There’s one great sentence in Harry Potter books, saying something along the lines of “never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain”. This sentence came to my mind when I was thinking about why all the spiritual schools and disciplines, abundant in late 19th and throughout the 20th century, seem to have failed.
If you don’t see the connection, I’ll cite another example, of some tech pundit whose article I read on the web somewhere, who said that the reason why Steve Jobs opposed the idea of making a bigger iPhone was that he misunderstood the reason why iPhone was popular in the first place: it was the phone with the biggest screen. Essentially, he got it right, but didn’t understand what exactly made it right. Then he got it right again with the iPad, and still didn’t understand what it means: that people love well made touch devices with big screens. When Apple decided to act independently after his death and made bigger iPhones, they sold the biggest quantities ever. So basically, you can have a very smart and innovative person who got things right twice in the same device group, and still managed not to see what was it exactly that made those devices great. He also didn’t see what made the first GUI devices he made such failures, because he was in love with the concept, and he was right, the GUI concept was great and all our current computers use it. The problem is, this concept doesn’t work well on a machine with 128 K RAM and a 400K floppy drive. It starts working well on a machine with a 100 MB hard drive, 4 MB RAM and a 80386 processor, which is Windows 3.11 generation of hardware. Before that, the GUI machines were technological demonstrators at best, too weak to be actually useful. The problem with Steve Jobs was that he stubbornly insisted on his vision because he saw that those machines were the future, and tried to force the future into existence by force, before its time. Bill Gates, on the other hand, was much smarter. He, too, knew that the GUI machines were the future, but he also knew that the contemporary hardware was too weak to make the system work properly, and he knew that because his team wrote all the software for the first Macintosh, and he knew what tricks they had to pull off in order to create the pretense of a functional machine. It’s not that he had a choice between MS-DOS command-line interface and a Mac-like GUI and he chose MS-DOS; he chose the Mac-like GUI. It’s just that he was smart enough to know that the contemporary hardware can’t pull this off, and he chose to implement the thing that ran efficiently at the moment. Basically, the difference between Steve Jobs and him was that was in touch with the reality of the situation, while Jobs was so blinded by his vision that he decided to yell the facts into submission, and, as a result, was fired from his own company because he simply refused to see reason.
The analogy with spiritual teachers and teachings is clear. When something works for them and they attain results, they seldom understand why it worked. They usually try to reproduce the process they themselves went through, with students, and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. As with Steve Jobs, they sometimes fail spectacularly, and sometimes they succeed spectacularly, and in both cases it’s quite possible that they don’t understand the process enough to be able to tell why. Their charisma can lead others into great things: great failure, or great success.
I don’t exempt myself from that. Sometimes it took me a while to stumble around until I figured out why something works, and why something else doesn’t. The problem is, you can’t always wait to have all the answers in order to start doing things. Sometimes you need to sail across the Atlantic with a shitty sail boat, little or no navigation, and stumbling into America by accident, thinking it’s India. Sometimes you domesticate a wolf and it turns out to be a great idea when he kills someone who tries to kill you while you sleep. Sometimes your wolf kills someone’s child and domesticating it appears to have been a terrible idea. However, when you move in uncharted territory every mistake you make is better than staying safe and doing nothing, because it improves the situation for those who will eventually follow in your footsteps. We don’t remember Columbus as the idiot who hit America while trying to reach India. We remember him as the great explorer who discovered America.
It would be all to easy to criticize the mistakes and failures of all kinds of spiritual researchers, explorers and teachers, but realistically, physics didn’t exactly start with getting things right, either. It started with all sorts of bullshit and getting things completely wrong, but improving with each iteration, and it’s now all to easy to forget impetus and phlogiston and alchemy and Ptolemaic geocentrism and all kinds of failures.
In the 1990s, I was on a mailing list that contained a mishmash of all kinds of spiritual practitioners, loosely described as experiencing Kundalini phenomena. What was striking in this group was that you had people with completely different and opposing ideas about what’s going on, what is good and what is bad, and they looked quite similar, going through very similar experiences and experiencing similar forms of mental and emotional instability. Essentially, you had pagans, shamans, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, atheists and Christians experiencing weird shit, which for the most part went against their beliefs about what’s supposed to be going on, with very loose consensus about the proper way to approach it, and with 90% of the participants being quite mad at least part time. The weirdest part is that sometimes people with craziest ideas and weirdest spiritual practice had great spiritual power, and some people with intellectually coherent and sensible world view were spiritually sterile or actually quite fucked up. Things didn’t fit neatly into an orderly pattern. I certainly don’t fit into an orderly pattern about what spiritual people are supposed to look like, or how they are supposed to do things. I am too much of a scientist to be liked by spiritual people, too much of a spiritual person to be liked by the scientists, I don’t seem to conform to any typical pattern, and I don’t even have the ordinary frame of reference for evaluating success and failure of spiritual efforts. I don’t even have the ordinary understanding of truth and reality; I basically couldn’t care less if you believed in talking unicorns that fart rainbows, as long as your inner spiritual concepts associated with that are something I see as useful and uplifting. I also don’t care if you have all the right answers and can name all the right Gods and gurus, if you’re an asshole.
When I say that the problem is that people seldom understand what works and what’s shit, I mean it quite literally. It isn’t about knowing the right God and surrendering to the right guru and practicing the right technique. Sometimes, it’s about having the right attitude, even if it looks all fucked up. Being a fanboy of a comic book superhero can sometimes be spiritually more useful than all the Jesus bullshit that most Christians do. It’s about the actual quality of the spiritual vector, not about what you think it is. What matters is the direction and magnitude. What imagery you use in your head is secondary; you can pray to Batman, for all the fuck I give about it. Sure, it makes sense to clear your head and organize things in a sensible manner, and I guess I’m the prime example of success in that area, but the thing is, people who like the end-result of my thinking would probably lose their shit if they knew how I got there. It’s like sausages: you wouldn’t like eating them if you knew how they are made. One of the main reasons why I managed to figure out so much about how things work is because I experimented with shit so weird you wouldn’t believe. One of the techniques that I did was to go through the entire emotional spectrum, shade by shade, and explore the inner workings of my energy system with each shade. And I mean it quite literally when I say entire emotional spectrum. Die as a slave under a whip. Kill a slave for fun. Be impaled by the Turks. Disembowel prisoners. Be disemboweled and cut to pieces. Torture people. Be tortured. Rape, be raped. Be a pregnant slave girl who is routinely raped by some warlord’s gang and who falls in love with her captors. Be the warlord who beats his henchmen into submission. Be the submissive henchman of a warlord. Be a clerk doing a boring job in his boring life because he always made all the safe choices. Have a wonderful life that’s a fulfilment of all fantasies. Have an average life full of bad things with occasional good things. Have a terrible life that’s agony and failure. Be immensely wealthy. Die in squalor. Deepest depression, slight depression, melancholy, indifference, slight pleasure, profound joy, bliss when touched by spiritual beauty. Be that spiritual beauty that invokes blissful love in others. Explode as the whirlpool of light that grants liberation and knowledge. Be God.
It’s not a linear thing, it’s not about some predictable, stuck-up pattern. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing and you succeed, because your heart was in the right place. Sometimes you do all the right things and you end up in flames, because your heart was in a very wrong place. Sometimes Satan seems to be all about love and forgiveness and sometimes God seems to be distant and insensitive, but the surest way to know you fucked something up is when you’re not regularly surprised by the shit that keeps popping up.