The Spiritual and the Irrational

Posted on September 14, 2020

Every living being longs to be happy, untainted by sorrow; and everyone has the greatest love for himself, which is solely due to the fact that happiness is his real nature. Hence, in order to realise that inherent and untainted happiness, which indeed he daily experiences when the mind is subdued in deep sleep, it is essential that he should know himself. For obtaining such knowledge the enquiry, ‘Who am I?’ in quest of the Self is the best means. - Sri Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi is one of the true sages of the 20th century. He died before I was born but his ashram, the place where he spent his whole adult life, still exists. I have visited Sri Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai several times; it is a quiet and pleasant place in Tamil Nadu (South India) where you can still very much sense Ramana’s spirit. The devotees who run the place do not charge money for a stay but invite you to offer a donation.

It is my experience that the true spiritual masters do not have a great interest in money. They tend to share their love, their wisdom, and their guidance for free. In fact, this is one way to recognize them. Their work is mostly supported via voluntary donations, and they get what they need from those who can easily afford it or are inspired to give without being asked. Plum Village, the monastery of Vietnamese poet and zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the South-West of France, operates in a similar way. There is a spirit of equality in places like Ramanashramam or Plum Village. It is rare to see people there who act like they are spiritually more advanced than the people who come and visit. Nobody plays the enlightened master, although there is a deep respect for the founders. In places like Sri Ramanasramam and Plum Village one is reminded of Jalaluddin Rumi’s words, “Counterfeiters exist because there is such a thing as real Gold.”

Some forms of hierarchical relationship are healthy and empowering. Students should respect their teachers. Apprentices should respect the master craftmen who inspire them to becoume masters themselves. But no-one should ever ask you to give up your own discernment. No-one should encourage you to rely on a single source to get all your information from.

Sometimes I think, why didn’t we question things. We are intelligent you know. And that will always haunt me.

This is what one former disciple had to say about her time in the cult of Andrew Cohen.

In order to think for oneself, one has to be informed. Ramana Maharshi did follow the news. Thich Nhat Hanh, before he was left partially paralyzed by a stroke in 2014, was acutely aware of what was going on in the world. Fluent in seven languages, he did read up on world affairs, on ecology, on the suffering of refugees, and on the disruption of family life caused by war trauma. His engaged Buddhism is an invitation to all of us to take an active part in addressing the pressing issues of our times. In dark times like these, we all need to be our own lights, and our duty is to inform ourselves, using the most reliable sources that we can find.

Here are a few simple facts. For most people it is not that hard to stay healthy, so most people do not need the wellness industry. Eat a balanced diet, be moderate, engage in exercise without exaggeration, keep stress at bay with meditation or dwelling in nature, and your body will be thankful and flourish. It is highly unlikely that you will need any vitamin or food supplements. Distrust doctors who promote and sell supplements. The food supplement market is unregulated, and if you have reasons to distrust big pharma, these same reasons should make you distrust food supplement peddlers such as dr Zach Bush. I once had a logic student who became obsessed with buying supplements that he believed would boost his intelligence. He became a fine logician, but he ended up a lot poorer than he would have been without the supplements.

Spirituality became mixed up with the billion dollar business of the wellness industry, but wellness is not spirituality. Many of the self-styled spiritual leaders are in fact social influencers making lots and lots of money, through their self-help book sales, their peddling of food supplements, or their expensive workshop offerings. The wellness industry is raking in billions of dollars per year. They may offer some comfort, but like the whores on Seventh Avenue (Paul Simon) they are not in the business for your lasting happiness. There are better ways of spending your money.

You do not have to buy and read lots of self-help books. Learn to distinguish between self-help and true spirituality. If you enjoy reading, why not engage with current affairs and history and world literature? Also, there is no need for you to become a workshop or festival junkie. Yoga retreats to Bali or Ibiza, ayahuasca trips to Peru, adventure safaris to Tanzania to find one’s life purpose, what are these but indulgences for the privileged? There are less expensive ways to escape from reality, and your spiritual path can only start once you give up these escapes.

We are living in a time of world-scale disasters but also in a time of great opportunity. The realities of climate change and climate-change induced mass migration, the miseries and injustices of end-stage corporate capitalism, the ascent of totalitarian ideologies, the distress of a global pandemic, all of these things may be bleak but they at least have the advantage of being real. To be alive is to engage with what is real. Retreating into a world of pseudo love and light, self-induced stupor and make-believe is to be half dead.

Don’t believe people who are telling you that you have to transcend your ego or get rid of it, or that you should first become ‘enlightened’ before you are qualified to act in the world. We have to engage with the challenges of life whether we like it or not, and we all need a well developed sense of ego or self to cope with our circumstances. Of course, you may have issues that need to be addressed. If you are suffering from severe depression or post traumatic stress syndrome you should seek out professional help. Qualified therapists should be able to assist you to put your ego on a firmer foundation rather than to get rid of it.

If people around you start believing in obvious nonsense - QAnon level madness about a cabal of blood drinking child molesters, a conviction that Trump will save Western civilisation, a belief that climate change or covid-19 are hoaxes - don’t try to convince them otherwise, for this is a hopeless task. Be aware that these false beliefs are mixed up with very strong emotions: fear, distrust, despair. Pointing out inconsistencies in these beliefs is useless.

Sadly enough, those who have divorced themselves from reality will have to suffer the consequences by themselves. Your best course of action is to take your leave from them and seek out sane companionship. It is better to steer clear of people who believe that feelings trump rational analysis, for if you run into a disagreement with such people there is no reasonable way to resolve it, and before you know it you are on the road to violence. Peddling conspiracy beliefs is a known tactic of the extreme right.

A sense that people in government, journalism and science may sometimes deceive you is not unhealthy, but please be aware that it is dangerous to doubt and question everything and everybody at the same time. If you believe that a particular newspaper story is unreliable, the rational way to proceed is to find a more reliable news source. Believing that all sources are to be distrusted makes you rudderless. In order to navigate we need our rudder and we need beacons, so we have to put our trust somewhere. Those who distrust everyone easily become the helpless victims of social influencers who are only interested in boosting likes, views and followers, for that is how they make their money. Don’t become a clueless fool.

QAnon is not just nonsense. It is extremely dangerous nonsense. If you don’t see this, please read up on the history of fascism. The first step on the road to fascism is the demonizing of groups and the peddling of fake stories to scare people witless. Don’t fall for it, do not spread it, and disengage from people who do.

Engage with people who can help you to cope in the dangerous times ahead. Our stories are not forever. Our bodies are not forever. Our civilization is not forever. Our technologies are not forever. But our planet Earth is a tough lady, and she will still be there, for a long time to come. Almost all people are upset. Some people are very upset. A few people are so upset that they become a danger for those around them. We have to protect ourselves from those who are very upset, and it takes great skill and wisdom to do this without devaluing them or considering them evil.

We eventually learn that spirituality is not about leaving life’s problems behind, but about continually confronting them with honesty and courage. — J. Krishnamurti

May you all be well.