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A Common Stumbling Block to

Greg Goode ( (c) 2009
Presented at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, California, October 24, 2009

Stumbling Blocks?

When people become interested in pursuing nonduality, they encounter teachings that say that
they and all things are actually awareness or consciousness. This is an immediately appealing and
inspiring message, yet experiencing its truth as an unshakable living reality can take time. Once
people begin investigating, they may hit some blocks and bumps in the road.

Examples of blocks and bumps would be

a fear of nothingness and a feeling that nondual teaching is leading in a nihilistic direction,
a spiritually materialistic desire to use nondual teachings to acquire power and possessions, or
a belief that nonduality entails a specific picture of the world thats different from the way the
world is now.

Usually the stumbling block, whatever it is, needs to be investigated directly. If the stumbling
block is bypassed, then a sense of separation will continue.

A Common Stumbling Block

What does that mean?
Heres what I mean
Common: Quite frequent from what Ive noticed, in talking to many people.
Stumbling block: I mean a sticking point or a repetitive issue encountered after a person
has begun to do nondual inquiry. It could be a belief, a set of underlying assumptions, a feature of
the persons psychology, etc. A person can have several sticking points.

Nondual realization: the experiential discovery that the I, mind, body and world are one
awareness. It is the realization that the world and experience are the same: clear, open, loving,
objectless, free from experienced splits such as

I / not-I , subject / object, mental / physical

here / there
good / evil
appearance / reality
one / more-than-one
freedom / bondage, life / death
separate / connected

So what is this stumbling block?

The most common stumbling block Ive encountered is actually a web of assumptions about
human experience. This web forms something like a gestalt, or a model of the person and the

I call it the

Its a way of experiencing the self and the world. You may feel as though
You are inside the body, a non-physical entity in a physical container
The world is outside the body, made up of physical objects and other people
The surface of the body is the border between inside and outside
You are localized in the chest area, or in the head area behind the eyes
Thoughts are appearing here rather than over there
Awareness is in you
Awareness (you too) seem to be localized in a certain place
Other peoples awareness is in them
Awareness can flow out of you through the senses and become the visual or auditory field in
front of you
Objects can be located either inside this visual/auditory/perceptual field, or outside it

container metaphor.

Ancient Background
Its been around a long time

The container metaphor can be found in ancient, foundational Western texts.

The soul is a helpless prisoner chained hand and foot in the body.
Platos Phaedo
"The body is the tomb of the soul."
Platos Cratylus
Thou hast clothed me in skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinew.
Book of Job
"You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within....
1 Corinthians 6:19

Early Modern Background

It got more serious in the 17th Century

The container metaphor gained philosophical bite in the 17th century, with the rise of Ren
Descartes mind/body dualism, along with the rise of science and a geometrical, mechanistic
model of the universe.

In the early 1600s Johannes Kepler theorized that we see by using built in sense of geometry. This
mechanism was able to reach from the inside to the outside of the container.

Descartes himself visualized the soul as an unextended and unmoving non-physical substance
inside a machine-like container. I think therefore I am was Descartes first step to reach outside
the container. He had a dream after which he envisioned the possibility of explaining the world via
geometry and mechanism. He wrote a letter to a friend, explaining, Ive hitherto described this
earth, and generally the whole visible world, as if it were merely a machine. (Letter to
Mersenne, 1638)

These models became extremely influential in Western science, and still condition how people
think about their experience.

How does it block nondual realization?

The container metaphor blocks nondual realization by perpetuating the sense of separation. You
feel separated from the world and from others. Specifically,

It seems that awareness seems personal, limited to the edges of ones container.
But in reality, awareness is global, without borders or edges.

It seems that there are many awarenesses, e.g., one per person.
But in reality there cannot be more than one, and even saying that is too much.

It seems that awareness is like a mind, only bigger.

But in reality, awareness is beyond the mind, as that to which the mind appears.

It seems that the gross world is like a fall from awareness.

But in reality, the gross world is nothing other than awareness. It is just as much awareness as
the most subtle meditative state or transcendent spiritual experience.

It seems that most of the world resides outside the scope of awareness.
But in reality, awareness itself is the scope, sum and substance of everything.

Why a Metaphor?

Why call it a metaphor? A metaphor is a description of one thing in terms appropriate to

another. In this case, a person thinks of experience, mind, and awareness in terms appropriate to
physical objects such as bowls, barrels and buckets. These objects have insides, outsides, and
walls that separate them. When a person mistakes this metaphor as a literal description of their
experience and really believes it, a sense of separation ensues and suffering results.

But experience literally does not have any of these physicalistic or containing elements.

We will investigate the nature of our experience directly. We will see that direct experience does
not support the container metaphor one iota. This frees us from the metaphor. No one who looks
for an end to their sense of separation need believe the claims of this outmoded web of

Containers require lots of dualities

They naturally have an inside vs. outside

If I am the container, then of course there must be an inside to my awareness vs. outside to my

There must also be my container vs. your container

And like Russian babushka dolls, containers can contain other containers. One container can have
sub-containers. If I am the container, then these seem like real possibilities:
conscious vs. sub-conscious
heart vs. mind
the remembered vs. forgotten
the desired vs. the feared, etc.

No wonder this gestalt can lead to feelings of separation!

Discovering nondual teachings

When we come to nondual teachings from a background of a Western education, we bring the
container metaphor with us.

It conditions the way we experience the teachings.

If were told
You are Awareness.
Awareness is the same within us all.
it is hard not to think of it in a container fashion, the way we picture a Jack OLantern.

Science, Psychology, Optics, Education

They employ the container metaphor too

In the illustration on the next slide,

Vision is an external spatial container or field.
External objects can be inside the field or outside the field.
The back of the brain contains the image of the external object.
The brain contains me.
In my case for many years, I felt localized in the brain.
That is, if I had to find myself inside the body, I would be right there where the optic
nerves cross at the optic chiasm.
They even drew a red circle there! I emphasized this area with a green ball.

Drawings like on the next slide help condition us to feel localized inside the body.

They help us think of perception itself as a container with an inside and an outside:

Is the perceptual field a container?

We tend to think of vision and other senses as containers.

The seem to contain the objects we perceive.

Other (unperceived) objects seem to reside outside the container.

The container can move like a flashlight beam, which contains the objects inside it, like this:

Nondual realization = omniscience?

The container metaphor conditions how we interpret nondual teachings.

We think realization must include omniscience:

If I am awareness and the world is that same awareness,
then I ought to know the entire world.

I ought to be able to see your thoughts.

We think of it like this as depicted on the next slide the dot in the middle of the slide is a person
thinking about how their awareness (perceptual and intellectual) must grow and grow and grow,
so as to encompass everything!

But heres a sanity check: were Ramana, Jesus and Buddha omniscient? Did they know what you
had for breakfast this morning?

If not, then maybe personal omniscience isnt a sensible expectation. Maybe its not a reasonable
criterion of success for nondual realization.

The intersubjective impasse

Another set of issues comes up when the container metaphor encounters nondual teachings. The
issues have to do with intersubjectivity:
Imagine two people, A and B, looking at each other
B is in the scope of As awareness
A is in the scope of Bs awareness
Whose awareness is real?
Who is the subject? Who is the object?
Does the real world then consist of where their fields overlap?

How to become free of it? 1 of 2

How do we become free of the container metaphor?

One way is to see that it doesnt make literal sense.

For example, you analyze the assumptions underlying the container metaphor to see how
theyre unwarranted and make no sense.

For example, if awareness is not physical, then how can it be contained within a physical
object like the skull?

What keeps it from going through the walls and spreading out to be everywhere?

Containment makes no sense. In fact, Sri Atmananda and Jean Klein would say that if you really
want to picture awareness as being somewhere, picture it as being in back of you, giving rise to
you. That is not really accurate either, but if you have to visualize something, it is more helpful
than visualizing awareness as in front of you as an object!

See the next two illustrations, which depict awareness as not in front of you. They are cheesy to
give you two things at once: (i) you can visualize awareness as being somewhere (until you no
longer need to visualize it in this way), but (ii) you nevertheless cant see or touch it !

They arent meant to be accurate depictions of awareness that would make no sense. But
perhaps more helpful than picturing awareness as an optical triangle in front of the eyes!

How to become free of it? 2 of 2

How do we become free of the container metaphor?

Another way is to directly examine the nature of our experience.

Look at your direct experience without theory or memory or speculation and see that
containment and separation are never your experience.

Lets try a few experiments to do a little of this looking. Well be scientific and empirical about this
and see what our direct experience shows us. If we really are inside a container with a world
outside, then if we look closely at our situation, we ought to find some evidence of this

Lets begin by seeing if there is any sensory evidence. Well start with vision. Is there any direct
visual evidence of containment?

Next slide: Rodins Thinker

Hes trying to find where awareness is.

Trying to conceptualize it, embrace it.

Meanwhile, it is embracing him the whole time.

Next slide: Arisings in Awareness

Our direct experience IS NOT that awareness is contained within the mind, the brain or

Rather, our experience is that containment, mind, metaphors, brain, perception, the person, and
intersubjectivity themselves arise in awareness.


Lets try a few experiments to do a little of this looking. Let us be scientific and empirical about
this and see what our direct experience shows us. If we really are inside a container with a world
outside, then if we look closely at our situation, we ought to find some evidence of this

Lets begin by seeing if there is any sensory evidence. Is there any direct visual evidence of

The Tent

There are good and serviceable examples of containment in experience. But the containment is
local and limited and escapable; it is not global. A good example of containment in experience
would be this:
Imagine you are on a camping trip with friends. You wake up after a nap and look at the wall
of your tent. You see a vague lighted area around ground level. You smell a very faint hickorysmoke fragrance. You hear muffled voices. And you see indentations moving back and forth in
the canvas, as though someone is moving their finger back and forth.
You stick your head out the door. Aha! You can see the camp fire. You can smell the hickory
smoke more vividly. You hear your friends voices clearly. And you see that a tree branch is
scraping the outside wall of the tent. You can check all these impressions by poking your head
back in the tent. Yes! You can see the effects on the inside of the activities on the outside!

Notice that here, you can see an inside, an outside, and a canvas border in between. Containment
is a helpful concept here in the everyday sense.

But does this mean that containment is a good metaphor for all of experience? Is experience a big
tent? Is our field of vision or field of sensation actually a container, with an inside and outside? Are
there true causes outside the container of experience? Can you find the actual wall that separates
the outside from the inside?

There is no OUTSIDE to the container 1/2

Direct experience with vision

We will begin by looking for direct evidence of a container evidence would consist of a wall or
border between our sensations and beyond them. We will also search for something that lies
beyond the border if we find a border. Lets see if our search is successful.

Take out a pencil or a pen and put it on the floor, on top of a coat or you lap. Relax and let us
inquire into the visual experience. Taking the visual experience on its own, without attending to
sound, touch, without relying on memory, history or science what is our direct experience
related to the pencil?
Lets investigate whether we see anything on the outside of what we see.

Allow yourself to do these steps without rushing. Look slowly and directly without thought,
memory, or theory:

There is no OUTSIDE to the container 2/2

Try these steps

Going by direct visual experience, we see color and shape. A yellow that is surrounded by other
colors. These colors are arising arranged in various shapes. Allow your vision to focus on the
pencil color. This color is present.

Check your visual evidence for anything about this color that indicates a pencil lying
beyond it.


Check to see if there is anything that indicates a pencil that resembles this color.


Check to see if there is anything about this color indicating that there is a pencil causing
this color to arise. The color is present.


Check to see - is there anything about that color that points to a pencil somewhere else?


Check to see do you see any unseen colors?

From this experiment our direct experience shows that we do not experience the outside of a
container the way the container metaphor suggests. What we do experience is direct and
gaplessly present with no evidence of containment, bordering, or anything missing.

There is no INSIDE to the container

Going by direct visual experience, we see color and shape. A yellow that is surrounded by other
colors. These colors are arising arranged in various shapes. Allow your vision to focus on the
pencil color. This color is present.

Again, staying with your direct visual experience, is there anything that marks off a gap
between the color arising to awareness, and the awareness itself? Do you see a fence
between the color and awareness?


Going by visual experience alone, do you see awareness being contained by the pencil
color. Even your entire visual field is made of colors. Do you see these colors enclosing
anything? Do you see them enclosed by anything?


Do you see awareness being bottled up by anything?

From this experiment our direct experience shows that we do not experience the inside of a
container the way the container metaphor suggests. We dont experience being on the inside of
something. What we do experience is free and open and un-bordered.

We are becoming free of the limiting assumptions of the container metaphor.

Does touch prove we are a container? 1/2

Direct experience with touch

Not only vision, but all the senses communicate this same freedom and openness. Let us try
touch, which is most often thought to as the definitive proof of containment. We will try the
simple exercise of touching the surface of our table.

Find a small patch of surface on the table in front of you. Lay the tips of your fingers on a part
of this patch. Now gently allow your eyes to close.

Attend only to the sense of touch, not to visual imagination, or memory or thoughts about
causation. Feel the texture and pattern. Now allow your hand to move back and forth ever so
slightly. Feel the texture, arising like a rhythm. Notice that nothing in the felt sensations
indicates that a hand is present.

Allow your hand to rise off the surface for a moment. Notice another sensation, much more
subtle. We do not experience the previous texture as now existing somewhere else, as if
offstage. Now allow your hand to gently touch the surface again. One sensation arises and
falls, then another, then another. All of them are open and freely embraced by witnessing

Does touch prove we are a container? 2/2

Try these steps


Staying only with the sense of touch, is there anything in the texture that communicates
another object beyond, an un-touched object beyond the texture or on the other side of
the texture?


Is there anything about the texture itself that points to a table that is causing the texture?


Does the texture point to an independent object that resembles the texture?


Feel the warmth or coolness. Does the warmth or coolness indicate something beyond?


Now feel the hardness or softness, which are a combination of texture and kinesthetic
movement. Is there something in the experience of the hardness or softness that
communicates an un-touched object beyond itself? That is, do you feel an un-felt texture?

Our direct experience has failed to find an inside, an outside, a border, or an untouched region
beyond our direct experience. The container metaphor is really losing its grip it simply does not
agree with our direct experience!

The Body and Mind

These sorts of experiments can be carried out investigating the body and mind as well, both in
stillness and in movement.

This is particularly fruitful, since it overturns the everyday container-influenced gestalt that were
raised with, according to which the body or the mind are thought to contain us.

The sensations, feelings and thoughts from which we conclude the world, body and mind are
shown to be free.

The body arises in awareness, as awareness free, open, made out of awareness itself.

These realizations are easier to make after the container metaphor is no longer pivotal, when it is
realized as a stale and inaccurate way of categorizing experience.

When these realizations are unshakable, our lack of separation is irreversible, regardless of
whether were sitting, standing, lying, walking, running, or racing on a bicycle.


The death of the container metaphor is life for the globality of our experience.

Deconstructing this web of assumptions frees our understanding of our experience. The
assumptions behind the container metaphor are just another belief system.

The world, body and mind arise in awareness, as awareness free, open, made out of awareness

After the falling away of the container metaphor, we no longer think of awareness or experience
as separate or localized or personal. We realize the nondual truth of our nature that we have
always been global, open and unlimited, without separation or division, and that this is our direct
experience always and already.

Greg Goode ( (c) 2009

Presented at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, California, October 24, 2009