10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality…

Via Julian Walker
on Jun 9, 2011
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… or Portals Beyond New Age Delusion.

Pt. 2: What is Truth?

In Part One of this article, The Dance of Psyche, we discussed the pervasive presence of psychological obstacles to sane spirituality in the form of dissociation, denial, rationalization, grandiose inflation, OCD type thinking and delusional beliefs. These comprised obstacles 1 through 6.

As promised, Part Two will explore the philosophical obstacles in our current New Age zeitegist that prevent spiritual growth to what I am proposing as a possible “next stage” of contemporary intelligent integration. These four obstacles have a kind of interlocking quality and form the underlying structure of the popular New Age belief system. My sense is that through making them conscious and realizing their flaws we can embrace/encourage clearer thinking and a more grounded spirituality.

So without further ado, here are obstacles 7 through 10:

What is Truth?

7.  Extreme Relativism – Here’s the schtick: there is no such thing as objective truth, everything is merely a perspective. Reality is a made-up construct that is completely relative. We all create our own reality and it is impossible to get outside of the lens through which you have been conditioned to perceive. What is true for you may not be true for me. No-one has the right to say that anything is false or judge anyone as crazy, after all – how do we know that they are not in touch with something very real that we just can’t see?

This one is the ultimate go-to argument for people in the New Age stage of spiritual growth. Whenever you are confronted with facts, scientific research, or a well-reasoned argument, simply revert to extreme relativism. It is a kind of article of faith, an unquestionable dogma – and very tricky because it is both partially true and rooted in a very sincere intention.

In our desire to correct the oppressive, colonialist, racist narrow-mindedness of the past, white liberals have massively overcompensated and adopted a nonsensical extreme relativism that turns all ideas and beliefs into an equally valid flatland of perspectives. It became spiritually taboo to subject this flatland of mere opinions to any kind of comparative analysis or to suggest that any might be more true or false, more deep or superficial than any others.

Facts are suspicious, science is just one way of looking at things, and morality is the most amorphous, self-constructed mind game with no reference points outside of culture.

By this logic channeling aliens and E=mc2 are claims of equal value with there being no way of saying whether either is actually true. By this logic female genital mutilation is not morally wrong because who are we to judge the customs of another culture – I mean those girls and women might be happier in their context than “free” women in the oppression of our consumerist objectified rat race, right?!


General Suggestion: Come down out of the abstract swirl of relativist fluidity and recognize that you are making judgments about what is true and false all the time – recognize that in fact this whole worldview about no perspective being more true than any other is a self-contradictory sham, because it claims to be more true than it’s opposite perspective. Think about it for a second.

Its a dead-end.

Sure, it is important to learn to be less ego-centric and less caught in the conditioning of our biases, but the way forward is to look more deeply, evaluate more carefully and ask ourselves what is really true regardless of perspective, bias or conditioning. Some questions will turn out to be matters of opinion or preference, many others actually have good answers that turn out to give us invaluable information about what is true or false, healthy or pathological.

Teachers/Healers: generally the extreme relativist worldview is a way of trying to be open to new experience – but it goes too far and starts to lose the promise of depth, substance and real growth that this open-ness should be serving.

Support an experiential open-ness in the context of transformative practice, but let this be hand-in-hand with an integrated ability to use common sense, psychological honesty and intelligent inquiry about the central questions of spiritual life. The often absent discipline of critical thinking allows us to separate the plastic baubles from the true jewels – and this becomes even more necessary in the smorgasbord spiritual marketplace of multiple paths, magical claims and unscrupulous charlatanism.

8.  Pseudoscience – Here’s the schtick: Quantum physics proves that thought creates reality, haven’t you heard? The materialist paradigm has been discredited and it turns out that ancient cultures had it right. The rational enlightenment was the worst thing that ever happened to us, because it dishonored our ability to be in touch with the spirit world and manifest our magical powers.

Following the research of Masaru Emoto, I have a sticker that says “love & abundance” on my water bottle because the energy of words affects the molecular structure of water – and hey, we are mostly made of water, so by using words and intentions you can transform your body, heal any illness and manifest whatever you want in the outside world.

The ancient Egyptians and the Mayans were using sacred geometry and astrology to communicate with other worlds and predict the future. By studying the meaning of the timeline symbology of the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid  we see proof that as we approach 2012 time is speeding up in preparation for the shifting of the poles of the planet as the star portal opens and the universe enters an age of transcendent awakening.

Pseudoscience uses scientific-sounding language to lend credibility to fantastical ideas and beliefs. When it is pointed out that these claims are not actually based in sound scientific method the response is that this is part of an “old paradigm” conspiracy designed to maintain consensus reality.

In this quick two-step turn around, it is convenient to make reference to research and experiments and a “new paradigm of science,” until this is revealed to be make-believe, and then science, research and experiments suddenly become this horribly biased and oppressive limited methodology.

The New Age world view is committed to magical thinking – so whenever it appears that some new discovery in science might create a gap into which magic can be inserted, this is grabbed onto as proof of everything from psychic powers to prophecy to the magical power of intention.

But when the leaps to unrealistic beliefs, lack of evidence for what is being claimed,  and logical fallacies at play in the reasoning are pointed out this is then cast as not being intuitive enough, or emotional enough, or being too heady, closed minded, or worst of all being nonsensically characterized as a dogmatic believer in the religion of science.

General Suggestion – learn and think about the difference between dogma and well-reasoned ideas: dogma says “this is true because I say so and you cannot challenge it,” well-reasoned ideas say “this is true for the following reasons and based on the following evidence.” Similarly, become familiar with what the scientific method actually entails and what counts as evidence for a radical new breakthrough that would change everything about how we understand everything!

Also: think about the possibility that we can have a rich and deep spirituality based in embodied practice, emotional awareness and interior development without depending on fantastical beliefs that are in conflict with what we know to be true about the universe. The apparent conflict between spirituality and science is only there when spirituality makes unreasonable claims based on no evidence – and in fact it need not do so at all!

It takes what i think of as a deeper kind of faith to trust that spirituality is beautiful and meaningful enough without the kitsch of old world mythic literalism or swirly paranormal fantasy. Beyond magical thinking there is a harmonious integration of scientific and spiritual knowledge and experience. Look at the real  breakthrough studies of the Neursoscience of meditation as one beautiful example.

Teachers/Healers – keep grounding yourself and your students in the power of experiential practices that value the interior experience of awareness, sensation, emotion, metaphor, healing, creativity and personal growth.

In the real domain of spiritual practice there is a clarifying of the mind, an opening of the heart and a grounding in the body that has nothing at all to do with magical fantasies, crazy pseudoscience claims and whacky belief systems. In fact these distractions from the real work can be understood as ways of avoiding actually hunkering down and engaging the inner life and the conflict we feel about the unpredictability and unfairness of the world around us.

9) Regressive Traditionalism – Here’s the schtick: ancient teachings can connect us to the absolute truth about the nature of the universe. In ancient times we lived in harmony with the earth and in touch with the spirit world, from which we have now gotten separated. The true wisdom of shamanism, the yoga sutras and Native American ways can guide us back to living as we should and knowing our purpose on the planet.

Have you ever noticed this tendency to cast everything ancient as being automatically wise and in touch with some secret knowledge?

What gets glossed over are little details like oh – the institutionalized racism of the caste system, rigid gender roles, the oppression of women, slavery, ritual sacrifice of animals and humans,  a worldview filled with superstition based most likely on the ramblings of mentally ill prophets and seers, high infant mortality rates and having no option but to live within the often brutal and unyielding beliefs, customs and pecking order of traditional culture.

Sure: we need to take better care of the environment, our postmodern culture has lost touch with its roots, we often feel lacking in ritual and connection, the inner life has been overlooked by many in favor of a materialist obsession – but let’s not forget the gifts of science, democracy, human rights and the very kinds of freedoms that even make it possible to be engaging in practices and espousing philosophies from other cultures without being stoned to death!

General Suggestion – we can take the best of ancient and contemporary knowledge without either idealizing the old ways, or demonizing Western society. We can also look critically at ancient beliefs and place them in the context of their pre-scientific time, it’s limited notions of personal freedom and the mythic literalist underpinnings that have long since been discredited. The way forward is not to regress into a non-existent idealized utopia from our archaic past.

Teachers/Healers – resist the temptation to prop up your authority with recourse to exotic and ancient sounding texts and jargon. Yoga and meditation are worthwhile practices without reliance on tracing their lineage to a quasi-mythic source in a supposedly magical time. (This is actually part of why I use as little sanskrit as possible in my classes.) Encourage an appreciation for the progression of human knowledge and a healthy critical thinking both about contemporary ills and ancient misperceptions. We don’t have to believe every tenet of a worldview from a time before they knew better in order to experience what is powerful, beneficial and still valid today.

10) Faux Non-Dualism – Here’s the Schtick: All is one. There is only Spirit. The mind/ego creates separation with all of its opinions and stories. Let go and realize you have always already been one with the source of all that is. Stop believing in the “story” of your identity and your struggles – your negative emotions are merely the product of this erroneous perception of a limitation on your absolute freedom. You can be completely free and enlightened right now by choosing it – there is no path, no practice, no therapy, no healing, no growth necessary, just be still and know.

There is a powerful experiential state that is possible through deep and usually long term meditation practice. In this state, one experiences a sense of unity beyond subject/object distinctions. The sense of a separate egoic self dissolves and an effortlessly spacious arising of all phenomena within conscious awareness is witnessed from a place of equanimity and quiet joy. In yogic terms this meditative opening reveals that samsara and nirvana are essentially one and the same.

In other words, we see through the heroic myth of  chasing of an enlightened awareness seen as existing separate from the supposedly illusory realm of human perception.

This is a powerful moment of liberation – and for me exemplifies what is so revolutionary about yogic and Buddhist approaches, in that they offer a path beyond even the perception of a path – they are belief systems that benevolently  self-destruct at the highest levels of their development. Non-dual awareness is, I think, a waking up out of the dualistic constructs of spirit vs. flesh, God vs. the world, sacred vs. ordinary as pairs of irreconcilable opposites.

But faux non-dualism is a watered down New Age confusion of this sophisticated and profound awareness. It usually takes the form of a surface level belief dislocated from a meditative context. It is often used in the service of an unwittingly judgmental stance on suffering that will glibly tell others that their real life challenges are merely stories their mind is making up that they can simply choose to not believe. Anything that impinges upon a sense of everything being perfect happy one-ness is cast as illusory and the level of denial, rationalization and projection here is huge.

Many of the contemporary batch of supposedly enlightened non-dual teachers (or satsang leaders) are unfortunately to blame here, in that they have popularized an oversimplified version of this philosophy, and after having been through 20 or 30 years of their own meditation practice to come to the “realization” of a naturalistic always already enlightened nature, then tell their impressionable students that no practice is necessary.

Even worse are the next generation of satsang “teachers” who haven’t even had the benefit of a long term meditative journey and have taken these watered down teachings so much to heart that they decided (Hey, Presto!) they were enlightened right away!

Very often on the satsang circuit seekers stand up and take the microphone to ask very vulnerable questions about their life struggles only to be told that this is a “story” they are making up, or that they should ask “who is it that would prefer not to have a son dying of cancer?” so as to see that their sense of conditioned identity and dualistic preferences are really the problem.

For my taste the audience at these events has a little too much cultish obsession with the “enlightened” teacher, a little too much group think about the core beliefs, and a little too much blank prolonged eye contact in the hope of catching a glimpse of one another’s identity as pure consciousness. The tendency is toward a very dissociated depersonalization and a blind belief in the hall of mirrors shell-game of  “I am in on the secret of enlightenment and you are not.”

General Suggestion: Try reconciling meditative experience and spiritual philosophy with a pragmatic attitude about daily life and genuine compassion for self and other.

Teachers/Healers: People very caught up in faux non-dualism are often quite fragmented. Support them in feeling their bodies, being honest about their emotions and relating with others in satisfying and empathic ways.


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com


39 Responses to “10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality…”

  1. The very best articulation so far in this critique of the New Age. What I think is so unique about this series of articles is that you offer a coherent and integrated perspective on authentic spiritual practice. In this way you are engaging in real philosophy– where you not only analyze and critique problems in an existing system but offer real, applicable, alternatives that are fundamental in progressing a grounded and truly effective form of spiritual practice.

    Way to ADVANCE the next stage in the spiritual journey.

    I for one am profoundly grateful to have these very important ideas articulated so coherently and compassionately by a fellow yoga/meditation teacher.

  2. alivewithtony says:

    Thank you my friend, this is brilliant.

    Yet also impossible to show to people who are hiding in these arenas.

    Life does these wonderful things somedays.

  3. tanya lee markul says:

    In the real domain of spiritual practice there is a clarifying of the mind, an opening of the heart and a grounding in the body that has nothing at all to do with magical fantasies, crazy pseudoscience claims and whacky belief systems.

    Thank you so much for this!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

  4. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  5. Jenna says:

    Thank you!!!
    I have liked Tolle's trichotomy: Heal our dysfunctions, Grow our capacity to flow, Glow with what is as it is. All three arenas co-exist paradoxically: i.e. all three deserve our attention, none to the exclusion of the others.

  6. Mark Dalton says:

    Thank you! Excellent things to think about!

  7. matthew says:

    Fantastic, Julian. This is a great service.

    2 cents to add:

    "Regressive Traditionalism" might also be eased by a recognition of what archaic forms of spirituality were meant to solve. It speaks to a time in human consciousness in which possession by a god or the experience of spiritual interpenetration was a virtue, and intuitive forms of communication were the standard for truth, for instance. The last 250 years of evolution have not erased these memories. More importantly, the last 250 years have made us nostalgic for a mode of being from which we have been sharply orphaned. Somehow our therapies have to heal this trauma, as well. Chanting mantras is now, in part, a practice of singing to our former selves.

    You nailed the eye-lock power-dynamic of the faux non-dual teacher: I'll go further with it. The elephant in the Byron Katie et al room is plain old physical intimidation. She performs enlightenment on the dias, and devotees perform revelations forced by the contact-high of the group and the aesthetics of power flowing down from the stage. The experience of individual conceptual surrender in this environment is as compelling as human sacrifice once was. Who would dare to disagree with the well-amplified glowing guru who intones: "We are one — stop denying it", while her inner circle nods and says Amen? How sweet it seems to lay down and die at that moment. But then you have to get back up and deal with the wounds of dependency.

  8. Glenn Wallis says:

    Another obstacle: nostalgia.

    Here’s my take vis a vis Buddhism in America. http://speculativenonbuddhism.wordpress.com/2011/

    Please visit some time.


  9. Angelica says:

    The popularization of Eastern spiritual approaches has led to a watered down version of what often took a lifetime of practice to embody if it was ever achieved fully. The danger has come in complex concepts being boiled down to single easy to sell statements that then become filtered through and often used in support of egoic defenses as a way to avoid what is either buried on the inside or what is hard to deal with on the outside, i.e. "Its just an illusion" or the idea of detachment. I hope no one misinterprets this list as suggesting that people who swing far left in the New Age arena are somehow now being labeled mentally ill. (Part I)

  10. yogijulian says:

    yes on your analysis. not so worried about your concern.

    there is significant overlap with many spiritual beliefs and mental illness – precisely because of the probably OCD, bipolar manic or temporal lobe epileptic origin of many religious ideas.

    anyone expressing an extreme version of the list from part one – especially the delusions or OCD stuff may well be very much in need of someone guiding them toward getting a psychiatric evaluation – in fact my hope is that more mentally ill people in the spiritual community get recognized as such and get the help they need as a result of this list!

    however, of course, most people are enacting merely neurotic versions of these obstacles in ways that keep them fragmented and perpetuate using spirituality as a psychological defense. often trauma is to blame and there are PTSD and dissociative symptoms…

    the biggest problem in this regard is how many teachers, healers and even spiritually influenced therapists are actually caught in these distorted beliefs themselves and are encouraging them in their clients and students.

    i am more concerned about being careful not to perpetuate psychological defenses or crazy beliefs and the suffering they cause in the name of spirituality than in people being mistaken for being mentally ill…. someone being in need of real psychiatric care is usually pretty obvious.

    i think more people pointing out how patently ludicrous and bizarre the central tenets of the new age are is a good thing – it uplevels the conversation, deepens the inquiry and (hopefully) can move the collectively zeitgeist progressively further away from such nonsense. intelligent, integrated spirituality is just around the corner..

  11. Love this.

    Regressive traditionalism is a perfect way to phrase it. I also viewed it as historical revisionism or selective memory, but I like your term.

    Extreme/ hyper-relativism is rampant. It seems to pull the discriminative rug right out from under- common sense, rational logic, nothing penetrates. It might be the one that leaves me most flabbergasted and has in the past been the most damaging to my relationships.

    It is VERY VERY helpful to read your articulation.

  12. yogijulian says:

    very interesting question carol! i am caricaturing a little for effect – but i think the above four fallacies are central to the worldview held by most people who call themselves "spiritual."

    tellingly, it may be more prevalent amongst those of us who feel we need to be espousing a spiritual narrative, but have yet to find one with more substance to it!

  13. Robin Turner says:

    Thank you for taking all the criticisms of current spirituality that I've been making for the last twenty years and summing them up in one witty article.

  14. anna says:

    particularly appreciate your clarity on the hypocrisy of pseudoscience: piggy-backing on the perceived authority of science through scientistic language while rejecting scientific method and inquiry.

    more generally, the task for those of us on the spiritual path is to recognize these obstacles, have a good laugh at ourselves and use them a opportunities to deepen awareness and understanding. cheers!

  15. timful says:

    I don't see the great harm in all of this, other than offending your own sense of truth. It is not that I believe all claims about objective reality are equally valid; I just don't believe it is all that important. I suspect the only person who really cares a lot about the origin of the universe is the scientist who has made that his career and staked his personal pride and prestige on that question. What matters most to us is our own subjective experience. When we fall in love would you have us look for an objective understanding of that experience? To say it is just some neurotransmitters got loose in our brain? No doubt that could be a comfort when love has gone wrong. But to me, that is the greater danger, that we step outside our own experience and begin to live only in the small fraction of reality that can be shared with others through language. Instead of loving another with all our heart to wonder whether others would see her as worth all that. To stop seeing the flower because it is just "a flower" that has been seen before.

  16. yogijulian says:

    oh my goodness yes – see the flower for what it is and revel in its beauty – have a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, the cosmos, love, consciousness!

    100% with you on that attitude!

    ever wonder why so many feel the need to unnecessarily add made-up magic on top of the already magnificent nature of reality?!

    i would suggest that the more embodied we are – the more full hearted we are – the more present we are to reality the less we seek "spirituality" in plastic kitschy make-believe and fuzzy magical thinking…

  17. yogijulian says:

    also: truth actually matters a great deal. you are proposing a kind of relativist blur on this and i think that is highly problematic.

  18. yogijulian says:

    subjective opinions of beauty are a different matter than whether or not there objectively exists an all-knowing disembodied creator…no?

  19. timful says:

    Agreed, it is the former that matters more in my life. But i won't claim the latter idea is a harmless error. Too much blood has been shed based on that belief. I am with you there. Though, I do not find this urge to impose in the New Age spirituality.

  20. Elle says:

    "It takes what i think of as a deeper kind of faith to trust that spirituality is beautiful and meaningful enough without the kitsch of old world mythic literalism or swirly paranormal fantasy."

    Absolutely love this statement. There is a difference between feeling "good" and feeling honestly. Feeling honestly sometimes means feeling deep pain and accepting that there are no magic erasers. It's not easy, but it's sublime and wonderful and wholesome.

  21. […] a recent pair of articles, 10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality Part One: The Dance of the Psyche and Part Two: What is Truth? I discuss a path out of the delusional, denial-based extreme relativist version of spirituality […]

  22. tudou99 says:

    Excellent web site. A lot of useful information here. I am sending it to a number of pals ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you inside your sweat!

  23. guest says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes.
    I have always hated the idea of "waking up." It seemed to me, to be the most delusional thing in this Spirituality/New Age phase. I was heavily involved in the "Spiritual" community in my area, and yes I believed everything here. Funny enough, the "waking up" claim literally was the only thing that seemed delusional to me at the time.

    Now, I feel as though I've "woken up" from the delusional/psychosis state I was in, when following this Spirituality/New Age lifestyle. I feel crappy though, as if I have just wasted 4 years of my life.

    I also was an energy healer for that long too, and while my clients (most who did NOT follow new age beliefs) DID continually report back to me with positive experiences after sessions with me; including reports of being able to finally LIVE and not be afflicted with their incredible anxiety, and the good words from people I worked with in hospitals, as well as from complete naysayers who changed their minds afterwards.. I did perpetuate those New Age beliefs – because I believed in them.

    I feel sick to my stomach about that now. I am also dwindling down my healing practice…maybe in the future I might find a more realistic way of presenting it, but as of now, I want very little to do with any of it.

    I entered into that community after a bout of trauma and was fascinated by a community who loved me (or at least thought they did or claimed to) before I even told them my name.. that's why I was so head strong with it, but I am grateful that now I have taken off the rose colored glasses.

    But man, you really hit the nail on the head in this article…
    I just wonder how many conversations my coworkers had about me, about whether I was truly crazy or not…ha :-(

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