"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.... read more
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.
Although the congruency between the philosophical aspects of Advaita 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. To 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. 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. 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.
In Advaita, ego is a bad word — the scourge of humanity. 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.
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.
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.
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 dis-identified from an unhealthy ego. And it is time for those in the non-dual spiritual movements to acknowledge this, and stop placing awakening or realization as the student's primary goal. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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? 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.
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.
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 minimize suffering whenever and wherever we find it. Kindness becomes our driving force. Then and only then do we make a real difference."