Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?

Via on May 13, 2012

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Trataka.JPG

In conversations about spirituality, I often encounter the perspective that truth is entirely relative and that there is no such thing as “reality.”

Everything is simply perception. Some people also like to talk about certain proposed “absolute truths” that are beyond the mind or the material plane and have to either be accepted on faith or experienced directly during say, meditation.

While there is of course something valid and important in recognizing subjective perception and perspective, and while I value contemplative experience very deeply, I have a different perspective on “truth.”

Truth matters. It is not only of central importance in how we think and act in the world, but also a principle to strive for in our spiritual lives. But we forget this—and it is easy to see why.

Truth exists in different ways in different domains of human knowledge and experience, and this can sometimes be confusing. We can tease these domains apart, but it is important to remember that they are always aspects of an integrated whole.

For example, if I said that water was made of two parts sulfur and one part helium, anyone with a middle school science education would know that this was not true. But not all truths are reducible to the domain of scientific evidence.

Many people stop there, saying that some things are scientifically demonstrable (like the composition of water) and everything else (like the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what happens after we die) is just belief, opinion and mystery. But let’s slow that down and look more carefully.

One step removed from scientific evidence, there is also logical reasoning.

If I said:

All men are mortal. Hillary Clinton is mortal. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a man.

It should be obvious that my conclusion was not true. Now we are in the domain of reason and logic—and whether we are aware of it or not, we all practice using our capacity to reason as a way of evaluating truth.

So we have discovered that one kind of truth has to do with established scientific knowledge and another (which may rely upon, but does not require scientific evidence) has to do with reason. If a statement or belief is contrary to evidence and reason, then we should be comfortable saying it is false.

To continue: If I told you that I was writing this article from the stable of my pet unicorn, you would be quite entitled not to believe me unless I provided evidence of this highly unlikely claim.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/82/DomenichinounicornPalFarnese.jpg/512px-DomenichinounicornPalFarnese.jpgWe enter now a related domain, which has to do with how we think about what is most likely to be true. Based on what we know about the world we live in, it is unlikely enough to be almost impossible for me to have a pet unicorn. If I claimed a pet of any species that was known to exist, no matter how exotic, this would be more likely by an order of magnitude to be true. If I said I had a pet tiger you might still demand to see a photo or video of me with it, but your level of incredulity would not even come close to that for the claim of a pet unicorn.

A common mistake here would be to think that unless someone could prove that I didn’t have a pet unicorn, that we should on principle be open to the possibility. But this is impractical, and none of us actually live our lives this way. It also goes against the famous observation credited to Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In other words, if you claim something highly unusual, the burden of proof is on you to show that your claim is true, otherwise why should anyone believe that you could walk on the ceiling?

But what about art or philosophy, surely these are entirely subjective, right?

If I told you that Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” was about a family outing to the beach in the south of Spain it would not take much research to find out that this was factually incorrect. If I told you the play dealt with issues of race and power, you might read the play, as well as some respected analysis of it and come to the conclusion that this too was an incorrect interpretation.

So even with regard to something that seems ultra subjective like “meaning,” we have ways of ascertaining truth. In fact, millions of people spend many years qualifying for doctorate degrees in interpreting meaning in philosophy, literature and other fields. They may not be able to agree with one another very often—but their opinions are generally more interesting, well-informed, and contain more truth than those of high school students who have barely read the text at hand.

While not objective in the strict sense, we can all agree that there are better and worse, superficial and profound, correct and incorrect ways of interpreting art and philosophy.

So much for claims about what is true in the outside world, in logical reasoning, or when interpreting language and images—spirituality focuses to a large extent on our inner worlds, and surely here there is no such thing as objective truth, right?

Sure. But we are still on the continuum of truth. The claims are becoming less objective, but this does not mean that absolutely anything goes! It also does not mean that our interior experiences are not still related to both the objective outer world and our capacity to reason and interpret meaning—in fact, I suggest healthy, sustainable spirituality requires this level of integration.

Psychology is the study of the mind and feelings. It doesn’t get any more subjective. We know from basic psychology that all of us have ways of distorting reality in order to protect ourselves from feelings with which we would rather not deal. These defenses include denial, rationalization, dissociation, compensation -all of which are ways of not being truthful with ourselves.

We all know the phenomenon of someone who is scared but pretending to be brave. Or of someone smiling through the tears, or hardening their face and body in resistance to letting their vulnerability be visible to others and perhaps even conscious to themselves.

A good counselor can guide us into being more truthful with ourselves about how we actually feel emotionally, and help us to gain insight into what those feelings mean. A good friend can listen and empathize and reflect back what may be true within a confused tangle of events, interpretations and feelings. Feelings have meaning and have to do with our relationships and our experiences in the outside world.

Of course a good psychiatrist can also diagnose the very extreme distortions of reality or wildly inappropriate feelings that are symptoms of severe mental illness. In fact, I would suggest that the complex and nuanced relationship between our inner truths and the truths of outer reality defines the continuum we all exist along with regard to relative levels of mental health.

When it comes to psychiatry, we are also talking about the intersection of the objective science of brain function and neurochemistry with the subjective domain of consciousness, sense of self, and interpretation of meaning. Remember, it is all connected…

Now what about something even more to do with the interior domain of spirituality—say, meditation? Aren’t the experiences that individuals have while in meditation, yoga or prayer, on vision quest or under the influence of psychedelic sacraments exempt from any of the more ordinary ways of ascertaining truth?

Well, what if I told you that while meditating I realized that all of external reality was actually my dream—that you who are reading this in fact do not exist except as a figment of my imagination, and that I in fact am an immortal being who has forgotten how to wake up out of my sleep?

What if I said I was going to sell all my possessions, stop working and meditate all day long sitting in the middle of the street earnestly seeking to wake up to my true identity beyond the dream?

Would the fact that I claimed this was true based on my experience in meditation somehow make you take it more seriously than my claim to be writing this from my unicorn’s stable?

If we are being grounded, surely we should consider all claims about external reality in the same way, and test them using the same methods.

Consider that I told you the following:

While meditating I realized that the tension I often feel in my shoulder area relaxed when I got in touch with how afraid I had been about my financial situation, and that as I sat with that fear, imagining breathing compassion into it, I remembered being a small boy and feeling afraid that my parents were going to get divorced, and that after shedding a few tears I felt ready to try some new business strategies that I had been procrastinating.

Then my mind shifted into a place of extraordinary peace and self-acceptance, I felt at one with all things and it seemed I sat there for a great while, even though I saw that the whole meditation had lasted just 20 minutes when I opened my eyes.

This account of an experience in meditation not only sounds basically sane and beneficial, it also makes no extraordinary claims about external reality. Rather, it expresses an integrated relationship between my external financial struggles, some underlying emotions, and how those are held as tension in my body. It also describes a brain state of meditative absorption that in fact correlates nicely with findings from neuroscience.

Many people who have never meditated would be skeptical about these claims, but there is nothing about them that sounds crazy or out of step with everyday accounts of both objective and subjective reality.

In short, you probably would have no reason to doubt the truth of this account.

When we hold ourselves to a standard of truth across all domains of reality, spirituality can be integrated, sane and beneficial. I think we run into trouble when we buy into the idea that spiritual experiences and beliefs are beyond evidence, reason, logic, or inter-subjective analysis.

Claims of an “ultimate truth”  beyond the mind and beyond material reality are a staple of many forms of spirituality. By definition, these claims are impossible to evaluate—a feature that for many would make them meaningless. But let’s say we remain open to the possibility of these kinds of ultimate metaphysical truths existing. We would still have to be honest about the fact that if they affect anything about the world we actually live in, those effects could be evaluated.

I hope this exploration of truth as it shows up in our inner and outer lives has been thought provoking and useful. Please let me know your thoughts on the subject.

~
Editor: Brianna Bemel

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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

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37 Responses to “Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?”

  1. Hi, Julian.

    Love your remarkable essays, as always, and agree with almost everything, as usual.

    I'm not ready for another big debate like last time. But I will just gently remind you that part of truth is exactly what does happen to peoples brains when they believe deeply and perhaps even irrationally in something like prayer & faith & God?

    That's part of the larger reality of truth. It's even becoming a subject of rigorous scientific study, now that we can start to see exactly what's happening in the brain.

    I'm guessing that irrational prayer and faith will eventually prove to be something highly natural and beneficial to human emotional wellbeing, like music or art, which will at least call into question your suggestion that it's best for everyone to be rigorously rational like yourself.

    I'm all for your grand mission to use science & rationality to rid the world of the scourges of some forms of irrational thought. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Mark my words. The very science you revere will one day prove the value of irrational thought and spirituality, like praying to God in times of need. (I'm guessing the value will prove to be the same whether the God is metaphorical or real in the mind of the supplicant, but perhaps even more when it's real.)

    I know this is all a big paradox of sorts. But what good is science if it can't deal with paradox?

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      yes absolutely bob – yet what is happening in the brain should not be confused with what is happening outside the brain.

      the kinds of metaphysical claims about the world outside of our brains made based on interior experience should be looked at more carefully if we are to be honest with ourselves.

      beliefs based in special claims about absolute truths, divine revelation, holy books dictated by omnipotent beings, or intuitions about other worlds are at the heart of the struggle on the world stage – be it between religious right and secular left positions on evolution, stem cell research, abortion, gay rights (and of course the related issue of global warming, lumped in with the mistrust of science/i just wanna believe what i like attitude) on the one hand – and the islamic jihadi/rapture ready christian/holy land protecting jewish/female genital mutilating north african geopolitical nightmare.

      some forms of false belief may indeed have some benefit – but i would bet you anything replacing those false beliefs with true beliefs that serve a similar purpose or practices that provide real resources over fantasy ones will prove equally if not more beneficial.

      there is also much evidence for how false beliefs are the opposite of beneficial.

      i for one am in favor of a spirituality that strives to be in touch with what is actually true.

      the real question for me here has to do with a spirituality that can be integrated with other fields of knowledge and that can allow us to be existentially honest instead of buying into falsity to try and feel better.

      i know you don't think this it matters very much whether or not beliefs are true – i think it is of the essence, and the more truthful spirituality is the more healthy, beneficial, intelligent, integrated and sustainable it can be.

      • I'm just suggesting that you declare the enemy to be not all irrational thought, but only irrational thought that does harm. I think this would strengthen all your arguments, not weaken them.

        Many of the highly religious people I know would agree with all your examples, and agree with the dangers of some forms of irrational thought.

        But they would also be protective of their decision to believe in a real God anyway, just because it greatly enhances their lives to believe in something. Some of them tell me it just makes them feel divine and whole, in the very same way listening to Mozart does for me.

        Bob

        • __MikeG__ says:

          Don't buy it. Just because irrational thought sometime results in positive outcomes does not mean that irrational thought is a process than should be encouraged and applauded. When I pray to invisible pink unicorns to help an ambulance reach the ER sooner does not mean that is a system which should be encouraged. Even if the ambulance did reach the ER in time.

          More often irrational thought results in horrible outcomes. IMO, a better solution would be reality based systems implemented for the common good. Why add the magical being to the equation?

          Do the highly religious people you know posses any more than the slightest fraction of religiosity, faith and strength of belief of any suicide bomber? Suicide bombers are only being protective of their decision to believe in a real God because it enhances their lives (and deaths) to believe in something. The suicide bomber feels divine and whole right up to the moment they commit mass murder. I'd argue that it does the world no more good to believe in a god of kittens and puppy dogs than it does to believe in a god of vengeance.

    • Thaddeus Haas Thaddeus1 says:

      Hey Bob…

      I really like your point that "The very science you revere will one day prove the value of irrational thought and spirituality, like praying to God in times of need."

      Just for the record, I not interested in getting into the whole issue regarding whether or not such things as prayer and belief in God are "irrational" since this is a huge discussion and one which usually involves a lot of question begging, but I think you raise a really interesting point about the functioning of science; a point which is actually important in differentiating a follower of science from an adherent to "scientism" (which is a term I use for anyone who holds to an unrealistic, overly strict and limiting definition of science, also sometimes labeled a "scientific materialist.")

      Scientists are quick to point out, as Dr. Hagins does in the article I just edited that "it’s important to note that it wasn’t that long ago when radio waves and germs were unmeasureable and thought to be non-existent like koshas are now. These are deep philosophical waters, and perhaps beyond my pay grade, but it really boils down to how each individual encounters reality and what they require for proof about reality. Many scientists would be willing to say right now that a sufficiently reasonable case has been made that koshas don’t exist due to the absence of any existing measures. But no legitimate scientist can say that we have absolute proof that they don’t exist."

      Science is a very powerful way of knowing, but it is just one way of knowing and not one which one should automatically assume provides the only and unequivocal access to reality. Adherents of "scientism" often overlook the fact that absence, or lack, of evidence cannot actually be used as evidence in and of itself. If this were the case then the entire scientific enterprise could never actually get off the ground.

      For as you and Dr. Hagins point out, there was time not that long ago when there was no evidence for the existence of things like germs. If scientists were to claim that prior to that point in time it was "irrational" to believe in germs, then some of the greatest scientific minds in history would fall under the category of "holding irrational beliefs."

      For me, and I think for you, the issue is summed up very nicely by Matthew Champoux's latest piece on elephant where he asks, "It is also worth asking: Is this experience making me a better person? Am I more able to be present with my friends and family? Am I kinder? Am I a better person at my day job? Do I get less road raged? Am I a better father/mother/husband/wife as a result of all this…"?

  2. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    3) you say : "I'm all for your grand mission to use science & rationality to rid the world of the scourges of some forms of irrational thought."

    but i do not have any project to rid the world of anything – rather to inject into the zeitgeist the possibility of a next stage of development that moves beyond the need to believe untrue things…

    you say: "But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. "

    i would answer every single one of my essays is about discovering the difference between baby and bathwater. there is nothing in my work that is not about encouraging an embrace of the real baby! i would respond that if you think the baby i am throwing out is magical thinking, mythic literalism or superstitious beliefs that you may in fact be mistaking the dirt and effluvia in the bathwater for the baby itself!

  3. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    i hear your point on what does harm. my position is that belief in untrue spiritual metaphysics serves a psychologically defensive role and that doing the work necessary to no longer need such illusions is one of the central tasks of integrated spirituality. for me it defines a next level of freedom and integrated honesty.

    for those interested in or on the verge of being interested in such work i offer a perspective that may be useful or interesting – for those who are not interested in such an examination i probably have nothing to say, which is fine.

    i think it is interesting that we see certain plainly untrue beliefs (or beliefs in gods from other times or cultures) as a sign of mental illness and yet belief in equally improbable things that happen to fit our zeitgeist as "harmless."

    do you not wonder sometimes how otherwise brilliant, educated and cultured people can believe ludicrous things?

    mozart stirs my being too – but i do not attribute this to anything supernatural. :)

    bear in mind PLEASE: i am not talking about enforcing anything on anyone or suggesting that irrational beliefs should be illegal – just that people interested in intelligent spirituality begin being more honest about the difference between grounded, integrated, sustainable spirituality and that which by definition cannot be integrated with science, psychology, reason or existential honesty.

    do you not see a difference?

    remember i am speaking *philosophically* here NOT IN ANY WAY about going around trying to convince your nice smart kind religious friends to give up their security blankets. we can agree on the irrationality of their beliefs and engage in honest conversation about it with those willing to do so without being rude or insensitive to them personally.

    in the long run i think we can also start to move away from the culture of "respecting beliefs" with kid gloves just (and actually precisely) because they happen to have some irrational components.

    in several previous posts and comments i have pointed out the litany of negative effects in the world of equating spirituality with unreasonable beliefs. a short list includes the people dead and man in jail because of belief in ideas made popular by "the secret," the many dead in bizarre group suicides and "righteous" killings around religious cults, the millions duped, billions of dollars amassed and legacy of child molestation left by magician god man sai baba, the many problems of the catholic church and other faiths around jihad, inquisition, terrorism, sectarian violence, abuse of women and children and homosexuals etc…

    simple question: if more people were taught critical thinking and respect for evidence, as well as a better grasp of metaphorical thinking along with their spirituality, would it not perhaps eliminate these kinds of travesties – all of which are based in acting in the real world (with real world consequences) on wildly irrational beliefs for psychological reasons?

    and to perhaps pre-empt you here – i think this kind of critical thinking would also better immunize people against totalitarian power structures in many ways similar to religion in their irrational zeal!

    my larger argument is that it PRECISELY the split between reason and faith that is the problem here and that we can have a thoroughly reasonable belief system about the reality we actually inhabit WHILE embracing spiritual practice, poetry, emotional depth, meaning, art etc…..

    • A great many religious people I know don't define "God" as anything supernatural in the least.

      God is unknown and perhaps even unknowable by humans, just like quantum physics used to be unknown, but not supernatural in the least.

      And since we can't know God, we can only react with wonder, enjoyment, and a commitment to goodness & love, just like you are committed to goodness and love. I can't explain why I feel divine when I listen to Mozart, but I'm not going to try to talk myself out of it by saying it doesn't make any sense, really.

      The fact is God and religion mean a wide range of things to a wide range of people, many of which are quite compatible with science and actually quite like everything you write.

      Some of us would like to see you deepen your already wonderful articles with an acknowledgement of the range and subtlety of religion and spirituality and concepts of God, and get away from the blanket supernatural stereotype.

      Based on some common definitions of God, you believe in God yourself, because you clearly believe in goodness and love, which is all a great many religious people mean when they say they believe in God.

      Bob W. Associate Publisher
      facebook, twitter, linkedIn
      Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

      • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

        bob, we covered this last time.

        i also asked you last time not to confuse my reverence for ethics, beauty, reason, love etc with a belief in god as this is not true.

        i hear that you (and apparently others who you are referring to indirectly to lend weight to your argument) think i am being unfairly narrow in this regard. i do not agree.

        the percentage of people who believe in god that do not subscribe to the conventional definition of a supernatural being who exists independent of the material world, created it and has dictated how we should live to please him in holy books is tiny.

        it would be a kind of precious political correctness to try and ensure in every utterance of mine about religion or god to make sure i did not say anything that might offend the less than 1% of people who use the word "god" that don't mean what the dictionary defines it as, or similarly with "religion."

        i feel you are splitting hairs with me over this and missing the larger point i am making.

        to my dismay i note that the vast majority of people who call themselves spiritual or religious are explicitly referring to supernatural faith, magical thinking etc….

        i used to be very enamored of mysticism of the sense of "mystery" as somehow being necessary to spiritual life. personally i no longer find it necessary, useful or honest. at a certain point for me i came to see it was the last vestige of a need to believe in something that would protect me from facing facts:

        we are biological organisms living on a planet going a round a sun that will one day burn out on the edge of a galaxy in a massive universe that as far as we can tell is not itself sentient, purposeful or the repository of any of our yearning for eternal life, transcendence or metaphysical meaning.

        that we happen to be extraordinary organisms that have developed complex self-reflexive awareness and the capacity for symbolic thought, art, compassion, reason and everything else that makes us quite magnificent and that makes a life lived in contemplation and mindfulness and seeking to understand deeply and honestly worthwhile does not change these facts.

        • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

          i also want to point out a few things, bob.

          i really, really appreciate and enjoy you – i find you warm, smart, supportive and even keeled.

          i even enjoy these exchanges where you seek to challenge me and point out my blind-spots.

          at the same time this time and last time you have engaged in some pretty unfair argument tactics that have felt beneath you.

          you have indirectly compared what i am proposing to nazi germany (always a bad sign.)

          you have referenced einstein and then broken down our disagreement over the definition of religion to a "simple question" – namely, was i disagreeing with einstein. (quite a checkmate move!)

          you have tried to tell me a couple times now after i have asked you not to and have explained in detail why i do not equate ethics, values, reason etc to god, that my reverence for them are actually a "god " that i believe in.

          you have now indirectly referred to "others" who share your view as a way to lend weight to your point.

          none of these feel particularly like fair tactics – please don't continue.

          i understand that you feel i am missing something important and that you generally agree with everything else i am saying and appreciate my pieces – i thank you for your input and it will of course affect my thinking.

          i understand that you feel i am missing an opportunity to be more inclusive because many do not fit the "supernatural stereotype" – i hope you are right, i used to think this was the case and used the word 'god" for years in the way you are suggesting. at some point it began to feel dishonest and i began to see that a joseph campbell-esque, truly archetypal, metaphorical use of the word was exceedingly rare and the spiritual zeitgeist is largely ruled by pretty naive (albeit dressed up in pop culture "quantum mysticism" concepts) literal thinking in this regard.

          if i have offended you personally because you like to use the terms "god" and "religion" in another way i apologize – but i stand by the assertion that the huge majority defines them in the conventional way.
          http://www.thefreedictionary.com/god

          1. God
          a. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions.
          b. The force, effect, or a manifestation or aspect of this being.
          2. A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people, especially a male deity thought to control some part of nature or reality.
          3. An image of a supernatural being; an idol.
          http://www.thefreedictionary.com/religion

          re·li·gion (r-ljn)
          n.
          1.
          a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
          b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

          • My dear esteemed Julian.

            Here is a slightly more nuanced definition of God than the one you have found in The Free Dictionary:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God

            Thanks for the interesting debate.

            Bob W. Associate Publisher
            facebook, twitter, linkedIn
            Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

          • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

            bob, thanks for the wiki page on god – i wonder how much of it you read?

            the first paragraph says:

            "God is either the sole deity in monotheism or the monist deity in polytheism.[1] God is most often conceived of as the supernatural creator and overseer of the universe. Theologians have ascribed a variety of attributes to the many different conceptions of God. The most common among these include omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence."

            from the second paragraph:

            "God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, the source of all moral obligation, and the "greatest conceivable existent".

            from the section on theism:

            "Theism generally holds that God exists realistically, objectively, and independently of human thought; that God created and sustains everything; that God is omnipotent and eternal; personal and interacting with the universe through for example religious experience and the prayers of humans.[19] It holds that God is both transcendent and immanent; thus, God is simultaneously infinite and in some way present in the affairs of the world.[20] Not all theists subscribe to all the above propositions, but usually a fair number of them.."

            from the section on theological approaches:

            "Most major religions hold God not as a metaphor, but a being that influences our day-to-day existences. Many believers allow for the existence of other, less powerful spiritual beings, and give them names such as angels, saints, djinni, demons, and devas"

            from the section on anthropomorphism:

            "Pascal Boyer argues that while there is a wide array of supernatural concepts found around the world, in general, supernatural beings tend to behave much like people. The construction of gods and spirits like persons is one of the best known traits of religion….

            Likewise, Émile Durkheim was one of the earliest to suggest that gods represent an extension of human social life to include supernatural beings. In line with this reasoning, psychologist Matt Rossano contends that when humans began living in larger groups, they may have created gods as a means of enforcing morality. In small groups, morality can be enforced by social forces such as gossip or reputation. However, it is much harder to enforce morality using social forces in much larger groups. Rossano indicates that by including ever-watchful gods and spirits, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups."

            i shall use this wonderful resource to make my point and refute yours in a further comment – oh, wait…… you already did that for me.

      • Shyam Dodge Shyam Dodge says:

        Bob, I completely understand the argument for meaning and numinous experience, and think it is not only important but vital to any discussion regarding spirituality.

        Being capable of seeing how others might be constructing meaning out of their lives is not only vital to progress but also a meaningful spiritual pursuit in itself.

        But attending this is also a need for real dialog, beyond the psychoanalytic and the descriptive, we must also find a way to talk meaningfully and productively about ethics and aesthetics (re your comment: " wonder, enjoyment, and a commitment to goodness & love").

        This conversation requires that we have basic criteria for dialog, without which there would be no possibility for communication.

        Not to be overly pedantic, or give anyone a history/philosophy lesson, but a glance at the meaning of prejudice in relationship to dialog might be helpful here:

        Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based upon reason or experience. While dialogu is the evaluation of truth claims based upon the criteria of reason and experience. The only true weapon against prejudice is discernment and often critique. Being capable of sifting through the mire of untruth and prejudice to get at those things that are true and valuable requires the rapier of discernment.

        It is the prejudice of "all ideologies point to the same truth" that actually kills dialog and opens the door for unreason, dogma, and fundamentalism to hold equal footing with valid truth claims. This culture of "be nice and don't point out untruth" is actually the opposite of compassion for it subtly reinforces a prejudice that is not based in reason or experience, and thereby enables vast inaccuracies and fallacious philosophies to be perpetuated as if they were true and valid. This then makes the discernment of real valid claims impossible to decipher, because real dialog has been murdered at the hands of pseudo-compassion.

        This pseudo-compassion destroys the possibility for real ethics. And ethical intelligence is really at the heart of what is wrong in the world right now. This ethical blindness has its root in the death of real, passionate, and co-passionate, dialogue. The kind of dialog that is brave enough and compassionate enough to critique untruths. And why you ask? Because we need real assessments of the actual problems in the world and then real solutions.

        Irrational beliefs cannot, in this regard, hold the same footing in intellectual discourse as more reasonable claims. God, therefore, must be held to the same rigorous analysis, that is, if we truly care about ethics.

        There is a difference Bob, between creating a respectful descriptive account of an individual's meaning making (such as their religious beliefs) and the public discussion of ethics and philosophy. One is purely descriptive of a person's beliefs, the other is assessing the validity of truth claims themselves. Understanding the difference is at the heart of an integrated spiritual philosophy.

  4. ilona says:

    "yet what is happening in the brain should not be confused with what is happening outside the brain."

    Hmm. I was raised by rational, analytical scientist parents, requiring proof for everything, and once upon a time would have been inclined to share this view. Yet, how to explain that my brain feels calmer and clearer in nature, that my thinking improves in an uncluttered environment and gets bungled when I'm surrounded by disorder? How to explain that I feel like a different person when I speak a foreign language or travel overseas? Some of us, and maybe you are not one of them, are quite sensitive and porous; what is outside is also inside, and vice versa. That's my experience, proven to myself over and over again, but unlikely to be replicated in a laboratory.

    While I agree that certain spiritual beliefs have had dangerous and horrible consequences (the examples you cite), what about the documented successes of 12 step programs, part of which involves surrendering to a higher power, whether you call it God, the Universe, etc? To call a belief in a higher power or greater intelligence a "security blanket" is rather dismissive and diminishes the rest of your argument.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      nature, clutter and everything else in your environment and experience are impacting your brain. what is hard to explain about this?

      in fact i think this would be pretty easy to demonstrate in a laboratory! there is nothing that outlandish about your claim at all…

      i think to not call belief in an invisible friend a security blanket would be dishonest of me. i am curious why you think it diminishes the rest of my argument.

      god/higher power is make believe – a psychological way of feeling there is some parental presence taking care of you…. it is the logical extension of 'security blanket" writ large :)

  5. @Suri_k8 says:

    @ilona
    All these subjective , positive /negative experiences that you are describing can only happen , and are only possible if you have a healthy , well functioning brain , as simple as that ….perception , is brain dependent .

    You cant work your way around that …you ignore how the brain works therefore you think all these subjective experiences come from a special place…they dont .

    There is a difference between surrendering to a higher power and thinking you are surrendering to a higher power the later is true for all believers…. They think or believe god/gods exist but thinking and belief are mental functions and cant exist apart from the brain.

    • ilona says:

      I'm not sure how you conclude that I am ignoring how the brain (that I have) works. My point is that, in my experience (and maybe not yours) is that I'm in constant exchange with my environment, so there isn't a firewall between what is happening in my brain and outside of it. This fluidity that I experience, and maybe others do not, has nothing to do with a belief system. It is simply what I have observed most of my life.

      • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

        yes agreed there is not a firewall between what is happening in the environment and what is happening in your brain!

        thanks for clarifying ilona…

        the environment absolutely affects your brain – but your brain does not affect your environment (unless you take physical action.)

        the environment may also evoke an interior experience of great imaginative depth or emotional revery, but imagining a supernatural being inside one's mind does not add up to such a being existing outside of your mind, and that is the point of the statement you quoted back to begin this discussion.

        similarly being able it imagine a dinosaur eating the empire state building, or a dream lover who looks like your favorite movie star seducing you may create a fairly compelling experience, even though nothing has actually happened outside of your own inner world.

        for some reason this distinction is not obvious to many people!

        in fact – some research (by dr. michael persinger) suggests that unusual electromagnetic fields may affect the temporal lobes on people with sensitive brains, creating a strong sense of invisible presences, alines, god, ghosts etc… this of course does not mean these things are 'really there" rather that the brain thinks they are when stimulated in a certain way – much the same is one may hallucinate on certain drugs or while under the affects of brain injury or mental illness.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      agreed suri.

  6. @Suri_k8 says:

    Hi julian
    First of all let me start by saying that I totally agree with you …i think too that we are biological organisms that live in a planet that ……..all that … I also agree with what you say about being honest and that the more we get rid of delusion and irrationality the more we will understand human nature and the natural world …and that the more we know human nature the more space there is for improvment and personal transformation …i agree with all that too…

    But , in analizing your stories i have noticed that you usually refer to this process of self improvement as spiritual integration or integrated spirituality …now i know there might not be any other words to describe this process of simultaneaous self improvement and enjoyment but nevertheless dont you think that in order to change perceptions and get rid of magical thinking and all that stuff , dont you think that the first step should be to stop using the word spirituality?? the word spirituality somewhat affirms and is still related to spirit , most people percive spirit as this imaginary entity within us , an entity which if we are in the same channel , we both know is of the same nature as god …meaning imaginary ….

    I dont know if you are still using that term in order to give people some idea of what you are talking about or if it is because in some way you might still feel some atachment to it ….but Im guessing that that is one of the reasons why people (maybe Bob, as an example) might get confused and feel tempted to insistently"smuggle"god into the conversation ……

    What do you think , this is the only but I have about your argument , I keep wondering why you still call it spirituality, is it necessary ? Would it be a bad thing to not call it that ? Isnt it more honest to call it something else?

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      i totally hear you suri and it is a fair question.

      i think spirituality refers to inner work, self-development, a commitment to truth, beauty and goodness. many philosophers and artists are spiritual without believing in anything supernatural. the buddha himself and many schools of indian spiritual philosophy are explicitly atheistic.

      yeah it is a confusing word – which is why i tend to use it in ways like "integrated, contemporary, sustainable spirituality"

      i think spirituality has evolved over the centuries, and like everything else, including science, in the past it was filled with superstition and supernaturalism…..

      my point is that people think that in order to have a meaningful life, do inner work, feel a sense of beauty and live a contemplative life they need to revert to outdated supernatural beliefs.

      yet we can have all of the benefits of a spiritual life (meaning inner work, meaning, beauty, cultivating compassion, insight etc) without superstitious beliefs.

      this is the kind of work i do wit people day in and day out in my classes, workshops, retreats, private sessions, using dance, yoga, meditation, bodywork, philosophy and it is deep and rich and beautiful.

      the title of my book will be the embodied sacred: spirituality beyond superstition, and it will explore exactly this redefinition and show how it is an inevitable evolution, while also showing how the roots of earlier religious/spiritual beliefs lay in mistaken perceptions, evolutionary spandrels, existential coping mechanisms etc…

      human beings need spirituality – but we can make it healthier, saner and more integrated with contemporary knowledge – and in fact this makes it richer, deeper and more sustainable!

  7. Jack Weber Jack says:

    Thanks for the good article and provocative discussion!

    As children we are naive and perceive our parents as god. As adults, we are childish and invent a god. At least a child doesn't know any better. Therefore, many adults are simply spiritually lazy and inappropriately juvenile in thier pursuit of meaning and belonging.

    • Denis says:

      That's not naive Jack, parents are god to us no? Someone who keeps you alive, isn't he naturally god like to you?
      It is happening at least at some point to every hopeless infant and you can't help not to think about them that way.
      Also there is no meaning – if you're referring to the meaning of life – if there was a meaning, one day someone would figure it out and it would be over no? There is no meaning to life.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    "but i do not have any project to rid the world of anything – rather to inject into the zeitgeist the possibility of a next stage of development that moves beyond the need to believe untrue things…" This statement of yours is interesting. I understand what you are saying and I find it egocentric. I think you would have to agree. It is as if your sense, yogijulian, of what is true or not true is the standard for a new "stage of development", I am assuming consciousness or spiritual development, which will be based on an evolutionary spiritual paradigm. It would not be evolution if you are the one dealing the cards of your choice. It would be Julian's world. I know, I hope, that this is not what you meant to say but certainly it leaves one to wonder if this is what you meant.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      i am saying merely that as a thinker and writer i a seeking to inject an idea into the zeitgeist about how an integrated contemporary spirituality can be created.

      it is of course my opinion and any time anyone writes something down it is their opinion.

      i happen to have a critique of fragmented, ungrounded, psychologically and existentially dishonest spirituality – as well as a sense of how spirituality can be healthier.

      call that egocentric if you will – it happens to be something i find meaningful.

  9. Denis says:

    Thanks for sharing Julian! That was really insightful and I appreciate for going all out, thanks to the elefeantjournal for publishing as well!

    There is only one objection I'd like to erect. I don't find using therms such as "Ultimate Truth" or "Absolute Truth" or "Inner Truth" or "Outer Truth" correct. How can there be so many different truths? Truth can be only one isn't it? Everything else is just a part of it.

    Now what is the truth, and where can we find it? How and where can we experience it? Only within, and that's why meditation. Let's forget about the truth right now and look at what we have, what we are – humans. Who are we? Who am I? What keeps me alive right now? How is it that I live right now? What is the energy that keeps my body going, and above all where to hell is my consciousness coming from? Because it is not my bloody doing that I am conscious right now, so what's the source of it? Apparently it's coming from within no? That's why meditation.
    All that I just said above is so fundamental and so simple, very easy to be missed and never looked at even once in one's life time.

    The fact is that Hillary is a woman. But the truth is that Hillary Clinton is both! Just because she has a female body doesn't mean that her father did not contribute in her, she is both with tiny twist towards the feminine.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      i am saying that claims of "ultimate" introspective truths that are seen as superior to empirical claims about the universe and the nature of being human are deeply problematic and central to many forms of spirituality.

  10. [...] What appears to be reality is not ultimate truth. [...]

  11. Shanna says:

    Thanks for the post Julian! Truth is a touchy subject for some especially since we are really starting to prove that our reality is subject to our beliefs and that the observer is really the creator or at least huge influencer. How can we take out that and really know the ultimate truths? So many things we have collectively agreed upon as a world, culture, society and thus does that make it truth then? I still search for ultimate truths and ultimate meanings to things and I am sure I will be searching my whole life – which is probably because I affect all the outcomes or truths that I find. Kind of convoluted but keeps me dreaming :)

  12. [...] lost in religious fantasy, new-age spiritual nonsense, or simply shut down by hurt. Relatively recent advances in science, philosophy, and reason have done a lot to separate fact from religious and spiritual fiction. But simply knowing objective [...]

  13. [...] I’ve been reading articles from those who seem to be a part of a (fairly) new demographic. The demographic (another group the GOP knows nothing about): middle to upper-middle class people who have been quietly and not so quietly engaged with the self-help and new-age spirituality movement. [...]

  14. elicia says:

    Nicely written article Julian.

    As commenter Shanna pointed out: how do we determine truth? How many people must perceive something in order for it to be an official truth? Who gets to decide the method of checking truthfulness? Who gets to decide what claims are "extraordinary"? For example, most people in the world, those who have not been indoctrinated by a certain system of "truth", know perfectly well that sometimes, we can perceive when someone is staring at us. It is not extraordinary at all.

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