Is Neo-Advaita Teaching Dangerous?

By Tristan Dorling

Transcript from a podcast

28th December 2021

   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. It’s quite a recent thing, that’s come along over the last 100 years or so. Advaita is actually a very high level aspect of the path of yoga.

   I remember my teacher in India, when people used to ask her about advaita, she basically used to say: “I’m not going to talk about advaita, because people don’t understand it.”. So, that’s the, you know, that’s the sort of level of practice that advaita is at; that most people would find it very difficult to understand, or impossible to understand.

   A certain level of practice is required before people can begin to understand advaita. But, having said that, there’s a lot of interest in advaita these days, and people are quite drawn to it. So, looking at what advaita is; literally it means “non-duality”, “non-dual”. And, sometimes it’s referred to as advaita-vedanta. Vedanta really refers to a period in the history of yoga when the Upanishads were being written, the Bhagavad-Gita was being written. These texts constitute what’s called Vedanta. Literally it means: “The end of knowledge”. And, advaita really came out of this period, or began during this period. So, this is a long time ago. This is going back two and a half thousand years, or longer. This 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 funny term! And so, how do we approach it? How do we begin to get our head around it? It really relates to the way that we understand our self in the world, and we understand ourselves in relation to objects. Normally we think of ourselves as seeing objects and being separate from those objects. For example you see a mountain, and the mountain is over there, and we are over here. So, there is a subject and an object, and the mountain is the object, and we are the subject. We are the person seeing the mountain, or a river, we see a river and we are the subject seeing the river. And you can do this with any object, so, 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, that’s clinging. So, we can relate to certain objects in that way. And, as we practice yoga, there’s a kind of first stage that begins to happen. As we’re practicing 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. This is called the “rise of the witness”. We are the witness seeing things, but not getting involved in them, not grasping onto them, or pushing them away.
 
   But, this is still subject-object duality. There’s still who we are fundamentally, 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. The objects arise on that screen, and our awareness is a bit like a projector in the cinema. We are aware of all these things arising and passing away on the screen of consciousness.
 
   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,  touching, smelling, tasting, the person that is born and dies, who exists in time and space, and relates to these objects, this person is also then seen as arising on the screen of consciousness. Not only are we aware of the object, but we begin to realize that the person who we think we are, who relates to these objects, is also on that 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 subject-object relationship, it’s still duality. 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. But, it’s still subject and object.
 
   The next stage that happens is a kind of expansion of consciousness. Instead of seeing ourselves as being separate from the objects arising on the screen of consciousness, we begin to realize 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. We no longer see ourselves as being in the world, but rather, the world being within us. So, then this separation, this subject-object separation, begins to dissolve. It begins to fall away. This is the rise of advaita, the rise of non-duality. And so, this is a very high stage in yoga. Traditionally, the way this is taught, is that we begin with certain practices. We begin with certain practices like meditation, like pranayama, like asana, mudras, bandhas. All these practices are designed to purify the body and the mind and bring us into a state where we’re able to begin to see these things clearly.
 
   Without this kind of preliminary stage practice, we’re not able to really allow this process to happen, and to let it become part of our existence. And so, we could have glimpses. It’s possible to have glimpses of the awakened state, to have glimpses of advaita. To have glimpses 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, in yoga, this is how this has been taught. It is generally not taught to students until they reach a certain level, a certain stage on the path, where this becomes meaningful.
 
   So, what is neo-advaita? In the last century, some teachers started teaching advaita, almost as a kind of beginner practice. They would teach someone, even if they’ve done no yoga previously. 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, if they haven’t got enough, kind of, distance, 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 high-level practices. The practices aren’t producing fruit, they’re not being useful. So, they can end up getting lost, and spending years, sometimes, engaging in practices that are really only possible to engage in, once there is sufficient inner silence present. And, if people try to engage in these practices without enough inner silence present, it simply doesn’t help. It’s not going to help them, and they can end up wasting a lot of time. So, it’s not a useful thing to be engaging in.
 
   This is why you’ll sometimes hear people say that neo-advaita 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, purify the mind, cultivate inner silence, and set the stage, ready to begin pure advaita teachings. So, this is reasonably common in the world today. Neo-advaita teachings are fairly common in the world today, which is why I’m answering this question about it. These teachings can be useful, certainly, for some people, and they can actually be useful for beginners on the path, to the degree to which they create inspiration. People often hear pure advaita teachings and they become inspired, and then that inspiration, hopefully, will lead them to take up yoga and begin to purify their body and mind. Then later they can come back to the advaita teachings. So, they’re useful in that sense, to create inspiration, and they can also be useful for people who are at advanced stages of the path, to guide them through the last stages of the journey. So they’re certainly useful for certain groups of people. But, for the majority of people in the middle, focusing on meditation, focusing on pranayama, focusing on asana, focusing on mudras and bandhas, you know, these are the most important things. To be preparing ourselves. And to be honest, you know, once someone has reached a stage where they have a strong degree of inner silence present in the mind, advaita teachings almost are not necessary, because advaita is everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s everywhere we look. So, the process of coming into a non-dual perspective will simply be happening anyway.

Note: The podcast that this commentary has been taken from, can be found on YouTube here. It is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.