HomeArticleOn Authentic Spirituality

On Authentic Spirituality

Spirituality, as it is implemented in our world today, is almost entirely useless.

No, that’s not fair, I take that back. Spirituality as it is implemented in our world today has been very useful for giving people pleasant narratives to tell themselves about the nature of reality, for helping people to compartmentalize and dissociate away from their feelings and their psychological trauma, and for giving people a sense of belonging and the egoically pleasing feeling of having superior beliefs to other people.

Spirituality as it is implemented in our world today is great for escapism, in the same way that doing drugs, playing video games or binging on Netflix is great for escapism. I think it’s fair to say that more than 99 percent of what is generally practiced and recognized as spirituality today is nothing other than glorified escapism, whether you’re talking about organized religious spirituality, casual spiritual-but-not-religious spirituality, or even individuals who’ve made potentially authentic spiritual practices totally central in their lives.

Spirituality is great for escapism, but when it comes to what really matters, the way most people incorporate spirituality into their lives is utterly worthless.

What really matters is life itself: really showing up for it, really, deeply experiencing it in all its fullness, and, hopefully, transforming the world so that life can survive and thrive on this beautiful planet of ours. Spirituality as it is typically put into practice is useless for this. Spirituality as it is typically put into practice is inauthentic.

Within all of the innumerable manifestations of inauthentic spirituality, there is a very small kernel of truth. This kernel of truth points to authentic spirituality. Authentic spirituality is what we’re all ultimately seeking, underneath all the confusion and ancient religious texts and gospel songs and prostrations and “boy look how enlightened I am” egoic constructs and sage burning and crystals and New Age platitudes.

Escapism can take many forms, from sexual impulsivity, to substance abuse, to gambling, to online discussion forums, to religiosity, to getting really good at meditating so you don’t have to feel your feelings, to getting really good at self-inquiry so you can form an identity out of disembodied awareness instead of showing up and leaning into life. These are all essentially the same thing, and they are all movements away from authentic spirituality.

Authentic spirituality, the kind that is a worthwhile endeavor to invest one’s short time on this earth exploring, is the exact opposite of escapism. This type of spirituality is exceedingly rare, which is unfortunate, because it could very easily save our world.

Authentic spirituality takes no interest in providing you with comfortable stories to hold onto, like why we’re all here or what happens to us when we die. It takes no interest in How It Is narratives about the Ultimate Nature of Absolute Reality, in giving you some story about everything being God or everything being oneness or everything being emptiness or anything being anything at all. Authentic spirituality takes no interest in the escapism of comfortable narratives. Authentic spirituality is perfectly comfortable with not knowing and not pretending to know.

Authentic spirituality takes no interest in helping you to avoid uncomfortable feelings like rage, terror, confusion, hurt, shame, dissonance, or fear of death. It doesn’t give you any comforting narratives about how God will always be there for you or how everything happens for a reason, and it doesn’t encourage you to sedate and dissociate from your emotions using meditation, mantras or re-framing your experience into a new spiritual-sounding narrative. Authentic spirituality knows that feelings are for feeling. It doesn’t act those feelings out unconsciously; that would just be another form of escapism. It deeply experiences them, listens to what they’ve got to say, and explores them completely, all the way down.

Authentic spirituality takes no interest in carrying you to any kind of special level or attainment, whether that be Heaven, holiness, worthiness, or enlightenment. Authentic spirituality is solely concerned with what’s really going on, right here and right now, not in some lofty, egoically pleasing goal for the future.

Authentic spirituality is always leaning right into life, while inauthentic spirituality is always leaning back and away from it.

Authentic spirituality means coming all the way out into the light, even your most tender, hidden, carefully guarded bits. It means doing everything you can from moment to moment to become fully aware of your own inner processes, your own habits of cognition, perception and behavior which otherwise govern the way you experience the world without your being aware of them. It means being relentlessly honest with yourself about what’s really happening for you in your present experience, to the furthest extent possible in each moment.

Authentic spirituality is intensely curious about the true nature of your experience. It asks always, “What is this experience?”, “How am I fooling myself?”, “What’s real and what am I imagining?”, and “What the hell am I, anyway?” It peels away every belief you’ve ever formed about the nature of reality and your experience of it, right down to your very most basic assumptions about what you are, what all this is, and how it’s all happening, and questions it all with the burning and innocent curiosity of a child.

Authentic spirituality strips away the assumptions we’ve always made about life and works only with what you can immediately know for yourself, in your own experience, here and now. It moves toward a recognition that life is experienced as a continuous, mysterious explosion of sensory impressions, thoughts, memories and feelings appearing in your field of consciousness, and that this field of consciousness is experienced by an imperceptible experiencer. It then moves toward clearly seeing exactly how that’s all happening, and relinquishing old and inaccurate assumptions and habits that were built upon early misperceptions of that happening.

Authentic spirituality works always to bring your entire operating system into alignment with a clear understanding of how life is actually being experienced. Insights into the nature of consciousness and self are fine, but until your whole being is brought into alignment with those insights they are worthless. The only way to bring about this alignment is to consciously process through your conditioning, your old habits of cognition, perception and behavior which were formed during your lifetime while you were misperceiving fundamental aspects of reality.

When you are fully leaned into life and fully showing up for it, with no part of you hiding in the shadows of unconsciousness or working to keep any aspect of life from being experienced, you become capable of moving in the world in a very helpful, guided and efficient way. And it just so happens that that’s exactly what you want to do, because since you have embodied your decision to really be here, you want us all to keep being here. You want humanity to remain in this world, on this beautiful planet, in a collaborative relationship with itself and with its ecosystem, fully conscious and fully present.

And yes, it happens to be the case that when you become lucid on how your life is actually being experienced, life does become a lot more enjoyable, and you are bombarded with uncomfortable feelings a lot less. It turns out that most human suffering is caused by unconscious mental habits which steer us through life in a very blind and haphazard way, since habit is a useless tool for navigating through a world that is always moving and changing. In the end authentic spirituality ends up resolving all the unpleasantness that inauthentic spirituality was created to avoid via escapism, and does so far more effectively. But for authentic spirituality this was never the goal; it’s just a side-effect of being true to what’s real.

It all begins with the decision to cease hiding from yourself. So very much of people’s inner lives are hidden from them, because keeping things unconscious, unseen and undealt with is in the short term a lot more comfortable than exposing your tender, dissonant, shame-laden aspects to the light of consciousness. But it’s the only path toward fully experiencing life, and if you’re not choosing to do that, then why are you even here? Refusal to fully experience life is escapism, and escapism is just suicide for cowards.

Almost everyone practices escapism in some way, and all we’re ever doing is running away from what it is that we really want deep down. The whole world is running in the exact opposite direction of the way it truly wants to go. The best thing you can do to turn us away from our omnicidal, ecocidal trajectory is to turn yourself around, and take the first step in the right direction.

In the same way that the world as a whole is pointed towards death because we default to domination, addiction and playing out unconscious patterns, individually we find these patterns in us as well, in small, seemingly benign ways. Turn your individual compass towards health. Grit your teeth, scrape the gunk from your mental wounds, and investigate their cause. Every return to health is a win for humanity.

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Latest comments

  • Sorry Caitlin – You are out of your “league”!

  • Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is the fundamental classicresource for anyone who wants to understand the nuts and bolts of how ego and “feeling good” works:

    https://opensociet.org/2019/06/10/cutting-through-spiritual-materialism/

  • In the discussion of ‘escapism’ Caitlin said: “getting really good at meditating so you don’t have to feel your feelings”. She included meditation with things like sexual impulsivity and substance abuse, things I would describe as ‘numbing’. She said they were all essentially the same thing. Did you not get her meaning? The Find function is nice, but reading for comprehension is better.
    What I would ask is: by what means known to man is she able to measure the interior lives of the ‘more than 99%’ of those people she does not know and will never know and judge their spirituality ‘inauthentic’? I fear she has a very pessimistic and narrow view of what is ‘typical’. It’s clear she does not know much about meditation..

    • She judges by their engagement and their behavior, which is a clear and open window for anyone who cares to look.

      • My problem is with the ‘more than 99%’ off all spirituality as practiced today being ‘inauthentic’–she believes that is fair to say.
        She could make a judgement, in the way you suggest, about the individuals she has known personally. She might well have been correct in several cases. But that would not have warranted such a long essay. Instead, she has generalized about the entire universe of people who pursue spirituality and called such practice ‘inauthentic’–an expression of her own prejudice. That is precisely what she did.
        There are too many windows to look into–too many lives whose behavior she will never have a clue about. So how fair is it to make such a claim?

  • As having experienced Near-Death more than once, the latest (prior to getting brain surgery) waking up after hours of unconsciousness on a medical helicopter to an absolutely amazing Full Bliss, when I didn’t know the difference between the sounds I was hearing, the vibrations I was feeling, what was within vs. surrounding me — that IS what I consider Spirituality. Happening 10 years ago, 2 years after receiving my MSW, and 20 years after receiving my Reverend-ship from San Francisco’s Psychic Horizons, going thru their full 3+ yrs Clairvoyant program! NOT the Spirituality of folks cutting each other off in parking lots leaving Church, as I do remember happening — but that recognition of the Spirit-in-Body as well as the multitude of vibes from celestial bodies to others, places, and the Boundaries of our Auras we can set to protect us… w Love Energy pervading us ALL…

  • Best way to get a practical handle on much of what Caitlin is speaking about is to read “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” by Matthieu Ricard, which has basically become know as mindfulness meditation. It is extremely practical and teaches one how to recognize harmful negative loops in your brain and the means to eliminate them.

  • Jim Newman said that the sense that you’re a separate individual is a “psychosomatic misunderstanding”. Maybe there’s just This, with no-one at the centre; even if it feels like there is.

    • ‘No one at the center’, interesting, lol

  • Generally, yes, but with the reservation that anything with such a global subject matter will result in sweeping generalizations which cause problems. I have to agree with Caitlin because she seems to describe fairly normal contemporary (“engaged”) Buddhism. Disagree on some assertions, e.g. enlightenment. Shakyamuni said it is “being happy and at ease with life”, not some ineffable beyond divorced from the world. “The sufferings of samsara are nirvana” – you can’t find nirvana somewhere beyond the world we live in. And much more in that vein. But on the core argument about faith as action rather than simply belief, spot on.

  • Caitlyn, It seems you may not have come across the words a wise soul set down to define us…
    We are not humans seeking a spiritual experience. We are Spirits having a human experience.
    You have passed a judgement on souls in a different place than you might be. Sleep is the unconscious return to our reality. Meditation is a path to accessing it consciously…and to also discover very intimately who you are.
    I don’t know exactly how you define “living life.” Is it being trapped in the rat race of materialism? Do you think that would hold any interest when you’ve discovered your greatest adventure lies in your consciousness?
    It is also in this state that you become truly aware of the connection to everything, and that begins the process of unconditional Love.
    I think the 60’s hippies were onto something. I think there may be new thinking in our youth today. They see how incredibly stupid adult games are.
    I have great faith in them.
    I enjoy your writings and the diversity of your topics.
    On this topic, it just may not be the right time…or experience…for you.
    But you will get there — because you ARE Spirit.

    • I agree Kaitlyn will get there…after all is said, which is speculative anyway, nothing wrong with desire for it’s our authentic self reaching for it’s greatness and depth. Meditation is letting go of the mind’s hold on illusions built up because of ignorance. Beyond meditation is reality which is neither born, nor dies…that is what we have to look forward to.

  • Beautifully written. Having just seen Kenneth Branagh’s latest movie–All is True– about the last years of Shakespeare, may I recommend it, if only for his character’s perfect rant very near the end of the movie. Branagh has had to imagine a person that we know little about and one of his principal observations is that a successful life is a life LIVED. Sounds simple doesn’t it.

  • yes, new agey psychologization of everything is as banal, and even anti-revolutionary-change, as organized religion.

    but “authentic spirituality” is also as ineffective as “fake news” as a conceptual tool for explanation, suggestion, and persuasion.

    read Marx and Lenin, instead, for a substantial understanding of our predicament and for alternative visions.

    • but do not read most self-styled Marxists or leninists, as they are posers as much as the God’s spokespersons in the organized religion.

      especially stay away from the “post-marxists” as they provide nothing but ideological excuses for reactionary neo-liberals.

  • Thanks for this Caitlin, I’ve been wrestling with this for a while, especially the last few days.
    You said: “Authentic spirituality works always to bring your entire operating system into alignment with a clear understanding of how life is actually being experienced. Insights into the nature of consciousness and self are fine, but until your whole being is brought into alignment with those insights they are worthless. The only way to bring about this alignment is to consciously process through your conditioning, your old habits of cognition, perception and behaviour which were formed during your lifetime while you were misperceiving fundamental aspects of reality.”
    Agreed – so I will add some tools if you haven’t run across them.
    Specifically the book Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre
    It’s been exceedingly useful to me, because it explains how our nervous systems can get stuck at an early age, so that ‘leaning into life’ is actually perceived as ‘life threatening’ and can be traumatic/re-traumatising – leaving us in an endless cycle of trying to reconnect with life, only to end up distanced by the trauma of trying (without the correct tools).
    If you are a sensitive or neurotic type, you may be more likely to need these tools.

    A friend suggested I try just accepting all impressions/sensations etc as ‘normal/ok’, whatever it is. Couldn’t have done that without the understanding/practice gained from the book first.

    Anyway, wanted to try and give back something for all you share freely.

  • IMHO, mankind exists for the amusement of the gods. Try not to bore them. Nothing is more dangerous than a bored omnipotent being.
    Revelation 3:15-16 NIV
    I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

  • Yes, there is a lot of escapism.

    For example, there are very few religious leaders who have denounced 9-11 for what is was (Bishop Williamson being one the few).

    Most religious leaders are still venerating ruling elites who were probably compromised in this sad event 18 years ago (and who are still ruling this world).

    But all of that was written in the Bible. If you read Revelation by Saint John, you will see that near the Second Coming of Christ, people on the earth will be venerating the Beast and, as Our Lord said, the last days will be similar to the days of Noah.

    No doubt we are there. And because I have seen enough, I am happy the end seems very close. We have to pray the Holy Rosary waiting for that day.

  • Caitlin, while I respect your efforts to uncover truth, this piece is not accurate. Anything that we can envision or conceptualize is not authentic spirituality. When one solves that, they will not need to conceptualize what spirituality is, they will know.

  • Hi Caitlin,

    Did you read the Tao by Lao Tse?

    Kind Regards, Ben

  • Have you read The White Goddess by Robert Graves? Helped me to continue the journey into real and spirituality.

  • With tears welling up I’m saying thank you. I’m so glad I’m not alone in the realizations you so profoundly expressed here. Thank you Caitlin. Brilliant!

  • Walter Wink was a political activist and Biblical scholar who wrote a classic called ‘Engaging the Powers’ some years before he died. In it he did a political reading of Revelation 12 and 13 in which John looked at the Roman Empire of his day. In the critique of empire in Revelation he mentions two ‘beasts’ which Wink deciphers as the beast of totalitarianism and the beast of mainstream media. The inequality of totalitarianism is so contrary to our experience that the second beast is necessary to constantly remind us to ‘bend the knee’ before its power. Wink concludes that John’s genius lay not in his political critique of the Roman Empire which was superb but that he recognised that there was a principle present within empire which sustained it but was also independent of it. So when the Roman empire would fall this principle would survive and go on to sustain further empires right up to and including the current empire-du-jour of the U.S. Wink calls this sustaining element behind empire the spirituality of evil.

    I largely agree with Caitlin’s take on spirituality. My experience of meditation and spirituality is the effort to discern which spirits are running me at the moment. Life giving and nourishing spirits or revengeful, violent spirits. This is a journey through feelings and it’s great to read Caitlin on this. It’s so rare these days. Despite how much we like to believe we are fully in control of ourselves so often we are ‘run’ by spirits we are completely unaware of. I believe the work of spirituality is the journey into self-awareness to discern what spirits are present in the moment and which ones do I freely and with full awareness choose to guide me.

  • Catlin wrote: “Authentic spirituality is perfectly comfortable with not knowing and not pretending to know.”

    YES!!!!! How can a species that knows only some stuff about less than 5% of the Cosmos pretend to do anything else? The hubris of religions is beyond belief in 2019 and look at their impact on the social narrative….sigh

    Thank you for writing truth to spiritual myth

  • you’ve pretty much summed up my exact views here – first time I’ve ever seen that in print –

  • In truth one can say the same thing about anything including activism. Some persons armor themselves in activism which allows them to escape from their sheer boredom or, on the other hand, intense anxiety about their own lives and how they fit in society. There can be just as much resentiment, as Nietszche points out in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” towards others whom we perceive as doing something we ourselves secretly wish to do. Thus you have people railing against fascism who, given the opportunity, would be as fascist as any jackbooted SS killer. As you point out clearly we humans deceive ourselves gravely and, truth be told, can pervert any religion, politics, society etc. to gratify the ego demon. On the other hand we can turn that around and take down any system of injustice no matter how technologically proficient it is because something deeper than our own selfish lives calls out to us allowing us to go against our basic instincts of self-perservation because we can be greater than ourselves in any given moment.

      • She lost me when she said meditation is disassociating and numbing. Meditation doesn’t say “ignore those feelings”. Quite the opposite. It draws your attention to noticing them. . .and not REACTING…..and watching them pass, like a wave or a cloud. So you make decisions out of wisdom not frantic emotional reactions.
        I got the gist of what she was saying in the first 2 sentences. The rest was just making ppl feel shitty about whatever they do to help feel connected to the world and not crumble as you struggle your way through it. This girl thinks everything is supposed to be ugly, dirty and hard ALL THE TIME.. that shame is a useful emotion.. horse shit.
        Tough bitch “spirituality” is every bit as toxic as the uber fluffy “give it to god” head in the sand variety.

        Theres nothing wrong with balance. Or not letting your emotions rule you.

        • Balance is important!!!

        • Hmmm, “disassociated” and “numbing”. Where did you read those words? Find function tell me they are not present in this article or present comments. WTF u talking about?

          • Glider, please see my reply intended for you above. Cheers.

        • Re: YURII / JUNE 10, 2019
          Your critique rings true to me; especially with regards to the obsessive repetitiveness of the primary point of departure from “Authentic Spirituality” into various opposite points of view. This does seem to portray either a contradictory philosophical perspective or an absence of editorial justice.
          As Usual,
          EA

    • agreed – activism become and end in itself and quickly wraps itself in unchallengable beliefs. I’ve been in and around sustainable development issues for decades – Try telling most “greens” that we need nuclear power or that incinerating waste is a way more environmentally friendly option than shipping it across the ocean – just as well the burning of heretics is temporarily banned.

      Caitlin talks about spirituality – I tend to think in terms of “Belief” – one of the great curses of humanity – and I suspect it lies at the core of much of what we do. If we fail to “lean right into life” we are screwed – “being right here right now” demands objectivity, responsiveness to evidence and clarity of thought – otherwise we aren’t here at all – we are chasing unicorns in Lala land

  • Many years ago a woman named Joy allowed me into her life and I learned many things from her many teachers. I was taught about Yin and Yang which composes the unseen world that we inhabit. The great question that I wondered about as a teenager about why the hell am I here was finally answered. After life’s many battles and disappointments I found out how to recover and accept everything as a part of my life. Even the bad things have some good in them; you need to see all of what you are dealing with. I deal with what I have to deal with and I try to prepare good meals. The Buddha Ms Caitlin is very correct.

  • Thanks. Needed that today.

  • “Valmiki the Poet looked down into water held cupped in his hand and saw into the past. Before he looked he thought the world was sweet poison. Men seemed to be living in lies, not knowing where their ways went. The days seemed made of ignorance and doubt, and cast from deception and illusion. But in the water he saw a dream, a chance and a great adventure. Valmiki trusted the True and forgot the rest; he found the whole universe like bright jewel set firm in forgiving and held fast by love. Widen your heart. Abandon ange. Believe me, your few days are numbered; make one fast choice now and no second! Come, clear your heart and quickly walk with me into Brahma, while there is still time.”
    The Ramayana

    From Marty Glass ‘Yuga’ dealing with the Five Hallmarks of the Kali Yuga
    The Fall into Time
    The Reign of Quantity
    The Mutation Into Machinery
    The End of Nature
    The Prison of Unreality

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