Spiritual Narcissism

Perusing Internet spirituality, one would get the sense that it was all about getting high without needing to pay the bartender or your dealer. Or about healing whatever emotional or physical ailments one might have (or think one might have). Or about manifesting an upper middle class lifestyle.

Above all, it’s about “me” –about “my happiness”, about “my health”, about “my dietary preferences”, about “my pain”, about “my relationship”, about “my spiritual development”, “my meditation practice”, “my automobile” and “my stock portfolio”.

Except no, it’s not. It’s not about “me”. It never was about “me”, ever. Meditation taken up artificially (i.e., before one turns to it naturally) and made the exclusive, or nearly so, practice makes for a lopsided, narcissistic spiritual life. Missing is the unfashionable practice of continuous self-examination (yes, looking at one’s failings and trying to correct them is a spiritual practice, and an essential one). Absent is genuine service to others (by genuine I mean for-real, not for something to put on “my” resume that gives “me” warm fuzzy feelings).

It’s not just lopsided– it’s doomed to failure. I guarantee you that anyone who gloms onto a largely mental practice and with it intends to pry open the doors of truth will find their path blocked, and the more they try to force past the bouncer at the door, the worse things will be for them. There is no substitute for character work, regardless of how unfashionable it may be, and there is no substitute for that equally unfashionable word, sacrifice. The surest path to enlightenment is to forget altogether about enlightenment, and let it tap you on the shoulder while you’re caring about others.

Spirituality may ease emotional pain, but spirituality is not therapy. The concepts and vocabulary of therapy make absolutely no sense in a genuine spiritual context. In fact many of the aims of spirituality are directly opposed to those of therapy.  It’s not about healing the child within or expressing one’s feelings. It’s about the Divine, period, end of statement.

Wanting to manifest more stuff for oneself is just not spiritual. Well okay, it is, if you count the left hand path as spiritual– they do think the object of everything is to use the invisible world for self-aggrandizement. Simply tacking on something stating it only counts if it doesn’t harm anyone can’t nullify the underlying intention, that a very imperfect ego be made more comfortable.

I’m not a materialist. I certainly think one can use one’s will to manifest things, and that it works, at least some of the time. I also think that employing the will to make ego more comfortable is a mistake, even without the unintended consequences that almost always come with it. About the only good thing I can say for the half-assed covert magickal schools that describe themselves as working with the “Law of Attraction” is that most of the people who attempt to follow their guidance will be unable to manifest anything (you can’t make things manifest unless you truly understand will, and you can’t understand will short of a lot of very serious inner work of the sort that is not and never will be trendy). Unfortunately even though these programs are largely impotent they still spread the evil nonsense that is the Just World Fallacy.

If magick is what you want, learn the real thing the right way, caveats and all. Or better yet, recognize the power for what it is, a glittery attractive and potentially destructive thing that is not to be sought and that, if acquired, is to be used sparingly, and with great caution.

The cowboys of the world keep on thinking they can have spirituality and egotism too. They can’t. They can feign spirituality, occasionally at a profit, but they can’t have it and use it in the service of “me”, because spirituality is all about the systematic, often disruptive, destruction of “me”.Allabout it.

Wincing at “Enlightenment”

I always feel embarrassed for persons who pontificate about enlightenment without the foggiest notion of what they are speaking. Someday they’re going to know enough to know how foolish they’ve looked, and they will feel like they do when they dream of going to work naked, only this time the alarm clock won’t save them. I wish I didn’t see such things. Witnesses only exacerbate later shame.

I’ve just read another pontification on the net (I know its blogging protocol to link to those one cites or criticizes, but I am omitting this link out of courtesy to the future embarrassee). Apparently the author has had the misfortune to have published his or her pontifications in a book. I’ve not read the book, but what’s out there on the net is certainly no enticement to do so. It reads less like inspiration and more like the inside of a Hallmark card.

Enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with “wholeness” or “oneness”. Wholeness is the polar opposite of fragmented, and both poles are the product of a confused mind. Enlightenment is neither whole nor fragmented. Enlightenment is not a “journey”. There’s not even nowhere to go. Enlightenment has nothing to do with “listening” or “feelings”or “self-expression” or “relationships” or “healing”. Those are more “good” ideas which try to ameliorate or respond to “bad” ideas, but both the “good” ideas and the “bad” ideas emerge from confusion. “Goodness” is to enlightenment what a chicken sandwich is to a tuba: it’s unrelated, in a funny absurdist sort of way.

Enlightenment isn’t fostered by buying nutritional supplements. Here I break my unofficial policy and link (outrageous website is now down) to this atrocity because the persons responsible for the site should feel embarrassed.

In fact enlightenment has absolutely nothing to do with any idea you can describe, theorize about or believe in. Not even “love” or “truth” (which is separate and distinct from the importance of love and truth, which gets into another topic I may or may not post on in the future). The wisdom writings of the world (the real, time-tested, ones, not the babble of the net) usually avoid directly describing enlightenment (or whatever their tradition calls it) . It may be better to use words to trace enlightenment’s outline, without straying into direct description.

If the reader wishes not to listen to lil’ ol’ anonymous me on why thinking up “good” words to say about enlightenment will lead to embarrassment, maybe the reader would rather listen to the world’s wisdom literature. There are illustrations throughout the world’s wisdom literature, but my personal favorite on the topic, is the Sutra of Hui Neng. Hui Neng was a layperson and a lowly kitchen worker in a Buddhist temple in Guangzhou when the Fifth Patriarch of the Zen school of Buddhism announced a poetry competition, to see which of his students he would choose as his successor. The lead monk of the temple penned the stanza:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

Hui Neng, the lowly kitchen employee, being illiterate, dictated the following stanza in response:

There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

And thus the kitchen help became the Sixth Patriarch.

A few thoughts on purity versus freedom

(First posted at the old blog on Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 at 3:49 am)

I don’t have the luxury of staying awake to greet the dawn today, yet here I am, awake at 4 AM, with a few thoughts that want very badly to be a blog entry. So I’ll try to keep it short.

The news that churchgoers are strong supporters of torture bothers me, even though it’s no more a surprise to me than it is, or should be, to anyone else that  average churchgoers  (and for that matter, a considerable number of priests/ministers/rabbis) haven’t the foggiest idea of what their religion is supposed to stand for.

The first impulse, upon seeing something as awful as torturers in God’s name, is to want more purity, more lines that divide “the good/wise/sincere people” from “the confused/ignorant/bad people”.  Can’t there be a firmer grasp on the membership by the leadership, stricter standards for the leadership, a government-issued flashing LED badge people like me can wear that says “I’m a mystic, but I don’t torture”? Something??

The answer is no, there can’t be.

Virtually every group of people who, with greater and lesser accuracy, believed they were in possession of the truth (or something close to it), have tried to preserve the transmission of the truth by creating hierarchies and designating authorities to guard that truth. And as far as I can tell every such attempt has failed. Hierarchy and authority have an attraction for those least qualified for them. It doesn’t take many transmissions among even those of the best intentions for strong, brave, wise leadership to be replaced by weak, cautious, sort of middling leadership. And success is almost certain to kill any organization with an influx of members with agendas other than the ones intended by its founders.

But I’m not saying that every organization is worthless, or that it is hopeless to think that a spark of wisdom can be preserved and transmitted. In fact, I think the opposite. Those organizations which, despite the odds, despite their own mediocre or power hungry authorities and the confusion (to put it politely) of their membership, preserve and carry on a faint spark of wisdom are those which have failed at purity, and having failed at keeping themselves under control, become a haven for the few who do understand the original vision.If the structure intended to maintain purity hadn’t broken down, the mediocre to bad leadership and the confused membership would have identified and driven away the visionaries.

It’s a fools errand to try to prohibit spiritual error. Far better to carve out a small, safe spot for what is right.

Torture, Karma, and Compassion

(This was first posted on Sunday, May 10th, 2009 at 3:19 AM)

Someone brought this CNN Wire post to my attention:

Churchgoers more likely to back torture, survey finds

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new analysis.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did

I really don’t know what to say. That is one of the most atrocious illustrations  I’ve seen of how those who worship rules and authoritywarp religion. It saddens me.

It’s not time, though, for the spiritual not religious to congratulate ourselves on our superiority. There is an equally pernicious idea popular among our spiritual cowboys.It’s usually presented as  “karma”.

I’m of course not referring to the near-universal idea that whatever one sets in m comes back to oneself. I’m referring to its twisted counterfeit, that anyone who is suffering is suffering because they deserve it. Think about it for a moment: it does not follow that if anything I set in motion will come back to me, then whatever I experience is the result of what I set in motion. It could, after all, be the consequence of what someone else set in motion (which, someday, will be theirs to deal with).

In fact, if it were not possible for me to act to affect others, the first statement, that what I set in motion will come to affect me, would be so trivial as to be meaningless. We’d all live in our own isolated bubbles, unable to connect to each other, unable even to detect each other (because, after all, even knowledge of each other has an effect). Karma would be less a statement about justice and more a peculiar state of masturbation.<

This inverted “karma” has a name: the Just World fallacy. It’s a common bias not unique to cowboys, but cowboys are peculiarly attracted to it and fond of promoting it as if it were a spiritual truth.

Why? That should be obvious. While the properly stated version of karma (that my acts will come to affect me) promotes responsibility, the bassackwards version promotes irresponsibility.  If the bassackwards karma believer should  see the poor, the ill, the oppressed, the suffering,  it’s not something they should involve themselves with, because the victims brought it upon themselves. Voila! Irresponsibility affirmed.

To the extent cowboys wish to involve themselves with the world’s suffering, it is to “help” by explaining to the victim how it is they brought it upon themselves. They should have known X would lead to Y, where X is usually some mundane act,  an act forced upon them by circumstances,  a common human failing, or an act any compassionate person would take.  This is another common  error,hindsight bias. It penalizes the lecturee for being baryonic matter, condemned along with everything else made of atoms to move blindly forward in time, and thus certain to have experiences which precede other experiences.  It is not at all “helpful” , let alone compassionate, to self-righteously express this bias against someone in need.

In fact, by embracing the Just World fallacy,one negates justice itself. It’s hard to distinguish the implications of a blind belief that those who suffer have deserved it from sociopathy.

I’ve been trying, for a few days, to describe that viable alternative to the above silliness, compassion. I can’t do it adequately. Instead, I want to take my readers on an Internet field trip where they can try out compassion for themselves.

Our destination is the Beliefnet prayer circle directory athttp://www.beliefnet.com/prayer/directory.asp?milestoneTypeID=6Browse.

It should quickly become clear that many of the individuals who are requesting prayer have, indeed, set in motion the predicaments they find themselves in.  See where the individual may be causing or exacerbating their own suffering. Make sure it’s actual knowledge,  not believing or expecting (bias). Treat what you see as possibly useful information,and nothing more.

Others you may find are asking for specific results that may not be compatible with one’s own values, or whichmay not be the best results.Other prayer requests may seem, for lack of a better word, ignorant. Instead of seeing what’s wrong with any particular request, hold in your heart the desire that whatever is best, right, and true happen for all involved.

Find a few of the most off-putting, least “deserving” prayer requests (this is obviously subjective). Recognize the pain in the requests (yes, even in the requests that seem to be coming from a self-righteous point of view, there is pain. Look for it.).  Lead with your heart. Don’t think of how at fault someone may be. Don’t think of how much better or wiser you may be. And certainly do not think of how compassionate you are for doing this. Every time these thoughts, and other irrelevant thoughts, pop into your head, throw them out. Think only of the very best possible outcome for all involved, and pray.

It’s not “compassion enough” if all one ever does is pray over web pages. Putting compassion into action in the real world with real-world people gets a lot more complex and messy.  But, the principles remain the same.

Apologies: I’ve been doing a lot of work

(First posted on the old blog on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 3:25 AM)

I’ve been busy, too busy, in fact (between the work and the tired) to post recently. I’ve not abandoned this blog. In fact I have a post partially written, waiting for me to find the time and energy to finish it. I don’t think I’ll be able to do so later today or tomorrow (I need to build a new system, and I’m adopting a new pet), but I should be able to get to it within the next three or four days.

effing it up

(Posted on the old blog on Sunday, April 19th, 2009 at 1:41 AM)

There is a conflict between the subjects of this blog and the act of writing about them. Nearly every post touches at some point on the ineffable. Bloggers, however, must “eff”.

Just as Kabuki theatre uses the convention of stagehands dressed in black to designate invisibility, I use some conventions, when I must use words, to designate the ineffable. One of those conventions is to constantly change what I call… well, that which can’t really be named at all.

I do feel very strongly that one cannot name the Divine. To say anything is to say something far too complicated and cluttered and  distorted to apply to that which it is intended to designate. By never settling on one name for the Ultimate, but instead switching terms constantly, I am using a convention to indicate that these words are not names, but ordinary words, and that the subject of the words forever remains unnamed.

On a related note, whatever you do don’t take a word I write too seriously. I’m not a theologian, I’m a spiritual-not-religious mystic. Theology is to mysticism what a description of a holiday meal is to Thanksgiving dinner. The theologian describes the proper way to cut a turkey; I eat, and drip gravy on my shirt and get my sleeve in the the cranberries, and I don’t care. I’m not interested in getting my doctrine right. I don’t even have a doctrine to get right. I try to get my experience of spirituality right, and leave it to others to get their descriptions right.

(Title lost in transferring the blog to a new server)

(From the old blog, and dated April 18th, 2009 at 1:17 AM)

Fundamentalist Christians, after reading the last substantial post, might have clucked to themselves thinking “Yes, I knew it! Meditation is demonic.” So perhaps it’s time to make the links between the world’s spiritual practices.

Treasure map showing many routes to the destination
There’s more than one way to get from here to there.

There are four plausible routes from my where I sit to the convenience store I can see from my window (as well as many more bizarre routes involving things like jumping out of windows or rappelling off the roof or simply going in the opposite direction and circling the earth). I can think of at least three plausible ways I could fry an egg in my kitchen, and another three ways to make toast (not counting extra ingredients). I have at least five different ways to post this entry. Because God  is very great and is more than one dimensional, I find it implausible on the face of it that there could be “one true path” to God.

That’s not to say, as spiritual cowboys (and others who haven’t thought about it carefully) often do, that “all spiritual paths are valid”. As close as I am to that convenience store here, I could nonetheless plot out an infinite number of routes that are guaranteed never to get me there. Human history is a bin overflowing with failed notions and errors committed. To claim that all spiritual paths are valid is as implausible as to claim that there is only one true way.

But there’s more here. When I say I “meditate”, I don’t, really, though what I do is indistinguishable from meditation. I do Western contemplative prayer.

If one is steeped in the Western tradition of prayer, sooner or later in among all the words has to enter the thought “why am I praising That which needs no praise? Why am I asking things of That which already knows everything I would ask about?  What function does all the noise I make serve, except to display my insolence?” Then, the most natural prayer in the world is silent contemplation of the Divine.

Such prayer is absolutely indistinguishable from most forms of Eastern meditation. There is a trend, in fact, to call it “meditation”, so that the general public knows what is being talked about.  Or, worse, to label it “centering prayer” and then to teach it as a technique, much as yoga is taught.  But it’s not a technique. It’s a state of mind that simply sprouts after one has tilled the soil long enough.

If my hypothetical fundamentalist mentioned above was strong in his or her

The Ladder Of Divine Ascent icon from Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai
My favorite icon, The “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, depicts Christians being attacked and sometimes pulled away from the ladder to heaven by demons.

faith, he or she too should have tasted at least something of this silent prayer. (And yes, Christian mystics report all the same problems with disruptive “whatevers” as their Eastern counterparts. If meditation is satanic, so too must be Christian prayer.).

Somewhere after the point where practices converge, so too does theology, which is to say that it disappears. Whether one calls it emptying or repentance or yielding or surrendering,  one cannot cling to dogma with a deeply silent mind, not even to the dogma that brought one to silence.

Any sound path will converge at that same point.

But I did say there were plenty of not-so-sound paths. Our hypothetical fundamentalist is on one. Fundamentalisms of every sort are defined by a baggage train of ideas, rules, and beliefs, and a militant insistence that they have a unique claim to the truth.  Fundamentalism whirs along on its own route, studiously avoiding everything that might disturb its self-absorption, like, for example, God. Either our fundamentalist will someday pray his or herself out of fundamentalism, or his or her fundamentalist beliefs will stifle prayer.

Another path whirring along on its own course, never actually turning towards that convergence point and beyond, is a sizable proportion of what calls itself New Age. Yes, that mean you, cowboys.  If you spend  time creating elaborate cosmologies in one’s head, populated by pantheons of Ascended Masters led by St Germaine who predict Earth Changes after which Indigo Children exploit UFO technology to recreate Atlantis  (insert any one of a number of other incredibly complex, mentally noisy, evidence-free ideas here)— well, where are you going? You’re carving ever more elaborate cognitive gargoyles to adorn the vast mental castles you build, while everyone who approaches the Ultimate throws everything out.

Sorry- managed to crash my site

(From the old blog, and dated Friday, April 17, 2009, at 3:00 AM)

I managed to crash my own site by playing with Modules I Did Not Understand [TM]… don’t worry, the content is alive and well, and will be back up later tonight, this time On Software I Know Well [TM]. [Edited to add] Content has been restored, as has the theme. Assorting things like the rss feeds, etc, may still be in need of tweaking, and I need to deal with external links, but I’ve been sitting too long at this desk to deal with it tonight.

I’m already missing Drupal. WordPress is nice, but Drupal is much more powerful (assuming one doesn’t play recklessly with things one should not play with, thereby turning one’s database into powerless sludge). Perhaps once my foot (recovering from minor surgery) recovers, I’ll put Drupal back and keep my hands out of the development module cookie jar (yes, it was that<stupid).

Meditation: not all bliss

(reposted from the original blog. The original is dated  Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:37 am

I keep a list of future topics, along with notes on the topics. One of the topics was about how meditation wasn’t all about blissing out, that it often gets difficult.


That topic wasn’t intended for today, and I had few notes under the item. However, I’ve just had a difficult three hour meditation session. And so, if nothing else, the topic is fresh in my mind.


When I say difficult, I don’t mean something ordinary like a wandering mind. I mean disturbing experiences involving seemingly malevolent forces. Nearly everyone who takes meditation seriously will find themselves, at some point, dealing with these problems.


One problem goes roughly like this: a meditator appears to be having an exceptionally good meditation. The meditator feels calm, happy, and then blam! the meditator is overwhelmed with a sense of imminent annihilation and utter terror. The terror may be an isolated occurrence, or this may be the beginning of a problem that affects not only their meditation, but spills out into the rest of their life. These reoccurring terrors are apt to be misdiagnosed as “panic attacks”.


Puzzled about what this could be? Remember the whole point of spirituality is to, as I put it in my very first post here, kill the self (ego, whatever), which the individual perceives as a kind of death, complete with the fear of death? Bingo.


By the way, this problem can happen outside of the context of meditation, in prayer, or pondering philosophy, or any other activity that can bump one’s mind up against something bigger than it’s ready to deal with.

This can be a very tough problem to solve. In one way it’s a good sign — it indicates the person in question has developed very good control of their mind — but they need to take a step back in their practice to work on whatever it is that is maintaining that fear. Stepping back may be easier said than done. So too may be figuring out what it is one needs to work on.


Somewhat easier to deal with, though just as able to terrify unsuspecting meditators, are variations on the theme of “evil spirits”. I put that in quotes because, frankly, I don’t know what to call them, or what they are, and I’m reluctant to call them demons. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what they are, they are unwanted and they are obstacles. This is the problem that graced my meditation tonight.


Tonight I first prayed for direction on how to deal with the unwanted whatever-they-are, and then I plowed forward with my meditation. I can’t give this as a universal formula for dealing with the problem. Sometimes it has been better that I change to a practice that is noisy and distracts from the problem — chanting reading aloud, any other activity involving sound and light and motion. Someone might feel guided to order them away, but if so, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t turn into a mental dialogue with them.


Sometimes these whatevers appear as “friendly” beings. And here’s where the Wild West really comes in. Spiritual cowboys are often happy to accept these “friendly” whatevers as “spirit guides” (ever wonder where they get some of their really bizarre ideas?). It is a good rule of thumb that anything that barges in on your practice is not friendly. It is another good rule of thumb that anything that attempts to impose its will on you in any way is not “friendly”. It should go without saying that anything that causes you pain or suggests doing harm to others or to yourself is not “friendly”. And it is a good rule of thumb that anything operating at a “human” level of consciousness, however friendly it may be, can only limit you, never guide you.


Treat every invisible whatever with great skepticism. I have run across what appear to be genuinely friendly and helpful whatevers. Without fail, they have been highly inobtrusive presences.


If all of this sounds just too weird, do some research. Look at what the major faiths with a mystical tradition have to say about the matter. The guy teaching the meditation class down at the Y might not know about it, but the world’s great mystical traditions know about it and write about it.


Doing without religion doesn’t exempt anyone from natural spiritual processes, no matter what the spiritual cowboys riding the Wild West of “spiritual not religious” may think. Learning to deal with the problems alone is one of those things that puts the “hard” in hard core.