Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?

Via Julian Walker
on May 13, 2012
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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. 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 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


38 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
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    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  2. 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. 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…..

  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.

  5. @Suri_k8 says:

    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.

  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?

  7. 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  15. Eman says:

    No matter what the ultimate truth is ,it's beyond human reasoning. It have nothing to do with believes. It's just your live experience. You harmonise it with the cosmos and you will feel spiritual peace. You don't need to understand it or search for someone to give you answers. There will never be answers. As for myself ,that feeling of spiritual peace leads to eternal acceptance of the ultimate entity.

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