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