Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

A Dialog with Jeff Foster

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Jeff Foster

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The following is a dialog that I had with Jeff Foster in June 2007, after I had read his book 'Life Without a Centre: awakening from the dream of separation'.

Read an extract from the book (referred to below).
Purcase from or

Link to Jeff's website.

In the discussion below, my words are in blue (Dennis Waite) and Jeff's are in red (Jeff Foster).

The reason I am writing is that Julian Noyce (Non-Duality Press) periodically sends me review copies of new books and, some time ago he sent me yours, which I read with interest. I just sent the following message back to him and he suggested that I contact you directly.


 As you would no doubt have anticipated, I could not give a favorable review of Jeff's book 'Life without a centre'. In fact, I was tempted to 'hold it up' as an example of the extreme reductionism of neo-advaita (to the point where there is no teaching left whatsoever). But I don't want to be negative about any teacher directly, only about neo-advaita teaching in general.

 However, I would be willing to host an extract at the website with a link to buy the book because I do still want the site to represent all angles of advaita. The section 'Nothing wrong with silence' pp82 - 86 was actually quite good (or at least up to the bottom of p.85). What do you think? I can express the same view to Jeff directly if you want.


 As you see, I left the original wording and haven't attempted to hide the fact that I don't accept the neo-advaitin message as being of any value for the seeker, even though true in an absolute sense. But then you probably knew that already! There are currently essays/book extracts from Tony, Nathan, Leo, Jan, Richard, Unmani and Liz Jones so, if you would like me to host an extract from your book, with a link to your website and to buy the book, I would be happy to do so. As I indicated to Julian, I liked pp 82 - 6 best and actually agreed with most of it but, if you would prefer a different passage that would be fine, too.

Thanks for your email! I'm always interested to hear what people think about the book, and I do honestly appreciate your comments. Of course, the message I write about isn't for everyone!  I'm interested to know why you say I'm a "neo-advaita" teacher..... you see I have very little idea what that actually means!

I would in no way consider myself to be aligned with any school of thought, though I can see why the writing in the book may be classified in that way. I would never want to force a viewpoint or a way of thinking on anyone, including any "neo-advaita" viewpoint.

I can see what you mean about the message appearing to be an example of "extreme reductionism", and how it leaves nothing for the seeker to do. However, what I would say is that this view, although completely valid, I think misses the point in some ways. The message is not that there is nothing for the seeker to do. The message is not that anyone should give up, or stop trying, or any such nonsense. The message is not that the person "doesn't exist" and so should give up all attempts to get anywhere. This, again, would be to miss the point entirely.  The message is not about rejecting or denying the individual, the seeker... it's not about negating the search, the attempt to reach goals, although again, this is how the message is often interpreted. This message (or what I write about, anyway) actually embraces and honors the individual and his attempts to find what he thinks he has lost, or what he thinks he needs. It honors this "I", this "me".... it is not about going around repeating the mantra "there is nobody there", "the I does not exist", "there is no-one".

Maybe some teachers say this, I don’t know. The point is, there is this apparent person, and let's not deny that! There is an apparent seeker, who goes out and searches for liberation, awakening, for enlightenment, for oneness. But the message asks - what reality does this person have in the first place?

This isn’t about DENYING that person, or REJECTING that person. That's a very different message, and I wouldn't want to be put in the same group as those life-denying teachers. This is about the realization that the person who goes out into "the world" and does all those things, the person who meditates and follows practices and rituals and has beliefs and tries to improve himself... that person only ever appears as a presently arising thought.

This message is about the simple and obvious appearance of life, now, now and now. That this moment - right now- is all there is. And everything, our whole lives, our pasts and futures, are just stories appearing now. And yes, of course, THAT is a story too! And so this can never really be expressed in words. It's the attempt to put into words what could never be put into words.

It's about the preciousness of this moment, the absolute divine mystery of each and every "thing" (even though there aren't really any separate "things" at all), the realization that the entire spiritual search rests on the assumption of an entity there, a "self" who does the seeking. And with that, the assumption of a future, the assumption that there is "something to get". And that's fine - this is NOT about denying this search.

But - and here's the point - what is wrong with THIS moment? Why do we want something more? The spiritual search is wonderful, but it requires a future. What if THIS is the last moment? What if THIS is all we have? I don't see any 'extreme reductionism' here. This is not about reducing life in all its mystery and wonder to a simple concept (e.g. "this is all there is", "there is no self", etc)... although of course, those concepts can be useful, so it's also not about denying those concepts either!

If anything, this is the opposite of extreme reductionism! This is about the possibility of absolute freedom, absolute "happiness" as you put it, right here, right now. This is about seeing that the miracle that we are searching for is always fully present, that enlightenment is already the case, but the "search" implied that it wasn't. This is about the absolute gift of this moment. Extreme reductionism would be to claim that absolute statements like "this is all there is" tell the truth about life. But life could never be contained by such pathetic little statements! (and the book is full of such statements! ;))How could life ever be contained by little strings of words, by concepts? Yes, concepts can be useful, but we get so lost in concepts, in systems of thought, in trying to "understand" reality. And all of that is wonderful, but it kind of misses the point.

And so yes, I can absolutely see why you want to classify me as a "neo-advaita" teacher, and maybe some parts of Life Without A Centre have a "neo-advaita" flavor to them. But I'd ask: why do we have to endlessly classify teachings? The mind loves that, to be sure, it loves to classify and compare and contrast teachings, ad infinitum. And there's nothing wrong with that, that's what the mind does. But again, it's kind of missing the point. We can argue and classify and judge and label until we're blue in the face. And that's really the point of Life Without A Centre - where do all these mind games ever get us? All this knowledge? Knowledge is wonderful, and we can build it up over time, and become authorities on every topic under the sun, and we can feel wonderful that we know and others don't, and that we are closer to the truth than others.

But what's more wonderful, in my experience, is the collapse into not-knowing, the profound mystery, the liberation that is apparent when the mind dies down, stops all its games and there is just a clear seeing of what is. The mystery, the miracle is all around us, all the time. Which means, the miracle is right now. I don't think that is extreme reductionism. Extreme reductionism would be to try and reduce the overwhelming mystery of being to simple concepts, simple beliefs. If anything, I'm saying the exact opposite, that the Mystery could NEVER be contained in ANY belief (especially simplistic neo-advaita beliefs!) No, it's not extreme reductionism... you see, I think that's an astonishing miracle that is always available! That everything the spiritual teachings promised us is always available, right here, right now. If that's reductionism then fine, that's reductionism!! ;)

Having said all that, I do appreciate your thoughts and as I say, I completely understand why someone would disagree, and would argue for the "traditional" approach of self-enquiry, meditation, etc. As I say over and over, I'm not rejecting any of that, and I'd never want to stop anyone from doing all of that. God knows, it helped me back in the day. But there came a point at which all striving, all desire for "something more", something more than the present appearance of things, just died away. There came a point in which the present moment was seen to be the Miracle of all miracles, and the desire for seeking just faded away, and this "Happiness" I'd been searching for throughout my life had ALWAYS been freely available- and it was the seeking that implied that it wasn't (because the seeking always aimed at a future... a future that never came)

But this is just my experience. I'd never stop anyone from seeking, and would never want to. I disagree with the Neo-Advaita teachers who deny seeking, who deny the seeker, who deny the self.... this message has nothing to do with any sort of denial. I hope in some way I'm making myself clear. And I absolutely love that you don't necessarily agree with me - I love diversity, the way different people believe different things. That's really beautiful, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I truly appreciate your honesty and the way in which you didn't hide your feelings about the book. I find this very refreshing, and thank you once again for this.

P.S. I just read on your website that you summarize neo-advaita as: "We can stop seeking because there is  no seeker and nothing to be sought...... Everything is already fine as it is. We just need to accept this." Dennis - if that's neo-advaita, I want nothing to do with it! ;)

The Discussion

1. You say: " But the message asks - what reality does this person have in the first place? This isn’t about DENYING that person, or REJECTING that person. ”

So are you saying that the person exists or not?

- I see this as a false dichotomy. The mind believes that something has to "exist or not". But who would know whether a person existed or not? A person?

Without Consciousness, nothing exists. But it seems that this is the usual absolute versus empirical reality problem. Since we are using language and having a dialog, both of us are implicitly assuming the existence of separate persons. You cannot deny this without making nonsense of your position as a teacher and writer. So the answer to your question ‘what reality does the person have’ is that he has an empirical reality. This has to be accepted as a given at the level of the world appearance. The question as to whether this person has an absolute and separate existence is another question entirely.

2. Your answer seems to be that: “ that person only ever appears as a presently arising thought ”. I would have to ask: to whom or in what does this thought arise? How do you define ‘person’ in such a way that it can arise as a thought in something other than a person?

-  EXACTLY, Dennis! The moment we say "something arises"... it implies that this thing arises in something... and then how do we define that in which this thing arises? The words "the person arises..." point to something that is so utterly obvious - the idea of "me" arises now. But then, to WHOM or WHAT does that arise? Any answer would just be something else that arises.

No. You are still confusing levels. At the absolute non-dual level, you can say everything arises in Consciousness, if you like. But clearly at the empirical level, what arises for me does not arise for you and vice versa. There are effectively separate minds and each has its own (usually mistaken) ideas. These need to be resolved before the concept of everything arising in Consciousness can be appreciated.

3. You say that: “ This message is about the simple and obvious appearance of life ”. Again, I would ask: appearance to whom?

- EXACTLY! Dennis, can't you see that we're saying the same thing in different ways?

No. You are denying that, at the empirical level, things appear to people. Appearances have to be to an observer for the word to have any meaning. Things cannot appear if you are talking about absolute reality because the non-dual reality simply is. Appearance and duality come and go together.

4. You go on to say that: “our whole lives, our pasts and futures, are just stories appearing now.” Appearing to whom? Written by whom, for whom?

EXACTLY! There is the ASSUMPTION that everything appears to an entity. And indeed, language implies this entity. Using words implies a person there who uses words. A lot of non-dual folks say things like "everything appears ... to no-one". But isn't "no-one" just another idea?

‘Appearing to no one’ is simply meaningless. But I have already clarified this above. Appearances belong to the empirical realm where there are definitely people, doing things, including seeking and teaching!

5. I disagree that: “ the entire spiritual search rests on the assumption of an entity there, a "self" who does the seeking. ” I suggest that the seeker begins with the assumption that there is a Self (capital ‘s’) to be found. I agree that he also starts out with the mistaken belief that he is a separate entity but this is not an assumption; it is a firm belief. The spiritual search is the belief that there is a small self seeking a big Self. The spiritual finding is that there is no separate small self and ‘I am the big Self’.

- Yes of course the seeker believes there is something to be found, that he is a separate entity. That's what the seeking is all about! But isn't "I am the big Self" just another belief? Just another way to imply separation? "I am the Big Self!" It seems just another way to bolster the ego, another attainment. It seems like it's just the ego dressed up in fancy clothes. And I would say the same for an ego that claims "I am no-one!" or "I have ended the search" or a billion different things. What reality does this ego have in the FIRST place, BEFORE it can claim any of these things? 

‘I am the Self’ remains a belief until it is realized to be the truth, yes. And this has nothing to do with ego. The search may begin with an ego wanting enlightenment but it ends with realization that the ego was a fiction. If ‘you’ claim that you are not a person (small self) and not the ‘big Self’, who do you think you are?

6. You ask: “ what is wrong with THIS moment? ” Because of identification with the body-mind, there is the belief that in this moment ‘I’ am suffering, unhappy etc. From the vantage point of the person, there is a future when things may be better.

  - Of course!  Why else would we seek!!!!!!!!

Yes? What point are you making? Your question ‘what is wrong with this moment?’ implied that nothing was wrong with it but now you seem to be agreeing that there is something wrong, which is why we are seeking.

7. You also ask: “ What if THIS is all we have? ” The answer for some might be suicide! Especially if you convince them that this really is so!

- Yes, of course!

And this is acceptable? You seem to be happily admitting to a completely amoral attitude.

8. You say that: “ This is about the possibility of absolute freedom, absolute "happiness" as you put it, right here, right now. ” This is not possible while there is self-ignorance.

- Of course! I am not denying that.

So where is the knowledge coming from in your teaching to remove this self-ignorance?

9. You say: “ This is about seeing that the miracle that we are searching for is always fully present… ” Yes – it IS always present but, and this is a very big but, it is not known to be present.

- Of course. It cannot be known as long as there is the striving for it to be known. The striving, the desiring obscures the obvious present actuality. The striving implies that this is not it! And with the striving, with the search, with the promise of a brighter tomorrow comes the inevitable dulling of the present.

No. It cannot be known in the present because it is covered over by self-ignorance. The striving is irrelevant as far as that is concerned. Seekers constitute a very small minority in the population. Are you suggesting that all non-seekers are ‘fully present’/’enlightened’ or however you would prefer to put it? The striving is for the appropriate knowledge to remove the self-ignorance and, when it arrives, the striving ceases.

10. You also say that: “ enlightenment is already the case… ” Enlightenment is not already the case. We are already free but we do not know it. Enlightenment comes when we discover it. This is confusion of terminology.   

Of course. But it will never be discovered in the future. Enlightenment is THIS. This moment is the miracle. Sitting here, everything happening - thoughts, sensations, the sound of the birds outside, the hum of the television. What a miracle this is - that anything is happening at all. Why would we want anything else? The absolute perfection of this, beyond anything words could ever capture. The search for something MORE would imply that THIS wasn't enough.

This is to use a word in a meaningless way. ‘Enlightenment’ literally implies bringing light into the situation. We are currently in the dark (self-ignorance) and light (knowledge) is needed to enable us to see how things really are in this moment. People are searching, not because the moment is not REALLY enough but because it is mistakenly believed to be inadequate. Simply telling someone that it IS adequate achieves nothing.

11. You ask: “ why do we have to endlessly classify teachings? ” Because all teachings are not equally likely to lead a seeker to the truth.

- And that's the spiritual game we play. The endless search for clearer and clearer teachings. And I'm not denying any of it. I'm not condemning any of it. It's one way to pass the time.

Seekers are not looking for the teaching. The teaching is the means to knowledge. If they could find one that provides that knowledge, they would stop looking. What would be the point in then looking for another teaching?

12. On the subject of knowledge, you say: “ we can build it up over time, and become authorities on every topic under the sun ”. You are talking here about relative knowledge, not self-knowledge – these are totally different things.

- By knowledge I mean thoughts, concepts. Are you saying there is a knowledge beyond concepts? And if there was, how could we know that? On what basis? Wouldn't that just be another concept?

The knowledge that ‘I exist’ is beyond concepts. And you know that! Your knowing that you know - that, too, is beyond concepts. Your knowing that you do not know Mandarin (assuming you don’t!) is beyond concepts.

13. You then talk about: “the collapse into not-knowing, the profound mystery…” I don’t know (!) what this means – sounds a bit too mystical for me.

- Well, I suppose those words do sound a bit mystical! I'm talking about the huge relief, the liberation, the sense of freedom when the mind's endless search for something MORE than the present moment dies down, and there is only what is, and nothing more. It's the "profound mystery" because nothing can be known about it.

OK, I’m happy with ‘relief’ and ‘liberation’ but I would use ‘fascination’ instead of ‘mystery’ – after all, ‘I am That’. ‘Not-knowing’ is quite misleading.

14. “If anything, I'm saying the exact opposite, that the Mystery could NEVER be contained in ANY belief (especially simplistic neo-advaita beliefs!)” Words never ‘contain’ the ‘mystery’, but they can be used to point to it. “Everything is here right now” does not provide any pointers that might overcome the essential ignorance.

- Yes, words as pointers....of course.

15. Talking about the traditional approach, you say: “God knows, it helped me back in the day.” If it helped you, what makes you think that anyone else can ‘get it’ without similar help?

- Well, this is the paradox. In the story of "Jeff", there were many practices and rituals and self-enquiries that appeared to help. BUT all of that is just a story, a memory, happening now. My whole life is just a memory. Just a thought. And any idea of a solid person there who is "having" these thoughts is just another thought. "Thoughts without a thinker" as the Buddhists would say. But that's not to deny the apparent thinker!

Sorry, Jeff, but this is where you start to lose me. And this is what I mean by neo-advaitin teaching – “all just a story”. The practices either helped or they didn’t. I don’t dispute that there isn’t actually a ‘thinker’ as such, i.e. we cannot choose to have a particular thought but there is no denying the empirical validity of a person to whom those thoughts occur. In practical terms ‘you’ are communicating ‘your’ thoughts and ‘I’ am communicating ‘mine’, regardless of the fact that this is all just the movement of name and form on the ‘surface of the absolute’. The absolute cannot have a conversation with itself; conversations take place in time between persons – why pretend otherwise when it only misleads and confuses? Basically, you cannot deny the first-person perspective while you are still operating through a body-mind.

16. You then go on to say: “the seeking always aimed at a future... a future that never came” . But presumably it has come, now. Again, why do you say that the traditional approach is unnecessary if it helped you to get to where you are now?

- I never said it was unnecessary. It's wonderful, traditions are wonderful. And I'd encourage anyone who wanted to go off and follow any tradition, to read all the books they can find, to meditate and do a million things.  But all of this implies a future, implies that we have time. We could die tomorrow. I work in a hospice, and many people there only have a few days to live, maybe only a few hours. What then comes of our plans for a future enlightenment? None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow. This moment is all we are guaranteed. And so how precious this is. Tradition is wonderful, but it assumes a tomorrow. And tomorrow is only a thought. And yes, looking back, it appears as though the past brought us to the present. But really, there is only the present and the past is always a memory.

You are playing with metaphysical ideas and confusing absolute and empirical again. You switch the kettle on in anticipation of making a cup of tea a few minutes later. You advertise forthcoming satsangs and so on. It would be hypocritical to deny the validity of the concept of time at the empirical level. Of course many people will embark on a spiritual path and die before they complete it. But the knowledge that might be imparted/gained over many years on a traditional path cannot be transmitted by a few words, however much we ‘live in the now’. And ‘living in the now’ does not in itself remove self-ignorance.

17. You say that: “this message has nothing to do with any sort of denial.” But you just denied that any striving is necessary because the ‘happiness is always freely available’.

- Dennis, from one perspective striving is necessary, of course. And from another it's completely futile, because this moment is all we have, and striving is just another desire, another aim for the ego. Sometimes I express one viewpoint, sometimes another, it depends on the context. I would deny neither perspective.

I thought you said the message has nothing to do with denial! Don’t you see that you are confusing levels? Time is only meaningless at the absolute level. As soon as you have a mind, you have cause and effect and time and space and all these are as real as they can be from that perspective. As for the striving, we dealt with this in 9.

18. Finally, you say that: “if that's neo-advaita, I want nothing to do with it!” I’m still not clear how, essentially, your message differs from this. It is all about denying the relative reality and trying to impose the absolute reality before the mind of the seeker is ready to accept it.

- I would never try to impose an absolute reality - that would completely go against the message.

But you are, as I have pointed out above.

I have never claimed anything about my "teachings", and indeed I don't really consider myself a teacher.

But the seekers who attend your talks and read your book do consider you to be a teacher and that is what counts!

The words come out, and they attempt to express what is going on over here. If they resonate with others, great, and if they don't, great. I know you think that what I write is of no use to the seeker. But I receive emails and phone calls all the time saying how helpful the book has been, how people feel calm and clear after reading it, how frustration dies away and the search for something "more" is seen to be futile, and how this gives way to an ease of living and a peacefulness which underlies everything else, and the "enlightenment" sought for a lifetime is seen to be ever-present.

I don’t dispute this but I’m afraid they are deluding themselves. There may be ease and peace etc. for a while but this is not knowledge. The basic ignorance is still there because there has been no new knowledge to remove it and it will re-assert itself all too soon. Then the suffering will return. There is a danger too, then, of additional frustration or a sense of hopelessness. If they believe they have actually had all there is to get, but are still suffering, what hope is there?

I'm not saying this to boast or to make myself out as anything, just to point out that paradoxically this message CAN be helpful, as the seeking mind finally, after a lifetime of searching, of believing the present moment isn't enough, dies down and the perfection of what is, is all there is.

Ah! You are citing a special case here. I agree that it is possible for a message such as yours to ‘tip the balance’ for a long-term seeker. But I suggest that the majority of seekers you encounter are not long-term (or even medium-term).

But of course, many people don't like the message, and want to go out and seek, and that's wonderful too, and I mean this genuinely. I'd never ever want to stop anyone from seeking, and I'd never deny that seeking happens or any such nonsense, and I'm sorry if you've read this into what I've written. I just wonder sometimes whether this whole seeking business is not just a nice distraction, to give the mind something to do. Because the last thing the mind wants to do is give up. It craves the known, it craves classifications and building up knowledge and following the latest teachings. And this is wonderful and I'm not denying it.

But the words you use do not convey this message – ‘any such nonsense’, ‘nice distraction’, etc. Seekers come to listen to you and read your book because they believe that you know something that they don’t and they listen to the things that you say and absorb them. They are bound to come away with the impression that seeking is a waste of time.

But all this knowledge, it pales in comparison to the awesome perfection of this moment - to this cup of tea, to this little bug crawling across the floor, to the flower that the Buddha is holding up in front of us. The mind desperately wants to KNOW about the flower, and could spend a thousand years building up that knowledge. But to SEE the flower, how long does that take? Do we really need years of seeking to see the flower? That flower is the end of it all. I fear that with all our classifications, our philosophical systems, our claims of being enlightened and being the Big Self, our practices and rituals and complex systems of thought, we lose sight of the flower. ;)

What flower? There is no such entity – read my essay on ‘What is advaita?’

Concluding Remarks

Thanks for your replies, I find it fascinating to hear your views, and I've learned a lot about your "traditional" approach and how it differs from the "neo-advaita" approach. I am not all that familiar with all the terminology so it's been very useful. Both approaches have much in them, but from over here, both seem to miss the point entirely, and so I'm not sure it would be useful to carry on debating in this way. Krishnamurti once said that 'truth is a pathless land', and I don't believe that truth could ever be captured by any process or practice or tradition or set of concepts, however wonderful they are (and they are wonderful - without our traditions the world would be a very dull place indeed). And the mind could go on and on, arguing over which tradition is correct, which concept is the clearest - and how the mind loves knowledge! - but again I fear that this completely misses the point.

But that's just the experience over here, and I'd never want to stop anyone from doing anything they wanted to, to gain whatever they wanted to gain, whether that be "enlightenment" or a million pounds in the bank. And over here, it is seen that the search for something more only ever implied that the present moment wasn't enough, and there was something to get in the future. Seeking implies a future goal. And how the mind loves to create and pursue goals. But then again, goals are fine, and I would  never stop anyone from pursuing their goals, if that's what they wanted. And indeed, in the life story of Jeff, there were once a million goals to pursue. But once again, I'm not saying this to make "Jeff" seem special in any way (he's far from special!), just to say that the book "life without a centre" came out of these experiences, and it was in no way written to try and convince anyone of anything, or to win any arguments, or to convert anyone to a new way of thinking. God knows, there are enough books like that in the world, enough people trying to win arguments, enough disagreements, enough of the "I know!" mind....

I'd love to carry on our conversation but I think it's going to get way too long and confusing, even with the color coding, so I'd suggest that maybe you'd like to have a chat on the phone one day?
Best wishes my friend, and I really have enjoyed this.

Jeff ;)


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