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Who’s Transforming Anyway?

Stacey Heartspring Encounters the Postmodern Craze of Neo-Advaita


Tom Huston

Hello, my name is Tom, and I was addicted to spiritual heroin.

As a recovering junkie, I feel an abiding obligation to share my story with others—to help spread the truth, in whatever ways I can, about the numinous narcotic that nearly destroyed me. And as an editor of WIE, I also feel that I’d be remiss in my moral duty if I didn’t take the opportunity, for this fifteenth anniversary issue, to reprint “Who’s Transforming Anyway?”—the most hard-hitting exposé I’ve ever read of the dangers and dead ends of the divine dope I once craved.

Officially, it’s known as Neo-Advaita, a Westernized version of the ancient Hindu mystical teaching of Advaita Vedanta, but its most common street name is “nonduality.” Vastly more powerful than most postmodern spiritual opiates, Neo-Advaita is also cheap, easy to acquire, and addictive as hell. I was only sixteen when I injected my first dose, and I’ll never forget the first time I felt the intense euphoria of its fast-acting high. Within days, even hours, of injecting that nondual bliss, the whole world took on an ethereal, dreamlike appearance, as all distinctions and dualities melted before my eyes, and I became firmly convinced that everybody around me was completely insane. I have vivid recollections of walking through the halls of my high school near Seattle, Washington, with an inner smile bubbling away as I looked upon everyone and everything as nothing but an illusory display of light and energy. Nothing was real, nothing was important, for all was nothing but a timeless dance of purest Consciousness.

Even the global crises of the mid-nineties appeared empty to my eyes. Global warming? Ha. Species extinction? Please. The Rwandan and Balkan genocides? Atrocities, sure, but all part of the same illusion. In me, the overarching apathy of Generations X and Y had reached an all-new high. And why? Because the truth revealed by Neo-Advaita makes nihilism seem sublime. Through its warped lens, the entire universe appears, beyond all doubt, to be ultimately pointless and absurd. It’s a game, or play, or lila: God’s strange dream. Yet as a contemporary expression of the same revelation that mystics from every religious tradition have testified to—namely, the profound realization that “all is One”—Neo-Advaita initially appears to be perfectly divine. After all, a deep understanding of universal Oneness, or the seamless “nonduality” of Being, seems to be exactly the kind of spiritual truth the world needs to help bridge the countless divides that continue to keep human beings separate and conflicted, within and without. In fact, that’s what spiritual enlightenment is all about, and it’s what saints and sages throughout history have willingly died to defend, convinced that the sacred truth of nonduality is more important than anything else. But Neo-Advaita serves up the glory of cosmic unity with a distinctly sour twist.

Unlike most mystical traditions, it prides itself in being nontraditional, nonsectarian, and ritual free—an ideal form of spirituality for a secular Western world—and like many other things in the land of fast food and MTV, it offers a quick and easy path to abiding happiness. But in casting off the common Hindu strictures of traditional Advaita Vedanta (as espoused by such luminaries as Shankara and Ramana Maharshi), it places no explicit value on moral growth, spiritual purification, or character development. Anyone and his Nazi brother can be a Neo-Advaitin, no prerequisites or special skills required. Moreover, once you declare yourself a member of this all-inclusive club, you’re free to embrace that other idiosyncrasy of its ever-popular philosophy: the odd, unnatural (or at least outmoded) mystical conviction that life is but a dream. For if all duality is ultimately illusory, then the entire evolving world is too. Up/down, good/evil, self/other, higher/lower, night/day, mind/matter, space/time, and all other mind-made distinctions simply blur, converge, and vanish across the infinitely still surface of the nondual abyss. To someone hooked on Neo-Advaita, nothing in the vast multidimensional universe has any inherent reality except That and That alone.

Now, to those who have never tried it, it’s probably impossible to convey the unique feeling of aloof empowerment that such a perspective affords you, especially when you’re a bookish, geeky, lonely adolescent with no friends, few ambitions, and very little self-esteem. As I shot up Neo-Advaita 24/7, for months and then years on end, even my ongoing state of existential depression began to seem unreal, and I became increasingly numb to the inner cries of my soul. Boosted by the self-satisfied confidence that the Neo-Advaita perspective on reality provides, my apathetic smile through the aimless halls of the real world eventually mutated into a righteous rampage through the electronic corridors of cyberspace.

Online, they knew me only as “Soulplex,” and I dealt my drug of choice with freewheeling abandon, not caring one whit whose dualistic reality I offended or denied. Night after night, day after day, I’d storm Zen Buddhist forums, atheist forums, Christian forums, and even Natalie Portman fan discussion forums with my proselytizing passion for the Neo-Advaita way. “You morons think you’re real? Try this,” I’d say, as I dished out the intoxicating truth that renders human beings and their concerns into utter irrelevancy. Even though it was to some extent intended to be all in good fun—a personally amusing respite from my drearily depressed days—in the context of a postmodern culture that already has difficulty making clear distinctions and judgments (especially of the moral variety), the perspective of nonduality can quickly turn disastrous and be easily abused. “If all is One, then nothing is wrong,” said the notorious murderer Charles Manson. And while I didn’t actually kill anybody as I spread my love of Neo-Advaita far and wide, I probably did as much damage as one can with words alone, subverting all beliefs, trouncing all opinions, actively denying all values, hopes, and dreams—and loving every second of it, as I savored my absolute power over all relativity. Like a spiritualized teenage Terminator, I couldn’t be reasoned with, I couldn’t be bargained with, and I would not stop until all unenlightened views of reality were dead.

So what, if anything, turned me around?

It started with me nearly failing to finish high school, after having spent my senior year in a Neo-Advaita daze. All year long, my teachers were concerned and my parents were upset, but I couldn’t care less, as I wiled away my time insisting that worrying about anything meant being lost in ignorance. It was only at the beginning of the last week of school, as graduation day approached and my Fs in many classes suddenly loomed large, that the reality of my situation hit me hard. In panicked desperation, confronted by the real-world implications of my esoteric apathy, I did everything I could for four sleepless days and nights to raise my grades to a passable D average. And although I miraculously managed to succeed, my victory left one fact resoundingly clear: something was wrong.

Humbled and confused as the tainted rug of my addiction began its rapid slide out from under me, I turned to the writings of a spiritual teacher who, with the aid of his Indian guru, had attained enlightenment through the power of traditional Advaita Vedanta back in 1986 but had since renounced the path of Advaita completely. His name was Andrew Cohen—the founder of What Is Enlightenment?—and, intriguingly, in his roles as both spiritual teacher and magazine editor, he seemed to be on a decisive mission to stop the deadly trafficking of Neo-Advaita in the postmodern world.

In fact, the very first issue of WIE, produced in the fall of 1991—years before I discovered it—featured an article titled “The Advaita Shuffle,” which detailed the insanity and inhumanity of the Neo-Advaita view. In this and many of the early issues of WIE, Andrew and his team of editors explored the idea that no matter how effective a mystical teaching Advaita might have been in India’s ancient past, its newborn Western child, Neo-Advaita, seemed to be missing something significant. Isolated from its Eastern religious and historical context and taught as a quick-fix, no-frills contemporary path to spiritual enlightenment, they noticed its tendency to ignore traditional values like ethics and the cultivation of personal integrity. What’s more, it didn’t give much credence to the values of the Western Enlightenment, either. Rationality, critical analysis, and common sense all took a back seat in its mind-transcending philosophy. Yet throughout the early nineties its popularity was only growing—a situation that helped inspire the staff of this magazine to begin asking that all-important and ever-relevant question: “What is enlightenment?”

When I first saw that title on the newsstands, as an arrogant seventeen-year-old Neo-Advaita addict, I’d immediately dismissed it as being hopelessly naïve. “They’re a spiritual magazine and they don’t even know?” is what I mockingly thought at the time. But when the Neo-Advaita toxins finally began to leave my spiritually tattered bodymind, I started seeing life, spirituality, and other human beings in a whole new light, and I began taking steps onto a far more wholesome path: the slow but steady repentance of my disturbingly arrogant and life-denying ways.

As a survivor of the one-dimensional nightmare that is Neo-Advaita, I’ve taken great pleasure in writing a few all-out attacks on my former source of spiritual sustenance during the past three years that I’ve been on the editorial staff of WIE, and I hope to continue this public service until the true hazards of this particular brand of pop spirituality are widely acknowledged. Which is, again, the reason I’ve elected to reprint the following article—the final installment of our short-lived and outrageously satirical “Stacey Heartspring” series. Shocking and extreme, it illustrates in graphic detail the ins and outs of the Neo-Advaita philosophy and why we at WIE believe it poses such a problem to spiritual seekers today. By splicing together select quotes from some of the most popular Neo-Advaita teachers around, this wildly creative dialogue aims to educate, entertain, and, above all, explore the real implications of people like you, me, and Stacey attempting to embrace this modernized version of an ancient ideology. I had the biggest grin on my face you can imagine when I first read this article in the fall/winter 2002 issue of WIE, and I sincerely hope that many of you out there will feel the same way as you either read it for the first time, or savor its over-the-top humor and eviscerating insights once more.

by Tom Huston

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This article is from
Our 15th Anniversary Issue


September–December 2006