The Promise and Peril of Spiritual Belief

by Jeff Warren

“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work.”  – W. D. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

I know a man, a Buddhist vipassana teacher, who lives in emptiness. When he walks down the street the world gushes like a fountain, emerging from and disappearing into emptiness, which for him is everywhere and nowhere. It is the great reassurance of his life. I know another man, an Advaita non-dual teacher, who lives in awareness. From moment to moment he is connected to the unshakable sense that everything is awareness and only awareness – solid, undying, unchanging. It is the great reassurance of his life. I know a woman, a lapsed Catholic, who lives with God. As she goes about her day there is a continual and vivid sense of presence, of being in relationship with an alive and loving Other. It is the great reassurance of her life.

The strange thing is, I kind of know what they mean. When I go on long vipassana retreats, my sensory experience of the world begins to thin. Everything pixelates; the whole sensorium seems increasingly dreamlike. I get a taste for emptiness then – but only a taste. I can understand how this is a direction I might take.

When I immerse myself in nondual teachings, my own awareness becomes vivid and spacious. I begin to see how there are no problems with awareness, only in awareness. I realize that even my desire to change the world is, in its way, complete. I get a taste for awareness then – but only a taste. I can understand how this is a direction I might take.

When I participate in plant medicine ceremonies, I get the sense that the whole world is alive and secretly winking to me. Everything is meaningful – the crow flying across the sky, the shadows in the trees, that person’s voice, right there, at that exact moment. I get a taste for God then – but only a taste. I can understand how this is a direction I might take.

In a more innocent time, these were all understood to be paths to the same Absolute. Although each is interpreted through different cultural lenses, these experiences were thought to share a “common core.” This position is known as the Perennial philosophy.

History has not been kind to the Perennial philosophy. The tradition of cherry picking anecdotes from different wisdom traditions, lining them up and saying “hey it’s all one!” has not stood the test of careful scholarship. Academics pointed out it isn’t just that these are different interpretations, they are actually different experiences. The experience of being in relationship with a loving Other is very different than the experience of a bracingly neutral – and lush – emptiness, or an unfailingly ordinary and natural awareness. What’s more, by emphasizing only the broadest generalities, we actually do a disservice to the beautiful particulars, the unique rituals and forms and communities of practice and tradition that are the real place in which practitioners live.

Postmodernists dealt the final blow. Don’t you see? they said. The spiritual practitioner is not discovering something objectively true about reality. They are creating it. Spiritual practices are a training, and different practices train different qualities in experience.

And so it was that mystical claims of an Absolute or an “ultimate” became intellectually taboo, ejected from the proper study of humankind, consigned to the rubbish heap of New Age fantasy.

Except… what if the Perennialists were right? Not everywhere right, but what if they were right in the sense that there may actually be something shared, some Absolute principle that grows in influence and profundity, unifying distinctions and particulars in a most peculiar and a most promising, but also – potentially – a most perilous way?

I have a theory. Not a perfect theory, but it is a theory based on experience – based on my experience. And that’s exactly what my theory is about: the feedback loop between our ideas about reality, and our experience of reality. The postmodernists were right that our ideas confirm the world to us. This is also a truism in psychology, where the role of expectations in shaping experience is an important theme. It’s a truism too in medicine, where a person’s belief in the efficacy of a compound or treatment is often enough to initiate their healing, the infamous placebo effect. And it may be a truism in spiritual practice, the truism of Truth itself.

Because what I see when I spend time with and interview teachers and practitioners from across traditions, is that the deeper they are in a particular trajectory of practice, the more their own experience becomes the arbiter of what’s true for them. This is beautiful to witness, and it is beautiful to experience, in so far as I’ve experienced it. Moment by moment, these people do not look outside of themselves for what’s real, for what’s meaningful. Rather these things are inseparable from who they are and how they live.

As a stance, it is healing. Each of them says it feels like wholeness – oneness in the sense that mind, body, and world are ever more synchronized. We can imagine this from the inside: a feedback loop that continually deepens, so that our ideas about how things are increasingly align with our experience of how things are. It’s not hard to imagine how this in turn would help harmonize our actions in the world and – given that we’re more likely to get back what we give out – the world’s actions in turn. Life would feel ever more integrated and participatory and meaningful. It might also feel ever more real, a bogglingly paradoxical situation, for of course experience is always already real. Such is the nature of the mystical paradox.

Each of these people experiences a different truth – emptiness, awareness, God – but the experience of that truth seems to create some common overlapping effects in the human nervous system: a sense of peace, of confidence, of repose. These practitioners say it comes as a huge relief, that it frees them to be more generous, more loving, more available. They no longer have to exhaust themselves trying to close the gap between what they need in order to feel secure, and how the world actually is. They’re able to relax their vigilance. And when they relax, we relax. The more confident they are in their truth, the more we’re drawn in.

The “Absolute” here is Truth itself – the experience of Truth, even if that truth is different for each of us, and different at different times. The trick though, is you have to commit. You have to commit to a direction. You have to be willing to believe that what your changing experience is showing you is always true. That includes, by the way, the experience of questioning all beliefs. In so far as you commit to this stance being right, then even the great Western legacy of philosophical skepticism might become the foundation for a similar sense of confidence and repose, a dependably supportive “groundless ground,” not unlike what is found in some Buddhist traditions. It’s worth noting that the idea of pursuing harmony in one’s belief, experience, and behavior as a unifying ideal was actually an explicit goal in at least three schools of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Pyrrhoian Skepticism. “Back then,” as my philosopher friend Brian puts it, “”philosophy was not a purely theoretical exercise.” Rather, it involved exercises – practices – intended to align one’s way of being.

But here we come to a conundrum, and – I think – a legitimate critique of spiritual practice and spiritual truth, one reason why intellectuals are often so suspicious of spirituality. For it does seem as though something is lost when we commit to a single stance or perspective. That as our own truth grows, all other truths – perhaps inevitably – become less real. I see this in even the most well-meaning and ecumenical teachers and advanced practitioners. However much lip service they may pay to “different paths up the mountain,” in practice they are ever more likely to reflexively filter everything through the lens of their experience. It becomes all about mindfulness, or noself, or “don’t know mind,” or integral theory, or surrender, or “the moment,” or love, or “flow” – or even Reason, for of course, if this dynamic is true, then it is a human issue, and thus includes our so-called secular beliefs as well.

The language, the behaviors, the assumptions, the whole orientation of experienced practitioners and teachers is increasingly inseparable from their certainties. This can help make sense of a student’s experience if they’re aligned with that teacher’s view and temperament. But if they’re not, it can create havoc. They end up comparing their own experience to the ideals of someone else’s, a move that in it’s own way can lead to confusion and alienation and suffering.

With some very advanced teachers, the deeper they are in their realization, the less feeling you get that they’re open to other views at all. It’s as though they no longer remember how to be refreshed by other perspectives. The very thing that’s easiest for humanists – the ability to be drawn into stories and narratives, to enjoy a kind of bird’s eye pluralism – seems harder and harder for some of these folks to access. I’ve found this to be especially true with popular nondual teachers; Western Buddhist teachers, by and large, seem to be better listeners. In all of these cases, the lived expression of truth and harmony is beautiful and powerful, but the niggling question remains: how much of “reality” can you claim to know if the meaningful experience of others is increasingly inaccessible to you? It’s like mistaking your perfectly integrated Facebook feed for the record of civilization.

And so, a conundrum. On the one hand, truth is healing. To live from your truth is what it means to “walk the talk,” to speak only of what you actually know. It is literally the very definition of integrity. On the other hand, truth is isolating. To live from your truth – to really take it seriously – is to succumb to the gravitation pull of Truth itself, which seems, at the deep end of practice, to suck practitioners into a black hole of customized certainty, and thus may limit their ability to meet other people where they actually are.

If this is an accurate assessment – if my candidate for an Absolute actually holds up to people’s real experience – then what to do? Is there a way to hold on to both our truth and our pluralism?

The Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh once wondered whether “the next Buddha would be sangha.” Although some part of the paradox of belief may be inescapable, Hanh’s sentiment does point to one response: community, and – beyond that – meta-community. The old humanist work of making the rounds, being curious about different views and approaches, honoring the range of other people’s experiences while slowly learning to trust our own. From the view of non-practitioners, this will sound like a cliché; from inside our tunnels of truth, it can be harder and harder to see.

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About Jeff Warren 17 Articles
Jeff Warren is an award-winning writer, and non-award- winning meditation instructor. He is the author of The Head Trip - a travel guide to sleeping, dreaming and meditation – and has written for The New York Times, The New Scientist, Discover, and The Globe and Mail and others. In 2011, Jeff founded The Consciousness Explorers Club, a meditation think tank and community hub in downtown Toronto that supports personal growth through carefully curated courses, retreats, events, and guided practices. He writes of the CEC: “We take insights and practices from culture and science and integrate them in playful and experimental ways with insights and practices from the world’s contemplative traditions, in particular Buddhism and mindfulness. We do this as a community, and try to empower everyone in the community to develop their own understanding and service missions – and to share their various neurotic life strategies, so we can laugh uproariously at them, together, in a spirit of dumfounded incredulity.”
Contact: Website

1 Comment on The Promise and Peril of Spiritual Belief

  1. Finally, someone has captured the paradox of path and truth! I love the way you recognize that we must pursue a given path–that often sidelines other paths–to gain confidence in our ability to sniff out truth through our own experience. And, I love how you see that this undermines pluralism and worry about such loss in the service of an even broader notion of truth.

    To me, the ability to trust one’s experience–which comes from deep, often parochial practice–is essential since it allows us each to live our unique lives. This dovetails with pluralism, however, since (at least for me) perfecting such trust relies on an ability to listen deeply, especially to other views. When I most attentively listen, I am not simply waiting to insert my view but let go of preconceptions and genuinely open to otherness. In doing so, I find that I touch something quite real. And, in such contact, I paradoxically build confidence in my own discernment. That is, by suspending my judging mind, I tap into a sense of trust that then allows me to use my own experience as a arbiter and searcher for truth. Paradoxical? Absolutely.

    I didn’t put that well, but I put it. Mostly I want to say: “right on article!”

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