A show for independent spiritual explorers who seek peace of mind, better relationships, and a more meaningful life. If you're interested in meditation, psychology, spiritual practice, and spiritual community, but you're not interested in handing your life over to spiritual gurus or religious institutions, you've come to the right place. Hosted by me, Jacob Gotwals: psychotherapist and explorer of mind and relationship. I take an independent perspective here; I explore ideas without getting overly attached to any particular ideology, and I don't claim to represent any particular religion, spiritual tradition, or secular school of thought.
The Cycle of Spiritual Practice
For any given set of spiritual practices, there are many possible approaches to (or ways of engaging with) those practices. This article describes ten such approaches. We tend to cycle through these ten approaches; this article describes that cycle, which I call the cycle of spiritual practice.
I’m also going to talk about four zones of spiritual practice; in different zones, different things are guiding our actions: reason versus intuition, and tradition versus creativity. I’ll talk about the benefits of each of these four zones and the problems that can arise when we don’t have access to each of these zones. I’ll also talk about how the traditional and creative zones of spiritual practice are related to power and exploitation in spiritual groups.
I’m hoping that by the end of this article, you’ll understand the cycle of spiritual practice; you’ll understand the ten different approaches within that cycle; you’ll understand the four zones of spiritual practice; and you’ll start to recognize your edges for growth (you’ll recognize which approaches and zones you’re comfortable in and which approaches and zones seem less familiar). I’m also hoping that by the end of the article, you’ll get a little better at recognizing oppression and exploitation in spiritual groups.
Ten Approaches to Spiritual Practice
To start with, I want to give a quick overview of the cycle of spiritual practice. I’ll describe ten possible approaches to any given set of spiritual practices: yearning for practices, gravitating toward practices, studying practices, learning practices, adapting practices, grokking practices, mastering practices, experimenting with practices, jamming with practices, and, finally, teaching practices. Let’s explore these approaches in more detail.
Yearning for Practices
The first approach is yearning for practices. When we’re in this part of the cycle of spiritual practice, we know we want something, but we don’t really know what it is. We feel that lack. We’re yearning for something that we don’t have, but we can’t define it. If we could define it, if we knew what it was, then we could just go get it; but we’re not there yet. We’re just yearning for something, and we don’t know what it is yet. In a way, this is like a feeling of loneliness. But instead of lacking contact with people, what we’re lacking here is meaning.
We’re kind of vulnerable when we’re yearning for practices because we don’t really have anything to hold onto—except that maybe we have some faith that there’s something out there that might meet this need for meaning. But our faith is also easily squashed at this point. Basically, we’re yearning for the extraordinary, but we haven’t found a way to access the extraordinary yet. There are those who are invested in the ordinary, invested in ordinary ways of approaching life and the world and the universe. There are those who will tell us, “There’s really nothing extraordinary. All phenomenon are ordinary, all phenomena fit neatly into our existing boxes and can be explained by our existing models.”
At a certain point, when I was in this stage of yearning for practices, one of the things that that I ran into was neuroscience and neuroscientific explanations of consciousness and awareness. Neuroscientists have sometimes tended to reduce awareness and subjective experience to neurons—equating awareness with neurons and neuronal activity. That was kind of depressing for me when I was looking for something a little bit beyond the ordinary material world. I had a sense that there was something more than that, but I didn’t know what it was yet, so, that was kind of depressing for me to read those neuro-scientific explanations.
Gravitating Toward Practices
Awakening as a Creative Process
If you want to awaken, how do you know what to do? Where can you turn for guidance? In previous episodes, we’ve explored a number of options: you could turn to technology for awakening, you could turn to a spiritual teacher, or you could turn to a spiritual or religious group. I’m sure there are many other options, as well.
But, knowing you have options still leaves you with a problem: how do you know which option to choose? How do you know when to seek the guidance of a spiritual group or teacher, how do you know which group or teacher to choose, and how do you know when it’s time to leave that group or teacher and move on? If you’re not following a group or teacher (and you’re not drawn to do so), how do you know what to do on your own to support your awakening?
The Creative Process
In many ways, this problem is similar to the problem faced by an artist, an engineer, or an entrepreneur. On a regular basis, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs face the task of creating something out of nothing. An artist faces the task of creating a work of art, an engineer faces the task of creating technology, an entrepreneur faces the task of creating a business—and if you want to awaken, you’re faced with the task of creating a spiritual path for yourself.
If you’ve done any creative work, you know how the creative process goes. You might start with some idea of what it is you want to create, and you must work within certain limitations. Within the constraints of those limitations, you use your knowledge, experience, and intuition to do something. You take one step toward creating something out of nothing. There’s no guarantee that the step you take will be effective; you can’t know for certain, in advance. But, you take that step anyway.
Then you evaluate where you’re at. If you’re an artist, you look at how the artwork is coming together. If you’re an engineer, you test your partially-completed technology. If you’re an entrepreneur, you look at the feedback the market is providing. And, if you want to awaken, you evaluate your own evolution, comparing where you’re at now to where you were at before.
Now that you’ve taken this step, the problem has changed. You now have new capacities and new constraints. You now repeat these same steps. Over and over, you use your knowledge, experience, and intuition to take a creative step forward and then to evaluate the results. As a result of this process, if you’re an artist, your artwork evolves; if you’re an engineer, your technology evolves; if you’re an entrepreneur, your venture evolves; and, if you’re a mystic, you evolve.
Mystics as Spiritual Creatives
I use the term mystics to refer to people like me, and perhaps people like you, as well—people who take responsibility for their own evolution by creatively defining their own spiritual path. The path that a mystic takes may, at times, coincide with paths that have been defined by various groups and teachers; however, mystics are spiritually independent. For us mystics, awakening is a creative process of navigating our spiritual path, one step at a time. It’s an internally-guided journey without a clearly-defined destination—not a problem that can be solved by engaging with any particular spiritual group, teacher, or technology, or by attaining any particular state of mind or stage of development.
Skillful artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs don’t try to create everything from scratch. They have various tools, supplies, and technologies available to do their work with. They’re aware of what others have done before and they make use of existing ideas and technologies to do their work more efficiently and effectively. Similarly, skillful mystics make themselves aware of what others have done before to support their awakening.
Awakening to the Extraordinary
I’m Jacob Gotwals, and this is Spiritual Awakening for Geeks, a show for independent spiritual explorers who seek peace of mind, better relationships, and a more meaningful life. I call this episode "Awakening to the Extraordinary." In this episode, I’m going to be talking about the relationship between the spiritual, the religious, the sacred, and the extraordinary; I’m going to describe spiritual awakening as a cycle of sensing, pursuing and integrating the extraordinary; and I’m going to be talking about what kinds of problems can arise that interfere with this cycle and what we can do to avoid those problems.
This is going to be another take on something that I wrote about (and talked about) in the very first episode of this podcast; that first episode was called "The Call of Awakening," and you can find it at jacobgotwals.com/the-call-of-awakening. In that episode, I talked about awakening as a journey that changes our life patterns; I talked about the cycle of awakening in terms of our life patterns, and how awakening affects our patterns of living. This is going to be another take on that cycle of awakening; instead of talking about how awakening affects our life patterns, I’ll be talking about how awakening relates to the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
The way that I got thinking about this was, I read a chapter in a book by a religious studies professor named Ann Taves. She talked about what the religious, the spiritual, the sacred and everything like that, what all those things have in common. This is something that I’d been thinking about for a while. It’s clear that religion and spirituality, the sacred—they all have something in common—but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. She did a pretty good job of that, in my opinion. She said that what they all have in common is a focus on what she would call the special or special-ness. There’s something special, something unusual that we turn our attention toward when we’re involved with the religious, the spiritual, or the sacred.
That something special, I like to think of it as the extraordinary (versus the ordinary). It’s not just ordinary, it’s special or extraordinary. And there are other words that get used that have similar meanings—like the perfect (versus the flawed), the great (versus just okay), truth (versus illusion), clarity (versus confusion), or the ultimate (versus the relative). All these words point us toward something special, something extraordinary that we’re turning our attention toward when we get involved in religion, spirituality, or the sacred.
Here’s an example from Tibetan Buddhism. One of the ideas in Tibetan Buddhism is Dzogchen—the great perfection. This is one name for something extraordinary. Notice that it’s not just okay—it’s great! And it’s not just pretty good—it’s perfect! It’s the great perfection. These words are pointing toward something that is special, something that’s extraordinary; something that’s set apart from ordinary life, from the ordinary things that we normally attend to. I’d like to suggest that everything religious, spiritual, or sacred is based on something set apart as special or extraordinary.
So then, what is spiritual awakening? I like to think of spiritual awakening as a cycle having three parts. In the first part of the cycle, we sense the extraordinary; in the second part, we pursue the extraordinary; and in the third part, we integrate the extraordinary. I’ll be going into more detail about each of those three parts.
Sensing the Extraordinary
Let’s start with the first part of that cycle, sensing the extraordinary.
It’s been almost four months, so let’s catch up! In this episode, I discuss my thoughts and feelings about this show and how it’s been evolving; I give some background information on my latest article, “Stop Getting Indoctrinated by Your Favorite Groups;” I talk about my experiences with ecstatic movement and my recent forays into sociology and philosophy; and I discuss episodes of a few other shows.
* Now that I’m no longer reading my blog posts on this podcast, subscribe to my blog to stay up to date.
* Have your phone read just about anything to you with @Voice Aloud Reader.
* My recent blog post, “Stop Getting Indoctrinated by Your Favorite Groups.”
* Bradford Keeney’s books on ecstatic movement: Shaking Medicine: The Healing Power of Ecstatic Movement and The Bushman Way of Tracking God: The Original Spirituality of the Kalahari People
* Affordable introductory textbook-style books by Dorling Kindersley Limited (DK): The Sociology Book and The Philosophy Book.
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* “Metadharma: Set & Setting,” episode of Buddhist Geeks.
* “Culadasa on Meditation and Therapy,” episode of Deconstructing Yourself.
* “Deconstructing Yourself,” episode of Expanding Mind.
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Photo Borrego Landscape by Bob M is .
Stop Getting Indoctrinated by Your Favorite Groups
In my 30s, I was involved in an organization that promoted Nonviolent Communication, a self-help practice that helped me gain self-awareness, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Unfortunately, my involvement in this group had an unintended side effect: over the course of a decade, I gradually lost my ability to think critically about Nonviolent Communication itself, and I eventually became somewhat of a true believer; I go into more detail about this experience in an article titled “How I Became a Zealot (Then Freed Myself).” During this time, I had similar experiences—though to a lesser degree—with various spiritual and environmental groups, too.
Eventually, I noticed a pattern. After encountering helpful ideas, I was getting involved with groups of people that were promoting those ideas. In some cases, I got very involved; that was the case with Nonviolent Communication, which was my main vocation for a while. In other cases, I was involved to a lesser degree, as a student and spectator; for instance, I might study a group’s ideas, listen to their podcasts, and so forth. Whether or not I got highly involved in these groups, over time, something disturbing was happening: I was losing my ability to think critically about the ideas being promoted by these groups—almost as if I’d been brainwashed.
I now believe this pattern affects many people involved in many types of groups, including political groups, spiritual groups, religious groups, self-help groups, and even professional groups. Having had a number of years to reflect on this pattern, this article is my attempt to shed some light on it and explore what we can do about it.
How True Belief Limits Critical Thinking
What does it mean to be a true believer? You’re a true believer in a set of beliefs when those beliefs seem like facts or obvious truths to you. True belief limits your ability to think outside the box of your belief system, because when your beliefs seem like obvious truths, you’re less likely to seek alternative ways of understanding things, and you’re more likely to dismiss other beliefs that conflict with yours.
I used to think that people become true believers by choice—by consciously, voluntarily choosing to put their faith in a belief system. However, I’ve come to realize that true belief is more like a habit than a choice, and that true belief can arise unconsciously and involuntarily through the influence of a group’s culture. In other words, you can become a true believer by accident when you’re under the influence of a group. In the sections below, I explore how this can happen and what you can do about it.
How We Become True Believers
If we start using some belief system to make sense of life and guide our actions on a regular basis—and if we stop considering other perspectives—viewing life through the lens of this belief system can start to become a habit. At first, learning and applying this belief system may have been a voluntary choice—but, as this behavior becomes more of a habit, this habit can eventually become unconscious and involuntary. At that point, we view life through the lens of that belief system automatically, and those beliefs no longer seem hypothetical to us; they seem like facts or obvious truths. We’ve become true believers without intending to—and, perhaps, without even recognizing that this has happened. I call this process belief installation.
Note that I’m intentionally choosing to use the term belief installation instead of the more familiar term brainwashing. Belief installation is something that happens to us when we take certain actions. Brainwashing, on the other hand, is something that others do to us. Belief installation can occur without brainwashing; belief installation is something ...
How Spiritual Groups Support Awakening
In previous articles, I described a quest I was on in the mid-2000s: I was looking for a set of meditation instructions that would allow me to experience the altered states of mind and advanced stages of development that Ken Wilber had described in his work. Wilber’s work suggested that the instructions I was seeking could be found in various world religions, so I spent some time checking out various branches of Buddhism and Hinduism before finding a branch of Tibetan Buddhism that was a good match for me.
I’d been involved with a number of other spiritual groups earlier in my life, as well; in my 20s and 30s, I’d participated in a couple of Unitarian Universalist congregations and a self-help organization based on Nonviolent Communication. These days, I’m not involved with any particular religion or spiritual group, but my involvement with all these groups has been an important part of my spiritual journey.
Many groups are available to provide support for your spiritual journey—from religions to spiritual movements to self-help groups. For simplicity, I’m going to call all of them spiritual groups. What all spiritual groups have in common is that they all support spiritual awakening, which I define as evolution toward greater empowerment and greater compassion.
Three Modes of Involvement in a Spiritual Path
In previous articles, I described how technology and spiritual teachers can support your spiritual journey. Technology, teachers, and groups are supportive in different ways. In using technology, you’re applying practical knowledge to help yourself awaken; when you seek a spiritual teacher, you’re using the influence of relationship; and when you seek a spiritual group, you’re using the influence of culture.
Technology, teachers, and groups represent three distinct modes of involvement in a spiritual path, in that they involve a relationship with zero people, with one person, and with many people, respectively. Of course, these modes can be mixed (and often are); for instance, you might follow a spiritual teacher while participating in a group of her followers and using her online course to learn various practices she teaches.
Benefits of Spiritual Groups
Let’s explore some of the unique ways that spiritual groups can support awakening. Some of us like to do spiritual practices alone, but many people prefer practicing with others; groups can inspire us to do our practices, can amplify the impact of our practices, and can support forms of spiritual practice that simply aren’t available when we’re practicing alone. Also, when we’re in a group with others who are walking a similar spiritual path, we’re likely to meet people who are further along on that path who can provide support and guidance as spiritual friends, mentors, and teachers. Humans are social beings, and we have important social needs—needs for social interaction, companionship, belonging, and so forth. Spiritual groups can meet these needs while also supporting our awakening. Group participation can also support us in learning the views, customs, and culture associated with a given spiritual path.
Group involvement supports both explicit learning (that is, learning via intentional study) and implicit learning (that is, learning through assimilation). In a previous article, I described how, when you’re in a student-teacher relationship, you can learn from your teacher implicitly, without even being aware that you’re learning. The same thing can happen when you’re deeply involved in a spiritual group; however, in this case, the operative force isn’t your relationship with a teacher; it’s your immersion in the culture of the group.
Because of implicit learning, cultural immersion can have a powerful influence on you, for better or worse—so consider carefully before immersing yourself ...