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Ramesh Balsekar's Snake Oil; Jean Klein's Antidote

Two pieces, one on brain science, the other on Neo-Adviata, are included together here as they are both topically related to the question of self.

Brain Science
~The self-as-subject-and-knower is not only a very real presence but a turning point in biological evolution.
~In the perspective of evolution and in the perspective of one’s life history, the knower came in steps: the protoself and its primordial feelings; the action-driven core self; and finally the autobiographical self, which incorporates social and spiritual dimensions.
(Antonio Damasio, Self Comes To Mind)

Given various experiments with mirrors, few species demonstrate evidence of a sense of self-as-knower.  In homo sapiens, the sense of self evolved as a survival function. It had evolutionary "purpose." Out of the self, free-floating worry and anxiety arise and linger, as distinct from fight-or-flight responses caused by immediate danger. These images and feelings were actionable. That is, they were not agents, but were arousers of feelings that caused action. The sensed self-as-knower naggingly asked, Will that tiger be again lurking behind the boulder when I go foraging for food?  This offered immense survival advantage.

Correlated to it is a sense of self as agent which can influence future outcomes with free will.

As observers of it as object, we can see that it is illusory in that it does nothing--no-doer in the nondualist sense--but it nonetheless served in natural selection because of its survival advantage.

It provided overwhelming reproductive success to those having it--passing it on to generations so that today most human beings assume the sense of self-as-doer functions as a real agent.

A determinist, Ramesh Balsekar concluded conceptually--as distinct from Jean Klein--that nothing can be done because "nobody" exists to do it. This was his teaching, with often dangerous, and documented, consequences. It is nonsense, as evinced by the evolutionary role of the sense of self-as-doer.

Benjamin Libet and Free Won't

Despite Balsekar, belief in self and thus agency does influence outcomes, regardless of whether or not a self exists. Kathleen Vohs conducted experiments demonstrating that belief in determinism caused cynical outcomes. The results imply that denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes. In his experiments Benjamin Libet famously provided evidence implying that free will does not exist, although even he had trouble accepting this as the exclusive interpretation of the evidence. His experiments did demonstrate free won't, the ability to veto an action before it happened, dependent on sufficient alertness to check the impulse. (Penal codes are thereby justified, as they are predicated on the relative ability of individuals to restrain behavior.)

Thus, in nonduality terms, we have the ability to cut off thoughts before they gain momentum, which helps to expand space between thoughts so that awakening to Awareness might occur. This should lay to rest the debate as to whether a seeker can "do" anything.

Forget about the question, Are you free agent? The question is a red herring, a diversion. Agency is an obsolete concept handed down from millennia before the advent of neuroscience. It simply muddies the waters. A way to clearer understanding is to think about processes, which is how the brain is wired. Awakening--to my thinking a more straightforward label than Enlightenment--is possible as a process partly facilitated by alertness, or attention.

A catch-phrase in neuroscience is used to describe neuroplasticity* -- neurons that fire together wire together. In short, mind can be re-wired.  (*brain and nervous system can change structurally and functionally through self-direction -- evinced by Jeffrey Schwartz's experiments among others -- and interplay with environment -- e.g., Michael Merzenich's experiments.)

Processes shape an emergent phenomenon, the "executive" center in the frontal lobe (as well as the interpreter of  "self-action" in the left temporal lobe), in continuous loops of recycled feedback with other brain areas. This diffusion of activity is why no agent (do-er) can be found when looked for.

Neo-Advaitan Snake Oil

The findings of science are instructive in helping us understand what science can never reach.  They are a thorn by which another thorn is removed, after which both can be thrown away. The issue of free will/no free will can also be tossed aside as a non-starter.

Up front I will say that I do not want to doubt Ramesh Balsekar (1917-2009) regarding the sincerity in his teachings, nor will I say that discovery of no do-er is not profound and transformative. I will say that the discovery must not become conceptual, a mere understanding, which is to say a misunderstanding. By using the term "snake oil" I want to call attention to the seriousness of his misunderstandings.  Though he has legions of followers in the West and has sold thousands of books, some teachings are not just lame. They are downright dangerous.

Because as Neo-Advaitan, Ramesh teaches a conceptual--not experiential-- realization of "the Truth" as all that is needed for realization, he gets mired in concepts. The problem here is that conceptually one can understand, but does not see the emptiness of a do-er by experiencing the emptiness. His cognitive approach leads to Balsekar teaching determinism, another concept. All is causal and therefore nothing to aspire toward, nothing to achieve. Essentially, he has said to himself and others, if you can't move in this Awareness, move in accordance with your understanding of it. "Understanding is all," he says, by this discounting transformation from deep experience. This leads him to advocate nonsense. Beware, I say. Here be dragons.

There is a true story about somebody--I'll call him a dentist to give him another identity--who took literally what Balsekar said and, returning to the states, had affairs, cheating on his wife because, after all, the guru told him he had no free will and therefore could not help what he was doing. Later returning to India, he asked Ramesh if by his behavior he understood the teaching correctly. Balsekar confirmed that the man had done only what he had to do.

Here is a fundamental confusion between kinds of action--attached and non-attached. Non-attachment is at the heart of nondualism. Balsekar is a fatalist, which is quite distinct from non-attachment. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna cannot escape his duty but must learn the difference between fatalism and non-attachment. The fatalist simply says what will be will be. The non-attached is the most conscientious of men in his behavior.

Ramesh Balsekar and Sexual Misconduct

At an international seminar on India's west coast, in front of about 150 people, Ramesh Balsekar impugned the moral standing of his own teacher, Nisargadatta, as well as other masters, and asserted his own teaching was correct while all others before him were false. At the seminar he was charged with sexual misconduct, which he denied, then admitted it but dismissed the charge as irrelevant and unimportant. (David Carse, Pure Brilliant Stillness)

Snake Oil  Q and A

The following excerpt from an interview with Ramesh Balsekar is humorous and I assume the questioner did not lose his sanity nor his marriage as did the dentist. Although the questioner took Balsekar at his word, it provides a Waiting For Godot comedy-of-the-absurd point to the wise counterpoint by Jean Klein, which follows it.

Questioner to Balskekar: “Okay, there’s a thing you’re calling ‘enlightenment’ which you describe as the 100% complete conviction and understanding that there is no inherent ‘do-er’ in our life. That we are not the instigators of our thoughts and actions but, instead, we and everything about us is merely an expression of some un-name-able something which is all of existence.”

[Ramesh Balsekar] nods.

"So, if there is no ‘person’ who is doing any thing, if we are not the causes but, instead, the effects… then there’s nothing we can do to make this understanding/awakening thing happen. No amount of meditating, no amount of spiritual practice, no amount of sitting here with Ramesh Balsekar will guarantee it happening, or accelerate when it happens. And no amount of not practicing or acting ‘non-spiritually’ will keep it away. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen and if not, then not. And there’s nothing to do be done about it either way.

'YES! That’s it,' he laughed… and I laughed with him… but I looked around the room and nobody else was laughing. In fact, they all looked like they were thinking “If I could really understand that point, then that would lead to my enlightenment!”

Oh, well."  (Steven Sashen in his blog Transformation Without A Problem, now apparently a dead link.)

~This is "either-or" logic not the "both-and" taught by Nisargadatta, Ramana Maharshi, and others. It easily translates to the advice Balsekar gave the dentist. Balsekar affirmed the questioner's, "we are not the causes but, instead, the effects."  Given the reasoning, then cancel that 2 O'Clock appointment for the root canal. The lady friend has a motel room rented and it was all intended to be this way.

There is another, wiser, point of view. As Richard Rose, a pragmatist, told one questioner, "It may happen by accident, but you can make yourself accident-prone." He, as well as Nisargadatta, Maharshi, and others said that persistence, effort, and earnestness must be exercised by the seeker. Most of those who get "it" do not get "it" by nonchalance.

Jean Klein's Antidote

Jean Klein (1916-1998) would have provided the dentist wiser counsel--from experience--rather than from intellect and logic mistaken as "clear seeing." Questioner to Klein: If I let my body and mind follow their natural course without some discipline will they not run away like wild horses?

Jean Klein: Letting the movements of your body and mind follow their natural course does not mean passively indulging and identifying with them. This only leads to servitude and misery. You must distinguish between passive letting go and active letting go. In active letting go you remain totally present, clear-sighted, uninvolved and actively alert. Gradually the ego loses its grip until it is reabsorbed into pure awareness. Seeing things no longer from a center is the first step towards permanent freedom, which can only take place if we are free from any form of projection or anticipation. (Jean Klein in I Am, ed. Emma Edwards, 2006)

I am reminded of what Ramana Maharshi said, "There is neither freedom nor destiny." He was referring to concepts, mind-objects, and to not getting ensnared by them. He also said the seeker could "do" something: use a thorn (concept) to remove a thorn (concept).


Ramesh Balsekar's teacher, Nisargadatta, had a far different view, which his student Balsekar failed to understand. Pointing out this difference between teacher Nisargadatta and student Balsekar, one writer states that ". . . Nisargadatta pointed to a far more profound realization of being the essential Awareness underlying all sentient beings as their fundamental Truth." (Timothy Conway in  "On Neo-Advaitin Ramesh Balsekar" at

To awaken to whatever you want to call it--God, Awareness, Consciousness, Being, Emptiness, Source, Self, the Unnameable--is to see that mind arises within it, and that concepts--determinism, free will--also arise within it as objects of the mind, which is to say they have no reality. So long as body/mind as cause-and-effect (deterministic) object remains, it is not seen through as appearance in Emptiness. (Or Awareness, etc. Insert your favorite noun.) In short, Emptiness/Awareness abides in alertness to the sleepwalker that is the mind/body--to the appearances and disappearances in body and in mind. To behave as if it is systematized by determinism or free will is to sleepwalk like the poor dentist whose behavior arose from a faulty understanding of no-doer, the explanation offered by Balsekar.

In brief, Emptiness/Awareness is always looking in "space," and if Balsekar offers a follower determinism--that nothing can be done--then that is what it will grab to reflect on itself. But it still is Emptiness/Awareness. (As a practical pointer, the mind habitually focuses on content, not the spaces between it and where its source lies. Opening into the spaces between thoughts, impressions, and  subtle sensations may allow merger of the am into the AM. Conversely,  cognition prevents opening into the spaces. Space cannot be "achieved." Nothing is there.)

Jean Klein spoke of being "totally present, clear-sighted, uninvolved and actively alert." This does not describe the dentist's behavior.

Stephen Wingate and Benjamin Libet

"When the thorn is removed from your foot you can throw them both away as neither is necessary. Saying that nothing can be done to alleviate suffering in order to remain true to the concept of non-duality makes what can be a potent tool into a sterile and lifeless religious philosophy. It sounds good when read in a book, but it becomes impractical and dead." (Wingate, The Outrageous Myths of Enlightenment)

A tool for removing the thorn is attention. It is not "free won't" as found in Libet's experiments, for acknowledgement without attachment is needed.  Thorns must not just be vetoed as they arise, they must also be seen through as mere thorns, illusions, arisings.  Eventually, when arisings are seen as illusions, attention just settles into a global awareness.

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