Tag Archives: discernment

The Morrigan

Waiting, watchful
Beady eyes,
Cold, coal crow,
Follows me.

Harsh her piercing
Grating cries
Cah, cah, calling me
I run, terrified to turn, to see.

But it is time
For battles to be won,
Reclaim the sovereignty that’s mine,
Declare independence … my own.

Red veils fall
On stark terrain,
The stretching past
The road before,

Survey the ground,
Bide your hours,
Face it head-on, don’t back down
Fight for all you’re worth.

She will lead you where you’re bound.
Demand what’s yours,
And then break free.
The other side to our path. you see,

To shine, star bright, across the sky,
You must not be afraid to burn.
Strike a kindling of flame, the old to die:
In time, this balance, you will learn.

Waiting, watchful
Beady eyes
Cold, coal crow
Follows me.

Harsh her piercing
Grating cries
Cah, cah, calling me
When I turn around, what will happen? I wait to see.

Advertisements

The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

Spiritual Teachers and Discernment

“This blog post will change your life!” Actually, the truth is, it won’t, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of anyone using this phrase a little too often with a little too much enthusiasm, in my humble opinion. besides the fact that people reading this are probably alive and reading these words are adding to your life experience, (in a positive way, I hope,) most experiences are not life-altering. Some experiences, especially spiritual experiences, genuinely do transform you. In changing your inner world, your behavior, your relationships, even sometimes the way you hold yourself in the world will change.

I have personally had many such experiences, and none of them came prepackaged with the claim, “This will change your life!” There were no claims about outcome, only compassionate suggestions. There was no anecdote to uncertainty, only direction based on a plethora of past experiences. As a spiritual friend said recently, there is a reason people in the spirit world are called spirit guides. They don’t live your life for you, (by for instance, telling you how an experience will effect you or how you will feel afterward) and thank goodness they don’t! If things were different, life would be quite boring, disempowering, and distancing and you’d learn a lot about dominance and control and very little about authenticity and freedom.

The thing is, not everyone in this world has a healthy sense of compassion, unconditional love, personal responsibility, or honesty. Everyone knows that. But this statement is true, sometimes even more so, of self-identified spiritual teachers.

Two months ago I signed up on a mailing list to receive access to free telephone calls with various well-known spiritual teachers whom I had never heard of, because I was very curious about others’ experiences and approaches to their spirituality and the theme for the series of calls was waking up, something I am more than passionate about. It was a mixed bag. There were many genuinely spiritual people interviewed on those calls. There were also cooky cutter new agers and blatant scam artists. The host of the program seemed, in my opinion, to have a discernment problem of her own, and every call she hosted, she claimed, would “change your life!” The claim became statistically unsustainable after, say, call number 5, and yet she continues to make it.

For Aristotle, true excellence was synonymous with practical wisdom–sound rationality and emotional balance— and it was notoriously hard to achieve. Some scholars of ancient Greek philosophy surmise that to this date there has not been a single human being who has achieved this ideal. All this to say that, whatever excellence is, it ought not be a quality such that everyone and their adopted cat possess it. Such is true of the property of being life-changing, I think. It cannot be given to every experience, lest the concept lose its meaning entirely.

In any case, life transformation, as well as excellence, often were both sadly absent in this realm of inquiry.

First, there was a call with a spiritual practitioner who manufactures a filter which produces “structured water.” Skeptical already, I went to his website, only to find that the filter specifications explicitly state the apparatus does not take toxins out of the water. It simply “purifies” them with spiritual intentions. The rest of this filter’s enormous, and yes, “life changing!” benefits are scientifically proven facts about water itself. I was appalled by this person’s willingness to call himself spiritual while making a cash cow off of his dishonesty and people’s ignorance, both scientific and spiritual. (I was not surprised however, given the power of human egotism.) Here is a site discussing the scam:

People who don’t realize hydration has huge positive effects on the body whether or not it is “structured” but who have, for instance, heard accurately that water is contaminated by fracking could potentially be one set of scam victims. Structured water systems don’t prevent or reduce, let alone eliminate, contaminants in water.

People who want to evolve spiritually but still believe the authority to empower them lies outside themselves could be the second set of victims, and there will probably be overlap. Here’s the secret people: you are the one who empowers yourself, you are the author of your own life (not the same as the creator of reality) and you and everything else is interconnected. You can infuse as many intentions into water as often as you like, because ultimately you and the water are inseparable. If you need proof, your body is 75% water. You can infuse intentions in the water existing already within you, and get the same results as if you placed them in a glass of water and drank it. Water isn’t just outside you, it is you.

In general, you have all you ever would need within yourself to arrive at the threshold of your belonging, because that threshold has always been at the center of you. You can structure water for free. You can also skip the step of structuring water and become who you have always been and already are, from the inside out.

Several other people featured on the mailing list sold products that, though might have some nominal benefits, are wholly unnecessary to spiritual development. In the end, many spiritual tools are developed to help people focus and get into a state to access what is already within them. Tools aren’t bad in and of themselves. You don’t need a fork to eat pasta, but it’s sure helpful! However, if someone is trying to make you dependent on a product for enlightenment, run.

Another tragic example. The spiritual practitioner who is speaking tonight and who already has my discernment radar flashing red was introduced with the now increasingly meaningless “This will change your life!” guarantee which accompanies every single call, along with the following reason for why I should listen to her (which I will not): “Her popular Twitter feed has over 54,000 followers.” (No, I didn’t make it up!) For anyone philosophically inclined, but even for those who are not, arguments from popularity are fallacious and scream ego trip.

Just to be sure, I went on her website , where, sadly, she offers many blatant self-promoting reasons why people ought to work with her, including the particularly horrifying reason that she is “unique” because she works with the most high-ranking spirits on the other side. Now, this is one of the most blatant fallacies of argument by authority I have ever heard and, again, a huge ego trip. (Not to mention, if someone on the other side actually said something like this to her, she is being lied to.) What spiritual truth could a person possibly impart while fully believing in her superiority? While pointing out why your skills as a stock broker are unique in the business helps you gain customers and successfully compete in your field, the tactic is terribly tacky and telling when it comes to imparting spiritual wisdom.

There is a great and profound responsibility that befalls anyone wanting to spiritually guide others, whether in this world or the next. Those looking for direction (not a prescriptive formula) are, by the very nature of the relationship, making themselves extremely vulnerable. In such a situation, maintaining spiritual equality isn’t the ideal, it is necessary; otherwise one or both of you could get seriously emotionally, spiritually, and in extreme cases physically hurt. This intrinsic spiritual equality is one of the very first things I learned about with my ancient family. Spiritual relationship falls apart without it.

Yes, not all of us have the same skills. That is why there are teachers and learners. But hierarchies of expertise consist of inherently spiritually equal people, period. I would personally avoid anyone who believes otherwise.

I don’t understand how it is possible to be both consciously aware, aware enough to be in the circumstance of walking a spiritual journey with many others, and continue to hold the opinion of yourself that you are unique, and because of your otherworldly connections (who would undoubtedly insist on their equality) besides. I cannot fathom a more hypocritical message, personally. I can only conclude, as seems reasonable and my right in the circumstances, that such people are only pretending to be spiritual for their own personal gain.

I am unfortunately now not just wary of a few practitioners booked for calls through this program, but wary of the person conducting the program as well. What could have been a journey of interesting and insightful discovery has, most of the time, proven to be nothing more than a disappointing marketing campaign. I feel fortunate to have listened to the people whose energy and message resonated with me and to know to look within, rather than out to my culture, or to the popular spiritual culture in which this all takes place, to know when something feels like a scam and honor that feeling. I did not have to learn how to do this with a teacher, and I am not unique, nor special. I am one among many and I am learning and imperfect and very human in all that entails and my authority extends to my journey alone, and really not even that far. And, contrary to the innumerable claims made lately about everything and its lookalike being there to save you and change your life, if you just follow such and so or if you pay for it, I have this to say, which you can take or leave:

I have learned that I am valuable, I am needed, as is every other person here, and our worth is with us from before we were born, and each of us is one among many. We are whole. We are enough just as we are. I believe we don’t follow a spiritual path because something or someone needs to fix us. I follow my path for the joy of it, for growing, and because in changing I become more myself than ever before. I have learned that comparison is conformity, and conformity stifles authenticity. I am here to speak my truth, to finally see I am enough in my eyes, and be completely who I am. Isn’t that all we can ask of ourselves?

So, when someone bombards me with unsupported and incessant claims that “This (whatever it is) is going to save your life!” I remind myself that nothing outside you changes your life. You are alive. To transform our lives, we only have to go full out in living and being all we are.

Love Is More Discerning Than Fear

So I haven’t posted as much as I’d like on here, in part because I’ve been ill, but mostly because I’ve been working on my dissertation and, like my everyday life in the physical world, I don’t think my dissertation would be interesting to read about. Well, at least if you’re not me.

But I’ve been in thought mode. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and love, and lighthearted topics such as why we still predominantly live under the illusion of separation rather than embrace our interdependence. So perhaps this is remotely dissertation related after all.

So earlier today I found myself feeling tired, enough that I took a short nap: and had a dream about a vampire. I’d say this never happens, but it just has, for the first time. Perhaps I should add that I hardly ever read books or watch shows about vampires, and try to avoid the subject generally speaking altogether. However, I can’t ignore it today.
***
The Dream:

My only role in the dream is that of observer and perhaps fortunately so: I am invisible to all the other dream characters who are in fact acting in a vampire movie. This allows me to watch these people’s choices and reactions unfold in realtime, without ever being effected by them myself.

In the dream, a middle aged woman is lying on a sofa, now and then glancing toward the front door. Presently, without knocking or introduction, a tall, strangely dressed man in his forties strides into the room, as if it already belongs to him. He has short brown hair and a pale narrow face, and, I notice for some reason, has unusually long and boney hands. He wears an open long fake leather jacket without buttons over a wrinkled baggy blue shirt which is hastily tucked into business casual slacks.

The woman doesn’t move, but smiles at him broadly. They’ve been dating for a while, and she’s invited him out to dinner.

“I think this is a good time to tell you that I am a vampire,” the man says, before the woman has time to speak. His unnervingly high voice breaks the silence, mealy and seductive.

You would think the woman would either run or kick him out at this point, but she doesn’t. She is convinced their love will transcend all obstacles in their way. She is still smiling at him, both enticed by danger’s potential and convinced the emergence of the relationship between them keeps her safe from harm.

The woman asks if she can see his fangs. He opens his mouth, and there are definitely large fangs in there, behind his eye teeth. It registers with her that he’s not lying, and half reflexively she sits up straight so she can look directly at him.

He says, “I’m hungry, let’s go eat.”

“Okay,” the woman says, but she’s not feeling so safe now. “But you won’t hurt me, right? We love each other. You can’t possibly want to feed off me: I’m sorry I even thought it. You wouldn’t, would you.”

She’s looking at him intently, hoping, willing, demanding to find trust and respect reflected in his eyes. I’m not sure what she sees, but it’s clearly not what she was expecting. She goes a little pale. . “You wouldn’t,, would you?” the exact same words as before, but now a question tinted with fear, rather than a vote of confidence.

The vampire continues his silence, which begins to speak for itself. Suddenly, he leans in close to her, as if about to tell her a secret. Instinctively, she flinches away. “But I told you, I’m hungry.” He breathes into her ear, and reaches out for her. Only then does the woman run panicked and screaming from the house, vampire in hot pursuit, until eventually she gets away, and barely for all that.
***

All the while this is going on, I am observing and asking myself questions: Why am I watching this? Why won’t she leave? Can’t she tell that love never had anything to do with this relationship, that it has always been about fear? Where is her discernment? Could we turn off the TV, or create a new, different movie, one where love rather than fear is the norm?

Because to my mind the vampire doesn’t just represent hostile people who feed off others’ energy to sustain themselves—narcissists come to mind. It could just as easily stand in for an entire culture based on fear, operating entirely within the illusion of separation. We live for the most part in such a culture every day.

And yet, we are interdependent beings who flourish through cooperation, belonging, and mutual vulnerability. Sometimes, the fragility of human life is the only point of equality upon which to rebuild connectedness. It is impossible to do this when you are governed more by fear than love, as this dream shows.

In fact, the dream points to several important points about fear and love, connection and disconnection, which is why I include it. Vampires are probably the most vivid symbol of separation I could dream up, no pun intended. When you live from a place of belonging, love, connectedness, energy is infinite. You are part of all that is, there is no alone, and the light you find in yourself exists everywhere.

The concept of a vampire, in my opinion, derives from a primal human fear that we might all be separate beings with separate experiences who can be dwindled to nothing before we die and perhaps even become nothing when we die. Vampires as a concept emerge out of a belief that you are alone, that the world has or could at any time abandon you, that you have little and lack what you need, so you have to take the force of life from others to survive. And a person who does this, interestingly, is always portrayed as dead or undead which isn’t an accident.

Having integrity, wholeness, is part of truly living, and if a person lives off of others, they never come to realize who they really are, and for that reason, aren’t truly living. They also don’t have to care: about the consequences of their actions, about the future of the planet, about the quality of life for their children’s children, or even about respecting and valuing the people and other living beings around them. The vice of extreme separation is apathy, and arguably a vampire with true empathy and compassion would, I think, be a contradiction in terms. (But don’t worry, I don’t have the space to argue that here.) 🙂

Now, back to the dream. The thing is, while it seems clear that the vampire isn’t living from a place of love and his purpose is to perpetuate doubt, displacement, distrust, and fear, (I mean, he even comes out and says so explicitly!), the woman isn’t living from a place of love either. Her appeal to love to keep the two of them in right relationship wouldn’t be necessary if she truly loved and trusted herself. When she is seeking the truth, it would be better for her to look within, rather than desperately seek for confirmation in another’s eyes. It is fear, not love, that serves as the reason she looks outside herself for safety and belonging and I think it is relying ultimately on fear that prevents her from having the very discernment that would keep her safe.

Conforming to what everyone else does, trying to fit in, buying things in the hopes that something outside yourself will make you happy– these are all ways to perpetuate a culture of separation. Industries and then family and friends and then the voices in your own head which tirelessly stream messages such as you’re never whole, you’re never enough, you’ll only be loved if you are perfect/do x for a living/fulfill someone’s expectations– these likewise are all symptoms of a culture based on fear. As long as we live with and buy into this fear, we won’t be able to properly discern when it’s time to leave and run after the very essence of ourselves before it’s drained away.

Belonging first and foremost to who you are, knowing you are never alone, that you’re enough, already whole, that’s the foundation of love and the end to the illusion of separateness. And if the person in my dream had this view of herself, she wouldn’t have continued allowing separateness into her house long after it announced itself. She’d see straight through the illusion, and the most loving thing to do then would be to let it go.

Once the woman in the dream could surrender to what is, accept her situation and the truth that she was dealing with a vampire (separateness), she was able to break free of her illusions and once again begin to belong to herself. I know that, however idealistic it might end up being, I do dream of the time when more people, (starting with myself, because I’m the only person I can change), will likewise surrender to what is because in breaking the illusion of separation, we free ourselves to run through the door of belonging, and start living according to love rather than fear. And when that happens, we just might hit the eject button on the movie which has been playing much too long and watch as something wondrous and new takes its place.