Thursday, February 23, 2006

Developing a Spiritual Practice, Part One: Spiritual Perverts and Other Problems of God

A number of people have contacted me asking for specific advice about developing a spiritual practice, but I always tell them the same thing. I wasted many years of aimless searching until I finally recognized that the only true path was Islam.

Fooled you again, boy!

Actually, there are few completely universal truths, but the news of the day continually reinforces the importance of avoiding Islam. Do that, and you can't deviate too far from the true path.

Let's say you've done that. You've spent 30 or 40 years avoiding Islam, staying completely non-halal, refraining from beating your wife, not blowing up any churches and works of art, contemptuously mocking CAIR, not being constantly angry and humiliated, not whining about your civl rights being threatened. What's the next step?

As I have mentioned before, I am a little uncomfortable putting myself out as a guru or spiritual teacher of some kind. I've gone back and forth debating with Petey about this, and he always ends up saying something cryptic--and I think a little insulting--like, "what is a bad man but a good man's teacher, anyway?"

There are at least a couple of issues here. First, people have such a genuine thirst for spiritual truth that it is a terrible sin to exploit that. Seriously, on the spiritual plane it's almost like child abuse, because the uncorrupted spiritual impulse is so pure and innocent. It spontaneously reaches out like a child for its father or mother, and it would be awful to use that to aggrandize oneself. Again, this is one of my main objections to frauds such as Deepak Chopra and the rest of the new age gang of narcissists, pneumapaths, and gnostic salesmen.

Have you ever been completely overwhelmed by choices, just wanting someone "in the know" to tell you what to do? In the past, friends of mine who know about my golden ears have asked for advice when purchasing stereo systems. I tell them that they have to audition different components and learn how to listen, and that their ears won't lie to them. There's no wrong choice--just don't purchase a stereo manufactured in the Muslim world. But they don't really want to hear that. "Just tell me which one is the best, and I'll buy it."

To extend the analogy, it is easy to recognize the bad choices in the hi fi world. Those would be most of the mass-market components found in your local big-box store. Purchase most anything above that level of quality, and you have taken a quantum leap toward sonic truth. After that, you can spend ridiculous sums of money, but there's a rapidly diminishing rate of return. In other words, you have to part with a great deal of cash to make increasingly infinitesimal improvements at the margins.

It's the same way with religion. Clearly, the typical reader of this blog will have to wander from the beaten path a bit in order to satisfy their discerning soul. In other words, if you are among the dwindling remnant of my readers who don't mind that I've stopped focussing so much on politics, then you will likely not be satisfied with simply joining your local church or synagogue, dragging yourself to services once a week, and leaving it at that. Obviously you want something more. You don't yet know what it is, but you can sense it.

That sense--assuming you have it--is a very important thing to cultivate. It is not something to be extinguished by the first religion to fall off the turnip truck. Like sexual desire, it needs to be tolerated, sublimated, and transformed. You can't just "act out" spiritually in order to extinguish the impulse.

Freud was partially correct in noting that human beings are driven by primitive instincts such as sex and aggression. What he did not address was the fact that we are also driven--or pulled, actually--by other factors that are equally important. Ignore those and you do violence to the integrity of the human person.

For example, human beings are inherently relationship-seeking. One of the most fruitful advances in psychoanalysis occurred when pioneers such as D.W. Winnicott and R.D. Fairbairn realized that human drives do not occur in a vacuum, but are inherently "object related." Freud largely focussed on the drive alone, as if human beings are simply hydraulic machines or "pressure cookers" that need to let off steam, whereas the modern view sees the drive more as a "link" that connects two persons or subjectivities.

A great deal of pernicious societal misunderstanding has resulted from the notion that our uncivilized drives are somehow more real than our civilized personalities, and that if we could only express them in a conflict-free (and conscience-free) way, then we would inhabit a sort of instinctual paradise. This immature view is at the foundation of a lot of leftist thought. It is thoroughly romantic, in the rotten sense of that word.

Later innovators such as W.R. Bion developed the idea that human beings are also epistemophilic--that our minds are driven to discover knowledge and truth. Freud thought of our desire to acquire knowledge as a sublimation of instinctual drives, but Bion thought of it as absolutely fundamental to our humanness. We are born to know. But, just as with religion, this inborn mechanism can go haywire, so that it can know many things that are patently untrue. Most of the things people have "known" down through the centuries have been of this nature.

But the epistemophilic drive can also go awry in more subtle ways, in particular, the development of a defensive barrier in the form of a belief that one knows all there is to know. Such a person stops "asking why" at a certain arbitrary point, and then defends that point as being the last word. This is my objection to scientism, which takes the truths that are discoverable on the material plane studied by science and then elevates that plane to the status of all there is to know. Such a mind is functionally dead insofar as the epistemophilic drive is concerned. It will never discover higher truth. As Bion said, "the answer is the disease that kills curiosity."

This brings us back around to the main topic of this post, how to develop a spiritual practice. To our relationship-seeking and epistemophilic drives, I would add a pneumaphilic, or spirit-seeking drive. Is it not obvious that such a drive exists? No culture has ever been discovered that did not develop some collective means to channel this drive into various religious forms and practices. Here again, you could be like Freud and try to reduce the pneumaphilic drive to something more primitive, such as a desire for fusion with the primordial mother. But that is a false and partial view.

This is not to say that spiritual pathology does not exist. It most certainly does. Most any normal person can recognize that in much of contemporary Islam we are seeing florid pneumapathology of the first order. For just as the sex drive and the epistemophilic drive can become perverted, so too can the spiritual drive. The sex drive can become twisted in all sorts of ways--pedophilia, fetishism, radical feminism, etc. So too, the knowledge drive can crystalize into a perverse version of itself--deconstruction, Marxism, most forms of leftist thought, the designated hitter in the American League, etc.

In the same way, the spiritual drive can become a perverse fixation, both in its positive sense (i.e., cults) and in its negative sense (i.e., obligatory atheism, which is a kind of spiritual "color blindness"). One does not have to look far to see this phenomenon, both in its extremely dangerous forms that threaten mankind at large, but also in more subtle forms that harm only the person with the spiritual perversion. A lot of new age thought is of this variety. Just magical thinking, really.

Now back to your specific problem: what to do about a spiritual practice? I will get to that. I don't mean to ramble, but a few additional cautionary notes are in order. As I mentioned, I am reluctant to put myself across as some sort of spiritual teacher. In addition to the reason I cited, one can only advance along the path with an attitude of utter humility. Can you not see how this immediately disqualifies most of the arrogant and hubristic "teachers" claiming to be superior enlightened beings?

Another reason is that spiritual knowledge is not something to be treated lightly or disseminated to people who are not ready for it or will simply misunderstand or distort it. There are penalties for doing so. There has always been a recognition that one must make oneself a worthy receptacle of spiritual knowledge. This is why most traditions insist on a strong foundation of moral principles before one even starts--for example, the ten commandments in Judaism and Christianity, or the eightfold path in Buddhism.

Yet another problem has to do with the fact that each of us is, so to speak, a unique problem of God. This is something that applies equally to psychology. If you have a little psychological knowledge, you quickly recognize that people can be pretty easily pigeonholed into various categories. Obtain more knowledge, and you eventually recognize that it is almost as if a person of any depth is suffering from their own particular psychological syndrome that no one else suffers from. They can only cure this syndrome in their own way. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

It is the same way with a spiritual practice. Yes, there are universal truths. But they cannot really be transmitted per se. Rather, they have to be discovered by each individual. It is not like scientific knowledge, which, once discovered, stays that way, and can be passed from mind to mind like an object. Rather, real spiritual knowledge can only be subjectively acquired through personal experience. It must be discovered, not just once, but again and again.

I'm starting to run out of time here, so I'll be continuing with this topic for at least a couple more days. But look at something as simple as a belief in Christ. Dogma is important, as it provides the structure, or "bones" for a belief system. However, unless the dogma is illuminated by the light of personal experience, it will be like a blueprint with no building, bones with no flesh--much less a beating heart that circulates spirtually oxidized blood. It is fine to say that the Bible is the word of God, but one must hear, understand, metabolize, and be transformed by it. And no one--least of all me--can do that for you.

But I think I might be able to help. More tomorrow.


Bryan said...

"...if you are among the dwindling remnant of my readers who don't mind that I've stopped focussing so much on politics..."

We're still with you Dr. Bob, your fit though few readers. I for one having been longing for you to discuss this subject and eagerly look forward to the continuation.

dilys said...

Even more than mocking CAIR, this particular theme of religion and developmental insight seems to be a metier. Love the idea of inborn pneumaphilia. Also radical feminism as a sexual perversion (I've seen this noticed only once elsewhere, by a ballet critic in the 70s).
It's worth underscoring the epistemophilic hazard of loving to be right. Apparently there is also a neurological spurt of endorphins then, too.

So huuuuuge danger in combining e-philia and pn-philia into a love of being acknowledged for being spiritually right. As true of "student" as "teacher."

As you say, humility is essential. I suspect even defining humility is tough, "aiming at" it almost impossible. Like one of those monkey cages, the harder you pull, the tighter the trap. As St. Francis & Mother Teresa iconized, a way out of that trap is devoted service to other, individuals who need something. Good parents do that. As not-a-parent, it would behoove me to be more cheerfully in submission to the given situation, in service to others, in lieu of peering around looking for humility in the labyrinthine self-regarding inner monologue (see? you're the occasion here for moral learning already!)

As for "discovery" of spiritual truths for oneself, absolutely! Which doesn't mean there's not an advantage in going to where they're stored, where with reasonable application discovery is "designed in." And that's not entirely in books (usually freeze-dried and bleached, though One Cosmos escapes that as much as "a book" can). Which is a reason to wait with bated breath for your spiritual practice essays. And the unfolding next book.

Goesh said...

It seems we all the time look for mileposts to mark progress - how high have I levitated today? How long did I keep my mind still and quiet and blank in this meditation session? We seem obsessed with establishing objective markers for subjective process' and we seem compulsive about clumping together in herds and stampeding off in pursuit of Nirvana.

I pretty much operate from the premise that I have no real way of knowing how much progress and growth there is/has been with me, this persopn now writing this. To seek to measure is to somehow regress. To intellectualize is to digress. My standards of clean living to promote spiritual development, i.e. reasonably healthy food, no addictions and being active, are relative and probably harmful to others - the same with my relaxation/meditation methods. Petey would probably bite me if he saw me, and I still think by the way that he is a dog. If I were to slap on a saffron robe and be quizzed, I would tell people that they must on a regular basis allow their imaginations to run rampant and on the fringe of lunacy, that this alone fends off the inate compulsion of always trying to objectively measure the subjective. I would tell the real proven true believers that when in stressful situations with other humans, you must view them as some type of animal, perhaps a dog or an elk or a cat or pigeon. It helps, trust me. Well? Who in their right mind would ever get gruff with a pigeon or cuss a cat?

jewish perspective said...

i think you underestimate the roles of ritual observance and community which in judaism are deemed essential, even among mystics dating back to the first practitioners of kabbalah and other mystical disciplines.

In fact there is considerable evidence the early rabbis of the talmud engaged in meditative and mystical practice while they spent most of their time delineating the parameters for ritual observance and communal practices.

By and large the most spiritually committed among the jewish community (and even the charlatan kabbalah center) adhere to this view.

In judaism there has never been a distinction between the two, except maybe for "new age jews and jubus" of the late 20th century.

Tamquam Leo Rugiens said...

I am reminded of St. John of the Cross who inveighed against the spiritual directors of his day with their focus meditaion. "Meditation, meditation, meditation!" he said, "They are blacksmiths pounding iron, and God will requite them!"

As a spiritual director I follow three rules:
1. Help clarify what God is saying to this person.
2. Encourage them to pursue that.
3. Get out of the way.

Seems to have borne good fruit.

Hoarhey said...


Is it possible for a person not to have that "discernment detector" of which you speak in your piece? That mechanism which is able to separate the wheat from the chaff and keep a person on a true spiritual path. Or could it be a matter of wandering so far from the path due to an addiction or a persistant rejection of the urgings of conscience that a person doesn't know they are lost or just resigns themselves to being forever lost?
I ask this because I've seen an inability to discern right from wrong or recognize deep profound truth from a number of people I've come in contact with throughout my life. This trait seems to be particularly prevalent among "mid-level new age gurus" who seem blinded by their addiction to the accolades of their "students".
I'm always amazed at why a person would be flattered by the compliments of deluded people.

Gagdad Bob said...

jewish perspective--

I have no desire to alter your perspective. Whatever works for you is fine.


"Is it possible for a person not to have that "discernment detector" of which you speak in your piece? That mechanism which is able to separate the wheat from the chaff and keep a person on a true spiritual path."

--Absolutely, just as it is possible for someone to lose their ability to discern truth in other realms--emotional truth, artistic truth, metaphysical & philosophical truth. I see it all the time. Bear in mind that when we talk about various parts of the personality, it is mainly for diadactic purposes. In reality, there is all kinds of overlap, especially in a less developed person. As Dilys pointed out, the knowledge drive can get mixed up with the spiritual drive, and then merge with a sadistic superego to produce, say, the Taliban.

Also, the left is habitually confusing the religious impulse with lower planes of reality. This is ironic, because they think they are secular and that conservatives are the ones who do that. But leftism IS a religion--it has all of the emotional energy of religion, only chanelled in a pathological way. The technical name for the leftist pneumapathology is "immamentizing the eschaton," as described by Voegelin.

Michael Andreyakovich said...

The Catholic church's position on the RadLeft, from the RCC Catechism Article 766:

"The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize [in this world]... that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of a secular messianism."

In other words, Utopianism and Liberation Theology are both out the door.

Gagdad Bob said...

Badda boom!

You got it.

"'Intrinsically perverse" is exactly right. And when I say that, it's in a completely calm, detached and clinical way.

I suppose I should do a lengthier post some day and explain why this is so. But I guess the Pope has my back on this one, so perhaps there's no need. What did someone say? Christian liberation theology is not Christian, it isn't liberating, and it certainly isn't theology. More like "Marxist Enslavement Magic."

michael andreyakovich said...

And as for your commentary on spiritual perversion: I always liked CAT'S CRADLE, which was written by Kurt Vonnegut back when he was able to be an sarcastic asshole in print without making a total psychological commitment to assholedom. In the book, he discusses a society that believes that religion is not truth, but it is necessary to keep decent human beings from going batshit nuts; one of the island nation's rulers pulls a new religion completely out of his ass (so to speak) which makes as much sense in their circumstances as any other, and then forbids the people to practice it - whereupon they all practice it, proud to have something to live and die for at last.

One of the concepts the "prophet" points out in his holy books is the wrang-wrang, a man whose bad example leads others away from a life which would bring them misery. In regard to this idea: the novel's narrator, having allowed a nihilist poet of his acquaintance to room in his apartment for a week, comes home to find his living quarters trashed, his food eaten or smeared on the walls, and his cat killed. "So nihilism was not for me."

Bro. Bartleby said...

Sometimes one knows not the price of what one is asking for, here Jesus reveals the price tag (in material terms), a price that most are unwilling to pay. --Bro. Bartleby

Matthew 19:16-22

And someone came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

Kahntheroad said...

Thanks Bob, I had a feeling (faith, perhaps?) that you'd come around. ;)

In my experience, reluctance has been one of the more telling characteristics of the important "teachers" in my life.

In fact, based on those examples, my own growing reluctance to discuss (let alone debate) spiritual matters has been an indication to me that I'm probably on the right course, or at least not explicitly on the wrong one.

Now it just feels indulgent to babble on about my 'quest' or even to write about my own 'epiphanies' for myself. So, considering this growing feeling in my relatively young spiritual life - and the consequences I've suffered many times over for thinking I'd figured out more than I actually had - I feel I can at least imagine how broaching this topic is no trivial matter for you, Bob.

So, I'll just say, and it seems to echo the sentiments of your few remaining readers, that this advice is seen as a humble service.

jwm said...

On the pneumaphilic impulse:

...Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,

And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

John Donne
Holy sonnet I

See- now you've got me looking at old poems again. But you hit the nail on the head. That sense of hunger for something- that magnetic draw of anything pertaining to religious or spiritual matters- Squinting at the stereogram trying to get the image to appear. I like where all this is going.


:) said...


pst314 said...

"Do that, and you can't deviate too far from the true path."

"A great deal of pernicious societal misunderstanding has resulted from the notion that our uncivilized drives are somehow more real than our civilized personalities"

Another item to add to the toolkit of philosophical timesavers: Anybody who quotes Rousseau's blathers about noble savages can be safely ignored...although perhaps somebody should keep an eye on the jerk.

Ditto anybody who quotes Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, de Man, or any of the other anti-luminaries of post-modernism and deconstruction.

Anybody want to add more names to the list?

micrdick said...

It looks like you are close to rediscovering Christian Science.

We live in a world of our own beliefs, and there is no other place but our current state of consousness. However, there is a God, and the Christ idea has been in the world from before the time of Jesus.

I took up the study of Christian Science when I was healed of a condition that would soon have killed me by the silent prayer of a Christian Science co-worker. You can get rid of your diabetes with it easily.

Those who haven't looked into it are missing the best kept secret of the age.

A book by Peel, Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age is a good place to start. Read from page 16 to the end of the chapter and then read the story on page 54.

I love your stuff. Thanks.