Religion, Dharma, Yoga, Science, Spirituality. What’s the difference?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Jan 18, 2012
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Shiva's Dance


The word religion comes from the Latin “religare,” which means to unite again with the Source, or with God. In other words, the word religion means much the same as the word yoga, which in its tantric definition means to unite, to become one with.

Throughout history saints from various religions have described their ecstatic experience of God-intoxication as gnosis, samadhi or satori. Religion in its truest sense is thus a path, which, if practiced diligently, eventually leads to the experience of unity with God, Spirit, Allah.

In its truest, deepest essence, religion is the same as spirituality.

But that’s not always the case. Religion has also been one of the most divisive and bloody forces on the planet—the source of many despicable dogmas and irrational creeds we sure (as hell!) can live without. Just think witch burnings and gay hating and no-other-Gods-but-mine hating!\But let’s get back to the deeper meaning of religion. In Sanskrit, the ancient concept of yoga means to become “one with paramatman, one with the cosmic soul.” In so many words, when our individual soul experiences oneness with the cosmic soul.

Thus, at the heart of every authentic religion lies an understanding that there is an all-pervasive state of reality–God, Brahma, Tao—and that this reality can be experienced within through the practice of yoga, meditation, prayer, chanting.


“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Luke 17.21

As comparative religious scholar Huston Smith has explained, each religion embraces the Great Chain of Being. According to this view, humans throughout history have viewed reality as a hierarchy of levels–from matter to body to mind to spirit. All these levels are ultimately enfolded by the Source, the Ground of being, by God, Consciousness, or Spirit.

But unfortunately religion is not always the same as spirituality. Religion has often kept people away from the experience of spirituality.

 “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

—Ten Commandments

A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.
A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven.
A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.

—The Laws of Manu, Chapter 5 verse 156-161, Dharamshastras (Sacred Hindu text)

While the originators of religion may have experienced a deep sense of union with Universal Consciousness, and also subscribed to the near universal belief in the Great Chain of Being. The same religions, which generally were established years after the founders died, are nevertheless riddled with myths and dogmas. That is, religions are often the opposite of spirituality.

The Hindu Vedas, for example, contain some of humanity’s most ancient and sublime spiritual revelations, but Hinduism is also full of dogmatic injunctions (such as the caste system) which serve to separate and discriminate rather than unite and embrace people. Hinduism is also full of irrational myths:  a dip in the sacred Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) will bring you to heaven when you die.  And other such fundamentalist nonsense!

And there are still plenty of fundamentalist followers of Christianity who believe in such irrational hogwash as the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and that creation was consummated in only six days.

No wonder the exponents of science and rationality revolted against such illogical doctrines. That said, scientific rationalism has failed miserably in its critique of the innermost spiritual truths of religion, in its critique of what is often called “perennial philosophy,” “universal truths,” or simply “spirituality.”

Why? Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational. Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience. Even the person experiencing Samadhi will have an impossible task explaining how it feels!

The rational can only approximate the transrational. Objective science can never fully explain subjective truth. That’s why even scientists resort to poetry, to myth, to explain certain objective truths. That’s indeed why we have language, why we have maps. But language and maps are not the same as reality, neither objective nor subjective realty.

Ilya Prigogine is best known for his definition of dissipative structures and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium, a discovery that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977.  He likened his discovery, which basically reverses the second law of thermodynamics, to the dance of Shiva. Because in closed thermodynamic systems there is no exchange of energy or entropy with the environment. There is dynamic equilibrium. Thus his evocation of Shiva’s dance, who dances in eternal dynamicity beyond both life and death!

So, both science and religion uses metaphor to explain certain truths. No problem there. The problem arises when we take the metaphors—the virgin birth, the resurrection, the virgins in heaven, the flames of hell, the matter-is all-there-is, the-brain-is-all-there-is theories—literally. That’s when the trouble starts.

Trouble starts when we take all that science has to offer and believe that is all there is. No wonder we ended up with a world of lean yogis without soul, buildings without sacredness, things without depth.

There’s trouble when science says that the sensory world is everything. Objectivity is everything. We end up with a flat world devoid of inner transcendence, inner subjectivity, inner spirit.

But those scientists who understand the mystery, the sacred, they become poets, mystics, spiritualists. Why? There is no other way to explain the unexplainable.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science.”

–Albert Einstein

Benedictine monk and author David Stendl-Rast explains the importance of distinguishing between the essence of religion and its institution or dogmas: “Religion…should be written with a capital R to distinguish it from the various religions. Translated into everyday living, Religion becomes spirituality; institutionalized it becomes a religion.”

The main point here is not one of semantics but to understand the essence of what some call Religion, universal religion, the perennial philosophy, spirituality.

Or Dharma. Which, to me, is the same as spirituality and Religion, but very different from religion with a small r.

Let me explain. The Sanskrit word dharma means “an object or a being’s inner nature.” In the context of humanity’s search for perennial wisdom, spirituality is the dharma or inner characteristic of that human condition. In fact, dharma is often translated as “the spiritual path.”  Dharma just is, and to be human is to become one with that which just is.

Thus spirituality supports and includes rationality and science. Religion, in its various guises, on the other hand, is often based on a literal translation of irrational myths and legends and thus is often in conflict with both human nature and science.

Also, because religions generally depend more on scripture and belief  rather than, as in spirituality, on practice and experience, we may term it a dogma. It is also often in conflict with basic human values and therefore unable to inspire and guide humanity on its march toward creating a universal and truly integrated society.

So, for the sake of a theoretical definition of the difference between religion (dogma) and spirituality (dharma), let us say that religion contains both certain universally accepted truths as well as many irrational dogmas, while spirituality soars beyond and above these irrational limitations, it contains truth, beyond words, truth which can only be approximated by poetry, dance, song, truth in its most unblemished and sacred form.

Another way of making this distinction is to say that religion, with its emphasis on external rituals, is exoteric, and that spirituality, with its emphasis on sacred, meditative practice, is esoteric. In conclusion, spirituality, not religion, is the only power that is universal, sublime, and silent enough to truly unite human society.



About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


71 Responses to “Religion, Dharma, Yoga, Science, Spirituality. What’s the difference?”

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  2. Daniel says:

    The following quote seems to be correct but misleading: "Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience." I say this because the article omits any mention of subjective science (neurophenomenology). Neurophenomenologists can describe spiritual experiences.

  3. Ramesh says:

    Braja, what you are sharing above are the myths about the so-called holiness of the Ganges, and those are just that: mythic stories. The sacredness of place as spiritual energetics is another matter, though. The concentrated energy of yogis doing sadhana and singing mantras and bhakti yoga creates spiritual energy just as a slaughterhouse creates the energy of death and suffering.So, yes, spiritual places concentrates sacred energy, for sure. But that's all. The myths are stories for children and naive believers. All rivers are sacred, not just the ganges, and if the ganges is "more sacred" it is due to the spiritual energy created over thousands of years. Heaven is thus in the water, and within the seeker. Here and now. NOT in the sky hereafter.

  4. Ramesh says:

    The myths of the sastras and of poetry and of other religions can have the effect of creating and inviting transcendence. Yes, I agree. Myth can also blind and bind the seeker. I can chant and describe Shiva's adornments and become entranced in bhakti, but if that same mythic Shiva tells me to that Benares is the place you will go to heaven when you die–it's a dogma.
    Yes, having lived in India, I also agree with you that the spirit of India is very much tangible in its colors and smells, in the very fabric of the people. BUT, India is also full of terrible dogmas enslaving millions of people to a karmic lot no one deserves in this life.
    Two sides, at least, to every myth, every story.

  5. Ramesh says:

    Thank you, so kindly. Om shanti!

  6. "The myths of the sastras and of poetry and of other religions can have the effect of creating and inviting transcendence." Nicely put, Ramesh….and yes, it can also blind the seeker. God knows we've seen enough of that. It produces, as you rightly conclude, the dogmatic version of the real thing.

    And yes, India is a really messy place, and its depth and spirituality is now a myriad of old wives tales, village superstitions, and dogmatic stupidity which the country seems trapped in….

  7. Ramesh says:

    Daniel, I am familiar with Varela;s work and also Freeman's, but these sciences are still in their early stages, and still much needs to be done in the realm of studying spiritual experiences. More pointedly, even the one experiencing samadhi/satori cannot transfer the experience in words to a scientist. he or she can only approximate the experience, but a collection of such data can point us toward accepting in a scientific manner that, yes, samadhi, satori, is real, but not show us the truth in the same way as an objective scientific experiment can. That was my main point.

  8. Ramesh says:

    Yes, I agree with you… but that was not my point… I said a dip in Ganges will not bring you to heaven, but I did not say that there is nothing special about Ganges water. Those are two different issues. That water is very special energetically due to all the spiritual vibes of the area. I agree with that and it has been documented and i have known about it for years. Agree!
    Places with high sacred vibes invites fantastic stories and most of those stories are stories and when we take those stories as fact, we're in religious trouble….

  9. Ramesh says:

    Beautifully said!!!!

  10. Thaddeus1 says:

    I have to say I am a bit taken aback regarding your vitriolic characterization of fundamentalist perspectives, not to mention wondering how your own positions do not succumb to the very same critique you lay at their feet.

    I, more often than not, find great value in your perspective and voice, but am perplexed about what lies at the root of your painting Fundamentalism as "nonsense," "hogwash" and "dogmatic?" It appears to me that perhaps such labels originate from a perspective outside the actual tenets and principles of Fundamentalism and are more derived from a social justice perspective. This, of course, would beg the question as to whether the application of such principles are in fact the cause? For instance, there are many vedic and sastric arguments which debunk the validity of the caste system based simply on birth.

    Furthermore, your characterization of Fundamentalist interpretations as "naive" stories and "myths" seems to be just as dogmatic, if we are to understand "dogmatism" in accordance with its definition as "Characterized by an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles." How would one prove that something is simply a myth when purportedly such things are based on subjective experience? As you write, "Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational." Why praytell are Fundamentalist perspectives not to be treated similarily? I guess I'm just curious how you arrived at the veracity of your opinion that such views are "hogwash?" At the very least, I would be interested in hearing an argument for such a designation as opposed to simple assertions.

  11. My dogma just stole your karma and ran over your dogma
    Good points Thad…I often also wonder why "Fundamentalist" can often be misconstrued as a swear-word 🙂 I think it's possibly due to "fundamental" (that which forms the necessary base or core of a subject) as opposed to "fundamentalist," which has negative connotations, and even by definition is "strict" and "literal." Both of those are good things, but the only time we ever hear about them is when they're used wrongly or in a negative sense….

  12. Ramesh says:

    Thaddeus, I made a distinction between mythic belief and spiritual experience, between the belief in a heaven after death where you will meet your 72 virgins (dogma) and the inner experience of oneness in samadhi. One may dispute the experience, but the mystic will know the truth.

    I agree with you that not all of the vedas are dogmatic nonsense; I stated so clearly in the article as well. So am not sure what the problem is?


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  14. Thaddeus1 says:

    Well, forgive me if I am misunderstanding your position Ramesh, but here is what I see as the problem.

    There is a long line of acharyas and self-realized souls from Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, down through the six Goswamis, to Bhaktivnoda Thakura and on through Srila Bhakitsiddhanta Saraswati and Srila Prabhupada whose teachings are Fundamentalist. That is to say, that what you term "myth" they see as reality. Thus, the implication of your claim that "The myths are stories for children and naive believers," and that Fundamentalism is nonsense is that somehow or other this line of teachers got it all wrong. And in addition to this that they are all either children and/or naive.

    And so I am wondering, on what grounds you conclude that the teachings passed through the above disciplic succession got it wrong? Or, in other words, on what grounds do you reject their spiritual experience? As you point out, the "mystic will know the truth." So, are the above not mystics? Did they somehow fail the test? And if so, how do we know?

  15. Thaddeus1 says:

    Actually, I would go so far as to say that it is "unreasonable and unfair" to attack Fundamentalism in general whether it be "western" or "eastern" in origin, especially given that the majority of such attacks are either dismissive, dehumanizing or ad hominem in nature.

  16. tim says:

    I found this to be a fantastic article, thanks for sharing!

    By way of background, I have been a scientist in industry for about ten years; mix of environmental and pharmaceutical analytical chemistry. In my experience working in multiple laboratories in different states is that most scientists (again in industry, not in academia) have a sense of spiritual and/or religious practice. In fact, in two different labs in two different parts of the country I had former colleagues who left science to enter the seminary. Most of them (us?) approach religion in how I think it is approached by wide segment of Americans; attend church/temple/mosque on the big holidays and maybe a couple of times throughout the year and for births, deaths, weddings, and that's about it.

    I would hazard to guess that most scientists are comfortable with the unknown. After all, in a sense, science is about embracing and exploring the unknown. There is so much we don't know, an honest scientist – or person in general – has to accept the fact that there are subjective experiences that we simply cannot quantify or objectify; nor should we.

    I tend to think that, typically, a scientist moves away from fundamentalism, regardless of the source. We tend to be a rational and objective sort of people. However, there are vocal groups who usually seem to be "fans" of science – as opposed to scientists themselves – that cry havoc and wish to remove any reference to spirituality or religion from our culture. Fundamentalism of a different stripe.

  17. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…your name is Ramesh. Is this the name you have given yourself or did this name come from your parents or your guru? If it is from your guru then why do you use it? Is not using the name and recognizing it's meaning and non-christian origin part of a mythic belief?

  18. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for your pointed question, Thaddeus. As they say, the devil is all in the details. You can be a fundamentalist and have weird ideas about women and be pretty sexist and still have deep spiritual, even nondual experiences. All that means is that you have some work to do on the on your dogmas about women. I have great respect for the swamis of that tradition, but I do not believe, as some of them do that Krishna is a blue kid in some seventh heaven. That idea fails logic and rationality.and is thus dogmatic. So, it all depends on the specifics. There are many positive aspects of fundamentalism, but there are also many dogmas…..

  19. Ramesh says:

    Would it be unreasonable and unfair to attack a belief that is sexist or dehumanizing such as the caste system, which is a fundamentalist belief system still upheld in India? To me to not allow the overthrow of such beliefs, such as caste and slavery would be illogical, inhumane and unjust.
    One should be able to highlight any unjust tenet of religion if it is illogical, inhumane, etc. That is what the western enlightenment was all about. But again, the wholesale criticism of fundamentalism is not the point, only those tenets that are inhumane, unjust, illogical, irrational, sexist. To have such discussions about what is illogical etc. is part of the human predicament and it is important and healthy.

  20. Ramesh says:

    Tim, wonderful feedback and comments. I agree with you. Science and spirituality go well together…..

  21. Ramesh says:

    There are different ways to interpret a myth…. something that is not true, illogical, unscientific… or something that is an inner psychological archetype used to invoke the spiritual.
    Ramesh, my spiritual name, is of the second category. It has a rather nice, poetic meaning: the brightest jewel in the universe, or the one who controls his senses, and a few more. In other words, just like many other names, it has an inner,symbolic meaning. It was give to me by a spiritual teacher but not my guru. It is also sanskrit, which has a nice ring to it, etc and a mantric quality and vibration. I could go on an on about its many rational as well as mythic or poetic or spiritual qualities. But I still also use the name my parents gave me, Roar, which is an old Viking name and means "chief of the tribe"

  22. tim says:

    I cannot agree with that. I believe everything should be called into question, and if those ideas are found to be suppressing basic and inherent human rights then they should be called out and attacked as such (e.g. the caste system).

    Gautama Buddha said, "Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations." I think that is still a good piece of advice and addresses how we should constantly question fundamentalism.

  23. Thaddeus1 says:

    No, absolutely not. It is completely reasonable and fair to point out such things.

    However, it is important to note that the disciplic succession I mentioned above went to great lengths to challenge the caste system based on birth first with Bhaktivinoda Thakura and then Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. In fact, Srila Bhakitsiddhanta would require his caste Brahmins to remove their sacred threads. And perhaps, no one has done more than Srila Prabhupada to demonstrate that a caste system based on birth runs contrary to a Fundamentalist interpretation. He was afterall the first, at least that I know of, to begin initiating women and giving Brahmin initiation to westerners.

    The above is a really long way of once again asking, are the socio-political injustices you mention a result of an authentic fundamentalist position, or does it just so happen that the advocates of such a system make fundamentalists appeals? If the latter, then we might fairly ask, is Fundamentalism to blame?

  24. Ramesh says:

    Karen Armstrong makes the compelling point that Fundamentalism is mainly a reaction against modernity, but if by Fundamentalism you mean traditional religion, I am not making the case against it, I am once again pointing out specifics with religion, fundamentalism, traditionalism, whatever label you want to use, that are irrational, dogmatic, unjust… That is also what I attempted in my article: to point out the fact that there are unhealthy dogmas in religion, and let's be aware of them. It is especially worrisome (and amusing) when modern yogis buys into the myths of Hinduism as if they are all about yoga….

  25. integralhack says:

    My spiritual name is Dharma Raja and it was given to me in jest by someone on Twitter. One day I'll have it sewn on a leather biker jacket, but I digress . . .

    To me, "reality" is an increasingly fuzzy thing. Scientific materialists like to purport that only material phenomena is "real." I think this ignores a whole realm of phenomena which some Buddhists and many tantrics know as "mind."

    As Vajrayana Buddhists, Indian Tantrics, Jungian scholars/psychologists and Christian mystics understand, some "divine" images have a potency and a power that have a certain reality of their own. I might try to meditate using Abraham Lincoln or Spiderman during a deity yoga practice (in attempt to cultivate the qualities and powers of both in myself), but somehow the potency of "real" deities like Heruka or Shiva (that are recognized as having potency or energy by many as part of a spiritual tradition) just seem to be more effective–even if they are outside my cultural milieu.

    Such practitioners, however, know the difference between a deity and what a fundamentalist understands as a god. Tantric deities have specific contexts for realization and self improvement; this is different than a fundamentalist's god–the literal interpretations of which might lead to blowing up an abortion clinic or telling people to drink poisoned Koolaid. In fact, those harmful actions by fundamentalists prove that their own gods have an archetypal reality; but it also indicates they were totally unaware of their god's dark side. Tantrics, as original Jungian psychologists, understood this a long time ago–their gods were always paired with a female consort and they also had their own "wrathful" aspects. They respected the potency and different facets of their deities. They also understood that they are vulnerable–the deities cannot exist on their own and require attention for their very existence, much like ourselves. By themselves, they are empty. Sunyata.

    Fundamentalism and scientific materialism, in contrast, are similar to each other in that they posit a reality and purport absolute certainty. It is a neurotic view that seeks ultimate control even though the realities they posit are "turtles all the way down."

    I, Dharma Raja, hope you will all reject this neurotic view and instead embrace uncertainty, contingency and irony. Oh, and love: I hope Angelina Jolie will consent to be my consort in a thangka painting soon to be available for your meditational practice . . . or whatever.

    – Dharma Raja

  26. Thaddeus1 says:

    Yes, question away. But to automatically assume that thorough questioning will not lead one to a fundamentalist position is unfounded, and at the very least within this conversation nothing more than an assumption. I would be interested in hearing an argument or a case for such a claim.

    As regards, "everything should be called into question"…this is a tricky thing because before you know it you are confronted with having to question the thing which led you there in the first place.

    Furthermore, regarding the idea that "if those ideas are found to be suppressing basic and inherent human rights then they should be called out and attacked as such"…this is also tricky, as history is replete with examples of ideas being utilized for ends that the authors/creators never intended. For instance, one could very well make the claim the rise of Nazi Germany and its atrocities were predicated on a misappropriation, misapplication and out right selfishly motivated manipulation of Darwinian et al. theory. Does this mean that Darwinism should be rejected because it was utilized for ends that it was never intended?

  27. Ramesh says:

    Well, said Dharma Raja, my great King of Dharma…that eloquent diatribe would certainly make Angelina proud….the thanka is hereby granted!
    But seriously, Anandamurti, my guru, says the same in an essay on the tantric gods and goddesses that they are "psychological archetypes" with the potency of helping the practitioner into the nondual realm of spirit. That is, form is used in meditation to go beyond form. That is a far cry from believing that Kali or Durga grants me the right to slaughter this animal, no, is indeed happy that I am doing so…
    Kali or Durga, or any God does not need to be pleaded with by our sacrifices…. one myth is dogma, the other a potent tool for meditation…

  28. Ramesh says:

    Basically agree with you, Thaddeus…there are many good things in all fundamentalist religions, I am simply pointing out the dangers of dogmas within them… your point is well taken, my friend! The scientific, intellectual and logical realm is undergoing constant change… what is true today, is dogma, untrue tomorrow… so having an open mind applies in all directions…that was my main point…. science can be dogmatic as well as religion…

  29. integralhack says:


    Yes, Anandamurti was brilliant. Thanks for turning me on to his work.


  30. yogijulian says:

    ok so let's start at the top:

    the word "source" as a synonym for "god" is a bit of a slippery dodge in terms of a definition for religion because most religions would not agree that these words mean the same thing. "source" is vaguely secular/spiritual an attempt to de-personify god and in religious terms for 99.99% of religious folks – god is personified.

    a tiny percentage of religious people report actual "union with god" – and 5 will get you 20 these are the ones with brain pathology. saying that the correct practice of religion leads to union with god would mean by default that hardly any religious people practice correctly.

    erasing the difference between religion and spirituality overlooks the very reason why so many would say something like "i am spiritual but not religious." there is a difference – most spiritual people choose to not buy into religious dogma, black and white literalism and institutional power.

    it is a romantic white washing of religion to try and claim that in it's "true form" it is about mystical self-realization. the gay hating, woman hating, divisive dogma preaching face of religion you recognize is not an aberration – it comes from people actually taking stone age scriptures at their word.

    the whole idea of true religion as being about love and peace and union with a vaguely mystical undefinable god is a 20th century notion that misguidedly tries to gloss over history and the content of beliefs and romantically attempts to source all religion in one a priori ground that happens to have liberal western values. B.S. 🙂

    originators of religion were most likely either temporal lobe epileptics, hallucinating schizophrenics or people who had inadvertently eaten psychoactive plants. the notion that these folks were in touch with the pure spiritual essence of religion and that this then was corrupted by infidels is a fantasy.

    the caste system is indeed supported by doctrines of reincarnation, karma and dharma – the idea is that you should perform your dharma according to your karma so you can come back higher on the food chain of wealth and power – because clearly you are a poor lil untouchable because of your sins in a past life!

    being a christian who does not believe in the literal doctrines of christianity is not really being a christian at all. all christians believe in the virgin birth, resurrection etc of the divine personage of jesus who will save us from going to hell after death if we believe in him. without these ideas christianity is merely being a nice person and following basic ethics one can find in any culture, religion or philosophy.

  31. yogijulian says:

    now here's where you totally drop the ball and just repeat a party line that is essential lacking in substance:

    " No wonder the exponents of science and rationality revolted against such illogical doctrines. That said, scientific rationalism has failed miserably in its critique of the innermost spiritual truths of religion, in its critique of what is often called “perennial philosophy,” “universal truths,” or simply “spirituality.”

    Why? Because objective science and rationality cannot describe, experience or proclaim the truth or veracity of something that can only be experienced subjectively and is beyond the rational. Objective science can determine that you meditate, but the same science cannot describe your spiritual experience. Even the person experiencing Samadhi will have an impossible task explaining how it feels!

    The rational can only approximate the transrational. Objective science can never fully explain subjective truth. That’s why even scientists resort to poetry, to myth, to explain certain objective truths. That’s indeed why we have language, why we have maps. But language and maps are not the same as reality, neither objective nor subjective realty."

    here's why:

    subjective experience does not need to be validated by empirical methods. we have all manner of other good methodologies for interpreting subjective experience – psychology, philosophy, art etc….. but when subjective experience is the basis for objective claims – why those claims are now in the empirical domain and stand or fall on scientific method.

    i can say i felt great peace in meditation and perhaps we can evaluate that in non-empirical ways – BUT if i say this great peace was as a result of a being outside of myself that came down and bestowed this upon me, well then this is an objective claim and we don't have to take you at your word.

    it is a very poor argument for religion to say that science and reason cannot enter into this domain because of it's subjective nature. the fact is (and i know you are a wilberian) the subjective aspects of experience have an objective basis.

    when we feel love certain chemicals are coursing through us, when we perceive beauty it has to do with proportion and composition, contrast and form etc, when we enter meditative states it is because of shifts in how the brain is functioning.

    we have no more basis to say that religious experience is beyond the inquiry of reason or science than to say the same of dreams. might my dream be literally real just because it has happened only inside my head? of course not! were i to say that my dream is real in the world outside my head this claim would be subject to objective analysis, as are claims about god, consciousness, souls etc…

    wilber massively over-privileges the upper left quadrants and forgets conveniently that these are utterly dependent upon upper right structures and neurochemistry.

    for a long time i was also all about the trans-rational, but i came to see it was just another way (even in the hands of wilber) of smuggling in superstition and dodgy claims.

    the trans-rational i recognize has to do with mythic symbol, archetype and poetic meaning – but not with nonsensical metaphysics, pantheism, gussied up intelligent design or absolutist claims about the primacy of consciousness.

    the place science and reason may at times fail is to communicate to people the possibility of having a deeply fulfilling and rich life whilst maintaining a grounded relationship to reality – that poetry and beauty and wonder are enough without believing in delusional fantasies…

    lastly: you say that science says there is nothing subjective. this is a commonly repeated untruth. science simply says that what is subjective only becomes objective via evidence. you can have all manner of interior experience, and in fact that experience has an objective basis – you are correct that empirical methods cannot interpret it' meaning, for that we need hermeneutics, philosophy, poetry, psychology etc

    it is a false dichotomy to say that either we must embrace a false caricature of science as banishing poetry, meaning, consciousness subjectivity etc or we must embrace unfounded religious claims about the beyond-objective ultimate truths of unreasonably elevated subjective claims!

    we can thoroughly embrace scientific method and be deeply engaged in subjective modes of inquiry, but only if we don't make the mistake – as you point out – of literalizing or concretizing interior metaphorical symbols.

    wilber and most integral folks trot out this fallacy all the time and i hope the distinctions i am pointing out have some impact?

  32. yogijulian says:

    otherwise your general points about metaphor and incorporating both science and reason AND interior psyche and spiritual practice are good ones. 🙂

  33. Ramesh says:

    Julian, thanks so much for taking the time to reply in such great detail. I will reflect on some of your main points. the word source or consciousness as synonymous with religion is at least 5-6 thousand years old in the vedic and tantric tradition. In the tantric/yogic tradition, there has been a clear scriptural differentiation between a personal and an impersonal God/Source since at least 700 BC and in the oral tradition of the same for another several thousand years. So it is incorrect to say that this is a 2oth century concept.
    Moreover, the concepts of Shiva and Shakti as Consciousness/Energy have also been understood as such for thousands of years.

    Yes, I agree, only a tiny percentage of people on the religious, and even on the spiritual path report convincingly union with god experiences. It is very rare, but that something is rare does not mean it is not real.

    I also agree of the importance of differentiating between religious and spiritual and did so in my article quite clearly. I also differentiated between religion and Religion, to demonstrate that people do this differently and that it is important to know what people mean with their concepts. words can easily create misunderstanding.

    YOU WROTE: "the whole idea of true religion as being about love and peace and union with a vaguely mystical undefinable god is a 20th century notion that misguidedly tries to gloss over history and the content of beliefs and romantically attempts to source all religion in one a priori ground that happens to have liberal western values. B.S. 🙂 "

    Again, we clearly agree on the problems religion has caused in this world, but I disagree that spirituality is a 20th century notion that glosses over these falsehoods, dogmas, injustices. Spirituality has existed in the yogic/tantric/mystical/shamanic tradition for thousands of years quite outside mainstream religion and is not a 20th century phenomenon at all. In my article i clearly differentiated between this tradition and official religion

    The caste system used the concept of reincarnation to its advantage (which is the hallmark of dogmatic religion–to coopt other ideas for its own exploitative purposes) and has nothing to do with reincarnation anymore than the virgin birth has anything to do with the spirituality of jesus

    Julian, there were followers of jesus long before Christianity became an official religion, so again, you are glossing over the fact that mysticism also has existed in this tradition as well.

    most religious tenets I would agree are dogmatic, but many are not, especially the yamas and niyamas which again are thousnads of years old and yogic and quite spiritual, given that brahmacarya is explained the way it's been intended as walking with brahma, as seeing experiencing brahma and not as an imposed celibate tenet. brahmacarya has nothing to with celibacy…..

  34. Ramesh, the "idea" as *you* call it that Krishna is blue and has an address that you, as a free thinking albeit exceptiionally limited human being, cannot relate to, neither negates nor unsubstaniates either of those facts. So what, you don't "believe". I don't believe in a place called Norway….never seen it, sounds ridiculous, and anyone who *does* believe in it is a dogmatic nutjob.

    Glad we agree on that….


  35. Ramesh says:

    Julian, while I have read wilber and find a lot of similarity between his ideas and my own studies and practice in tantra, I do not consider myself a wilberian as such. Your point is well taken above, I did not clearly point out my emphasis on materialistic science as opposed to the other sciences.
    What I like about wilber is the idea of a broad science that includes the mental and spiritual domains. long before I studied wilber i was taught along those lines and was used to think of yoga as a science, of meditation as a science, as empirical. do this, and this will happen, try it and see. then let's compare experiences. this is what yogis have done for eons and this is also science. my teacher called it intuitional science.
    at any rate, I agree with ,most of what you say above but I do not agree that subjective reality has an objective cause. rather it is the other way around, objective reality has a subjective cause. with that I mean to say that consciounsss is the cause, the matrix from which energy and then matter then life is created. thus there is always a correlation between matter, brain, mind etc. but when the synapses spark and the hormones flow and we feel a certain state of mind, it is not just caused by the brain, it is felt by the brain, the cause of peace in meditation does not originated in the brain, it is expressed in part by the brain, and reinforced by the brain, just like it is not my brain that lifts my hand, it is the mind that wants to lift the hand and the brain and the nerves and the muscles allow me to do so. the mind state causes the brain to act and react and these brain impulses are felt and experienced by us.

    I agree of course that spiritual experiences are not caused by a god outside us, it is caused by the subtle inside, the awakening of the deep mythic self has sensory effects. Thus the subjective, the deep within can not be overmephasized. It can certainly be misunderstood as in religious mythology, but this subjective realm is real….and we have only begun to explain and study it with empirical means.
    However, and this is important, the yogis have studied and experienced this realm for eons and let us not be to quick to dismiss their science; they have spent much more time on this than us…. there is a difference between spending a few minutes in meditation a day and years of meditation in caves in a near 24/7 state of mind… these habits were not driven by belief but by inner impulses and real experiences…

  36. Ramesh says:

    Julian, to illustrate my point further: years ago, when i was a traveling teacher and monk, I initiated a young man into tantric sadhana. as soon as he received the mantra and repeated it silently he fell over into a superconscious trance (samadhi). that experience was not cause by his brain, but rather by the much subtler effect of the mantra, its sonic sound, his karmic reactions/readiness, the kundalini awakening the mantra caused etc.
    So, I disagree that the spiritual and the subjective has an objective or physical cause….there is a subjective/objective relationship but the interior exist in a subtler realm apart from the exterior and has as in this case when the guy fell backwards, a physical effect…while a more experienced yogi would not fall over, of course…
    afterwards, as is often the case, he reported feelings of bliss, peace, seeing light etc. it was not an epileptic seizure, for sure 🙂
    I have witnessed many such things, and these expereiences have an origin that is not just brain located….

  37. Good conversation all round, gentlemen….have enjoyed it immensely. Good groundwork, Ramesh, to create such a deep response.

    Btw, Krishna said if you don't believe him, he wants his name back….


  38. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Braja, for your acknowledgement, that's the magic of Elephant, we can swing between the silly and superficial and sexy to the not-so-sexy and deeply philosophical, all in one pranayamic breath…

    Which name does he want back, he's got so many names?

  39. yogijulian says:


    on what do you base this bold statement?!

    why do all these assumed metaphysical explanations convince you that this is not about the brain?

    would not it be reasonable to say that the combination of his associations on your relationship, the ceremony of initiation, and the meditative effect of the mantra, combined with whatever level of experience he already had in meditation or yoga created a brain state which he subjectively experienced as samadhi?

    is it not painting the lily to need to invoke some subtle/supernatural/magical reason that is beyond the brain/body?

    understandably in the past this was done because we didn't know better, but perpetuating this is a form of esoteric obscurantism that makes people think in dualistic ways and renders spirituality an impossible and slippery subject that is readily available to the exploitation by charlatans of the naive seeker.

    yes – this is exactly the fallacy pointed out above – that there is a subtle/magical/supernatural interior realm that exists apart from the exterior.


    on what basis?

    this is the central dualism that we need to see past. we are biological creatures capable of spiritual experience under certain conditions by the workings of our neuroendocrine system.

    having witnessed or experienced bliss, peace, rapture, visions (all of which may be deeply beneficial and beautiful) does not in any way imaginable qualify as a good argument or evidence for the statement that "these experiences have an origin that is not *just* brain related…"

    do you not see this error in reasoning?

    it is wishful thinking of someone who wants to believe that we are not mortal animals that will one day die and that as far as we have ever seen in all this time of looking our consciousness is entirely dependent upon our biology.

    no exceptions so far.


  40. yogijulian says:

    fair enough my friend.

    i am suggesting that while mysticism may exist alongside the religious mythic literalism – it is wishful thinking to say it is the true core of religion.

    i think it may be more accurate that the true core of religion is some combination of existential angst, hallucinatory delusion and an OCD preoccupation with certain rituals having power to make things turn out as we would like by appeasing the imaginary disembodied and personified powers behind reality.

    for many years i too championed this idea of mysticism and the transrational being the true core of religion.

    spirituality therefore as being that quest for the ultimate reality behind the mythic symbols.

    religion is merely man's misunderstanding of the roadmap to the actual divine.

    ken wilber and joseph campbell were great guides on that journey and i still retain much of what i learned from them – BUT i came to a place of realizing that while there are indeed states and experiences that are authentic and valuable in spiritual practice (and i still explore, practice and teach these) just about all of that preoccupation with some mystical divine presence, essence or being – whether overtly fundamentalist or esoterically mystical is basically the same delusion in different clothing.

    smart and sensitive people like us who crave spirituality just prefer the more esoteric mystical dress code – especially because it's insistence on something eternally beyond the understanding of science and reason confer both a kind of dizzying exhilarating altered state and permission to adopt a subtly superior attitude about hidden knowledge that we have attained via our diligent quest for the holy grail.

    bottom line: all cultures have religion for various spandrel-esque evolutionary reasons, some people within those religions have a more mystical bent and we like them better. some of those mystics write gorgeous poetry and it has a sublime effect on our brains – we dig it! some traditions actually have practices that generate a lot of benefit, healing, and fascinating experience in your brains/bodies – which is really cool.

    if we are truly honest – none of this is either evidence for or requiring of any supernatural explanations whatsoever.

    god is a human concept, a fantasy of the human brain.

    just because a tradition may have developed interesting and effective ways of affecting brain states does not make it's cultural baggage and superstitious metaphysics exempt from critical analysis and empirical inquiry.

    we can have all of the interior benefit without the fallacious metaphysics – in fact even more so!

    i would argue that it is relinquishing these wishful fallacies that indicates a next stage of existentially and philosophically honest integrated spirituality.

  41. Ramesh says:

    On what basis, you ask. Not on the basis of anything magical, or supernatural, just on the basis
    of the fact that the mind is subtler than the brain and that consciousness is subtler still.

    Let me try this on you: Ask a scientist to picture a tennis ball in their mind. He will
    agree that there is an image of a tennis ball in their mind.

    You say that the mind is just a function of the brain. So that image
    of a tennis ball is also just a function of your brain, or rather at
    this moment a part of your brain. The brain can be analysed chemically
    and is made entirely of known forms of matter and energy — hydrogen
    atoms, carbon atoms, subatomic particles, etc. So of which known
    atoms, subatomic particles, etc., is that image of a tennis ball

    The tennis ball is not magical, but it is subtler than my brain cells. Where in the brain is it located, of what known substance is it made?
    We will most likely end in a chicken vs. egg debate here, my friend, because I do agree with wilber's nested universe of body, mind, spirit and I also think that a broader science one day will concur, because i agree with you that there is no magical explanation that makes sense. But I do find it very rational and logical that mind over matter exist and is real….

  42. Ramesh says:

    Julian, just wanted to mention that your strong assumption that my philosophy in life is based on an outdated mythical worldview is not how i see things at all. That seems like a possible projection on your part. I have never been interested in deities and mythical explanations. My spirituality and yogic tantra is very simple and based on experience. My experience is that mind is real, subtler than brain, that nature has an intelligence (call it whatever you will), a consciousness that creates. This seems like the only rational, logical explanation to me, and this is how I experience my own body, mind and spirit in my deepest of meditations. To me, this is simple, and not metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

  43. yogijulian says:

    i do not have that assumption. no worries!

    however the statement " My experience is that mind is real, subtler than brain, that nature has an intelligence (call it whatever you will), a consciousness that creates." is i think misguided, for the following reason:

    the brain has no experience of itself. mind is what brain does. we all experience a mind and not a brain – that's the nature of subjective experience, we do not experience the brain in any objective sense – so dualism is a natural (though erroneous) intuitive "experience."

    though you do not have a mythic literalist stance – you are nonetheless perpetuating the myth of a disembodied consciousness, mind independent of brain etc which is the basis of all supernatural belief. what would happen if you let this last vestige go? try it – i think it might be a fun experiment…. 🙂

    when you say "that nature has an intelligence (call it whatever you will), a consciousness that creates" i hear the classic intelligent design in hip clothing that integral folks love to smuggle in… try reflecting on this next to this wikipedia definition:

    "Intelligent design (ID) is the proposition that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."

    the point i am making is that it is a mistake to make statements about the objective exterior domain from the subjective interior domain AS IF these statements somehow are proven by the depth of their experiential sincerity!

    we can have all manner of altered state, meditative, shamanic experiences that seem to convey things like past lives, demons, angels a disembodied god, the ability to leave our own bodies etc – but this does not mean that these experiences are literally objectively true.

    so just because you claim (and i have been there myself) that it is revealed to you in meditation that mind is of a subtler more real nature than brain (and therefore not dependent upon brain) does not mean this is literally objectively true – it merely means that this is how you experience it subjectively. again – on what basis do you claim that this is objectively the case?

    in every single case we know of when you change brain chemistry or damage an area of the brain mind is 100% of the time changed in powerful ways.

    drop acid, hit your head on the sidewalk, develop alzheimers, have a brain tumor, get a nose-full of oxytocin etc and how you experience your mind, personality, desires, cognition etc are all radically changed!

    meditation is a way of changing how your brain is functioning and thereby going into different states of mind. this should not be a controversial statement unless one is sentimentally attached to old world pre-scientific mythic ideas about consciousness.

    as you know the human brain is also capable of very convincing delusional, hallucinatory, psychotic experiences, as well as dreams, intuitions or projections that are not objectively true, regardless of how true they seem.

    personally i think it is intellectual laziness and spiritual pretension to perpetuate these fallacies. further i think it is much more interesting and honest to explore what may really be true, and why we may be prone to such misperceptions.

  44. littlewing108 says:

    Hey interesting article and 2 comments:

    1. Agree that there must be a differentiation between metaphor and reality. . . Someone has to stand up for Christians tho after the especially loud and stupid ones have given the whole thing a bad name– the Tibetans believe in attaining rainbow body is not a metaphor but real…along with many other "non scientific" things. So I'd say that taking a more open mind on the resurrection issue would be interesting for you. . . Aware its a big metaphor in nature, but sometimes reality imitates natures patterns…

    2. I learned in an Indian history class that spirituality and religion serve a dual purpose– Religion is the masculine structure which keeps the teachings of spiritual people alive. Without their structure those teachings would die out. Spirituality is the feminine life force that keeps it all vibrant and new, evolving and so on. Ultimately, spiritual people's teachings such as new Buddhist teacher, Christian Saints and so on are incorporated into the beliefs of the religion and preserved.

    Both groups have their shadow side– religions you pointed out and are quite real…

    True personal spirituality is great, but often times those who attain anything stand on the shoulders who came before (religion) and those new age spiritual types seem like they are trying to reinvent the wheal sometimes with groundless beliefs can lead people astray into paths that lead nowhere close to re-linking anything.

    Just pointing this out because I believe polarizing mentalities don't solve problems… acknowledging that both play the part is invaluable… The external world is just as sacred as ideas and good feelings. That's why religion is not irrelevant. Respecting both parts for what they are is necessary for a realistic path. Thanks for provoking a discussion!

  45. yogijulian says:

    first off: we don't have to ask a scientist to picture the ball, the process of picturing a ball in one's mind is the same for everyone with a functioning brain!

    here's the rub though: just because consciousness is a unique phenomenon ontologically does not mean that it is not in a directly causal relationship to the brain!

    just because the image of a tennis ball cannot be found in the neurochemistry when looked at from the outside does not mean it is independent of that neurochemistry. if we cut certain pathways in the brain you would NOT be able to imagine the tennis ball!

    stay with me and let's put your analogy to a simple test:

    what if the tennis ball was an image on a TV screen?

    so we open up the back of the TV and find no tennis ball, we break down all the components and microchips and wires in back of the TV and find no images – does this therefore mean that the image of the tennis ball (or all the images that have ever flashed upon that screen for that matter) are somehow independent of the TV and cannot be explained as causally resulting from the TV's material functioning?!

    does this mean that there is some immaterial thing we now call "imagery" that has some special status as existing in a hidden realm?

    just because we see this tennis ball on the screen does not mean either a) that there must be a tennis ball inside the TV or b) that the image of a tennis ball must have some existence independent of the TV.

    this is a tough one to wrap one's head around – and a lot of the chalmers influenced philosophy of mind people get it all confused.

    can you see how the analogy is a pretty direct match?

    now, even if, because of the nature of this analogy, one step further and say that the image of the tennis ball was on the screen but it really was being broadcast from a tower somewhere, this does not change the fact that a physical tower generating radio waves was required. the immaterial waves are produced by the material tower. it's just how reality works.

    the capacity for brains to be conscious is extraordinary, unique, complex and beautiful – but there is ABSOLUTELY ZERO reason to suggest that it is not a purely biological process.

    unless of course you count old world religious mind/body dualism – which we shouldn't!

  46. yogijulian says:

    tim. BINGO!

  47. yogijulian says:

    tim for the win.

  48. yogijulian says:

    only when done with an honesty that moves beyond supernaturalism.

  49. Ramesh says:

    Julian, your analogy with a TV does not hold water, and therefore you failed to answer my question, because you are not able to explain in a scientific manner what that mental tennis ball is made of, because it is not physical. The TV image on the other hand, if it's an LDC TV is made up of liquid crystals and can be explained by science…. so the analogy is not appropriate.
    Moreover, there are layers of mind. In the yoga model I am using, and of course it;s just a model) which is different from the vedantic model, there are five layers of mind, and most religious imagery comes from the second and third layer, which are similar to the subconscious and unconscious of the jungian model. So in regards to the mind, it all depends of what level of perception your experience is at. Some perceptions are clouded by the subconscious, others are deeply intuitive, and the yet deeper still are transparently clear perceptions of reality as it is. And that science my friend is part of the deep inner science of tantric yoga, of zen, etc. And that stuff, what is that made of–not LDC, not liquid crystals.
    Also, there need be no conflict between an intelligent consciousness and evolutionary theory, in fact intelligence in nature is just plain obvious to the perceptive inner mind…when the doors of perception are cleansed, everything appears as it is…

  50. Ramesh says:

    Julian, I see a lot more agreement than disagreement between us, and I really enjoy your fresh and bold perspective. It is important to shake things up. That said, there is a fundamental disagreement between us regarding mind/matter that I think we will not bridge before science comes around to acknowledging, as some neuro-scientists, the proto-consciousness within all things. That is, comes around to acknowledge that mind is the interior of the brain and that they work together; that consciousness is the intelligence in creation and that natural selection is a consequence of that intelligence…