Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Spiritual Life: Reality or Delusion? (Part 1)

"All fantasies, especially that of religion, are caused by a short-circuit at the centre of the human personality.  This short-circuit, which exists between the heart which pumps blood (the circulatory system) and the spinal cord which circulates spinal fluid (the nervous system) is only repaired by ceaseless prayer in the heart.  It is only when the short-circuit is repaired that you begin to be liberated from the realm of fantasy."

- Rev. Dr. John Romanides in “Religion as a Neurobiological Illness”

Startling, isn’t it?  - A world-renowned Orthodox Christian priest and theologian calling religion a “neurobiological illness” and a "fantasy"!    You may remember that quotation from chapter one of The 5 Pillars of Life.  I'm bringing it up here because one question I get asked frequently is:

"How do you tell which spiritual paths will transform you life and which ones will wreck your life?" 

A month from now I'll have a whole new class of university students to explore that question with, as we take a really hard, analytical look at not only the world's major "religions", but contemporary spiritual trends as well.

So why is spirituality important at all?  Who needs it?  Simple... if you want to become a truly resilient human being, you cannot do so without a spiritual life because spiritual life, if it's real, is the only way to actualize the full potential of your being.  On the most obvious level, committing yourself to high values and principles will take you beyond the narrow confines of your ego and even beyond the constraints of this short life.  On a deeper level, there is no other way to open the depths of your being to a direct experience of the Absolute Reality. 

Of course, a quick look at the news is all you need to convince you that what we conventionally call "religion" can be a pretty scary thing - right wing fundamentalists condemning minority groups or telling their people how "God wants them to vote", Muslim demonstrators carrying placards saying, "Behead those who insult Islam!" are just the tip of the iceberg.  

You may remember that in The 5 Pillars of Life I make a clear distinction between "religions" and "Authentic Ancient Traditions" and outline the differences.  People in our culture these days tend to think religion - the institutional version - is bad, whereas "spirituality" - the individual version - is good.  Reality is not quite so simple.  So how do you tell the kind of spiritual approach that will transform you into a saint / Bodhisattva / immortal from the kind that will transform you into a neurotic, a terrorist or a self-righteous jerk?

Powerful Questions to Ask About ANY Spiritual Path:

1.  Does it insist that the only way to be saved or avoid eternal torture is to become a member and / or believe in its creed?

2. Does it tell you that God is angry, judgmental and is basically just waiting for you to slip up so He can punish you?

3. Does it give rise to a culture of guilt and shame?

4. Does it teach you that God hates "unbelievers" or that you need to convert them by force or otherwise oppress them?

5. If you try to leave this spiritual path, will your life be in danger?

6. Do its teachings give rise to large scale emotional dysfunction? 

If you're involved in or thinking of becoming involved in any spiritual path where the answer to any of these questions would be "yes", then I'd suggest you run screaming in the other direction... fast.  

In general, any "spiritual" path advocating violence is simply a fascist religious ideology masquerading as the will of God.  Those that have moral teachings that produce emotional dysfunction are usually distorted versions (religions) of earlier Authentic Ancient Traditions.  

Unless a tradition meets the following criteria, it's highly likely to be either a dumbed down version of an authentic tradition (i.e., a religion) or simply a fake from day one.  Here's what every legitimate spiritual path must have or do:

1. It must teach that a total mind-body transformation of the human being is possible, that it can begin in this life and that every human being, here and now, can come to a direct experience of the Absolute Reality (God or whatever the name might be).

2. It must possess a deep spiritual teaching that includes meditation and / or unceasing noetic prayer.

3. It must be able to prove that there is an unbroken lineage of transformed people who have put this teaching into practice, been transformed by it, and can pass it on.

4. It must be able to prove that it gets the results it claims, preferably by demonstrating this across multiple cultures for several centuries.

5. It must value love, compassion and humility above all else and teach forgiveness.  

These simple criteria will enable anyone to get to the truth about any tradition in short order.  

If you're a Christian or if you know the New Testament well, you may remember a section from the book of Acts (5:34-40) where a Pharisee named Gamaliel says that any spiritual movement that comes from God will survive and thrive, whereas any movement not from God will just fade away.  Since many Christians are used to the idea the Bible contains no errors, they may not have noticed that there's only one problem with Gamaliel's theory...

...It's plain wrong.  Total crap, actually.  History proves that many religious movements have existed for over a millennium, with hundreds of millions of followers, and that these same movements have given rise to near constant strife, killing, emotional dysfunction / neurosis and endless misery.  

So be really careful before you commit your spiritual future to anything.  If you apply the simple criteria above, though, you'll be just fine.

Next time, we'll talk about how to build a firm foundation for your spiritual life.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


  1. Unfortunately, most major religions are guilty of at least one of your six questions. This is such a shame because religion could be a source of powerful good.

    I'd add that you should also run if it teaches that it's teachings are superior to others, and that even if others are acceptable, by joining them you are somehow elite or chosen.

    Thanks for posting this even though it's sure to offend some people.

  2. in my life i have found that religions at their core are generally good. their implementation and practice by mankind often produces the results and situations you describe and thus, would be cause to run in another direction.
    thanks for the questions because they make sense and provide a base for discussion.

  3. Good lord!
    (The first thought that popped into my head on reading this was that you'd done a Julia Roberts on us.)

    A 'hard, analytical look' at the world's major religions / spiritual trends? Long overdue, probably, but also oxymoronic, and fraught with dangers in these polarised times. I doubt rational thinking's going to cut much ice in this sphere of life, except to the converted.

    Your 6 Powerful Questions are necessary (ie, hit the nail on the head) but are they sufficient (ie, does the nail go in)?

    For me, the following questions have always been paramount:
    Does it in some form or fashion stress the golden rule: Do unto others what you want others to do unto you?
    Does it stress recourse to your conscience (or a personal relationship with your creator, universal/cosmic consciousness, etc) when faced with difficult decisions?

    Secondly, do we 'judge' (analytically, not disapprovingly) a person by her beliefs - or vice-versa, a person's beliefs by what she does? While both are undoubtedly valid to some extent, I feel most people gravitate towards the religious/spiritual system that fits their world view, then subvert that system to justify what they do, so separating cause and effect as you're setting out to do becomes pretty difficult (even without culture and politics muddying the waters). Without sufficient space (a large enough population of people who have had a real choice of religious/spiritual system to follow) and time (centuries, if not millenia, to see how they've turned out), such an undertaking's objective of 'analyticality' seems contentious. It's hard to ignore some parallels with 'Power Vs Force' (David Hawkins, 2002), and he had the advantage of a test that anyone, supposedly, could perform.

    But: I do like the whole piece, and agree with most of your questions and all your 'separate the wheat from the chaff' criteria, especially the following criteria:
    - 'multiple cultures for several centuries'
    - 'unbroken lineage of transformed people who have put this teaching into practice, been transformed by it, and can pass it on'

    Finally, a confession: I'm sorry - I subscribed to your newsletter/blog, then stopped reading your posts; I have the bad habit of subscribing too widely and spreading myself too thin. You've got my attention now. I look forward to learning of your explorations.


    Unthinking faith is a curious offering to be made to the creator of the human mind.
    John A Hutchinson