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What Is Contemporary Spirituality? (+ A Practice for Shared Awareness)

What Is Contemporary Spirituality? (+ A Practice for Shared Awareness)

Edited by Zaya & Maurizio Benazzo, co-editors of On the Mystery of Being

When we began our spiritual journey, we searched long and hard for a teacher and a path. We traveled to India, studied sacred texts, and tried many different practices. The beginning of Science and Nonduality (SAND) itself was inspired by the desire to bring together all the pointers we had found along our journey and share them with our community.

It is a time-honored truth that there are many different paths, but only one reality. In our interconnected world, spiritual knowl­edge that may have been kept hidden for centuries is just one click away. In this new paradigm, the roles of teachers and mystics have also shifted.

The spiritual teacher is no longer seen as a perfect being that once attained eternal knowledge and now lives in constant bliss. The new mystics are open, authentic, and human; they speak of “ordinary awakening,” and live among us. They are open to dialogue with teachers from other traditions, and even with scientists.

They do not lead us toward a special state, nor do they speak of transcending our human form. They invite us not to take anything for granted, but to explore, question, and carefully investigate every­thing through our own direct experience.

Today’s spiritual teachers point to the intelligence of our hearts, and spark a love affair with truth and wonder. They meet us where we are, in our very struggle, and invite us to tend to our human experience while remembering our divine nature. They direct us to discover each and every moment as the ultimate teacher, and remind us that we are never apart from the mystery, from the truth of exis­tence, from consciousness, from God.

Allow us to introduce you to one of these new teachers: people like you and us sharing their experience, their love for the mystery, and their humanity.

May their words shine light on our path, may they open our hearts.

--Zaya & Maurizio Benazzo, cofounders of the Science and Nonduality (SAND) Conference

The Magic of Shared Awareness

SALLY KEMPTON

A doe and two fawns often visit my back garden. They settle in under the oaks, keeping a close eye on my window. If I’m on the porch, they will engage with me in long moments of mutual eye-gazing. It often feels as if they are beaming a kind of affectionate curiosity in my direction. At moments, it can seem as if presence in the deer is gazing at presence in me.

One of the sweetest ways I know of to recognize nondual pres­ence is to gaze into the eyes of another being. The first spiritual group I worked with, in the 1970s, practiced left-eye gazing. If you’ve done that practice, you know how psychedelic it can be. You look at someone’s face, and watch it morph and shift. Young faces take on sage-like qualities of wisdom, then become fierce or opaque. They can shift gender, or age fifty years in a moment. Sometimes you see ten or twenty different faces on the same person. Our group got fascinated with these phenomena for a while, but it soon became clear that something deeper, something much more interesting, was going on.

Over time, I discovered that if two people could let go of their various fears and agendas, they would both enter a space of insight, love, and connectedness that was profound and dynamic. The gaze of the other person catalyzed a connection to awareness itself. When we talked about our experience later, we’d often remark that there seemed to be no such thing as “my awareness” and “your awareness.” There was only one awareness, and it was shared. When you medi­tate with another person, with eyes open, and the intention to allow shared awareness to reveal itself, something greater than the two of you emerges. Awareness shared is awareness squared, awareness to the nth power. In those moments, there is no other.

I believe that human intimacy is, at its core, an experiment in recognizing shared awareness in the midst of apparent difference. Think about your moments of deep intimacy. Didn’t they include a feeling of entering together into the subtle and tender field of “knowing,” a sense of being in touch with a shared recognition of your shared conscious depths?

Some schools of nondual wisdom say that individual humans are vehicles through which pure awareness—the transpersonal intelligence that underpins life—can experience itself. In this sense, the mind of a human being is an emergent activity of the great mind, of cosmic consciousness itself. When we sit together and focus toward awareness, the thoughts and impressions that define us as egoic selves begin to dissolve. It becomes more possible to feel the presence of the greater field that encloses us all.

Normally, when I’m with another person, their thought stream and my thought stream negotiate, each of us inwardly wondering, Am I seen? Am I okay in this relationship? Will I get hurt? Is this person my kind of person?

In meditative intimacy, two people can discover that when they both inhabit aware presence, they create doorways into truth and awareness that can take them far beyond the ordinary level of human communication. Sharing presence in this way is naturally therapeutic, because it lets you hold your own or someone else’s suf­fering in a field of acceptance. It is inherently creative, because it allows ideas and solutions to surface out of the shared field.

More than that, it is a doorway into the infinite.

Traditionally, if you practiced sharing awareness with another person, it was with a guru or teacher, and the transmission of con­sciousness only went one way. Eye-to-eye transmission of shakti has always been a technique by which a teacher transmits grace and inner states of awareness to a student. If you were the student, you tried to take in the high or enlightened or loving state of the teacher, and if you were the teacher you intended to pass on your state to the student.

Yet peer-to peer transmission is the true heart of spiritual com­munity. Once we realize that each of us can connect soul to soul, awareness to awareness, it becomes natural to be able to awaken each other through our gaze. Of course, the more clarity and love each of us has cultivated, the more powerful the transmission that we can offer another. But because awareness is ever-present, it is not so hard to develop the skill of opening to that space with someone else. Once you’ve glimpsed it, once you’ve felt it, there is a neurologi­cal memory of it inside your system, and then it’s a matter of coming back to it again and again until you develop a real sense of what it feels like to be in presence, both alone and with someone else.

A Practice for Shared Awareness

It’s helpful to cultivate shared awareness with an informal protocol. I like to do it by combining an inner body awareness (dropping into my heart-center) with an awareness of three things: the heart-space in my partner, the space behind my body at the level of the heart, and the space behind the other person’s heart.

As in any meditation, you notice and let go of thoughts or emo­tions or fears as they arise. As you develop the sense of a spatial connection that is independent of your thoughts about each other, you become able to inhabit a sense of presence that encloses and includes both of you. You can rest in your own awareness and simul­taneously connect with the other person, not trying to impose any agenda on the experience or on the person you’re working with.

At that point, it becomes possible not only to sit in shared spa­cious presence together, but also to access wisdom together. The relationship that forms in those moments is not simply empathic. You become embodiments of sacred presence for each other, in which truths can be spoken, even tough ones, in which enormous vulnerability can be accessed and healed. This happens because the consciousness-space is intrinsically healing and transformative.

To practice in this shared space of consciousness is to realize and know that human intimacy is a true portal into wholeness—a doorway into the divine.

Adapted from an excerpt from On the Mystery of Being

Mystical images

Zaya Benazzo is a filmmaker from Bulgaria with degrees in engineering, environmental science, and film. For many years, she worked as an environmental activist in Holland and Bulgaria, and later produced and directed several award-winning documentaries in Europe and the United States.

Maurizio Benazzo grew up in Italy, and in 1984 came to the United States on a ninety-eight-year-old sailing boat. He started working as an actor, model, and filmmaker, but his thirst for knowledge was only satisfied in 2001 upon encountering I Am That, the seminal work by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, while he was in India shooting the award-winning documentary Short Cut to Nirvana.

Maurizio and Zaya merged their lifelong passions for science and mysticism when they met in 2007, and their first project together was filming the documentary Rays of the Absolute on the life and teachings of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. This project sparked their next level of creation and collaboration: Science and Nonduality (SAND)—a global community inspired by the timeless wisdom traditions, informed by modern science, and grounded in direct experience.