Advaita Revisited: The Religion of Reductionism — How outdated logic leads to a denial of what is
05 Dec 2012
Advaita or nondual spirituality uses outdated logic and reductionist reasoning in order to reduce reality to a concept of unity in which everything contradicting this concept is denied, including our own selves.
NONDUAL SPIRITUALITY OR ADVAITA takes a unified view of the reality. The fundamental premise of this spirituality is that everything is one — there is no separation. The term 'Advaita' literally means 'not two', and its focus is on living the consequences of this premise of total unity of All-That-Is.
Today, a simplified version of nondual spirituality called neo-Advaita is becoming increasingly popular in the West, with an endless stream of modern teachers 'waking up' and proclaiming themselves 'enlightened', many of whom themselves become teachers. This is why there are a burgeoning number of modern Advaita teachers. Some of the established ones that you might have heard of are: Tolle, Mooji, Gangaji, Adyashanti, Kiloby, Foster and Parsons. But there are now hundreds of others and the numbers are increasing exponentially. [Go to Youtube and do a search on the phrase "nondual awakening" - https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=nondual+awakening, and you will see the enormous variety of modern teachers/gurus.]
Central to Advaita is a questioning process called Self-Enquiry in which we look deeply and continuously at our responses to the question "Who am I?" (or "What am I?"). This question focuses our minds on the perspective of identity in our experience, and when examined superficially shows us how much we identify with perceived identity or ego. But when we examine identity more deeply, we have the opportunity to realize that identity is an illusion because there is no 'I' that can be pinned down. This realization is called 'awakening' in the Advaita community, and is often equated with the term 'enlightenment'. For when we awaken to the truth that identity is an illusion, our whole center in life, which has always assumed an individual 'self' experiencing life, is profoundly shifted into just whole 'experiencing', with no subjective self and objective world — no separation!
But like many spiritual renaissances, this process is not all what it seems. Many assumptions are being unconsciously made, assumptions that are not being questioned. "Who or what am I?" is not the only question we need to ask ourselves, but the other questions you will never hear mentioned in the Advaita community because they undermine Advaita itself. But if we are genuinely on a quest for truth, we must ask them. This is what this essay is about — it is to get the reader to question Advaita itself.
As these other questions are not asked, there are a lot of teachers out there playacting awakening, hiding behind denial of self rather than absence of self, and almost nobody is calling them on it. And if they are called on it, the questioner is dismissed in the same manner that the ego is dismissed — using denial. So this essay is a journey into nondual awakening; it is for those who are tired of the modern guru/teacher 'runaround'. The author assumes no authority in these matters other than questioning assumptions that are being made, including the assumption that most, if not all, of the neo-Advaitic emperors are wearing fine sets of silk robes. After all, accepting Advaita without questioning it is no better than accepting any set of religious beliefs without question.
Each of us carries around in our body-minds an autobiography which we label as 'self'. This autobiography tells the story of who we are and how we became this way. The reason we are identified with our story is that it gives us positionality in space and time, ordering our experiences and our memories into a consistent logical sequence. Without a story, our experience can seem very disjointed because we then do not have a story to corral our experiences and actions in the moment. Without a story, life loses its continuity, we forget where we end and another begins. And without a story it becomes difficult to catalogue life's experiences and memories.
Our personal story of who we are is the primary myth by which we live. It is weaved into our thoughts, emotions, feelings, energies and physical sensations, as well as our relationships, our social standing, work, fashion, lifestyle, diet, interests and activities. Indeed, all these facets of our being and of our lives collude in maintaining an identity which we call 'me' or 'I'. From a psychological perspective, this is sometimes labelled the 'ego'. But this is misleading as the story of 'I' goes far beyond the conscious mind and right into the unconscious. We are used to seeing the 'ego' as 'identity software' — an 'add on' or 'bolt on' app to our lives that things it is the controller or the driver of the car — but we must not forget that identity is another facet of the car itself. The two cannot be so easily bisected. Again, if you think that ego is somehow separate from the rest of you, even when regarded as fantasy, then you are living in duality.
So our first additional question is to look at the unconscious and to ask ourselves whether identity can be found in other layers of our being. Is identity just about the conscious mind? Do we have identity when we sleep, or when we are on DMT? Do we have identity in that moment of orgasm? It is very easy to dismiss identity during peak experiences, but if you look closely you will find that there is still an assumption of identity lurking in the shadows.
The personal myth, therefore, goes much deeper than just intellectual beliefs; it is embedded in the bedrock of our being. And in turn, this myth recruits our thoughts, emotions, feelings and physical sensations to support it in a symbiotic relationship.
From an Advaita perspective, It is believed that the myth or story of ourselves is where our suffering comes from. For when things happen that are inconsistent with our story, when life does not validate who we think we are and what we think we deserve, we suffer.
So it is believed that by removing or dismissing as illusion our personal story, there will be nothing for us to compare reality with and therefore suffering will cease. We are no longer personally invested in an outcome. This removal of our personal story is generally achieved in Advaita, as mentioned above, by the process of self-enquiry: "Who am I?". ("What am I?" can also be asked.) This question tries to reduce 'I' into a 'who' or a 'what', and when we find with deep introspection that the 'I' cannot be reduced, we come to the realization that the 'I' does not exist. As a result, we let go of identity and drop into full acceptance of what is — we wake up to reality. At least this is some individuals' claimed experiences are.
The Santa Claus Fallacy
There is a fallacy going around modern Advaita circles that if we witness the fictitious nature of self, of our autobiography, even just once, somehow that identity will drop and we will suddenly be changed forever more, free from its effects for the rest of our lives. The analogy often given is that once we realize that Santa Claus is not real, we never mistake him for a real person again. But this is clearly not true. We may have a Eureka moment when we realize that Santa Claus is fictional, but afterwards we may still act as if he is real and get excited seeing depictions of him because of his strong association with Christmas. Santa Claus is symbolically real, he is a myth deeply embedded in much more than just our conscious minds, one that will take a lot more than conscious denial to expunge.
It is a bit like saying that those who suffer from fear of ghosts can be cured by having them consciously realize that ghosts are not real. And yet, despite the conscious mind coming to such realizations and conclusions, the fear often remains. I personally find horror films terrifying, despite knowing for absolute certainty that I am watching a film and that the monster hiding in the cellar is not real (much to the amusement of any friends are with me).
The line between reality and fantasy is not a clean one; the blur between the two is the territory of symbols, myths and archetypes. These form a quasi-realities that some label as the collective unconscious, realities that defy classification. Look closely at a symbol or a myth and we see it is a fiction, but at the same time it still holds a very powerful reality and truth. In fact, symbols and myths can have a more powerful effect on us than what we classify as real because they span many different levels in our being.
So just because we cannot find self as a thing — a real object — does not automatically classify it as unreal or illusory. That would be an extremely polarized view. Something can be both real and unreal because there are so many dimensions to existence. Paradoxically, Advaita is very polarized in its perspective of reality — something is either real (awareness) or it is fantasy (everything else). And to maintain unity, the fantasy is dismissed as non-existent. It is denied. But this dismisses the psychological richness of life which includes symbols, myths and the collective unconscious. The assumption that our conscious mind is somehow the absolute arbiter of what is real and what is not real is itself questionable. Indeed, the conscious mind struggles to affirm the reality of any ephemeral phenomena.
We must ask ourselves, therefore, whether the 'I' can still exist when it disappears upon close examination. Can something be real from a psychological perspective, but not exist if we focus on its objective reality?
In the same way that Santa Claus is dismissed as illusory because his literal reality cannot be verified, we can come to the same realization that the 'I' does not exist because its reality cannot be verified. When we look with a literal mind for Santa Claus, we find nothing. And when we look with the literal mind for 'I' under the microscope of examination, we also find nothing. This is similar to affirming that matter does not exist because when we look at the atom, we find empty space. (Even the tiny subnuclear particles in this space turn out to be empty space as well.)
Actually, there are many things that cease to exist when we examine them closely. For example, when we look at a painting very closely, we just see patches of dried paint or just RGB pixels in the case of digital art; when we examine the reality of the internet, we find only binary information stored on computers; when we analyse the love we have for another, we might only find physical sensations and mental pictures. In fact, most complex systems or higher-order phenomena disappear when they are intellectually (or literally) broken down. This is the reason that consciousness, for example, is dismissed by most scientists as an epiphenomena of the brain: look at it closely and it does not have the same reality that the neurons associated with it do — so these scientists conclude that neurons must be more primary than consciousness and therefore assume that these cells must be generating consciousness.
This is all just reductionism. We know that reductionism creates a very limited view of the world, and for most of us it is associated with the hard sciences. But, do we realize that Advaita uses reductionism to dismiss the self? After all, as mentioned above, the questions "Who am I?" and "What am I?" which lie at the heart of Advaita's self-enquiry are actually an invitation to our minds to reduce the complexity of 'I' into a 'who' or 'what'. When, upon close examination, the 'I' is found to be irreducible, we take it as proof that it is therefore illusory and does not exist. But is this valid? Does the non-existence of the 'I' in the reductionist worldview confirm that it does not exist, in the same way that the non-existence of consciousness in this worldview confirms that consciousness is an illusion? Bear in mind that reductionism is reductionism: there is no difference between the reductionism used by a scientist and that used by an awakened Advaita practitioner. If it is not okay for a scientist to use reductionism, why is it okay for an Advaita spiritual practitioner?
So Advaita uses reductionism to dismiss identity, just as a scientist uses reductionism to dismiss consciousness. But just because we dismiss something with our minds, of course, does not mean that what we dismiss ceases to exist. It only means that it does not exist in the reductionist paradigm.
This sets up the bizarre situation whereby scientists are quite happy to deny their primary experience — consciousness — in favour of a scientific reductionist worldview. Experience becomes secondary to belief. And in the same way, those who are 'awake' or 'enlightened' from an Advaitic perspective are quite happy to deny another primary experience — that of self or individuality.
But of course, just because we deny something does not make it go away, as any observant ostrich knows. Consciousness still haunts reductionist scientists, just as self or separation still haunts Advaitic practitioners. And when something haunts us, we often become obsessed with it. This is why those in Advaita, awakened or otherwise, tend to wax lyrical about the non-existence of self: it is a form of denial or wishful thinking.
So what happens to 'self' when it is denied? Identity merely re-establishes itself as non-identity, and whilst 'emptiness' may be the conscious experience, Santa Claus is skulking around in the shadows, outside conscious awareness and rationality. The 'I' is inverted into 'non-I', and the 'non-existent' ego morphs into an enlightened ego, a continuation of identity but with the mask of 'no-mask'. This is how the Advaita communities are rife with egotistical nobodies. In fact, you are not 'somebody' in these communities unless you are a nobody. And very few of these enlightened 'nobodies' realize that they are most definitely 'somebodies', and the few that do feel they are faking their Advaita awakening.
The fact is that if you had no identity, you wouldn't know whether to brush your own teeth or those of your dog each morning. Without identity we would need constant supervision as we would not be able to function individually: that is why babies, who genuinely have little to no identity, are helpless and need constant care. So identity in some form must still be there in 'awakened' individuals, just as consciousness is still there in reductionist scientists.
But if we cannot get rid of self because it is an integral part of us, does that dismiss the whole process of Advaitic 'awakening'? If we cannot kill the self but only deny it, does that mean that we are stuck with self and might as well forget any form of non-dual spiritual practice? The answer to those questions is an emphatic no! Just because self is along for the ride does not mean that we have to stop the spiritual journey into oneness. What is needed is the realization that 'self' is not a problem per se; what is a problem is an inflexible, limited and exaggerated 'self'. When the 'I' becomes fixed and overpowering, our lives become inauthentic, and we start to live shallow conceptual lives because that self defines our entire being.
But the solution to that is not to jettison the 'I', but to integrate it with the rest of our being so that our identity is in healthy balance to the rest of our being, For when the 'I' is integrated, it can paradoxically complement oneness rather than undermine it. This is because it has not been forced underground into 'non-ego' egotism, a development that is entirely contrary to true oneness, and so we are able to experience oneness without the underhanded sabotage of a 'non-ego' ego, which tries to own non-dual experience. Ego does not sneak into non-dual states when it is in healthy integration. It only creeps in when we deny it. This is a paradox — we cannot experience oneness unless we have an integrated ego.
This does not mean that it is healthy to be egotistical. But we must remember that egotism is actually the expression of an unhealthy ego, one that is out of balance, drunk on its own importance. Egotism arises from a sense of self that is not confident in its being, and so asserts itself too strongly. And ironically this is much more likely to happen if it is constantly persecuted as the block that prevents us from spiritual awakening. When we have a healthy sense of self, we find that overall the self naturally enlarges to include more and more as we mature, provided that the self feels somewhat secure and balanced. This process is not a smooth and continuous one, for our sense of self can substantially fluctuate even over short periods of time. In fact, and we will come to this soon, we can be in genuine non-dual 'no-self' at the same time we have an self.
But when we try to kill off identity, the result is ALWAYS the birth of the 'enlightened' ego. Individuals with enlightened egos are masters of denial and self-deception, totally identified with non-identity… lost in conceptual nothingness. Their lives become one massive denial of self, and when you meet someone with an enlightened ego, they will make sure that you are aware of their exalted spiritual status. In fact, any time you find yourself around someone with an enlightened ego, the best thing to do is run. For they will find some way to make you complicit in their deception, which will trigger a similar type of ego in yourself. So spending time with those lost in conceptual enlightenment is completely counterproductive. You would be better off being authentic in a normal ego-filled life than in a spiritual one under the tutelage of someone with an enlightened ego. This is because an enlightened ego denies its own existence, whereas a normal ego is just unconscious of its non-existence.
This is why conveyor-belt Neo-Advaitic awakening, which involves people being brought to consciously realize the fictitious nature of their identity, creates universal conceptual awakening in those it churns out. As long as awakening is merely equated with a new mental perspective or realization, one in which the ego is completely denied and which is independent of any spiritual practice such as service, discipline, morality etc., it will have no depth to sustain it.
You may remember the fable of the sun and the wind who try to get a man to remove his coat. The wind tries to blow it off with all his strength, but the man only wraps his coat tighter; the sun, on the other hand, takes a natural and gentle approach, and the man puts his coat down. (But notice that he does not throw his coat away.) In the same way, as we approach non-dual realizations the ego is not jettisoned, just as our intellect is not jettisoned. We need both of them to function in our Earthly existence.
Mind and Concepts
In modern Advaita circles, the illusory self, which is assumed to be the underlying cause of all separation, is seen as a belief that is primarily supported by our minds. For this reason, the mind is vilified as the cause of this 'self-deception'. This is why you often hear those who are conceptually awake proclaiming that they are 'no-mind' or in a state of 'silent mind'. The irony is that everything they are actually doing, saying and experiencing is coming through mind, so this is actually a denial of being rather than an affirmation of it. If we were beyond mind then we would not be using language for a start, and we could not function in any way, shape or form in our lives.
Many teachers, however, will assert that the mind continues to function, but that identification with mind is no longer there. But if that were true, could we really function rationally and sanely? Without some implied identity to contain our behaviour, would we not be at the whim of every impulse and desire, as we are in the dream state when the shackles of self are loosened? With no identity, we would not be able to tell the difference between us and anyone else; we would be lost in a sea of moving shapes and colours.
Minds are not objective observers: our primary experience is the creative interpretation of reality, including thoughts and fantasies that have little to do with reality. Minds construct reality — even perceived 'objective' reality. If we remove identification, we remove the control mechanisms in that mind. That might superficially sound like a good thing — who wants mind control? — but the fact is that anybody who has taken a strong psychotropic drug will know what minds are like when control is removed. We can easily be swept away into temporary insanity until the drug wears off and the control-systems of identity are restored. Now there is nothing particularly wrong with this, and some hardy psychonauts learn to ride the waves of a control-free mind, exploring the landscape of the psyche, but nobody can live a normal rational life whilst in that process. (You could certainly not drive a car if you did not have a mind.)
So mind is not the enemy. The mind is our vehicle to awakening; it is an integral part of us, just like the self is. Indeed, it cannot be anything other than an integral part of us, and to talk about 'no-mind' is merely a denial of it. It is certainly true that we can have experiences that are so deep that we are not using higher level mind functioning, but mind is always processing whatever reality or experience we have. And those who deny this fact are not in touch with reality, reducing experience to the concept of basic awareness and basic awareness alone.
The mind is often regarded as a duality machine. Indeed, the brain itself comes in two halves or hemispheres, joined by a bridge of neural fibres called the corpus callosum. We think in terms of opposites: hot-cold; like-dislike; big-small; good-bad; left-right etc. This is because one quality does not have any meaning separate to its opposite because the brain/mind is primarily an 'unanchored' information processing machine. In other words, thoughts only make sense in comparison to other thoughts — everything is relative. (Is this true? Can minds be in non-dual states as well? Perhaps this only applies to higher level mind functioning, and that deeper parts of mind are not in duality?)
The heart, on the other hand, is nondual, anchored in being and connection, which is why authentic heartfelt love is absolute and unconditional. (Hate is not the opposite of love because hate is not generated by the heart.)
So when the heart and the mind are integrated, the mind does have an absolute framework or grounding, and this means that it can potentially function in a non-dualistic manner. (Those disengaged from the heart are notorious for extreme dual thinking which can lead to terrible destruction and fragmentation. Most scientists and industrialists, for example, have too much head over heart, and the whole planet suffers the consequences.)
When the mind is integrated or synchronized with the heart, it is no longer necessarily a dualistic machine because it has an absolute framework of measurement — love/connection. Whilst Advaita teachers disparage the mind, they do accept the heart, but if the two are synchronized as one, how can we make this separation? And just because love is inclusive, why is it that some Advaita teachers talk about love, and others talk about emptiness? It seems there is some confusion as the quality of oneness. We are certainly taught in spiritual circles that love is where it's all at, and deep meditation leaves us bathed in love, but can love also be nothingness? Nisargadatta acknowledged this dichotomy when he said: "When I look within and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look without and see that I am everything, that is love. And between these two, my life turns." (Notice that even Nisargadatta is acknowledging a "two" or duality — emptiness and love; within and without. He is not trapped in non-dual dogma, but speaks from the heart.)
So the mind is not necessarily the cause of duality, and no matter how much we try to deny its existence, it is such an integral part of us that it is with us in every moment, even when we label our experience as 'no mind'.
The Oneness Dogma
The universe is one, and because it is one there is no separation. Therefore, anything that contradicts that oneness, anything that separates the whole, anything that creates a boundary, is considered illusory and defined out of existence. This is because oneness is considered exclusive or opposite to separation, so they cannot coexist.
But is this really true? Are oneness and separation really mutually exclusive opposites? This is an assumption, one that may seem logical, but logic is not always a sound validator of reality. After all, in quantum physics, a particle (separation) can act like a wave (unity) and vice versa. In fact, it is very hard to tell whether something is a particle or a wave as things tend to have aspects of both and neither. And in the same way, individuality and unity are not necessarily mutually exclusive, we can in fact experience both at the same time.
Aside: For more on the coexistence of unity and duality, read: www.realitymaps.com/2011/05-quantumadvaita.html. (I have changed many of my ideas on Advaita since writing that article.)
So if we reduce reality to unity, and define anything that contradicts this oneness as illusory, we are mutilating our experience of reality for the sake of our ideas. Advaita and especially neo-Advaita, is paradoxically the spirituality of mutilation because, in an effort to acknowledge only oneness, it dismisses or cuts away anything that contradicts that oneness, rather than integrating it. This cutting is a product of the mind — only the heart integrates. This is why Advaita is a very cerebral religion: it is the path of wisdom — jnana yoga. It uses the mind to go past the mind; it uses the mind and outdated logic to define the self out of existence.
When Advaita is mixed with devotion, the heart tempers this butchery of reality, allowing for integration and the free-flow of being. But with neo-Advaita, where heartfelt devotion has been all but dropped, we find only a butchered experience of reality, one defined by denial. There is no attempt at any integration; indeed, integration is frowned upon as a weakness of duality. After all, the very term 'integration' implies separate parts being brought together. Much easier just to stick our heads in the sand and absolutely and uncompromisingly deny the existence of anything that contradicts oneness. And ironically, this creates the ultimate duality: between reality and fantasy. A single reality of basic awareness is affirmed and everything else dismissed as fantasy, all in the name of unity!
This is the hallmark of fanaticism — inclusion goes out the window in favour of idealism. But Advaita practitioners would say that Advaita is nothing to do with mind so it cannot be 'idealism'! But this, again, is just more denial.
It is time we updated our ideas about unity and move from a Newtonian perspective to a quantum perspective. Advaitists are stuck in a Newtonian perspective — in an outdated logic of either-or (waves or particles; unity or separation). It is time to updated our logic and add the quantum possibilities of both and nothing, so that we can have both unity and separation concurrently, and neither (acknowledging indefinability), depending on our perspective. This quantum perspective is not new, in fact you can find it in the first part of the Buddhist Heart Sutra:
Form is emptiness;
Emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not other than form;
Form is not other than emptiness.
Here we can see quantum nonduality. Notice that this is not a denial of form; form (separation) is not being dismissed in the way it is in neo-Advaita. Both are acknowledged in one integrated whole. This is true non-duality, but one that a Newtonian mind will always struggle to cope with. So Advaita is a movement away from reality and into a simplified nondual fantasy, all in the name of reality!
It is believed that one of the best ways to wake up from the illusion of identity is to hang around someone who has genuinely woken up from the dream of self. Such people are generally called gurus and/or teachers, and each one usually has multiple students.
How do we know if someone is spiritually awake? The truth is that we don't. If we are spiritually undeveloped, as all spiritual seekers are by definition, we will not be able to recognize the signs of authentic spiritual awakening, and so teacher choices come down to things such as charisma, looks, sex, popularity and personality, with teachings very much further down the list. Students mistakenly believe that they can sense the authenticity of teachers, when in fact history shows that even the most abusive inauthentic teachers had (and no doubt continue to have) large followings. This is one reason why spiritual lineages developed in the first place: as a means to preserve the authenticity of the teaching by having the teacher selecting the most authentic students to become the next generation of teachers. (Of course it was also a means of maintaining political control, but that is another story.) In neo-Advaita circles, however, students often self-select themselves as teachers, or are selected by Advaita teachers when they have reached a quasi-stable level of denial.
The bottom line is that anyone with the confidence, chutzpah, focus, ambition and the basics of spiritual philosophy (in this case Advaita) can pass themselves off successfully as an awakened teacher. And they do. And for the vast majority you can add self-delusion to this list of attributes, as few would admit to themselves that their 'awakening' is a sham — the vast majority being caught up in their own delusions of awakening. What is most concerning is that these characteristics of charisma, confidence, fearlessness and focus are also prime characteristics of psychopaths/sociopaths, so such individuals are more likely to succeed on the delusional spiritual path, with little formal structure or organisation to keep them in place in the case of neo-Advaita.
For example, teachers in Buddhism tend to be part of a large community that includes many other teachers, and the teachings are a consolidation of accumulated wisdom since times of antiquity. This makes it much harder, although not impossible, for deluded teachers to get into positions of authority and damage students. This is because the teaching is always considered to be far greater than any individual teacher. But by making a 'no-thing' like enlightenment or awakening the prime focus, rather than something incidental in a whole education program that acknowledges all facets of human existence, including mind, thoughts and actions (rather than dismissing them as emptiness), ignorance is give full opportunity to masquerade as enlightenment. And this is reflected by the enormous number of modern Advaita teachers who have proclaimed their own enlightenment based merely on the denial of self.
Can you learn from such teachers? Of course you can… to a point. You can learn that if you look deeply, the self is illusory. This is an important realization for anyone stuck in ego — which is most of us. But, that realization is only the prelude to authentic spiritual awakening, not the grand finale. It is one realization in living an authentic spiritual life. But what more can there be if we realize that "form is emptiness"? Maybe we need to also look at "emptiness is form". After all, if there is only emptiness, there is no place for compassion or love, life itself is illusionary and we may as well just lie down and do nothing, create nothing, love nothing, etc.
One factor that nobody seems to discuss is the teacher-student collective. When a group of people get together and share an ideology or purpose, different parts of the group play out different roles, and the group becomes one 'superbeing' with its own psychology and group mind — a single psychological unit, with different members expressing different specialist roles. This allows those individual roles to be unbalanced because the balance is occurring on a higher group level.
Obviously the teacher plays the enlightened master and leader, and the students play the spiritual seekers and followers. When human beings are under the dynamics of a social group, it is much easier to conform to expectation. If you are the teacher and you have students holding you up as the enlightened master, it becomes a doddle to act out that role because it is expected of you. And because all the students are playing out those psychological unenlightened aspects that are being denied in the teacher — the teacher's shadow, this further aids the teacher in maintaining his awakened role, a role that would not be possible if he or she was living an ordinary life without students.
So when the teacher is expressing emptiness or sustained awareness of awareness, it is good to remember that this state is aided by the collusion of his or her students. An individual, living out in the world, is unlikely to be able to be so extreme, and might only be able to express a more balanced emptiness that involves some sense of self in a balanced synergy. This is why many of those who have glimpses of awakening immediately set themselves up as teachers: they intuitively know that it is only by playing the role of a teacher that they will be able to maintain their new 'no-self' perspective. Either that or they go and live in isolation somewhere where denial can never be challenged. It is not that expressing spirituality per se is hard to do in an ordinary life, only that expressing the type of unbalanced spirituality that pathologically tries to exclude any trace of self and separation — the neo-Advaita fiction — is more challenging in whole individual lives than it is in spiritual groups.
Many teachers and gurus have also come to neo-Advaita from a psychological crisis point such as deep depression. Eckhart Tolle and Jeff Foster are examples: a friend of mine knew Tolle before his awakening, and he said that he believed at the time that Tolle would probably commit suicide as he was so depressed. In these cases, Advaita philosophy could well have been co-opted as a means to deny the self that is causing so much pain, rather than a means to wake up to what is. Or maybe not? This is just another possibility that must be considered. Modern teachers may not be what they seem, merely using Advaita to bury a problem self. (Are selves always problems or can selves be a delight?)
At the end of the day, I think the best rule of thumb in determining the authenticity of any spiritual teacher is their level of compassion to themselves and others, their acceptance of what is, and their wisdom to deal with everyday problems as well as deeper existential problems. So merely dismissing anything and everything related to any problem as non-existent because "everything is empty" and "there is no I" is not the hallmark of a wise spiritual teacher, but an Advaita organ-grinder parroting Advaita philosophy.
Liberation or Awakening
What is liberation? Liberation from what? Can you have a yearning for something that you don't know what it is? Is it really a yearning for the end of what is perceived as suffering? Is liberation a movement away from what we think we don't want? Or could the yearning for liberation be due to vague memories of other worlds and realities?
Most spiritual seekers think they have an idea of what awakening or enlightenment is. And that idea usually involves a cessation of suffering and an end to the spiritual search, along with perhaps some sort of exalted state. It is the end of restlessness, the end of movement.
People can cease the spiritual search for many reasons, including denial. By denying that there is a seeker, the spiritual search can cease, but… in that denial we set up a spiritual ego that will keep us stuck in what we label as a state of 'awakening'. That state comes to define us, rather than liberate us. If our focus is on denying the reality of the seeker, then the spiritual ego will arise. It is only when the reality of the seeker is left to naturally flow into inclusiveness, to become more fluid, that we find true liberation.
So liberation is not about no-self. Liberation is about 'flow-self'. When our sense of self is not denied, but also not stuck in some or other form, that is when we are free. Liberation is an integration of self rather than an annihilation of self. Jung called this process individuation. After all, if a part of us is out of balance, just cutting it off and denying its existence will not lead us back to wholeness. Only a process of integration can do that. And integration requires work on all levels. It is not a momentary realization, but one that needs to work on and through every layer of our being, including the subconscious and emotional bodies.
The realization of the emptiness of self, therefore, cannot suddenly resolve all our psychological issues and conflicts. What it can do is perhaps humble us, shocking us out of our self-importance and fixed sense of identity. But self-importance and stagnant identity will find another expression unless we anchor that realization in compassionate action and kind living. And that includes kindness to ourselves (our egos) as well as to others. Easily said… but how many of us can really express that level of heartfelt acceptance? Can we accept BOTH perspectives of unity and separation? And how does the acceptance of both unity and separation alter our concept of awakening and liberation?
Putting It All Together
Advaita, as it is currently being taught, is more about denial of self rather than any authentic spiritual awakening. It denies self by reducing reality to basic awareness, through a mental process of extreme reductionism. It uses outdated Newtonian 'either-or' logical reasoning to arrive at the over-simplified conclusion that the self does not exist, and then labels the realization of this conclusion 'awakening' or 'enlightenment'. This process of denial morphs the ego into a 'non-ego' ego — the enlightened or awake ego — making it far harder to identify and much more difficult to find authentic wholeness. The result is that modern teachers of Advaita are primarily in denial, not liberation, and almost all Advaita teaching is counterproductive, setting us further back on our spiritual journeys. Only those teachers who come from the heart and are more inclusive of self are of any long-term use to our spiritual path. (There are some Advaita teachers who are not so extreme in this denial of self. They tend to be the ones who come primarily from the heart and not the head, and/or who matured spiritually in non-Advaitic spiritual circles or more traditional Advaitic communities.)
It may be comforting to hear that the self does not exist, especially when we are laden down with so many of life's psychological problems that seem to involve identity, but escaping from such problems by denying the self does not actually lead to resolution and wholeness. In fact, denial leads only to more denial, so that we become less and less in touch with reality. This is why many on the Advaita path suffer so much — they suffer because their denial of self blocks them from integrating self and realizing true wholeness. They end up having to constantly jump through hoops to maintain the illusion of 'no-self', and this becomes a heavy psychological burden on our systems. (In the same way, those who are fixated by self — fixed in self — also suffer because they too will struggle to maintain a fixed self because wholeness cannot be cheated.)
The reality is that the self exists, and will always exist in some form whilst we have bodies etc. and probably beyond. So we may as well just accept it. Pretending that we are 'no-self' and 'no-mind' is just ridiculous, and leads to some of the bizarre denial so prevalent in the neo-Advaita communities, such as Lucknow Disease were Advaita students refuse to use the word 'I' in conversation!
Excessive duality spawns conceptualisation. But if we make the excision of duality our focus, we ironically end up once again in duality by butchering reality to suit an extreme worldview. A more gentle and inclusive approach would find us experiencing unity in the midst of duality. This non-dual vision must not be seen as an opposite of duality, because to do so encourages us to try to kill duality to retain unity, something that cannot happen, at least at this level of human consciousness.
We must accept BOTH duality and unity, and enjoy the experience of both. Otherwise our lives become conditional, and we may find a sense of failure when duality or self refuses to die. When we are constantly monitoring for duality or self, the innocence of life dies, and spontaneity goes out the window. We end up being very judgemental: meditation is no good; praying to God is useless; God is an outdated concept; mantras are a waste of time; spiritual practice is just ego, etc. Many on the Advaita path, including 'awake' teachers, are in torment because they are trying to deny an intimate aspect of reality. (It reminds me of those who repress their sexuality for spiritual ideals — it is actually a denial of what is.)
Does this mean that Advaita is a total waste of time and that those of us with a spiritual yearning should return to conceptual religious lives? Advaita can be very revealing and profound, so long as it does not become solely intellectual and idealistic. It must be tempered with the heart. And that is precisely what is missing from neo-Advaita teachers, who certainly give lip-service to the heart, but whose primary philosophies (and that is exactly what their teachings are) are dry and brittle, like old twigs that snaps under the slightest weight. It is useful to be aware of our sense of self in any situation, but it is not useful to judge any sense of self as the unwanted presence of an ego or separation.
Knowing who or what we are, and who and what we are not, are fundamental steps in spiritual flowering, but we must not forget that these steps can be achieved through many means other than self-enquiry such as relationship, silence, meditation, prayer, contemplation, music and dance… indeed by life itself. We cannot judge another path as inferior; they are just different ways to realization, to consciousness. In Western society these days, relationship seems to be the primary way that most of us find out who or what we are, and who or what we are not. It can be a messy way with lots of emotions, but this seems to be the chosen path for many people.
But whatever method we use, we must not ignore the self by proclaiming its non-existence, but rather bring it along as a friend rather than an enemy. Only then have a chance to experience the unity of All-That-Is — to arrive at an integration on all levels of our being. It is actually relatively easy to 'wake up' to a neo-Advaitic perspective; the real challenge comes when those who have non-dual awakening then try to maintain a total denial of self thereafter. That takes some real mental focus and acrobatics! This is why those 'awake' in the Advaita community are in a state of psychological denial and they suffer as a consequence. Dropping identification does ease suffering when that identification was too strong or fixed, but the insistence of 'no-self' and 'no-identity' over time generates its own type of suffering, one that can be every bit as painful as the original. Again, like the Buddha, we have to find the middle way and avoid the extremes.
How is that denial of self maintained? By hanging out with others in denial and by becoming a teacher of denial. This is why there is such an enormous proliferation of non-dual or Advaitic teachers at the moment: the movement is based on a lie, and a lie shared is easier to maintain. But sooner or later we have to face up to the fact that unity and separation are two sides of the same coin, and that this witch hunt on duality and identity is entirely counterproductive and based on outdated logical thinking.
This is not to say that neo-Advaita might not be helpful for some people at certain points in their lives. But let us never be under the delusion that non-dual spirituality is somehow superior to anything else: those who have realized emptiness of self are no closer to the truth than those who realize that God loves them unconditionally. We may label the realization of emptiness of self as 'awakening', but we could have easily labelled the realization of God's unconditional love as 'awakening' also. The term 'awakening' is just used to give separate status to those who have realized that "form is emptiness". Indeed, there is even a neo-Advaita website called Liberation Unleashed which color codes forum users: green for those who are ready for liberation and to see the reality of absence of self; blue for those who are liberated and who have seen this truth; and red for liberators who are guides to help others see the truth. This is all just separatist nonsense all in the name of non-duality. What irony!
A Vision of Spiritual Flowering
It is important for us not to become obsessed about the non-existence of self. This realization should be secondary to a life of consciousness and compassion. If we do fully realize the non-existence of self, we should also realize that the self paradoxically exists also, and that self and no-self are in quantum superposition with each other. But if we are in an outdated literal Newtonian mindset which thinks in terms of 'either-or', 'waves-or-particles', then we will end up denying this superposition in favour of a simplified but distorted view of reality. Just because self is empty is not actually a denial of the existence of self; just as realizing that matter is empty is not a denial of the existence of matter. If we think it is, just wait till we next stub our toe and then think again. Reality is a paradox — accept it.
And whatever we do, remember that learning to perfect denial of self is a waste of a life. There are many other things to do in which we can find the self disappearing, but making a philosophy our of 'no-self' and obsessing over it will distract us from the delicious flow of integrated existence. And certainly using 'no-self' or 'no-mind' as a badge of honour will only serve to separate us from others and entangle us into a pathological psychology. Unless we accept the whole kit and caboodle of spiritual diversity in beliefs and practices, we will never realize authentic unity.
The key quality that assists us in authentic spiritual flowering is not knowledge (such as the knowledge of the emptiness of self), but innocence. When we approach reality with the innocence of a child, reality opens up to us and embraces us in divine unity. It is only when we think we know how reality should be (that is should be non-dual for example) that reality closes off from us, and we become lost in philosophies or stories about reality. There is nothing wrong with stories provided they are not fixed — provided we can flow from story to story in the moment, labelling none as the ultimate truth. But as soon as we dismiss all stories in favour of one story, even if it is the story of no-story, of oneness, we are in denial of what is, reducing reality's complexity with our idealism. And when we deny the paradoxical nature of reality where we are self and no-self at the same time — we suffer. And I have personally seen a couple of close Advaita-awake friends suffering from the denial of life's paradoxes.
It is very tempting to dismiss complexity and paradoxes of reality in favour of simple unified philosophies such as those of the non-dual spiritual movements, just as it is tempting for scientists to dismiss the complexity and paradoxes of reality in favour of scientific reductionism — reductionism that dismisses prime aspects of experience. But reality cannot be so easily pinned down, and we find that the complexity and paradoxes that we are so eager to dismiss in the name of unity are what actually makes life worth living. We are one; AND we are many at the same time. We need to learn to live with this paradox if we do not want to get lost in denial, reductionism, enlightened egos and 'no-self' selves.
Advaita certainly makes logical sense, which is why it is so attractive to those with logical minds, but life and reality are not about logic, and certainly not outdated logic. We must embrace all facets of this beautiful human existence if we are to spiritually mature, for it is only in open and unconditional inclusion that we can flower spiritually. This is the authentic way of the heart.
03 Jan 2013: Thank you to JS for the link: www.spiritualteachers.org/neo_advaita_article.htm
What a great article! Really enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.
17 Dec 2012: Thank you Jill for recommending the following very informative article: www.enlightened-spirituality.org/neo-advaita.html. The writer knows a lot more than me about the specifics of Advaita, and I recommend readers to check it out.
10 Dec 2012: Just received a book called The Mystery Experiencee by Tim Freke, sent to me by a friend who read my article and thought that Freke was important for me to read (thank you Faith!). I have only had time to flick through the book but I will say from what I have read that Freke seems to have gone much deeper into the points that I have touched on above. I think I am going to relish this book and I strongly urge readers wanting to go deeper to check it out.
15 Dec 2012: I wrote this article to show some of the shortcomings of Advaita, particularly Neo-Advaita. We should not be afraid of examining spiritual belief systems and finding them wanting. However, I would like to state that I still immensely enjoy hearing many Advaita teachers. My personal favorites include Adyashanti, Gangaji, Mooji and Papaji. I have come across some negative material on Adyashanti, but I feel that the writer missed the point entirely. The fact that Adyashanti does not come from a clear and consistent spiritual tradition or lineage is not a negative thing. In my opinion it actually makes him a far better teacher than almost any other — someone from outside the system who naturally has far less dogma and baggage.