Is Advaita Just Loving Nihilism? — Nonduality, Science and Meaninglessness
23 Jun 2014
Nonduality can all too easily be reduced to nihilistic philosophy when we try to disown the mind and ego in our efforts to reach awakening. These are integral parts of ourselves, and if we want authentic awakening, we need to lovingly accept and integrate them.
PRACTICALLY ALL OF US reject existential meaninglessness because we do not want to invalidate our lives and relationships. If life is meaningless — that is, if nothing has any significance whatsoever — then everything we hold dear is lost and our lives lose purpose. The word meaning is derived from the Old English word mænan, to tell of, and if we have nothing of our lives to tell of, then how can we say we have even lived?
The philosophical outlook of existential meaninglessness is nihilism, which became popular in the West in the 19th and 20th century. Nihilism derives its name from the Latin root nihil, meaning nothing, and it is basically the philosophy of annihilation of all absolute values, existences and assumptions, including the self. It is the philosophy of a world that was losing its religious values in the face of a burgeoning mechanical science. The despair of nihilism is starkly summed up in Shakespeare's Macbeth:
Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
However, human resistance to meaninglessness has ensured that nihilism has not spread as rapidly or as widely as its early proponents believed it would. Just because traditional religions are dying does not mean that religious hope is lost, but rather it is being replaced by a more general spiritual or New Age hope. We might find it harder to accept ancient religious dogma — beliefs from a time that seems to have little relevance to us today — but the majority of people in Western civilisations (the very societies correlated with rampant atheism) still believe that here is some kind of life after death — that we are part of something much larger than the little lives we have been assigned. Sure, we can throw out the existence of traditional Gods which are generally associated with rules, control, guilt, shame and judgement, but it is not so easy to dispose of the belief in our own and our loved ones' continued existence after death, which is an absolute cornerstone for hope for the majority of people. God as an old man with a white beard we can live without, but hope… no chance!
Atheism is on the rise only because we are so distracted by modern life that we do not even think of the bigger questions such as survival after death. Modern humans have become empty shells of activity — "full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." This is a far cry from real atheism which is a considered viewpoint that has no place for God in a universe fully described by science (scientific positivism).
Science presents a hopeless world, one which is mechanically run by blind chance and molecular collisions. Fortunately, the conundrums of quantum physics have allowed for a more meaningful scientific paradigm, one which hesitantly gives a central role to consciousness. Of course, this is just one possible worldview implied by quantum physics, but it has managed to stop science becoming the atheistic torch-bearer. In fact, the most ardent and high-profile atheists now in science are those in the so-called soft sciences like biology, medicine, psychology and scientific history. Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer are classic examples, men who arrogantly think they speak for science, when science itself has moved on to more ambiguous interpretations of reality.
Whereas almost everybody would associate spiritual beliefs with meaning — after all practically all spiritual beliefs are to do with a extending our perception beyond the narrow confines of birth, reproduction and death — there is a new trend in modern spirituality to adopt an ancient Indian philosophy called Advaita.
Advaita, which literally means "not two", is the belief that reality is non-dual — that there is no separation between observer and the observed. The practice of Advaita is one big investigation into the ramifications of this belief — often involving relentless questioning of identity — an investigation that can have such a profound impact on us that we come to directly realise the fictitious nature of identity and our traditional sense of self is blown away in a process that many label "awakening", "realisation" or even "enlightenment". This is the Holy Grail of Advaita, and when this realisation is reached, from a spiritual perspective, there is said to be nothing more to do. We have reached the end of our journey.
From a philosophical perspective, Advaita is undoubtedly nihilism: just Google the term and you will find ideas and phrases congruent to many of those in Advaitic teaching, especially modern teaching.
Metaphysical nihilism is the philosophical theory that there might be no objects at all... or at least that there might be no concrete objects at all...
Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value.
Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that morality does not exist as something inherent to objective reality; therefore no action is necessarily preferable to any other.
Nihilism of an epistemological form can be seen as an extreme form of skepticism in which all knowledge [mind stuff] is denied.
Combined with epistemological nihilism, [metaphysical nihilism] leaves one with an all-encompassing nihilism in which nothing can be said to be real or true as such values do not exist. A similar position can be found in solipsism; however, in this viewpoint the solipsist affirms whereas the nihilist would deny the self.
Nihilism as a philosophical concept was given its most definitive form by Nietzsche, for whom it is 'the radical repudiation of value, meaning and desirability' (Nietzsche, 1968, p.7). Nihilistic thought has many related manifestations: ontological, epistemological, existential, moral, political. Extreme nihilism is often thought of as vulgar relativism where no criteria exist for choosing one value, knowledge claim, or course of action over another. This nihilistic debilitation is usually associated with moods of despair, random destructiveness, and longing for nothingness. In its most extreme existential form, it is a denial of life itself because of its apparent meaninglessness. Suicide, for Nietzsche, is the 'deed of nihilism' (Nietzsche 1968, p.143). Nihilism is an existential and psychological state an individual can experience, but it is also a symptom of society, and is generally thought historically as a diagnosis of an ailment in a society at a particular time in history. Nihilism is the sickness, destruction and decay symptomatic of the decline of the West.
So the modern interest in Advaita that we see to today is actually a revival of nihilism, allowing it in through the back door disguised as a spiritual practice rather than a philosophy. And this has been carried through by the growing numbers of charismatic Advaita teachers who use words like "love" and "compassion" to sweeten a decidedly bland offering.
There are many lineages of Advaita teachers, the main ones coming down through the likes of Adi Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, Nisaradata Maharaj, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and H.W. L. Poonja (Papaji). From these teachers, a whole gaggle of modern Advaitic teachers have arisen, teachers such as Ramesh Balsekar, Gangaji, Mooji, Andrew Cohen and Sailor Bob, to name but a few. (Adyashanti is another high-profile modern teacher but from a different lineage to the ones mentioned above.)
There are also many "stand-alone" teachers who claim to have made the same realisations without any specific teacher or lineage, and have their own methods of passing on their wisdom. These include such names as (the remarkable) Jiddu Krishnamurti, Eckhart Tolle, Tony Parsons, Jeff Foster, Richard Sylvester and Leo Hartong. Some people are dismissive of these non-lineage teachers, disparagingly calling them Neo-Advaitic and ineffective for waking people up, but this is a little uncharitable and itself smacks of fundamentalism (which itself is also counterproductive to awakening). The truth is that spiritual lineages can be just as counterproductive as these "mushroom teachers" — those who just pop up out of nowhere. Indeed, practically all of those who criticise Neo-Advaitic teachers in favour of traditional Advaitic teachers usually have some sort of personal investment, usually a lifetime on the traditional Advaita path. It is not very pleasant when some young upstart comes along and implies that you, the expert who has spent a lifetime studying and applying Advaita, have wasted your time because there is no spiritual path and nothing to study… and awakening is right here and right now, and always has been. (This does not imply that the dismissal by those in traditional Advaita does not carry some weight, only that their personal investment that binds to their beliefs is not usually addressed.)
Actually, the great thing about mushroom teachers is that they give the student the message that full awakening is there for the taking, without having to join some exclusive club with a formalised system of long-term spiritual practice, group control and adherence to dogma. The long-term practice usually involves physical work, ethics and perseverance (years of meditation, pranayama, study, teaching, introspection, service and dialogue etc.), work that is largely omitted by mushroom teachers. However, when humans try to control systems of knowledge and spiritual teachings, they invariably end up projecting, generation after generation, their psychologies and personalities into them, so that the teachings ossify into dogmas, and at some point the abuse associated with defending dogma inevitably arises. Traditional religious organisations are the end result of this process. So Advaitic mushroom teachers certainly have their place and should not be dismissed. They are the upstarts that can eventually spawn new religions, although most are ineffective teachers relative to systems of teaching honed and handed down over many generations.
Although the congruency between the philosophical aspects of Adaita and nihilism is beyond question, Advaita still professes to be a loving nihilism. But how can nihilism ever be loving, when it is usually associated with the melancholy, despair, destruction and hopelessness associated with Western philosophers living at a time of mechanistic meaninglessness foisted on society by emerging classical science. Nihilistic philosophers on the whole have not been a happy bunch! So the emotional states associated with different philosophies are largely cultural and psychological, rather than axiomatic. So although most of us do not like nihilism as a philosophy, there are those who are drawn to it because meaninglessness provides a worldview in which we are not bound by rules, interpretations, meaning and perceived consequences. For these individuals, nihilism's capacity to free overshadows any negative emotional and conceptual responses. And the same applies, of course, to those attracted to Advaita.
Advaita is a system of philosophy, but it is a philosophy that points past philosophy towards non-conceptualisation. As a philosophy, it embraces nihilism. But as a practice, it goes beyond conceptual models and emotional states to a direct experience of awareness. And that experience is absolutely inclusive and accepting — it has to be — which is actually the very deepest definition of love. So the loving nature of Advaita is nothing to do with the philosophy of Advaita, but is a consequence of that philosophy in practice, taken out of the usual nihilistic milieu of depression, despair and destruction associated with over-intellectualism. The paradox here is that a nihilistic rejection of reality can lead to a loving inclusion of reality, if done in the right spirit. This is because absolute rejection and absolute acceptance are, on the deepest level, the same thing.
What is most remarkable about the modern Advaita movement is the scale of self-deception. In no other spiritual niche do so many believe that they are awake, even when it is patently obvious they are not, even by their own criteria. Self-deception in non-dual spiritual circles seems endless because their aspirations to non-existence of self and mind are contrary to the human condition. Self and minds exist whether we are spiritually awake or asleep, and trying to convince ourselves and others otherwise is always a losing battle.
We are born with minds that develop naturally to include a sense of separation, and thus appreciation. We develop a separate sense of self so that we become conscious — we self-reflect. And within that consciousness, if we are curious or lucky enough, we can eventually uncover the baseline of pure awareness. But to then deny the reality of the mind, or to vilify the separate sense of self, is a form of self-hatred and self-rejection. This is the scourge of nihilism… at its base is destruction. That is where the term an-nihilation comes from. When we focus on nothing, there is a tendency to reduce everything to nothing, and nothing to everything.
If we truly went past mind, then we could not function in this world. We would be catatonic, a good impression of which is given by those who believe they are awake. As Adyashanti amusingly states in one of his talks when observing individuals trying to be awake, "Who handed out the Prozac?!" And so we have these impressions of enlightenment — the fixed stares, the stiff movements, the self-denial, the silence and the laconism, and the general emotional stultification. You only have to watch a teacher like John de Ruiter to see how enlightenment is acted out. There is nothing natural or human about it — or indeed enlightened.
But you know what? It is easy to equate such characteristics as signs of fraud, but many of the people who act enlightened have had genuine awakening experiences. But what they have done is to take those experiences back with them into the everyday world of things, places and people, where they have modified ego to that of the enlightened ego.
And how could they not take back what they experienced into the world of separation? After all, we live in a society of separation. We would not even be able to go to the bathroom without some idea, conscious or unconscious, that we are separate, mobile beings that need to answer Mother Nature's calls in little private separate rooms. So separation and a sense of self is a natural layer of our being… not the deepest… but certainly important. The deepest layer is pure basic awareness or consciousness, but experience of that deepest layer does not just negate or erase everything above it.
In Advaita, ego is a bad word — the scourge of humanity — but without a separate sense of self, what would we really have as a species? We would be no different from most animals that seem to have a limited or missing capacity of self-reflection. We are conscious precisely because we have a deep experience of separation, and that separation does not just dissolve so that we end up where we started. Something is different… when we have consciously walked the path to liberation we do not just have the same consciousness as a newborn baby that has not developed an ego to distract from basic awareness. We integrate the layers of our being rather than erase them. This way we end up with the whole world consciously inside of us, and we become every-thing and no-thing. This is a process of integration, not annihilation.
The important realisation that many in Advaita do not grasp is that ego is not self — ego is just a part of the self. So the idea that the self dissolves when ego dissolves is spurious. In fact, if we disown or negate the ego, what we are actually doing is going on autopilot, we are relinquishing our conscious involvement with self, while at the same time claiming no-self. This is why all those supposedly awake Advaita individuals seem to so obviously have self, but one that they are personally blind to because they have made a narrow enough definition of self that can relatively easily be denied. But self remains… how could it not when the individual body and nervous system still remain?
In this abnegation of self, "I feel angry" becomes "Anger is arising"; "I believe in God" becomes "Worship spontaneously happens." In this way, we abdicate all responsibility for the expressions of self, while self continues unabated. Perspective and language certainly change, but issues remain. Awakening scuppers any chance for those issues to resolve because they can no longer be owned, and ownership is a crucial step in resolving conflicts and psychological issues. Otherwise, our issues are merely set adrift on a sea of unconsciousness processes with the hope that they will spontaneously drift to port — will spontaneously resolve. Occasionally this might happen, but mostly it does not.
So it is far better to deal with psychological issues than it is to realise the ultimate nature of awareness because, even though we may no longer have any concern about our issues, they will still haunt those that have to still interact with us. So awakening should not necessarily be the priority if there are more pressing psychological issues at hand.
To go beyond the mind, you must have your mind in perfect order. You cannot leave a mess behind and go beyond. He who seeks Liberation must examine his mind by his own efforts, and once the mind is purified by such introspection Liberation is obtained and appears obvious and natural.
This ties in with Jung's perspective when he says: "The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it." If our ego is not healthy, we let go of it at our (and others') peril. Most likely, trying to let go of an unhealthy ego will just lead to unconscious psychosis hiding behind our experience of ontological realisation. There are many in the modern non-dual communities who are psychotically realised!
As Jung rightly pointed out, "The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories." If we deny the relevance of stories — by denying the relevance of mind — then we unleash great suffering onto the world in the name of awakening.
It is much more valuable to ourselves and society to have an integrated healthy ego then it is to be disidentified from an unhealthy ego. And it is time for those in the non-dual spiritual movements to acknowledge this, and stop placing awakening or realisation as the student's primary goal. Waking up spiritually (denying the ego) is much easier than integrating psychologically. And sure, you can "wake up" when you have an unhealthy ego, but it will come at a price, especially to those around you, when your shadow is unleashed onto them. For if we do not engage consciously with our issues, they will just live lives of their own, whilst we keep trying to deny responsibility.
Disowned pathological egos can run riot in spiritual communities — especially when that includes the leader's disowned pathological ego. One has only to consider the chaos, abuse and paranoia that marked the disintegration of the Osho and Adi Da communities, to see the effects of disowned pathological egos. Fortunately today, with online communication and lower public tolerance of abuse, pathological egos do not get to play out their dysfunction in spiritual communities to the same degree, unless those communities are able to isolate their members from the rest of society in some way, which is becoming a difficult task. As the modern Advaita movement has only taken off more recently during the Internet age, serious abuse has fortunately been less likely (although it still may develop in time). But where no abuse is apparent, disowned egos are still creating a whole fantasy world of their own enlightenment, a world in which they are locked away from their own healing.
If we have faced abuse at some point in our lives, the first step in healing is to identify with being a victim. If we can't do that, we can't heal, period, because somewhere inside there is a child-self that carries the pain from our early life and really is not responsible for it. So if, for example, we insist that we create our reality and that everything that happens to us is our fault, then healing remains our of our grasp for those aspects of ourselves that are victims. Only when we fully accept victim-hood does it become okay to explore the larger picture of why our soul chose this trauma. And once we accept that everything that happens to us is chosen at a deeper level, then we become free to let go of even reality creation to non-duality. These are the layers of healing. But if we deny our trauma by accepting only the reality of our prime awareness, our trauma festers and our "awakening" becomes a hollow cover for the pathology inside. Then we are harbingers of abuse and discord rather than peace and harmony.
The thing about consciousness is that it is at the centre of all experience. And so, if we choose to focus solely upon the background awareness of all experience, then although we have an experience of the ground-state of our being, we actually have less consciousness about our mind and emotions because we are looking past them. So paradoxically, waking up without healthy integration of the ego is a move into unconsciousness. But by defining the mind as the source of all problems, this increase in unconsciousness can too easily be dismissed as irrelevant to the bigger picture of enlightenment, by those who oversimplify full integrative awakening.
What is interesting is what the other parts of self are that are still present when the ego is denied, parts that then move into the unconscious. For example, our belief systems or reality-maps. These can be very similar to other people's, but they are never identical because they are based on experience, and we all have different life experiences. And they are always changing — although at varying rates. Our reality-maps are actually the world internalised… or conversely… they are ourselves externalised. Without reality maps, we would not be able to take any action. The only people who do not have functioning reality maps are those that are in deep sleep, in a coma or dead (and even in these cases, it is still possible that an internal reality-map is still functioning for the inner realms.) So the claim to have no-self is just nonsense for anyone who is not dead, in a coma or in deep sleep. Without a reality-map you could not even locate different rooms in your own home.
The self is also made up of energetic bodies or structures. Do these bodies suddenly disappear or become irrelevant when we deny the ego? Do any blocks in them suddenly disappear? The physical body is the grossest energetic body, but when we deny the ego, does our body suddenly get a different face or lose its face? And if we had a disease before "awakening", does it suddenly disappear? If we are obese or skeletal, do we suddenly find biological balance? All these are part of the self, so the fact they remain after the ego is denied indicates that aspects of self still persists.
And beyond these are unconscious processes such as the shadow — those parts of ourselves we deny because they contradict our concept of self — the ego — and these extend into what Jung terms the collective unconscious. Given that these unconscious patterns also define the self, can we ever really be so sure that self is no longer present, when all we have to rely on is our consciousness which by definition is not aware of those aspects of ourselves that are unconscious? The alternative is to believe that when we awaken, everything — all of it — becomes conscious. But that is just a belief — we can never really know — and judging by all the people who claim to be spiritually awake, including many of the Advaita masters, this does not bear out experience.
It is interesting that many of those in Advaita believe in absolute fate — that we do not actually have choices because there is ultimately no "I" to make choices. As Ramana Maharshi said:
The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdhakarma (destiny to be worked out in this life, resulting from the balance sheet of actions in past lives). Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.
All the activities that the body is to go through are determined when it first comes into existence. It does not rest with you to accept or reject them. The only freedom you have is to turn your mind inward and renounce activities there.
But in response to this is an interesting Jung quote:
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
Those in Advaita believe in fate because they have left so much unconscious in the name of awakening that all they have left is to sit back and watch the show unfold. That is certainly a choice, but if the ego is not fully healthy and integrated, it is a dangerous one because it involves the denial of responsibility… and we know from experience the tragedy to which that inevitably leads.
So even if we realise we are no-self — that we are nothing — we have to also realise that we are also the self. Unity and duality both exist on some level. Just because a self cannot be consciously identified as a thing — an experience localised in space and time — does not necessarily mean that it is an illusion. Remember that when we microscopically examine the reality of matter, it too slips through our fingers and making us question its reality, before stubbing our toe on a lump of it reminds us that it still has a substantial level of existence: in other words, "thingness" is not the measure of existence or reality.
Self is easy to philosophically dismiss because of its lack of thingness — a common Advaita practice — but let's not forget that reality is made up of much more than things. In fact, an examination of reality will show that even things do not exist… and yet of course they do as well. That is the paradoxical nature of reality. However, just equating reality with thingness is crude materialism — the basis of blind, mechanical science, the kind that spawns atheism and nihilism.
Most of modern Advaita was formulated at the time of emerging science, a time when "thingness" was equated with existence. Indeed, most of the insights and discussions you find in Advaita rest on the premise of thingness equating to reality, just as it does in science. And this is Advaita's Achilles Heel. Nobody questions this equivalence, instead allowing the premise to drag them into nihilism, so that self is no longer regarded as real by definition… Q.E.D. Advaita and reductionist science actually have much in common, which is why the type of self-inquiry used to dismiss the self is common to both: science dismisses the reality of the self in much the same way that Advaita does, except with science, physical reality is what is left as real (positivism), whereas with Advaita prime awareness is what is left as real (loving nihilism).
Just as it takes a certain sort of person who is comfortable with atheism, it also takes a certain type of person able to embrace nihilism. It does not necessarily have anything to do with spiritual maturity, as many in the Advaita movement like to think. This is why nihilism and atheism often go hand-in-hand, and why proponents of both reject theistic religion with the same scorn. This is also why modern self-enquiry investigations are so dry and reductionist — the sort of arguments that come from the intellect and not the heart. If you have ever heard modern Advaitic teachers you will know what I mean, despite the fact that many of the traditional Advaita teachers were themselves deeply religious. And as modern society becomes increasingly secular and open to atheism, it naturally opens to nihilism, which is one reason why social order is breaking down. If moral codes do not mean anything anymore, outside of the repercussions of getting caught breaking the law, then society starts to break apart as social cohesion disintegrates in favour of radical individualism.
And it is in this culture that neo-Advaita thrives, the sort of Advaita whose nihilism is not tempered by scriptural knowledge, meditative practice and ethical codes. This is why modern Advaita is becoming so popular, and why Western mushroom teachers are popping up everywhere. Neo-advaita is the religion of a nihilistic society, and it dovetails perfectly into the scientific reductionism that grips our age.
As a consequence, integration of the psyche has gone out of fashion, replaced by nihilism and the wholesale dismissal of self. And this creates a vacuum that sucks in rampant narcissism, for narcissism is the psychological counterpart to nihilism. That is why the two are so often found together, and especially in the modern Advaita community. When "other" is dismissed out of hand, everything can too easily become self (with a small 's'), so that solipsism is mistaken for enlightenment. You see this over and over with self-proclaimed enlightened teachers.
This is not to dismiss the importance of becoming aware of the ground-state of being. Awareness of awareness is fundamental to the process of making the unconscious conscious: without it beliefs and feelings are all too readily conjoined in a hotchpotch "objective" reality, and assigned a pseudo-objectivity that spurs men and women to fight their corners rather than reach out and connect with others. Awareness is the backdrop of all experience, and only by becoming conscious of this backdrop are we able to clearly see the props and characters in front of it. The backdrop of awareness provides an anchor by which all things seen and unseen can be assessed. It is the fulcrum of the consciousness scales. This is why awareness of awareness is so fundamental to consciousness. In itself it seems empty, but in relation to All That Is, it provides the contrast so that all can potentially be seen — all can become illuminated by consciousness.
Most of those involved in Advaita refused to accept its philosophical equivalence to nihilism, and often support this stance with a quote from Nagarjuna:
To say "it is" is to grasp for permanence.
To say "it is not" is to grasp at nihilism.
Therefore a wise person
Does not say "it is" or "it is not".
However, Nagarjuna's quote actually says very little: if we cannot hold anything as existing or not existing, then meaning is still not present, but this time even this realisation is dismissed. So Nagarjuna is negating consciousness itself, which of course is neither insightful nor helpful because consciousness forms the basis of all experience. These are the sorts of inane statements that are resorted to when we try to deny that Advaita is a form of nihilism. They sound profound, but when we actually investigate them for ourselves, we realise that they are merely an inane philosophical "Get Out of Jail" card used by Advaita teachers who have been backed into a corner. If we dismiss consciousness altogether then we are living in ultimate nihilism.
A more useful perspective is given by Chingyuan Xingsi, a Chinese sage from the 8th Century:
First there are mountains and rivers. Then there are no mountains, no rivers. Then there are mountains and rivers.
What Xingsi means in the above quote is that when we realise the non-existence of all things, we still come back to live in the world of things. He is not saying that mountains and rivers neither exist nor do not exist, rather he is giving a particular sequence of awakening. Before we wake up to the ultimate reality, we live in a virtual reality created by our collective minds. Then, when we question the reality of everything we realise that "reality" is not as objective as we previously thought — that even a solid object like a mountain does not exist outside of the consciousness that perceives it. This requires a rejection of objectivity in order to place consciousness squarely back into he centre of experience. And finally, when we have placed consciousness back into its rightful role and dismissed blind objectivity, we can return to the world of things, but this time in full recognition that things have no ultimate reality… that their nature is ephemeral… although they have some reality. In this way, meaning is invited back as a guest, but not as full-time tenant.
In this way we can interact with people who are not awake to the pseudo-objectivity of all things, using the same vocabulary and sentence construction in communications that hide a profoundly different perspective, hiding it so deep that most will not even realise that, for example, the 'I' spoken of is not the same 'I' that we are taught from an early age to identify with.
So awakening is not actually a negation of mind and self, but rather it is the process by which we place consciousness back into the heart of the living experience. From there we can still play with stories, feelings, interpretations and concepts of self, but we do so with full understanding of their ephemeral but very real nature. And this is when the fun starts… when we learn to lovingly play again in a world that once seemed either cold, mechanical and empty — from the scientific point of view — or meaningless and empty — from the Advaitic point of view. And in this play we find a true contentment on all levels of our being. Nothing is excluded.
Putting consciousness back to its rightful place at the centre of experience brings into relief all the ephemeral aspects of our experience that are usually dismissed as illusory. For example, take our fantasies: these are disregarded by both science and Advaita. Science sees fantasy (and indeed consciousness) as illusory epiphenomena associated with complex biological systems called brains, and in this regard dismisses their significance outright. Advaita regards fantasy as just more "mind-stuff" that needs to be dismissed in order to stay focused on the ground-state of being — naked awareness.
So both Advaita and science are very clear on their respective realities — for Advaita it is awareness and for science it is the material world — and so anything that is not a part of those realities in these respective worldviews is dismissed as illusory. Modern Advaita, flying the non-dual flag, avoids the obvious dualism here between what is real and what is not by refusing to speak on this issue and retreats into silence to maintain its non-dual perspective. Science, on the other hand, is more comfortable with duality thanks to Descartes, and happily creates a separation between the real world "out there" and our subjective experiences "in our heads", although the latter is most definitely regarded as a product of the former.
That said, more traditional Advaitic teachers do not dismiss the objects/illusions of awareness out of hand, but incorporate them in practises that take the individual to that place of full awareness, skillfully using the psychological resources the student has. And this is the whole crux of the matter: only when we are ready can we take that step into what a mind would regard as nihilism. But the pieces have to be in place. We cannot just define mind as the problem and hope that somehow it will realise itself out of existence. That just does not happen, and all we end up doing is creating a nihilistic no-ego ego, a charade rife in today's Advaita community.
Non-dual spirituality has to accept and use duality, not just dismiss it. Duality will start to fall away when it is ready to, but it cannot be forced away by appeals to nihilism, for the human mind is naturally resistant to such an outlook. This is why spiritual practises, such as meditation, pranayama, service and adherents to ethics, are so important — they prepare us so that we are able to move to emptiness without adopting it as a philosophy. This is especially important for those from Western culture with its emphasis on individuality and therefore its resistance to moving out of ego-centric worldviews.
However, the big question for Westerners (and most younger generations around the world now) is: if you are part of a culture that has a strongly developed sense of individuality, is ego-denial or ego-obliteration really the best course for your spiritual development? For some it clearly still is. But when individuality is so strongly developed, ego-obliterating spiritual paths can be very self-defeating and unnatural, with a strong tendency, as mentioned above, for the formation of a spiritual ego. And when this happens, genuine awakening is doubly denied, both by the unconscious presence of a spiritual ego and the unresolved pathologies of psyches locked by ego-denial.
So it is important for those who have a high level of individualism to undertake practises such as meditation, pranayama, study, ethical behaviour and other conforming behaviours in order to soften the individualism enough so that there is the ability to let go to experience without surreptitiously owning it. But unfortunately, most modern Advaita teachers frown upon such "dualistic" activities, mistakenly believing that they only encourage dualism because they are from the world of dualism. However, even though they are ultimately dualistic, they give excellent preparation for those who want to eventually experience authentic unity. Reaching for non-duality too quickly and too directly only leads to simulated awakening, because the habits of mind are too easily and naturally co-opted to serve the ambition to awaken, rather than true awakening itself.
Then we become an Advaita snob — someone who feels superior to others because we see ourself in unity in contrast to others' duality. When this happens, and it does for most of us at some point, we can be assured that our awakening is delusional. The trick is not to get stuck in that place. More traditional Advaita teachers and organisations have systems and methods to minimise ego involvement in the awakening process, but that said it is still possible to awaken with a modern mushroom teacher — we just have to be a little more vigilant.
Authentic awakening is just a byproduct of loving and accepting ourselves, and by extension, loving and accepting others (both animate and inanimate). It really is that simple. And all the fancy spiritual practises — like self-inquiry and sitting motionless for hours — is just a means to love and accept what is. That is it… our full responsibility in this lifetime.
When we truly love and accept ourselves, we open up to others and that includes their suffering, and from the connections that form from that reaching out we naturally move to minimise suffering whenever and wherever we find it. Kindness becomes our driving force, rather than the enlightenment certificate that satisfies only our spiritual materialism and sense of specialness. We must leave enlightenment and awakening to those who have nothing better to do, and focus on bringing the light of consciousness into every aspect of our ordinary lives, the lives of those around us, and out to the whole universe. Then and only then do we make a real difference.
Update 8 Mar 2015: Reading Guy Newland's book, Introduction to Emptiness, which presents Tsong-Kha-Pa's great treatise on the stages of the path. It is so much more sophisticated in its approach to emptiness than that you usually hear about in Advaita. To quote Newland:
If we do not carefully limit the object of negation, we will misuse reason to refute too much, falling into nihilism. Ethical commitments to help other living beings break down when logic is misapplied so as to seem to refute the very existence of these beings or to refute any distinction between virtue and nonvirtue. We may come to believe that nothing exists or that our choices, our actions, do not matter.
On the other hand, if we do not refute enough, then the deepest and subtlest forms of ignorance will be untouched by our practice. In consequence, even with all the kindness and mental focus we can muster, we will continue to live in cycles of of misery. A precise identification of the deepest root of cyclic existence allows us to find the middle way, a view that slips free from the innate tendency to reify without swerving into nihilism.
This makes perfect sense to me and is a good antidote to those inadvertently lost in Advaita nihilism. Many times I have heard "enlightened" Advaitic practitioners being nasty, judgemental and arrogant, without any awareness of their actions because… well… they have realized emptiness and therefore their nastiness does not exist. And you know what, many modern Advaita teachers are themselves setting a poor example to their students. Advaita has become a bastardized philosophy that can potentially feed narcissism so we paradoxically get the "egoless narcissist", the individual so lost in self-definition that he/she is in completely denial of his/her massive spiritual ego.
Waking up to prime awareness is actually only part of the spiritual path (not the end goal by any means), and must be balanced with ethics, compassion, humility and discipline if we are to spiritually flower. But it is very tempting for many to try to simplify things by disowning anything to do with "mind", which creates a huge distortion in our awareness because we refuse to see that it is mind-mediated. Over-conceptualisation is certainly a blockage on the spiritual path, but so is under-conceptualisation (at least at first). Minds that are too quickly disowned start living lives of their own, so that monkey-mind is actually inadvertently encouraged. But because we hold fast to our "nothing exists" philosophy, we can no longer see the monkey sitting on our shoulders. This is when we are most dangerous, to ourselves and others.