Saturday 7 May 2016

Non-Duality and the Person

One of the consequences of the seemingly unstoppable spread of the contemporary cult of atheism is that when people react against it and decide to follow a spiritual path they often take a lot of their atheism with them. I mean by this that their atheistic assumptions have sunk so deeply into their minds that they don't see them for what they are. This can manifest itself in various ways but one of the most common seems to be that such people look for a spirituality without God. For some this might be seen as a purely intellectual choice, but for others it is a matter of wanting to drink the wine without thanking the host who provides it. Who, in fact, made it.

Many Westerners who take to Eastern forms of religion are attracted to the non-dualistic varieties, either Buddhism in which God plays no part at all or advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of Sankara about which I have written on various occasions on this blog, in which a God of sorts exists but plays no real part. The common point of both these is that the individual self is regarded as having no real existence. What you are is pure consciousness. In reality there is only the Absolute and your aim is to know yourself as that. This view has a certain logic going for it but is it actually true?  It's a powerful idea but I believe it to be a mistaken one. It is certainly an incomplete one because the fact is that, while there may be a state of pure consciousness that a human being can enter into, you, as an individual, are also real and this is the more profound truth. For God created you as an individual with whom he might have a relationship and who might progress to ever higher states of divine being, and, though you may renounce that, if you do you are failing life's challenges and giving up its highest rewards. 

Before I looked at advaita seriously I assumed it was a pure description of truth, just a more radical form of the basic spiritual philosophy that man and God are ultimately one. Closer investigation, however, revealed unqualified non-dualism to be based on Sankara’s highly selective picking and choosing of the Upanishads, interpreted in the light of Buddhism which he wished to contest but was obviously very influenced by. I now see advaita as tending to the reductive and simplistic for it fails to see that the One and the Many are both essential in a universe in which the highest truth is in growth and relationship rather than pure being. That is why it has no explanation for this whole world of creation; why anything came about in the first place and why there is this ignorance it believes to be the veil on reality.

Let me expand on that a little. Advaita is reductive because it denies the reality in creation, reducing life to the absolute alone when the whole point of it is that it is the absolute and the relative together, both being and becoming, change and changelessness, moving and working together, and the union of the two brings about something completely new. Sankara was a great philosopher, no doubt, but he was also a logician who couldn’t deal with the paradoxical statements in the Upanishads so left out what didn’t suit his thesis. For him the One and the Many must be opposites and only one of them could be true.  This is why he has no explanation for creation which he says is a mystery not to be understood. He can’t see that it is God expressing himself in order to become more than he already is by creating other beings with whom he can then have a relationship.

This is why I now regard advaita as a one-sided view of reality that breaks down under proper analysis because it ignores the fact that what God creates is real and has a purpose. Of course, in an ultimate sense, everything is one but the individual is also real and if that were not the case then love would be unreal. To give it reality only in the relative world of multiplicity, as advaita is forced to do, is no different to dismissing it altogether. But anyway the point is that it is not only valid in the relative world for love exists at the deepest level of being. This could not be the case if the deepest level were pure unqualified oneness. Only the Trinity can account for love as a fundamental truth.

This is where the Christian revelation goes further than any other religious teaching. Ultimate reality, God, is not the oneness of complete unity. It is the three in oneness of the Trinity. So more like a ceaseless dance of self-communion than unqualified abstract being.This is such a remarkable truth that it makes the heart dance with joy to know it. For it means that love is real, beauty is real and life is not static but able to grow and expand, in all probability limitlessly. It also explains the personhood of God and thus reveals that the highest truth is not impersonal as in Buddhism and advaita but personal. This has long been known in the West and is fundamental to Christianity, but the legacy of atheism means that many modern spiritual seekers reject it and take to the more 'scientific' philosophies of the East. Of course, there are branches of Hinduism which believe in a personal God but these are generally regarded as second tier as, in the context in which they arose, a kind of modified polytheism, they usually are.

So the huge mistake many people interested in spirituality today make is to place the impersonal at a higher or deeper level than the personal.  Being transcends personhood, they think. This seems to make a kind of sense to the rational intellect so is popular with the spiritual intelligentsia. However the truth is exactly the opposite. Personhood is the fullness of being. It is the end to which all abstract being is directed. God is a person and, even though he does have the aspect of pure being too, this is a limited part of the totality of what he truly is not the completeness or wholeness of it. In like manner it is a limited part of what you truly are, and if you restrict your spiritual approach to pure being or pure consciousness alone you are falling short of your divine destiny and the purpose God had in creating you as an individual soul.

It should also be said that most of those who think they can overcome their individuality this way will end up deceiving themselves, and fall into a fantasy world in which the self has renounced the self. Either that or else they will have to come back to the idea of God as a person and themselves as his creation.

Non-duality is a flawed philosophy, understandable in terms of man struggling to grasp the truth about himself and release himself from identification with the material self or ego but superseded by the revelation of the Trinity which shows how oneness and multiplicity can coexist without the latter being in any way unreal. Those who think that the spiritual goal is to attain to pure consciousness are making a mistake. Consciousness always has a quality of some sort just as light always has degrees of brightness, and this should be a matter for rejoicing because it means that our expansion into God can have no end.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thank you for this expounding. I studied, and tried (a bit) to practice an atheistic form of Zen Buddhism about thirty years ago - but it seemed to make my alienation worse, not better - so I stopped. I have never been able to make much sense from any type of Hinduism (and indeed there seem so many versions that I did not know where to start) - and since I felt no spontaneous attraction to it (unlike my childhood attraction to, for example, the paganism of the Norse) I have never pursued the matter very far.

But I have also observed this attraction of Western intellectuals for the impersonality of the Eastern religions - I know one or two people who have pursued this very seriously. But I have observed that it seems to make astonishingly-little difference to them! - I could not perceive any deep difference, at any rate - they just seem to behave like mainstream New Agey people, with perhaps more anarchistic/ idealistic political views.

I noticed in your MtM book that you went to Fr Bede Griffiths's Ashram. I have read some of his work, since he was a pupil then friend of CS Lewis - but the more I discovered, the less impressed I was - including the excerpts of interviews on YouTube; and indeed I once called him a 'spoiled priest'

You seem to suggest that this judgment may have been too harsh; but also that there was a superficiality about his 'ecumenical' work that meant it was going nowhere. Would you care to amplify?

William Wildblood said...

Re Bede Griffiths, I think you might have meant this post, Bruce,
which I cut out from the book which was probably too long anyway!

To tell the truth, I was trying to be polite there. I only met Bede Griffths for a short while so I can't really offer anything more than an impression of him and his work. However, though I thought him a decent and sincere man, i couldn't escape the idea that there was something a bit superficial about the whole set up in his ashram. It was rather New Agey to use your phrase. AS someone who has tried to be fairly universal in my spiritual outlook myself I can't say I blame him for trying to incorporate elements of Hindu mysticism into Christianity at a time when the latter was much more exclusive and had rather lost touch with the spirit factor. However the problem is that it doesn't work. Christianity is diminished thereby and becomes the junior partner in a sort of anything goes mysticism. So I think he was well-meaning but misguided.

The longer I live ( he said grandly!) the more I think that Eastern religions don't really work for Westerners. I've always been fascinated by them and can see much of beauty and wisdom in them. I've learnt a lot from them . But there's always been something missing and really I can sum what it is up in one word - Christ. In his person and teachings Christ conveys something that goes beyond everything else, however spiritually true it may be as in Buddhism for instance.

I think a lot of Westerners take to Eastern religions because they want spirituality but don't want to 'take up the cross'.

David Balfour said...

"This can manifest itself in various ways but one of the most common seems to be that such people look for a spirituality without God. For some this might be seen as a purely intellectual choice, but for others it is a matter of wanting to drink the wine without thanking the host who provides it. Who, in fact, made it."

Thats because there is no God and people are *absolutely certain* of this above all else and beyond question!!

It has been my sad misfortune to notice that in response to any lifting of spiritual insight i might achieve, there is some hidden law that the world will try and pull you back by a corresponding degree or perhaps by a multitudinous factor. I can only describe it as soul destroying.

In my good intentions I have shared your posts and Bruces on facebook in relation to Intelligence, Natural Selection, deism, Eastern religions, etc. All almost entirely ignored and unnoticed in the barage of posts decrying the ills of the current political elite, decrying the failings of democracy and yearning for a new socialist order (maybe *this time* against all the odds and against the tide of human history socialism might work?! Or do the implicit undercurrent of opinion appears to be) and interspersed with hilarious, savagely trivial posts about innane quizes like "what disney character does your personality most match with?" or something about some new diet regime that will finally make your bum look better in that dress, to be in keeping with that dream *lifestyle,* etc. These are the things that are important to modern people above all else. Spirituality? Religion? Whats that? Irrelevant! What could I personally get out of that anyway that would add to my lifestyle anyway? Maybe Yoga or a trendy 'retreat' with workshops on that new revolutionary diet to make myself look better in that new outfit for a friends wedding!

David Balfour said...

And then out of the woodwork in response to my posts about the importance of the centrality of love in human affairs and a little video about Krishnamurti comes a PhD biologist at Newcastle University to tell me that "he is one of the most annoying atheists he knows" and we begin a discussion. I ask him why he is so certain atheism is the best null hypothesis compared to other valid metaphysical assumptions such as the existence of God that might warrent credence (and that cetrainly most people throughout history have thought this is reasonable). He tells me "Exraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs!" I turn his idea on its head (Ironically, it isnt even an atheistic claim to support his thesis, it is an agnostic claim! And this is a highly respected, professional university researcher?) and I agree with him "Yes, I agree atheism is an extraordinary claim! What is your proof for it?"

He sighs (or at least the facebook messenger version of this) and tells me that he has wasted a lot of time arguing with people such as myself, expresses an implicit undercurrent of frustration and sadness that I am part of the wrong side that is trying to bring humanity back to the dark ages and then the conversation ends.

Later that day i visit my close relatives. We have a pleasant time and enjoy the sunshine. The discussion naturally moves to a story about a media story (another circulating on facebook) about a 30 something man who has become a multiple amputee following septicaemia. The conversation seems genuine, warm and culminates in a mutual agreement that life is short, precious and we do not know when it will end or what it has in store for anyone. This seems as good as time as any to express some hope that the worlds spiritual traditions or religions hold out some kind of transcendent hope for humanity. I have a gentle go. I dont plunge right in there with Christ and the resurrection. I start with a few musing points about how surely what happens in mortality is irrelevant logically if it is precedeed and followed by oblivion. I suggest a few "what if's" about life after death, reincarnation, etc. The conversation is rapidly closed down and returned to a neutral topic. The elephant in the room is there but it is our duty not to acknowledge it at all costs!! I finish the day with a sense of sadness. I ask God "why does no one believe in you? Please forgive us our sins and our hubris to deny you!" I feel diminished in some indefinable way. I feel alone and eroded by the world. I feel world weary. Slowly doubts begin to creep in "If everyone is so absolutely *certain* about this issue am i mad or deluded?" then i remember the words of Dieter Uchtdorf "Doubt your doubts first before you doubt your faith!" and i read Bruces post on If by Rudyard Kipling and listen to the words; I feel revived somewhat following this but still world-weary and frightened for the future of humanity.

David Balfour said...

How to live in the world but not be of the world? Now that is a question of some importance? Increasingly I feel I am wasting my time even trying vaguely to bring the *good news* to anyone. No one cares. Period. Yes, possibly a watered down buddhism or Eastern tradtion might be "cool" but "God is not cool!" And as for Christ? Nothing is as unwelcome a name for almost every last person I know. Sometimes ironically even amongst the self-proclaimed Christians I do know. Not one of them has come to my defense to support my position about any of the posts in relation to these topics. I know I am not supposed to get angry or upset about this or to faul foul of negative emotions in relation to other people but my goodness that is hard and I fail at that time and time again. To borrow your original analogy about drinking the party hosts wine and denying the host. The Christian is that i should turn the other cheek but frankly at times I just want to slap the other cheek and shout "Wake up!!"

William Wildblood said...

I completely understand and sympathise with what you say, David. It's my experience too. People might just about put up with a nebulous sort of spirituality that doesn't threaten worldly 'certainties' but won't countenance God, and definitely not the living God who is a real being with a real will and not just some sort of all pervasive spirit that doesn't disturb anyone and is simply waiting there to be accessed when you want a 'spiritual experience'. That is because they cannot bear the idea of giving anything up. They are so attached to their selves that they will not let go.

You cannot force them. You can only say what you have to say (and continue doing so though choose your moments carefully) in the hope that some of your words might one day be seeds that grow when the soil becomes more fertile, perhaps through suffering. But awakening to truth has to come from within.

I think we have to accept that these are the end times when the love of many grows cold (that's love for God from which all other love derives) and there is no faith to be found. People have the excuse not to believe with the idea of evolution by natural selection with no higher input. So they don't. To me it's inexplicable. Don't people realise the wonderful gift on offer? How can they be satisfied with the trivia of this world? But there we are. Many people seem to be even if, deep down, they are not happy.

I have come to the conclusion that there really are malign forces working to destroy belief in God. That sounds ludicrous to most people, of course, but it's the only explanation for the widespread collective insanity in the world that Bruce draws attention to so well. Oh well, they can't win but unfortunately they can do a lot of damage before they are cleansed from the system as I have no doubt one day they will be. We just have to act as open gates for the truth and not allow ourselves to be corrupted in any way either by anger or a sense of superiority or any other kind of negativity, all of which I recognise in myself. Ouch! Humility and love of God are the great protectors against this.

Bon courage, as they say in France!

David Balfour said...

Yes. I would agree with all of that. I would only add that the buffetting waves of the world reveal to me currently that I am weaker than I would like to admit in many ways. Sometimes I feel I really must withdraw from the open ocean into a quieter place of relative solitude and tranquility. When you get to the point that you feel God to be an omnipresent reality within and without it is hard not to stand out from the crowd in the way you talk about things and your revealed approach to life. This can feel jarring whenever you say something simple like "God bless" to someone on parting and they wince or if you explain that when you feel grateful for a sunny day and a walk in the park you mean you are grateful in a specific way to the creator and not just in a free floating way that feelings of gratitude should be used as psychological tools to enhance ones personal happiness as many a modern self-help manual would have it. Of course this situation is further compounded when your employer expects you to treat mental illness in purely secular terms and all of the spiritual wisdom of the world is largely out-of-bounds even though i can see that is what my patient almost always need could it be otherwise if you believe in God? You cannot leave the source of creation out and expect all to be well can you? But still the secular psychology machine rolls on and demands that I comply! I think your book has reminded me of the importance of being more practical and down-to-Earth and less lost in thinking as us intellectuals tend to do. Becoming a therapist has certainly not helped this but I feel that I have learned important things from this phase of my life. I can feel that phase drawing to an end and threatening to stagnate unless I find new pastures. Its hard to admit it after having done a degree in psychology and then spending 5+ years in the profession but it seems me now just a mostly dead and ineffectual glass bead game. How is it best to serve God? A modern aspirant servant seems to have a hard time figuring out what is the best way to be of service. Anyway, thanks for your replies they help to clarify things for me and to focus on picking the right battles to fight and which ones are merely follysome to enter into to begin with.

William Wildblood said...

I think that hardly any of us can earn our living in the way we might like to. I can tell you that the Masters told me that the latter years of my life would be filled with dull routine and so it is proving! But still your profession seems to me to be better than many. Can't you slip in the occasional hint here and there and see if the bait is taken?

David Balfour said...

Well I certainly try to do just that. Its a bit like being an undercover cop at times. Obviously i can't just lead the conversation where i want it to go, that would be unprofessional, but sometimes there are happy coincidences and sometimes people do wish to explore philosophical or spiritual material further and I am always happy to make further suggestions when that happens. Better still sometimes i have an explicitly Christian or Buddhist patient and then I feel in much more comfortable territory to support them without feeling I am at risk of breaking the non-directive or supposedly neutral credo of psychotherapy; which is impossible realistically anyway but that this the pretense that the health care system tries to maintain and rightly so to a certain extent.

George said...

Isn't limitless growth and expansion a modern idea that basically hides a nihilistic attitude towards life? (nothing ever good enough, endless restlessness - eventually, the idea of endless growth leads to nihilism, and indeed is a disguise nihilism)

You say that we should rejoice in a vision that allows for endless growth and expansion, yet that vision strikes me as exactly what is wrong with the modern West, why we are so restless and unhappy.

The East rejected a vision of endless growth and all commentators agree that they were much happier than the modern West.

Pre-modern West, indeed all Pre modern societies, believed in a static perfection rather than endless expansion and all were much happier and more fulfilled than the modern West.

Indeed the idea of endless growth can be seen to underlie the modern sickness.

Is it possible, William, that you remain too much of a modern Westerner to give up the distinctively Western, and modern, idea of endless growth and read it back into spirituality even though all traditions are unanimous in finding happiness in static perfection and not endless growth?

I simply don't know what to think. Your earlier writings, William, have a sparkling clarity that is inspiring. Give up the ego and merge with God. I have learned much from them and found their simplicity and clarity regreshing.

Your more recent writings, with their paradoxes and complicated attempts to integrate opposites, with the loss of the simple, sparkling clarity that came before, seems born of a desire to cling to modern western modes of thinking and not give up what westerners find hard to give up.

It is almost as if you now no longer wish to make the necessary sacrifice, and are doing what you gave accused others of doing.

William Wildblood said...

Dear George
First of all apologies for taking a while to reply. I'm currently away from computers so only able to look at the blog now and then.

I do see what you are saying. You think I've exchanged the calm serenity of the Buddha for a feverish concern with constant change and development. I don't think this is the case but can see that it might appear to be so.

The problem is this. I believe in God and that God had a purpose in creating human beings and putting them through the experiences in this world. If static perfection were his aim that would not make sense . Static perfection is always there. It doesn't need creation which is why systems like advaita have no explanation for creation.

Static perfection is pure being and i don't reject this. I think our goal is to identify ourselves with the absolute and that to chase after growth without having first done this is to remain in the worlds of illusion. But once we have realised ourselves to be spirit not material beings tied to the phenomenal worlds then new vistas open up in which being(static perfection) and becoming ( change) are reconciled. But the focus of identification must always be spirit. That is the truth and the rest is external. But inner and outer both exist. The latter is not discarded in realisation but transformed. For me only this makes sense of everything in the world. It goes beyond pure mysticism to something not yet fully understood, certainly not in any complete sense.

So I would say the truth is not Eastern and is not Western but both combined. I have no interest in the modem West which pursues the path of egotistic fulfilment. I agree with all you say about it and am frequently criticised for my opinion. It is the pursuit of growth in a purely materialistic sense. But the ancient East tended to reject the outer world for exclusive focus on inwardness so I would say its realisation though extraordinary was incomplete.

In essence once you have attuned yourself to spirit within which is the main and most important thing then you see that there is the possibility of entering ever more deeply into reality which has no bottom, no point at which there is no more to be explored. This is not instead of the stillness and silence of pure being but as well as it.

Without the realisation of spirit then the world of change and growth is the endless merry go round you say it is. But with it, with that as your conscious root, change becomes greater depth and more height. So the western view is not totally wrong but it is a materialistic perversion of a spiritual truth.

Ive written this in haste on a phone on which I cant see what Ive written so I hope it makes sense.

Anonymous said...

"Personhood is the fullness of Being"; your quote, is perhaps one of the best arguments I've heard critiquing the current trend in non-dual teaching. Absorption in the one is only achieved by the self in intimate communion and humble surrender to the loving creator, and this requires a deep recognition of that self as is- or as Marharhshi said "be as you are". The quick fix of the neo-Advaita mindset is attractive because it provides a shortcut around our aloneness and ultimately our powerlessness by seeing our existence as false construction and illusory and so having no need to resolve it. It is in our humble acceptance of our own historic personhood with all it's pains and talents that we recoginize our purpose through the sacrifice of returning ourselves to the loving creator.