WHY THE IMPERSONAL DOES NOT ‘EXIST’
The birth and death of fundamentalism in nonduality and Advaita teachings.
by Jeff Foster
Originally published in 3e millénaire (N° 101 – Automne 2011)
as “Pourquoi l’impersonnel n’existe pas”
Govinda said: ‘What you call a thing, is it something real and intrinsic? Is it not simply an illusion of Maya, merely image and appearance? Your stone, your tree, are they real?’
‘This does not trouble me much,’ said Siddhartha. ‘If they are illusion, then I too am illusion, and so they are of the same nature as myself… That is why I can love them…
- Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
A few months ago I made this announcement:
“I am officially no longer an ‘Advaita teacher’ or ‘Nonduality teacher’ – if, indeed, I ever was one. Life cannot be put into words, and however beautiful the words of Advaita/Nonduality are, they must be discarded in the end. I could never claim to be any sort of authority on this stuff. I will continue to speak, to sing my song to those who are open to listening, but gone is the need to adhere to any tradition, to use ‘Advaita-speak’ to avoid real, authentic human engagement, to pretend that I am in any way more or less special than you, to kid you that I know more than you, to play the ‘teacher’ by refusing to meet you in the play, to stop listening to you because I see you as ‘still stuck in the dream’ or ‘still a person’. This message is about love, in the true sense of the word – otherwise it is simply nihilism masquerading as freedom. The ‘Advaita Police’ reply ‘Who cares?’ I say I do. I do.”
In this essay I want to explain why I made this statement.
THE MESSAGE OF RADICAL ADVAITA
If you listen to certain nonduality/Advaita teachers who are on the scene at the moment, you may get the impression that there is something terribly wrong with having a personal ‘story’. Having a thought-created story about yourself, your past experiences, your relationships, your feelings, your desires and hopes and fears, and so on – in other words, being a living, breathing human being – is a clear sign of delusion and duality. And you need to wake up from this mess!
If you go to a public meeting held by a teacher of ‘radical Advaita’, and they invite questions, and you start talking about something personal – for example, the death of a loved one, an addiction you have, a painful event that happened in your past – they will tell you that you are ‘stuck in your story’, or ‘lost in the dream of time and space’ or they will simply say you are ‘still a person’ and ‘haven’t woken up yet’. The fact that you ‘told a story’ shows that you are still coming from duality – you are still identified as a seeker, stuck in the personal. Once you ‘get it’, you will no longer tell personal stories. You will exist in the eternal Now, and know nothing of your past.
These teachers, of course, no longer ‘tell stories’ (well, except the gigantic story that all stories are a sign of ignorance…). They imply that they themselves exist in some sort of mystical state beyond the personal, or that they have entered into a kind of space where the personal no longer has any meaning, relevance or interest. They don’t have a past or future, they don’t have ‘personal relationships’ (who is there to have a relationship with?), and they certainly never suffer (because all suffering is an illusion, right?) And so you end up feeling inferior to these people (or non-people, or nobodies, or absences, or whatever they are calling themselves today) and terribly guilty and narcissistic for still having interest in your personal story. Liberation or enlightenment obviously hasn’t happened for you yet! And so you wait and wait for liberation to happen. And although these teachers say there is nothing you can do to reach liberation, and nobody there who can do anything anyway, you carry on going to their meetings and reading their books, in the vain hope that it will happen one day. Although there’s no ‘you’ it can happen to. And no ‘one day’….
What a headache! And for these teachers, your ‘headache’ is yet a further sign that you don’t ‘get it’ yet. Their teaching is 100% true, pure, and uncompromisingly, brutally honest – your confusion is your problem, a sign of your ignorance. The burden of guilt is on you.
Although these teachers talk about freedom, the wonder of existence and the completeness of all things, in their denial or rejection of the personal, they are sending a clear message to the seeker: keep seeking, for one day the personal will fall away. The seeker is kept hooked on the promise of a future ‘impersonal’ state or experience, although of course, the teacher denies that they have any sort of agenda, or are promising anything to the seeker. In the hierarchy of radical Advaita, the impersonal is better, or more real, or at least less illusory, than the personal – although of course, it is also claimed that all hierarchies are illusions. Radical Advaita is a subtle form of seeking, no doubt about it.
Of course, what these teachers cannot see is that their ‘impersonal’ (actually anti-personal) position is in fact a very personal preference. They claim that their teaching is ‘impersonal’ and without agenda (because it does not speak to you as a separate person), when of course their preference to avoid or dismiss your personal story is a very personal one, and it comes from an agenda to make you realise that you are not liberated yet. In promoting the impersonal, in making the impersonal the absolute truth, they actually create the very division between the impersonal and the personal, absolute and relative, that they claim they have transcended. And even though they don’t allow personal stories in the meetings, outside of the meetings these teachers tell stories, gossip, argue and defend positions just like anyone else. Why is there a division between what goes on in the meetings, and outside of them? Why is there one rule for them, and another rule for us? Why do the meetings have to be such a performance? Surely liberation brings freedom from the need to perform in this way?
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying these teachers are bad, or wrong, or that they intentionally set out to mislead people – nothing of the sort! I’m saying that I no longer resonate with this way of expressing truth, that’s all. I used to hold ‘radical Advaita’ meetings myself, and would often dismiss personal stories in the same way as I’m describing above, and so I totally understand where this form of expression is coming from. I used to love this radical, uncompromising approach…. until I saw through its root assumptions and its hidden agendas. It took me a long time – and much soul-searching and humility – to realise that, in fact, the impersonal and the personal are one, and this ‘anti-personal’ stance is simply a personal preference of certain spiritual teachers. There is no such thing as an ‘impersonal’ message – there are only people who act in ‘impersonal’ ways towards others. There are impersonal personalities – but no impersonal messages. What many of these teachers call ‘impersonal truth’ is actually their own anti-personal stance disguised as objective fact.
THE IMPERSONAL IS THE PERSONAL
Whatever the impersonal is, it actually expresses itself as the personal, and so true freedom cannot come through a denial or rejection of the personal story – it’s actually there right at the heart of that story, at the heart of the messiness of human existence. That’s where the grace shines.
Think of Jesus on the cross. Right at the heart of the most terrible personal suffering – right at the heart of broken bones, flayed skin, torn muscle, the Divine shone, impersonal and free. Jesus was absolutely human, and in that humanness, absolutely divine. He did not find freedom through escaping from the cross, though a rejection of the personal. No – freedom, God, wholeness, was right there at the heart of the cross, where life and ‘my life’ intersect and destroy each other. Freedom was, and is, life itself.
We, all of us, live there at the heart of that intersection – where the vertical (that which is beyond time and space) meets the horizontal (time and space), where the truly impersonal (the open space in which that story appears) meets the personal (the story of ‘me’). And so, it gets to the point where you can’t even use the words ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ anymore – because you have no way of separating them in the first place. Where does one begin and the other end? Perhaps there is no dividing line – perhaps at the centre of the cross, there is only One. Perhaps what I truly am is inseparable from life itself. Perhaps I have always been that which I have longed for the most. Just perhaps.
In my ‘story’ (yes, there is a story appearing here – who could deny that?) I spent years pushing away the personal, trying to get rid of my personal story, trying to dwell in the Absolute, to get rid of my ‘someone’ and become ‘no-one’. Jeff was the enemy and I had to get rid of him. The personal self was the devil, and it was only in the destruction of the devil that I would meet God. The ego was the lie that had to be annihilated. Or at least, that’s what I believed at the time. I had read a lot of spiritual books, and had come to a lot of conclusions about reality – not realising that my conclusions were actually personal beliefs. Human beings are amazing creatures. We think we have found objective truth, when in fact we have just come to rest on a subjective belief, and forgotten this.
For a while, the ‘impersonal’ seemed like freedom to me, because the personal had become unliveable. My personal story (relative existence) had become hell – I hated my life, suffered terrible social phobia, felt like a total failure, saw no point in existing at all – and so it made sense at the time to escape into the impersonal heaven promised by the Advaita teachings. “There is no me, there is no you, there is no world, there are no others, suffering doesn’t exist, there‘s no responsibility on any level” – wow, what a comfort for the exhausted seeker! A one-way ticket to freedom from all worldly problems – Hallelujah! No responsibility, no past, no choice – what a relief! I could do what I wanted, say what I wanted, I could even hurt people intentionally and it didn’t matter because it was all Oneness and I had no choice anyway. Or so I believed.
I thought I was free, and meanwhile, the seeker was feeding itself, gorging itself on these new Advaita concepts. I thought I was nobody, and meanwhile, my personal story was feasting on the very personal idea that I was ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ the personal. I thought I was free from all divisions, and meanwhile, ‘nonduality’ and ‘duality’ were at war, ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ had locked horns. I rejected all spiritual paths and practices – they were all dualistic and rooted in ignorance. I was at war with any teacher who looked like they offered a personal path. I saw these teachers as ‘dualistic’ because it looked like, in speaking to a person and offering them hope of any kind, they were actually feeding the seeking and keeping people trapped in their stories. Impersonal teachings – teachings which did not speak to a ‘person’ and did not offer the non-existent seeker any hope or comfort – were the only truth; that seemed the logical next step. And I enjoyed warning people about the dualistic teachers who were keeping people trapped in their ignorance – although of course, when challenged about this (“Jeff, isn’t it hypocritical to call other teachers ‘dualistic’ when there are no others, and duality is an illusion?”), I backtracked and said there was nobody here with an opinion about anything, and that everything was perfect as it was. Oh yes, I became very clever with words. You have to be, when you are defending a position, and trying to make it look like you have no position to defend. That’s how gurus are born. I call this the “Advaita Trap” – and at the time, I didn’t think I was trapped – I thought I was free. Often when you think you are free you are more trapped than ever.
So, I was living in my impersonal castle, believing that I was free from the personal, but secretly I was at war with the personal. I was afraid of the personal, it terrified me – we attack what we are most afraid of. Real, honest, authentic human interaction? Scary. Opening myself up to life, admitting that I was wrong about certain things, letting go of my most cherished identities and beliefs? Terrifying. The risk of exposing myself to others and being rejected? No, better to pretend there are no others to interact with. Personal experience is for ignorant dreamers. The impersonal is much more real.
I claimed to be free from the personal, but secretly, behind the scenes, I was still suffering very much – there were still relationships that didn’t feel clean, places where I knew I wasn’t being honest, places where I was holding back from life, where seeking was still happening. I still felt disconnected from others, blocked, unfulfilled in many ways – but since I believed that I was liberated, or that I was ‘no-one’, I couldn’t admit this to myself, let alone other people. The radical Advaita teachings were a great comfort at this point – it was a comfort to know that ‘after liberation, suffering can still arise but now it belongs to no-one’. Great! Suffering was okay – I didn’t have to do anything about it, and anyway, there wasn’t anything I could do about it, because there was nobody here to do anything. “I’m still miserable – there is still misery appearing – but now nobody is miserable”. The radical Advaita message provided great relief.
But nobody suffering or somebody suffering, there was still suffering – and suffering is seeking! I was still seeking, still at war with life, but claiming to be free from all seeking, in order to promote my identity as an ‘ex-seeker’. Phew. It was all so exhausting, holding up this enlightened facade!
But every facade, every defence, every castle must crumble in the end. No philosophy or belief system, no matter how refined, radical or ‘uncompromising’, can protect you from life itself. Life is the authority, and all belief systems crumble before life, in the end. My radical Advaita castle had been built on very shaky foundations…
“I am no one, nothing exists”. Oh yes, there is a beautiful truth in that. But at the same time, it’s not true, not at all – not until it’s balanced by its opposite, within the dream. No concept could ever begin to capture life, because life is prior to all concepts (including these ones). Concepts are always dualistic – the world of concepts is the world of two. “Self” and “no-self” always appear and disappear together. “Someone” and “no-one” always arise and fall at the same time. In the dream, everything is perfectly balanced by its own reflection – you cannot have one without the other. “Nothing exists” is perfectly balanced by “something exists”, and so on.
Life itself, however, is always beyond all of these opposites. It is beyond “self” and “no-self”, “person” and “no-person”, “path” and “no-path”, “time” and “absence of time”. Life as it is, is totally beyond comprehension, in the same way that the wave will never understand the ocean, because it already IS the ocean…
THE WAVE AND THE OCEAN
Imagine a wave in an ocean. The wave says to itself “I’m separate from the ocean”. It believes and experiences itself to exist separately from the ocean. It believes that it was born as a separate entity, and that it will die one day. It has a story about a past and a future, it can talk about its past experiences, its successes and failures, its achievements, its hopes and regrets and fears. And in a million different ways it spends its life seeking – seeking love, seeking approval, seeking success, or seeking spiritual enlightenment – and what it’s really looking for, of course, is the ocean. And yet, the wave is already a perfect expression of the ocean – it was that from the very beginning. The ocean actually expresses itself as all the seemingly different waves. One, expressing itself as many – although in reality, the ‘many’ are not separate from the ‘one’.
The point is, the wave only appears to exist, only seems to exist – in reality, there is no separate wave. The wave literally ex-sists (“stands out”) of the ocean – but in reality, there is no separate wave standing out. And so we appear to have a paradox – a wave appears to exist (stand out), and in fact does not exist (because how can anything stand out of the ocean, when the ocean is all there is? How can the ocean ‘stand out’ of itself?). We have the paradox of the impersonal appearing as the personal. The wave is both personal AND impersonal. It both exists and does not exist. It appears to be separate (the story) and yet it is not separate from the ocean, from life.
Now, the world of the wave is the world of duality. From the ‘perspective’ of the wave, there appears to be divisions: between the impersonal and the personal, between the absolute and the relative, between emptiness and form, between duality and non-duality. But from the ‘perspective’ of the ocean these divisions do not exist – nothing does. It is only a wave that would divide the personal from the impersonal, self from no-self, someone from no-one. The ocean cannot divide in this way – because it is all there is, with no way of dividing itself from itself. Water cannot divide itself from water.
Only the wave speaks. The ocean remains silent – it has nothing to say. It does not ‘exist’, because it does not ‘stand out’ – it cannot separate itself from itself in any way.
And so it becomes clear that:
- Only (the appearance of) a person would divide the personal from the impersonal, and then claim that their expression or teaching is one or the other.
- Only a person would claim to not be a person, because only a person would see that division (person / no-person) in the first place. In the same way, only a self would claim they had no self, only an ego would claim to be free from ego…
- Only a teaching rooted in duality would reject other teachings as dualistic. Only a teacher at war with their own ignorance would label other teachers as ignorant. The world is a perfect mirror of yourself.
- If a teaching was truly impersonal, it would not exist, and the holding of meetings and retreats would not be possible. The ocean does not speak. In order to call itself impersonal, a teaching must be first rooted in the personal, and then deny it. Ingenious.
Anyway, this is all wonderful! It means that nobody has the answers. It means that when it comes to the ocean, none of the waves can be an authority. It means that none of the waves in the ocean can transcend the ocean – because they are only expressions of the ocean. A wave that claims to have transcended or gone beyond the ocean, is still just a wave, making certain claims. Even the most radical Advaita teacher is still a wave. Nobody has ‘reached’ the impersonal, or ‘gone beyond’ the personal, because the wave cannot go beyond itself. All waves are equal in essence – they are water.
In other words, the impersonal cannot be impersonal until it radically includes and embraces the personal. This seems like a complete contradiction in terms, but you often have to speak in paradoxes when talking about something that cannot be put into words! The impersonal is the personal – nonduality is duality – then it’s complete. You won’t find the impersonal anywhere else except right at the heart of the personal – a total paradox, and yet as simple as breathing.
I think what tends to happen is this:
- The wave sees that it is the ocean.
- The wave uses this insight to deny that there was a wave in the first place – or ever was.
Yes, it’s a tricky one. That’s why you have to be very careful when you’re talking about nonduality! You see, the seeker wants to be fed. Once the seeker gets hold of a concept – “there is no me, no world, no suffering”, etc – then if it’s not seen with absolute clarity what those words are pointing to, the seeker will actually use those words to deepen the seeking and the identification. So for example, if there is no free will, and if there is no choice, and if there are no others, and if there’s nobody suffering, then “I can do whatever I want to do. I can go outside and murder someone now, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s just Oneness – it doesn’t matter because there’s no choice.” That’s when nonduality just becomes another belief system, another religion, another form of separation.
THE END OF FUNDAMENTALISM
And so the way I talk about nonduality has really changed over the years – it has evolved to incorporate this fundamental insight of non-separation between what we call ‘personal’ and what we call ‘impersonal’. I used to speak much more from the absolute, ‘oceanic’ perspective – no me, no you, no world – and I still do sometimes, but only at certain times, and in certain contexts, when it seems appropriate. From the perspective of the ocean, there is no time and space, nothing to do and nowhere to go, because the ocean is beyond all of those divisions. At the same time, however, this ultimate truth expresses itself as time and space, as the appearance of the waves, as the appearance of someone in a world. There is no me and no you, but there is the appearance of me and you – and this is where we live and meet, in the appearance. You don’t exist, and yet you do, and that is why I can love you. I am not here as a separate entity, and yet I am here, undeniably so, and so are you. What I am (as the ocean) is beyond the story, and yet, undeniably, the story appears (the wave) – and as the wave, I have no need to deny the story, or pretend it doesn’t exist – how can a story deny a story? So I dance and play as the wave, knowing myself at all times as the ocean, without contradiction. This only appears to be a paradox to the seeking mind…
And so what is seen these days is this: nonduality is not a rejection of duality, but a celebration of it – such a total celebration, that one cannot even use the words ‘nonduality’ and ‘duality’ as separate from each other. No-one and someone are actually one – they were never two. If ‘there is no-one’ is the crucifixion, then ‘there appears to be someone’ is the resurrection. The crucifixion needs the resurrection to complete itself. And so radical Advaita is only partially true – until it completes itself with its reflection. Then it’s all over.
When I drive my car too fast on the motorway, and a policeman pulls me over and asks me my name, I say “Jeff Foster”. I don’t say “I am no-one” or “Jeff Foster does not exist”. And although in an ultimate sense all of this may be true, still, when I say it, it’s not true – it’s simply another concept. Nobody lives in ‘ultimately true’. We cannot live in ultimates. We live here, in this world of time and space and apparent things, and so I meet the policeman and say “Jeff Foster” – and that is love. (Yes, love, even with a police officer!) Even the most fundamentalist nonduality teacher answers to their name when pulled over by a policeman. Who can deny name and form? Who can deny the story? Who is going to deny the personal? Who would even want to?
THE FREEDOM TO BE PERSONAL
These days, because I’m no longer identified as being an Advaita teacher (and certainly not a ‘teacher of radical Advaita’), in my meetings and retreats the following rules and regulations no longer apply:
- You shall not talk about your personal story
- You shall not use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘myself’
- If you talk about your personal story, you will be laughed at, or your experience will be dismissed or invalidated, or you will be punished. Or you will be told that you are still ‘stuck in the dream’, or ‘ignorant of your true nature’, or that ‘liberation obviously hasn’t happened there yet’…
Yes, everybody is free, really free, thank goodness, to use whatever words they want to, to talk about their human experiences in whatever way feels right and honest and true to them, to tell their story. Stories are allowed – all human experience is allowed. And of course the meetings and retreats are not about indulging those stories, or ‘fixing’ them, but they are not about denying or rejecting the stories either.
In the meetings we shine light on the story – we en-lighten the seeker. We don’t feed the seeker with new concepts like “there is no me” (although those words may be used on certain occasions as pointers), and we don’t deny the appearance of the seeker or pretend there is no such thing as human suffering (and how easy it is to deny suffering when you are not suffering!). What cuts right through the middle of indulging the storylines and denying them is present seeing – a seeing that you cannot do, a seeing that you already are. The meetings are all about a rediscovery of that seeing – which is the end of seeking.
True freedom is not about escaping from the personal into the impersonal – it is to be found right at the heart of even the most intimately personal human experience. And so what a relief it is, to be a living, breathing, human being again, to allow life to express itself as this human name and form, as this beautifully personal human experience, and to know that it is none other than the impersonal dancing, playing, celebrating itself in every moment. I thank the teachers of radical Advaita for singing their song, and I respectfully break with their tradition once and for all – for all traditions are limited, and the song of life cannot be contained. Fundamentalism cannot stand; love will destroy everything in the end.
So tell me your story, and let the impersonal shine.