Spiritual Misconceptions, Truths, and Bullshit
For a while I’ve been nursing the idea of writing something on meditation misunderstandings — be it a blog or a book — since many people I know or whose work I have read have similar misunderstandings that crop up again and again (I’m looking at you, John Horgan, here and even here). However, I now think that the topic of this particular writing should be more broad. So I’m doing this blog on spiritual misconceptions (mostly), all listed and discussed below. People buying into these misconceptions, in my view, are contributing to the stockpile of pseudo-spiritual nonsense in American culture. I confine myself to American culture since it’s what I know, but some of this may apply to other Western cultures, and perhaps to some Eastern cultures.
What do I mean by spirituality? As Sam Harris has argued, spirituality is a difficult term to contend with. I don’t claim to have a perfect definition, and I’m hoping that as I address each objection below my view on spirituality will be made clearer. But I will say a few things here. First, having a sense of awe at the beauty of the universe is barely scratching the surface, and can’t properly be called spirituality, as I address in more depth below. While many of the points below are related to Eastern philosophy, I do not deny that some Western philosophies can be spiritual, including Christianity and its focus on certain types of prayer, acceptance, and grace.
I want to make it clear that I do not claim to be enlightened or even proficient at spirituality. However, I do have some experience. Intellectually, I have understood spiritual concerns for over 15 years now, having read numerous formal texts like The Lotus Sutra and more informal writings like those of Krishnamurti, Osho, and Alan Watts. My experience of spirituality, however, began about five years ago when I had a couple of tragedies in my life. These tragedies forced me to face the reality of my experience, something that reading texts on spirituality never did. As a result, I have become a fan of Advaita Vedanta and have studied with one Advaita master, Francis Lucille. For the past five years or so, I’ve been meditating regularly, sometimes sitting in a meditative state for long stretches of time (hours, evenings, days). As a result, I have recognized significant changes in the way I experience and perceive reality.
But let’s move on to the misconceptions.
My Mind is Too Distracted for Spirituality
So you’re special and different, huh? As any seasoned meditator will tell you, everyone’s mind is distracted. The second noble truth in Buddhism, in fact, predicts this aspect of human nature. So if it’s difficult for you to sit down and observe your experience without judging it, welcome to the club. All experienced meditators began here. You are not special.
In fact, to some extent the point of meditation is to face this distraction head on. If you doubt that others’ minds are distracted, or that they are as distracted as yours, consider the argument for other minds from Bertrand Russell.
I’m Afraid of Losing My “Self”
This objection comes from someone who has already accepted that the self may be an illusion, as Buddhists, Hindus, and David Hume argue. There is no center to our experience; there is only experience.
However, you might accept the truth of this on some level, but nevertheless cling to the false self out of fear. I was like this for many years. I understood intellectually that there is no self, but I refused to address this understanding in my experience. This relates to what Friedrich Nietzsche said about the death of God. Nietzsche argued that God is dead, but that people cling to the false idea of God because they are afraid to face the nothingness/nihilism inherent in a world without an intervening divine force.
There is a similar sense of nihilism that comes with losing one’s self, and I won’t pretend that it’s easy to realign your perception with the facts. But I would argue that there being no self is indeed a fact (attempts to ground the self in psychological or bodily continuity notwithstanding). I won’t spell out the arguments in detail here, but for those Western academics I suggest reading Sam Harris’ Waking Up (link above) and Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion for a deeper understanding.
I won’t deny that this is a powerful intellectual objection, but it can only be powerful if you haven’t fully paid attention to how the self manifests in your experience from second to second. The thing is, your sense of self is not going anywhere, ever; but your perceptual relationship to your self may change. Once your perception of self in your experience changes from a sense of permanence to one of arbitrariness, you may see that the thing you centered your life around for most of your life — the self — is just one of many potential centers. And it’s a damaging one! If you center your life around conscious awareness (not the same as the self), your self will likely not change, but your relationship to it will.
You might also feel, as I did, that without your sense of self you would become apathetic, which brings me to the next misunderstanding.
I Might Be Led to Apathy
Going back to the last misunderstanding, your self isn’t going anywhere. You can appreciate the illusory nature of self, or be spiritual in other ways, and still change the world. There is no incompatibility between being spiritual and being an agent of moral or political change. The Dalai Lama is the obvious example.
What will more than likely happen is that your spirituality will lead you to be more compassionate in your efforts to change things! You will likely have a deeper sense of tranquility, love, and peace in your own life, and this may have a ripple effect to those with whom you get involved. By being present, you may have a better sense of what’s really important (hint: it’s not the daily thoughts that are causing you misery that are important, but those people in your life you’ve been ignoring due to the misery caused by the daily thoughts).
All Spiritual Practices are Equally True or Equally False
Maybe you are a Christian or a Muslim, but you are quite open-minded. You believe in Jesus, or Allah, or whatever, but you see no problem with others believing in reincarnation, or Shiva, or whatever. Or maybe you are not religious at all, but you believe in a higher power. If you are in one of these camps, you might argue that there is no one true or right religion, and that all religions are true or right in their own way.
First of all, I applaud you for having this open-minded attitude that some day, potentially, might help us live in peace on this planet. However, it is still important (if one values spirituality) to make distinctions between reasonable spirituality and nonsense, arbitrary metaphysics. I am not just talking about Judeo-Christian metaphysics here. Eastern metaphysics can be just as nonsensical. When some Buddhists tell us that we will reincarnate into another being, it is most likely bullshit; just like the claim of some Christians that Jesus Christ was divine is likely bullshit. But, at the level of our experience, when Buddhists and Hindus tell us that the self is an illusion, it’s not bullshit, and can be verified in our own experience. Can you verify Jesus’ divinity in your own experience?
If you think that all spiritual practices are equally false, as many otherwise bright academics seem to, then you are also missing something. By dismissing all religions with a smug wave of your hand, you are failing to appreciate nuances between religions and even within religions, as I think I made clear with the examples above.
Being Spiritual is the Same as Being Optimistic about Everything
The Secret and its law of attraction are, by and large, examples of spiritual bullshit, or pseudo-spirituality. You cannot think of positive things and have them come to you. Even if such clairvoyance were possible, the idea of wanting things to come to you is itself a symptom of spiritual ignorance. We suffer because we assume our desires will bring us fulfillment, and here come the writers of The Secret to tell us that we can get that fulfillment by focusing on positive things.
Spirituality is not about positivity; it’s about acceptance of reality from moment to moment. Our everyday experience is not all positive. In fact, this misconception is probably one of the most damaging on this list in my view. If every time you are depressed, you reach for the Prozac or force yourself to think positive thoughts, then you’re completely missing the point. We are supposed to feel depressed sometimes, we are supposed to feel down, even to feel despair. Spirituality is about accepting the whole rigmarole, all of our experience, good and bad.
Life is a fantastic journey of positive and negative waves. Once you simply observe these waves as they go by, you are more likely to see the consciousness beneath, and to re-center your life.
I Get All the Spirituality I Need from Listening to Mozart (or Whoever)
As I said at the beginning of this post, spirituality goes beyond some sense of awe and wonder at art, or the night sky, or whatever. Spirituality is about having an interest in your growth and changes in your subjective experience, not about feeling selective senses of wonder.
I do not mean to belittle a sense of wonder, because I too have it when I listen to and play music with friends, among other things. But it’s still not synonymous with true spirituality. Spirituality requires effort and dedication.
I Meditated a Few Times and It Didn’t Do Anything for Me, What’s the Point?
Imagine that I am working out for the first time. I pick up a weight, do one arm curl, then put the weight down. Two weeks later, I go back to the gym, pick up another weight, do another curl, then put it down. I look at my still weak arm and throw my hands up in frustration. “What’s the point?” I ask. “I thought lifting weights were supposed to develop muscles! What’s the deal? My muscles aren’t bigger at all.”
Anyone who works out, or who has worked out, knows the ridiculousness of my hypothetical attitude above. It obviously takes time and effort to develop muscle. And it takes consistency. You can’t just lift a weight here and there and expect to see any changes.
It’s the same with spirituality. You can’t “life one weight” of spirituality and expect your life to change. As I mentioned in the discussion of the last misconception, it takes interest and effort.
I’m a Sophisticated Philosopher, and I Don’t Believe the Self is Illusory like Hume or The Buddha
Fine. I know there are at least some respectable arguments out there for the psychological continuity view of personal identity. But I’m guessing that if you are making this objection you are so immersed in your intellect that you haven’t appreciated the fact that people like Hume and The Buddha are talking about experience.
If we apply rational argument to our own experience, we may reach a different conclusion. In Advaita Vedanta, applying reason to one’s own thoughts and beliefs is highly valued. At the level of experience, I have yet to see a respectable argument for there being any permanent self, aside from the consistency of conscious awareness. But note that, in our experience, the self and conscious awareness are distinct. It’s the self that is the illusion, not consciousness. Consciousness is indubitable, as Descartes’ basically argued (I know, he said “thinking” but if you look at the formulation in The Meditations I would argue that he was pointing to consciousness).
The sophisticated philosopher’s objection may hang on a conflation of consciousness with the self. In fact, this conflation, in the view of Advaita, is one of the fundamental states of ignorance that we are born with that must be eradicated.