Getting Real with East-West Spirituality Part 4: A New Approach to Wisdom Traditions

If you’ve read the last 3 articles then I congratulate and thank you for trusting me enough to work through the historical quagmire of Eastern spirituality in the West and to get to this point. I’m no fan of deconstructions that offer no solutions, so in this fourth and final part of the series we’ll attempt to make some omelettes with these eggs we’ve cracked. But first…

East-West Spirituality Today

Before we get to my proposals for a new approach to “wisdom traditions”, let us first quickly review the current state of the ongoing Cultural War discussed in the previous articles.

Modern Yoga in the West has become largely an exercise programme, perhaps with a dash of “wellbeing”. It has been stripped of many of its techniques and foundational philosophies. Academics even refer to it as MPY — Modern Postural Yoga. Meanwhile, even in India, its history has been rewritten to include just a few state approved teachers

What determines which parts make the cut? Science here plays its role as the post-colonial prefect, its institutions being the same or close relatives of the ones that enabled imperialism in the first place.

Largely missing from Modern Postural Yoga are its philosophy, its rituals, its stories / mythology, its code of virtues, and its esoteric techniques such as subtle energy work, mantra, yantra (even where these elements appear they are most often described in modern, mechanical ways).

And it’s amazing how easy it is to play into that. We get excited when we hear about scientific confirmation of the benefits of an asana, or a particular meditation, or for sound healing. In doing so we are subscribing to the same validation reference frame as those old colonialists. Consider this thought experiment: Why isn’t it the other way around? Why isn’t it a validation of Western science institutions for them to show that their work matches the much older knowledge of another culture? The answer is that we are still in the legacy of that self-superior colonialist mentality.

And on the other side of the spectrum we still have the cultish communities which prop up a belief in an untainted purity, and boundless power of a teaching or a teacher. With the leaders of such communities falling from grace year after year, each time we seem to want to reaffirm the validity of the aphorism “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Both of these extremes are just two sides of the same battle. None of it is in our own interest. Time to opt-out of the war.

Towards a New Way of Approaching Wisdom Traditions

The first step to a better approach is to realise that “authenticity” and “purity” are flawed concepts. They don’t hold up well under scrutiny. Looking too closely reveals them as the phantoms they are.

Authenticity always relies on someone being the authority, and given the adage “history is always written by the victor”, we should be skeptical of any self-proclaimed “authorities” and their claim to possess a pure knowledge.

Even if we have primary sources, like old dusty scrolls, that we are 100% sure are authentic (should we be?) the hidden shadows still assert their influence through their translation, their interpretations, and even in the preference for some teachings and parts of teachings to be highlighted over others.

What I believe we need is a shift in perspective, a new and improved modus operandi for approaching “wisdom teachings”, one that will give us tools to have better discernment, especially in unclear situations where emotions are high and egos are at stake.

Here is my humble start towards such a goal…

1. If you want to understand spirituality, study history.

I’m sorry if this sounds like a boring homework assignment. It is not. It is an enjoyable audiobook while you do the dishes. It is attending a lecture or workshop you might have missed before. It is taking that friend out to lunch who reads incessantly about this stuff and picking his brain (hi there!). It is many glorious “aha!” moments that occur when previously disconnected pieces of knowledge unite. It is discovering enhancements to your practice and new avenues to explore which enrich your life.

Why is this important? Hopefully the last 3 articles speak to that at least a little! The line above is actually my version of something said by my long-time-ago Politics 201 professor, the esteemed Michael Sugrue — reread the above heading, replacing the word “spirituality” with “philosophy” to get the original.

That statement really stuck with me over the years. At the time he explained that if you don’t understand the mindset and the cultural forces that were most relevant to the writer, then you will very likely misinterpret, or at the very least, not fully appreciate what is being said.

Furthermore, I would claim that it is not possible to separate spiritual philosophy and practice from politics and history. They are are interwoven like roots and soil. If you remove one then the other eventually dies. So we have no choice but to get more savvy about these things lest we just continue spouting New Age vagaries as ancient spiritual truths that in reality are a mutilated version of 19th century European weirdos.

As an aside for now, but one we’ll pick up again later, it is also highly beneficial to cultivate an interest in the rich philosophical and mystical traditions in your own cultures of blood, residency and modern life…Then you will be able to quote those magnificent weirdos properly!

2. To ask “What is Truth?”, start with “What is true?”

…don’t repeat a word that you yourself have not seen the truth of, which you yourself have not tested. Not other people’s sayings, but test your own thinking, question it, find out the truth of it. Then you won’t be a secondhand human being.
— J Krishnamurti

There is an unfortunate trend I’ve been observing over the years: As proclamations of “The Truth” become louder, there is a corresponding drop in the accuracy of what is being said and the intelligence of how it is being said. It seems almost an aspirational quality, in a yoga teacher for instance, to be able to parrot information they learned in a training or read on a blog, with an air of total self-assuredness rather than in a way that demonstrates true and deep understanding. This also parallels a somewhat low criteria for allowing a new piece of information into one’s head: “Someone I trust told me”, “I read it in this great book”, “It feels right to me”. That may be — but is it actually true? Exactly how true?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing something someone else told you. You just have to quote it as such so the listener can decide for themselves whether the original source is trustworthy. That’s why there are footnotes in writing. If you just copy it as if it were your own words, then it’s called plagiarism and it will get you kicked out of most universities, faster than selling drugs (no joke!).

A funny thing happens when you make the commitment to start applying more scrutiny to what you are willing to represent as Truth. You quickly begin to realise how little you really know about what you’ve been told. Let’s take a classic: Imagine you are teaching a class or chatting with a friend and you want to say:

“Green is the colour of the heart chakra”.

Minding the above, you pause for reflection. “How do I know that? …It’s in my training manual… Where did they get it from? ….Hmm?”. Off to the internets you go…

A few web searches later you start to realise how much of what you’ve been told has a different history to what you’ve assumed. Here, it turns our that the colour spectrum mapping to the 7-chakra system is a more recent association. This alone, doesn’t make it invalid, but if you really care about truth/Truth you’d have to say something like this:

“In the 1800s, the Theosophists in America along with the Neo-Vedantists in India, in their attempts to align modern energy science with Indian spirituality, chose the 7 chakra system out of the many variations and aligned it to the 7 colours of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Green is right in the middle (remember “ROYGBIV”?) so it became the colour of the Heart Chakra”.

See the difference? One of those statements conveys an actual lineage of knowledge and the other just gives the illusion of a privileged knowledge which, in truth, doesn’t even make sense as a statement. Can a chakra be a colour, like your shirt is a colour? If so how come I can’t see it? “Oh but my friend says he can see it. He’s very sensitive”. In 20 years, I have yet to see two aura seers in a room who can name the same colour. But that’s a topic for another time…

In truth, we haven’t sufficiently scrutinised most of the knowledge and beliefs in our heads. Yet that won’t stop us from getting angry when someone questions us about it. In fact, that is the very reason why we get frustrated, defensive when we are questioned — because deep down we know we don’t really have good reasons to believe much of what we believe, yet meanwhile, we’ve based a new identity on it.

Investigating and uprooting our unknown assumptions and beliefs should be the single most important part of a spiritual path…getting real with what is real. This should apply to every single definition, aphorism, belief, prescription, prohibition and moral judgement and especially those that we’ve acquired since becoming involved in spirituality…and indeed life. Perhaps the very willingness to engage in that process is a better definition of “spirituality” than the genre-fied one we have presently in the world.

But this is not a common practice. Instead, spiritual traditions are more often than not about manufacturing a whole new vocabulary of “truth”, which ultimately obscures actual Truth and even distorts the previous straightforward lesser concept of what is merely “true”. Before it was: “That guy is an arsehole! Stay away from him!”. But now it has become “What I see in the other is in me therefore the fact he is abusing me is highlighting my own negativity”. Before it was “respect and courtesy at the workplace”. Now it is “screaming at your employees to give them an inner ‘adjustment’”. Come on people, we can do better!

Let me surmise it thus: Until we identify all of our adopted beliefs and purify them on the fire of own personal experience, they will bind and control us and withhold us from the experience of a deeper liberated truth.

3. When assessing the worth of a spiritual practice, forget “authenticity” and look at effectiveness

Put another way: We must stop being overly seduced by the exotic. Sure, we can have some fun exploring other environments and cultures, but we must resist placing them on a pedestal just because they are different, because of our fantasy that they come from a time in the past that was true and just.

Even if there ever was such a time — the mythical Sat Yug / Golden Age — said teachings have had to adapt and survive through many an era of the power and control game.

In our improved engagement model, the same litmus test applies to all forms of knowledge, whether old or new, whether logical or fantastical: Is this improving my personal life, my family life, my community? Is it healing the things that bug me? How do I know it really is?

I once heard a Buddhist monk instruct his student roughly as follows:

If you want to know how you are progressing, don’t pay attention to how you feel or even what thoughts you think. Instead, pay attention to the external things in your life. That will give you the best indication on how you are progressing

It almost sounds counter-intuitive. Outside validation counts most?! But there is something subtle and profound here. This isn’t the same thing as being concerned with OPO (Other People’s Opinion). This is recognising two important facts, one which modern psychology confirms over and over, and one that is quite mystical:

  1. Our perception of ourselves usually is not very accurate
  2. Our spiritual potency affects our “external” environment. (i.e. the whole new-age “manifesting” thing)

So this advice is a way of neutralising our bias, while paying attention to a more objective measure made possible by the interconnected nature of the reality matrix.

In other words, when you get your sh&& together, your life starts to come together too. When communities get their sh&& together, then they should excel at all the human (and maybe superhuman) virtues…you know, the stuff we teach to children: integrity, honesty, communication, generosity, tolerance, cooperation, caring for each other, loving one another, prosperity, and all around excellence.

Thus, I think this is excellent advice for spiritual practices and the communities that form around them. Amongst those dedicated, regular practitioners, how healthy do they appear, particularly in the areas that involve external interaction: financially, socially, romantically, sexually, in relation to each other, to their employers/colleagues/employees, to teachers, to students, to their local communities? And how much agency do they have in their own lives?

Agency is the ability to want something and then make it happen. It is a healthy alignment of our desires and our creative actions. Often in East-West spirituality the desires get demonised and personal creativity gets replaced with a dubious take on the notion of surrender. (My personal favourite is hearing people bend, twist and warp the definition of “prosperity” to get around the fact that they are rubbish with money.)

Looking at the outcome over time, especially in communities, helps us bypass all the rhetoric and reality distorting effects of a single teacher’s charisma. It acknowledges too, that euphoric feelings are quite easy to generate in the short term. And nearly every wisdom or practice has some benefit. But this does not mean there aren’t less savoury components embedded in them. Often these can lie dormant for long periods of time, only becoming activated when the person reaches a certain point, for instance, becomes a successful teacher.

So….if you have teachings that outwardly promote openness and cultural inclusiveness, but, in practice, promote one particular set of beliefs and customs as superior — that is significant. If you have teachings that promote breaking free from puritanical religious values yet after time seem to model them better than ever, that is significant. If everyone says “happiness is your birthright” and yet they aren’t actually joyful people, that is significant! In other words, if something in you raises a concerned inner eyebrow, DON’T ignore it. It is significant. And here is the key line: If something is “off” in the culture surrounding a set of teachings, it doesn’t just say something about the teacher or the individuals involved, but rather it says something about the teachings themselves.

Again here we arrive at the need to leave behind this notion of purity. Instead, learn to discern what is good and leave the rest.

4. Begin to analyse things from a cultural perspective, not just a personal one.

IMO this is the most important point and one I don’t see being said anywhere else. I feel this is one of the biggest tools for learning to navigate the post-truth era. It is an antidote to all that we’ve discussed in these four posts, and it is also a technique that can be used in just about every facet of your life. But first, it is important to get the framing correct. When you do, it can be bit like that scene in They Live! where the hero puts on the glasses for the first time revealing the hidden subliminal world beneath the superficial facade.

We all think a lot about the experiences we have — though we are seldom fully aware of these thoughts. We also test out new potential experiences by imagining how they’d feel, what effects they would have on us.

Typically we tend to analyse these experiences from a personal perspective: _”How did/will it feel to me? Did I like it? How do I feel about the ‘me’ that is doing that experience? Does this picture feel good to me? Does it feel like a space that I’d like to move further towards?”_ If so then we might continue with that experience.

We might also check how it feels in relation to our important roles: as a partner, a parent, a professional, etc. And depending on our temperament, we might also give sway to the perceived opinions of others. But this is all still a personal perspective.

What I am proposing is that we begin to cultivate the habit of considering the things we encounter also from a cultural perspective, and pay particular attention to how it affects, how it relates to, and what messages it implies about our own cultures.

By “culture” I am referring to the habits, customs, attitudes, temperaments and common beliefs shared by a group of people. These may include things such as what we eat, when we eat, how we dress, how we sleep, how we decorate our home, how we spend our leisure time, how we communicate with each other, our languages, our shared preferences, our holidays, rituals and other customs, our sense of humour, our collective relationship to sexuality, our shared histories, our political infrastructure, our religious history (whether we subscribe to it or not) — basically anything and everything we encounter that relates to living life together.

Cultural boundaries are not a black-and-white thing. Especially today, we all sit at the intersection of any number of different cultural threads: multiethnic ones, geographic ones, family history ones, shared interest ones, educational ones, technological ones. Still, it is important to understand that though we may not be locked into a culture the way our ancestors were, people do share certain characteristics by having emerged from the same cultural context.

From the minute you learn the language, you can’t escape it. Even reactionary traits are based on a reaction to that culture. Those reactions will have a limited scope. You may be a funky radical dresser in your neighbourhood but you probably still wouldn’t choose to go around in a Roman toga. (Except now some of you might just go do it, just to be a rebel :) But even this temperament — having it, being allowed to express it, is very much under the influence of the person’s culture!)

We can’t help from being influenced by the cultures we are immersed in, just as a fish can’t help but be wet. We can’t escape it. It informs our thinking and defines the palette of things we can imagine doing, eating, saying, even believing. It colours how we interpret meaning in new experiences we encounter and this is where it becomes important to become aware of it.

Let me tell you the reasons why I believe that analysing things from a cultural perspective is so vital now…

First, the story told from this cultural perspective is often in surprising and stark contrast to the one told from the personal perspective, especially when it comes to modern media and adopted spiritual “traditions”.

For instance, perhaps a spiritual system, from the personal perspective, gives you self-insight, trauma healing, better health, access to a deeper side of reality and so on. Any spiritual practice in the modern medley will very likely give you some of these things. I know mine have.

But how might that same system look from a cultural perspective? If you look at many of them, the followers tend to engage in a number of activities that you might call “cultural transactions”. For instance, they may change their name, change their style of dress to that of a foreign culture, use a different vocabulary for traditional social exchange, e.g. how they say “hello”. They may change their eating habits, raise their children differently, celebrate different holidays, dress in different colours at a funeral, and so on. More likely, these “differently’s” aren’t random but come from the foreign culture their leader hails from.

Now consider this: Each of these things individually, from a personal perspective, might have a very good reason. Perhaps you are convinced that eating vegetarian is healthier or that not cutting your hair gives you strength, or that dressing in white, or red, or ochre, gives you some advantage in life. Perhaps you totally, unconditionally trust 100% the person selling you these cultural augmentations. None of this matters right now. All of these personal considerations you set aside while you analyse things from a cultural perspective.

From a cultural perspective, what is happening here is a takeover. The customs of the existing culture are denigrated and removed, and the ones of the new culture are put in their place. It is akin to a parasite. It takes root in a particularly fertile place — i.e. a set of people most congenial to its offerings on a personal level — and then it expands and spreads, with the eventual aim of replacing, or permanently augmenting, the host culture. And it usually does this without even mentioning “culture”, instead constantly redirecting your attention back to the personal perspective.

This is not a judgement. It is just what is happening. Reread those last two sentences. We have arrived at the above description without any emotion or prejudice or preferred conclusion. We have just described what is happening. That fact that this story, compared to the very sensible sounding personal perspective, tends to evoke more of a “WTF?!” response, says something veryimportant about the integrity of the system in question. This is precisely the tactic that cultural viruses use: appeal to the individual, personal perspective and then put into effect a cultural op.

Now, despite the above, there is no need to condemn and reject these spiritual systems outright. We mustn’t take the virus metaphor too far. Practices in these systems very likely will still offer clear benefits, hence why the personal perspective is so compelling. But by identifying the possibly less savoury cultural elements, our overall perspective is tempered, refined, and re-balanced. We come back to ourselves a bit. We reclaim some of the sovereignty on how we choose to live our lives, that perhaps was lost or would have been lost in the compelling force of the teacher and surrounding community.

This is the second reason why paying attention to the cultural ops effected by a system is so important: It makes us immune from its hooks. This we are able to delve into it safely, without losing ourselves entirely, and extract the valuable parts we need for our own individual development, as well as those parts that may indeed be helpful for healing our own cultures.

And this is the third reason why to cultivate this habit of thinking: Through the understanding that results from it we are in a better position to jailbreak, extract, and ultimately reconstitute a spirituality that has the potency of the mythical days-of-yore, whilst being entirely present with, respectful to, and harmonious with our own existing cultures — as messy or as beautiful as we think they are. And this is a much more human and holistic approach than sitting around and waiting for mainstream science institutions to validate everything for us.

Put another way, we can liberate our lives from the War of Cultures and begin to focus on the real work of healing our own. And when we heal our own, we stop harming others and finally allow them to begin to heal too.

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Writing about ancient esoteric practices, modern culture, technology, and the future of it all…