I've got a love-hate relationship thing going with neo-advaita/non-dual teachings -- which is what Leo Hartong's book, "Awakening to the Dream," is all about.
(Note: I'm pretty sure "Awakening to the Dream" should go in the neo-advaita, rather than traditional advaita, literary category. Advaita-philes like to argue about the distinctions between the two -- see here and here -- which strikes me as sort of strange given their emphasis on oneness and non-duality.)
I'm not certain how I learned about this book. I think Amazon sucked me into buying it through one of those "readers who bought X also bought Y" lures. Anyway, as soon as it arrived I found myself reading it avidly.
Up to a point.
[Update: just ran across a great humorous post by Jeff Foster that beautifully captures the irritating nature of many nondual/advaita types. Read "The Advaita Trap" and laugh.]
Namely, their faith-based religious aspects, which are plainly evident in Hartong's book. His emphasis is on Pure Awareness, which I have some problems with. (See my post, Brain's "dark energy" casts doubt on pure awareness.)
Supposedly the essence of human consciousness is Pure Awareness, which is completely separate from the awareness of all the stuff that we're usually aware of. How anyone, including Hartong, could know this isn't talked about. It's just something to be taken on faith.
It [Awakeness] will shine when it shines, and it will shift the attention from the content of Awareness to Pure Awareness itself. This Pure Awareness is what you really are. When you think you're not it, this thought is part of the temporal content of Awareness and has no bearing on Awareness itself.
Just let yourself be. Give yourself permission to be up, down, pissed or delirious. Observe the process and don't get caught in the content. Know yourself as the limitless field of Pure Awareness in which the drama of life merely arises.
Well, why should I believe this is true?
The notion that worldly existence is maya, illusion, a dream, unreal, a reflection of higher realities, shadows cast by a divine sun -- this is a core tenet of Hinduism, Platonism, and other religions/philosophies which urge us to discount the reality of everyday experience.
Hartong, echoing various systems of Indian thought, says that the Self is all there is. This is the same as Pure Awareness, so far as I can understand. You know, Atman is Brahman; Pure Awareness is the Self; Self-Realization is God-Realization.
What irks me about all this "Self" talk is that this concept sounds exactly like "God." Something transcendent, mysterious, invisible, unknowable, yet to be taken as the Most Real Thing.
Now consider the possibility that the Self dreams up this manifestation in a similar way. Like the dreamer appearing in his own dream, we can say that the Creator appears in his manifestation while, at the same time, the manifestation appears in the Creator. Dreamlike, He manifests the whole cosmic drama out of Himself...The substance of this dreamed up 'reality' is Pure Awareness -- the dream that stuff is made of.
OK, I'll consider the possibility. Just as I'll consider the possibility that Jesus died for our sins, Allah revealed the truth to Mohammad in the Koran, and lots of other religious propositions.
But I won't believe or accept possibilities unless they make good sense, or have demonstrable evidence supporting them.
I starting reading "Awakening from the Dream" avidly because I resonate with several themes that Hartong focused on in his opening chapters: (1) there is no such thing as a "self" or "soul" residing within the human psyche, and (2) genuine enlightenment is realizing there's no such thing as enlightenment, because there's no individual self to be enlightened.
Maybe later I'll write a what I like post about this book, because there indeed is a lot to like in "Awakening from the Dream." At the moment, though, having finished the book this afternoon, I'm zeroed in on the discrepancy between Hartong's certainty about the Self and Pure Awareness with passages he wrote like these:
Whatever we say about it is as true or untrue as its opposite...Take for example a simple sentence like 'Pure Awareness is beyond all concepts.' Labeling Pure Awareness as being beyond concepts objectifies it as a new concept.
...No matter how we try, by talking or thinking about this we cannot escape the limitation of making it into a concept, and so it forever escapes each and every attempt to define it. It remains forever a paradoxical and intimate mystery, an ongoing open question, and a constant answer.
I like these thoughts. The idea that we humans can comprehend the essence of the cosmos seems astonishingly anthropomorphic, grandiose, and unproven to me. Yet somehow Hartong manages to claim that the Self is eternal, since it will remain when time runs out and the manifested universe dissolves.
Sounds just like God. Something to be taken on faith. (Also, how does Hartong know time will run out and the universe will dissolve? This is a Hindu belief without any proof behind it.)
When I ordered "Awakening to the Dream" on Amazon, I noticed that 34 of the 35 reader reviews were 4 or 5 star, highly positive. Today I read the single 1-star review, which was quite interesting and well written.
Have a read. It's a better critique of the book and neo-advaita than I'm capable of. Plus, the guy (or gal) offers up a bunch of suggestions for spiritual/philosophical reading that he or she finds more credible than "Awakening to the Dream."
I'll copy in the 1-star reader review as an extension to this post.
Do, dear reader, the following experiment, one Leo Hartong's non-teacher Tony Parsons often has his hearers do during his workshops (but definitely isn't a form of self-inquiry a la Ramana Maharshi): close your eyes and stare into the dark and still void behind your ocular globes and ask yourself who is there...
This is IT! This is what Tony and Leo want you to discover and which has apparently eluded countless generations of spiritual seekers throughtout the ages and under all latitudes because of their absurd desire for more and the "fireworks" of salvation or illumination. This is what you are, this is the Ultimate Mystery, hidden for long centuries of dark ignorance and now revealed jargon-free (but not free of charge!) by the non-teachers of what is nowadays called neo-advaita, a Macdonalized Anglo-Saxon version of the age-old Hindu advaita doctrine that denies the existence of real diversity in the Universe.
Isn't that void within your skull perfectly still and indifferent? Isn't that void perfectly non-judgmental and impersonal? By Jove, it is! Therefore, you too are invited to drop all notions of right and wrong, all ideas of perfection and striving to become a mirror image of that perfect Nothingness devoid of any Will: the Divine Puppet. Since the space inside your head has apparently no Will and makes no judgments, this is what God and you as God must become and in fact already are. Constant change in a complex universe is occurring out there? Moral questions and choices are assailing you in the world? Urgent change and action to avert ecological disaster and cultural degeneration seem required? This is all an Illusion. The Dream. Awaken: ONLY this quiet thing within your skull is real.
Now do another, somewhat longer experiment: like Leo's "master" and "personal" friend Tony Parsons or their archrival Eckhart Tolle, go to a park slowly (Tolle-like) but spontaneously (Tony-like) and sit there on a bench for a while. Stare with a blank mind at anything you like while repeating to yourself the imperishable verities of the School: "I am nobody", "there is nothing there", "there is nowhere to go", "there is only this!" If you do that persistently, chances are that you will soon experience yourself as an ex-orbitated non-presence watching a three-dimensional film. If you continue this non-practice (neo-advaita claims to be devoid of any spiritual practice!) and keep reading Leo's book every day "to remind yourself of your true nature", go to lectures by him or his friends, this state of not being there and of seeing life as a gigantic movie theater may become a more or less permanent fixture of your mental apparatus. Then you will be Cyclops All-Eye Nobody or already perfect Mr/Mrs.Oneness. In this state, there is apparently minimal friction and very little misery. And one, obviously, needn't do anything special or change anything: life is nothing more than a dream peopled with unreal characters. The only thing that is real is the detached seeing of the Cosmic Joke.
This quiet and at times amused aloofness, coupled with a childish and irresponsible enjoyment of the glossy appearance of things is what is being offered here. There is nothing more to neo-advaita than living a cinemascope life of sanctified routine.
As should be clear by now and also appears from the picture on the cover of this book, this is from beginning to end an optical illusion, an inflation of the eye, a Cyclopic form of myopia, one that was bound to arise in a culture which has become totally obsessed with pictures, screens and the sense of sight and has lost touch with the other senses, and more importantly, with intelligent reasoning.
For intelligence will easily expose this fraud: reality isn't ALREADY perfect, which would make it static and purposeless, but constantly moving in a direction. What direction? In my opinion, it is moving toward Oneness. It is imperfect Love striving after perfect Love. And even after one has apparently attained Love and Oneness, one doesn't remain like a perfect, self-satisfied pool of limpid but stagnant water, but one keeps moving. Towards what? Moved by what? Moved by Love (not by egotic desire!)towards greater Love and Oneness, for Oneness is inexhaustible. Nobody, not even the most popular neo-advaitist teachers, possesses the whole of Oneness or Life, nobody is the whole truth, nobody is the whole path, for Path, Truth and Life are living and infinite.
Rather than this unnameably mediocre stuff read Alan Watt's books on Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Better still, dig into his "Behold the Spirit", the most illuminating book I've ever read on the vexing question of the relationship between the One and the Many, the crucial question neo-advaita hasn't been able to solve. For those who have a strong philosophical bend, I recommend reading Leibniz and Spinoza. You may also take a look at Arthur Koestler's concept of "holon" in "The Ghost in the Machine" and "Beyond Reductionism", or read Morris Berman's masterful "Reenchantment of the World" on the cultural history of the ego sense. For Christians, I recommend the books of Jean-Pierre de Caussade and Brother Lawrence about the practice of "presence to God".
For people who don't belong to any creed and are not looking for one, I recommend J. Krishnamurti, an author most neo-avaita teachers seem to have heavily borrowed from, without ever citing him. Not that Krishnaji shares with neo-advaitists their core doctrine of "everything is already perfect". K. has no such dogma. Start with "The First and Last Freedom", continue with his delightful and profound "Commentaries on Living" and, if you can find it, read his austere mystical "Journal". I also love "Beginnings of Learning" and "Think about these Things". Listening to his conversations with American physicist David Bohm, the theorist of the "Implicit Order", or Religious Studies professor Allan W. Anderson may also prove enlightening.
The shallowness of this thoroughly cerebral neo-advaita thing is stunning, but there is no question that it is highly seductive for people who are already highly cerebral and eye-oriented because of their cultural background and are consciously or unconsciously looking for a sanctified way of escape. The attractiveness of neo-advaita stems from its containing a great truth, which it unfortunately pursues without regard for the WHOLE truth, namely the (partial) truth of the Immanence of God. No false teaching can be attractive unless it contain some reflection of the truth, the whole truth being that the Source is both transcendent and immanent. Here and not here. In Love the tension is resolved, which leads to Compassionate Wisdom.
Send food and tents to Africa. Or go there, preferably without your ego. Let your heart bleed. Don't just have a beer at the local pub while making easy intellectual jokes with your buddies about the "Cosmic Dream".