Most of the problems with spirituality can basically be ascribed to a simple grammatical error.
I jest slightly; as this is a symptom of much deeper underlying issues with unhealthy power structures, patriarchy and a lack of rigorous science; but the solution is inordinately simple.
Basically all the states, objectives and goals of spirituality are adjectives and not nouns.
But they are used as nouns all the time and when people use them as nouns it allows for narcissism and creates unhealthy power structures that undermine people’s experience and enforce systemic oppression.
The more narcissistic a spiritual community or tradition, the more concrete they will try and make these nouns.
Instead of supporting people to feel into the states that are helpful, the leaders are dictating the way they have experienced the world onto everyone else and saying you have to experience it in their way to be acceptable. This upholds their status and creates a culture of fawning towards the leaders to gain love and acceptance.
The Buddha was the worst for this. Claiming that he had some ultimate truth that was inconceivable to people – not only was he turning this experience into a fixed noun, a set ‘Universal truth’, he made it untestable. Anyone who claimed he was wrong just ‘didn’t get it’.
The Buddha can go fuck himself as far as I’m concerned. There’s no way one person knew more about experience than all the great artists, scientists and mystics throughout history and that the thing that only he knew meant that the ultimate answer and end-goal of life was to live a detached life away from the rest of society.
It is just one way of engaging with and experiencing the world, which is at best outdated and irrelevant to our times and at worst truly damaging to how we experience ourselves and others in the modern world.
Buddhism has progressed a long way since then and opened up in an almost infinite myriad of interesting and helpful ways – but the idea that a lot of the states that it can evoke in people are somehow ‘truths’ or nouns, as I am calling it here, still persists like a bad rash.
Here are some things that are used as nouns all the time:
- The inconceivable
- The unfabricated
- Pure consciousness
- Unity consciousness
- The now
None of these are things that can be a thing that we ‘have’ in the same way that we can have other nouns – money or a table for example. They are all ways of describing experience. Experience is the noun, everything else is an adjective, that is describing the type of experience we are having.
Here are some things that are correctly used as adjectives all the time to describe experience:
- Turned on
None of these are a fixed state that are expected to be the same thing amongst everyone.
If I told you that I had found the way to experience ‘the one beauty’ and that in order to do it you have to follow my exact guidelines, you would think I am being absurd and ridiculous. Everyone can experience beauty and there are things we can do to cultivate it in life, but it is unique and different in everyone in the way they are going to approach that and what the experience will feel like when they get there.
And yet people say things like I can show you ‘the unfabricated’ or ‘pure awareness’ as if that is a thing that everyone can agree is exactly the same.
Something can feel unfabricated to you – but what the means and how you manifest it is as different as how often you get hungry and what that feels like in your personal experience.
I’m not saying that these words aren’t useful. Having clear and detailed adjectives is incredibly important for helping us make sense of our experience.
My favourite example of this is the word, ‘hangry’. That word is one of the best inventions to come out of the last couple of decades. Creating a word that describes so clearly an experience that everyone can resonate with has saved so much stress and pain in the world.
Rather than people having huge rows and getting caught up in lots of stress and despair when they are hungry, they recognise it in themselves and just go, ‘Oh, I’m hangry, I should probably eat something.’ Or, ‘Sorry for getting mad, I’m just a bit hangry right now, come back when I’ve been fed’.
It creates a way to describe our experience that is relatable and understandable. We can connect with our experience and each other better. Lots of the words above (awareness, mindfulness, God, unfabricated) are really great words for describing what we feel or experience – they just aren’t a thing in and of themselves.
The point of it is to help us move towards the mystery of life – to be able to connect with the things that feel more ineffable and meaningful, rather than fixed truths. To do this with poetry and beautiful words that clarify and connect us with our realities.
When we use words as nouns, rather than adjectives, it literally does the opposite of this.
It reifies experience and makes it more concrete; instead of helping us let go of fixed, concrete perceptions and allowing us to be more present with the spiritual side of our beings or experience, which is flowing and changing all the time.
We can use clear, descriptive words to share our states of being in a way that feels connecting and can help people to find their own version of them. We can share experiences that feel enlightening for people.
Or we can create concrete ideas where one person knows what ‘enlightenment’ is and the other people don’t.
The reason we use this language – that makes things more concrete – is because we want to understand and be accepted. We want to create a ‘thing’ out of experience, because that feels safer.
If we ‘are enlightened’ or we know ‘what the unfabricated is’ then we belong in the club, we know that people understand us. But this is an illusion. It’s built on a false belief that these things are a ‘thing’ in the same way that a table is a thing. It’s just not true and requires us to buy into the language and the persona that is required from us in the spiritual tradition of our choice.
This process actually builds more walls between us and experience. We are protecting ourselves and keeping ourselves separate.
This is the difference between a narcissistic way of framing things:
‘This thing that I have experienced is the right thing, or the best thing, and you need to experience it in the same way as me, otherwise you are doing it wrong or your experience is worse or less profound than mine’
This is a non-narcissistic way of framing things:
‘Isn’t it cool that we all share in this weird thing called life that is an expression of the Universe in action. Here’s something that helped me experience love/ beauty/ connection/ whatever descriptive word we’re focusing on. How does what I’m sharing help you be more present with your experience or cultivate more of what feels alive to you?’
The Grey Area
The area in which we can start to call some of these things nouns, is when we can come up with a scientifically validated way of testing and proving that they exist across multiple people in the same way.
Some examples that come to mind of things that will probably be able to be proved to be a ‘thing’ in a way that can be agreed between people, i.e. a noun, are cessations and possibly jhanic states.
We still have to be careful with this – they are still not a fixed thing that will be exactly the same for everyone – but they are potentially bodily processes that can be understood and tested.
In this way, I like to compare them to orgasms. If you asked 1,000 people to describe an orgasm, there would be some common themes but everyone would describe it slightly differently. In theory, it’s the body doing roughly the same thing, but even every orgasm that each person has will be slightly different.
The idea that a cessation or a jhana is ‘one thing’ that everyone experiences the same is kind of absurd.
Now, there’s been some science in testing orgasms. It’s very interesting and I think it has done a lot for developing an understanding of our bodies, particularly when it comes to female pleasure, which tends to be a bit more mysterious and less mechanical than male orgasms. I believe at some points in some cultures it has been considered general common knowledge that women can’t orgasm.
Getting scientific knowledge isn’t going to give us the answer to enjoying loving, erotic relationships that turn us on, but a bit more knowledge about pleasure can help us move in that direction.
Applied to spirituality, creating an understanding of what certain states actually are in the body and how they manifest could be helpful in the same way.
If someone has certain brain waves coming through more strongly (or certain brain waves that are absent) due to a way in which they have practiced, or if their brain syncs up at certain moments when they report certain phenomena (for example, a cessation) then that is worth investigating.
In the same way that doing science on orgasms doesn’t hold the answer to happy sex lives, the science is not going to hold the answers to meaningful spirituality, but it could point us towards some helpful information that can help us make better decisions about how we practice.
Nouns and science are grounded in shared objective experience. They are the things that manifest in the physical world that we can agree to be true between us.
Everything else is just our personal experience – the experience is the noun and anything we use to describe that is a an adjective. It’s not a fixed state that we can achieve and any language that suggests otherwise is an illusion.
For me awakening is about making more space, freedom and options in experience, including being able to be present with our humanity, our emotions, our challenges and our interconnectedness.
There are clearly patterns that ripple through our experience. Using clear and specific adjectives for describing how we experience the world is helpful in connecting with our experience better and supporting others to do the same.
One of the most beautiful things about this is the way in which people make sense of experience in very similar and wildly unique ways at the same time. Creating shared languages, stories and meaning-structures that we can connect to is intrinsically human and part of our spirituality and natural spiritual growth.
Bonding and connecting over these shared aspects while celebrating and validating our unique experiences feels much healthier than trying to falsely unify everyone’s experience around a few people’s way of making sense of the world or to decide what counts as spiritual and get people to shoe-horn their experience into that.
Let’s create a culture where this sense of validation is supported, and people are encouraged and nourished to connect with the reality of their experience, rather than one where you are just trying to fit in with some narcissistic worldview.