Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Non-Duality Trap

There was a time when I would unreservedly have described myself as a partisan of non-duality. Today I regard it as potentially one of the more misleading forms of spirituality though I still believe it describes the basic truth of the universe. What has changed in my outlook?

What has changed is the fact that so many people now embrace (or even teach) non-duality in a form that would not have been recognised by its originators in India. (Note: non-duality is found in many places but I take the Indian version as the principal source of the doctrine). So it is not non-duality that is the problem. That remains as pure truth. It is the distorted version of those who think themselves in the vanguard of spirituality but who dispense with God because of what can only be called lack of humility and intellectual arrogance. What these people don't appreciate is that you should come to non-duality as the basis of your approach to God and the universe only after having fully traversed duality. For duality is real. It may not be the ultimate reality but ultimate reality comes only at the end.

Non-duality is a step beyond duality but that does not mean that it completely replaces it. Non-duality says that all is one. The division between spirit and matter is false, and you are pure undivided consciousness. All this is absolutely true, and actually pretty easy to understand as a concept and even to attain as an experience in meditation or, at least, to imagine one has attained. However what is equally true is that the duality of the soul and its Creator is a real one, even if it must eventually be transcended. But, and this is what is at issue, you won't transcend it by denying it, rejecting it or pretending that it is not there. You must fully acknowledge it and all it implies, and then go beyond it. That's the only way, and those who are encouraged to bypass the traditional approach, which is founded on wisdom and insight, by teachers of half truths who lack these things, even if they have an intellectual grasp of that of which they teach, are being misled. Worse, they are being sidetracked from the true path and their spiritual development delayed.

You are pure awareness. Such a simple statement to make, but how do you transcend the duality of subject and object and know yourself to be pure awareness? Not just by thinking so, that's certain. And is pure awareness all you are? Because if not then maybe it's not sufficient to take that, and that alone, as the basis of your spiritual practice.

One of the Masters' simplest but most profound sayings was 'Remember the Creator'. This, non-dualists of the modern Western variety, frequently fail to do. Usually brought up in one of the monotheistic religions, or a society still heavily influenced by that, they are eager to throw off their cultural baggage, which they perceive as outworn (and I am not saying that it is not in many ways), but they still crave some form of spirituality. A non-dualistic belief system fits the bill because, in its trivialised version, it makes relatively few demands of the lower self, and does not require one to bend the knee or incline the head. But spirituality without a recognition of a higher power is a temptation to be avoided, though very attractive to the ego that always wants to reap the benefits of spirituality without giving itself up. The true non-dualist always remembers the Creator (though he may not phrase it exactly like that) because he knows that he is part of God. For the false non-dualist it is the other way around. He is pure consciousness.

My teachers told me that prayer was essential for the spiritual aspirant, even the most advanced. Prayer is how you remember the Creator, and only if you remember Him can you even begin to approach His level. If you don’t approach Him, how can you possibly go beyond Him (by which I mean the idea of Him and you as separate)? Does the modern non-dualist pray? If not, why not? Here’s what the Masters said to me on the subject. Do you think yourself above prayer? Even the greatest saints prayed and, while meditation is necessary, you need the humbling experience of prayer also.

The great danger for the non-dualist is that he creates a mental version of 'pure awareness' and then bases his behavior on conformity to that. Right there you have duality. The idea and the attempt to become that idea. This leads nowhere except illusion to begin with, and falseness and hypocrisy if you persist in that illusion. Even if you experience what seems to be a non-dualistic state in meditation you must remember that any experience is always interpreted by the mind which is the very source of psychological division.

I think the problem is that many contemporary non-dualists and their teachers fail to grasp the distinction between soul and spirit. The soul is the individual consciousness, the spiritual self that remains on the higher planes when you incarnate (what the Masters described to me as the greater part of you), and it is that that we should try to attune ourselves to in meditation. We cannot go beyond it, to the level of pure formlessness, until we have become one with it. If we try, well we all know what happens when you try to run before you can walk. But that is precisely what many modern non-dualist teachers are advising us to do. What is more some of them also seek to transcend the duality of the material world by, in effect, denying that it (the material world) exists. But it does exist and, let me repeat, you do not go beyond something by denying it. These teachers and their acolytes will have to come back to the physical world in a later lifetime and fully integrate both matter and spirit if they continue with their error. You cannot avoid the lessons of maya by denying her. She is not illusion. She is the Divine Mother who allows the formless Father to manifest. Without Her we would never have come into being.

I said in an earlier post that I am not a Christian in the regular sense of being a member of any particular church, but when Christ said no one comes to the Father except through me, he was speaking the exact truth. In one way he may have been talking about the chain of initiation that stretches from master to disciple and which cannot be circumvented, but he was also saying that you cannot know the Father (pure spirit, the uncreated world of formlessness) except through the Son which is the individual soul. You must bring the soul to perfection (symbolised by the Transfiguration) before you are ready for the crucifixion which is the necessary initiation before you can 'go to the Father'. Thus the knowledge of non-duality can only come through the full experience and acceptance of duality.

Nothing I say here is meant as a criticism of non-dualistic teaching in its traditional setting where it formed part of a whole and found its place as the culmination of a spiritual teaching. It is only when it is taken out of context and taught in isolation from its parent religion that it loses touch with reality. The flower will only bloom on the end of the stalk. If you cut it off it may still look beautiful for a while but it is losing its vitality and will soon be dead. 

Update 17th March 2015

This piece is by far the most viewed of all the posts on this blog. Perhaps that reflects a feeling a lot of people have that non-duality, as it stands, leaves out too much to be a completely coherent doctrine of existence.  As this is also my feeling I have developed ideas only implied here in further articles which may interest those who feel the non-dualistic point of view to be too reductive/exclusive/limited, and these can be found by clicking on the non-duality label under Topics on the right. But, briefly, these articles approach the question of non-duality from the position that, yes, of course, God is One and there is nothing but God but this unity includes multiplicity as well as the creative energies which do not belong to a degree of reality any less real than the undifferentiated, inactive, transcendent Divine Essence. Thus God’s essential being and His active powers are ontologically inseparable, and the latter do not belong to an inferior or somehow illusionary state of being as they tend to be seen to do in advaita. There is never one without the other and that means that reality is not dualistic in essence but it is in expression, and essence and expression always co-exist. Such a point of view has implications both for correct spiritual practice and for a proper appreciation of the reality of individual identity which is not negated in enlightenment, as it is in advaita, but seen for what it is; a unique and necessary vehicle through which universal oneness can manifest, know and be known. The fact that we have an uncreated aspect in pure spirit does not mean that our created aspect or soul is not real.

So where I take issue with rigid non-dualists is in their failure to see that individuality is real, and not only real but the very purpose of existence. You are a true individual. Enlightenment (salvation might be a better word) comes when you go beyond the separate self and know your being to be one and the same as divine being, but this does not mean that your individual identity is lost. Post-enlightenment there remains a unique individual with its unique quality, and that is the locus in which realisation has occurred and without which it could not have occurred. For realising that you are the Self does not eliminate the self.  Rather it subsumes it, on the one hand, and transforms it, on the other.

So from this perspective the goal is not for the individual self to disappear into undifferentiated oneness, as a strict non-duality would demand, but for it to become transformed into a completely integrated synthesis of the part with the whole. To be divinized, you might say. And this, I believe, is what is meant when Jesus is described as both God and man. As for him, so for us. It is also the point and purpose of creation, and why there is something rather than nothing.

2nd Update 8th May 2016

Being challenged on the views expressed here by non-dualists has caused me to modify those views, though in precisely the opposite way they might have intended. For I would now reject Sankara's advaita Vedanta as a flawed philosophy whereas previously I regarded it as extreme but basically correct. That is no longer the case. For those who have intuitive doubts about non-duality, despite its seeming intellectual coherence, I have written the post below. Convinced non-dualists might also take a look at it for I truly believe they are on the wrong track and trapped in, believe it or not, their own kind of maya.



Paul Hillman said...

Even the best of the modern teachers of dualism, like Rupert Spira who is firmly based in Advaita Vedanta and the words of Ramana Maharsi, spend most of their teaching time on dissolving the sense of self and seeking to be pure awareness and knowing.
Rupert Spira acknowledges that identification with the timeless awareness is just the beginning but says little about what lies beyond this. He says that the bodymind aligns itself and settles into a different arrangement with the ground of awareness but is very non specific about the nature of this new dynamic.
It does feel very incomplete , as if one is left hanging, and really is upside down. The Divine is mentioned but only vaguely and in passing. It seems that most people who attend and ask questions are seeking a solution for problems in their bodymind and the importance of the world and our life within time and space is acknowledged but not developed.
Attractive at first it soon feels like a dead end where one might be left hanging, directionless.

William Wildblood said...

For many modern teachers the saying 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' springs to mind. They may be sincere and well-meaning but they often don't seem to appreciate sufficiently that non-duality must be grounded in traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and the submission of personal will to divine will if it is to mean anything. Otherwise it can easily just lead to the mind copying its conception of truth.

Robert said...

I really liked your post. I agree with most of it with the exception of some person theological differences which may not matter much. Western masters like Rupert Spira are clearly caught in a false self and repressing. Every Youtube video he's in, he's exactly the same; almost robotic. I would like people who read this post to like it and that fact makes me feel a need in my body as I write; and now I'm sharing it to be open. I haven't seen Spira videos where he shares that kind of vulnerability which means he's probably using the knowledge to create a suit of armor, even if he has made a lot of spiritual progress in the meantime. The point about prayer is spot on. You can be the most spiritual person on the planet and have your ego completely dissolved and still you will have unconsciousness darkness influencing your behavior. An essential way to confront this shadow side is with prayer.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for commenting, Robert. Actually if I wrote this now I would spell out more emphaticly my misgivings about non-duality. I think it is an intellectual position having very little to do with true spirituality which involves (using a phrase I probably overuse but I like it) the sanctification of the soul. Of course, the soul for the non-dualist is part of the veil of illusion but if it really were then there would be nothing even to be conscious of non-duality.
So I see the basis of reality as personal rather than impersonal as the non-dualist must and that is very liberating. What it means is that the One does not supersede the Many but that both together comprise what reality is. There is no opposition between them. Thus duality and non-duality are both true and you have to take both into account to see the whole picture. Leave out either one of them and you have fallen short. This is why both meditation and prayer are important.

Robert said...

I agree that reality is personal rather than impersonal. I think traditions that speak of the death of the watcher are a mistake, at least in the long term. I am a Baha'i, a bit of an unorthodox one at that. But enlightenment in our scripture is phrased as the death of self and the station of nothingness, but it also acknowledges that everyone has a unique soul which will always be doing things so to speak. So I agree that there is a paradox going on that must be acknowledged between duality and non-duality.

William Wildblood said...

That is what I think too. The death of self surely just means the death of the sense of a separate self. Nothingness, emptiness and the like, these are concepts that relate to the absence of form and are not literally true. It is, if you like, only a materialistically focussed mind that takes them as such.
The reality of the individual is the basis of love. Non dualists don't deny love (how could they and be taken seriously?), but if they were true to their beliefs they would have to.

Anonymous said...

The death of the self and be emptiness as some teachers claim is not true.Their teaching is based that mind is only ego-mind and we have to dissolve it. But the truth is that we are not only the ego-subconscious mind. We are connected with a "greater self" called the higher self and this 3D reality is totally ours. With every thought, feeling, action we constantly creating our reality. The individuality is not destroyed after death and we are not "living" as formless awareness. Soul consciousness continues to be in a higher plane of existence. We are here to develop out consciousness and re-create ourselves through the vibration of love from the heart center and not to be nothingness without any energy form. The only nothingness we should achieve is the emptiness of the ego mind that constantly creating our reality without noticing it. We are here to be in charge of our subconscious mind and put him in his place as a tool and connect to our higher self and create our reality as conscious beings. We are here to experience love and be a useful part of existence. The true motive of the teachers that say "we must destroy the self and be nothingness" is based on fear of life and the belief that life is a pain and suffering. But they don't understand that this pain is consciously created in a deeper level of existence but them. They don't take any responsibility of their reality that's why they want to escape from this life by being nothingness. This is dangerous and completely out of reality. We are the creators. Everyone who has the experience with deep cosmic love knows the truth.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I would agree with what you say. Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Everything is energy that is in the mind of cosmic consciousness. We are a seemingly individual part of Cosmic consciousness. We can use this energy as we want. We can use it as unconscious beings through the ego mind or we can use it as totally conscious beings. The ego mind creates separation and dualism. Only with the energy of cosmic love can escape of time, space, dualism and develop our consciousness. Not by being nothingness without any energy. Its like the mind is a DVD player that showing a movie and we don't like the movie. The truth is we have created this movie. All the East culture blame the DVD player and wants to destroy it because is the cause of suffering. But why as conscious beings don't take the charge of the DVD player and CHANGE THE MOVIE? If we start "think" from the heart, the ego part of the mind dissolves and mind is not the "bad guy" anymore. But is a wonderful servant of the heart with which we can create anything we want in the service of existence. Sorry for my English. K.X.

Aslay Sin said...

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Aslay Sin said...

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Unknown said...

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William Wildblood said...

Aslay & Johan, I don't know the person you mention but I know of similar people. I see their teaching as more psychological than spiritual. At their best they are showing a way to bypass the mentally constructed ego and identify with a kind of universal consciousness but consciousness is not God and should not be mistaken for him. God is the author of consciousness and to confuse the depths of one’s own soul with God is a spiritual error made by many seekers today who shy away from fully acknowledging the full and absolute reality of the Creator because they are still influenced by the illusions of materialism.

If reality was pure impersonal being they would be correct but in fact there is no such thing as pure being in the abstract. Being needs an instantiation to be real and that is the Personal God with whom we, as spiritual seekers, should seek a union in love. This is the duality that goes beyond non-duality.

There are many people teaching half truths today. By all means learn from them but know that the best they can offer is a sort of clearing of the decks before true spirituality can arise.

Aslay Sin said...

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Don said...

Hi William, if you haven't read his works, you might try looking at Sri Aurobindo. His critique of Shankara is in some ways remarkably similar to your own. It might be a bit much to start with his 1000+ page magnum opus. But for a faster easier enjoyable read, you might try Satprem's "Adventure of Consciousness," which you can read for free online.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for the recommendation Don. I know of Aurobindo of course and have read about him but have never felt up to reading him because of sheer length!

D said...

“You are pure awareness. Such a simple statement to make, but how do you transcend the duality of subject and object and know yourself to be pure awareness? Not just by thinking so, that's certain. And is pure awareness all you are? Because if not then maybe it's not sufficient to take that, and that alone, as the basis of your spiritual practice.”

I would limit my comment to the above quote that I think summarizes your views. In addition I understand from your reflections that you propose more than one reality... Let’s start with this latter one- is it possible to have more than one reality? Reality means truth- can you have a truth/reality that is valid some times and invalid at other times?! How can you build anything on such a shifting ground?! I think it was Ramana Maharshi who defined reality as: eternal, unchanging and self-evident. I fully subscribe to this description to establish a basis to any further debate on various aspects you bring up.

Your question if pure awareness is all you are is self-defeating in that the purity is taken out if there is something else there, and becomes awareness of [which is impure]. And from here, to respond to your question on “how do you transcend the duality” I suggest that you start from the wrong premise of the reality of the ego which needs to do something. Reverse that and see that the illusion you call reality is transitory and yet ‘comes out’ of that impersonal, immutable, pure awareness that permeates it without being touched by it. From this position you can ‘see’ the entire traffic of thoughts [that includes everything- feelings and emotions too] without giving in to the desire of reacting. But ‘seeing’ has not importance at all here- at best serves as a foreground to the background that is eternal, never changing and self-evident. If you insist starting from the position of the ego, then you can see that you have the choice to not give in to this position [that is the cause of suffering] and adopt that of pure awareness, the only reality. From here, nothing ephemeral/transitory matters as it has no existence on its own.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for your comment but, if you don't mind, I will be brief in response as I have spent a lot of time debating non-dualists and it's generally time wasted because I find they are too entrenched in their beliefs (and beliefs are what they are), and engage in what amounts to intellectual mind games. But then so did Sankara so that's the tradition.

More than one reality? No, but reality is not as exclusive as non-dualists would have it. That is, it includes the created as well as the uncreated, and even the uncreated is not as envisaged by non-dualists in that it has the potential for creation which it would not do if it really were undifferentiated oneness.

Ramana's definition, like his philosophy, is reductive. It covers reality in its aspect of the Absolute but then the Absolute is not all there is. That's the mystery and wonder of existence, effectively denied by non-dualists.

Your last paragraph shows the non-dualistic confusion about the difference between the phenomenal self or ego and the true individual self which is not a product of thought. You appear, unless I misunderstand, to reduce being to consciousness alone. This is a valid point of view but ignores the whole reason for the world of becoming and the real spiritual goal which is to be found in a creative union with God rather than a passive return to the source. You were not given a self to reject it but to make it a pure, individual expression of God.

I apologise if this seems bit blunt but I have to say that I find a lot of non-duality enthusiasts live in a thought form of their own creating which excludes legitimate parts of reality that don't coincide with their idea about it. They will admit these parts on one level only to deny them on the next, forgetting that all aspects of reality are true but there is a hierarchy of being as well.

D said...

thanks for the reply. To clarify one important aspect- you hastily place me in the pot you label as 'an non-dualist enthusiast'. While I followed for a while the views on reality of some of the 'gurus in the business' I only found some complementary information to my Eastern Orthodox Christian background. To be frank, I am rather repulsed by westerners parroting Hindu customs, and 'professional' jargon but don't care much engaging on debates about teachers and aspects of their teachings. If you didn't know, in the Orthodox culture there is an ancient tradition called Hesychasm which basically is based on the idea of 'surrender'. Monks of Mount Athos or monasteries of Romania and of the Slavic world do this through a practice called 'the prayer of the heart' ['Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner']. Centuries old wisdom on the various aspects of surrender are captured in a series of writings of the fathers [the so called 'fathers of the desert'] of the Christian faith under the generic name of Philokalia. An easier read of their experiences are captured in what is known as the Paterikon [especially the Egyptian one].

Here's an example of their thinking- Avva Alonie: "if man would not hold firm into his heart that only God and himself exist, he won't ever find peace" or "A man killed another and took refuge into your cell. The men of the law show up and ask you to divulge what you saw. If you didn't lie you would send that man to death. Better let them before God without because He knows everything". I think you'd agree that this perspective is not 'the way of the mind and of the world.'

You mention what you see as a confusion between the 'phenomenal self or ego and the true individual self'. In surrendering there is nothing you can keep- ego and the true individual self are one and are... surrendered to the point that 'you' do not exist; the body you call 'mine' is not yours any longer but, together with anything else your senses perceive become the body of God, if you wish. 'It is Christ, not I that lives in me/through me' ~ says Paul. This is the kingdom of God that is 'within you' but without 'you'. You are the kingdom of God and thus you become united with God in an undistinguished way, where is no separation. In the end the realization comes that there is nothing but God, all is God and that is all there is and that is the new impersonal identity from which on lives and operates in a world of harmony, bereft of cause and effect. The mind is brought to silence by this realization where 'I' is dead but nevertheless continues to exist as Existence, being...God. There is no room for both 'I' and God in the kingdom- here's where the option of choice I mentioned, comes in- you may chose the hard way of trying to enter into communion with God following different rituals/dogmas, made by others or you renounce/surrender your individual identity and get liberated of the burden of it. Prayer [the prayer of the heart] can run in both situations, the difference is that instead of being a prayer of supplication [from me to God] is running by itself as it is permeated by the omnipresence of God, as anything else in the world of the senses is. The prayer run this way becomes the firm basis, an anchor to reality in which all hierarchies cease to exist, all differences are leveled and any separation is swallowed.

Sorry insisting on this subject- I don't find anything else worthy of attention in this ephemeral passage we call life, or worse 'my life'...

Dianne said...

I just Don't Know.
The matter of whether in non-duality, one would pray or not is a subject I am presently questioning. I suppose the issue is first of all how we define 'prayer'. I feel an urge to somehow express the depth I experience in my 'self', whether or not the action of prayer is misguided & simply represents delusion. As has been said, even those spiritual inspirers we know like Rumi, seemed to express their self in what we would ordinarily call prayer,--- both supplication and praise....I find myself sometimes feeling a 'need' to pray about people or situations, even though I understand that there is no personal God, but I can think in terms of 'Lord of the Universe' which just indicates for me how amazing and profound existence seems anyway...The Wonder of it All is what I pray to. Now, this does seem to come from the little 'me,' and in doing so might represent a lack of understanding/growth/enlightenedness, but it is what it is, it is where I am at, whatever I is, so there we are. I am beginning to sound like Pooh Bear so I will shut up now.

William Wildblood said...

Hello Dianne

Thanks for commenting. The teachers I wrote about in my first book said to me many years ago never to think I was above prayer, telling me that even the greatest saints prayed. You say you understand there is no personal God. I don't know where you got that idea but you could perhaps reconsider it. Despite what many teachers of Eastern traditions may say there most assuredly is a personal God. 'I am' is the fundamental key tone of the universe. That fundamental I is God and it is personal not just some universal abstraction. There can't be love without a person. No personal God would mean no love. I wonder if impersonalists really understand that.

best wishes

Anonymous said...

love is not an attribute; love is just another name for God, which is not a person, and such, love is not selective/preference; it means total acceptance of what is [including that, which to the mind appears as painful, glorious, sinful, saintly...], with no resistance- born out of judgment. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."

The traditional idea promoted by the organized religion where 'God loves you', singling you out/to the exclusion of others is to sooth the fears of the child brought up to see himself a small entity in a menacing world. This kind of love born out of fear is the result of the baseless indoctrination with the idea that I am a person with the nucleus in a body, separate from anything else, where I ends at the surface of my skin...