In the modern Western spiritual scene ethics and nonduality seem like strange bedfellows¹. Nondual spiritual practice is often conceived of as nonpractice, and therefore not about ethical discipline. This is because nonduality is about transcending the efforts and evaluations of the illusory separate self, and so it is frequently thought that attempting to improve the illusion of the self, to care for other illusions, or to train or consciously transform the illusion of oneself, is, well, illusion begetting illusion.
There is some truth to this perspective. Our ethical commitments are frequently much more grounded in our “self-project” than we realize. To put it differently, our ethical concerns, whether for our own behavior or directed outwards to saving or serving the world, are often woven so tight with our concern to justify, maintain, and improve our self-image that in practice we cannot easily tell the difference.
It is often wise, then, to stop the propulsion of our ethical or salvific merry-go-round rides and take a look at how we are constructing who we are. Epictetus, the great Roman stoic, advised his students: “Until you know what to desire, it is better to desire as little as possible.”
That said, this attitude can also be problematic. Attitudes, habits, and actions which have been traditionally considered “vicious” (vices), or as immoral/unethical are considered so for good reasons.
As Francis Lucille, a contemporary teacher of the “direct path” underlines, the whole purpose of the path of Advaita (nonduality) is happiness. As it happens, those behaviors traditionally seen as vices make us miserable. Are they then out of harmony with the nondual life?
The Buddha’s approach might shed some light. He taught his students to cultivate restraint not for the grandiose purpose of saving the world, and not in service to the endless struggle of at last becoming a good person, but for the purpose of “freedom from remorse.” Freedom from remorse leads to joy, and from there to the ability to meditate and contemplate reality free from obstruction (Anguttara Nikaya 10.1).
The actions the Buddha advised his students to refrain from include killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated from alcohol or…