On Bullshitting and Spiritual Claims
I have an online tormentor. He started with an email accusing me of bullshitting my way through yoga philosophy. He said I was leading gullible people astray with flashy but hollow intellectualism. His rudeness was refreshing: he made me feel a little less lonely with the central question of my professional and emotional life: am I actually bullshitting? How can I know? I’m pretty sure I’m not lying, which according to Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005), would imply conscious manipulation of my readers. But honestly: do I say and write things mainly to impress others, as Frankfurt defines bullshitting, regardless of whether they are true?
I told my tormentor that like any student and writer who values integrity I tried to be transparent about my sources, about how much I understood, about how I came to hold certain positions, about my biases, and hopefully about my blind spots. So what was the problem? Did he have any substantive critique of my views? What did he think of my book?
Well it turned out he hadn’t read my book, but was pretty confident about not only its contents, but about my contents. He’d read some reviews, talked to a few friends who had read it, looked at my marketing material, and decided I was bullshitting. Why? Because he decided that I “had no experience with samadhi.” How did he decide this? At one point he asked me directly what my experiences in meditation were, and I replied (I’m paraphrasing) that I’d had a range of experiences over fifteen years or so, some very deep and altering to my psyche and even physiology, some which seemed to mirror some descriptions I’d come across in manuals like the Yoga Sutras or first-person accounts by other meditators, but that I couldn’t say for sure what samadhi was, because the more I practiced and studied and wrote the less sure I felt about the possibility and even the politics of describing and defining irreducible experiences.
That sealed the deal for him. He rattled off a series of litmus tests that he’d accumulated like barnacles from his own travels in Yogaland: if I couldn’t answer the question it was obvious that I couldn’t have experience in samadhi; if I hadn’t studied under a “real” master for X number of years (I visualized a super secret Rolodex containing index cards for every legit guru) I would be nowhere; if I wasn’t fluent in Sanskrit, I would understand nothing. And on and on he goes. It was like watching somebody set up an endless series of slalom gates on a downhill run. I had this sinking feeling that he’d plant the gates so awkwardly, so far apart, that no one could ever ski through them. Some people get the strangest pleasure out of believing yoga is and should remain a completely inaccessible treasure chest that even they have no right to peak inside, even while they fondle the lock to lonely orgasm.
Anyway the short story was that if I couldn’t prove a number of arbitrary things to him about my internal experience, I must be bullshitting. And here’s the irony: the only way I could make it through his slalom run down Mount Kailash was by bullshitting about my spiritual experience. Not by outright lying, but by labeling my wordless experiences of reverie in the way he demanded, which would meet the very definition of “saying things to impress others, regardless of whether they are true.” He’s calling me out for bullshit, and then asking me to eat his bullshit.
It took a while for it for the absurdity of this to really sink in. Here was someone who’d studied and practiced yoga for perhaps as long as I had, and instead of actually becoming less certain of his perceptions and cognitive habits, he seemed to feel he’d developed some remote-viewing capacity that could assess my inner life, when not even I can really assess my inner life, which is why I need therapy as well as yoga. But as I looked around I became more and more aware of how this is a fundamental bug in the matrix of yoga culture. People make claims, explicitly and implicitly, about what their teachers have attained, and they build branding and careers around these claims. There are many teachers who are used in this way – I don’t feel like getting into names this morning. The point is that we seem to be obsessed with the impossible project of assessing the inner lives and spiritual attainments of others. It lies at the heart of the economy of charisma. And — it’s total bullshit.
I’ve written about this before in terms of the performative aspect of yoga culture, particularly in its visual semiotics. Swami Vivekananda is photographed through glowing sepia filters. Yogananda vogues like a 19th century Jesus on the cover of his Autobiography. Sri Yukteshar poses on a brand-new tiger skin with his eyes rolled back. Sri Chimnoy pretends to lift a Volkswagen bug. (You didn’t start the Yoga Selfie meme, Elephant Journal!) It goes deeper than this: the somnambulant stare of Ramana Maharshi is limned as transcendent insight. Ramakrishna grins and slouches in a bhakti swoon. Sivananda’s students prop up his corpse in half lotus pose (I imagine sticking him into fall lotus in rigour mortis would have snapped his legs) and title the portrait “Swami Sivananda in Mahasamadhi”. (Please hold the trigger-finger on the flaming comments: I’m not criticizing these people or their legacies — that’s for other places. I’m analyzing the politicized aesthetics through which they are portrayed and seen, whether they’re aware of it or not. In Sivananda’s case, I don’t think he was.)
The intractable problem of communicating about a subjective art form in visual media is that it forces a kind of photographic bullshit: what’s being presented is not necessarily a lie, but it’s surely intended to convey a particular meaning that will impress someone. There’s nothing to be done about this that I can tell, except to continually flex the irony muscle, deep in the heart, that whispers Don’t be fooled into thinking you know what’s going on here – good or bad. But it seems most of would rather work on our ab-type muscles, while imagining that we have telepathic insight. At least when we judge each other’s abs we have some evidence to discuss.
I also have a soft spot for my tormentor because I think I might possibly have a small idea of where he could be coming from (but I’ll really try not to project — wish me luck). My entire saga as a devotee of Michael Roach (for which I’m increasingly grateful, because it taught me so many weird things) was hinged upon his bullshit about a spiritual experience he had when he was twenty. He claimed to have reached the “path of seeing” one morning after stirring a pot of tea for his guru. He said that he sat down to meditate and saw into the substrate of consciousness for twenty minutes, and realized directly how perception assembles data into a seamless cognitive illusion of stability or Selfy-ness. I believed he really had that experience as he described it, and that it was fundamentally more transformative than my own experiences of deconstructive reverie: this was the basis for me believing I should invest in following him all over the planet, indefinitely, in the hopes that while still in my twenties I might be able to stir his tea one morning and then become like him. Unaware of the dynamics of charisma or my own unconscious needs, I bet my farm on my ideas about Michael Roach’s inner life, which were derived from his ideas about it.
How do I know for sure that Michael Roach was bullshitting? Because he took an irreducibly subjective and possibly beautiful experience that for all anyone knows never happened and made it into an objective fact, described in terms to suit the path he was trying to follow. This description in turn became the cornerstone of his self-narrative empire. He couldn’t have been totally wrong about the content or perhaps some of the meanings of his experience, but his certainty about both was completely unwarranted, and it was upon this certainty that the objectification grew, and persists to this day. What makes the claim bullshit is that he poses the significance of his vision as an a priori fact: “This experience came over me”, rather than an after-the-fact rationalization of something honestly unexplainable: “Something happened, and it felt something like what that guy describes in this old book, but I can’t be sure.”
The fact is that every experience spiritual or otherwise that gets named something gets its name through a process of comparison and identification with other recorded experiences after it has occurred. When it looks anything like an experience that is supposed to occur along the arc of a path that you’re enamored with and really want to progress along, it’s virtually impossible not to turn that experience into a benchmark. And so you’ll begin to describe something that can’t be described in terms that will please others – in this case, Roach’s guru and his fellow students (who by many accounts didn’t buy it), the Tibetan hierarchy (who really didn’t buy it), the whole lineage field (staring out blankly from their thangkas) and then shmucks like me. This is the very definition of bullshit, according to Frankfurt: it may be partially true, and the falsities may not be intended, but the actual truth of the matter is less important to the claimant than whether or not he impresses people. Tragically, the bullshitter is not interested in truth, but rather in connection. On top of that, his motivation might even be somewhat decent. He might want to impress people so that he can help them find what he thinks he has found. But it’s all castles in the air.
The a posteriori naming of an experience as X, be it kundalini or Roach’s path of seeing, or the Shri-liciousness of an Anusara backbend, resonates with the problem raised by neuroscientists like Susan Blackmore and philosophers like Dan Dennett when they call out “the illusion of consciousness”. The quality of a kundalini-or-whatever experience as it’s happening is as unavailable to introspection and cognitive identification as the experience of a car crash. Likewise, the facts and qualities of consciousness are just humming along until the moment of introspection interrupts and defines itself as an object of study. And suddenly, once the conscious I asks the question What is consciousness?, it begins to generate answers that it is then conscious of. In other words, the study of consciousness is self-referential, and always a descriptive step behind the experience-in-itself. Blackmore says that asking what consciousness is is like trying to open the refrigerator door fast enough to determine whether the light inside it is always on. The question creates the problem, and then gives rise to all manner of bullshit, if we’re not careful.
So be it resolved that it’s impossible to define one’s own subjective experience as belonging to an objective spiritual category without bullshitting. And it’s impossible to claim objective insight into another person’s inner life without bullshitting. What’s tragic about this anxious shell game of presumption that tells us so much about our terror of otherness (whether inside or outside of us) is that it’s completely unsuited to the task of gathering what we want, which is empathetic connection. We desperately want to connect with the inner realities of those we admire, and we desperately want to communicate our innermost feelings to those who might understand and love us.
But coming to the pleasure of empathy just doesn’t work in any clear-cut way. We come to it in a mess of imagining, putting ourselves in the place of x, watching, finding in ourselves through memory or intuition the experience we think we’re seeing, and then knowing, once we are humbled by time and the innumerable failures of communication, that the experience of the other is always different from our own, and therefore always a little stranger, a little bit more inconceivable, and all the more lovable for it.
Here’s a case in point: Last October I used every ounce of my physical strength to support my partner as she labored with our son. For ten hours she withstood unpausing and increasingly excruciating back labour, and I held her up, pivoting all my weight onto her sacrum or around her hips. As though our lives depended on it I worked as hard as I possibly could to give her the pressure she called out for, and when I had no more muscle to give I could feel in my own sinews a shadow of the intensity that was her inner world in those hours. Not even in sex had we been that close, and yet she was a still a galaxy of perception away from me, and yet I could see her as though through a foggy telescope and know partially, without feeling it fully, what it might be like to be her. We wrestled all night and were both changed in ways – different ways – that we will never be able to share, even with each other. Now almost a year later those same sensations pass through me and I shudder with the body-memory, but when they pass through her she shudders in a far deeper way, and I hold out my hand to support her in a world I know I will never fully understand. I come close but no closer, though I long to be closer, and I think after all these years this is where empathy might begin. Though I can’t be sure.
But if I am pretty sure that I can’t fully know my partner’s inner reality even through such intimacy and desperate work together (and setting aside the fact that I know of no patriarchal spiritual tradition that elevates this experience to the level of sacrament) how exactly is it that people can make up bullshit about what some yogi they don’t personally know sees when he closes his eyes and chants a mantra? Maybe this is my main point: our presumptions about what another person has experienced or subjectively achieved are a toxic mimic of empathy (cf. Derrick Jensen). Even deeper: this is true when we regard ourselves as well. Our after-the-fact presumptions about what we have experienced can often display a startling lack of empathy for the person within us who is always uncertain of what has happened and what it means. That person needs to be listened to, and not bossed around like a child you resent having to care for.
One more point: the inner events that people make spiritual claims about are usually dramatic in nature, coalescing around crisis points in a personal narrative. Michael Roach watched the pot of tea disintegrate right after his mother died of cancer and his brother died (maybe killed himself, if I remember the terrible story clearly). My other teacher, Charles Anderson, who was a great and transparent bullshitter, had his main awakening the moment he entered ground zero at Nagasaki. In Anderson’s ashram in Wisconsin, everyone had the kundalini jitterbug but those who had it real bad (or good) were also those who were in the most psychic or physical pain. My own “spiritual awakening” began with a series of borderline-pleasurable grand-mal seizures provoked by intense interpersonal stress. The same upward sensations, though less volatile, emerged over the following years as I hung out in monasteries and ashrams. The entire literature of yoga is spiked with stories of traumatic austerities yielding sublime visions. Arjuna has to finally hallucinate Krishna in his divine form in order to convince himself that he must murder his uncles.
There’s a problem with all this drama. We don’t hear a lot about how Arjuna dealt with things after the vision and battle, although the Mahabharata does continue for tens of thousands of ślokas. The spiritual experiences that people crave and then bullshit about are usually isolated and fetishized and fossilized out of the living record of a person’s life, just like the Gita is lifted out of its story. No one ever asks So how did you deal with that weird occurrence ten years later or What does it mean to you today? So we end up privileging what could very well be isolated moments of trauma-response at the expense of ignoring the larger sweep of how a person seems to be in the world. We pick out a bit of non-evidence – the bullshit we are told or we make of an experience we cannot see – and we use it to obscure the actual evidence we have: what we watch a person do over time, how they seem to deal, what it feels like to stand beside them, and sense things, and wonder, and love them with complete uncertainty, and equality.
The fixation on the traumatic awakening also alienates us from the wisdom of people who have not had such experiences because they have not needed to have them. We choose gurus from amongst the walking wounded, perhaps because they help to normalize the bullshit instinct. How many fairly balanced, generally-okay people with so much grounding stuff to offer get ignored because the bullshit instinct makes us run after nutjobs?
I wonder if someone could start a No-Bullshit-Yoga School or a Nothin’ Fancy — It’s Just a Yoga School, and whether it would fly. They would hire only teachers with zero spiritual experiences on the premise that their lives must have been pretty balanced to not need to reconstruct their identities with 10-day retreats or pilgrimages to India or full-blown meltdowns in kirtan. As soon as such a place opened up shop I’d send my e-mail tormentor on retreat there, but the retreat would be bore him to death I’m sure, because what do people really need to work on when things are generally okay? Gardening? Food prep? Doula training?
I bet someone from Saskatchewan could run that studio. Or Iowa. Somewhere where the bullshit is used to fertilize food. I don’t mean to pigeonhole, but every time I meet some farmer-type from out that way I always think You would be a really good yoga person. It doesn’t look like you make assumptions about others, or about what the world is, or about where we’re going or what it means, or that you’re hung up on achieving something particular, or really proud of your personality, and with those clothes you’re certainly not trying to impress anyone, and I like that. I imagine farming – generation after generation – teaches you such things, so I really hope some families get to keep doing it, somewhere.