Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts on "Spiritually Transmitted Diseases"

I came across this article yesterday and found that it had the interesting premise of treating various problems that can arise during spiritual practice as "diseases" or afflictions. Mariana Caplan, the author, is a psychotherapist and as I've mentioned before the whole Freudian-inspired unconscious mind hypothesis does not hold up to neuroscientific experimentation. So as you might expect there are several places where I would use different terminology, and some where I outright disagree with her contentions. On the other hand, it's good to see these issues being discussed at all in the mainstream media.

It is a jungle out there, and it is no less true about spiritual life than any other aspect of life. Do we really think that just because someone has been meditating for five years, or doing 10 years of yoga practice, that they will be any less neurotic than the next person? At best, perhaps they will be a little bit more aware of it. A little bit.

"Neurotic" is the first of Caplan's loaded psychoanalytic terms, but if she means what I think she means I disagree right off the bat. I would certainly hope that anyone doing sustained spiritual practices for that long would be substantially more realized than someone who hadn't. If not what's the point of bothering? If after five or ten years of doing the work you're not much better off than before I posit that either you're not doing the work as seriously as you should or you're doing it wrong. I'm not trying to say that spiritual practitioners are going to be perfect or anything like that, but generally speaking one's practices should produce noticeable life improvements over time and if they don't it indicates a problem.

There are wrong ways to meditate and wrong ways to do yoga, at least if one's goal is realization. The biggest problem I've seen with how meditation is taught is either you're told that the only way to succeed is to "empty your mind," which requires a level of concentration most people can't manage off the bat, or alternately that all you're supposed to do while sitting is relax. What you're really supposed to do - observe your arising thoughts and whenever you feel yourself being drawn into them return your attention to your breath or mantra - is simple, but it's not always easy and it's something that you need to actively do if you want to be successful. The biggest problem I've seen with yoga is when it's taught as a mere physical exercise by instructors who fail to address its spiritual and energetic components. Any of those errors can lead to a practice that fails to produce results.

The following 10 categorizations are not intended to be definitive but are offered as a tool for becoming aware of some of the most common spiritually transmitted diseases.

1. Fast-Food Spirituality: Mix spirituality with a culture that celebrates speed, multitasking and instant gratification and the result is likely to be fast-food spirituality. Fast-food spirituality is a product of the common and understandable fantasy that relief from the suffering of our human condition can be quick and easy. One thing is clear, however: spiritual transformation cannot be had in a quick fix.

Even though the Just-World Assumption leads to the idea that working at something automatically makes it worthwhile no matter how ineffective it is, this first example results from the opposite problem. There really is no such thing a free lunch in spiritual practice, though some methods do produce better and faster results that others. Intercessionary religious systems are the worst violators here, in that they are built around the idea that an elect priesthood can do the spiritual work for all of their followers. From a technical standpoint this is impossible - nobody can do your spiritual work for you. The results of realization are experiential, and thus impossible to communicate accurately via language or even detailed exposition.

2. Faux Spirituality: Faux spirituality is the tendency to talk, dress and act as we imagine a spiritual person would. It is a kind of imitation spirituality that mimics spiritual realization in the way that leopard-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of a leopard.

This is one of the things that personally bugs me about the Salem set, but believe me, they are nowhere near the worst offenders I've run across in even my local magical community. From ridiculously gothed-out ceremonialists to pagans who dress like rejects from a Renaissance Faire I've seen it all. Magick is a spiritual and esoteric practice, not a fad or a style or a mode of dress. Most serious magicians dress pretty much like everyone else. The robes and such usually only come out when we're actually working magick, if they come out at all - most of the time street clothes work fine even in ritual if they're not too distracting.

3. Confused Motivations: Although our desire to grow is genuine and pure, it often gets mixed with lesser motivations, including the wish to be loved, the desire to belong, the need to fill our internal emptiness, the belief that the spiritual path will remove our suffering and spiritual ambition, the wish to be special, to be better than, to be "the one."

Even though I'd like to see a little less value-judging language here than dismissing some motivations as "lesser," it is vital for any practitioner to be as clear as possible about his or her goals. It sounds like I differ a bit from Caplan here in that I don't think there's anything wrong with working magick in order to achieve some measure of financial freedom, or meet a suitable partner, or even defend yourself against enemies. Furthermore, you don't want to fall into the trap of evaluating such goals and dismissing them as "not suitably spiritual." I've met many pagans, for example, who have an ambiguous relationship with money on those grounds. The truth is that there's nothing particularly spiritual about poverty, and there's nothing wrong with using some magick to alleviate it if you're able to do so.

4. Identifying with Spiritual Experiences: In this disease, the ego identifies with our spiritual experience and takes it as its own, and we begin to believe that we are embodying insights that have arisen within us at certain times. In most cases, it does not last indefinitely, although it tends to endure for longer periods of time in those who believe themselves to be enlightened and/or who function as spiritual teachers.

The problem with ego-language as it often is used in psychotherapy is that it implies the ego is a "thing" or object in its own right. This is not really the case according to experimental psychology. The personality we experience is simply our personality, not a subset or aspect of it, and there just isn't a bunch of "repressed material" lurking in some hidden corner of our minds. From that perspective, there's nothing wrong with embodying spiritual experiences - in fact, I think embodied spirituality represents the future of magick and mysticism. This experience only becomes an affliction when the personality is weak and

5. The Spiritualized Ego: This disease occurs when the very structure of the egoic personality becomes deeply embedded with spiritual concepts and ideas. The result is an egoic structure that is "bullet-proof." When the ego becomes spiritualized, we are invulnerable to help, new input, or constructive feedback. We become impenetrable human beings and are stunted in our spiritual growth, all in the name of spirituality.

Again, I think the use of "ego" here is misleading. It suggests that this problem occurs when the personality is too strong, but in fact this condition arises from a personality that is too weak. Aleister Crowley's Liber Librae addresses this affliction in clearer words: "The sin which is unpardonable is knowingly and wilfully to reject truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices." To my way of thinking the "bullet-proof" personality as explained here is better explained as fearful rather than too strong.

6. Mass Production of Spiritual Teachers: There are a number of current trendy spiritual traditions that produce people who believe themselves to be at a level of spiritual enlightenment, or mastery, that is far beyond their actual level. This disease functions like a spiritual conveyor belt: put on this glow, get that insight, and -- bam! -- you're enlightened and ready to enlighten others in similar fashion. The problem is not that such teachers instruct but that they represent themselves as having achieved spiritual mastery.

This one alludes back to #1. There's no system that can quickly and easily enlighten you, let alone enable you to teach others. Spiritual progress takes work and it takes time, especially if you're looking to achieve anything close to mastery. One of my Buddhist teachers commented that Westerners make good students because they tend to diligently apply themselves to the practice and are educated enough to understand complex instructions, but make bad students because they often think they're progressing faster than they really are and want to teach long before they're truly ready. It's no surprise to find that there are systems out there taking advantage of this tendency.

7. Spiritual Pride: Spiritual pride arises when the practitioner, through years of labored effort, has actually attained a certain level of wisdom and uses that attainment to justify shutting down to further experience. A feeling of "spiritual superiority" is another symptom of this spiritually transmitted disease. It manifests as a subtle feeling that "I am better, more wise and above others because I am spiritual."

In many heathen communities there is a difference between "boasting" and "bragging." The former refers to taking pride in what one has genuinely accomplished, while the latter refers to puffing yourself up in order to seem better than you truly are. Pride in and of itself is not a problem so long as doesn't lead to a form of #5. In a lot of ways, this one and #5 describe the same affliction with the same remedy. No matter how far you've come or how far you think you've come, remain open to new ideas and experiences. "The method of science, the aim of religion" is a great way to maintain this perspective, because it carries with it the understanding that even an established theory can be refined and improved with the help of more accurate data.

8. Group Mind: Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Individuals and groups infected with "group mind" reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group.

Don't get me started on the co-dependence hypothesis, which contends that all sorts of normal human relationships and activities share characteristics with addictions arising from substance abuse. However, it is true that this mindset is problematic in two ways. First of all, it can manifest as a form of #2, in which individuals who adhere tightly to the rules of a group assume they must be one of the enlightened ones because of their diligence, regardless of how realized they actually are. Second of all, it can be used to shut down legitimate realizations that don't happen to fit the group's particular schema. Aleister Crowley was perhaps a bit extreme in his arrangement of the A.'.A.'. to eliminate all social interaction, but it is true that the social dimension of spiritual practice is beset with dangers and pitfalls that must be watched for and avoided.

9. The Chosen-People Complex: The chosen people complex is not limited to Jews. It is the belief that "Our group is more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened and, simply put, better than any other group." There is an important distinction between the recognition that one has found the right path, teacher or community for themselves, and having found The One.

Univalence - the idea that one spiritual path is true and all others are false - poisoned the monotheistic religions long ago, and any new religious movement that starts down that road risks the same fate. Returning to Liber Librae, "In the true religion there is no sect, therefore take heed that thou blaspheme not the name by which another knoweth his God". Different paths can be right for different people, and to claim otherwise is to artificially attempt to impose a spiritual orthodoxy upon the world. Doing so is simply impossible, but religions nonetheless spend an unbelievable amount of effort trying to this day.

10. The Deadly Virus: "I Have Arrived": This disease is so potent that it has the capacity to be terminal and deadly to our spiritual evolution. This is the belief that "I have arrived" at the final goal of the spiritual path. Our spiritual progress ends at the point where this belief becomes crystallized in our psyche, for the moment we begin to believe that we have reached the end of the path, further growth ceases.

This is pretty much the most extreme version of #7, and in my experience constitutes one of the most serious problems that arises from the degree structures of both pagan schools and ceremonial orders. As James Austin documents in Zen and the Brain, states of consciousness don't stabilize until you're very far along the path. You may have established Knowledge and Conversation with your Holy Guardian Angel, but especially early on the link will fade in and out. Furthermore, once you've established the link it doesn't mean that you're going to think and act like an Adept all the time. But the idea that you have "arrived" at the 5=6 degree obscures this fact.

In reality the link to the HGA depends on continuing the work - if you stop doing your daily practices you can lose regular contact with it. The lesson? You're never "done." Spiritual realization is like an improper integral that approaches the infinite but never quite reaches it, not a ladder on which you can climb up a certain number of steps and then rest. A sure way to identify this problem in others is to look for individuals who once kept up their practices but no longer feel a need to do so. We all go through phases of being better and worse about our practices, but a sure sign of trouble is someone who thinks he or she is at "another level" where they are no longer necessary.

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Sincerus Renatus... said...

I took a look on you old psychoanalysis rebuttal article. Well, only using neuroscience as a model for the understanding of human consciousness and behaviour, the premise of magic and occult forces may as easliy be debunked as the belief in the unconscious.

BTW, didn't you know that there is a field in neuroscience, called "neuropsychoanalysis", which tries to integrate Freud's theories with modern neurology? I haven't studied it myself, but I though I would mention it.

In Licht, Leben und Liebe,

Scott Stenwick said...

What I'm trying to do here is use neuroscience as a model for the brain processes that support consciousness, not argue that they are the end-all and be-all of spiritual phenomena. Brain processes are biological and basically of the Nephesh, not the Ruach in Qabalistic terms. At the same time, I'm convinced that the structure of consciousness is related to the basic geometry of the nervous system. Anyway, I test out my spells and measure the probability shifts they produce, which provides some empirical evidence of consciousness interacting with the physical world.

In some ways it's actually Jung's system rather than Freud's that takes the biggest hit from neuroscience. The idea of affects produced by unconscious independent complexes lends itself nicely to mapping, as I did in this paper from my college days, but it just doesn't work experimentally. You can sort of use it to map out memories and impressions, but even then there's a huge mosaic effect at work and it's easy to see what you want to see when you're trying to analyze the overall pattern.

With Freud you have to replace the "internal repression" concept (you don't know what you're really thinking because "something" won't let you recall it) with a social one (you know what you're thinking but won't admit it to others if you've been conditioned to deem it shameful) and incorporate the nearly infinite malleability of memory. However, I can also see where some psychoanalytic ideas like balancing internal drives against social realities (sublimation) are probably going to remain useful barring some sort of paradigm-shifting finding that I can't even imagine at this point.

Where Freud has hit occultists the hardest in the past was during the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic. "Memory is always preserved but repressed" is what gave us "recovered memories" that landed a lot of folks in jail who were later exonerated. Memory is most emphatically NOT preserved, and it can be manufactured quite easily. Any new synthesis of neuroscience and psychoanalysis will have to address that fact in order to correctly model mental processes.

Anonymous said...

Just because someone has done something for 10 years doesn't mean they have 10 years experience. Often, it means they have 1 year experience, repeated 10 times. I encounter this a lot, and I think it might be affecting that author's data set.

The experimental psychology on our experience of the ego sounds really interesting (on item 4). Could you post more on it? And what do you mean by "embodied spirituality"?

Scott Stenwick said...

I used to run into that sort of thing years ago in the magical community, too, particularly among chaos magicians who were really into learning a whole bunch of different systems of magick and switched back and forth. The problem with doing that you can wind up learning all the introductory parts of a new system and then moving onto something else before you ever reach more advanced techniques.

My point regarding the ego is just that our personality consists of the totality of our internal experience from moment to moment, if that makes sense. It's not an "ego" - that is, not a limited subset of our personalities - that we experience. No real research has ever been able to locate a "shadow" or similar repository of "repressed" material. It just isn't there. All such ideas do is make us doubt ourselves and overanalyze tiny details of our lives looking for "issues." That practice is a collosal waste of time. We're much better off just observing our thoughts and accepting that what we experience during that practice is simply what's there, rather than being hypervigilant for signs of self-deception.

Embodied spirituality to me means bringing the totality of your being - physical, emotional, mental - onto the spiritual path. The idea that there's some sort of problem with this is rooted in the dualistic idea that the material is bad and the spiritual is good. First millennium Gnostics had a lot of interesting ideas about the process of spiritual realization, but their embrace of the matter/spirit divide poisoned many of their teachings.

It is perfectly reasonable to engage the physical aspects of your being as part of your spiritual work and evolutionary path. The Hindu and Buddhist Tantric schools (and by that I mean traditional Tantra, not the so-called "Neo-Tantra" which is more like modern sex magick) were probably the first spiritual groups to explore this idea, but as I see it that perspective is an important part of Thelema as well.