Originally posted on FB on May 1, 2019
“What I find so refreshing about your writing is that it’s free of spiritual jargon….that really helps brings it home for me…It’s not like you’re saying something new but the way you say it makes this whole spiritual deal feel REAL and down to earth…I don’t know if I’m explaining this right…It feels like someone has taken these ideas out of my head and made them come alive…”
When I was a student in high school, I had a math teacher who did the same for me.
Up until that point, I’d always been a good math student. I could solve most problems you could throw at me. I could prove theorems that were more advanced than most high school curriculums required. I was studying partial differentiation and triple integration when many kids my age were just getting introduced to calculus. Yet, the missing piece for me was that it was all abstract. No matter how good I got at math, it seemed completely disconnected from real life.
My real life was one in which I had girl problems, was sneaking out of the house to drink beer with my friends, was struggling to see eye to eye with most members of my family, was trying to figure out who I was and what meaning life had, if any. What did the world of advanced calculus have to do with life? What was the whole point of assimilating all this theoretical knowledge and problem solving skill if it didn’t impact my everyday life one bit?
Yet, from the moment I set foot in her class she transformed my understanding of mathematics. My teacher, whom I’ll call Mrs. S, was one of those people who oozed genius. From the moment she opened her mouth you knew immediately that this was a rare kind of intellect. And yet, the language she used was profoundly ordinary. Her approach to explaining concepts was radically simple and straightforward. In fact, she avoided using anything but the very bare minimum of jargon. I remember thinking then, that she could probably teach this stuff to a five year old. She had the ability to take some of the most abstract and heady mathematical concepts and bring it down to the level of understanding of a layman.
And the thing is that she needn’t have. We may well have understood her even if she’d kept her teaching in the more rarefied realms of abstract mathematical thinking. We were, after all, the advanced class. And yet, she didn’t do that. Instead she helped connect our heads to our hearts. She helped the abstractions come to life in a way they never had for me before. In the Indian national examinations that year, three of her students won the highest marks in the country for mathematics and I was one of them. To date she is one of the greatest and only spiritual teachers I’ve ever had and she said not one thing to me about spirituality…
I read an article on the news about a recent social study that researchers conducted across nine English speaking countries in order to try and measure one of the most salient features of society today – the ability to bullshit. And based on their findings they were able to establish that people who are in positions of power bullshit exponentially more than those who aren’t. And further, as subject matter expertise drastically declined in this group of “bullshitters” what did increase was the prolific use of complicated jargon.
In other words, people is power are the LEAST LIKELY to actually know what they are talking about, and yet, are likely to appear to others around them as the MOST KNOWLEDGEABLE on the matter.
And when I read that article, I couldn’t help but crack a smile because this describes the world of spirituality to a T.
All these gurus and experts that people flock to are some of the biggest grade A bullshitters one can encounter. And yet, it’s precisely because they are so adept at it that most people, even the not-very-gullible ones, are taken in by their seeming depth of experience and knowledge.
But for me, there is always one glaring red flag that is easy to pinpoint. And it’s something that has already been mentioned in the findings of that research study I just mentioned above. And that is “jargon”.
Jargon to me is the one big indicator that the person may not really know what they are talking about. They may understand it intellectually to some extent. But it tells me that they are just regurgitating what they have heard from others. Their own direct experience, thought, reflection and insight informs a very small portion of what eventually tumbles out of their mouths.
In Neo-advaita especially, this sort of thing is rampant. When people use words like “doership”, “awakeness”, “no-thing-ness” and so on they may believe that they have to invent new words in order to capture the incredible nuance of what they think they know, but all they end up doing is obscuring rather than clarifying.
The English language has one of the largest vocabularies in the world. And while words are only pointers and the map isn’t the territory and all that jazz, the latitudes and longitudes we’ve been provided with present us sufficient coordinates to roughly triangulate pretty much any experience we can think of including the esoteric, the ephemeral and the profound.
And yet, when we use abstract jargon that would find almost no place in a real world conversation we are attempting create a sense of mystique, an otherworldliness about it. We are conveying that we are privy to hidden knowledge that others cannot even comprehend.
Mastering the rhetoric creates an illusion of authority and expertise for many, but to me, it reeks of shallowness and unoriginality. You haven’t even delved into it enough to put it into your own words. That’s not expert. That’s just fucking lazy.
There are two places that I’ve personally witnessed this culture thrive. One is the corporate world and the other is the spiritual marketplace.
As a young consultant just starting out in the corporate world, I was trained specifically in the art of saying absolutely nothing worthwhile while using a whole lot of words to do it. It’s how the consulting firms made money. If, as a consultant hired by your organization to fix a certain problem, I were to just come in, identify the problem and tell you what needs to be fixed in a straightforward manner, that would earn me a fairly poor performance review. Because my “billable hours” would be paltry. The engagement would have finished before it had barely begun.
But if I could instead make it seem like the problem was much more complex than it actually was. If I could drown the client in business jargon; which produced two effects: first, it made the client feel insecure in their own knowledge and more likely to hand authority in the matter over to me, and second, it terrified the client because a relatively known problem had now become this huge unknown (and we all know how the unknown scares us). Then my aptitude as a consultant would be demonstrable.
Take the known and make it unknown while claiming to help make the unknown known.
Yeah that’s the kind of bullshit we were being trained to be masters of.
And when I survey the landscape of spirituality today, most spiritual teachers are busy doing much the same thing. Creating confusion under the guise of clarity. Assuming authority while claiming to relinquish it. Propounding regurgitated hyperbole parading as profound insight. And just as we entry level consultants were taught, the goal is not to provide a straightforward solution to anyone’s existential conundrums. The goal is to obfuscate to such an extent that the client (seeker) becomes profoundly paralyzed by their own inability to comprehend what is being said. And driven by that fear, they surrender their own critical thinking faculties in favour of that sublime and nuanced logic the teacher appears to be expounding.
In the corporate and spiritual business, this is how you RETAIN your clients. Because retention and not turnover is the name of the game here.
Yet, simplicity is of a higher order of aesthetics than complexity. And if one is truly knowledgeable then one must be able to express it in simple terms. Truth is universally present and therefore MUST be universally comprehendible.
While life can certainly be complex, subtle and nuanced what is needed is not complex, subtle and nuanced rhetoric if we are to grasp it. All that serves to do is obscure it and abstract it to a realm almost inaccessible to most people. Instead, what is necessary is a language that awakens that faculty of intelligence within us that deals in matters of complexity, subtlety and nuance. And I’m not talking about the intellect.
It’s the human heart that “gets it” on a far deeper level than the intellect ever can. And the language of the heart is the language of everyday experiences and encounters, of relationship, of humour, of anger, of empathy, of beauty and of passion. And when Mrs. S taught me differential and integral calculus her equations were filled with beauty, her manner with humour, her theorems with empathy, her proofs with passion.
Through her I was able to see that my whole life was a sort of existential calculus. My story was a process of the differentiation of this identity followed by an eventual integration back into a singular whole.