by Jac O’Keeffe
Until the last century, the theoretical framework of Advaita Vedanta (theory of non duality) was preserved and presented mainly within the esoteric spiritual teachings of India. Traditionally, these non-dual teachings were not imparted freely. An apprenticeship of twelve years of service to a spiritual teacher or guru was customary, after which the guru determined if the student was ripe to be introduced to the non-dual perspective. While this might seem extreme in the current freedom-of-information era, the practice nevertheless did contain its own wisdom.
The pointers of non-duality are of little use to the immature mind and, in most cases, have an adverse effect and actually delay spiritual maturation. It is essential to work from the level of consciousness at which one has stabilised. The hallmarks of an immature seeker include wanting to bypass the proper development of ego in order to avoid confronting the shadow aspects of the psyche and lacking the capacity to perceive one’s own whereabouts on the progressive path. For example, on being told that ‘you are God’, or that ‘there is nothing to do’, or that ‘you do not exist’, etc., they grasp at these concepts and overlay them on unexamined, personal beliefs in separation.
In Advaita Vedanta, there is no support for the immature seeker and when resistance to what is presented by the teacher builds, the ego defends itself in every possible way. Thus a new form of suffering – spiritual bypassing – is created, whereby spiritual teachings are used as an avoidance of egoic issues. Ironically, this strategy has emerged as a dualistic counterbalance to the contemporary, global availability of non-dual teachings and perspectives. Immature seekers with no knowledge of the subtleties of mind dismiss as madness what they do not understand. The teachings and actions of the teacher are interpreted perversely and misunderstandings happen. Concepts are inappropriately applied and projections are placed on the teacher. This is caused by a subtle self defense mechanism and in defending itself, the seeker’s ego is strengthened. All of this is simply because mind is not yet sufficiently turned inward. An immature mind seeks outward resolutions, a mature mind listens within.
Everything in the phenomenal world has its place, just as every pointer to that which is beyond mind is useful in its own time. Maturation of mind continues indefinitely until all beliefs in separation are dissolved. The discernment to know when to effectively use and when to drop spiritual practices is not available in the immature mind. Consequently, certain spiritual techniques such as of self-enquiry cannot ‘work’ until the seeker is ripe. In the absence of the traditional teacher-student or guru-disciple model, the seeker must self-navigate their spiritual evolution.
Immature seekers also often pursue a spiritual teacher in search of love and acceptance. However, without sufficient self-awareness, they fail to recognize this motivation and so their innate lack of self-love perpetuates itself. Inevitably, they find reasons to later reject the teacher, since an immature mind always demands conclusions – about themselves and about their teacher –in an effort to validate and defend the fragile ego. The dualistic polarities of right and wrong, real and fake, manifest in full force so long as the ‘I’ concept seeks its footing in often misinformed, personal opinions. Frequently jumping from one teacher to another, such seekers can understand neither the teachings nor the teacher due to their substratum of immaturity.
In India, the theory of non-duality is housed within Hinduism. Prayer, yoga, service, the cultivation of devotion, and the practicing of good works are not seen in any way as being in opposition to the ultimate realization of Truth. All levels of maturation are accommodated within this unified system. When mind is not yet ready to respond to non-dual pointers, then these spiritual practices have their place. Currently, there is such an abundance of options in the West that it is not clearly seen that every spiritual practice of merit ultimately prepares mind for its own dissolution. As each practice has its place in the greater scheme of things, it is important to participate in spiritual practice with the ultimate goal in view. For example, exploring past lives can either build-up the sense of ‘I’ or dissolve it.
Let the central focus be the seeing through of false identification with the body-mind organism. In all of this, the wise option is to follow what makes sense internally and not to pursue a conceptual explanation merely attractive to mind. Allow your spiritual practice to be guided not by desire, but by an intuitive sense that there is a refinement or purification of mind inherent in it. Whatever reduces the sense of the personal ‘I’, whatever reduces identification with thought, is indeed a useful practice. All of this activity will eventually spin itself out. It is important for this maturation to unfold naturally, since the organic falling away of spiritual practice happens only when mind is appropriately ripe for the attitude of non-duality to take hold.
In all of this, the paradox cannot be avoided that the realization of Truth is not dependent on any spiritual practice or maturity of mind. The dance of the progressive path happens in time and space, which itself is the product of erroneous thinking and misidentification. This misunderstanding gives rise to the idea of a personal ‘I’, an imagined individual trying to reduce himself in order to remember who he is. The reduction of the ‘I’ is in fact not directly related to the seeing of Truth – it is simply the activity that happens as the illusion of life is weakening. Recognizing the falsity of the personal ‘I’ together with ceasing to be able to believe in its existence reveals Truth.
In spiritual teachings of both East and West the direct path is appropriate for those who are mature in mind and therefore ready for transcendence of dualistic thought. Many seekers in the West have said that taking the direct path disables them from effective daily functioning and that the supportive context of an ashram would provide an appropriate context. In rare cases this is true, however usually fear and avoidance of the unknown underpin this excuse. Fear lurks in the fact that the direct path does not make allowances for the personal ‘I’. Irrespective of the practice advocated, the direct path offers no result or conclusion: it can at best be described as a technique which destroys the idea that there is someone using it. To put it another way, it is recommended to pay no attention to mind, as though having zero tolerance for the appearance of the illusory world. Hence the significance of silence. Any movement of a personal ‘I’ simply endorses the idea that there is an ‘I’ who is ultimately seeking Truth. Non-duality emphasizes (and the direct path reveals) that there never was an ‘I’, that the very idea of anything existing is false. There is nothing of any substance or authenticity in whatever appears as real.
The immature mind interprets this suggestion (pay no attention to mind, as though having zero tolerance for the appearance of the illusory world) as a practice of having a zero tolerance attitude, and this in turn strengthens the idea of an ‘I’ doing something to gain something better. And so it can be said that spiritual practice can indeed help to dissolve the ‘I’ but without proper understanding, it can also perpetuate the ‘I’. It is wise, therefore, to participate in spiritual practice aware that it cannot of itself lead to the recognition of Truth. And yet, phenomenally there is great value in reducing identification with thoughts and thus lessening beliefs in duality. Let spiritual practice continue until it is seen to be a happening in consciousness and that you are not the one practicing. When there is no attachment to the spiritual practice, this shift can come about. Let it be seen that everything happens by itself, and that there are no individuals doing any of this.
For those drawn directly to the experience of non-dual perspective (as opposed to beliefs/ideas about it), be aware that there is no formal context in this framework to allow for a maturation of mind. Recognize that both spiritual and religious practices have their place in enabling each seeker to respond optimally to an internal pull, and that it is up to seekers to find their own way of engaging with teachings delivered in this manner. Likewise, non-duality must be considered as a disposition of the mind. It is not appropriate for application to worldly affairs, and the wisdom to deal with such matters must therefore be developed independently. This approach ripens the intellect to the point of being able to yield to a non-dual perspective, and it is your responsibility to discover what works for you.
In spite of all of this, how could you ever imagine to be apart from Self? To be what it is that you are requires no effort because you are always that which is prior and beyond all concepts. You cannot be other than that. Yet so long as you imagine yourself to be other than what you are, the spiritual search has its place. To know that which you are, there must be two selves for one to know the other. The search for Truth does not end in finding truth phenomenally: there is nothing gained anew in Self-realization. All that happens is the complete dropping of entangled engagement with thought.
Thus what is called ignorance (in a spiritual context) is but the unsatisfactory attempt to identify Self with what is not Self. Your intellect, and the one that suffers from the desire to find Truth, must realize that what can be known is only what you are not. In this knowledge all that presents as phenomenal reality is laid bare in the seeing that this cannot be what you are. Attachments to the false individual persona must fall away. What remains cannot be known by that same faculty which has brought you this far. Intellect can only operate in the context of subject and object. Within this dichotomy, there must be something to be known or understood and a separate individual with something to gain in acquiring this knowledge. Let all ideas drop about enlightenment and retain the sense of direction which arises from this goal. Seeing through the goal oriented, task driven cultural conditioning from the West marks a shift from immature to mature mind. Allow a softness to arise in place of the eager and greedy seeking of the highly sophisticated tool which is mind. Develop the wisdom to know when to pick it up and when to lay it down. Anything that can be known cannot be what you are. What you are is prior to all dualistic explanations and pointers. Self is within the direct experience of all, but not as one imagines it to be. In the absence of all phenomena, imagination and intellect have no place. Self is only as it is. Whatever your cultural context or your spiritual leanings be honest with yourself and take the steps that are appropriate for you because they make sense to you, whether appearing as rational or irrational.
Don’t ponder on this or try to figure it out. It is not understandable at any level deeper than intellectual theory. Mind cannot fathom beyond this because, to do so, intellect requires an object of perception for its activation in thought. Understand and accept the role and limits of the enquiring mind. It is a tool that serves well on the progressive path in any culture. When identification with the body and thought ceases, it is understood that Truth is never lost or found and what you really are simply reveals itself.
Jac O’Keeffe experienced a spontaneous, inner awakening in 1997. Her third eye opened, and her life dramatically changed course. She left a successful career pioneering community arts policy at the national level in Ireland to begin a substantial, healing practice, which progressed into residential retreats that explored the spiritual causes underpinning clinical depression. In 2003, she closed her practice, left her Western lifestyle, and eventually moved to India. Intense spiritual practice led to a two year period without thoughts. Spiritual wisdom developed, and Jac now guides others in her teachings and publications to transcend dual and non dual perspectives, and prepares spiritual teachers for liberation. https://jac-okeeffe.com/