Implicit-explicit gradient of nondual awareness or consciousness-as-such

On Zoran Josipovic’s Implicit-explicit gradient of nondual awareness or consciousness-as-such.

This is just an explanation of a paper that I found very provocative: 1) it provides a theory of nonduality grounded loosely in neuroscience and 2) it relates in a deep way to some of the core claims of Heidegger, which are important for understanding the grand mistake within analytic philosophy.

Nondual awareness is emphasized mostly in Himalayan Buddhism. Consciousness research, as far as I can tell, has typically taken an approach more informed by sutric Buddhism, with its emphasis on emptiness. This paper is interesting partly because it brings the lens of consciousness science to nondual awareness.

A note on language: The paper (and my post) attempts to talk about some things that language is not very good at capturing. It is at various parts be vague and confusing. That’s going to be a mixture of my lack of understanding and the fact that the thing I’m pointing to is wholistic, irreducible, outside of the subject-object dichotomy (nondual), while language mostly functions with a reducible subject-object (dualistic) structure1.

A big caveat is that many of the points I’m going to make are probably subtly wrong. I’ve done my best to be clear but I hope this is essay treated as a loose provocation rather than a precise description of experience.

The paper is filled with many provocations, and I’ve selected a couple here for a closer look. For the most part, I ignored the neuroscience (~40%) because I’m unfamiliar with the terminology.

Nondual awareness as the broadest way of knowing

The concept “Apples are red” is one type of knowing. It ‘exists’ in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. You might call this ‘factual’ or ‘propositional’ knowing. How to ride a bike is another type of knowing. You might call this ‘procedural knowing’2.

A conventional view holds that all types of knowing ultimately resides in the brain, and that we could be ‘brains living in vats’ (ref: that we form explicit representations of all inputs and then act to minimize prediction error. The part nondual awareness people object to is the explicit representation part). People who take nondual awareness seriously reject this view, and believe that there is a very broad form of knowing that unifies the brain, body, and environment in a non-conceptual but direct experience.

It’s difficult to talk about with words, and sounds mystical until an experience in an altered state of mind (whether through substances, meditation or by happenstance), ‘pulls back the veil’ of concepts, and reveals this background knowing. ‘Nondual awareness’ points to this background knowing.

Nondual awareness is always present, on a gradient from explicit to implicit

Achieving and sustaining explicit nondual awareness is often the stated goal within Tibetan Buddhism3.

Here are some dimensions of explicit nondual awareness4:

From the paper:

Nondual awareness as a mirror to phenomena

Imagine a room with furniture in it, and a large mirror. You are standing in front of the mirror, and all you can see is what appears in the mirror. The mirror simply reflects what is in the room, without changing any of the objects. The brightness of the room is global awareness. The amount of furniture is phenomenal content. Nondual awareness is the mirror, and it contains everything open to your perception.

What is the function of nondual awareness? It unifies the external and internal, and provides space for conscious experience5.

Axes of consciousness.


Consciousness is high dimensional, but consciousness researchers have often conceptualized it in 2 dimensions: global state and phenomenal content6.

Global state is about how alert you are to the stuff in your field of awareness. Phenomenal content is about how much stuff is in your field of awareness.

Low global state High global state
Low phenomenal content Non-REM sleep Open awareness meditation
High phenomenal content Very tired while dancing at a concert In the flow of a competitive basketball game

Josipovic proposes that we should think of a third axis, nondual awareness, that is independent of these two axes. He proposes that it’s always there, but is either implicit, transitory, or explicit. I have a felt sense of what he’s pointing to here, but I can’t provide examples. The earlier attempts in the paper (described above) is as far as he (and thus I) can describe.

Nondual awareness is always obscuring itself from itself

This is right at the edge of my understanding, but I want to point out a parallel here.

From the paper:

“Nondual awareness is also the most intimate aspect of experience—who one is as a conscious, aware presence in all one’s experiences—so that the ways in which one is defensively distancing from one’s authenticity contribute to it remaining hidden and implicit. The non-preferential, all-encompassing mode of knowing and experiencing that characterizes nondual aware-ness can trigger psychological defenses that keep unacceptable and threatening aspects of one’s experience from one’s conscious self, so that, at a subconscious level, allowing nondual awareness to become explicit may be experienced as threatening (Blackstone 2007; Lindahl et al. 2017). Nondual contemplative traditions point to an even deeper level, at which nondual awareness is obscured from itself by the unconscious indeterminate substrate, or store-house consciousness, which is thought to function as a container for storing memories, akin to the psychodynamic notion of the unconscious (Germano and Waldron 2006; Higgins 2019)”

In Hubert Dreyfus’ commentary on Heidegger, he points out:

“Dasein’s way of being, however, is so unsettling that, just because it is constantly sensed, it is constantly covered up”7.

I also think that there’s a deep relationship between Heidegger’s account of death and the response to emptiness that meditative practitioners will discuss8.

As Heidegger points out in the last section of Being and Time, Care (Sorge) is the meaning of our being. Nondual awareness is the background out of which our being comes. I think they are talking about very similar aspects of being.

There’s some contextual evidence for this. In Heidegger’s Hidden Sources, Reinhard May argues that Heidegger was heavily influenced by the eastern philosophy of both Daoism and Zen Buddhism. It’s only in the context of Zorapovic’s paper that I’ve seen the explicit link.


  1. This is incidentally partly why Heidegger is so damn hard to read; he was trying to fashion language to escape some of these problems ↩︎

  2. See Vervaeke’s 4 P’s of knowing ↩︎

  3. Really, I mean Vajrayana Buddhism. For textual evidence, see Namkhai Norbu’s “The Crystal and the Way of Light”, The Six Yogas of Naropa, or the teachings of any Vajrayana master. ↩︎

  4. It’s tempting to think of nondual awareness, like bliss or ecstasy, as ‘just another state’, but traditions hold explicitly that it is a ‘stateless state’ that is always present, and is paradoxically felt by non-doing, rather than doing ↩︎

  5. My explanation here is unsatisfying to me. Many volumes of books on the nature of nonduality. “In the Buddhist tradition, non-duality (advaya) is associated with the teachings of interdependence and emptiness (śūnyatā) and the two truths doctrine, particularly the Madhyamaka teaching of the non-duality of absolute and relative truth; and with the Yogachara notion of “mind/thought only” (citta-matra) or “representation-only” (vijñaptimātra).” Source ↩︎

  6. See Bayne, Tim, Jakob Hohwy, and Adrian M. Owen. “Are there levels of consciousness?.” Trends in cognitive sciences 20.6 (2016): 405-413. ↩︎

  7. Pp 33, Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s being in time, division I. MIT Press, 1990. ↩︎

  8. There is a section in Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s _Roaring Silence _that I can’t find right now that talks about the experience of emptiness as being akin to confronting death. This is a speculative loose link for now. ↩︎