Can Neo Advaita Teaching Be Dangerous

Can Neo-Advaita Teaching be Dangerous?

By Tristan Dorling

So, the question that was asked is: “Are there any dangers in neo-advaita teaching?”. Okay, so, to look at this question, we have to first of all understand what advaita teaching is. What is advaita-vedanta? And then look at how advaita is normally taught in yoga, how it’s been taught over the last few thousand years, and what part of the journey of yoga advaita teaching comes into. And then look at what neo-advaita is. Neo-advaita teaching, as the name suggests, is quite a recent thing that’s come along over the last 100 years or so.

So, advaita means “non-dual”, or “non-duality” and it is actually a very high-level aspect of the path of yoga. I remember studying once in an ashram in India and my teacher would often refuse to even speak about advaita. When people would ask her questions about it, she would simply say that there was no point in speaking about advaita, because people could not understand it. It was not that she considered people to be too stupid, but she felt that they had not done enough preliminary work to be able to understand it. A bit like someone wanting to be taught degree level maths without having done high school maths. So, that gives an idea of where advaita, or non-dual teachings, fits in the overall study and practice of yoga. A certain level of practice is required before people can begin to understand advaita, and more importantly, a certain degree of abiding inner silence needs to be present in the mind.

So, looking at what advaita is; literally it means “non-duality”, or “non-dual”. And, sometimes it’s referred to as Advaita-Vedanta. Vedanta really refers to teachings that came out of a period in the history of yoga when the Upanishads were being written and the Bhagavad Gita was being written. These texts together constitute what’s called Vedanta. Literally it means: “The end of knowledge” and the teachings of advaita really came out of this period. So, this happened a long time ago, between two-and-a-half thousand years ago and three thousand years ago. So, advaita, or the non-dual perception of reality, is something that’s been around in yoga, pretty much since the beginning. The first spiritual texts that we have access to contain advaita teachings, non-dual teachings.

So, what is this non-duality? It’s a strange term! Reality is being described in terms of something that it is not. It is not two things, not dual, not separate. And because we are a part of reality, we are also not two things, not dual, not separate. So, advaita really relates to the way that we understand ourselves in the world, and how we understand ourselves in relation to objects. And so, normally we think of ourselves as seeing objects and being separate from those objects that we see. And we usually consider ourselves to be a body and mind that perceives those objects. So, for example we see a mountain, and the mountain’s over there, and we’re over here. So, there’s a subject-object relationship, and the mountain is the object, and we’re the subject. We’re the person seeing the mountain, or a river, we see a river and we’re the subject seeing the river as an object. And we can do this with any object; stars, cars, houses, other people, all these things are objects arising in the mind, and we’re the subject. So, this is duality. This is the opposite of advaita. This is not non-duality. This is the dual perception of the world. And normally there’s a kind of entanglement process going on. We relate to these objects in certain ways. For example, we might not want a particular object. We might want to get rid of it, so that’s aversion. We might be attracted to a certain object, wanting to keep it, so that’s clinging. So, we can relate to certain objects in that way. And as we practise yoga, there’s a kind of first stage that begins to happen. As we’re practising meditation, as we’re purifying the body and the mind, the mind begins to become still. A certain silence is created in the mind. And, in that stillness and that silence, we begin to form a much more pure relationship with objects, in the sense that we simply see objects arising and passing away. The process of entanglement becomes less. No longer trying to push things away or pull things towards us, or hold on to them or identify with them. We start to simply see objects as objects, and they arise and they pass away. So, this is called the “rise of the witness”. So we’re the witness seeing things, but not getting involved in them. Not grasping after them, or pushing them away. But this is still subject-object duality. There’s still who we fundamentally are, and the object in our consciousness, which is other than us, or seen as other than us. And you could say that all of these objects are arising on the screen of consciousness. So, you can imagine a screen of awareness, or screen of consciousness with all these things arising and passing away on the screen of consciousness.

Now the next step in the process that happens, is that we begin to see that the person who we think we are, the person who is seeing these things, the person who is hearing, the person who is touching, the person who is smelling, the person who is tasting, the person that is born and dies, who exists in time and space, and relates to these objects, this person is also seen as arising on the screen of consciousness. So, not only are we aware of the object, but we begin to realise that the person who we think we are, who relates to these objects, is also on the screen of consciousness.

But still there is pure awareness, the pure awareness that we are, and there’s still separation. So there’s still the screen of consciousness, the objects arising on the screen, the person who’s relating to the objects arising on the screen, but it’s still a subject-object relationship, it’s still duality. But it’s a much more pure form of duality, because there’s no longer a kind of sticky quality of the mind. That kind of push and pull, aversion, attraction, clinging, process happening. It’s much more peaceful, much more calm. At this stage we are moving towards sattva, purity. But it’s still subject and object.

The next stage that happens is a kind of expansion, a kind of expansion of consciousness. And instead of seeing ourselves as being separate from the objects arising on the screen of consciousness, we begin to realise that everything is contained within us. It’s a direct seeing that everything is actually arising within awareness, everything exists within awareness, everything passes away within awareness. So, we no longer see ourselves as being in the world, but rather the world being within us. And so then this separation, this subject-object separation, begins to dissolve. It begins to fall away. And this is the rise of advaita. This is the rise of non-duality. And so, this is a very high stage level in yoga. It is really the last stage. It is the stage of unity and liberation, of kaivalya.

And traditionally, the way that this is taught is that we begin with certain practices. We begin with certain practices like meditation, like pranayama, like asana, mudras, bandhas, and so on. All these practices are designed to purify the body and the mind and gradually bring us into a state where we’re able to begin to see these things clearly. And so, without this kind of preliminary stage practice being engaged with first, we’re not able to make use of non-dual practices in a meaningful or useful way. We could have glimpses; it is possible to have glimpses of the awakened state. It’s possible to have glimpses of advaita, of the non-dual state. But for it to become abiding, there has to be a certain degree of preparation, a certain degree of purification of the body and the mind. And so, over the last two and a half thousand years, or three thousand years in yoga, this is how it has happened, this is how it has been taught. And traditionally it was not taught to students until they reach a certain level, a certain stage on the path, where this becomes meaningful, where it becomes genuinely applicable.

So, then what is neo-advaita and why could it be dangerous? So, in the last century, some teachers started teaching advaita, almost as a kind of beginner practice, or more exactly, a practice made available to everyone. So, they would give advaita instructions to someone, even if they’ve never engaged in any form of spiritual practice before. Even if they’ve done nothing to prepare themselves to be able to start working with pure advaita teachings. They would simply teach them anyway. So, they were teaching what are very high-level yogic practices, effectively to anyone, whether they’re a beginner, intermediate student, or advanced level student. Now the danger with doing this, is that if someone doesn’t have enough inner silence present in their mind, if they haven’t got enough stillness to be able to engage in these practices, what can happen is that it just becomes the mind creating more mind. It becomes ideas creating more ideas. And it can lead to people getting lost in these practices and simply going round in circles. If this happens, they won’t benefit from the practices and can even become confused and distracted.

People can end up spending years getting lost in advaita teachings, engaging in practices that are really only possible to engage in once there is sufficient inner silence present. Advaita teachings cannot be understood by the mind. It is not an intellectual exercise and can never be, because the mind and intellect are also on the screen of consciousness. They are not sufficient tools to be useful for advaita and can even get in the way of direct pure perception. So, this is why you’ll sometimes hear people say that neo-advaita teaching can be dangerous. Dangerous, in the sense that people can waste time, which could have been used much more profitably doing practices that actually purify the body and the mind, and cultivate inner silence, and set the stage, ready to begin to benefit from advaita teachings. People taking on advaita teachings and practices too soon, is unfortunately becoming increasingly common in the world today.

Advaita teachings can be useful, certainly, for people who are ready. For people who have made themselves ripe through spiritual practice. They can even be useful for beginners on the path, because they can inspire people. Advaita teachings are often very beautiful, because they relate to the highest aspect of the path of spiritual awakening, and hearing about that can be inspiring. But it is important that people then take that inspiration and turn it into practice; the practice of meditation; and then come back to advaita teaching when they have sufficient abiding inner silence present in the mind.

The dangers of becoming distracted on the path, and becoming lost in the mind are just two of the dangers of taking on advaita teachings too soon. Another danger is dissociation, where people start to think that they do not exist, or are not sure who they really are, and stop being able to function effectively in the physical world. Another danger of taking on advaita teachings too early is the danger of thinking that you have arrived. When people approach advaita on an intellectual level, they can convince themselves that they know what non-duality is, and that they are abiding in, and as, That. But in fact, they have simply created an idea of what advaita is in their mind, and have become identified with that idea. Then they may go around proclaiming that they know what advaita is, when actually they are simply still lost in their mind. They have simply refined their ideas and their processes of identification to bring them into line with non-dual teachings, and made that their new identity. This is a long way away from the true realisation of advaita.

There is another danger in taking on non-dual teachings too soon, and that is the danger of triggering a premature kundalini awakening. Non-dual teachings can induce a temporary state of stillness and silence in the mind, which is one of the reasons they are so attractive. But, one of the triggers of kundalini is inner silence. So, if people are engaging in advaita practices too soon, before having prepared the body for the awakening of kundalini, they can experience a premature awakening, with all the symptoms that can go along with a premature kundalini awakening.

So, for the majority of people, focusing on meditation, on pranayama, on Samyama, on asana practice, these are the most important things. These are the things we can use to prepare ourselves for direct practices like advaita. And to be honest, once someone has reached a stage where they have a strong degree of inner silence present in the mind, and much of the process of inner purification has been completed, advaita teachings are almost not necessary, because advaita is everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s everywhere we look. It is what we are. So, the process of coming into the non-dual perspective will simply happen anyway. When you are truly ready for non-dual teachings, you won’t need them.

Note: The podcast that this commentary has been taken from, can be found on YouTube here.