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Shortcomings of Spiritual Paths

 

Understanding a spiritual teacher, a spiritual philosophy or a popular spiritual idea can be difficult.  It helps to understand the tradition the teacher or idea develops from as well as the underlying assumptions about the nature of reality.   These essays try to put spiritual teachers and ideas in their context as well as evaluate them.  

         I have spent the last thirty five years following my spiritual path.  One thing I have learnt in those years is the necessity of getting it right. If you get a divine intuition, you had better follow it. If you are offered an opportunity by a significant connection or are called to your next significant activity, you have to do it well. Otherwise you can wander off your spiritual path and end up lost, wondering where you have gone wrong. It is even more critical for our society to get it right as otherwise we could all end up in an environmental disaster.

In the last twenty or so years, alternative spirituality has become popular. Atheists and skeptics usually just outrightly dismiss these spiritual teachings.  On the other hand, New Agers often seem to accept all spiritual teachings as equally wonderful.  That does not seem a good strategy. Although many teachers claim that all their teachings are based on pure experience that does not seem to be true. Spiritual teachings are almost always based partially on a person’s worldview and some worldviews are better than others as they help us to live more spiritually and will help our civilization survive.

I have found that critical reflection has helped me to live more spiritually as it helps to separate what is true from my wishes and desires. When I read many spiritual teachings from popular teachers, I see an inability to separate real spiritual experiences from things people want to be true or think are true because they have heard them often. Even worse, the non-traditional spiritual community fosters this lack of discernment because it often encourages an atmosphere that disdains critical reflection and questioning. The community says that if something feels true, it is true or it is true for that person.

Trying to be spiritual is a serious matter, both for ourselves and our civilization. We have to get it right. That means we have to separate our real spiritual experiences from wishful thinking and our worldview has to be consistent. I have no desire to belittle real spiritual experiences as they are wonderful things. What I do want to do in this site is to try to separate real spiritual experiences from the things added on to them that mislead people from living in a spiritual way. The goal is to help people so that they can live more spiritually in the modern world and more easily discuss their spiritual life with other people. This approach assumes that using our minds and our critical abilities is not harmful to being spiritual, but can actually help people live more spiritually.

 

A very common saying among spiritual people is that there are many paths up the mountaintop.  This means that all spiritual paths have the same goal of connecting to the Ultimate Reality, whether that reality is described by the words God, the Tao, Buddha Mind, Allah or the Universal Oneness. The different paths use different words to describe their religion and the higher power, but the commonalities are much more important than their superficial differences. 

 

An important part of this idea is that everyone has her own path and she should choose the right one for her.  She can tell her path by it feeling right in her heart.  Another implication of this idea is that comparing paths or criticizing them is inappropriate as different paths are right for different people and there is no universal standard to compare them to.

 

The idea that all paths lead to the mountaintop seemed obvious to me when I was in college.  Thirty years later it does not seem so obvious, in fact it no longer seems true.  Let me tell you why.

 

The first problem is that not all the paths seem to be going up the same mountain.  They sometimes seem not to be even remotely similar mountains.  For example, let us look at two spiritual paths, both which say the goal is for the individual to stop thinking of herself as a separate being and realize that she is one with ultimate reality.  On one hand we have traditional Buddhism as portrayed by the Buddhist scriptures.  The scriptures advocate quite extreme asceticism, or a disciplining of the body and its desires.  They say people who want enlightenment should not play games or watch waterfalls as sense pleasures are the realm of the devil (Mara).  On the other hand, there are the advocates of New Thought such as Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, Rhonda Byrne  and Wayne Dyer.  These people agree with the Buddhists that the goal is to realize our deep connection with the Oneness, but they emphasize getting all your desires satisfied.  They say that if you want abundance and visualize it correctly, you can have anything you want without limitations.  God does not want anything from you except to give you things and She is patiently waiting for you to make your demands on her. 

            These are not random examples, the early Buddhists are representatives of asceticism, which so many spiritual traditions advocate: early Christians, Taoists, Sufis, Jains, and much of yoga.  New Thought is a reaction to that kind of asceticism.  They both talk of getting beyond identification with the individual ego to an identification with the Oneness.  Nevertheless the Oneness is described in such different ways and the people live such different lives in the world, that it seems unrealistic to say they are going up the same mountain.

          The second problem is that the phrase sets up a framework which says the only significant function of spirituality is individual spiritual advancement and nothing else matters. So it focuses on the individual point of view of the person trying to get closer to God and neglects the social point of view where these paths differ tremendously. In contemplative mysticism the goal is to meditate and experience oneness with the Ultimate Reality.  This is the mysticism most people associate with highest states of consciousness. Active mysticism, on the other hand, is the path that says people get voices, messages and intuitions from God telling them to do things in the world.  Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joan of Arc are examples of this type of mysticism.  From an individual point of view, where the touchstone is closer oneness with God, there is no criterion of comparison or contemplative mysticism is better.  But from a social point of view, active mysticism is signicantly better and should be lauded as the best kind of mysticism as it leads to a better society.

 

            This leads to the third problem: this idea sets up a framework where it implicitly says all spiritual paths are equal from an outsider’s viewpoint so it is not okay to judge them.  People follow whichever path is right for them, and so who are we to judge their path?  While this tolerance is laudable compared to saying there is only one true spiritual path, this tolerance also sets up a culture which does not value the use of reasoning or critical reflection on spiritual paths and their relative merits.  This leads to a dumbing down of the culture.  In the seventies and eighties, the most creative and intelligent people I knew would happily say they were part of the New Age movement.  But in the late eighties when Shirley MacLaine and the Harmonic Convergence became the popular face of the movement, many of these people denied being part of the movement as it had connotations of  non-reflective, shallow spirituality.  But if all spiritual paths lead to the mountaintop, then there is no emphasis in the culture on critical reflection and seriousness.  This leads to a negative downward cycle where the best people are driven out of the movement and it progressively becomes dominated by shallower and shallower people and ideas.

 

            When I reflect on why I no longer believe many paths lead up the same mountaintop, I see myself talking to the younger version of myself who believed this idea 35 years ago.  What would he think if he heard my reservations?  Would he understand them or would he continue to believe in the idea?  I usually decide he would not listen to me because the idea rings so true to him.  The younger me believes that if something feels deeply true and right, it must be true.  Now I trust that feeling on things involving my personal spiritual path and relationships, but not on other matters where more knowledge could affect my opinion.  While so many spiritual teachers say to trust feelings that ring true, I now see the other side where that feeling has often misled me because I just did not know enough things to have an intelligent informed judgment.  In fact I now think it was the arrogance of youth to trust this feeling in this instance.   It is not polite to say it, but I also wonder if it is arrogance on other people’s parts to say all paths lead up to the same mountain top if they say it without knowing much about other religions or spiritual paths.

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