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Power and Primordial Confidence

One important element of basic goodness is power, of a specific type: the innate power of awareness. Before we try to define this power directly, let’s take as an example the above photo of the gaze of a tiger.

Why is a tiger’s gaze so powerful? If you’re like me, the easiest answers—”because it could kill you,” “because we’ve evolved to fear large predators,” “because tigers just look cool”—don’t actually hold up. I don’t find the tiger above to be frightful, or merely cool. I find it to be majestic.

For me, a synonym for this majesty would be “innate power.” The tiger radiates a presence that, in and of itself, I can’t help but feel is powerful. What is the source of this power?

The power of awareness

For me, the tiger is radiating a powerful awareness, especially through its eyes:

tiger eyes

This creature is powerfully alive, and it is looking back at the camera with a force of awareness that is not hostile or aggressive, but is utterly without doubt.

For me, much more than its muscles and claws, the tiger feels powerful because of the total doubtlessness of its mind. There’s a term from Shambhala Buddhism that I believe perfectly expresses this doubtless quality: primordial confidence.

It’s not just tigers: humans and primordial confidence

The fundamental power of awareness is part of the basic goodness not only of tigers, but of humans.

Of course, people are capable of enormous of self-doubt: as Mark Twain said, humans are “the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”

But in people’s basic nature—in how we are when we’re most like ourselves—I find the same doubtless awareness that gives a tiger its majesty and power.

Here is the featured image from the Wikipedia article on “Human”:


Click to enlarge

This couple is from the Akha people in northern Thailand. Although they are somewhat less glamorous than the tiger, I find that the couple’s gaze shares the same fundamentally doubtless quality. Like the tiger, their gaze suggests an awareness that, at its basic level, is without self-doubt and second-guessing—an awareness whose nature is primordially confident.

This primordial confidence feels innately powerful: like the tiger, the couple has a presence that is hard to ignore, and that almost comes across as a fierceness. I would find it significantly more difficult, for example, to lie to someone looking at me this way than to a person who was absentmindedly scrolling through his or her phone.

Is primordial confidence really primordial?

“Okay,” you may be saying, “so tigers and certain Thai couples look at cameras without evident self-doubt. What about all the people who don’t? If we’re just going to start labeling things ‘primordial,’ then aren’t most people plagued by ‘primordial doubt’?”

Let’s take an example: Shia LaBoeuf, one of the most visibly unhappy celebrities in Hollywood.


Like nearly all pictures of him, I find that this picture captures a deep-seated pain, doubt, and confusion. If you’re having trouble believing me, then pause your analytical mind and ask: how does this picture make you feel? To me, it makes me feel sad, like I’m seeing someone who’s trapped in life. If I had to caption this picture, my caption would be something like: “When will it all end?”

Many people look hurt, afraid, and confused in their photographs. So have we just proven the existence of “primordial doubt”—actually meaning, simply, “doubt,” thus reducing “primordial” to a meaningless new-agey adjective?

“Primordial”: at the deepest level

To me, “primordial confidence” refers to how we are fundamentally, basically, or originally: how we are when we’re most like ourselves. Doubt obviously does arise in our experience, but it is less basic than the underlying awareness it arises in. So doubt is something that arises in awareness; and doubtlessness, or primordial confidence, is a fundamental quality of that awareness itself.

That’s very wordy, so let’s look at another image: a result from a Google image search for “child.”


To me, this little girl’s eyes have the same self-secure quality as a tiger’s. They are certainly far more sweet than threatening; but, like a tiger’s eyes, they betray no hint of self-doubt.

To me, it would obviously make sense, from his picture above, to ask “What happened to Shia LaBoeuf?” In other words, Shia LaBoeuf’s unhappiness and doubt feel conditioned—the result of some specific set of experiences—and it would be commonsense to ask what those experiences are.

It would be quite strange, though, to ask “What happened to that little girl?” or “What happened to that tiger?” Nothing in particular “happened” to them: they are cleanly expressing of the nature of awareness, and so we don’t think to ask what’s causing them to look the way they do.

To take a similar example: When you go into a beautiful forest full of trees and birds, you don’t ask “What happened to this forest?” But if all the trees were poisoned and dead and the forest was eerily silent, you would immediately ask: “What happened to this forest?” In other words, from your experience, being healthy is the natural state of a forest. Health and beauty is such a clean and simple expression of a forest’s nature that you may not even think to comment on it.

And as a more unpleasant example, if our friend is thrashing about in the ocean with a large, bloody gash on his leg, and a great white shark comes up and eats him, we wouldn’t really think to blame the shark: its actions would be quite consistent with our understanding of a shark’s nature. If, conversely, the shark swims right by without eating our friend, we’d be very relievedbut at some point we might also ask, “What happened to that shark?”

So rather than pleasant or unpleasant, the question is simply: What is original and natural? And to return to the topic at hand, when you look at a human being who is being most like a human being—who is expressing his or her true nature—what looks back at you is a powerful, doubtless awareness. Our doubt is a temporary occurrence within an underlying awareness that is fundamentally and powerfully without doubt, as expressed in the eyes of a tiger, a child, or a couple from northern Thailand.

Appreciating power as part of basic goodness

Depending on your personality, you might be intuitively attracted to “power” as a concept, or repulsed by it. In my own experience, I am often uncomfortable around power even when it is appropriately expressed, such as around competent police officers, or when someone becomes stern and unyielding in a crisis situation.

But those expressions of power are generally about relative or temporary circumstances: “power over” something, “power to do” something, and so on. The “power” we’re discussing here is an intrinsic element of awareness itself: it is the fundamentally fearless, doubtless, and energetic or “alive” quality of that awareness. Said differently, power is the energetic quality of basic goodness.

Why do I believe that “basic goodness” is an appropriate term, and that power is a part of it? Because I find the doubtlessness of a tiger or a little girl to be absolutely wonderful and worth celebrating—and something that I hope myself and Shia LaBoeuf can rediscover more deeply in our lives.

So no matter our personal histories, I believe that the “power” aspect of basic goodness is something that we cannot help but love once we see itMoreover, as I’ve gotten less afraid of my own basic energy, I find that I’m also less afraid of the loud and sharp parts of reality more generally. Because our own nature is blazing with energy, sometimes things can be good and true and nonaggressive even if they aren’t exactly soft and gentle. Starting to discover this has helped me gradually move out of a phase in my life that was too gentle, because of a fear of power itself.

Thank you for reading!

as you wish | basic goodness

Service: “As You Wish”

The video below summarizes a thread in the classic movie The Princess Bride: the phrase “As you wish” as code for “I love you.” Watch the video to orient yourself, but if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, your time is probably better spent doing that front-to-back. This article will be here when you’re done.

On Service

Part of the basic goodness of human nature is our ability, and our yearning, to place ourselves into service.

To me, the end of The Princess Bride is one of the most touching moments in film. When I try to pin down precisely why, what emerges is a discussion of service.

Part of the basic goodness of human nature is our ability, and our yearning, to place ourselves into service. Service in this case isn’t a chore, but is a delighful act of putting love into practice.

In fact, humans love and even need service. As anyone in a well-paid but meaningless job—that is, a job that is not serving the good of the world—will tell you, the human spirit actually begins to starve without some level of service.

The Best Lives are Bound Up in Service

As a result, service crops up often in the writings and lives of great souls. One example is Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

More broadly, almost all of the most celebrated lives in history have been in steady service to something: to country (Washington or Gandhi); to truth (Newton or Einstein); to art (Beethoven or Shakespeare); or to love, as in the lives of countless less famous people who give totally and selflessly to friends and family throughout their lives.

What is Service?

Service is a particular type of gift: rather than giving something you possess, you give yourself, totally.

Service is a particular type of gift. In service, rather than giving something you possess, you give yourself, totally. To me, this type of giving is so moving because it highlights the majesty of the giver—and the power of the gift itself, which is also the giver.

As a good image for this, you could imagine a dragon bending down to allow you to ride it, simply to bring you joy. That a being of such power would wish nothing more than to serve you does not diminish its power, but magnifies it. A dragon would be a fascinating creature even if it had a crocodile’s flat self-interest; but to learn that it was in fact filled with a boundless, patient love would be almost too much to contemplate. It has so much to give—and it wants nothing more than to give.

Replacing “dragon” with “human,” this is precisely the message at the end of The Princess Bride, and it’s a message that I find overwhelming every time I encounter it.

Service and Basic Goodness

Service is a direct window into basic goodness, which is the inherent power, dignity, and worthiness of humanity itself. Just as the dragon we described is clearly a “good dragon,” the pulse of service that shines throughout human life, across time and place, is a window onto our underlying goodness.

If you feel in yourself the desire to help the world, or a specific desire to help a loved one overcome an illness or achieve a goal, then you are directly feeling your own goodness. And if you can reflect on and feel gratitude for the service of others on your behalf—the efforts that your parents exerted to give you a good life, or the long hours your teachers put in to help you learn, or the humble and patient support of a best friend—then you are reflecting both on your basic goodness and on that of others in your life.

If we look closely, we can also find moments of service woven through our chaotic world. Whatever your politics, I doubt you can fail to appreciate the power of President Obama bending so that an incredulous black boy can touch his hair and see that it is indeed curly:

obama curly hair | basic goodness

The humility of service is not an admission of weakness, but a direct expression of the raw power of human goodness.

In these moments, we can see that the humility of service is not an admission of weakness, but a direct expression of the raw power of human goodness.

Of course, there are also countless instances of non-service, and even some people who appear to live wholly selfish lives. Discussing why this lack of service does not in fact prove “basic badness” is long, and unsuited to an experiential article like this. Look for articles in the category “Conceptual” for a more philosophical look at basic goodness.

For now, though, I hope that you find reflecting on the steady pulse of human service to be a powerful and warming activity. It’s meant a lot to me through the years.

An Ending Story: Service and the Sixteenth Karmapa

To close, I thought I’d relate one of the most powerful stories of service I’ve ever heard. It was told to me in 2009 by Paul, a senior meditation practitioner who, when he was much younger, had served as security for one of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s visits to the US.

Paul was standing in a hallway late at night when the Karmapa came out of his bedroom. The Karmapa spoke very limited English, and so Paul, not knowing what to do, raised his palms in a gesture of “Can I do anything?”

The Karmapa smiled and raised his palms in the same gesture.

When Paul told me this story, he could barely finish it. Forty years later, it was one of the most powerful memories of his life.

This is the Sixteenth Karmapa:


Thank you for reading!

James Bond

On Spirituality and Cool

Spirituality often feels forced, fake, claustrophobic, corny.

I think virtually any young person who’s interested in spirituality is, to some extent, embarrassed by that interest. Spirituality often feels forced, fake, claustrophobic, corny: slightly embarrassing to practice, and even to discuss.

I used to live at a Buddhist retreat center, and when I’d talk to my closest friend on the outside (an ex-girlfriend), I felt myself withering under her pity that I was investing so much in my spiritual life. I felt the same pity myself when I learned that a Harvard valedictorian intended to join a nunnery. My ex’s feeling and mine, put most bluntly, would be: “But that’s for losers.”

Spirituality also often carries an earnestness, an aw-shucks character, that can make one cringe. From the just-linked article, for example: “The Holy Spirit is working overtime these days!” Similarly, at my old retreat center, I recently saw a Facebook update of several people my age building a snowman. It was a bit of painfully earnest fun for people who might otherwise have been going out to bars and clubs, meeting sexual partners, starting a company, playing club soccer, brewing craft beer, what have you.

Why is a craft beer hobby (really just large tanks of yeast in your linen closet) cool, and a spiritual life so uncool? What is cool?

What Cool Is

To be always as one wishes to be, totally unthreatened by anything that may occur, is the epitome of cool.

Cool is, fundamentally, the ability to remain impervious to life. To be always as one wishes to be, totally unthreatened by anything that may occur, is the epitome of cool.

To support this definition, let’s look at a few famously cool characters:

James Bond.

Bond can handle anything life throws at him: charm any woman, defeat any opponent, retort cleverly to any insult.

James Bond

One never sees him lose his car keys, react to the news of a bad dental checkup, or struggle with a difficult bowel movement.

Sherlock Holmes.

This character existed long before the notion of “cool” itself, but still radiates its key trait: he’s always in control. Holmes’s gimmick is an arbitrarily keen intelligence, which enables him to break the world down into elements he can manipulate: evidence, data, and logical connections. Sherlock Holmes can simply bend the world to his intelligence; he’s never caught on the other end of the stick, and that’s the essence of his cool.


Billionaire playboy by day, vigilante superhero by night, Batman combines a genius IQ with elite combat training and all the futuristic gadgetry his billions can buy. A dark past has rendered him both emotionally inaccessible and frighteningly determined, and now he terrorizes Gotham’s evildoers while keeping his own identity a closely guarded secret.


Batman’s character is an almost pornographic study in status and control–and one whose extreme cool motivates billions of dollars in cultural creation each year.

Or let’s look at some famously cool behaviors:

Wearing sunglasses.

A layer of distance, impenetrability.
[ezcol_1half]Cool guy[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]cool-woman-sunglasses[/ezcol_1half_end]

Witty comebacks.

“For a moment it seemed like you might get one over on me, but I calmly and offhandedly reassert my invulnerability.”

Walking casually away from explosions.

“The world detonates around me, but I am in such complete control that I can’t even be bothered to watch.”

Wolverine | cool guy

To be cool is to be in control: projected into the world, perhaps, but never the victim of its comings and goings.

Hopefully this principle is clear enough that other ultra-cool characters (Han Solo, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, the Blues Brothers) and behaviors (responding to dire threats as if amused) clearly fit the mold. In every case, to be cool is to be in control: projected into the world, perhaps, but never the victim of its comings and goings.

Impermanence and “Conventional Cool”

Cool characters are usually cool because of, or as long as, something or other. This is “conventional cool.”

Before closing this discussion of cool, I’ll introduce a new term, “conventional cool,” in recognition that cool characters are usually cool because of, or as long as, something or other.

For example, Batman is very cool because of his training and gadgets, and as long as he succeeds in keeping Gotham’s criminals from killing him and dragging his body through the streets.

This caused–or earned, bestowed, achieved–cool is “conventional cool.” (It could also be called, in more Buddhist language, “relative cool.”) Conventional cool relies on specific causes and conditions; and because all conditions will someday decay, relative cool is, like all caused things, impermanent.

Virtually all examples of cool, including all I’ve discussed so far in this article, are “conventional” in this sense. I’ll generally shorten “conventional cool” to just “cool” throughout–but conventional cool does contrast with a notion of “absolute cool” that I explore toward the end of the article.

Why Spirituality is Uncool

There are many ways to discuss the contrast between cool and spirituality.

Spirituality is Wholehearted, Cool is Detached

True spiritual commitment leaves no place for the insulating distance that sustains conventional cool.

All spiritual traditions worth discussing revolve around one or another vision of truth, goodness, or perfection. To truly practice spirituality is to commit oneself fully to such a vision; and this commitment leaves no place for the insulating distance that sustains conventional cool.

Statements like “I work every day to see God’s love in all things” or “I have committed my life to bringing all beings to enlightenment” are by their nature uncool: they are statements of longing, not indifference, of humble service, not lofty detachment.

[ezcol_1third]bible-study-magazine[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third]mindful-cover[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_1third_end]gq-cover[/ezcol_1third_end]

The project of cool is “to be myself,” autonomous and in control, under all circumstances. But true spirituality requires rendering oneself up to the good. To do so destroys cool’s illusions of detachment, autonomy, and control.

Spiritual Training Often Entails Being Both Badly Wrong and Totally Committed

Nothing is less cool than devoting oneself totally to a mess of syrupy half-truths. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to avoid on the spiritual journey.

Spiritual practitioners must often live falsehoods with every fiber of our being.

This is not because spirituality itself is false, but because we cannot fully embody spiritual truth without first undergoing a long training process. During this process, we will be living various half-truths: approximations of spiritual truth, devised in ignorance, usually saccharine and stilted. And because spirituality requires full commitment in every corner of life, we will be living these half-truths, as it were, “out loud.”

As an example, most spiritual traditions include training in kindness. All such training begins awkwardly, with an imperfect understanding of the thing being trained in; as a result, serious spiritual students are well-known for our creepy, highly artificial displays of meekness, gentleness, and patience.

Similarly, religious traditions often promote ideals like purity, modesty, and righteousness. Fully expressed, these ideals lead to a life like Jesus’s: a life that could look with unflinching love at a prostitute, or with startling wrath at a temple full of hypocritical money changers. Imperfectly expressed, though, these ideals give spiritual people our well-deserved reputation for being repressed: unable to engage directly with life itself because of preoccupation with some obscure ideal of personal virtue.


This problem creates the heavily repressed, eerie, almost hollow feeling so common to the spiritual landscape–a feeling that is brutally, even suffocatingly uncool.

In general, nothing is less cool–less detached, less in control–than devoting oneself totally to a mess of syrupy half-truths. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to avoid on the spiritual journey, even though spiritual truth itself is not syrupy or otherwise tainted. These problems can be solved to some extent by better spiritual education; but they cannot be eliminated entirely as long as learning is still a process.

Spirituality’s Reputation Is at a Low Ebb

When it is religious voices that are most often blatantly wrong about most things, religion itself starts to seem like a joke, something losers do.

Spirituality has also done much to damage its own reputation by frequently intruding, without basis, on other areas of truth. As one of sundry examples: I stumbled on a piece of Christian research claiming that earthquakes are not God’s work, but the Devil’s–and that God, in fact, “is always doing His best to stop them from hurting people”–thus adding a useless and incoherent moral veneer to a topic best studied by seismology. Small intrusions like this are quickly forgotten; larger ones, like the religious stand against the theory of evolution, always end in messy and disgraceful retreat.


Click to enlarge

To be deluded is very uncool, since you can’t control what you don’t understand; and when it is religious voices that are most often blatantly and discordantly wrong about social, political, and scientific issues, religion itself starts to seem like a joke, something losers do. This stigma sits ever more heavily on religion and spirituality–unnecessarily so, since spirituality can be properly situated as a source of profound truths in its own field of study.

Who Needs Cool Anyway?

Let’s look more closely at cool itself, and at the origins of the impulse toward it.

Ego, Impermanence, and the Illusion of Control

Conventional cool, which is all about symbolic immortality, is nevertheless built on one or another shifting, impermanent base. We may embody this cool for a time, but it is transient, unsustainable: we can’t be conventionally cool eternally and under all circumstances.

For example, film characters written to project extreme cool in one setting–like Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s con men in Ocean’s Eleven–would be reduced to totally helpless bystanders in the plot of another movie, say Independence Day. And in the real world, it hurts to watch ultra-cool people (say, the members of Guns ‘n’ Roses or Led Zeppelin) age past their peak, and collapse into lawsuits or settle into reunion tours for a mellowing fanbase.

Cool gestures toward immortality, but with none of its prerequisites.

So conventional cool has an inherent element of self-deception: we are not in control, not impervious to the world, at least in the way that conventional cool attempts to project. Conventional cool gestures toward immortality, but with none of its prerequisites.

As such, conventional cool is always at least a little painful, because there’s always the sliver of doubt that it isn’t sustainable. In fact, repeatedly dispelling this doubt is the driving force of most narratives built around cool. (Will Bond crack under the villain’s torture device? Ah, no, he made it out! Still cool!)

Fundamentally, cool is a symptom of ego’s forlorn hopes.

Fundamentally, then, conventional cool is a symptom of ego’s forlorn hopes. Cool is one more way ego can hope to exist “for real”–and when we embody cool, it feels so good because it’s a symbolic fulfillment of this hope. You casually toss your cigarette onto the trail of gasoline beside you, and stride back to your sports car as the nearby warehouse erupts in a towering column of flame: You must exist!

Similarly, cool is doomed by a basic conundrum of ego, which is that all our conventional symbols of immortality are themselves caused, contingent, and fleeting. This is what makes cool so poignant, so in need of constant defense. What if you had been inside the warehouse when it blew? You would have been just a bunch of scraps of cooked meat. Or what if your sports car springs a flat as you drive off? Your hard-won cool could erode at any time!

True spirituality begins precisely where the answers offered by cool stop seeming compelling.

True spirituality begins precisely where the answers offered by cool, and by ego more generally–always in control, always on top, never afraid, truly real and everlasting–stop seeming compelling.

Spiritual Accomplishment and “Absolute Cool”

Despite the discussion above, some spiritual people do radiate a freedom and lack of concern that is, in its own way, cool. Hakuin, the famous Rinzai Zen master, is one such character:

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the child needed.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”

Whether or not this story is true or false, it could be true; and there are many like it, including some (for example, about Chögyam Trungpa and Shunryu Suzuki) reliably reported by multiple living sources.

Stories aside, many great spiritual practitioners report a total freedom, a lack of fear and suffering, an at-homeness in the world, that seem to be conventional cool’s true aim:

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

Dōgen Zenji

These stories, poems, and people radiate spiritual power, and they also radiate some of cool’s steadiness and lack of concern. So it seems to me that there’s some form of absolute cool that at least some spiritual people embody.

Let’s look at how absolute cool relates to conventional cool.

Conventional Cool and Absolute Cool

Absolute cool is a result of finding boundless freedom with no relative cause.

Fundamentally, absolute cool accomplishes what conventional cool gestures toward: freedom from the basic conundrums of life itself. Absolute cool is a result of finding boundless freedom with no relative, temporal cause; conventional cool is a stand-in for, or a symbol of, that same freedom, but built upon shifting causes and conditions.

So the freedom of cool is more absolute as it relies less on caused things. If you feel free because you’re rich, you could just as soon be poor–or rich and sick. Rather conventional.

If you’re free because of a strong innate collectedness and presence, like Miles Davis, you’re free as long as the world’s energy doesn’t overwhelm you. (It’s a very ugly thought, but how would Miles have fared in a firefight, crashing plane, or torture chamber?) At any rate, Miles’s cool was far more absolute than, say, the cool conferred by owning a sports car.

If you’re free because of your total faith in God (as with the early Christians fed to the lions), you’re free under all circumstances as long as your faith sustains you: more absolute.

If you’re free simply because you live in the boundless psychological freedom of enlightenment, you’re free as long as there’s mind to experience; and–whether or not it’s empirically true–you feel that the freedom of enlightenment is totally outside all forms of time and space, cause and effect. Quite absolute.

Absolute cool is a lived accomplishment, not a forlorn symbol.

Absolute freedom (or absolute cool) is effortless, openhearted, and joyful in ways conventional cool is not–because it is not constantly under siege by the forces of impermanence. It is a lived accomplishment, not a forlorn symbol.


This article has examined cool in some depth as it relates to spirituality. I hope you find that it sheds light on some persistent themes and discomforts within modern spiritual practice. I also hope I’ve done a bit to direct the impulse to be cool toward what I believe is its true aim: absolute freedom.

In a future article, I plan to examine what happens when spiritual people and organizations attempt to embody conventional cool–which I believe is one of the most common problems in modern spirituality.

Thank you for reading!

Buddhas on table |Spiritual apologetics

Beyond Spiritual Apologetics

I recently began to present my view that spirituality is often threatened by truth. This article examines one of the most common symptoms of that sense of threat: spiritual apologetics. In this article, I’ll define spiritual apologetics, and examine what I believe to be the inherent failings of an apologist’s approach to truth—as well as how these failings commonly play out in individual apologetic projects. I’ll also look at the origins of the apologetic impulse, and how to go beyond it by understanding the true nature and purpose of spirituality.

Understanding Spiritual Apologetics

“Apologetics” is the formal attempt to provide a rational basis for existing ideas, and especially for spiritual or religious beliefs. In the present day, “apologetics” usually entails working to reconcile spiritual beliefs with knowledge gained from other fields of study, especially the sciences. This article is specifically about these present-day apologetic attempts:

Spiritual apologetics is the effort to reconcile spiritual claims with non-spiritual bodies of knowledge.

A few examples of recent apologetic projects include:

  1. “Proof of Heaven,” as advanced by an American neurosurgeon.
  2. The Tao of Physics, suggesting widespread parallels between particle physics and various Eastern mystical traditions.
  3. A book advancing the position that reality is not “dead,” meaning strictly material, but basically “alive” in a way that science might usefully study.
  4. An attempt to argue that consciousness exists independent of physical causes.

Apologetics is almost always a wasted effort.

In my opinion, apologetics is almost always a wasted effort: it starts from a misguided and needlessly insecure premise, and as a result produces conclusions that are unlikely to be true.

Apologetics Begins with a Threatened View of Spirituality

Spiritual apologetics presumes insecurity, because it looks to other disciplines to confirm spiritual truths as true.

Fundamental to each apologetic project is this premise: “Spirituality needs another discipline’s blessing to confirm it as true.”

As an example, there has been much excitement about the premise that “Buddhism and quantum physics agree.” Why is this (I believe false) premise exciting? Because it means that Buddhism stands a chance of actually being true!

In other words, if Buddhism and quantum physics agree, then perhaps Buddhism can borrow some space on the platform of rigorous scientific and mathematical knowledge upon which quantum physics stands. Then we Buddhists wouldn’t have to worry that our beliefs and practices are silly, false, and liable to be disproved.

So apologetics presumes a sense of insecurity: of being basically threatened by higher and greater forms of truth.

As evidence that apologetics is a study in insecurity, notice that relatively secure disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, don’t have an apologetic tradition. No modern, reputable physicist would try to confirm the existence of, say, subatomic particles by interpreting ancient Buddhist texts. The case for subatomic particles is strong enough within physics itself; no apologetics is needed.

Apologetics Ignores Spirituality’s Unique Field of Study

Spiritual insecurity, both in apologetics and in general, results from failing to understand the nature and purpose of spirituality.

In my view, virtually all of the spiritual insecurity I’ve been discussing has a single cause: failing to understand the nature and purpose of spirituality. This failure causes the basic sense of threat underlying apologetic efforts.

In other words: we worry that “spirituality is basically false” when, and because, we fail to understand the nature, aims, and boundaries, of spiritual truth; and spiritual inquiry generates falsehoods when it is asked to comment upon types of knowledge it is unequipped to examine.

In sum, we cling to—and agonize over—spiritual falsehoods when we fail to understand the spiritual field of study.

As I’ve begun to present, I believe that this field of study can be crisply and succinctly defined: spirituality is the applied, subjective study of human flourishing. In other words, spirituality answers the question: “What is it, and what can it be, to live as a human being?”

The most powerful and essential spiritual truths (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”) all relate to the core spiritual endeavor. All point us toward what it means—in direct, subjective, experiential terms—to be most fully and powerfully human.

Conversely, the most fragile and extraneous spiritual falsehoods (“The Earth was created deliberately, and less than 10,000 years ago”) are distant from the core question of spirituality, and they encroach heavily on other areas of knowledge that are much better equipped to comment on them.

How Apologetic Projects Proceed, and Fail

I’ve attempted to present the two fatal flaws that undermine almost every apologetic project:

  1. A basically insecure approach to spirituality, relating to
  2. A failure to understand the spiritual field of study.

Given this basis, I’ll now try to outline the common course, and failure, of apologetic projects.

1. Defending the Indefensible

Spiritual apologists often defend their traditions’ least defensible tenets.

Spiritual apologists often defend their traditions’ least defensible tenets, such as young-earth creationism or the traditional Buddhist account of reincarnation (complete with a currency-like karmic system that persists across lifetimes).

Apologists defend these tenets for two reasons. First, they recognize the threat posed by other disciplines’ more plausible studies of the same topics. Second, because of their excessively comprehensive view of spirituality, they believe that their traditions as a whole cannot survive if these tenets are shown to be false.

2. Forays into Areas of Knowledge Alien to Spirituality

A hallmark of apologetics is the attempt to discuss spirituality in language totally alien to spirituality.

Being driven to support their spiritual beliefs with the most credible forms of knowledge, apologists usually search for findings from the natural and social sciences. These findings are then “stitched to” spiritual claims using philosophical reasoning.

This results in one of the hallmarks of apologetics: the attempt to discuss spirituality in language totally alien to spirituality. From the apologetic projects listed above, examples include:

  1. A near-death subjective experience of Heaven, presented as a scientifically valid proof of the objective existence of Heaven.
  2. Personal, subjective accounts of mystical experiences, presented as “parallels” to complex mathematical models of the physical world.
  3. A felt sense of wonder and aliveness, presented as an objective property of the physical universe.
  4. The existence of the subjective experience of consciousness, presented as grounds for revision of the philosophical bases of scientific inquiry.

Virtually every apologetic project makes similar forays into non-spiritual forms of knowledge.

3. Constructing a Shaky Skeleton

The incongruity of apologetic projects nearly always dooms apologists to forced and fragile forms of argumentation.

Because apologetic projects attempt to support spiritual claims with non-spiritual bodies of knowledge, they are basically incongruous: aplogists suffer from constant efforts to “translate” ideas back and forth, and in the end, they nearly always resort to forced and fragile forms of argumentation.

I’ve given names to a few common styles of apologetic argumentation. They include:

  1. Borrowed Credibility: Using the generalized authority conferred by advanced academic degrees (especially in the sciences) to shelter otherwise doubtful or speculative arguments. Successful apologists are often physics professors, neurosurgeons, and so on; and apologists will generally seek endorsements from people with these credentials in the course of advancing their arguments.
  2. Vague Concordances: Exploiting a felt sense of “similarity” between disparate findings to suggest that they imply one another. For example, quantum entanglement may be claimed to resemble the Buddhist principle of “interdependence”—and this juxtaposition can be used to suggest that Buddhism is true in a physics sense.
  3. Optimistic Glosses: Picking the most hoped-for out of a number of interpretations of a known truth. For example, quantum physicists have found that observing a quantum phenomenon can actually change its outcome; and this could, in one fanciful interpretation, mean that consciousness itself somehow impacts the physical world. Most unbiased scientists find this conclusion unconvincing, but apologists are likely to dangle it as tantalizing “evidence” of a scientific basis for spiritual truth.
  4. Frontier Optimism: Related to “Optimistic Glosses,” this style of reasoning exploits rapid developments at the frontiers of scientific knowledge—as well as continued gaps in scientific knowledge—to argue for hoped-for spiritual results. For example, Christian apologists have used the incompletely understood suggestion, from theoretical physics, that the universe contains a large number of dimensions to speculate that God performs miracles by existing in a greater number of dimensions than humans do.
  5. Refuge in the Unknowable: Exploiting the inherent limitations of non-spiritual disciplines to advance hoped-for spiritual conclusions. For example, the truism that “Science cannot disprove the existence of the soul” may be taken as scientific evidence for the soul—rather than as a misappropriation of science to investigate nonscientific questions. Similarly, the truism that “Evolution is [just] a theory” misrepresents the nature of scientific knowledge (which is always formally contingent because it prioritizes evidence over authority) to suggest that competing accounts are credible.

Fundamentally, apologists must rely upon these and other fallacious forms of reasoning because they are “attempting the impossible”: to reconcile disparate bodies of knowledge that have incompatible fields of study and ways of knowing.

4. Death, by New Knowledge and Common Sense

Apologetic projects die as their poorly constructed claims eventually erode.

Apologetic projects die as their poorly constructed claims eventually erode. This can happen in two basic ways:

Death by new knowledge occurs when a core claim or prediction of an apologetic project is eventually disproven. For example, efforts to map Biblical prophecy to world events often collapse when the world fails to end on time. The Tao of Physics, originally published in 1975, has suffered a more drawn-out death by new knowledge, as the theoretical physics used in its Vague Concordances grow increasingly dated.

Death by common sense occurs when an apologetic project, while never disproven as such, decays into irrelevance with the general recognition that it is contorted and unlikely to be true. These apologetic projects may live on virtually forever, but gradually lose their broad cultural significance and all but their closest adherents. For example, the traditional Christian account of Hell for nonbelievers is likely suffering a very gradual death by common sense, as it slowly loses cultural relevance and broad plausibility.

A single apologetic project, particularly a large one, can die in both ways: suffering a series of specific insults as new knowledge emerges, coupled with growing commonsense rejection of the project in general. An example may be the effort to impose literal interpretations of the Bible upon areas like science education and policymaking: this effort suffers discrete shocks as scientific knowledge and philosophies of civil rights continue to expand, as well as a steadily worsening environment of general skepticism.

Sources of the Apologetic Impulse

If spiritual apologetics results from a failure to let spirituality be what it is, what provokes that failure? What causes people to support extraneous spiritual claims?

There are probably many answers (“political necessity,” for example, would certainly apply in a few cases), but I think two main reasons are worth considering:

  1. Genuine religious faith.
  2. A sense of spiritual poverty.

Religious Faith

Genuine religious faith is worthy of respect, because it indicates honest engagement with a spiritual tradition.

Genuine religious faith is worthy of respect, because it indicates honest engagement with a spiritual tradition. This remains true even when it leads to support for extraneous beliefs, such as theological sexual prohibitions or the idea of a “chosen people.”

Religions’ extraneous beliefs generally originate from deep in their history, when spirituality had to cover much more ground than it should cover today. Modern people’s continued adherence to those beliefs is not insanity, but commitment to the principles of their religions—religions which give their lives hope and meaning, which connect them to rich traditions and vibrant communities, and which, in general, help them flourish.

As such, faith is not really a problem to be solved. Campaigns to uproot people’s faith with reason are not only ineffective, but also ugly: the campaigners are training one of humanity’s worst qualities, aggressive missionary zeal, on one of its best, patient belief in something greater than oneself.

When faith leads to belief in extraneous claims, that belief must simply be slowly shaped by evidence—when, for example, apologetic projects eventually fail to withstand scrutiny. This is an endless process that is ongoing in every free society, and which will continue to lead, I believe, toward a continually clearer understanding of the true purpose and role of spirituality.

Spiritual Poverty

Apologetic efforts not based in religious faith often contain a common seed: a mentality of poverty.

However, many apologists do not have a rich faith background; many, for example, are scientists who came to Buddhism relatively late in life.

I believe these people stand to gain by reexamining their own motivations, because they often contain a common seed: a mentality of poverty.

Consider these questions:

  1. Am I really just a brain?
  2. Will I really vanish when I die?
  3. How do we know the Buddhist teachings are really true?

Most apologetic efforts share the sense that if we accept the scientific version of events, what remains of spirituality is “not enough.”

These and other, similarly plaintive questions underlie most apologetic efforts. They share a sense of poverty: a sense that if we accept the scientific version of events, then what spirituality is left with is “not enough.” If my consciousness boils down to chemistry; if my death is eternal; if I can’t find any empirical, “official” confirmation of spiritual truth, then what’s the point? These threatening suggestions must be resisted.

Going Beyond Spiritual Apologetics

Spirituality Without Poverty

To be a human being on the spiritual path is worthwhile, without any of the guarantees that apologists seek.

Confronting issues such as the finality of death is certainly powerful, but I believe that the sense of poverty is misplaced. Working to reassure ourselves that we will never truly die, or to deny the truth that our consciousness relies on a functioning body, seems distant from the true power of the spiritual project, which is to help us be most fully and powerfully what we are.

In other words, to be a human being on the spiritual path is completely worthwhile, without any of the guarantees that apologists seek.

A close analogy is to art. Imagine listening to a beautifully conducted symphony orchestra, complete with a full choir, play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety.

Would we make extraneous demands of this experience? Would we agonize about “where the music goes” when the orchestra stops playing, or cling to the desperate hope that it will play forever? Would we question the value of the orchestra based on the disturbing knowledge that it cannot play without musicians, or without instruments, or in outer space, or underwater? Would we wonder how physicists can possibly believe that the beautiful music we hear is “just” controlled fluctuations in air pressure—or dive into speculative frontier science in an attempt to prove conclusively that the symphony is beautiful? All these attempts would be just as doomed, and in precisely the same ways, as spiritual apologetics.

On the contrary, listening to the symphony is an immensely worthwhile human experience, and one which we accept on its own terms. The experience justifies itself: when you hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you know for yourself the power, beauty, and truth of the musical flourishing it represents. No further justification is required.

Like art, spirituality justifies itself.

Like art, spirituality justifies itself: to experience the power and beauty of spiritual attainment is to know the inherently human truth of spirituality. When meditation practice allows you to understand the pain behind another person’s anger, no biochemist is needed to affirm the value of the experience; and when you meet someone who is totally at peace and immensely kind, the power and beauty of that person’s example shines brilliantly with or without the further guarantee that everything emanates from, and will continue forever on, one or another mystical plane.

Understanding and Accepting the Nature of Spirituality

In sum, then, the alternative to spiritual apologetics is to understand the proper nature and role of spirituality, or the spiritual field of study.

Spirituality, at root, is the direct, subjective study of human flourishing. Spiritual claims that relate to the nature and potentiality of living as a human being—from basic moral guidelines to advanced insights into the nature of experience—generally do not need defending.

Conversely, extraneous spiritual claims—claims that stray from the spiritual field of study—generally cannot be successfully defended. The attempt to defend these claims is what gives rise to the contradictions of apologetics.

Fundamentally, spirituality is a set of human truths. It justifies itself when, and because, we directly experience the power of the human flourishing it brings about. I believe this understanding is the ultimate antidote to the doomed, plaintive hope-against-hope of spiritual apologetics, and the way forward to a truly mature and sustainable vision of spirituality.

Buddha statue sky

Human Flourishing, Art, and the Nature of Spirituality

In the previous article, I described my view that modern spirituality often fears the truth, because people’s use of spirituality is “overstretched”: people put forward spiritually-based answers to too many types of questions, damaging the credibility of spirituality as an answer to anything.

I also argued that the remedy is to define the spiritual “field of study”: the set of questions which belong to spirituality itself, and the knowledge and wisdom to be discovered in exploring those questions.

So the key question is: What truth can and should spirituality reveal? This article starts to outline what I believe is the answer to that question.

The Core Question of Spirituality

I believe that the purpose of spirituality is to answer the question:

What is it, and what can it be, to live as a human being?

Written out more fully, I believe the core question of spirituality is:

What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in being alive as a human being, and how can humans more and more powerfully embody those qualities?

Similarity with Arts

Defining spirituality as “the art of human life” could be a very powerful metaphor for understanding its nature and purpose.

I believe spirituality is much more like an art than it is like a science, a philosophy, a line of logical inquiry, or any other type of knowledge. In particular, I believe that defining spirituality as “the art of human life,” or “the art of being human,” could be a very powerful (although not perfect) metaphor for the nature and purpose of spiritual knowledge.

The core question of spirituality is very similar to the question at the core of any art. Dance, for example, asks something like: “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in human movement, and how can humans more and more powerfully express those qualities?” Or simply “What is it, and what can it be, to dance?” The main distinction between dance and spirituality seems to be that dance is about expressing something and spirituality is about embodying something; I’ll explore this in a later article.

Contrast with Sciences

The sciences work to uncover objective, external truth.

Spirituality’s core question is quite different from that of a science. For example, physics does not ask anything like, “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in physical reality, and how can they be more and more powerfully expressed?” Or “What is it, and what can it be, to exist in physical reality?”

Instead, physics asks: “What occurs in physical reality, and what rules govern those occurrences?” Physics contains a lot of beauty, truth, worthiness, and power; however, these qualities are not the purpose of physics, and they’re also not how we judge whether a particular scientific discovery is true. In physics, the truth is whatever accurately describes empirical phenomena—whatever else might be true about it.

Economists don’t mainly work to personally embody better economic systems, in the way that spiritual people work to embody spiritual ideals.

Similarly, economics (practiced as a social science) does not ask, “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in the human exchange of goods and services, and how can they be more and more powerfully expressed?” The main question is more like, “By what rules does human exchange function?”

Economists might also ask, “How should human exchange function?” However, the answer to this question would be either philosophical (a discussion of economic ideals), or empirical (a discussion of the results gotten by existing economic systems). In neither case would the answer be individually embodied. In other words, economists don’t spend most of their time working to personally embody more and more desirable forms of economic organization, in the way that a spiritual person works to embody spiritual ideals.

For both physics and economics, the emphasis is clearly on uncovering an objective, external truth. This is true throughout the sciences, and it is quite different from spirituality’s emphasis on connecting with—and developing one’s own ability to embody and express—an alive, inherent truth within oneself.

The Specifics of Spiritual Knowledge

In the previous article, I also asked the following more specific questions about spiritual knowledge:

  1. What is the aim of spiritual study? (What is the purpose of learning spiritual truths?)
  2. What is the nature of spiritual knowledge? (Are spiritual truths scientific, logical, or subjective by nature, or something else?)
  3. How can we judge the truth of spiritual knowledge? (What should lead us to accept spiritual statements as true: If they are scientifically accurate, logically rigorous, or subjectively convincing, or is there some other criterion?)
  4. What tools should we bring to spirituality? (What methods can we use to engage in the process of exploring spiritual truth?)

I will start to sketch out what I believe to be the answers here. In each case, I believe the answer confirms spirituality’s similarity to art.

1. Spiritual Study Exists to Promote Human Flourishing

We study spirituality to learn to manifest our potential as human beings.

We study spirituality to learn to manifest our potential as human beings. This potential—the inherent beauty, truth, worthiness, and power of human life—is “human nature in the positive sense,” or “what being human is and can be.” For brevity, I’ll refer to manifesting this potential as human flourishing.

A later article will describe what I believe “human flourishing” in the spiritual sense encompasses; for now I’ll draw some basic boundaries. First, it does not mean flourishing in every way a human can flourish. Being able to bench press 500 pounds is obviously flourishing in the physical sense; but is not necessarily a spiritual attainment, nor is it necessary for spiritual flourishing.

Rather, spirituality seems to consistently focus on questions such as: What is a good human life? How can we be happy? What should life feel like? How should we approach the world and other people? Living—embodying—the ideal answers to these questions is human flourishing in the spiritual sense.

Similarity with Arts

The arts share spirituality’s focus on connecting with, nurturing, and expressing one’s natural potentiality. For example, for a musician, “the study of music” generally means “how to express, ever more deeply, one’s musical potential.” Musical study is connected with “the nature of music” in the positive sense: with exploring and expressing the inherent potentiality of music itself, and of oneself as a musician.

Spirituality is much like music, with one’s own life as both the instrument and the instrumentalist.

In this sense, spirituality is very much like music, with one’s own life as both the instrument and the instrumentalist.

Contrast with Sciences

By contrast, “the study of biology,” “the study of mathematics,” or “the study of economics” all imply discovering an external, objective set of truths and their useful applications. They are more like mining an existing resource or exploring an existing landscape (the body of objective truth being the resource and landscape) than they are like the artistic process of nurturing a thing into an ever more powerful expression of itself.

2. Spiritual Knowledge is Twofold: Human Flourishing Itself, and the Tools to Bring It About

The nature of spiritual knowledge is twofold. First, there is human flourishing itself: spiritual knowledge personally embodied by individuals. Second, there is the practical knowledge of how to transmit human flourishing. In other words, spiritual knowledge consists of:

  1. Spiritual attainment or embodied spiritual knowledge: human flourishing; spiritual truth as personally embodied or exemplified by an individual.
  2. Spiritual teachings or instrumental spiritual knowledge: teaching tools to impart spiritual attainment.

Spiritual Attainment

Spiritual attainment is an embodied knowledge, a knowledge one internalizes and becomes.

Spiritual attainment is not an empirical or logical knowledge, or any sort of knowledge one simply learns. Rather, it is an embodied knowledge, a knowledge one internalizes and becomes.

An example of spiritual attainment would be a person who embodies universal compassion. Flourishing in this way is “knowledge,” in the sense that it results from a learning process; but it is embodied knowledge, in that a person has not merely learned it as an external fact, but has become it and is actually manifesting it directly.

Spiritual Teachings

Spiritual teachings are “know-how” for helping people achieve spiritual attainment.

Spiritual teachings are knowledge about how to develop human flourishing in oneself and others. This knowledge is also not empirical or logical by nature, but applied or pragmatic: “know-how” for helping people achieve spiritual attainment.

For example, a spiritual teaching (from the Buddhist tradition) to help encourage universal compassion might be: “Realize that all beings suffer and want to be happy.” This is not best understood as a philosophical position, a logical conclusion, or a scientific theory, but as a crystallization of the pragmatic knowledge that contemplating suffering and the desire to be happy encourages compassion in oneself and others. When we attain an attitude of universal compassion, we become the human flourishing that the spiritual teaching points to.

In the extreme, a person may fully embody a set of spiritual teachings. In Buddhism, for example, a person who attains enlightenment becomes a full embodiment of the Buddhist teachings, in the sense that he or she embodies the aim of the teachings themselves—which is to transmit enlightenment.

Similarity with Arts

The arts function similarly. Knowledge of musical training—such as practice exercises and particular approaches to music education—is instrumental knowledge; it does not exist for its own sake, but exists with the aim of creating embodied knowledge, personal musicianship or “musical flourishing.”

Musicianship itself is an internally cultivated body of personal knowledge. Developing it does rely on the objective laws of music (such as the different scales) as a scaffolding, but is actually an extremely individualized, personal process of exploration and development. That process is also intimately involved with one’s overall inner landscape, since much of musicianship is about learning to express one’s humanity (for example, emotions like joy or sadness) through one’s playing.

In sum, musicianship—musical flourishing—is more something one grows within oneself than something one learns as a body of exterior truth. One develops one’s “inner musician,” and its ability to express inner truths through musical language; and when one plays, one directly expresses this embodied knowledge.

Contrast with Sciences

In the sciences, by contrast, the emphasis is on external, objective truth which one learns, not internal and embodied truth which one becomes. A great physicist can do fantastic things with the laws of physics, and has indeed spent immense time nurturing “the inner physicist.” However, that inner physicist’s job is not primarily to express inner, felt truths (for example, beauty or sadness), but to develop a constantly deeper and more intimate relationship to external, learned truths (for example, the behavior of subatomic particles).

Put more succinctly: the aim of spiritual training is embodying one’s human nature in the positive sense. The aim of musical training is expressing one’s inner musicianship. The aim of physics training is understanding the laws of physics. These distinctions persist whichever art or science one examines.

3. Spiritual Truths are True if They Exemplify or Lead to Human Flourishing

Spiritual attainment is “human virtuosity,” and spiritual teachings teach human virtuosity.

Spiritual truths are best evaluated not by scientific, logical, or other evidence, but by whether they either exemplify human flourishing (in the case of spiritual attainment) or bring about human flourishing (in the case of spiritual teachings).

Spiritual Attainment

Spiritual attainment is “human virtuosity”: human flourishing, embodied and enacted directly by an individual. It can be as small as listening sympathetically to a friend in need, or as large as living life with total fearlessness and compassion, or totally at peace.

Spiritual attainment is true, in that it directly expresses the true way of being human.

Spiritual attainment, of any type, is true in that it directly expresses human nature in the positive sense. For example, acts of courage and kindness carry the felt sense, “That person is a true human being”—despite our knowledge that cowardice and cruelty may be equally prevalent.

Similarly, a burned meal feels “wrong,” and a delicious meal feels “true to the art of cooking”—despite both meals, in one sense, being equally representative of the results that cooks sometimes attain. This is because the “true” art of cooking involves potentiality: what cooking can and should be, not just what it is in a given instance, or what it is on average.

Like a delicious meal, spiritual attainment carries its own truth—it directly expresses the true way of being human, what being human is and can be. And like tasting a delicious meal, one must only be able to appreciate spiritual attainment to immediately understand it as true.

Spiritual Teachings

Spiritual teachings are true if—and because—they encourage human flourishing.

Spiritual teachings teach human virtuosity, and they are judged by their effectiveness as teaching tools. In other words, spiritual teachings are true if—and because—they encourage human flourishing.

One corollary is that a statement can be true as a spiritual teaching—meaning helpful in bringing about human flourishing—and false in other senses. For example, the Buddhist teaching “All beings suffer” is a great aid to compassion for many people. It is a true spiritual teaching, because it points students toward their own potential for embodying spiritual truth—whether or not science confirms that all beings (even, say, clams) do in fact suffer.

For something to be true as a spiritual teaching does not make it true outside of the spiritual project.

Conversely, spiritual truths are confined in their scope. For something to be true as a spiritual teaching does not make it true outside of the spiritual project, which is to encourage human flourishing. For example, “All beings suffer” is a spiritual truth—but it must be assessed as a statement of objective truth before it is used for certain other purposes, like policymaking or textbook writing. Do clams really suffer? The answer is more important if our goal is to revise national food policy than if it is to cultivate universal compassion on the spiritual path.

Similarity with Arts

The means of judging artistic truth is much like the means of judging spiritual truth. Like spiritual attainment, artistic attainment—embodied artistic truth—vouches for itself as being true. A clumsy ballerina and a graceful ballerina are both ballerinas. However, the graceful one is better manifesting balletic truth: ballet as a way of manifesting the beauty, power, and expressive potential of human movement, or “what ballet is and can be.” A graceful ballerina’s dancing, what we might call “the true art of ballet,” is true in that it directly expresses artistic truth.

For instrumental artistic knowledge—artistic training know-how—truth is “whatever works.” If you are a singer, truth in vocal instruction is anything that makes you a better singer: whatever makes you flourish musically.

Again, this truth might even be false in other senses. For example, your vocal teacher might tell you “the notes are flowing water” to teach you legato phrasing. This statement is not literally true, nor is it intended as an artistic statement in itself. Rather, it is a training tool, designed to communicate experientially to help you unlock your potential as a singer. If this tool reliably makes students better singers, then it is true within the context of vocal instruction: we would agree that the teacher was right to teach it, would feel comfortable if it were added to a vocal training curriculum, and so on.

Contrast with Sciences

The spiritual and artistic definitions of truth are, again, quite different from that in the sciences. Scientific truth is judged by its logical consistency (in the formal sciences) or its power to predict empirical observations (in the natural sciences). In either case, it is not judged by its expression of any sort of human potential, or, in general, by any consideration of its consequences for the humans who study it.

4. The Spiritual Path Explores Direct, Subjective Experience

The spiritual path consists primarily of the deeply subjective investigation of direct experience.

The spiritual path consists primarily of the deeply subjective investigation of direct experience. Spirituality, like art, has meaning only to and among human beings. As such, both the spiritual language and process are inherently human—tied to, and concerned with, the inner experience of being alive as a human being—rather than objective, scientific, or logical.

Many spiritual terms only make sense in the context of the human experience.

Many spiritual terms, like “wisdom,” only make sense in the context of the human experience. “Wisdom” is not empirical; it cannot be observed in the physical world. (Imagine using scientific instruments to detect the wisdom of an asteroid!) Put differently, “wisdom” is an experience, an inner, inherently human apprehension of the world. Similarly, terms like “beauty,” “contentment,” “suffering,” “peace,” and “clarity” have no meaning if considered outside of experience. These are inward experiences, and so the language of spiritual exploration is and must be subjective and human.

Similarity with Arts

Arts exist only because they provoke inward responses in human beings.

Arts, like spirituality, have no reason to exist but that they provoke inward responses in human beings. For example, music is simply the controlled production of sound waves, and painting is simply the controlled reflection of light off a surface. Nothing sets them apart from any other physical phenomenon, except for the human language of meaning that they encode. (To state the obvious: a computer would just as readily record trash cans banging together as a beautiful string quartet.)

Put differently, there is nothing to spirituality and art but their human component, and that is why subjective investigation takes precedence as the means of exploring both.

Contrast with Sciences

Science does not study the inner, felt world, but the outer, observed world.

Spirituality and the sciences examine two very different sets of phenomena. Science does not study the inner, felt world, but the outer, observed world. For this study, science uses empirical data—data that retains meaning even without presuming a specific observer. For example, a tree’s mass is an objective fact that remains meaningful outside the process of experiencing it; its “beauty,” however, is not, since beauty is nothing but an experience.

Because of this focus on empirical truth, science uses empirical tools: things like microscopes that expand the observability of the universe, and conceptual structures like theorems and equations that organize disparate observations into coherent patterns. Even psychology, to the extent it’s a science, relies on objective measurements to study the human mind: records of observable behaviors, brain wave patterns, self-reported distress scales. To the extent that psychology deals with human experience on its own terms—visceral, subjective, unobservable—and using direct subjective exploration, it is not truly a science, but a humanistic study shaped and reinforced by scientific knowledge.

In Conclusion…

In this article, I’ve tried to lay out my basic perspective on the nature, aims, and limits of spirituality. I hope to elaborate on this perspective, why I believe it, and what its implications are, in future articles. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and if you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

enlightenment eyes boudnath

Enlightenment is Real; The Eyes Have It

Most meditators I talk to don’t believe in enlightenment, for understandable reasons.

Most meditators I talk to don’t believe in enlightenment. It seems like a colorful but distant part of Buddhism, not something we could enjoy for ourselves.

I understand this view. Enlightenment—the permanent end of suffering—generally sounds too good to be true compared to our own experience. Most of us have never met an enlightened person, and it’s easy to see how prescientific cultures could inflate the achievements of past meditators.

Furthermore, perhaps we don’t even have a clear idea what we mean when we say “enlightenment.” Is “enlightenment” even really one thing? Are there different kinds of enlightenment? Is enlightenment just whatever people say it is, or a catch-all term for the “deep” experiences that come up in meditation?

Enlightenment is Real!

With enlightenment, our love of ambiguity can go too far: enlightenment actually is real.

All this postmodern doubt and ambiguity is familiar, even comfortable. But in the case of enlightenment, it also risks going too far—because enlightenment actually is real.

Stated more formally: Enlightenment is a specific experience that is shared by numerous people across time, geography, language, and culture. It has consistent and unique effects on the people who experience it; and those people describe it consistently, and give very similar advice for experiencing it ourselves.

I’ll be digging into this in a few ways, but I wanted to start with the most surprising and immediate evidence of enlightenment:

Enlightened people look different.

In particular, their eyes look different.

“Enlightenment Eyes” in Buddhist Iconography

A major theme of Buddhist iconography through history is a certain kind of eyes that I’ll call enlightenment eyes.

This slideshow of enlightenment eyes in Buddhist iconography lists, in order:

  1. Boudnath stupa, Nepal
  2. Swayambunath stupa, Nepal
  3. Machig Labdron, Tibetan thangkha
  4. 11th-century Japanese Buddha statue
  5. Buddha statue in Ladakh, India

The Similarities

Across Buddhist cultures, “enlightenment eyes” share a profound relaxation.

All these depictions of eyes, from across Buddhist history and geography, share a crucial quality: a profound relaxation, represented most clearly with hooded eyelids. In many cases, this relaxation is stylized so that the upper eyelids make a distinctive “U” shape: U-shaped upper eyelids enlightenment

If you’re like me, these hooded eyes can feel slightly exaggerated when painted as “U”s—but they also impart a distinct sense: of peace, of some form of inward contemplation, and of detachment in the positive sense.

Enlightenment Eyes in Real Life

There are people with enlightenment eyes.

Enlightenment eyes in Buddhist iconography don’t merely express a stylized relaxation; they also literally transmit what enlightened people’s faces look like.

Take a look at this comparison of the Jocho statue above with a current-day enlightenment teacher named Adyashanti:
Comparison Jocho statue Adyashanti

The two images look more similar than you’d expect, given their separation by a thousand years and a massive cultural divide. The similarity centers around the total relaxation of both subjects—particularly their eyes.

Below are photographs of a number of contemporary enlightenment teachers. Underneath the slideshow, I’ve written out the qualities their eyes bring to mind, but you may first want to simply look through the slideshow and draw your own conclusions.

  1. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi; awareness, alertness, intelligence
  2. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi; kindness, compassion
  3. Sri Anandamayi Ma; bliss
  4. Gangaji; peace, a no-nonsense quality
  5. Mooji; joy, slightly silly
  6. Eckhart Tolle; profound stillness, intelligence
  7. Adyashanti; profound stillness
  8. Timothy Conway; calm
  9. Adyashanti; peace, a sense of looking inward
  10. His Holiness the XVIth Karmapa; kindness
  11. Kalu Rinpoche; great compassion

In all cases, what is most noteworthy (more than the individual qualities listed above) is a sense of profound peace, a complete absence of stress or angst.

The Rest of Us

If enlightenment eyes look so much a certain way, what do the rest of us look like?

Below are a number of people who, in my estimation, aren’t enlightened. Of course, very few people are, so I tried to choose these examples either at random, or as illustrations of a particular difference between enlightened and other people’s eyes.

  1. One of the first Google image results for “man”. His eyes seem “hard” relative to enlightened eyes, and his smile is more awkward, staged, or “plastic.”
  2. One of the first Google image results for “woman.” Very warm/kind eyes, but a “sassiness” that I don’t associate with enlightenment.
  3. Fred Meyer (the author). Apparently well-meaning, but unsure or insecure in a way enlightened people aren’t.
  4. One of the first Google image results for “man”. Conventionally attractive, but not much of a strong feeling other than that.
  5. Google image result for “old man”. Sadness, hardship.
  6. Google image result for “old woman”; a Turkmen woman. Very beautiful eyes; compassionate and kind. Face and eyes don’t appear totally relaxed in the manner of enlightenment.
  7. A Siberian cult leader who claims to be Jesus. Chosen because eyes seem to parody enlightenment eyes: gazing into the middle distance with an expression of wisdom and understanding. Overall face is somewhat sly as well as harder than a truly enlightened person’s, and experience of looking at him is unpleasant rather than pleasant.
  8. A death row inmate. Chosen because eyes are superficially calm and “hooded” like enlightenment eyes. However, the effect is a menacing “deadness” rather than peace and compassion, and overall experience is very alarming and chilling.
  9. Steve Jobs. Pain and a great deal of fierce intelligence. Lips seem pursed almost as if he is about to cry.

Obviously, it would take quite a bit of effort to prove the mathematics of the facial geometry discussed here; and obviously, these two sets of images do not constitute a properly controlled experiment. (Both the experiment and the math project, I believe, would be worth the effort, although I also don’t believe that everything in spirituality needs a scientific stamp of approval.)

However, if you look through the first set of photographs, and then through the second set, I submit that you will almost certainly feel a difference. (Try that now, before I bias you more.)

To me, life is weighing on the second set of people, and it isn’t on the first. As attractive or interesting-looking as some people in the second set are, they seem, to various degrees, trapped or burdened by life—or, more generally, “subject to it.” The people in the first set do not: they seem free.

In Closing…

Relative to when you started reading, I hope you’re more convinced that enlightenment is a real human experience, and one that is happening right now to individuals of all cultures and backgrounds.

I also hope you have a better sense of how enlightened people look—and of how looking at them feels, and what a physical contrast they present with our burdened way of living.

I’ll close with one more photo: Kalu Rinpoche, meditating in front of a Buddha statue that looks just like him.

Thanks for reading!

Kalu Rinpoche seated next to buddha

Kalu Rinpoche