense of reality.
‘Not knowing the great principle, you talk at random’ - Kukai
You can’t blame these teachers for talking nonsense as most nonduality traditions and popular spiritual heroes haven’t done much better, and where we have eastern esoteric teachings that offer a profound language and culture for making sense of wisdom, we always find degeneration and misrepresentation in the translation process, reducing the esoteric teachings to nonsensical mush. (Pick up any popular book on Dogen to see what I mean.)
Peculiarly, at the heart of the western tradition we have an extraordinary idea for making sense of reality that is not merely the most easily accessible way to understand wisdom, but is arguably the best way to make sense of reality to be found in any wisdom tradition. That’s a big claim.
Once understood, this idea makes it possible to talk about reality and awakening without once suffering contradiction or mentioning not-self, nonduality, or any of the other spiritual buzzwords that obfuscate more than they illuminate.
And with it, all of the apparent mysteries and paradoxes that result from entertaining these bad descriptions - including the knots so many tie themselves in over ‘non-self’ and rebirth, a pre-existing awake state and the need for practice, and the ‘two truths’ - are seen to be so irrelevant as statements about reality as to be not even wrong.
The Missing Piece
Participation is the greatest and most dangerous idea in the history of ideas.
‘Greatest’ because it is an ancient inheritance - much older than any written philosophy - that allows us to make sense of reality.
‘Dangerous’ because it engenders fear of the mind and overturns everything held to be true by institutional religion and academia since Aristotle did his best to bury the idea two thousand years ago, and with it the real nature of the archaic philosopher.
And no one has heard of participation, despite the fact it is the main thesis, both plainly stated and described in numerous ways, of the most famous philosopher of all time whose work is apparently taught in every major university.
Here we go
A particular example of participation may be a good introduction:
Consider the parent and child.
The parent is older, wiser, and the source of the child; in these respects, the parent is the greater.
The child is younger, more naive and the product of the parent; such that in these respects, the child can be considered the lesser.
We have a hierarchy.
But the nature of the parent is both found in and shared by the child, and the nature of the child is both found in and shared by the parent. (Physical similarities being the most obvious illustration).
We now have a hierarchy of equal participation.
This means the child (the lesser) can grow through its participation in the nature of the parent (the greater) to become a parent itself, as a result of the parent’s nature (the greater) growing within the child (the lesser).
And yet the parent will always remain the parent of the child, and the child will always remain the child of the parent, even when that child is a parent itself.
Parent remains parent; child remains child; but each is equally found in and shared by the other - a hierarchy of equal participation - and this participation is how growth occurs. (Indeed, growth couldn’t happen any other way.)
We now have a generative hierarchy of equal participation.
The parent and child is a very old analogy for making sense of reality, because reality is a generative hierarchy of equal participation too. (In Hellenic culture it was presented as Father and Son, which explains a lot about the Abrahamic religions.)
To restate in universal terms, we can understand participation to mean the lesser is found in and shared by the greater, and the greater is found in and shared by the lesser. Yet the lesser remains the lesser, the greater remains the greater, and a process of growth is possible through this generative hierarchy of equal participation.
Once you understand participation, it suddenly begins to make sense of everything.
This is because through participating in each other’s nature, and yet remaining in a hierarchy, the lesser is analogical to the greater.
The particulars or details of the lesser and the greater are different and many; but the relationships between those particulars or details are the same and one.
A parent is still a parent, and a child a child, each remaining unique in their own way. These are the particulars. But how they relate one to the other is the same because they share in each other’s nature.
This is why we can use analogies to make sense of reality - such as the parent and child, lover and beloved, and maker and made - not based on poetic preference or mere utility, but through competence and skill in appreciating analogy as a subject. If analogies are not perfect, they are not merely wrong, but detrimental to our own personal participation in reality.
(It’s fashionable to believe our analogies are a a product of evolution, and therefore our experience and way of understanding awakening to be nothing more than a by-product of our biological environment. This is misleading in being only half-right by not going far enough, as evolution in turn is a product of the analogical structure of reality. Psychophobia (fear of the mind, which in practice is looking to anything but the mind itself in order to understand the mind) will no doubt produce a new fashion in due course.)
An intelligible awakening
We can make sense of awakening using the parent and child analogy if we consider the parent to be the greater or universal reality, and the child to be the lesser or particular psyche.
The parent (reality) is older (prior), wiser (total or universal), and the source of the child (psyche); in these respects, the parent (reality) is the greater.
The child (psyche) is younger (subsequent), more naive (partial or particular) and the product of the parent (reality); such that in these respects, the child (psyche) can be considered the lesser.
But the nature of the parent (reality) is both found in and shared by the child (psyche), and the nature of the child (psyche) is both found in and shared by the parent (reality).
This means the psyche can grow through its participation in the nature of reality, to literally grow into reality, but only as a result of reality growing within the psyche.
We find the particular in the universal and the universal in the particular as a generative process, with both particular and universal remaining particular and universal.
Reality gets to be the only reality - ‘always already the case’ - and yet reproduce itself in the psyche - ‘never the same again’.
This reproduction is the process of awakening, and it couldn’t happen any other way.
(Remember there are two more classical analogies we could use to make sense of the relationship between psyche and reality: lover and beloved and maker and made, each offering a unique window on something - being the greater - that is beyond any of the analogies themselves.)
When it comes to personal accounts of awakenings, participation makes sense of the event in a way nothing else can.
The individual psyche retains all of its individuality; the details or particulars remain. The awakened human remains a human with all that entails, the reality of appearance remains a universal reality, but one is now found in the other to the extent of their shared growth.
Esoteric contemplation is a way of sharing in this growth.
The psyche is analogical to reality to the degree of its participation in that greater reality - or what we might call the progress of the psyche in wisdom, which in experience is a series of awakenings - and therefore anything that arises within the psyche, such as dramas, dreams, daydreams and even distractions, can be explored as analogies for our current level of progress.
Dialectic contemplation is how we understand what we have experienced and where we may be blocked in our shared growth.
Again, you can learn both of these practices here.
You may have noticed
Participation is profound and requires time and thought to appreciate. It’s sophisticated and beautiful. What else should we expect when it comes to an actual understanding of reality?
But when I gave the basic description of awakening in terms of participation, you may have noticed I didn’t once have recourse to mention not-self, nonduality, relative and absolute (‘two truths’) or any other spiritual buzzwords.
With participation we have no need to tie ourselves up in contradictions and absurd speculations only to climax with an excuse about the mystery of reality.
There is no contradiction in reality, no paradox at the heart of awakening.
The reality of appearance is intelligibly ineffable.
Both reality and psyche are inseparable, not because they are ‘one’, or ‘not-two’ (which is not an explanation, but just another way of saying ‘inseparable’), but because of participation: each is found in and shared by the other as a generative hierarchy of equal participation.
This begs the question then: how do we go about waking up in plain english?
The answer to this question is so simple you likely missed it when I gave it above; so let’s revisit it in more depth in Part 3.