The central teachings of Advaita, (and some other spiritual legacies), are few and stark.
- What we take ourselves to be - we are not.
- What we are is the unknown or God or the Oneness.
As human beings we take ourselves to be separate from other human beings, from the world and from God. This is our lived experience. Our lived experience is that of separation. So the teachings seem contrary to our lived experience, and therefore utopian and fantastic. And yet when the time comes, they draw us to their discovery like moths to a flame.
The teachings point to the truth of what we are. And when we desire to know what we are, we come to the teaching. There is no faking this desire.
If something within us spontaneously stays curious about this even amidst all the intelligent protests of mind; if we find ourselves encountering this teaching in our lives again and again somehow, and some small part of us feels compelled to go there, then the desire is there and will chart its own course.
So the teachings tell us that all separation is an illusion. But they don't discount our lived experience. Rather they help us to see that what we take ourselves to be has reality (as we already know), but it is the reality of a mirage.
It is very real when we are in it. But there is a larger reality within which the mirage itself occurs, and from which the mirage can be seen as a mirage. This larger reality which is simultaneously all-inclusive and yet totally empty is the oneness or non-duality that Advaita points to as our true nature.
What is said above may give the impression that the great teachings are putting us on a self-improvement program, with a step-by-step process to becoming self-realized or the highest and best thing to be. :-) This is not so. Certainly our desire to know what we truly are may put us on a spiritual journey, but we are not somehow becoming the Oneness or God through the course of this journey.
We are always and already the Oneness. There is no arriving someplace. Because every place is that. There is no becoming somebody. Because every body is that. There is no way to not be that which we truly are.
But the issue is that we don't see this or experience this clearly, and so we feel we are outside that somehow, separate from God, separate from all there is. All suffering derives from this sense of separation - the firm belief ensconced in mind and body that I am a separate being.
This has also been likened to dreaming. Within the dream everything seems real and we suffer and we rejoice. Yet the truth, as we see clearly, is that we wake up from the dream every morning and know it was just a dream. In other words it is the nature of the dream to be full of stories. Similarly it is the nature of human life to go through this experience of separation.
The mind races ahead with questions as to why this might be so and how this truth can be realized and so on.
Broadly speaking there are 2 aspects to this realization - one is the understanding of what is being pointed to and the other is the living of it. The authentic desire to know what we are is what orchestrates the spiritual journey for each one.
There is no telling what the journey may look like for anyone. For some (very rare few) there may be no experience of a journey at all. Understanding may dawn and it is lived in, as, of and through, that human form, right away. For most others (and certainly for me) the body-mind complex gradually transforms in the living of this realization.
And yet the great paradox which is recognized is that the one that transforms is the same oneness, before, during and after the transformation! :-)
We are always and already that. And the experience of separation occurs within that which we are. This oneness is not the opposite of many. The many arise within it, as expressions of it, confused or otherwise.