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.


  • Hey Matthew,
    great article. There is so much emphasis on “spiritual experiences” and we elevate it to absurdity. It all comes from what I call “not enough-ness” a state so prevalent in our culture. There is no enlightened retirement! In the end some such experience does not make a good human being – and isn’t that the point?

  • To me yoga is possible only through mindfulness (seeing things as they are without assuming anything).

    A person who is being mindful will have attention on sharing and discussing experiences, and on sharing knowledge rather than on criticizing other practitioners of yoga.


    • I wonder if you can see the unconscious assumptions in your assertion? I offer this as an invitation to think more deeply:

      From “The Faithful Buddhist” by Tom Pepper

      “… most x-buddhists will try to practice some kind of “mindfulness,” an attempt to be fully aware of the pure and un-constructed perception of the world; they will refuse to acknowledge the social practice (e.g., mindfulness meditation) which produces this supposedly “pure” perception, just as they will refuse to acknowledge the error of the assumed transcendent (unconstructed) “self” which does this “pure” perceiving. What happens, then, is that this practice of mindfulness meditation works to reify the socially produced structure of our perceptions, helping us not to be more aware, but to be less aware of those potential failures of the structure of our perceptions, of the parts of reality that our ideological construal of the world cannot include. Phenomenology in its Hegelian form is perhaps a more familiarly Western way of understanding this social construction of what appear to be “pure” perceptions. As Robert Pippin explains, “our discriminated attentiveness never occurs episodically, but as a part of a totality or whole within which any such discrimination must fit, and so any such attentiveness is subject to a certain sort of strain when it threatens not to fit. That totality is a norm, not a law of thought” (Self-Consciousness, 24). The point here is that our social practices, including but not limited to language, create a kind of organizing totality which structures what can count as a correct perception; however, this is a norm, not a law. That is, this is socially produced and maintained, not inevitable, and in fact it very often, perhaps always, threatens to fail. Mindfulness practices then attempt to reify these norms, and shore up our ideologies, hiding from us the fact that they are socially produced ideologies.

      • I get it. I think the post may indeed convey the misperception that a bullshit-free (or un-socially constructed) spirituality is somehow possible. Ironically, this would set a new series of litmus tests by which we would find ourselves in the very odd position of trying to figure out who was the highest among the not-bullshitters.

        While I love Harry Frankfurt’s use of “bullshit” (and how tightly he defines it) and it made me chortle all the way through writing, I’m realizing it is a volatile meme that stimulates the fuck-it nerve very strongly, and may not encourage the circumspection it actually advocates. So in this post I’m a little adolescent, but I’ll shoot for early adulthood next time out. Thanks so much Frank.

        • I love a good Rant! Especially one that uses the word BullShit!
          I trust your honesty and willingness to share.

    • To me the various aspects of mindfulness are as follows:

      1. Observe without expecting anything, or attempting to get an answer.

      2. Observe things as they really are, not as they seem to be.

      3. If something is missing do not imagine something else in its place.

      4. If something does not make sense then do not explain it away.

      5. Use physical senses as well as mental sense to observe.

      6. Let the mind un-stack itself.

      7. Experience fully what is there.

      8. Do not suppress anything.

      9. Associate data freely.

      10. Do not get hung up on name and form.

      11. Contemplate thoughtfully.

      12. Let it all be effortless.



  • Matthew – I think that I follow your line of thought here and it’s certainly one that resonates with me personally – except insofar as it’s presented as a bottom line that should presumably apply to everyone. I find that too totalizing and dismissive of other belief systems, which often seem to run so deep that they can’t be bracketed out of pure experience so neatly. Also, I feel that different people have radically different motivations for spiritual/religious life that can similarly run very deep. While I share your valuation of everyday life well lived, I don’t feel that it’s right to be universally dismissive of those whose deep internal drive is instead to do whatever it takes to experience God, Samadhi, or whatever ultimate truth they believe in.

    I also feel that a good sign that whatever one believes in and is doing in pursuit of its realization is working when we have room for some very different paths as well. Up to a point, of course. But drawing those lines of what’s bullshit and what’s not I don’t think can be done at all facilely, at least on an abstract/this applies to everyone in general sort of way. To the extent that this analysis is confined to certain common problems in the contemporary North American yoga world, that’s a somewhat different matter, as I see the issues you are pointing to as problematic and needing to be called out as well. But even there, I think that there has to be a recognition that it’s possible to be sane and grounded and have radically different takes on the big questions and what to do about them.

    • Thanks Carol.

      The fault is mine for not being clearer about the parameters of the critique, and the very precise meaning of bullshit, which I don’t use to criticize anyone’s path but rather the ways in which paths can be abusively articulated and pursued. Frankfurt uses bullshit to describe speech that intends to impress rather than to convey something true. The bullshitter threatens the process of clarity, because s/he doesn’t actually care about transparency.


      The only real bottom line I’m pointing to is the bullshit bottom line: making a posteriori claims about one’s own experiences or imputing the internal life of others is just bullshit in the sense Frankfurt uses the term. If someone claims that doing either is a necessary part of their spiritual path, I would call it a path of power. If pretending to know what a teacher or student’s subjective experience is is part of “whatever it takes to experience God…”, I would call this delusional. Every person to their path — I totally agree, and I crave eclecticism. Let’s just stop bullshitting about ourselves and each other as we do our thing.

  • Best read I’ve had for a long time. I totally agree. I had a few very dramatic experiences in my late teens, early 20s with kundalini which, frankly, scared the shit out of me. While one of these experiences in particular would make a great, entertaining story for possible use in yoga teacher, business or spiritual guru-ness, there’s no way I’d do that.
    1) It would feel like prostitution
    2) I have no desire to have ingratiates looking up to me
    3) I have absolutely no idea how it would be relevant to anyone other than myself.

  • Matthew

    Wonderful post. Like having a conversation with a stranger you can’t believe is going so well. Thank you.

    I appreciate the lucidity, desperate (in the positive spin of that word) honesty and intelligent dissemination of the subject of “what the hell am I doing?” ….. a subject that has to confound any of us “yogis”, eventually, inevitably ….. mocking the game we forget we’re playing. Simply being okay with the ordinary swings of life, like how you presume your Saskatchewan farmer is, well who the heck wants that boring little life?

    After the allure of being a “healing” resource reveals it’s shadowy ego-side, the temptation to flee is strong. Facing death I think is realizing there’s no place to go and no image, however benevolent looking, to turn towards.

  • Matthew, this is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Deeply honest and moving, yet still rigorous and academic. What a delight. Clearly, your tormentor is in a difficult place in his/her own journey, working out some tough shadow elements on you. I understand it, to an extent. Your writing is erudite, sometimes challenging. You are also writing about spirituality, a subject the ego likes to subsume like none other. Reading your work in a state of ‘I haven’t got it yet’ might well lead to a slew of insecurities. Our society values a strong mind above all else: it’s the way many of us have trained to survive, and it’s where we’ve placed the hope of our salvation. Coming up against a strong intellect, we face the fear that ours may not be good enough, that ‘we’, as we have defined ourselves, might not be enough. And when that threat is felt, there is the need to defend, ergo attack.

    Yet making it all public, as you have, your tormentor may find a real gift in what has happened. Perhaps this encounter may even mark a turning point in that person’s search, as they realise that the egoic voice of discrimination, so earnestly comparing you to them, and so forth, is in fact taking them ever further from the peace they seek. At some point, perhaps after enough teachers have failed us, or just tired of hearing our own jabbering mind, there’s the invitation to turn around and move back towards the source.

  • I hung out for a while with an old Midwesterner who had fallen in with a Himalayan Institute crowd. He was a carpenter, a horseshoer (sp?), who was setting up the woodworking school in their shiny new ‘humanitarian centre’ in Cameroon. He couldn’t stand all the dahl, and he never did any asana, but they said he was one of the most yogic people they’d ever known. His woodworking school was taking off… while the Ayurvedic herb garden, homeopathic clinic and yoga classes were all loudly empty.

    Not every farmer or carpenter I’ve met is like that. Woodworking is no magic bullet either. But a bunch of late-capitalist urban yogis and a bunch of Midwestern farmers are pretty grounded and real, and it seems like practice, long, steady practice of almost any wholesome kind, can do that to you. Hell, there are CEOs whose craft seems to me to have helped them there too.

    If there’s a trick, it seems to be finding a way to settle down a craving, busy mind just enough to dip into a practice (of any kind) and ride it. Then good, honest work can hone you slowly. The trouble seems to come when the trappings and image of the thing – of any practice – become more present in the practitioner’s life than the core work of it. Like with the endlessly-marketed spiritual awakening moment.

  • Matthew, I love this until the last paragraph – was that meant tongue-in-cheek? Because part of the way we get real as “yoga people” – to begin to be who we are, rather than the bullshit we think They/The World think we should be, is by letting go of this romanticized “good yoga person.” When we nod our heads that the “good yoga person” is close to the earth, unconcerned with appearance/wealth/achievement/ego, we begin to cast a new mold into which the bullshit will flow.

    I’d say the good yoga people are various. Some like coffee, some like tea, some like beer. Some care about how they look. Some care about the asanas. Some meditate a lot. Some worry about being able to pay the rent for studio space, pay the staff a living wage, and still have money to feed and educate their kids. Some want to learn Sanskrit. Some wear pretty earrings. Some read the Upanishads. Some volunteer in soup kitchens. Some watch television. Some read novels. Some ride bikes. Some drive cars. The good yoga people are various in their attributes, appearances, preferences, practices. The good yoga people are, like the sentimentalized farmer in his overalls, devotedly observing and practicing and cultivating being (self)(nature)aware in the world. And maybe they’re wanting what they’re learning to reach, like farmers’ wisdom, across the generations. Most importantly, they are working on it, all the its. They are, like the REAL farmer, not so simple.

    • Well you busted me there. It was about 93% tongue-in-cheek, and had I not been cruising to more than 3000 words, I would have done something like your second paragraph there. The small bit that’s not tongue-in-cheek is left over from my experience of the differences between urban and rural life in North America, differences that are having a large but silent impact on the diversification of yoga culture. But I fully confess to romanticizing a wee bit! Why do I do it, I wonder? Maybe it relieves some of the pressure of criticizing as sharply as I do.

  • My question, though – what do you see as the ethical and useful role of spiritual advice? I can see the danger you’re describing in presenting subjective experience as an objective benchmark on a spiritual path; still, I feel like certain writing spiritual writing has helped me to integrate my own little moments into a healthy narrative. Robert Bly lays out that kind of a path in Iron John, and it’s helped me to notice and organize my own growth. Joseph Campbell says that one of the key functions of myth is to provide archetypes for common human journeys – “…we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known.”

    Perhaps… perhaps the de-personalization of myth makes it more ethical than the personal guru-myth. Perhaps there’s a very healthy sublimation of personal experience into fictional story. Maybe, like in the great Greek tragedies, the fantastical language of gods and goddesses or legendary heroes helps us both to distance ourselves from the story and approach it at the same time… a kind of postmodern, self-deconstructing tension of here-and-not-here. Perhaps the fact that it can’t be true bypasses the logical mind that would attach and plan and feel inferior, so it can act directly on the emotional mind, and quietly instill courage without attachment. So then here’s the anthropological utility of stories about magic.

    It reminds me of a couple of things you’ve said before. How you see people struggling with bhakti practice when they personalize and ‘bring to earth’ the object of devotion (why isn’t Ganesha helping me if I’m doing the devotions?)… rather, it’s the devotional posture itself that’s beneficial. The impossibility of a god is generative, because it prevents earthly expectation/attachment. Then, on the flipside, I think there are recent humans who become meaningfully inspirational through their having become impossible mythical figures. Who reads A Long Walk to Freedom or The Audacity of Hope or Jack Layton’s last letter, and feels bad about themselves for not being Mandela/Obama/Layton? The person has become not-real, their journey impossibly unique, and maybe then they have become a saint/star/mythical figure capable of healthy inspiration. So this, that you mentioned in a class once about a show on HBO – that if a TV show leaves you feeling empowered after you’ve watched it, then it has “elevated itself to the level of myth.”


    • O lots of thoughts and not so much time! My first thought is that myths are more shared by the commons, and specific claims of spiritual achievement are often more easily privatized, and then corporatized. As for the ethical and useful role of spiritual advice — it’s the advice part that sticky for me. We are burdened by several thousand years of spiritual “expertise” purveyed through text and religious bureaucracy. I think it’s time for more regular conversations in which we get clear that wisdom is both horizontal and crowd-sourced.

  • Thank you for addressing this topic so well. This post made me laugh and nod in agreement. I still laugh pretty hard at the tshirt that says f**k yoga – and this is after my trip to India for down and dirty Sivananda training. I always wondered why the yogis are so serious. I come from a humble and REAL lot from an industrial context and get miffed with spiritual righteousness. If our goal as humans is to find the centre, the righteousness aspect of any spiritual practice is one form of mania while feeling like spirituality is inaccessible is one form of depression. Your critic is on the mania side of this sliding scale. I have provided a yoga class to one person in my entire life. It took place in my back yard. She said, “I’m not into this spiritual shit.” I laughed and said, “We are all spiritual whether we like it or not. Guys watching a hockey game and yelling at the tv are very ‘spirited’. So, they are spiritual but they just don’t call it that.” She understood this language. The same can be said of your critic except that he calls it that. Thank you.

  • Hi Matthew,

    I’m really liking how you hit the middle path between rigor and folksy in such a graceful way. Thanks so much for this!

    The bit about trauma is really important. There’s an awakening to the need for intelligent trauma work among my Buddhist community right now (my teacher Jack Kornfield is having many of his teachers-in-training do additional training in Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine’s trauma healing modality) because people are having experiences on intensive retreat that are more clearly understood — and served — through the lens of trauma rather than through that of energy/samadhi. And doing that training has been extraordinary for my own practice — on mat, cushion, with students, and throughout my life.

    Even deeper, it’s clear to me and others through our training in SE (which I find to be one of the most effective “yogas” out there right now) that the nervous system state of trauma-related freeze/collapse/overwhelm is phenomenologically and physiologically *nearly identical* to some types/descriptions of samadhi/jhana/pratyahara: subtle or disappearing breath, receding of sensory information, analgesic, deeply spacious, pleasurable… and many Buddhist and Yoga teachers would be fooled by this manifestation and even reify it into an attainment. The same with explosions of kundalini/piti — Sympathetic Nervous System overwhelm brought on by trauma or awakening serpent power? Energetic experience by itself isn’t indicative of anything but itself. (Spiritual experience isn’t a signifier but a signified — meaning is applied TO it, not the other way around.)

    As a teacher who values direct experience, I find it not useful to talk about my own experiences (which aren’t dramatic, in any case — and yes, for years I worried that that meant I wasn’t getting anywhere), but to direct students’ speculative questions (“Is this jhana? Is this nirvicara samadhi?…) back to the experience in question itself. What do you feel? Do you like it? What conditions led to it, sustain it, diminish it, etc.? Does it lead to greater relaxation, stillness, wakefulness (or more specifically in Theravada language, are the Factors of Awakening balanced and increasing)?

    Lastly, I agree with some of the comments about the danger of romanticizing the farmers. From a Zen or Daoist “ordinary mind is the Way” perspective, I can go there, but from an early Buddhist perspective I don’t. The Pali texts seem clear that the Buddha was all about determined effort, vigorous cultivation of jhana (quite extraordinary states, by any reckoning), and going “against the stream” of ordinary life/mind. That said, I bet some of the wise country folk you’ve met and are referring to, if their minds are really as grounded and at ease as you portray, would perhaps have an easy time entering deeply into the states of mind that the Buddha considered useful for liberation. I bet they’d make fine fine yogis, if their suffering ever got painful enough to make them want to practice (and they do, of course — they do bhakti practice toward that amazing yogi, Jesus…).

    Thanks again. Fun to think about & write back to. Blessings to you and your family.

    • Even deeper, it’s clear to me and others through our training in SE (which I find to be one of the most effective “yogas” out there right now) that the nervous system state of trauma-related freeze/collapse/overwhelm is phenomenologically and physiologically *nearly identical* to some types/descriptions of samadhi/jhana/pratyahara: subtle or disappearing breath, receding of sensory information, analgesic, deeply spacious, pleasurable… and many Buddhist and Yoga teachers would be fooled by this manifestation and even reify it into an attainment. The same with explosions of kundalini/piti — Sympathetic Nervous System overwhelm brought on by trauma or awakening serpent power? Energetic experience by itself isn’t indicative of anything but itself. (Spiritual experience isn’t a signifier but a signified — meaning is applied TO it, not the other way around.)

      This is gold.

      And yeah Natalie busted me on the farmer thing. That’s two strikes!

    • In the earlier years of Transpersonal Psychology, the idea of physiological states from trauma being almost or identical to kundalini or spiritual emergency states, was wonderfully written about by Frances Vaughn/Roger Walsh and Christina/Stan Grof in the book “Paths Beyond Ego” 1993; pp. 131-onwards.

      And yes, not to overdo it, but having lived in the country for 30 yrs now, most definitely the romantic view of the farmer has been greatly exaggerated. Them there folks have their fair share of masking, projections, prejudices, etc. I think the ECO/Green move may have polarized the romanticized end of it too – the farmer saints who have embraced the non-GMO way of life (& I’m grateful for this, just to be clear). 🙂

  • Matthew –

    Terrific piece! Particularly your point about taking a subjective experience to be an ex post facto objective “fact”, and especially what you say about the whole cluster fuck of trying to compare one’s experience to some idealized progression. I can definitely relate, having been thoroughly confused and deranged by that myself.

    I would add though, as somebody trying to understand all this journalistically, then if you want to learn what is actually going on in this little corner of human reality you have to find a way to work with subjective reports. Because radical shit does happen to people. And as you imply, it happens in a way that is shaped by both the technique and the cultural world view. People do change, subjectively and “objectively” (that is, behaviorally and neurobiologically). Since these changes have implications for human suffering, as well as insight into .. well, into *something* about mind and brain and reality – then a certain amount of reliance on first-person reports is necessary. Despite their trickiness and mendacity. That the “evidence” is challenging and vague and contradictory is no longer an excuse for not looking at it. That’s the cul-de-sac religious studies and consciousness scholars have found themselves in these past 30 years. But it does mean you have to be really careful as you proceed – bullshit detector activated!

    • Thanks Jeff. Absolutely we have to work with subjective reports, which is where the disciplines of poetics — which can specifically resist reification — are probably more useful that disciplines of philosophy or theology.

  • Georg would have had a great time with this article, Matthew! And, yes, that’s one of the reasons why Georg and I settled in Saskatchewan! BTW..please don’t send your tormentor my way; I’ve got enough of those 😉

  • I think what is implied by spiritual experiences is the true bullshit. I was always told that if I became enlightened I would taste ambrosia. Tasted it. Not enlightened. There you go. Shit on a stick.

  • As always, wonderful Matthew. Some of the comments make my head spin. If we absent “spirit” from “nature” we of course have made a division that is not actually present. Then the question of how to unify again haunts the mind that is now looking elsewhere for what is right in front of us in the form of each other and our world. That’s ‘me 2 cents.

  • I believe in relativity not just in the physical domain but also in the mental domain. So I believe that nothing is absolutely true or false. Things are true and false in relative sense only.

    Thus, something is true relative to one’s own beliefs only. Similarly, something is false relative to one’s own beliefs only. It is, therefore, unfruitful to assert some truth, or to condemn something false.

    The only fruitful course is to look more closely at things that appear to be inconsistent.

    Apparently, bullshit is something that does not clarify anything for anybody.


  • I think Tara Stiles has the market cornered on the ‘Nothin’ Fancy’ yoga style/school you’re talkin’ about. She’s from the mid-west to boot.

  • Matthew, you seem to be deeply intelligent. However, I dislike the way you present your ideas, because you talk, and talk, and talk. So, I’m not able to understand your point and eventually get bored. I bet that may happen because I’m not as smart as you are. However, it’s a pity, because normal and simple people like me are missing the opportunity to learn from guys like you.

  • The kundalini rising is dismissed by the Ancient Texts as an experience the lower castes have upon having uninhibited sex. And nothing else. Shut the door.

  • What an exceptional topic to address, and a wonderful post! I find that the more people have authentically given themselves to spiritual practice, the more humility they exhibit, particularly in charged situations & disagreements. Dharma wars & spiritual pissing contests serve no one, and I am so glad you are bringing this up.

    A major factor that I see in those on a spiritual path who consistently, and vehemently, attack others, is an unbelievable amount of cynicism. I guess we can thank GenX for that :). The point is, part of a spiritual path is acknowledging that spiritual teachers are not, and never have been, perfect, nor are their followers, or any other spiritual seekers. I think that in one’s quest for greater understanding, and particularly those who are seeking higher forms of spiritual insight, we are ultimately seeking a closer relationship to what we acknowledge as God or something higher. The catch is that we actually have to allow something to BE higher than ourselves, and that takes courage. Part of this acceptance is allowing room for mistakes & imperfections along the way, and a big piece is being willing to face our own cynicism about what is possible and stop relying on finding that one person who has all of the answers, and slaying them when they don’t.

    All spiritual paths require humility, and if someone is willing to put themselves out there, occasionally make mistakes, or take the risk of being imperfect publicly, I have so much more respect for them than anyone presenting themselves as complete, perfect, and having all the answers.

  • Hey Mremsky, I’m going to have to call you out on the ableist use of “basket case” since it comes from the description of someone missing all of their limbs and is used here basically to describe lack of mental ability or health. There is a good description of this, incidentally, in a book about farming called Malabar Farm.
    organic farmer

    • Oh. Glad to know. I’ll change it. My question for you or for anyone conversant in this field is: if a word has lost its ableist meaning in colloquial speech (as I think this one has) in what way does it remain ableist? I’m not trying to be contentious, but to understand the reasoning here, because how language works and changes and holds intention is a deep interest of mine.

  • I very much appreciate the compassion of your piece, Matthew. I want to bullshit right now so we can connect! Maybe I just did (?). But for real – a friend shared it with me, and I will refer back to again in the future.

    My thanks. 🙂

    Actually – here’s a question for you, just in case you like to think these things over and over (I actually get really exhausted by it), but could you (and if so, how) describe the thing that precedes conscious object definition – that “descriptive step” – as something other than “experience” (at least insofar as the word “experience” tends to connote a phenomenological “self” or “I”, and I wonder if, in fact, we un/consciously exist less as selves and more like possible… articulations… kind of like how electrons described by Quantum theory occupy every possible place they can, until at the point of measurement, every possibility but one “cancels out” and they appear)?

    (I think I got that description from Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe”)

    This is the passage to which I’m referring:

    “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. ”

    I think we are capable of feeling connection with each other, and to everything, at the step behind language (temporally speaking) – in the quiet. Perhaps we have waning cultural structures that allow us to comfortably rest there… But at that place, I think, there’s a messiness about who and what we are. “Experience”, for me, tricks me into thinking of myself as, well, still myself (my “I”) there, but I personally don’t think the “I” is actually at that place, so much as grafted onto it through language and power (we come to tell a story about our “I” after the fact). Or rather – my self is nothing but the result of that object definition you’re referring to. But being that, I think, doesn’t actually preclude a kind of aware existence, possibly one far more empathic, embodied, and in some ways, intelligent, just one that is almost precluded by language.

    No need to respond – I felt a bit compelled to write this out… (in the spirit of bullshit, perhaps) 😉

    Thanks again!

  • It’s interesting to watch myself post-experience, even years afterward. A moment of personal growth, yes, but often so much more FEELING and connectedness is granted to me during those experience-moments that it can seem like I’m somehow privileged. Of course, this feeling is the mistake, and if I really get into how I was in the moment itself, it’s as natural as the motion of water or a breeze.

    I liken your bullshit thing here to what I sense from parents who loved their kids who died/life changed because of ____________ . They create a whole life or self-purpose out of this to which I am supposed to subscribe. Later, we’ll corporatize this type of empathy for the benefit of big pharma (Susan G. Komen, anyone?). Then, we’ll organize bike rides for the benefit of these companies without really knowing we’re doing it. We’ll be lauded as heroes by the people who have been impacted by cancer and the bullshit continues.

    This is a common trap; so common that many spiritual traditions have a metaphor like “don’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself”. My current favorite quote sums this up beautifully: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the Masters. Seek what they sought.”- Basho

    There are so many ways to avoid bullshit, and yet somehow we aren’t taught ANY of them anymore. It’s rather against the marketer’s plan to have people with huge bullshit meters, and, sadly, marketing is our primary source of motivation in the modern world.

    In any case, it’s interesting to watch my mind want to create bullshit AS THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS post-experience. This is also why poets are somewhat tortured, because they are constantly impelled by some force to explain and express the inexpressible.

    To some degree, this bullshit impulse is the Shakti impulse, that of creation and manifestation. It’s important to know when you should stop that and simply BE, the Siva part of the equation. Being grounded in being-ness, your manifestation will be effortless and grounded also. Expression and manifestation simply for it’s own sake is bullshit. The genes impel us to manifest in many ways, especially sexually. So we have to watch this, and detach from it using discrimination.

    So, back to my mind’s desire to create bullshit is where the ego meets the road, and is the root moment behind spiritual materialism- to create a “something” tangible from your experience. This is largely a cultural impulse, to my way of thinking, as The Western mind is largely concerned with how things might be used, resources to making them useable, etc. I think we do very little in spiritual circles to address the cultural framework that assumes this; and what is more is that we do EVEN LESS to dismantle that framework/assumption. For me, the beginning of spiritual work IS the dismantling of the framework and assumptions vomited onto me by culture.

    Swami Sivananda’s philosophy was a system of self-culture. It is a recognition of that possibility to reform the personality while gaining assistance for doing so in the traditional support network of the guru and fellow aspirants. Anything more than this support (the real sangha) is bullshit.

    My connection to my lineage is an intensely personal, private thing. Speaking about it lessens it not at all within me, but holds a danger which you rightly speak about here. Well done.

    I keep studying the various ways to avoid bullshitting as I teach, and as you clearly point out- teaching is itself inherently paradoxical, as most good spiritual difficulties are; and thus a great milieu in which to discover further spiritual insights both for yourself and for the student.

    • Great post! I agree with the ego’s tendency to co-opt experience, and through much of my own spiritual seeking, have noticed the giant trap of becoming an experience junkie :). It’s definitely a cultural impulse, and is fed with not only all of the obvious (advertising, etc.), but also by many spiritual teachers, yoga & meditation instructors, etc. I’m grateful to have found teachers that help me see through that, no matter how tempting it is to hold tightly to the coolness of experience vs. taking action upon the highest that I have seen within that experience and actually becoming a better person.

      In terms of the Western mind’s concern with how things are used, just wondering how often you see others using their spiritual experiences & awakenings as a means to create change within themselves? Teachings & teachers supporting this are surprisingly rare, IME, and it is often quite an uphill battle to open up this discussion among spiritual groups.

  • Regards sir. I do feel you are correct in your assessment that peak spiritual experiences do not equate to spiritual development. If I may, there is one fatal flaw in your argument however. You chide your tormentor for assuming that he knows what you have experienced or experienced by others, yet are drawing your own judgments about what he may or may not know as well as what others may or may not know and calling his own experience “BS”. Having grown up in the foothill of the Himalayas I have witnessed many things I can’t explain nor understand fully and can’t believe would be accessible to someone in the western world. I now live in the states and India is a very different place in many parts where most people, particularly westerners and tourists, do not generally go. I don’t ascribe to any sect or viewpoint on them either nor practice “spirituality”, yet I am aware that there are things I can’t even begin to explain and leave it at that. I ask you kind sir, have you ever been to India?

    • Thanks Ramani. With respect, I don’t think you understood the thesis. I’m distinctly not calling my correspondent’s experience bullshit. I’m criticizing the second-order language around experience that seeks to establish power through authority, and does so by categorizing things that cannot be named.

      I have been to India several times. It was indeed mystifying, but as I’ve gotten older, I have begun to feel mystified wherever I am.

  • So if it is language, your tormentor has his and you yours about how you choose to describe what has happened to you. As humans we cannot avoid language no? By demeaning the language you are calling how he chooses to understand his world “BS” which is not very respectful if I can interject. He does seem to be quite a biting fellow from what you describe though! A real spiritual teacher surely wouldn’t look to set up themselves as an authority. Even most people I’ve met who someone calls “gurus” are aware of this. They see them more act as a helper from what I have witnessed and we all need helpers in this nutty world, whether guru or friend. Perhaps you are still thinking more from a Christian mindset being from the west.

    • I still don’t think you understand. There are definitive, closed, overdetermined ways of using language. This characterizes the translation of subjective experiences into truisms that support particular theological agendas. Then there are non-definitive and open-ended ways of using language to describe subjective experiences as though they were evidence for shared inquiry. I’m arguing that the latter is more useful, and bullshit-free.

      As for a “Christian mindset” — I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

  • Sean Feit.

    I know nothing about ‘Somatic Experiencing’, but it sounds… quite unfortunate. I hope you allow me the opportunity to push back on what I see as your misconception of yoga. (PS. ‘yogas’ really isn’t necessary even in scare quotes as yoga is most commonly used a cumulative, mass noun) and in any case, if Mr Levine wanted us to make a connection like that isn’t he clever enough to have called it ‘Levine Yoga’ or some such? Moving on, however we want to conceive of ‘the nervous system state’ (which is not a very accurate description of how nervous systems actually operate – so I must assume you are meaning ‘state’ in a figurative/non-technical sense like too many aspiring therapists?) to say something is ‘phenomenologically [impossibly imprecise?] and physiologically *nearly identical* to some types/descriptions of samadhi/jhana/pratyahara’ is really not at all helpful. It glosses over one of the most complex and intractable problems to empirical study and we are a long way off understanding these ‘states’ as you call them (if they are in fact ‘states’ which I tend to think they are not). No Sean – this is not ‘Buddhist and Yoga teachers’ being fooled by ‘manifestation’ any more than it is students being fooled into novel and ingenious programs to re-package religious truths as pseudo-scientific fact and EVEN REIFY IT INTO YOGA. You should really ask for your money back. Phenomenologically (damn that’s a really loose word) and physiologically attainment IS the right word in the context of yoga as a goal-directed, conscious or unconscious process in which people attempt to adapt to social and psychological realities to form ideas; set intentions and behaviors and embody a form of reason that is non-repressive and non-violent; regulate and control not only conscious thought-feeling but also a diverse range of human activities and social interactions and the products of them. So, just because it doesn’t suit your cocksure descriptions of trauma doesn’t make the Hindus and the Buddhist WRONG. You have gotta love those guys. To turn your words back on you then from that point of view I would say ‘Energetic experience’ by itself is indicative of sentience – otherwise it would just be energetic! So ‘spiritual experience’ in this sense is a signifier of a real, locative entity. @Matt Gold? I think you’ll find that when you get it back to the lab it’s Pyrite – but at least we can agree that Seans comment glisters.

  • Well sir yes, but like I said we must use SOME language to describe our experience. The yogis used language and shared inquiry to describe what they experienced. Now whether or not what we modern day people experience is what they are talking about is another story but if you are practicing in that mold then is may be useful, or you may be deluding yourself. Who knows? Language is always limited and prone to “BS”. It will never cut to the heart of the matter. No matter what you choose you’ll never quite “get it”. Why play on one or the other? You obviously have a bias.

  • seems to me this is all about illusion . what is illusion what isnt..well the only real way to find out is to experience the state where illusion dissappears, in whatever name you like to call it.the people in the books say they attained it and theirfore are trying to help everyone else attain it by destroying their illusions or at least trying..romantasizing about the perfect being etc well what a lovely part of the journey that was maybe some of them are perfect ive never met one but i havent met everyone so how would i know and i certainly attempted to be the perfect human through karma yoga etc..however i decided adventure and joy were my cup of tea and many mistakes along the way etc,,maybe thats why monastaries are made, less likely to mess up on the path etc..so bullshit or illusion probably inescapeable unless you reach that profound state described that we are aiming for ….amen awoman a god and aaaaaaaaaaaaa.lol

  • Thanks for the stimulating word-thoughts Matthew, I agree there’s a lot of illusion when it comes to the projections of others… as well as delusion when it comes to our own. The wheat-and-chaff of honest practice it seems.

    One minor editorial note, in describing Sivananda you have a typo saying “I imagine sticking him into fall lotus in rigour mortis would have snapped his legs…” which, unless you were making a (very deep) pun, should read “full lotus.”

    Thanks for sharing your kind and thoughtful wisdom. Best wishes to you and your family!

  • Dear Matthew,

    Your views on the unnecessary BS around yoga for money and publicity are acceptable. I appreciate and respect your and all the commenters views on your article.

    Here are my views in the year 2015.
    As we know, this subject talks about:
    The unnecessary (BS) things surrounding real yoga (yogam) is carried out by the people who perceive and present a false picture to the World.
    The two worldly views: For economy and For Sharing.

    My Views on Yoga:
    Yoga is not limited to language, religion, country, origin or even humanity.
    All Living and Non living beings can acquire the great wisdom.
    Looking closely, this great wisdom is not limited to the size of the brain, physiological consciousness, mindfulness or any scientific analysis.

    Yogam is for realizing the reason of life’s existence and continuity.
    To achieve this realization we humans devised exercises (yoga), meditation(dhyanam) and other yogic forms.

    But what do the other living beings do to achieve this realization?
    Can you Answer me on this please?

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