(This is possibly the most important post I’ve written on this page, because it reveals a dynamic that is pandemic in spiritual culture and a roadblock few seekers get past…)
When I was in my twenties, I organized this Philosophy meetup group in Toronto. We were about five to six members who would meet up once a week and discuss the existential questions of life over a cup of coffee. One of these members, was a woman who was in her fifties at the time. Her name was Kathy.
Kathy was an incredibly intelligent woman and she had a wisdom that was quite evident the moment you met her. Kathy and I hit it off right off the bat and often, even after the group would disperse, the two of us would linger and be passionately immersed in conversation on whatever topic struck our fancy. We were fascinated by each other’s minds.
Kathy had a rough childhood. She grew up in the Canadian foster care system. She moved a total of seven times between the ages of 3 and 16. She would talk about how awful the conditions in some of the homes were. One set of foster parents were drug addicts and they would use the welfare money, that they received from the government for her care, to shoot up. She and her foster siblings were basically forced to fend for themselves.
At another home, she was molested by her foster dad while her foster mom watched. When she told her foster sister about it, her sister confessed the same had happened to her and the girl before her who had ended up taking her own life soon after leaving foster care. Eventually, these foster parents were charged and Kathy was moved to another home.
Here, Kathy had a somewhat normal life but her parents were aloof. It was clear that this was just a business transaction for them. The only real family she had was a grandmother who loved her dearly but was unable to care for her because she lived in an assisted living facility. Visits with her grandma would fill her up with love and give her the strength to return to those horrible homes she lived in.
Eventually, Kathy became an adult. She was extremely bright so she went to college. But she ended up doing drugs and even became an escort for a while. She entered bad relationship after bad relationship with men who mistreated her and abused her. Eventually, she evolved past all of that.
When I met her, Kathy had a lightness about her. She seemed a genuinely happy person. Which is why hearing about her past was a shock to me. She confessed to me that, in hindsight, she was glad that all of that had happened. Every bit of pain, misery, suffering and abuse she had experienced had brought her to the awareness and understanding that she now had. All the good and all the bad had contributed to her growth and learning. How could it have happened any other way?
Yet, Kathy was also a vocal advocate for reforming the Canadian foster care system. She frequently campaigned and lobbied for policy changes to be made in how foster care is administered and how foster parents are screened. She worked closely with grassroots organizations to make changes at the very ground level. She worked to get kids out of abusive homes. She told me that the system was perverse and that abuse was systemic because of the very fundamentals on which the structure was based.
Upon hearing her deep acceptance of her own past and experience within foster care versus her passionate resistance and activism against the foster care system – my twenty year old mind found this confusing and paradoxical. How can one have acceptance and yet show resistance at the same time?
I was yet to learn to grasp the paradoxical nature of wisdom. It would take me another decade and a half from then, to see the world the way Kathy did…
It’s been a repeating objection that many readers have had to my posts where I am critical of spiritual cultures and spiritual teachers in general. The argument many of these well-meaning readers propose is:
“Well, I have learned a lot from both the positive and negative experiences that I’ve had. I’ve had good gurus and fake gurus and both have had something to teach me. So I don’t see why one needs to be critical of the industry. Good or fake, there is something to learn from all of them.”
This is the argument. And it is a confused argument and I’m going to illustrate to you why.
As I mentioned earlier, my friend Kathy had developed a deep acceptance of all that had happened to her in foster care. She had learned much from the abuse, the neglect, the assault and also from the love she received from her grandma. So, as far as she was concerned, the rotten foster parents had played a vital role in her own growth as an individual.
However, this DID NOT stop her from being critical of the foster care system and becoming a vocal advocate for reform. She didn’t just say, “Well, there are some good parents too you know. Not all are bad. And the bad ones also have something to teach us, so there is no use being critical of the foster care system.”
And there is a reason she didn’t resort to this kind of thinking which is something that plagues most spiritual seekers AND teachers today. And that is because she understood that there are TWO KINDS of wisdom.
PHILOSOPHICAL WISDOM VS. PRACTICAL WISDOM
Philosophical wisdom can be considered the “wisdom of being”.
In other words, philosophical wisdom has to do with an ACCEPTANCE of things as they are. Philosophical wisdom attempts to zoom ALL THE WAY OUT to the “30,000 foot view” of life and take all the myriad factors and variables that contribute to the events that happen. It tries to grasp the complex interrelationship of causes and effects and thus attempts to RESERVE JUDGMENT on what is good and bad, right and wrong. It attempts, instead, to establish a holistic view of life and operate from there.
Philosophical wisdom is a critical ingredient of HINDSIGHT.
In fact, if one has not learned to develop a holistic attitude towards one’s own past, it is quite likely that the past is still a sticking point and continues to traumatize us in some way. Having a holistic view of the past means viewing all the positive and negative events of one’s life as the singularly propelling “coupling force” that has contributed to one’s evolution as an individual. This is both a psychologically healthy and wise perspective to maintain.
However, there is also this thing called PRACTICAL wisdom. And practical wisdom can be considered the “wisdom of action”.
That action could look like anything: acceptance, resistance, encouragement, discouragement, agreement, disagreement, complimenting, critiquing and so on. Practical wisdom zooms ALL THE WAY IN to the “ground zero view” of life and sets its coordinates using only a few parameters in its environment. It operates with a strong JUDGMENT in order to navigate efficiently and effectively forward. Good, bad, right, wrong in this case have to be very clear cut as one is moving forward in this perspective. Rather than a holistic view: it operates on a dualistic evaluation of its environment.
Practical wisdom is a critical ingredient of FORESIGHT. In fact, if one has not developed practical wisdom they are likely to feel indecisive about how to act when faced with often complex and conflicting circumstances of life. Practical wisdom is imperative to develop an ethical and conscientious standard of living. It allows for little ambiguity about what is “acceptable” or “unacceptable” in terms of circumstances it encounters. It is extremely clear cut and common-sensical in nature.
The problem is that Philosophical Wisdom and Practical Wisdom cannot operate exclusively. They must operate in tandem if there is to be a balance of being and action within the organism.
And if you look at society, you will see two kinds of IMBALANCE.
Most of what we call “material society” is operating purely from the standpoint of “practical wisdom”. In other words, they are operating in very pragmatic ways as they go about their lives with clear rules of engagement and decision making factors. However, because they lack philosophical wisdom, they apply the same practical wisdom to their HINDSIGHT.
And this is where they err. Because they treat their pasts as they would their futures – as something that COULD HAVE or SHOULD HAVE been different. Thus, there is no acceptance. This lack of acceptance causes them much suffering.
On the other hand, most of what we call “spiritual society” is operating from the standpoint of “philosophical wisdom”. In other words, they are applying a holistic lens to everything as they go about their days. The problem arises when they apply that same philosophical wisdom to their FORESIGHT.
And this is where they err. Because they treat their futures as they would their pasts – as something that ALREADY IS and can’t be any different i.e. INEVITABLE. Thus, there is no impulse for action. Because when acceptance is already the case, what is the motivation to change anything?
The only way to offset either kind of bias is to LIVE THE PARADOX.
The spiritual industry has propagated systemic abuse, neglect, exploitation and subjugation for centuries because of this very phenomenon of philosophizing heinous acts as being “teachable moments”. When taken to the extreme (and this is very common amongst seekers in various cults) one actually rationalizes the bad behavior and abuse of a teacher as a “mark of their enlightenment”.
When the famous teacher Chogyam Trungpa had his bodyguards forcibly drag poet laureate W.S.Merwin and his girlfriend Dana Naone from their room and held them down and stripped them naked in front of a crowd of onlookers, his students hailed his “brand of teaching” as CRAZY WISDOM. When Sogyal Rinpoche, endorsed by the Dalai Lama to spread Buddhism in the west, punched a young female devotee in the stomach on stage because she hadn’t understood what he said, no one came to her aid. For decades, his followers (including high profile people like the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy) simply “accepted” his bad behavior because they believed there was much to learn from how “triggered” they felt by it.
When one is too philosophical about the future, one loses contact with the very ground one is walking on.
As a driver in a car, when you look in the rear view mirror, your focus naturally moves to the horizon and takes in the “whole scene”. Yet, when you look ahead through the windshield your vision naturally narrows to the road, the cars in your path, pedestrians or cyclists in the periphery and so on. If a driver were to look ahead at the holistic view while in busy traffic, they are bound to get into an accident. Because their focus is required on certain specific variables in their environment.
Thus, the difference between the past and the future is that the past DOES NOT require our active participation in it, whereas the future DOES. And pre-emptively accepting whatever happens by default without discernment, preference or clear determination is a mechanism of avoidance. In treating the future as if “it’s already happened” we are trying to accept suffering before it happens in order to take the sting out of it.
This is the dark side of spirituality and spiritual teachings. They provide a philosophical perspective from which to make sense of, and find acceptance for, the often senseless things that happen to us. Yet, they do not balance this out with a practical wisdom of how to move forward and act decisively in a truthful, ethical and decisive manner. Instead, they promote a “do nothing” laissez-faire approach to living which generates its own brand of suffering. This is why it comes as no surprise that many seekers who eventually feel they have come to the realization of “who they are” still have no clue about “what to do”.
“There is nothing to do”, “there is no doer”, “doership is an illusion” and other philosophical statements like these become toxic when they override our basic practical programs for day to day survival and interaction. Because they turn us into flaccid and ineffectual creatures who can no longer tell up from down or right from wrong.
If an armed robber comes to my door and threatens to hurt my family, I will act in a manner to neutralize that individual at all costs. Does that mean I am incapable of seeing that this person themselves is a victim of social injustices? That through the process of harm, grief and loss my family too would evolve and learn much from the experience? That in the big picture whether a friend comes to my front door or an enemy, I will grow from both experiences regardless? Of course not. I am perfectly capable of seeing all that.
And yet, I am ALSO capable of taking a baseball bat to the fucker’s head. Because THAT is the need of the moment.
All the well-intentioned readers who are using their own experiences of “learning from the good and the fake gurus” and claiming that had it not been for BOTH they would not have been who they are today are right in saying so. Both WERE required. Yet, when they go on to say, that “so, we should not be overly critical of the culture” they are mistaken in saying so. Yes, one must ABSOLUTELY be overly critical of a culture in which abuse, exploitation and neglect are systemic. Especially, when the number of critical voices, opposing the sheer volume of such teachers, are so few.
You have made the fundamental error of applying the lens of philosophical wisdom to the future. And in doing so you have fallen into the very trap these teachers and teachings have invented in order to keep their followers from mutinying against their masters.
The spiritual industry has done with seekers what consumerism has done with consumers: It has created the illusion of freedom so no one ever has the motivation to revolt.
Paradoxical wisdom emerges with experience and an unwillingness to flinch in the face of whatever life has to offer.
One does not claim to DOMINATE life like those of a more materialistic bent of mind. Nor does one claim to SUBMIT to life like those of a spiritual bent. One COOPERATES with it, one CO-CREATES with it. One is guided by it, yet is equally willing to guide.
The self is not some weapon of mass destruction as a result of alienating oneself from life, nor is it converted into a limp dishrag by rationalizing one’s own will and volition into oblivion. One is an equal dance partner with the universe.
Which means that sometimes we are called on to follow and sometimes we are called on to lead. Sometimes we are called on to accept what is happening around us and sometimes we are called on to resist. We hold both the holistic and dualistic views of life simultaneously in our view, with each giving context to the other.
We can act in a black and white manner even WHILE we are seeing infinite shades of gray in front of us. Because THAT may be what the need of the moment is. We are not hampered from acting decisively by our holistic view of life. Nor are we prevented by our dualistic view from accepting our past as wholly beneficial to us.
We have a clear understanding that what we “draw benefit from” MAY NOT be “beneficial by nature”.
Paradoxical wisdom is what brings the “wisdom of being” and the “wisdom of doing” into harmony, even though they appear to conflict on the surface.
It allows one to act in clear REBELLION even from a space of deep ACCEPTANCE.
If THAT is the need of the hour.