‘On “Spirituality” and “Metaphysics”’ (Video Transcript & Expansion)

LOGOS II (SoundCloud / YouTube)


“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

—Aristotle

~

Here is my second video transcript and expansion (VT&E), this time on the use of the phrases “spirituality” and “metaphysics,” and regarding phraseology in talking about the “inner life” more generally. (THIS is the video, part two of the LOGOS series of videos that I am slowly (but surely) putting online.)

crowley

Aleister Crowley. (Source unknown.)

So, “once more unto the breech…”:

“So, today I kind of wanted to talk about… spirituality. You know: what does that mean? You know, what annoys me is that… I dunno… I guess I think of myself as [something of a] spiritual person. No—I definitely think of myself as a spiritual person, but, I don’t feel the need to define  what that means, exactly… because I feel like “spirituality” is kind of, in and of itself, a bit of a nebulous phrase. Kind of like the word “art,” for instance, you know? Like, if you talk about art to somebody they’re gonna know, like, what you’re talking about. [I mean] it’s art. They’d know what art is. But, when you really ask them to get into the nitty gritty and define it, it becomes… it becomes kind of vague, doesn’t it? And, so, I think spirituality, like art,  is similar in this way. I think because especially it’s something that’s kind of, not necessarily fundamental… but… well, perhaps fundamental to human experience—it’s hard to define. What annoys me is that you have people… [Well] you know, when you hear the word “spirituality” nowadays you might think of, you know, what a lot of people are touting as spirituality, which is kind of a—a “spirituality”—which is kind of a New Agey agglomeration of ideas… I guess that kind of were imported from eastern philosophies [maybe] mixed with paganism and whatever else someone’s focused on. It’s… usually “woo-woo.” You know that phrase? Michael Shermer uses it a lot: “woo-woo.” It’s bullshit… And I’m not necessarily saying that all of it’s bullshit. I don’t think we completely understand the nature of these things. But, a lot of people who say that they’re “spiritual” kind of dive head in—or, you know, head first—into a lot of BS, without really taking the time to really (sic) think about what that means, or what the word “spirituality” means, and what they’re really practicing and thinking about. Like… I’m not saying that I completely deny the possibility that maybe, you know, there’s such a thing or there’s something in the body that’s analogous to [say] chakras, but when you say you’re a spiritual person and therefore you believe in chakras or crystal healing or whatever… it’s (sic) not really [representative of] what spirituality is. I mean, if I were (sic) an artist, or if I said that I was an artist—rather—and I just said, “Well, I like Dalí, I like Picasso, I like Rembrandt—so that makes me an artist!” … that sounds… that doesn’t [really] make you an artist. That’s really doesn’t (sic)… really isn’t what it means to be an artist… if you like a particular thing, or you pursue a particular thing, even. Art, again, is kind of one of those nebulous phrases. And, in any case, I think that the word “spirituality” has just been co-opted by, I guess, the New Age community to mean something that it really doesn’t. And I think that’s problematic, because spirituality is such a beautiful thing. I mean, to me—I don’t really like to define it—but, it’s something, like I said, that, in a way, is fundamental to the human experience. It’s an experience of something greater. And you don’t really… need to go much beyond that, you know, [or] really say what that “greater” thing is. Sometimes there is an experience—I would almost say like a transcendental experience—of the wholeness of the world and one’s place in it, and I would say that that’s spiritual in some sense. But, of course, you have all these phrases that, you know, you get mixed in there: You say, “OK, that’s a mystical experience… it’s [a] transcendental experience, an ecstatic experience, a religious experience…” But, then again, ecstasy and religion and mysticism are not necessarily spirituality… Now, another phrase that gets co-opted like this is “metaphysics.” You know, you have people who say, you know, they’re into “metaphysics”—so [of course] that means they subscribe to Spirit Science, or whatever that page is. But, I mean, “metaphysics” is a much broader term that kind of refers to a discipline in philosophy. And, when I think of metaphysics—at least—I think of, you know, the work of various philosophers: You know, I think of Spinoza’s metaphysics, or Hegel’s metaphysics, or something of that nature. I don’t think of levitation from yogis and shit like that. Even though the word “metaphysics” literally means “beyond physics,” it’s not the same as—again, here’s another phrase—”supernatural,” [or] what’s supernatural. “Supernatural” is not necessarily “metaphysical.” There’s overlap among these phrases: “mysticism,” “religion,” “philosophy,” “metaphysics,” “spirituality,” “transcendental experience.” These words and phrases—there’s overlap—but, we should be careful not to say they mean something that they don’t, or, rather, that they mean something specific when they’re really meant to be more broad than the way we talk about them in normal discourse… Because, I was actually having, I guess, a kind of debate here on YouTube, on a video—I can’t remember what it was—but I was talking to, you know, one of these hardcore atheist types, who’s like, you know, “fuck religion,” and all that. But, you know, I was saying, you know, “even if you’re not religious, spirituality can be important to you.” And, certainly, I’ve met a lot of people who would say that: [that] they’re spiritual but not necessarily religious. But, this guy just kind of wanted to, you know, bust my balls over this and insist that spirituality doesn’t exist.  In the same way that he thought [that] religion was a lie, [that] religion was bullshit, he’s like, “spirituality is bullshit.” That’s like saying art is bullshit. I mean, what is there to be bullshit about it? It can’t be bullshit, because it’s just not… it’s not something that’s trying to be true or untrue, it’s just experiential, and in some ways it’s intuitive… isn’t it? I dunno. But, I think we should be careful when we conflate these phrases or say that,”this is this,” or, “this is that.” There is overlap. That doesn’t mean that one is the same thing as the other…”

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SOME CLARIFICATIONS AND CORRECTIONS:

  • Spirit Science is the clickbait Facebook handle of The Spirit Science, a website to which no subscription is required in order to access its content.
  • My contention with chakras does not so much boil down to whether they exist or not (I think that, like many things of this nature, they work better as psychological tools, and really I doubt that there will ever be any real, tangible evidence for the existence of something very analogous to them within the body), but rather how they represent the credulity of those who delve into popular/trendy “spirituality.” (i.e. New Age eclecticism, gullibility, and ill-defined/wishy-washy/feel-good superstition loaded with “deep” buzzwords.) In short, I’m using them as an example here.
  • The analogy I made with art and artists is admittedly a bad one. I think that my point still stands, however.
  • Michael Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine, Skeptic. While I think that his use of the term “woo” (or “woo-woo”) is often sensible—and, for the purposes of the video/transcript, useful—he is a bit hard-line for my liking, standing in line with the more uncompromising “scientific/hard-evidence-based-everything” philosophy types. (I’m hesitant to throw this phrase around—as New Age folks themselves often abuse it—but “scientism” comes to mind.)

This video was done impromptu, so if I’m lacking good articulation in either the video or this transcription, I ask you to be forgiving.

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Hierophant with occultic regalia. (Source unknown.)

Hierophant with occultic regalia. (Source unknown.)

I think of myself as a philosophically eclectic person. By that I mean that there are fundamental ideas that come from, say, existentialism, that I hold as sensible, while—at the same time—I also subscribe (to another degree) to something like (or parts of) pragmatism, and/or evidentialism, and/or Hegelianism, and/or Nietzschean affirmation, and so forth. There are concepts put forward by Schopenhauer, Kant, Hume, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Zeno of Citium, Epicurus, Sartre, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Camus, Kierkegaard, Diogenes, Lyotard, etc., etc., that I agree with. And I don’t find conflict between these numerous ideas—they are not mutually exclusive, and the philosophers in question are never completely (on all points possible) opposed—and neither do I find conflict in the ideas (those that I accept) that come from, say, religious philosophy, in particular. To name some sources: Aleister Crowley (Thelema, Western esotericism), Laozi (Taoism), Jesus (Christianity), Confucius (Confucianism, Chinese philosophy), Buddha (Buddhism), Nagarjuna (Mahayana Buddhism), Augustine (Christianity), Adi Shankara (Vedantic Hinduism), Dogen (Zen Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism), Tilopa (Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism), Hermes Trismegistus (Hermeticism, Western esotericism), yada yada.

I make a point of distinguishing those ideas which I accept, so as to show that someone can entertain an idea without taking it as an irrevocable fact. I take this dichotomy from Aristotle, particularly his saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” All day long I juggle with ideas: I test them out, try them on for size, and if they don’t “work” I leave them as they are. I may pick them up later. I may not. But the point here is that ideas are, generally speaking, provisional. That’s not to say there’s no “truth” to an idea one accepts, but that implicit in accepting an idea there is a usefulness to that acceptance. The idea becomes a tool. Thus, philosophies, religions, paradigms, worldviews—whatever—become tools for personal use; most readily, it often seems, to organize the contents of consciousness or patterns observed in the world or, in the case of spiritually-, existentially-, or mystically-directed paradigms, to foster the acquisition of a proposed “Absolute,” or “Ultimate,” etc.

So, in the realm of ideas, some may have more veracity than others, but, in any case, there is a usefulness there. People tend to get lost in ideas. I am no exception. But there’s also got to be the ability to “pull back from the brink,” as they say, and say to oneself, “wait a minute, does that really make sense? Is there any way in which that could be sensible? If so, how?” In the pursuit of that which is mysterious, skepticism is not only helpful, but essential. I should mention that, along these lines, I admire the motto of Aleister Crowley’s magickal order, the A∴A∴ (a Thelemic organization): “The method of science, the aim of religion.”

What a beautiful and challenging aim it is! And what an excellent method! (Though some have questioned the Thelemic tradition’s commitment to empirical scientific fact, as a religion (or magickal/occult system, or religious philosophy, etc. (Thelema is, in this way, like Buddhism, hard to pin down) its adherents often retain a kind of robust skepticism and pragmatic sensibility that I haven’t encountered among other groups. But this may merely be a personal, and superficial, impression, anyway, as people differ in their beliefs so much on an individual level.)

Anyway, I’m going off topic.

My point is ultimately this: “Spirituality” is a word both as meaningful and beautiful, and yet undefinable, as “art.” By using the phrase to signify something superficial, we devalue it. We are taking that broad, amorphous realm which embodies the sense of awe, reverence, beauty, wonder, and sacredness that human beings have for all the grandeur and minutia of the world, and bringing it down to the level of a commodity. When we begin to have “spiritual supply stores” selling candles and doo-dads, or when we deem talismans, crystals, and bottles of “fairy dust” to be spiritual, we damn something that is at the very core of the human experience.

Similarly, “metaphysics” represents perhaps the most wondrous and penetrative branch of human thought. Metaphysics is at the very core of philosophy (some would say epistemology, but that’s beside the point), and is the attempt by conscious beings to tap into the untold center of themselves and their world. It is a noble goal, and one that is bastardized by thoughtless associations with illogical balderdash. So, I propose we separate the words “spirituality” and “metaphysics” from “superstition,” “supernatural,” “paranormal,” and so forth. I say that serious “seekers” ought to understand both the overlap and the differences, the divide between genuine philosophy and the commercialization of watered down religious traditions, imported from far-away lands or semi-secretive orders at the behest of materialistic Westerners looking for some zest in life beyond the confines Netflix, Starbucks, iPhones, and People magazine. But this has all been said before, in one way or another, hasn’t it? And many times! In the end, bickering and bitching, saying and proclaiming get us nowhere.

Despite my love of writing, I will be the first to say that words will always ill-represent their ultimate, underlying reality, and direct experience—that mysterious conduit of all spirituality—remains in the silence. As that long dead mystic said, “Of all the Magical and Mystical Virtues, of all the Graces of the Soul, of all the Attainments of the Spirit, none has been so misunderstood, even when at all apprehended, as Silence.” It is astride our experiences that we build our knowledge, and we best do so with as much honesty and evidence as possible. One needn’t abandon reason in order to attain the heights of spiritual fulfillment, or be credulous to do the work of the mystics. Well, what is that work? I myself don’t really rightly know, but, in any case, why not approach our truest happiness and greatest potentials with an eye for the truth and a mind that entertains, without accepting?


» Check out the LOGOS! podcast on Soundcloud and the video series version on YouTube.

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21 comments

      1. I love the way you articulate yourself in videos, please do more of them when you can! And thanks for providing transcripts too!

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  1. I decided to read this post, too, and I have a few thoughts to offer here as well. Why not? Writing this reply is my entertainment for the moment….

    ideas are, generally speaking, provisional. That’s not to say there’s no “truth” to an idea one accepts, but that implicit in accepting an idea there is a usefulness to that acceptance. The idea becomes a tool. […] In the pursuit of that which is mysterious, skepticism is not only helpful, but essential.

    I agree with you so strongly here that I could have written the above sentences.

    All ideas that people accept are provisional because it doesn’t seem like people are capable of achieving absolute certainty about anything. For this reason, all ideas should be open to question when new evidence arises.

    I had an interesting discussion a while back with a group of people who accepted “supernatural” claims such as remote viewing or the existence of spirits or the use of magick rituals to cause coincidences. I asked them what it would take to change their mind on those subjects and conclude that they actually did *not* have sufficient grounds to accept those ideas. I then offered an example of the kind of thing it would take for me to *accept* those claims, and an example of what it would take for me to change my mind about claims that I already accept.
    Well, guess what happened. They did all sorts of tap-dancing to avoid answering the question, because the actual answer to my question basically turned out to be “nothing could make me change my mind.”

    If one is ever in the position where nothing could change one’s views, something is very wrong.

    “Spirituality” is a word both as meaningful and beautiful, and yet undefinable, as “art.”

    I disagree that this is a good comparison because “art” has a perfectly straightforward definition. It’s something along the lines of “the production of creative works that are usually intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional resonance.”

    The problem with the word “spirituality” is that it doesn’t have such a clear definition. People use it to encompass so many different things that when a person says that he is “spiritual,” one have to ask what he means before one can even begin to know. This essentially makes the word useless in any practical conversation. Sure, maybe you use “spirituality” to refer to the “broad, amorphous realm which embodies the sense of awe, reverence, beauty, wonder, and sacredness that human beings have for all the grandeur and minutia of the world,” but that’s certainly not how everybody uses the term. I’ve seen “spirituality” used to encompass everything from believing that one has a “personal relationship” with some imagined “God” to believing in “spirits” to believing in a wide variety of “New Age” nonsense to describing vague warm-and-fuzzies that we all get when we are moved.

    When people tell you that “spirituality” is “bullshit,” they’re generally reacting to the useless nature of the word and/or the fact that so many bullshit things often get folded into it. I’m pretty sure that if you sat down with someone who thinks spirituality is bullshit and said, “Well, what I mean by ‘spirituality’ is that I feel reverence and wonder when I contemplate the universe,” most people would respond, “Oh, alright. Well, most people feel that. If that’s all you mean by ‘spirituality,’ I think it’s kind of silly to call that ‘spirituality.’”

    But I get the sense that that’s not all you mean by “spirituality.” I suspect that the word means something more to you, something that you haven’t really unpacked and fully articulated to yourself.

    One needn’t abandon reason in order to attain the heights of spiritual fulfillment, or be credulous to do the work of the mystics. Well, what is that work? I myself don’t really rightly know […]

    I certainly agree that one needn’t abandon reason to pursue what I would call “attainment” in the Thelemic sense. In fact, I’ve argued many times that abandoning reason is poisonous to that goal.

    What you say here actually gives some insight into why it’s poisonous to abandon reason. I’m not sure what you mean by the “work of the mystics,” so I can’t really comment on it or say anything about it. I can’t, for example, sensibly discuss with you what the goal of this work is, how to achieve that goal, what methods are most conducive to that goal, and how to tell that the methods are working. But here’s the problem…neither can you, apparently.

    You’re not abandoning reason, but you’re admitting from the outset that you’ve latched onto a phrase (the “work of mystics”) without knowing anything about it or even being able to articulate an approximation of what exactly you mean by it.

    So given all of that…on what basis can any “work” at all actually be done? What’s the difference between seeking some goal that’s unknown to you and just randomly doing stuff while arbitrarily making up whether it’s “working” or not?

    What I strongly suspect is that you *do* have preconceived notions and assumptions about the “work of mysticism,” assumptions that your rational mind has formulated but that you haven’t rigorously examined because you’ve talked yourself into thinking that you “don’t know.” You would do well to articulate these assumptions and to examine them critically.

    However, if you’re actually serious that you have no idea what it is that you’re seeking, then it sounds to me like you’ve got a recipe there for being a perpetual “seeker” – you know, the kind of person who flits around from system to system and keeps dabbling in everything and never actually achieves anything. I’m not accusing you of being such a person: I actually don’t think you are, from what little I’ve read of you. But you surely are aware that such people exist, people who seem to think that “seeking” is in and of itself the goal. These people tend to be flakes of the worst kind, with little substance or insight into anything at all.

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    1. Yes. Evidence-based reasoning is seriously lacking among the adherents of many religious or mystical traditions, and so I think it’s important that we promote a framework of mystical attainment that relies upon critical thinking and reasoned evidence alongside whatever ritual or mystical practices one utilizes.

      “All ideas that people accept are provisional because it doesn’t seem like people are capable of achieving absolute certainty about anything. For this reason, all ideas should be open to question when new evidence arises.”

      Agreed. Also, because different concepts can themselves, in some sense, refer to the same, or similar, states, experiences, or “attainments.” “Brahman” may make more sense to one person, whereas “All”, “Absolute”, or “Tao” may be useful to another individual, or their work. While there are some differences between these ideas, they basically refer to a non-dual basis, or unified transcendence, of all. (I often think of Crowley’s many correspondences in The Book of Thoth.) I think one can apply reason to Buddhism as much as Thelema or Hinduism or Taoism. It’s about framing our understanding of the mystical in a way that doesn’t violate intellectual honesty and reasoned evidence.

      “If one is ever in the position where nothing could change one’s views, something is very wrong.”

      Absolutely. I would argue that all “knowledge” (aside from the logical necessities I mentioned in the comments on “A Little Essay on Scientism“) amounts to more of an approximation than an absolute truth. We can come fairly close to what one could call “truth,” but there’s fallibility present.

      “I disagree that this is a good comparison because “art” has a perfectly straightforward definition. It’s something along the lines of “the production of creative works that are usually intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional resonance.””

      My idea of “art” has always been that the phrase has been nebulous in some way. The problem with defining it is that it’s always subverting any attempt at comprehensive definition. There are actually artists whose work is to create pieces that are intentionally “ugly” or un-inspiring. “Usually” is the operative phrase here. Art seems very dynamic. But maybe I’m wrong.

      Anyway, that’s all beside the point.

      “When people tell you that “spirituality” is “bullshit,” they’re generally reacting to the useless nature of the word and/or the fact that so many bullshit things often get folded into it. I’m pretty sure that if you sat down with someone who thinks spirituality is bullshit and said, “Well, what I mean by ‘spirituality’ is that I feel reverence and wonder when I contemplate the universe,” most people would respond, “Oh, alright. Well, most people feel that. If that’s all you mean by ‘spirituality,’ I think it’s kind of silly to call that ‘spirituality.’””

      That’s basically what I mean by spirituality. (Although I also admit that even that “definition” isn’t comprehensive enough to capture what spirituality is, or can be.) I also think that using that particular word in that sense isn’t really “silly.” It just seems practical to at least start with a comprehensive and relatable definition.

      “But I get the sense that that’s not all you mean by “spirituality.” I suspect that the word means something more to you, something that you haven’t really unpacked and fully articulated to yourself.”

      Yes. I feel that it’s impossible, if not merely very difficult to fully articulate what spirituality is. I can try to “point at it,” however.

      “So given all of that…on what basis can any “work” at all actually be done? What’s the difference between seeking some goal that’s unknown to you and just randomly doing stuff while arbitrarily making up whether it’s “working” or not?”

      I see what you mean. However, I’d say we’re all, at least in some sense, “randomly doing stuff while arbitrarily making up whether it’s “working” or not.” We follow systems or develop our own in the endeavor to find whatever we may mean by “enlightenment,” or “attainment.” These terms are defined differently by different people, and so I don’t feel that one particular definition will do justice to what we mean by these. I’d say that, before experiencing whatever one may call enlightenment, we have inadequate notions of it. It is essentially experiential—a state of being, as I’d assume you would agree—rather than something summed up in words, at least in a way that all people can agree upon.

      However, we do set out on the work with the notion of (e.g. Buddhism) ending our suffering, or (e.g. Thelema) discovering our True Will. I’d say these, and many more ways of approaching the concept, all fit into my understanding of what enlightenment is, and yet always also fall short. So I say that, ultimately, I don’t know what the work of the mystics truly and absolutely is. I can head in its direction, however, while also acknowledging that other people head in that “direction” while walking a completely opposite path. We all must define what our lives’ ultimatums are, and seek those out (should we wish to do so).

      “What I strongly suspect is that you *do* have preconceived notions and assumptions about the “work of mysticism,” assumptions that your rational mind has formulated but that you haven’t rigorously examined because you’ve talked yourself into thinking that you “don’t know.” You would do well to articulate these assumptions and to examine them critically.”

      Except the work of mysticism is dynamic, and has no wordable essence. Again, I will continue to “point to” it, but I think we can trap ourselves by defining it outright. Philosophy must be a stepping stone into mysticism, idea into experience.

      Thank you for your comment. Very articulate and insightful, as always. I will reply to your other comment on “A Little Essay on Scientism” later, as well as adding some notes to that post. I have been quite busy lately and haven’t kept up on my blog as much as I would like.

      P.S. If you haven’t checked them out already, I think you may appreciate a bit of Enchiridion of Thelema, as well as Erwin Hessle’s site on Thelema. (Although I contest some of their ideas, they both seem to approach Thelema with an eye for skepticism.) I’ve also ehard good things about Eidolons of Ash, though I haven’t read it myself.

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  2. I also think that using that particular word [spirituality] in that sense [of denoting reverence and wonder at the universe] isn’t really “silly.” It just seems practical to at least start with a comprehensive and relatable definition.

    But that was my objection: that lots of people who use the word “spirituality” don’t use your definition. Someone else might use the word “spirituality” to mean a personal relationship with a god or the belief in spirits or the belief in specific kinds of superstition. You and such a person could easily talk right past each other, using the same exact word to mean divergent things.

    I was suggesting that it’s “silly” to use the word spirituality to denote reverence and wonder at the universe because the phrase “reverence and wonder at the universe” already captures that idea without the vagueness and baggage of the word “spirituality.” What do you gain by using the word “spirituality”? As far as I can tell, there’s very little the word adds to your meaning, at the cost of quite a lot of potential confusion.

    However, I agree that this part of the discussion (the part about words and labels) is much less important than other parts of the discussion. Here, we’re mainly quibbling about what’s most useful to call things – and while that is important in many contexts, the substance of the ideas is far more important.

    I don’t know what the work of the mystics truly and absolutely is. I can head in its direction, however, while also acknowledging that other people head in that “direction” while walking a completely opposite path.

    Forget the idea of knowing things “truly and absolutely.” Absolute knowledge does not appear to exist, so it’s a red herring. We already agreed that all knowledge is provisional.

    I don’t agree with you that the “work of mysticism” has no “wordable essence” or that we can “trap ourselves by defining it.” All deliberate activity proceeds from implicit definitions, as I will explain below. The question is whether the definitions that underlie the activity are sufficient to ensure success.

    Any action – even the most mundane activity – depends on the actor having in mind working definitions and models of how the activity works. For example, when a person decides to turn on the light in a room, he already has in his mind a definition of what a light is, a definition of what a light switch is, and a model of how the process of turning it on works (“I flip the switch up, and then the light will go on”). He also has in his mind criteria for how he can judge whether the process works (“The light should brighten if the operation was a success”). Obviously, he doesn’t articulate all these definitions and models so explicitly to himself because there’s no need to do so for such a common, everyday activity that he’s learned to do on autopilot.

    I propose that people who seek “enlightenment” similarly have in their minds definitions, goals, an idea of the process, and criteria by which they intend to judge success. And just like in the case of turning on a light, these definitions and models are not articulated clearly by the individual to himself. But the problem is that (so far as I can tell) most “seekers” have extremely murky definitions and models – or even definitions and models that are complete superstitious bullshit. The aversion that many of these people have toward “reason” only compounds their problem by discouraging them from thinking critically about the topic.

    The problem is further compounded by the fact that seeking enlightenment differs from turning on a light in a key way: the evidence for success in turning on a light can be observed by anyone who cares to look, but the evidence for success in attaining “enlightenment” can only be observed by a single individual. If a person fails to turn on a light, it’s pretty obvious that he failed, but if a person fails to achieve enlightenment, it’s not so obvious – and indeed, the person in question can even fool himself into thinking that he’s achieved it. Since no one else can contradict him, this person could go on fooling himself for the rest of his life.

    I assume you think it’s possible for people to be fooled into thinking that they have made some kind of “progress” in these matters when they actually have not. So if a person is serious about actually “attaining” something and not just BSing himself and flailing around doing a bunch of arbitrary practices and then pretending that any strange or euphoric feelings are part of some vaguely defined “progress,” then that person needs to have a crystal clear understanding of the goal and the path to that goal. Discouraging people from thinking about the subject by declaring the goal to have no “wordable essence” — or declaring that thinking about the subject might “trap” someone — is counterproductive to actual progress and a person’s ability to judge actual progress.

    You mentioned discovering the True Will, which is what I specifically am talking about when I speak of “attainment” or “enlightenment” in a Thelemic context. Here’s the thing: I don’t start out by defining the True Will in a certain way and then chase after my definition. I use “True Will” as a label for an actual, detectable thing in the human experience – something that each person can detect in themselves right this moment if they want – and I build a system of practices designed to put the individual in touch with this actual thing during daily life. The goal, the method, and the criteria for judging success are relatively objective, even though the exact specifics of the process will differ wildly from individual to individual.

    As far as I’m concerned, trance states, visions, feelings of “non-duality,” and the like are almost entirely beside the point. It is trivially easy to generate these experiences with the right practices and a smidge of applied effort. I’ve called them mental fireworks, but Erwin Hessle calls them “watching spiritual TV,” which I think is a more accurate label. They’re entertainment. If the only thing a person is looking to do is bliss out, then they might as well just take drugs. If all a person means by the “work of mystics” is getting into unusual states of mind, then I say that’s a rather petty and small goal. A person might as well say that his life dream is to get high all day every day.

    Forget the spiritual TV. There are actual attainments to be had – and when I say “actual attainments,” I’m talking about real, demonstrable achievements that can be reached by any person willing to put in time and effort.

    If you haven’t checked them out already, I think you may appreciate a bit of Enchiridion of Thelema, as well as Erwin Hessle’s site on Thelema.

    Yes, I’m familiar with them, and with Ash’s site. If you check out my blog – which I recommend to you – you’ll find that links to those sites appear on the sidebar.

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    1. “However, I agree that this part of the discussion (the part about words and labels) is much less important than other parts of the discussion. Here, we’re mainly quibbling about what’s most useful to call things – and while that is important in many contexts, the substance of the ideas is far more important.”

      Gotta love semantics.

      “I don’t agree with you that the “work of mysticism” has no “wordable essence” or that we can “trap ourselves by defining it.” All deliberate activity proceeds from implicit definitions, as I will explain below. The question is whether the definitions that underlie the activity are sufficient to ensure success.

      Any action – even the most mundane activity – depends on the actor having in mind working definitions and models of how the activity works. For example, when a person decides to turn on the light in a room, he already has in his mind a definition of what a light is, a definition of what a light switch is, and a model of how the process of turning it on works (“I flip the switch up, and then the light will go on”). He also has in his mind criteria for how he can judge whether the process works (“The light should brighten if the operation was a success”). Obviously, he doesn’t articulate all these definitions and models so explicitly to himself because there’s no need to do so for such a common, everyday activity that he’s learned to do on autopilot.”

      Well, if we want to really go ahead and probe the mind we’ll have to admit that there are many things going on beneath the surface. People don’t need a working definition of what a light is–or, rather, to remind themselves of that definition–every time they turn on a light.

      “Enlightenment” is inherently experiential, so while definitions can be stepping stones, of sorts, words fail at capturing what it really is.

      Seeking enlightenment, to me, is about incrementally honing one’s mental “directional skills.” Supposing you often took a drive from New York City to Buffalo, you would learn–over time–how to navigate in the most efficient way. Your efficiency would increase over time, until you had a much more excellent grasp of how to get from A to B. However, you would never give someone directions from NYC to Buffalo by telling them, directly, every little turn they would have to make between points A and B. It would become absurd. (Not to mention, some people prefer their own routes!) {this is a bad analogy}

      People approach enlightenment on an individual basis, as you say. Thus there’s a variety of opinions regarding what it is, and, furthermore, what the approach is.

      We can generally agree upon some aspects of what spiritual enlightenment might be like. But that is, as they say, “the finger pointing at the moon,” and “not the moon itself.”

      “But the problem is that (so far as I can tell) most “seekers” have extremely murky definitions and models – or even definitions and models that are complete superstitious bullshit. The aversion that many of these people have toward “reason” only compounds their problem by discouraging them from thinking critically about the topic.”

      I think it’s alright to be a bit vague when talking about things of this nature.

      That being said, I wholeheartedly agree about the problem of superstitious thinking, and especially how it clouds genuine spiritual pursuit.

      […]

      (I will continue this reply in another comment…)

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      1. People don’t need a working definition of what a light is–or, rather, to remind themselves of that definition–every time they turn on a light.

        Obviously people don’t need to consciously remind themselves what a light is when they turn on a light. I said that above: a person “doesn’t articulate all these definitions and models so explicitly to himself because there’s no need to do so for such a common, everyday activity that he’s learned to do on autopilot.”

        But people do need to know what a light is and they need to have in their minds a model of how turning it on works. They need that every single time. If you hit someone on the head and he suddenly forgets those things, how effective do you think he’d be at turning on a light?

        “Enlightenment” is inherently experiential, so while definitions can be stepping stones, of sorts, words fail at capturing what it really is.

        Words fail at capturing what everything “really” is. I could write a hundred pages describing my drive to work today, but I could never adequately convey the experience. But words aren’t supposed to “capture” what something “really” is. They’re tools. I *can* tell you what a car is, how to drive it, and how to drive to my job.

        Words can’t capture the experience of driving to work, but that’s irrelevant because words allow me to convey to another person how to do it. If a person wants to learn how to drive a car to my job, that person needs to use my words to help him formulate working definitions of the terms involved and a working model of how to do the process and judge it a success.

        Now it’s true that, I suppose, a person who didn’t know what a car was, didn’t know what driving was, and didn’t know where my job was could just keep randomly doing actions until eventually, by chance, he happened to drive a car to my job. But the odds that a person could do this by random chance are astronomically small. Even if by some miracle he managed to succeed, he would have no way of knowing that he had succeeded (because he would not know how to judge success).

        This is an analogy that accurately expresses the problem with your position.

        People approach enlightenment on an individual basis, as you say. Thus there’s a variety of opinions regarding what it is, and, furthermore, what the approach is.

        Yes. “Enlightenment” is not a single thing. It’s a fuzzy word that different people use to refer to very different things.

        So before you can seek enlightenment, you have to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish – just like, before you can drive somewhere, you have to have in mind an idea of where you’re going and how to judge that you actually got there.

        Some people use the word “enlightenment” to refer to generating trances and visions and feelings of “nonduality.” As I said in my post above, I think this idea of “enlightenment” is petty and small and pathetic. You might as well tell me that your life’s ambition is to get high all day every day and watch Adult Swim around the clock.

        I told you how I use the word “enlightenment.” I use it to refer to discovering the True Will, which is a very specific, relatively concrete thing that I can explain how to do. My words won’t capture the experience of doing it – just like my words won’t capture the experience of driving to work – but they will provide a guide for how to do it.

        I think it’s alright to be a bit vague when talking about things of this nature.

        Well, that’s the difference between us.

        Imagine if someone who has zero knowledge of Disney World – someone who literally knows nothing about it but heard the name once and heard that it’s fun – asked you for directions to get there. How would being vague help him? Imagine if you responded: “Well, many people mean many different things by Disney World. My words can’t capture the experience of driving there. But drive you must. On a road. Either east or south. Hey, or maybe west. But it’s the road that will take you there. Make sure rubber meets road. Let experience tell you when you’ve made it there.”

        Such a person will never make it to Disney World. And even if he accidentally manages by chance to arrive at Disney World, he has no way of knowing. Such a person is likely to stop at the first landmark he sees and suspect that he’s reached his destination.

        This is the problem with “seekers,” those who are after “enlightenment,” and those who pursue “spirituality.” Most of them are wandering randomly with no idea where they’re going and no way to tell when they get there. And some are busy staring dumbfoundedly at the first landmark they see, wondering whether it’s the goal they’ve heard so much about.

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      2. “I assume you think it’s possible for people to be fooled into thinking that they have made some kind of “progress” in these matters when they actually have not. So if a person is serious about actually “attaining” something and not just BSing himself and flailing around doing a bunch of arbitrary practices and then pretending that any strange or euphoric feelings are part of some vaguely defined “progress,” then that person needs to have a crystal clear understanding of the goal and the path to that goal. Discouraging people from thinking about the subject by declaring the goal to have no “wordable essence” — or declaring that thinking about the subject might “trap” someone — is counterproductive to actual progress and a person’s ability to judge actual progress.”

        I’m not discouraging anyone from considering what enlightenment, True Will, moksha, etc. may be like. (in fact, no one should be discouraged from thinking about anything–we ought to question everything.) Far from it. I am discouraging the notion that philosophical discourse provides us with “a crystal clear understanding” of what it is, as you say. Again, we approximate its nature, but the “final leap” into it is a matter of experience. “The finger pointing at the moon,” my friend. The experience of the Absolute (or whatever you may call it) cannot be neatly compartmentalized. That’s all. At a certain point, we have to shut up about the exact little tid-bit nature of things, and get on with the actual work. “All philosophies are… fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things,” as Nagarjuna said. While Buddhists talk endlessly about enlightenment, they understand that, at the end of the day, words do not make up for experience.

        “Now it’s true that, I suppose, a person who didn’t know what a car was, didn’t know what driving was, and didn’t know where my job was could just keep randomly doing actions until eventually, by chance, he happened to drive a car to my job. But the odds that a person could do this by random chance are astronomically small. Even if by some miracle he managed to succeed, he would have no way of knowing that he had succeeded (because he would not know how to judge success).

        This is an analogy that accurately expresses the problem with your position.”

        Apples and oranges. No. Apples and dog hair.

        You speak as if something as psychologically transformative and existentially profound as attaining to enlightenment can be reduced to driving a car to work.

        Secondly, I never objected to people having working definitions or systems to use in order to pursue enlightenment. I don’t think people ought to flail around in the dark–unless, of course, that’s their particular method. (The key thing here, however, is that they identify it as a method and will-to something greater. I will also mention that, in some sense–living in an absurd world, where meaning is subjective and open-ended, we’re ALL flailing around in the dark. We can’t really help it. But we CAN make our basically arbitrary actions useful in the sense that they may provide us with well-being, etc.)

        What I’m saying is that all these ideas and systems are ultimately provisional, and do not get at the thing-in-itself. All these ideas and systems appeal to people based on certain dispositions, and hence it’s all highly subjective.

        Perhaps we’ve misunderstood each other, or I misspoke.

        “Forget the spiritual TV. There are actual attainments to be had – and when I say “actual attainments,” I’m talking about real, demonstrable achievements that can be reached by any person willing to put in time and effort.”

        I agree that we can all attain to well-being and enlightenment, but even the “spiritual TV” can be important. Our impressions and experiences can be turned into tools to pursue the Work.

        In fact, why is one experience “spiritual TV” while another is not? Can’t we be pragmatic? Use all experience to further one’s progress. Turn every moment into one that is joyous and skillful. Make every moment providential unto itself–beautiful just as it is. Sure, maybe meditating for two hours seems like it’s more germane to our goal than, say, taking a leak, but isn’t the purpose of mindfulness to turn much of everyday experience into meditation? “Every intentional act is a magickal act,” after all. It’s about framing one’s experience in a certain way, and honing the mind, in my opinion.

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      3. “This is the problem with “seekers,” those who are after “enlightenment,” and those who pursue “spirituality.” Most of them are wandering randomly with no idea where they’re going and no way to tell when they get there. And some are busy staring dumbfoundedly at the first landmark they see, wondering whether it’s the goal they’ve heard so much about.”

        It’s up to every individual to work out the nature and meaning of spirituality. While I may have particular notions of what enlightenment may entail, I cannot speak for others, or pretend that my definition applies to everyone else.

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  3. Ryan,

    There appears to be some disconnect in our communication.

    I have sought to clarify my position in my responses to you below.

    I am discouraging the notion that philosophical discourse provides us with “a crystal clear understanding” of what it is […] At a certain point, we have to shut up about the exact little tid-bit nature of things, and get on with the actual work.

    A person can’t “get on with the actual work” without understanding what the work in question entails. This is true for any kind of “work,” from changing lightbulbs, to driving to a job, to seeking enlightenment.

    You speak as if something as psychologically transformative and existentially profound as attaining to enlightenment can be reduced to driving a car to work.

    You’ve misunderstood the point of the comparison. When I compare attaining enlightenment to driving a car, I’m not trying to suggest that the actions are equally transformative or profound or meaningful to the person. I’m arguing that they’re each equally a procedure that aims to achieve a result.

    Engaging in any procedure – whether driving to a job, changing a lightbulb, or seeking enlightenment — is greatly aided by having a clear understanding of how that procedure works. And the *only* way to know that one has succeeded is by having clear criteria by which one judges success.

    If I were explaining to someone how to drive to my job, you wouldn’t interrupt me to say that since all knowledge is provisional, my “philosophical discourse” could never provide a clear understanding of what driving to work is. And I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t say, “That’s enough telling this guy about the tid-bit-ness of how to get to that destination. Enough talk! It’s time for action!!”

    Action without knowing what the hell you’re doing is useless.

    The reason I bring this up is that it seems to me that plenty of people are out there “seeking enlightenment” without a bleeding clue what they’re doing. They read a bunch of daft books that tell them to sit still and chant and turn off their minds or – worse – they get into the “western ceremonial magick tradition” and think that in order to obtain enlightenment they have to make robes and build “magical weapons” and conduct ridiculous ceremonies where they bellow goofy-sounding words while making the most unintentionally hilarious faces. Some of them even fall in with cultish “magical orders,” and they become convinced that having the right master will somehow help them “attain.”

    The constant refrain of these types of people is “Do the work.” Just do a bunch of rituals out of book, and keep at it, and you’ll attain. Like a cook book. But if you ask them how they think any of this stuff is helping them achieve “enlightenment” in any way, you get less than nothing from them. They have no clue why they’re doing this “work” that a bunch of books or (worse) “gurus” or “frater superiors” claim is necessary. And if you ask them how they intend to judge when they’ve actually succeeded in reaching enlightenment, you’ll get crickets in response.

    It’s all well and good to say that “the final leap is experience!” – although it’s kind of a useless point to make because it’s blatantly obviously that the only way to do anything is by experience — but what I’m trying to articulate is that the fields of magick and occultism and (cue eye-roll) “enlightenment seeking” need a *lot* more attention paid to theory because – so far as I can tell – loads of people who are into these subjects haven’t got the foggiest clue what they’re doing.

    in some sense–living in an absurd world, where meaning is subjective and open-ended, we’re ALL flailing around in the dark.

    You keep switching the scope of the conversation.

    We already agreed that knowledge is tentative and provisional and based on the best information currently available to us.

    Within those parameters, I know plenty of things. For example, I know my own name, who the president of the United States is, and what 2 plus 2 equals. Within the parameters of the kind of knowledge we’re discussing, I know these things to the highest degree of certainty that a human can know anything.

    I also know how to do things. I know how to change a lightbulb, I know how to drive to my job, and I know how to attain what I’m calling enlightenment. I can also explain how to do these things so that someone else can learn how to do them.

    why is one experience “spiritual TV” while another is not?

    “Watching spiritual TV” is a phrase that refers to chasing after trance states – such as blissing out into a feeling of non-duality – which are enjoyed passively, in a manner analogous to zoning out and watching television.

    “Attaining the True Will” isn’t a kind of watching spiritual TV because it’s not passive. The essence of True Will is action. Any trances or modified states of consciousness – including the “Beatific Vision” that often accompanies the discovery of the True Will – are beside the point. The importance of attaining the True Will is the carrying out of it, which is a constant process.

    In the context of Thelemic enlightenment, taking a leak is far more important than sitting in meditation.

    It’s up to every individual to work out the nature and meaning of spirituality. While I may have particular notions of what enlightenment may entail, I cannot speak for others, or pretend that my definition applies to everyone else.

    Well, duh. Whenever we use fuzzy terms, we can’t “pretend that [our] definition applies to everyone else.” That’s what it means for something to be a fuzzy term. Different people use it to mean different things.

    Which is why we have to be clear. Which is why words like “spirituality” and “enlightenment” aren’t very productive. In order to have a productive conversation, the people speaking need to define what they’re even talking about.

    If the two of us can agree on what we mean by “enlightenment” – for example, if we can agree that the “enlightenment” worth seeking has something more to do with aligning an individual’s actions with that individuals authentic inclinations (“True Will,” in Crowley’s terminology) than it has to do with generating trances – then we can actually discuss the specific steps that can lead an individual to accomplish this goal in a reasonable time frame (a few years or less, maybe).

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    1. You speak of criteria by which one can judge the success of attainment–and these criteria do exist. But there are many methods of judging attainment. We can observe the discrepancies in the many enlightenment-traditions of the world. A confirmation of attainment in Zen Buddhism may be quite different from one in a Thelemic or Hermetic order. So, who is right? Or, is the “truth” hidden somewhere in the details, “between” these traditions? Can one formulate a path that takes the best and most reasonable tenets of the world’s philosophies and religions and apply it to the goal of attainment? Why does the goal, or the path to it, have to be exclusive to one tradition or philosophy?

      While enlightenment may not be a definitive thing–something exactly the same for all–we can allude to the general phenomenon, without pinpointing it. (Talking about what enlightenment entails, rather than what it absolutely is.) Some suggest a kind of apophatic method of describing enlightenment: that is, to identify it by what it is not. If you follow the Thelemic path, you will quickly learn how Kether–the “goal” in Thelemic Qabalah–is referred to (by Crowley himself) as the “unknown crown.” It’s not that one can’t have it (or at least a “glimpse” of it), but that it is by its very nature difficult to put into words, vague, and so on. That is, you cannot condense infinity (or whatever is “beyond the beyond,” as the Heart Sutra puts it) into simple language. These merely serve as allusions. It’s something to experience. It must be realized that philosophy and rhetoric is a stepping stone into direct experience. That’s where one goes from being simply a philosopher into the role of the mystic.

      I know you think of it as “fuzzy terms,” but it seems to me that talking about enlightenment and its attainment is like telling someone they can find fruit in an orchard, but not telling them whether that fruit is an apple, an orange, a pear, and so on. If you tell them they should go for the pears, but they get apples, the case may be that they’re all just ultimately looking for fruit, and don’t otherwise need to identify what kind of fruit it may be in order to have genuine attainments.

      There are many ways up one mountain, you know. (As Ikkyu said, “Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.”) The methods may be different, but the goal is (basically, or generally) the same. Though one may characterize it differently based on one’s own unique experience, enlightenment is beyond language.

      I’m not suggesting we have total relativism–though if one perceives “enlightenment” in all phenomena (as is suggested by some Buddhist texts), then pinpointing what it is becomes more and more difficult, as it becomes a universal [non-]quality–but, rather, that we be pragmatic. People have different methods and attainments, and identify those attainments differently.

      The “car” analogy is apt, in the sense that one has a path and a goal. But to say that, without a doubt, we have a definite idea of the best or most true path and the best or most true goal is foolhardy. This is, in many ways, an experiment.

      Sure, it’s “time for action,” but what action? What path? Yours? Mine? Joe Schmo’s? What makes yours the ideal one?

      True Will is indeed about action. But it’s action that proceeds from an uncovering of one’s deeper nature. It involves a certain degree of intuition, and meditation can help lead many people to profound and eye-opening experiences–ones that help them develop a firmer sense of what they mean to do. I mean, no one ought to “chase after” trance states, but altered states of consciousness certainly have their usefulness. They figure in almost every mystical tradition because they can be transformative.

      I think that “enlightenment” is a broad phrase encompassing individual potential, and spiritual experience, as well as profound existential realization and personal transformation, more generally. However, I also think that people–being able to live for whatever they see fit–have no objective to strive towards any particular spiritual state. (Or anything else, for that matter.) Everyone, ultimately, wishes to be happy. For some, that may entail becoming one with the Tao. For others, it may just be raising a child and retiring to Aruba. One may say, as Socrates did, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but was Odysseus any less accomplished and fulfilled because, for him, the sweetest thing in life was hearth and home? No, of course not. So, for some, “enlightenment”–the purest potential, or the truest goal–may be something relatively mundane. Are these people selling themselves short when they could be discovering their “True Wills,” beyond the trappings of the ego? Possibly. But who am I to judge? Anyway, this difference of goals–spiritual or otherwise–has more to do with a concept called neo-perennialism, which is quite interesting in and of itself. But I don’t want to veer too off-course, as it is.

      I will mention that James Baquet, a blogger who writes on this topic (and related ones), poses perennialism and neo-perennialism in this way:

      “The Perennial Philosophy is a statement of “that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” This can be summarized as:

      1. There is something bigger than us
      2. We either are (West) or seem to be (East) separated from it
      3. Through various means we can become reunited with it (or realize that we already are)
      4. Once the separation is overcome, we will lead larger, richer, fuller lives

      Neo-Perennialism adds these two additional points to the Perennial Philosophy:

      1. The “something bigger” may include perfectly this-worldly things like one’s family, one’s culture, or one’s people; and
      2. These “perfectly this-worldly things” can in fact be gateways to the ultimate Something Bigger…”

      {I may continue this comment later, although for now this is all I can think to point out. We may simply have a disagreement regarding criteria and whether or not “enlightenment” is something nebulous or specific.}

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  4. The methods may be different, but the goal is (basically, or generally) the same.

    You keep saying this, but saying it repeatedly does not make it so. This is, in fact, one of the fundamental points on which you’re incorrect.

    You appear to be operating under the assumption that diverse people generally use the words “spirituality” and “enlightenment” to refer to the same thing. You further appear to be operating under the assumption that the world’s diverse religious traditions are all using different words (Tao, God, Kether, Christ, salvation, grace, Krishna Consciousness) to refer to the same thing.

    What I’m saying to you is that you need to question this assumption of yours. You seem to be starting by assuming that there actually exists some single goal to which all of these terms point. You seem to be neglecting entirely the far more likely possibility that different people at different times in different places have had different ideas and used different words to describe these different ideas. And, of course, it may be that most or even all of these different ideas are false.

    I would go so far as to argue that even today within the same denomination of a religion, different people often use the same word to refer to very different things. One Christian’s ideas of “God” or “grace” might be drastically different than the ideas of “God” or “grace” contained in the mind of the Christian sitting next to him in the pew at church. And these ideas are almost certainly false.

    What makes your [path] the ideal one?

    I didn’t say it was “ideal.” I said that I could describe specifically and relatively objectively what my goal is, how to achieve it, and how practitioners can tell that they have achieved it. I further said that, in my experience, most people who are interested in “spirituality” — a useless term that seems to have a different meaning for everyone who is interested in it — cannot come even remotely close to articulating what their goal is, how to achieve it, and how practitioners can tell that they have achieved it.

    One of the reasons that they can’t come close to doing this — one of the reasons that their thoughts are so muddled on the subject, one of the major barriers to actually accomplishing anything — is that these people tend to make flawed assumptions about “enlightenment.”

    I’m not sure how many more times I am willing to explain my position if you’re not going to address what I say.

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    1. I’m not sure how it is that I’m NOT addressing your position. Though perhaps we’re off on the wrong foot here.

      Let’s clarify. As far as I can tell, you make this claim:

      1. “Enlightenment” is a specific, intelligible goal that can be articulated…
      2. “True Will,” a la Thelema, is the best representation of this goal…
      3. The path–or work–leading to the achievement of this goal can be understood and articulated…
      4. Such an accomplishment can be had within a relatively small time-frame, using particular methods…
      5. After accomplishment, the “carrying out” of the perfected Will is sufficient for an “enlightened” life.

      Now, is this what you mean, essentially?

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  5. Let’s clarify. As far as I can tell, you make this claim:

    1. “Enlightenment” is a specific, intelligible goal that can be articulated…

    No.

    To be fair to you, there are two different topics that our conversation has been addressing, and I probably haven’t done the best job of keeping them distinct, so I’m going to try to explain more clearly below.

    The first topic our conversation has been addressing is the usefulness of words such as “enlightenment” and “spirituality.”

    I’m claiming that the word “enlightenment” – like the word “spirituality” – is a term that is too fuzzy to be useful in most circumstances because it is used by thousands of different people to refer to thousands of different things.

    My impression of your position is that you think “enlightenment” is a single, actual thing to which the world’s diverse religious traditions all point. This is demonstrably incorrect. The Buddhist who seeks Nirvana and the Christian mystic who seeks “union with Christ” might each use the word “enlightenment” to describe what they’re doing. And someone with your perspective – as I understand your perspective – might claim that the Buddhist and the Christian mystic are each pursuing the same goal but simply using different terminology, taking two different paths up the same mountain, as it were.

    But they’re not seeking the same thing. They’re not heading up the same mountain. Each is attempting to do something very different from the other. And within the religions of Buddhism and Christianity, each individual Buddhist or Christian mystic might mean something a little different – or very different – from what another Buddhist or Christian mystic might mean by those same terms. In the same way, Qabalists seeking Kether, Taoists seeking union with the Tao, Hindus seeking Moksha, Jedi seeking to become one with the Force: each one of them means something different by these terms. The goals are *not* the same. Depending on exactly what each person means, those different goals might be achievable or not; an impossible fantasy or a possible mental state; a good thing to seek or a stupid thing to seek, etc. We can only judge on a case by case basis.

    It all depends on exactly what each person means.

    Declaring all of the world’s diverse religious or mystical practices to be equally methods of seeking a single “enlightenment” *obscures* these very significant differences. Obscuring these very significant differences ends up confusing people. I’ve spoken to lots of Thelemites, for example, who want to discover their True Will but don’t know how to do this because they conflate discovering the True Will with other things that they’ve heard spoken of as “enlightenment.” I even know of Thelemites who think that achieving union with Christ is a way of discovering their True Will. They drew this conclusion because they have such muddled ideas and because they unthinkingly lump everything into a big bucket called “enlightenment.”

    So since it’s unhelpful to lump lots of totally different goals and practices together into a category called “enlightenment,” I would argue that the thing that *is* helpful is talking in *specifics* about specific goals and specific practices.

    These specifics comprise the second topic of our conversation.

    What I was saying in my posts above is that I have a specific goal for my practice and a specific way to reach it. When I say this, I’m *not* saying that I “know what enlightenment really is” or something like that. As I explained earlier in this post, the word “enlightenment” is useless because every single person who uses it means something a little different by it. There is no one single thing called “enlightenment.” There are lots of different goals and lots of different practices. There are goals and practices that are clearly articulated, and there are goals and practices that are murky and dumb.

    When I read other people talking about their “journey” on what they laughably call their “path,” I see people who are unable to articulate their goals and unable to articulate how they think their practices will allow them to achieve these goals. I would argue that one major reason that they are so confused about what they are doing is their unsubstantiated belief that “enlightenment” is one single, actual thing, and hey, one practice is as good as any other because we’re all, like, seeking the same thing, man.

    But we’re not all seeking the same thing.

    So, if you’d like to continue our conversation, I suggest that you respond to the idea that “enlightenment” may not, in fact, be a single thing to which all of the world’s religions point. Let me know if I’m correct in thinking that you *do* think “enlightenment” is a single, actual thing to which all of the worlds diverse religious traditions point. If that is what you think, I’d be really curious to hear you make a case for it.

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    1. OK. To respond to the idea of “enlightenment”:

      I think that many, if not most of the worlds religions (or major religions), point to a kind of transcendent unity. Now, I know you take issue with that phrase, and I do admit to using it a bit liberally. To clarify a bit, I’d like to point to the author Frithjof Schuon’s use of the phrase, which is important in this regard considering he wrote the book (from which this phrase comes… though Kant uses it in a different way) The Transcendent Unity of Religions.

      Anyway, Schuon states:

      “Our starting point is the acknowledgment of the fact that there are diverse religions which exclude each other. This could mean that one religion is right and that all the others are false; it could mean also that all are false. In reality, it means that all are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification, which coincides with pure metaphysics, or in other terms, with the philosophia perennis.”

      As a person who understands the significance of Thelema, you understand, I assume, the value and meaning of perennialism. Crowley used many metaphors to point to a kind of unifying idea that exists among the religions and (yes), even plain [metaphysical] philosophy. (Cf. Liber Porta Lucis sub figura X.)

      By “enlightenment” I’m trying to signify the perennial and neo-perennial ideal. On this topic, the blogger James Baquet notes (to restate):

      “1. There is something bigger than us
      2. We either are (West) or seem to be (East) separated from it
      3. Through various means we can become reunited with it (or realize that we already are)
      4. Once the separation is overcome, we will lead larger, richer, fuller lives”

      Neo-Perennialism adds these two additional points to the Perennial Philosophy:

      “1. The “something bigger” may include perfectly this-worldly things like one’s family, one’s culture, or one’s people; and
      2. These “perfectly this-worldly things” can in fact be gateways to the ultimate Something Bigger…””

      I pointed out in the comments section of “A Little Essay on Scientism (“Existentialism Fun Time”)” that I feel that, “By “transcendent unity” I mean (in the sense of the Buddhist anatta) whatever is in human nature that is the same in (and hence “connects” us to) the cosmos. And yes, it is a feeling—though to be fair all philosophy is some kind of conceptualization, i.e. thought or feeling.”

      Maybe the “connection to the cosmos” bit is a little too heady, but the gist is that, in seeking that which is “bigger than us”, many mystical systems (within religions) point to a connection between the self and All, or the self and Other, etc.

      No one religion gives us a clear, exact definition of enlightenment. It is a notion, and even more so an experience. Even if it doesn’t “exist” in the traditional sense, we can use “enlightenment” to refer to what is ideal, best, or the most good in individual potential… e.g. “True Will”, or Aurelius’s “to do good”.

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      1. According to your quote:

        In reality, it means that all [religions] are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification

        What you’ve done with this quotation is just *repeat* your position that all religions point to the same single unifying truth. On what basis do you think all religions actually *do* point to a single truth?

        I’m not saying that your claim is necessarily false. I’m saying that I don’t see any reason to think it’s true.

        we can use “enlightenment” to refer to what is ideal, best, or the most good in individual potential… e.g. “True Will”, or Aurelius’s “to do good”.

        This is exactly my point: as a fuzzy term, “enlightenment” is used by different people to mean very different things. Aurelius’s “to do good” is not Crowley’s “True Will.” They refer to different ideas. To use one term to talk about them both is to invite confusion.

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      2. I think it’s probably the case that not ALL religions point to the same thing. (Whether that be a “truth” (implying a state of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom), an experience (implying a state of mind or being), or both, or neither.) Oceanian cargo cults, for instance, are largely petitionary, and aren’t really concerned with the elevation of the individual to some “higher” state. Even in religions which are expressly aimed at enlightenment ()whatever that is), there are those practitioners who merely follow them for certain benefits, but without being totally intent on such a lofty goal. (For example, there are many Asian lay Buddhists who make offerings at Buddhist shrines in order to gain merit or luck in their worldly affairs, while the business of enlightenment is more or less left to monks.) So, it seems to me on that basis that the pursuit of enlightenment is often very personal, subjective, and more or less the work of an individual rather than a group.

        However, there have been attempts at codifying what the phrase “enlightenment” means. I mean, really, the word is just a stand-in for a vague concept of personal transformation. But we do see that many religions are, in fact, aimed at personal, mental-spiritual transformation in some manner or another. At their core, Buddhism, Taoism, Thelema, and the mystical strains of Christianity and Islam, etc. can be considered “enlightenment traditions” for this reason.

        You say that “enlightenment” is a fuzzy term, and I agree with you. It is vague out of necessity, as all enlightenment traditions conceive of individual transformation differently, and idealize different aspects of mental-spiritual development.

        You say that to use a single term to talk about multiple ideals is to invite confusion, but I would challenge that notion. We use the phrase “art,” for instance, to cover a wide range of creative works and processes. No one thinks that Kandinsky is an artist while Rembrandt is not. However, their styles—their approaches to art—are wildly different. But the basic gist is the same.

        The phrase “enlightenment” encompasses an ethos, and provides a category for different ideas which emphasize personal transformation and an ideal (or at least “better”) state of being. These states sometimes encompass a new kind of knowledge (e.g. the “gnosis” of the Gnostics, or the kevala jnana of the Jains) or merely a new state of being (e.g. enacting the True Will, as per Thelema).

        The issue we have here, with this phrase “enlightenment,” may ultimately boil down to a categorical error, or mere semantics.

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  6. I know it’s been a while since we discussed this topic, but I wanted to mention that you might really enjoy Sam Harris’ book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.

    Harris makes an argument for the utility of the word “spirituality,” and while it doesn’t change the fact that the word produces confusion when it’s used broadly without clear definition, I can accept using the word in a narrow sense when it’s defined (that is, when it’s used to speak of specific and relatively concrete goals and steps, as I was trying to argue earlier in our conversation).

    Cheers,
    Los

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    1. You know, I’ve stumbled across it once or twice in bookstores, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. Thank you for suggesting it. It’s all the more reason for me to pick it up.

      It sounds like Harris really clarifies a lot of things. Considering how articulate he can be in his speeches and lectures, I wouldn’t be surprised if the book is fairly concise.

      It’s always good to hear fresh takes on the concept of spirituality, and especially a rationalist approach. I’ve been meaning to read IAO131’s Naturalistic Occultism for that reason, as well.

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