What are ‘near enemies to the truth’? Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.
Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics. If you tend to this view, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of this blog post, since I wrote it just for you.
Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can actually be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting sacred cows must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that all-too-brief orientation, let’s look at our first Near Enemy.
Near Enemy #1:
Everything happens for a reason
As a literal statement, this is just true. Everything arises with specific causes and conditions. However, people use this phrase to refer to a challenging or painful event with a meaning something like “It’s all part of God’s plan” or “There's an unseen deeper purpose to this” or “It’s part of a deeper pattern that’s intrinsically meaningful and that you should trust even though you don’t know what it is” or “The universe is trying to tell me/you something,” all of which are problematic, because these ideas are often used in a fashion that supports spiritual bypassing or wishful thinking. When the cause of a painful event is posited as invisible or inaccessible (such as assigning it to God or an indiscernible plan instead of human interactions and human fallibility) then it discourages us from soberly investigating the part we played in bringing about that event. This is spiritual bypassing: using spiritual clichés to avoid doing difficult emotional labor despite the great benefits of that labor. As the man who coined the term, the brilliant John Welwood, defines it, spiritual bypassing is “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks . . . trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”
The most innocent of the four readings I gave above is “The universe is trying to tell me/you something,” which today often stands in for “God is trying to tell you something”. This can be a Temporary Ally, because it at least encourages some reflection: What am I being told? Is this car accident telling me that it’s not safe to text and drive? (Answer: yes.) But this line of thought is problematic because if you assign the agency of this ‘message’ to God or the divine intelligence of the universe (same thing, really), you’re going to end up resenting that intelligence in the same way you resented your parents for punitively trying to teach you lessons. You can get stuck in childish or adolescent consciousness in this way, trying to learn the lessons and toe the universe’s line so you will be rewarded with only good karma or perfect harmony with everything. Much more beneficial than this convoluted and misaligned view is the simple recognition that actions have consequences, and that if you pay attention to those consequences when they are still minor, they don’t get a chance to snowball into something major. Because it is often true that if we ignore an opportunity to learn something practical about the way things (or humans) work, that opportunity will re-present itself with greater and greater emphasis until it is acknowledged.
So what is the actual truth to which this is a near enemy? The phrase above that gets closest is “It’s part of a deeper pattern that’s intrinsically meaningful and that you should trust,” but this phrase is misleading in important ways. Yes there is pattern to existence — deep structures and rhythms and leitmotifs that everything fits into, even though some patterns are far too subtle and complex for us to predict as of yet (this is called chaos theory). But it’s not the case that you ‘should’ trust the Pattern unquestioningly, because then you’re still implicitly deferring authority to a (parent-like) ‘higher power’ and exempting yourself from the spiritual work. It’s much more beneficial (in my experience and that of others who’ve done this work) to learn to go beyond your own mind and your mental filter with meditation and awareness cultivation, so that you can begin to directly sense the Pattern (though you will never understand it, of course). Much more spiritually mature, I argue, to trust something you have a sense of than an abstract mental construct. And certainly more joyful. Experientially speaking, there’s a huge difference between believing there’s a deeper pattern and actually sensing it, and sensing something of its character (as Whitman did when he wrote, a kelson of the creation is love). Sensing it directly, the same way you see grass is green or hear a bird chirp without needing to have a thought about first or an understanding of it subsequently.
Is this deeper Pattern intrinsically meaningful? Yes and no. Conceptually, it’s not meaningful at all, because it has no message that can be spoken in words, and nor is it trying to ‘accomplish’ something. But nonconceptually, it’s incredibly meaningful, in the same way that a flower or a galaxy is meaningful. It means what it is, and what it is is beautiful. So when you come to directly sense the Pattern, you sense its beauty. Its ineffable, awe-inspiring beauty, which somehow includes everything. Then you can trust it. You trust the unfolding of your life. You trust that the universe, as it were, knows exactly what it’s doing, and you see directly how absurd it was not to trust. And then you laugh at yourself like a crazy person.
What’s the ultimate teaching on this? In Shaiva Tantra as in Buddhist Tantra, it is: yes, everything happens for a reason—and the reason is ‘everything else that has ever happened’. Because everything arises with causes and conditions, which themselves have causes and conditions, and if you trace it back all the way, everything gets completely entangled, and then you arrive at the Big Bang. (That’s why Carl Sagan said, “If you want to make an apple pie, first you have to create a universe.”) So everything is the cause of everything else that happens. Literally. That’s how interconnected it all is. That’s why Shaiva Tantra says “Each thing is contained in all things, and all things are contained in each thing. To contemplate any thing is to contemplate everything.” (paraphrased from Śiva-dṛṣṭi chapter 5)
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on the importance of truth in spiritual inquiry
We now live in a social and political climate rightly described as ‘post-factual’, which means that people are not clear on what facts are, and/or suspect they don’t exist in any reliable fashion. The primary reason for this is the Internet, which since its privatization in 1994 has given people access to an enormous amount of information and an staggering amount of misinformation. In combination with our failed education system, which still does not require students to take classes in critical thinking skills (such as understanding the basic logical fallacies), this means that the vast majority of citizens cannot skillfully separate fact from half-truth from outright fiction (or finds those distinctions meaningless; more on that in another post).
Let’s briefly review the difference. A fact is something everyone can agree on: for example every single human who bothers to measure it will find, like Galileo did, that an object dropped from a tall building will fall at a rate of 9.8m/s squared. So that’s a fact. Facts also exist in other disciplines as well as science: for example, a massive amount of evidence demonstrates that a passenger liner called the Titanic sunk in 1912, such that no reasonable person who looks at the evidence could doubt it. Facts don't change over time, they only seem to change in the eyes of the general public because collecting more data makes scientists revise earlier conclusions (prematurely released to the press) in light of the expanded and more detailed data set. But facts themselves don't change; rather, our ability to describe them slowly improves, which sometimes entails the realization that an earlier effort at description was off the mark.
Now, by contrast, a fiction or untruth is a statement for which no careful observer can find sufficient evidence (such as ‘dogs can fly’ or ‘aliens built the pyramids’ or ‘vaccines cause autism’), assuming that the observer is not already committed to a specific conclusion when she begins her observation (that's super important: only inquiry motivated by curious openness, without a foregone conclusion, can produce truth).
There is also a special kind of scientific fiction called a hypothesis, which means something that very well might be true but for which there is not yet sufficient evidence (“the jury’s out”). Now here’s where it gets slightly more complicated. In science, it is well understood that nothing can be proven with 100% certainty (because the scientific method is mostly inductive): something can be disproven, or something can be proven with anything up to 99.99999999999999% certainty (yes, that is an exact figure, from quantum electrodynamics, the most well-proven of all scientific models). When a hypothesis reaches a very high percentile of likelihood (usually, from 97% to 99%), it is called a theory in science. This confuses the general public, because nonscientists use the term ‘theory’ to mean ‘hypothesis’ or even ‘guess’. But the Theory of Relativity and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection are called such because they are more than 99% likely to be right, after more than a century of testing. How do we establish that likelihood? When countless experiments using a hypothesis successfully explain past and present events and accurately predict future events.
Now, a theory is a successful mental model, so in the terms of an earlier blog post of mine, it is part of second-order reality, not first-order reality. But what is hugely important to recognize is that some mental models are far more accurate than others (because they stand up to repeated testing and make accurate predictions). If the theories developed by science didn’t work consistently, you wouldn’t be reading this right now, because computers wouldn’t exist.
But we can go even farther. If there weren’t some fundamental truths about human beings that we all have in common, we would never be able to understand one another. These truths are harder to articulate, because though there is such a thing as an accurate generalization, it’s very difficult to phrase it in such a way that entails the least number of exceptions (and critics will always point out the exceptions as if that invalidates the generalization). However, we can try an example from social psychology: I think we can all agree that all human beings have an indeterminate number of mental/emotional needs, such as the need for a measure of autonomy, the need for a sense of safety or security, and so on. These are impossible to quantify, but we can all agree we have them. And with a little reflection, we will probably all agree that most people most of the time are trying to get their needs met in the best way they know how. Insofar as we all agree about these propositions, we can call them facts; or at least, truths.
But how does this apply to spiritual philosophy? Doesn’t spirituality belong to a different domain entirely? No, I argue. If it does, it is not spirituality but fantasy. Wishful thinking. Any spiritual philosophy (SP) worth its salt offers propositions (hypotheses) that can and must be verified in your direct experience, that is, empirically. An SP (as opposed to mere religion) implicitly argues “If you apply yourself to these awareness cultivation experiments for a certain length of time, it is likely that you will come to agree with many of these propositions we offer you, even if they are counter-intuitive at first.” Of course, for this to work, it’s important that you are not emotionally or personally invested in that SP being right, and yet at the same time are fully open to the possibility that it might be right about some of its key tenets.
SP, like science, develops hypotheses, a few of which become theories. Still, spirituality does not equal science, because many of its propositions are not falsifiable, meaning they cannot be proven wrong, which is a requirement in science. But some of them are falsifiable, such as the proposition that “we’re all connected” (more precisely, in the language of physics, the universe is entangled, meaning that you can’t act on one part without affecting all the parts, or at least inseparable, meaning that no part of it can be permanently closed off from any other part). Lastly, unlike science, spirituality offers propositions that can only be verified in subjective conscious experience, not in objective public space. Still, many of them can be verified (by anyone patient enough) with a reasonable amount of certainty.
Lastly, we must of course note that any verbal proposition in SP can only approach the truth, because subjective conscious experience by its very nature is nonverbal. Otherwise, you would describe your feelings so perfectly that every listener would know every time exactly what you meant, and that’s clearly not the case. But some spiritual teachings approach the wordless truth more closely than others. And some approach the truth as close as it can be approached in words. When spiritual philosophies have worked to refine the languaging of these teachings over centuries, why should we be satisfied with 'Near Enemies' or even 'Temporary Allies' instead of the best of what they have to offer?
Next: Everything happens for the best