Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Science and Nonduality Conference
San Rafael, October 2009

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An Interview with Greg Goode

Greg Goode Greg Goode

Greg has been a philosophical counsellor since 1996 and has extensive experience with online consultation. After studying Psychology at California State University, Greg studied philosophy at the Universit�t zu K�ln in Cologne, Germany, and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. His areas of specialisation were decision theory, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of George Berkeley. His doctoral dissertation was on the question, 'Is it ever rational to be impatient?'

Greg is a well-known innovator for having combined the Direct Path method of self enquiry with modern electronic media. He is a member of the International Society for Mental Health Online, which studies the techniques and effectiveness of online consultation. Since the mid-1990s he has been a moderator and active contributor on philosophical and spiritual internet lists, including the Nonduality Salon, Advaitin, Advaita-L, Dharma-Direct, DirectApproach, EndOfTheRopeRanch, AdvaitaToZen, HarshaSatsangh, and TheRoomOfThis.

Publication: Standing as Awareness: The Direct Path
New, expanded edition, with foreword by Jerry Katz (Non-Duality Press, October 2009)
(Buy Amazon.US or Amazon.UK)

Visit Greg's website, Heart of Now, for more information about his work.

Q. You offer a �Direct Path� style of approach in the meetings that you give and the teachings that you offer. What exactly does that mean and how is it different from other types of approaches?

A. The Direct Path is in contrast to a �progressive path� that says you need to get nearer and nearer and nearer the goal. The Direct Path starts you out at the finish. You already stand as truth, love, knowledge, awareness (the same thing by different names). If you have doubts or questions, you can resolve them by directly investigating your experience. When you do, you find that your stand as awareness is confirmed at every moment.

One thing that distinguishes the Direct Path from some other approaches is about teaching. Since the Direct Path knows that ultimately there is no teacher or teaching, it is able to use teaching. It has a proven way of looking into the reality of the world, body and mind, and showing how they have never been anything other than awareness.

Q. Is that an intellectual process?

A. No, it is global. There�s no type of experience that is pivotal, and none that�s left out of the picture. Although there is analysis, there�s also investigation of sensing, of the body, of the feelings, intuitions, movement and rest, and other facets of experience.

In fact, in the Direct Path the very distinction between types of experience drops away. What once seemed to be intellectual versus emotional or physical comes to be seen as undifferentiated, pure, clear and whole.

Q. So how do you get this across � do you do satsangs?

A. Not really. I do most of my teaching individually, dialogically. In groups, I favour the seminar method. I�m not a fan of the satsang model.

Q. So when you say that you are not a fan of the satsang model, how would you define that and what would you say is the problem with the model.

A. It creates a sharp distinction between �haves� and �have nots�. Not everyone does it like this, but the satsang model as I am referring to it is done without the benefit of texts, practices or ways that allow understanding to blossom. It�s basically a person sitting up in front of the room who has been advertised as a unique vessel of truth. They talk about their experience. So the focal point is the person of the teacher. Without the other tools that promote understanding that experience is universal, people grab onto whatever is available. What happens is that the teacher becomes the teaching, as people focus on the specific physical, personality and energetic characteristics of the person. Even in between the words, the emphasis is on that person. The model gives the attendees no way to come to understand the universality of experience as their own birthright.

Experience is discussed as though it were a bodily fluid, individuated and internal to a person. So in the satsang model it becomes inevitable that people can only compare their experience with what they perceive to be the teacher�s experience, and come up wanting. This comparison sets up a vibe of envy and anguish in the room.

This comparison sets up an ironic pattern. For a person to verify a successful comparison means for them to be like the teacher. And what�s the ultimate way to verify this? By *themselves* being up in front of the room, with people listening to *them*. It becomes a self-perpetuating resonance machine. Because of these dynamics, I�ve had people come to me who actually felt more separate, alienated and alone because of satsang than before they began attending.

Q. If there hasn�t been a full understanding of the teaching intellectually, certain teachers may try to use little tricks whereby they turn the question around and say, �Who is asking the question?� Well I am, obviously, and if I knew the answer I wouldn�t be asking you. In other words, there�s a very subtle humiliation that can go on. Then there can be group laughter against that person and the person will be left feeling put down. And yet it started off as a very sincere and genuine question.

A. Yes. 'Who is asking' is often the last resort. For a while, in the late 90s this expression was a verbal reflex, almost like a mantra. People said it to each other all the time, in e-mails and at restaurants. Of course in most cases it doesn�t answer the question but bypasses it instead. It doesn�t prevent the question from arising in the future. But when the teacher understands the question behind the question, he or she can answer from the exact place from which the question was asked. This allows the true answer to the question � which is always the cessation of the impulse behind the question in the heart of the one asking.

Q. Do you think it is important to study ancient texts as part of a process to understanding oneself?

A. I don�t think they have to be ancient but they have to be deep and far-reaching enough to handle all the issues. Of course ancient texts do a wonderful job, a time tested job, which they�ve done over and over again. For some people, the very fact that the texts are ancient adds to their sense of gravitas and authority. So the texts get their attention by generating a sense of faith in the truth of the message. And for other people � they just don�t resonate with ancient works. Some people say, 'If it can�t be said in simple English, then I�m not interested.' Enlightenment is multilingual � it doesn�t just speak Sanskrit or Tibetan!

Q. What is Advaita?

A. It�s a Sanskrit adjective meaning 'not two'. It has become a tag in the West for nondualism of the type that makes consciousness primary. It�s also part of the name of a formal tradition from India, 'Advaita Vedanta', which refers to the nondualistic teachings of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

Q. And how in your opinion should it be conveyed to somebody? Should it be through a teacher? Should it be through reading Sanskrit texts? Or what?

A. I think the more varied the means of input, the more chances a person will resonate with the teachings. Some people relate more fully to a person-to-person approach.

Reading books and web-pages by oneself is usually not enough. In Advaita Vedanta, most of the teaching is an unfolding of the texts in a verse-by-verse manner, which consists of verbal commentary and Q & A between student and teacher. The commentary includes a lot of 'meta' level commentary, which actually talks about the teachings as teachings, and explains how they work. This is like a hidden teaching that unfolds the surface teaching in the texts. And it�s where a lot of the transformation takes place. It deepens and broadens the student�s understanding and keeps the teachings from being taken literally and staying at the surface.

Things are changing these days, but the vast majority of this verbal commentary hasn�t traditionally been written down. This happens in paths other than Advaita Vedanta as well, which is partly how the teaching traditions themselves are passed on. By being there.

The result is that so far, much of the best stuff is not in print. You can�t look it up on the internet or read up on it at the bookstore. Books and web pages can�t answer questions, and you can�t resonate with a book the way you can with a teacher or beloved friend. So if your only means of access is print or electronica, then there�s stuff you aren�t getting.

Q. And how is Advaita seen in the West. There seem to be various strands of Advaita � what do you think they are and how do they differ?

A. In the West, Advaita is the word that people use for just about anybody who talks about nonduality. The various strands that seem to have emerged in the West are the traditional teachings from Swami Chinmayananda and Dayananda, the not-so-traditional strands of teachings inspired by the three twentieth-century titans, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Sri Atmananda (Krishna Menon), as well as the more yogic-flavoured teachings descending from Ramakrishna/Vivekananda and from Swami Sivananda.

Q. There is also Vishishtadvaita?

A. Yes, qualified nondualism. This is a more devotional path, inspired by Sri Ramanuja. Even though the Divine and the seeker are made of the same Divine essence, the goal is not to merge with the Divine. Rather, it is to come as close as possible without merging. Where the Advaitin says, 'I am honey,' the Vishishtadvaitin says, 'I would rather taste honey than be honey.'

Actually, the satsang model is more similar to Vishishtadvaita than Advaita proper, because of the devotion and the emphasis on the personal aspects of the teacher.

Q. And what about the so-called �Neo-Advaita� movement? How would you define that?

A. Before it ever had the name Neo-Advaita (which is not how the teachers describe themselves), I used to call it non-doership teachings because basically it has a single premise. That is, there is no agency or doership � all is performed by God or is otherwise automated or spontaneous. There is no separate self. Freedom is said to consist in the impersonal seeing of this, which itself is not a matter of agency or doership, and happens to no one.

This is actually not too different from the radical determinist and behaviorist teachings of psychologist B.F. Skinner, who wrote in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Like the recent non-doership teachings, Skinner also used these teachings in a way he thought would free people from attachment to feelings and the notion of a 'possessing demon' inside.

But you don�t hear much about those teachings these days as you did in the late nineties, 2001, 2002� In my experience, many of the people that were pursuing those teachings are now pursuing other things. I don�t know what many of the teachers have done, but the students have gone elsewhere.

Q. Why would you say that, do you think?

A. They tried it and it didn�t work!

Q. Perhaps the Neo-Advaita teachings give the ego or �I� a bit of breathing space because if you don�t want to do the work or if you can�t really understand the paradoxical nature of the nondual teaching, it just buys you some time.

A. Yes, but for some, they can be very helpful, psychologically helpful. I remember one particular nondoership teacher � he used to come to New York a lot and his flock would dwindle each year. The people I happened to know who saw him all had one prevailing issue in their lives � guilt. So I think that if guilt is your main issue in life and wanting to be relieved of feeling guilty, then nondoership can really help with that issue. If there is no doer, then there is no basis of guilt. This is something that Skinner would agree with.

Have you ever heard of the empty boat analogy? You are lying on your back in a rowboat, floating on a lake. You�re enjoying the gentle waves and you�re really cooling out. All of a sudden, something hits your boat. You get up, totally mad, and see another boat, the one that has just hit you. You�re ready to whack them with an oar, right! And then you look and see there�s nobody in the boat; your anger subsequently diminishes, dissolves, evaporates. You may still want to hit the boat but you won�t be as mad at the boat as you would have been at a person. So when you see your own boat is empty of a driver, a lot of the basis for your guilt can evaporate. But that�s a far cry from nondual realisation or seeing your true nature. It�s a far cry from realizing the world, body and mind as one undivided awareness as light or clarity.

Q. Ramesh Balsekar wrote a book, Sin and Guilt: Monstrosity of the Mind. Ramesh was very much a nondoership teacher. It is a very beguiling argument, I think, because it can make intellectual sense in some weird way but ultimately it doesn�t seem to deliver because you are still left with the quandary of your self.

A. Right. There�s no author of actions but there�s phenomenality, there is still a body and behaviour, there�s still an enjoyer, there�s still a subject-object, and lots of other dualities left in the picture. In fact, the very same arguments that establish that there�s no doer in fact establish the same conclusion about every object. But the nondoership teachings stop short and don�t go there. Their core insight, so potentially powerful, helpful and true, is never generalized, so much of the dualistic framework is left unexamined.

In fact, one of Ramesh�s beloved images has this very effect. The image of electricity � it�s supposed to illustrate the automaticity of actions: imagine a kitchen and one person is a dishwasher and another person is a microwave oven and another person is a refrigerator. All these appliances are all doing just what they are programmed to do, and animated by the electricity (consciousness) flowing through them.

It�s the same electricity flowing through everyone but they�re not doing anything, it�s the electricity that�s doing everything. This takes away the notion of independent doership. But it leaves lots of other stuff in the picture � it still leaves multiplicity of objects, like the machines themselves. And more importantly it leaves a distinction between consciousness and the things that consciousness animates. It doesn�t have any way of showing that the microwave oven is itself consciousness.

Myself, I was really helped by that teaching because I had spent years looking for what I really was. I looked really really hard in every possible corner and pocket that I could find � in the gross realms and the subtle realms. I had looked at body, mind, values, memories, tendencies and everything else I could think of as something that made me ME. I saw that none of these candidates could be me. Several years before reading any non-doership teachings I began to think that there�s one area where I did feel identified as an individual entity. That was: myself as a decision faculty. The chooser. The one that plotted my trajectory in life. THIS was me! I looked into this very question on my own for two years, trying to see this faculty up close, trying to hold it in the palm of my hand.

At that point I read Consciousness Speaks by Ramesh and I saw that this separate entity is just as passing and impermanent, a diaphanous object, as anything else. The notion that I was a separate chooser or a separate entity itself dissolved in one flash. My sense of individuality disappeared in a flash. And so did the sense that my mother, lover, friends, colleagues had individual essences. It all vanished! Little did I know it, but I had become ripe for the nondoership teachings. I had already narrowed down the candidates for my nature, and had eliminated everything else. The only issue that I had was the doership issue. It toppled the cards.

Q. So who, then, is the doer?

A. The doer is not 'really' anything other than consciousness itself. But the doer can appear to be a repetitive thought, a feeling, sensation, bodily contraction, a sense of loss, separation, pride, guilt, sin, or an emotional cluster. In the direct path, all these candidates for one�s true self are investigated and found to be nothing other than witnessed objects appearing to consciousness. And therefore nothing other than consciousness itself.

In the Direct Path, the doer is investigated, but not in a pivotal way. The Direct Path doesn�t look at doership as a kind of keystone that when pulled out makes the house fall down. It is one thing among many that are investigated. It�s interesting that in the beginning of the great Advaitin work, Yogavasishta, self-effort is actually recommended as a means towards liberation. So that tradition sees a sense of doership as helpful at certain stages. I would agree. It�s not always a good thing for the enquirer to negate the doer too soon without negating the field around it. Because a lot of things that help a person are things that seem like you are doing something. So it�s better to do those things rather than to adopt a belief that you�re not the doer, because then you�ll try not to do stuff, which is just another kind of doing that is more subtle. You�ll do non-doing, which is a nihilistic position that can bring a great deal of suffering along with it.

Q. Or renounce a certain amount of responsibility for one�s actions?

A. Yes. And usually what happens is that you project responsibility onto someone else; maybe you project it onto the teacher � it�s their responsibility to enlighten you, to free you or whatever. Or it can be manipulated in a very unkind way � maybe whoever�s a doer depends on what�s good for me, so if it�s something you are accusing me of, then I am not the doer; but if it�s something I�m mad at you about, then you�ll become a doer. It�s like parents, you know: 'Everything good about the kid is because of me; everything bad about the kid is because of you!'

Q. So when you talk about the doer, are you talking about the �I�?

A. No I�m not. In the Direct Path teaching, doership is not a pivotal notion. Atmananda does talk about it at one point; he says that if you could have the deep and continuing feeling that you are not the doer, that would be enough, it would take you to liberation. But he also says this about lots of other things that he says can do the whole job: he says to investigate love, the world, the sense of 'I', perception, awareness, etc. Any of these things, when looked at deeply enough, can take you all the way, he would say.

One thing I like about the Direct Path teaching is that it leaves no stone unturned. It doesn�t try to negate one facet of experience; it looks at all facets of experience.

Q. Is the Direct Path teaching based on any one particular teacher?

A. Yes, Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon, who died in 1959.

Q. And what is the goal, what is the point of the Direct Path?

A. To alleviate suffering. One of the things that he says is to unite the head and the heart in peace, to see one�s true nature as awareness. You can make it more technical by saying it�s a matter of no longer experiencing duality at any time. Even in the most dualistic experience, when seen rightly, it is not actually dualistic at all. It�s just awareness. So a lot of the Direct Path teachings are ways to see what�s really going on with your direct experience.

Q. So where are you at? How do you perceive the world on a day-to-day basis, really and truly?

A. I don�t experience any duality. But actually, it�s too much to say even that. Nothing comes up, nothing happens unless some kind of linguistic interaction manifests, so really there�s nothing to say until the conversation starts. Then it naturally and spontaneously flows. So I don�t see dualities. I can talk about my love of Mexican food or a pair of new shoes or something like that, but it�s non-referential. That is, I don�t view speech as a mirror representing an external reality. It�s more like music giving beauty to light.

Q. Are you saying therefore that the seeking is over in a sense?

A. Oh yeah, for a long time. Nevertheless, there are many things I like to do and read about and learn.

Q. And that the mind has been laid to rest?

A. It is seen as nothing but awareness. The mind is easy to see as nothing but awareness, since you can�t find it if you look for it. The closest I could ever get to finding the mind was seeing the difference between being really sleepy and then walking up and drinking coffee or going for a run and then seeing the difference in rate and clarity of thinking. But it�s impossible to find an entity there. In traditional teachings, they often talk about how the mind follows the breath, and if the breath is really fast the mind will be really fast and vice versa. Other than thoughts, a mind can�t be found. Even a thought can�t be found. We think of the mind using physicalistic metaphors, as though it were a bottle or bundle or bucket. Thoughts are things we think should have a container. But it�s very easy to see that this is nothing more than a conceptual construct.

Q. So what then is the ego and how is that different from the mind?

A. The ego is not a term that is used in the Direct Path but you can look at it as an identification as something particular, or a sense of a separate self. It�s the sense that whatever I am is separate from the world and from other similar selves. The sense can be a conglomerate of thoughts, feelings, sensations, wishes, hopes, fears, desires, and contractions and twitches in the body. And then it is reified into something that we feel has its own independent existence. At that point it must be fed, maintained, placated and defended. Even in spirituality it seeks to take credit for whatever pleasant things happen!

The Direct Path looks at both the sense of self and the mind and sees that neither of them can be what they appear to be. Rather, they are wisps and notions and appearances arising to witnessing awareness. They come and go, yet our nature as this awareness is never absent the entire time�

Q. So what do you have to offer people who come to you?

A. Respect, listening, clarity, humour, down-to-earthness, and a way for people to see that their own experience confirms at every moment the truth of the most illustrious sages.

Q. And what can�t you give them?

A. Bells and whistles, power, charisma�

Being unable to give people these things allows them to go elsewhere if they are looking for these elements. For example, I have known satsang people who have gone to see the Dalai Lama and I�ve heard this many times, �I saw the Dalai Lama last week and there wasn�t anything there, I didn�t have any special feelings at all.� Little do they know that in his path, they work and work and meditate and meditate partly to be just that, not to be special�

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