Non-duality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental, intrinsic oneness. For thousand of years, through deep inner inquiry, philosophers and sages have came to the realization that there is only one substance and we are all, therefore, a part of it. This substance can be called Awareness, Consciousness, Spirit, Advaita, Brahman, Tao, Nirvana or even God. It is constant, ever present, unchangeable and is the essence of all existence.
In the last century, Western scientists are arriving at the same conclusion: fundamentally we are individual expressions of a single entity, inextricably connected to one another like drops of water in the same ocean. In 2009, husband and wife team Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo (she's from Bulgaria, he's Italian) founded Science and Non-Duality (SAND) whose annual conference has become a meeting place for preeminent scientists, philosophers, spiritual teachers, and mystics to explore the new paradigm emerging in spirituality and grounded in cutting-edge science. There is nothing quite like SAND. Where else will you find a Buddhist monk chatting with a Jungian analyst over lunch, Deepak Chopra talking about enlightenment to a roomful of quantum physicists, or a Catholic priest in yoga pants practicing his downward dog? Heady, visionary, and unique, the SAND Conference is a must-attend for anyone interested in the evolution of spiritual awareness in the 21st century.
Recently, I spoke to the Benazzos from their home in the Bay Area, about SAND, non-duality, and why mysticism isn't a dirty word.
Mark Matousek: Before we talk about SAND, I’d like to know a little about your respective paths as scientific and spiritual seekers.
Maurizio Bennazzo: I was brought up Catholic, in Italy, and even attempted to become a monk for a short when I was in my early 20’s. I got involved in everything I could put my hands on after that. Yoga, Buddhism, Zen, TM. Finally, I went to India looking for gurus. I don’t know if you are familiar with the movie Short Cut to Nirvana…
MM: I am.
MB: Well, after shooting that movie I rented an Enfield motorcycle and went everywhere. I kept bumping into this book called I Am That by a guy named Nisargadatta Maharaj. When I came back in the U.S,, I bought it and it absolutely blew my mind. Shortly after that, Zaya and I started making films about Nisargadatta with Stephen Wolinsky. But I was mystically oriented from a very early age.
Zaya Benazzo: For me it’s the same. I’d been asking the big questions since I remember. I grew up during Communist times and so, for me, finding spiritual literature until my early twenties was very difficult. I grew up with Autobiography of a Yogi and Carlos Castaneda. These were the two spiritual paths that I could follow through the books because I was living in a cold society where they wanted no spirituality at all. It was all underground, between friends discussing and sharing precious books that we could get our hands on in Russian. Later, when Communism fell, I was able to come to the States to follow Castaneda. For ten years that was my spiritual path, Carlos Castaneda and the shamanic journey, until I found Nisargadatta and everything else fell aside. It was as if lightning struck after reading that! At that point, I also met Maurizio and we had an instantaneously deep connection.
MB: On our first date, we went to India to shoot a movie on Nisargadatta. (laughs) Within three weeks we were seriously dating. We found ourselves in the middle of Mumbai shooting a movie on Nisargadatta. Barely knowing one another. If a relationship can survive that, all the rest is kid’s stuff! Nisargadatta would say, “What I’m teaching is not spirituality. One day, scientists will come to understand this. This is not spiritual knowledge, this is scientific understanding.”
ZB: He would often send his students to study quantum physics or to get a Ph.D. in mathematics because he saw that that was their portal to grasping this knowledge.
MB: Both of us were majorly intrigued by science when we were growing up. It has always been our passion, the understanding of how things work.
MM: You studied engineering, Zaya?
ZB: Yes. I did my engineering degree and studied a lot of mathematics. I completely fell in love with mathematics and was using mathematics to comprehend more abstract ideas about infinity and time. I felt such a sense of awe from the understanding of mathematics.
MM: How do you explain the philosophical path of non-duality to a layman?
ZB: In non-duality, there is the understanding that there is only one substance, one energy, that comprises the entire universe. Everything emerges and dissolves into that one substance. Nothing has an independent reality from that substance. In the Advaita tradition, this would be called consciousness. Everything arises and subsides in consciousness. But consciousness as the term is used in the Advaita tradition is very different from our usage in the West. Western scientific tradition teaches that consciousness is generated in the brain, by the brain. There is a new paradigm emerging now (that the brain is a part of consciousness—the ground of being—but not its ultimate source Ed.). Non-duality is about interdependence and interconnectedness.
MB: Nothing is separate. The distance between you and me is not a separateness. It is filled with the same substance that comprises the known universe. Everything comes from this substance. Advaita means ‘not two’. It’s like fish in the water. Are they part of the water? Yes. Is the water part of the ocean? Yes. In the same way, we are all part of the ocean of consciousness, completely immersed in it, with no way to separate ourselves. We are waves that will eventually be reabsorbed in the ocean. But we’re not separate. Without the ocean, the wave doesn’t exist.
ZB: This means that the wave does not have separate reality from the ocean. In the same way, we, as separate individuals, have no reality that is separate from consciousness.
MB: Our bodies are part of a larger organism that we call life.
ZB: It is fascinating that science is now giving us data to support what mystics have been saying forever. We are far from understanding everything but we are starting to have glimpses. Neuroscience today is confirming that the world is "appearing" in front of us every morning. It does not have an absolute independent reality but is a complex construct by our brain based on the limited band of our sensory perception coupled with social, cultural, and psychological biases. Mystics from all traditions have been pointing to that fact for thousand of years: this world that we perceive is an illusion (what they call maya in the East). Illusion doesn’t mean it does not exist. It means it’s not what it appears to be.
MM: Non-duality has always struck me as more empirical than spiritual, in fact. That’s why it mirrors the scientific method. It’s about experience not faith.
ZB: Exactly. It’s not a spiritual path with certain practices that you follow in order to achieve fixed goals. It’s a deep, subtle realization that unfolds everyday in your life. You taste it everyday and it’s very subtle and, yet, it transforms the way you see others and the way you do things in the world.
MM: Because we are not two?
MB: Precisely. That's what SAND is all about.