The practice of Atma Vichara often falls under the rubrik of non-duality teachings. So, I often find myself listening to podcasts by said teachers, or their organizations and frequenting non-daulity discussion boards, groups, and forums. One persistent pet peeve of mine makes me wish that the greater non-dualist communtiy would take a page from the modern Buddhist book and take a serious look at the physical structures of the brain and their effect on our lived experience.
Specifically I am ranting here about the sense of a separate self. The typical non-dualist claim is that the sense that we are separate from the rest of what is, stems purely from a held concept. Some refer to this as a thought loop, or a mental program, or a habit or something similar. This gives rise to the idea that you should be able to find that thought, understand it’s roots as a mistaken idea you inherited from your culture and upbrining, discard it and be hunky dorey.
I was listening to some excellent episodes of the Buddhist Geeks pod cast the other day, specifically interviews with a couple of people involved in both studies of neurology and also long time buddhs practioners, Rick Hanson and James Austin. Very cool stuff! James Austin got my attention because his own insights into the nature of his lived experience drove him to learn and come to an understanding of the structures of the brain that help to create that experience. James Austin speaks about two different kinds of basic attention: Ego-centric, or self-centered attention concerned with me and my internal state, and Allo-centric, or other-centered attention concerned with the experience of the outside world and its state. Rick Hanson goes into great detail about the neurological phenomenon of “selfing” (coming up with a working delineation of what is the self and what is the other), explaining how the structures responsible for selfing are widely distributed throughout the brain and in fact have no central point which could be found to be truly called “I.” In a nutshell the neurological structures of the brain are specifically evolved to give us the sense of being separate from our environment. It is an actual felt experience that what you feel as you is separate from things beyond the sensate barrier of touch, and therefore not-you.
With this simple knowledge, hard won by dedicated and caring scientists over the years as knowledge itself evolves, we can immediately take that feeling of separation into account not as a mistake, but as a useful tool for navigating our lived experience. Instead of trying vainly to be rid of that sense, which if you listen to the non-dual teachers none of them are, you can view the sense as simply that, a sensation. You can then account for it as part of the unique world your individual perspective creates and not be fooled by it into the false belief that you are actually separate. The conceptual structures built upon that false idea can then fall away on their own when confronted by the simple truth.
You are not separate from what is, there are truly not two distinct things anywhere to be found, but you do experience the sensation that there is. And it’s good. Without that, no world to live through.