True Nonduality And Neo-Advaita – Moving Beyond A Cognitive Realization

3.4) Superficial realizations mistaken for Enlightenment

Summing it up: what happens when you remove spiritual practice, purification of the mind, and study of the teachings from a nondual tradition? We end up with superficial experiences, mistaken for enlightenment, based mostly on intellectual conviction, and without a true removal of the illusion caused by ego and vasanas.

Being cognitively enlightened is not enough – the root of one’s identification, perception and functioning in the world has to radically change.  If the seeker mistakes these minor awakenings as the full Liberation, any further progress becomes unlikely. In this context, Ramana Maharshi warned seekers that “there is a false sense of liberation that many experience and very few go beyond”.

There are so many who take the dawn for the noon, a momentary experience for full realization and destroy even the little they gain by excess of pride. Humility and silence are essential for a sadhaka [seeker], however advanced. Only a fully ripened jnani can allow himself complete spontaneity.

– Nisargadatta Maharaj

The problem is that there are no absolute external signs that the person can rely on to determine if someone else is enlightened – unless he himself is. When asked about it, Ramana mentioned that, if in the presence of a teacher your mind spontaneously becomes quiet, and you feel a natural sense of reverence towards that person, this is a good indication that you are in front of a master.

Other than that, although there may be some common signs – such as absence of pride, equanimity in dealing with all people, and lack of ego-based actions, and harmlessness – the aspirant is left with few means to determine who is enlightened and who is still on the way. Special clothes, soft and even speaking, bombastic words, and the length of time one can gaze without blinking are NOT indications.

By their fruits ye shall know them. – Jesus

Nowadays, the impression we have is that it’s enough to have read and understood a few Advaita sayings, and declare oneself to be awakened, to start giving Satsangs to “awaken” others. This goes in tandem with the common New Age trend of relativizing these ancient concepts. Thus, some relativize Enlightenment to the point that it becomes meaningless. Is Realization that cheap?

This is not a new phenomenon. Going all the way back to the Upanishads there are criticisms of practitioners who can brilliantly talk the Advaitic lines but lack the realization to really back it up.

On the other hand, there are also sincere seekers who, after an initial awakening experience, honestly felt that they had to drop the search, and that they were enlightened. In this context, borrowing concepts from the traditional Buddhist framework of the Four Levels of Awakening can help clarify some things – both for those people and for the students who follow modern teachers.

  • 1. Stream-Entry – the fetters of doubt, personal identity and attachment to rituals completely fall away.
  • 2. Once-Returner – sensual desire and aversion are greatly attenuated, but still exist.
  • 3. Non-Returner – sensual desire and aversion are extinguished.
  • 4. Arahant – all craving is extinguished (including desire for fine material existence and existence in subtler levels), together with pride, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. This is what is rightly called nirvana, Enlightenment (jnana, vidya) or Liberation (moksha, mukti).

Each of these levels are permanent. So if after your awakening experience you had moments of illusion/pride/attachment/confusion, you can judge that it was a powerful insight, but not awakening (much less final Enlightenment).

What is interesting is that the illusion of a personal identity drops at the first level of awakening. Many confuse this state for full Enlightenment, drop all practice, and start teaching. There is often the feeling that the ego is completely gone, with nothing else to do.

The same seems to have happened to me, after intensely practicing spirituality for over 10 years. After a deep awakening experience, the search actually dropped by itself, effortlessly. But I didn’t believe myself to be enlightened and open a satsang shop; instead, there was an intuitive feeling that there are greater depths to be explored (For whom? Nobody). I never stopped my daily meditation practice. In a way, this is just the beginning of real practice.

My hope is that seekers that have had similar experiences don’t declare themselves enlightened, nor take the role of a guru, but present themselves as spiritual friends helping along the way. In this context, they should be most careful about ethics, humility, and service.

  • Honesty. Be honest about your experience. Was it a temporary insight (however powerful), or a permanent radical shift? What was dropped and has never returned since then? Is it there shining behind all your interactions with yourself and people, or do you need to “remind yourself” of it?
  • Perseverance. Don’t drop off the search. Let the search drop you off. And, even after that, continue with the practice, unless you can honestly say you are now an Arhat.
  • Adaptation. Know that after initial awakening experiences, you may feel the need to radically change your approach to practice. It is often the case of  “what brought you here, won’t take you there”.
  • Reflect on your motives. If you feel in your heart an urge to take up a teaching role, question your motivations. Are you motivated by money, recognition, and power? Or compassionate serving others in their quest? It’s worth remembering that in the Zen tradition one often had to wait 10 to 20 years after Enlightenment before one could guide others – hence the expression, “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation” used by some Zen masters. So perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to resist the impulse and “keep cooking” bit longer.
  • Humility. If you do take up a teaching role, be honest about your experience, your state, and your challenges. Presenting oneself as a spiritual friend (kalyana mitra) rather than a guru (dispeller of darkness) sounds like a good idea.
  • Discerning openness. On the other hand, if you are participating in satsangs, be open but discerning. What level of awakening do you feel the teacher has attained? What about his older students? What type of help do you wish to get from going to his satsangs? Don’t be afraid to leave and move on to another place, when you see something that doesn’t sit right with you. Hone your spiritual discernment by spending some time with different teachers, and by reading the traditional texts of that particular path.
  • [Spiritual joke] The seeker goes to the neo-Advaita shop…

    Seeker: I’d like a McAdvaita combo, please!
    Teacher: What should I include in it?
    Seeker: Make me one with everything!
    Teacher: Not a problem.
    Seeker: Could I also have some enlightenment with those fries, please?
    Teacher: Sure. That will cost you nothing.

    • Dwarkanath Inamti

      The “Litmus” test is from the sanskrit saying “the Truth finds the Truth itself to its complete satisfaction .” Once one trusts the Truth is in one itself, he does not have to wander around looking. Once there is a glow of the understanding, one stops looking. Who cares about Neos or non-Neos? No?

    • Finding the Truth is part of the story. Completely dissolving in the Truth is what we are aiming for. And for that, have a good discernment on the nature of the different paths, teachings and approaches out there, is useful.

  • Lewis Welsby

    Absolutely love this post. I’ve been searching for something to help guide me. Every where I read turn to the quick fix of enlightenment, this is not how it should be.

    • Great that you had this discernment, Lewis!
      You can find some valuable guidance in the books I recommended in the first sections.

  • earmorethere2

    Giovanni Dienstmann must be a buddha in the future if not now, whose posts are always the best of the best I read ever!

  • Jorge Falcão

    I falow the teatching of Master Poonja (Papaji). Never heared and experienced a so great teaching : ” If you d’ont think you think better” …
    Discipe – … ” What is nirvana ?”
    Master – ” I tell you: nirvana is not having concepts in your mind ”
    D. – ” Oh but i have many concepts in my mind !
    M. – ” This is a concept ”
    The impact of This unique conversation so great it was (so great it is) lead me to go to join Papaji in India and staying and a travel with Him during 45 days … He was a great Master, a boudha, similar and in the way of the great chan patriarchs of China, like Houi Neng, for instance … his teaching is outside the tradition, the scriptures … unless he knew deeply and could teach acording the scriptures and the tradition.
    He pointed directly to the True, their sayings were adressed to your Heart … no study of scriptures are needed to realize in this moment, in a fraction of second, who you are, your True Nature, to realize yourSelf … provided your mind is quite, in silence … and your Heart is open to the Truth … you must not have any idea about who you are, any idea about what is yourSelf … it is not by the reason, by the mind, it is not by the intelect that you realize the True. Never, never yourSelf is the idea/the identification your mind believes it is …
    The inconventional way of his teaching (“teaching” here meaning destroying beliefs, ideas, concepts) is probably the reason of some discomfort about That Teaching
    Om shanti
    Jorge Falcão

    • Hi Jorge,

      Thank you for mentioning Papaji. I have read every single book he has, watched dozens of his Satsangs, and I love his presence. There is no doubt he is a fully realized Jnani, and a master of modern Advaita. He is not really a neo-advaitin, although the neo-advaitins use his teachings.

      Papaji did a lot of spiritual effort, both in this life and (according to himself), in previous lives. You can read his three-volume biography (Nothing Ever Happened) for more details. He did so much practice and meditation until the point he could not do any more effort. Then he had the good luck of meeting Ramana Maharshi, who then pushed him through the last step.

      That is hardly the case with any of us. The vast majority of aspirants nowadays (me included) don’t have a fraction of the spiritual maturity and advancement that Papaji already had in his childhood. And also we did not have the chance of meeting Ramana Maharshi.

      It is true that, after his realization, Papaji emphasized non-effort. His goal was to give an immediate experience of the Self to people that come to him. The only way that is possible is by being in a presence of a fully realized one, and dropping all effort.

      It is important to note, also, that when asked about it by David Godman, Papaji said that none of his students realized the Self. Yet hundreds of them had a direct experience of the Self.

      It is easy to understand why it is like this. Ramana Maharshi said:

      “In the presence of a Jnani [enlightened man] Samadhi can happen. To be fully established in this state, however, effort is needed.”

    • Dwarkanath Inamti

      Wow. What a discernment, and with such clarity. Thanks. Thanks

    • Yogimen

      You said that Papaji admitted that none of his students reach enlightenment.

      But, what about Mooji? He claims to had achieved it thanks to his master Papaji and he’s very well known in the Advaita world for that.

      I will love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • A very relevant question!

      Papaji never said Mooji was enlightened. In their last meeting (available on YouTube), he says: “Ok, you can go now”. That’s all, but not really confirming anything.

      I was very close with Mooji for about 3-4 years, and I have been immensely benefited by his teachings and presence. He was the catalyst of a great shift in my own path, with a profund transformation in my mind – an awakening, if you will – that happened over 5 years ago and has remained unchanged.

      If we use the Buddha’s framework of 4 levels of Enlightenment, my personal take is that, while Ramana Maharshi has the 4th level, Mooji is perhaps in the 2nd.

    • Yogimen

      Thanks a lot for the response. It was a great one!

      Could you please post the link to the video? I search in youtube for 20 minutes and I didn’t find it.

    • I don’t have it anymore. You might find it in Mooji’s site though.

  • Ande Falke

    that which you were before the “I” was born, you become that when the “I” dies-true or false

    • You can say that. Like Ramana said: “The I removes the I and yet remains the I”.

      The “true I” is the Self, “I am”. The “false I” is the ego, “I am this, I am like that, I am this body-mind”. You are ever the Self, and the Self alone. Yet, due to spiritual ignorance (the ego), consciousness is trapped under the identification with the body-mind, and lives under the confines of a limited and fake identity.

  • beh51

    Giovani, before disparaging the Wests teachers, take a look at the current crop and some
    recently deceased Indian teachers and tell me that they are not in the vast majority a group of absolute charlatans, is that a beam in your eye brother?

    • Indeed, the neo-advaita movement is not only a western phenomena (thought predominantly so). There are so many immature teachers, both in India and the West, and the gems are rare and far between.

    • beh51

      Immature teachers? Flat out crooks, liars, paedophiles , theives, mafia associates, accessories to murder, India has the most and the worst abusers of spiritual seekers any where in the world by a large margin, agreed?

    • No, not agreed. India has 4 times the population of the US, and many times the number of spiritual teachers, so it is normal that there will be more charlatans and immature teachers than the US (for instance). But the number of authentic teachers is larger as well.

      As to your other comment, the system flagged it for moderation, due to the use of vulgar language. For this reason, I have not approved it. But let me address it here. The gist of your criticism is the idea that advaita traditionalists are being “ego hurt”, and want to protect their territory so they can continue to get power, money and status.

      The truth is, that true advaita has no interest to proselytize people. The masters continue to live there, in the Himalayas and plains of India, from the order of Shankaracharya and others. Most of them are unknown, money-less, and have one or two renunciants as disciples. They are mostly unaware of all the spiritual mess that happens in the West, and the term “neo-advaita” means nothing to them.

      It is mostly westerners (like myself) that criticize the neo-advaita movement. Because we have had the taste of true advaita, and we know how transformative these teachings are. So when a group of people distort them, and starts causing harm to other people in the name of advaita, then it is time to step up and clarify that neo-advaita is not advaita.

      I understand where you are coming from. You have probably been hurt, abused or deceived by a fake guru. I have personally been there to. I get that you are angry, skeptical and doubtful. If you are still interested in spiritual transformation, I would urge you to start looking at more pure sources of the teachings – such as Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, Patanjali, etc. On the other hand, if you are no longer interested in spirituality or meditation, then we probably don’t have much to talk about.

    • beh51

      Vulgar language, how precious, lol.

  • Kelly Alamanou

    I have been for almost 8 years a Jiddu Krishnamrti reader,and have been helped a lot by his teachings to understand the functioning and conditioning of my mind.
    It was July 2009 ,study center of a Krishnamurti place in Varanasi,i discovered I AM THAT the book of Sri Nisargadatta’s teachings
    THE revelation!! CLarity,minimalism,depth,to the point!
    7 years later after having read almost everything has been published of Sri Nisargadatta’s teaching and being immersed in it,another great book of Him came in my hands .”Nothing is everything”by Mohan Gaitonde, Maharaj’s evening translator.
    A great book!

    • Thank you for the book tip!

      I love “I Am That”, but didn’t like as much his other books.

  • Lokesh

    You are an incredible presenter, well researched, very knowledgeable, thanks for your work

  • BKS

    Thank you for this very informative article Giovanni. I wish every soul seeking a Guru or teacher reads this message before they take the next step. It brings to mind the saying – The blind leading the blind.

    The best things in life are free. Money is a dangerous thing. Whenever Money is involved things always get diluted as the quest to make money overrides all other objectives. Money has its rightful place in business & the material world but not in matters related to the heart & soul. And definitely not in the realm of spiritual truth and knowledge! There is no place for Money in the spiritual world. And if you see Money there, you can be sure you won’t find any love or spiritual knowledge worth your while there.

    The best things in life are free. That is because there is not enough money in this world to buy those things.

    It is not worth wasting your time on teachers who charge for Satsang or teachings. Truth is priceless, beyond any material compensation. And anyone who sets a price on truth is ignorant himself. A Teacher once said to his disciples who wanted to do something for him out of their gratitude – You have nothing to give me. You can only compensate me for my efforts by becoming realized.

    There is story about Shankaracharya – when he went on a pilgrimage through India he had to pass through jungles, forests and villages. Folks everywhere gathered to meet & welcome the great sage to their village and offered him everything they had out of love and respect. One day while passing through a forest a tribal king offered his respects and served him the best meat and wine for food. The sage out of respect for the King’s devotion consumed the food. His entourage also consumed the food assuming that if it was good for the sage, it was good for them. They all got drunk and the sage was delayed in the forest. The sage remained calm and waited for his disciples. The next day they continued on their pilgrimage. A few days later they arrived in a town. A local business man who did not believe in the sage & his teachings took him to his foundry. He dipped a ladle in molten metal and offered it to the sage. Drink this and prove to me that all is the self and you are God. The sage calmly drank the molten metal. As the stunned business man watched in disbelief, the sage then took the ladle from him, dipped it in the crucible for another helping of the molten metal and offered it to his disciples. Here, this is our Lunch for the day. The disciples shrank back in horror. The sage then said – When you know this can burn you, you know that your realization is not beyond matter yet. Why then did you think it was fine to eat meat and drink liquor?

    Vivekananda once chastised an ashram inmate for saying “God is Omnipresent”. The Disciple was preaching to some visitors to the ashram and Vivekananda stopped him.

    The Disciple was surprised. I have heard you say this so many times. Why was I wrong?

    To this Vivekananda replied – When I say God is Omnipresent, I know. When you say God is Omnipresent, you are quoting me.

    The Indian mythology and scriptures are full of stories like these that the neo-advaitins need to read and understand. The example you cite about Ramana Maharishi asking if you can take a beating calmly tells us that people like this existed during his time too.

    And people like this existed even in ancient times. The Hindu scriptures also document this.

    There is a story where the Devas(Hindu demi Gods) & Asuras(Demons) go to Brahma for knowledge. They do penance for several years and then Brahma gives them the truth / knowledge. He says – “Aham brahmasmi”. This makes the Devas & Asuras very happy. If I am God I can do anything I want – I have to fear and worry nothing. They go back to their palaces, give up all spiritual practices, self discipline and live a life of indulgence and luxury.

    After a few years, while the demons continue to live a life of wanton self-indulgence and shameful gratification the Devas start questioning themselves. They realize that something is not right. Things don’t add up but Brahma cannot be wrong. There must be something more to this. So they go back to Brahma to clarify what he meant by “Aham Brahmasmi”. And after multiple attempts and Questions and answers the Devas understand the true message. This great teaching is clarified by Brahma and this is one of the great Hindu texts. Unfortunately it has been a while since I read this and don’t remember the name of this text.

    However the Asuras continue with their deplorable lifestyle content with the theoretical knowledge that I am God and I can do anything and I am not answerable to anything and anyone. And the mythologies are full of stories of Asura arrogance, evil and how Vishnu & Shiva destroy them to uphold righteousness and protect the sages & devas who devote their lives to the pursuit of Dharma & Truth.

    The Hindu scriptures are full of stories like these. And Hindu kids grow up with these stories. These may be only mythologies full of magic and nonsense for the modern generation but they drive some hard truths on ethics and right & wrong. It will do some real service to the neo-advaitins to catch up on some of these Hindu scriptures & fairy tales before they start preach Advaita and become self-proclaimed Gurus offering instant realization.

    This will also be a good eye opener for the fast food crazy generation who run after these fast-realization chains / Gurus who offer instant realization on weekend retreats & seminars for $??? a pop.

  • Scott Miller

    Great article! I will share this on my r/nondualism Reddit page. Please visit, subscribe, and post your future articles there for our growing number of Seekers. Much gratitude for your words!

  • A reader sent me this great article by Jeff Foster, that echoes much of what I’ve written here. Recommended reading!

  • Rick Archer

    Great Article, Also see Timothy Conway’s excellent article:

  • Chakra Srivatsa

    I was completely unaware of “Neo-Advaita” until I read your article. Very clearly presented and differentiated from traditional and modern Advaita. Thanks!

  • Kamesh Rodo

    A very wonderful article which serves as a light among a hundreds of articles about non-duality and it’s teachers confusing seekers.This article helped in giving me a much better clarity on how to judge the teachers and also reduced my guilty for judging alot of teachers,when their teaching and activities din’t sink well together.Thought i was being too egoistic by looking down on ‘great’ teachers, which gave me too much of guilt.Happy to know that i’ve done what a discerning person should do.

    Once again thanks for the article and will forward it to many seekers now n in future.It’s a great deed to guide seekers on what teaching they are about to follow and you have done a great job in that.Believe i have done some good karma to stumble upon this article!!!!!

    • Namaste, Kamesh! Your words are kind.
      Always trust your inner voice about these things. That’s the voice of your buddhi.

    • Kamesh Rodo

      Sure brother.Inner voice has always and will always be right. Just at times we need a reminder about it’s and some tool to push us into listening to it!!

  • Shiva Somadev

    I hear you call Jiovanni <3 Great article <3 It is Love for the Ultimate Truth and Longing for the Union with the Beloved Reality Itself forcing an individual to engage in Spiritual Efforts, Sadhana, purifying Tapas, for they are not satisfied with partiality and temporarily. Only Yoga (Union) with the Self – Absolute which is called Self-Realisation, which is God – Realisation in which the illusory perceptions of "other", the world appearance, restrictions and limitations of space-time, and all objective limiting knowledge is spitted out, washed away by the Density of Ecstasy of awakened Sakti (Supreme Intelligence – Energy of Siva), is an Absolute Satisfaction <3 Not before This Ultimate Realisation

  • Atman Nityananda

    Very nice article about the difference of true Advaita and Neo-advaita.
    I agree with your concepts about neoadvaita and I have written a similar
    essay about this with title:

    Advaita vedanta – A living experience by Nityananda Atman

    Om peace

  • Pierre

    I feel very confused about this whole Advaita/Neo-Advaita controversy, and your article helped me see things more clearly, thank you very much. I appreciate that you acknowledge “many shades of neo”. I would put someone like Paul Smit or Lisa Cairns at the peak of “McAdvaita”, and, let’s say, Eckhart Tolle at the other end (as he talks a lot about practice). And for exemple Rupert Spira somewhere in the middle. Would you agree?

    • I have never heard of Paul Smit or Lisa Cairns. But I do agree that Eckhart Tolle is more on the balanced side of things.

  • JR

    This is very good and a well thought out article. Many thanks to you Giovanni for your efforts in explaining this interesting, albeit, often confusing topic on non duality and neo-Advaita. This article reminds me of what Daniel Ingram calls the “Mushroom Factor” in his unusually hardcore Dharma book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. In short, he analogously highlights mushrooms are fed manure and kept in the dark, meaning some teachers are creating a culture of soft meditators lacking real effort, thereby paralyzing practice and meaning. Again, thank you for your diligent effort on this article.

  • M S

    Thank you for this very well written article.

    Advaita and its ‘neo’ variation have not really been part of my spiritual path, but I recognise some common pitfalls which have seeped into modern spirituality and which have — at various times — been problems for me.

    One thing I suspect is key, is the absence of a living teacher/guru for many of those setting themselves up as new teachers. I see many in the ‘neo’ scene giving satsang without official lineage blessings and under no supervision, other than from the ‘guru within’.

    From my own experience, having a living teacher is especially critical as one progresses, because one’s own pride and delusions become ever more subtle and deeply masked. Trusting oneself (or one’s Self) to be the arbiter of spiritual attainment can be problematic enough on one’s own path — let alone setting yourself up in a position to guide other souls.

    The idea that awakening (in whatever flavour) means you have transcended practice, and can drop all sadhana has always seemed very fishy to me. My feeling is that it may, in actuality, be quite the opposite scenario.

    From the Buddhist world (on the highly realised Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche):

    “No-one would question that his realisation was higher than anyone’s, and yet day and night he would recite prayers and mantras and do his practice. And he was inseparable from Vimalamitra! Look at the kind of effort that he put into his practice. Then there are others who just don’t do very much of that at all. They just sit there with their mouths open.

    On one occasion, I asked Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “Is it necessary for someone with realization to recite prayers and mantras?” And he replied, “Someone who has that kind of realisation is like space. What harm could recitation possibly do to space?” And he continued, “To recite even a single mani mantra, or to recite the Vajra Guru mantra a few times, is only going to help. It’s not going to hurt, is it?”

    — Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche

    • Thank you for sharing these beautiful quotes!
      And yes, I agree that the lack of a real guru as their teacher is the problem for many neo-advaitins.

  • S H

    Thank you for this article. I miss my meditation teacher so much — about 3 years ago she told me (and later, our group) that she is enlightened and won’t be reborn. When she point blank asked me if I believed that, I could not say yes.

    • Now that’s interesting. The very fact that she double checked if you believed it doesn’t sound too right for me.

  • Petrea Istrati

    Thank you !