This article is a critical review of Adyashanti’s book The End of Your World, written in the format of a letter to my therapist (who suggested I might enjoy the book), from the perspective of an ex-Mormon atheist who has a passion for spiritual/religious experiences and has studied them extensively.
I have a sense that this conversation could go really well for both of us. But I’ll say this upfront- some of what I’m about to share may be a direct challenge to your spiritual worldview(? Maybe- I shouldn’t assume I know what you think in advance).
Something you could do for me is to be open to my comments, because, as I’ll explain, encountering someone open to revising their concepts about spirituality is a rare thing for me.
Unpacking initial transference
To begin with, I’d like to explain a kind of transference that I’ve been experiencing in preparation for this session.
As you know, I was raised religious by my parents- as a Mormon.
Ever since I was very young, I have had the experience of having significant spiritual authority figures in my life (religious leaders- my young men’s teacher, my bishop, the prophet, etc.). My experience with these leaders was that I was a child, needing religious and spiritual instruction- I was ignorant of spiritual matters and these wise elders were there to guide and teach me so I could understand what I needed to know.
As a young man, whenever I had a unique or novel idea about spirituality, I’d quickly encounter the orthodoxy: the pre-existing order, the pre-existing interpretation. I was wrong and I needed to learn what the leaders had to say. It’s akin to encountering a brick wall- whatever ideas you’re exploring bounce off whatever the pre-existing order has to say.
“Behold, you have not understood”
A great illustration of this concept comes from Mormon history.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, claims to have discovered golden plates which contained a record of an ancient religious people from Mesoamerica. He claims to have been able to translate these through the “gift and power of God”. The means? He had a ‘seer stone’ that he’d put into a hat (to block the light) and he’d stick his face in it. As he looked at it, words would appear to him which he’d dictate. The dictation became the Book of Mormon.
At one point, his scribe, Oliver Cowdry, wanted to try out the process himself and perform some translation. Joseph prayed about it and felt to give Oliver a go.
Oliver looked into the hat, at the stone, and saw nothing. “He was unable to translate”. When he approached Joseph to explain the problem, he received this reply (which is in Mormon scripture)
“5 And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
6 Do not amurmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must astudy it out in your bmind; then you must cask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your dbosom shall eburn within you; therefore, you shall ffeel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a astupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is bsacred save it be given you from me.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have atranslated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
11 Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you afeared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;”
In other words, Joseph’s mind concocted an explanation from his “God”, and the key words are “behold, you have not understood”. Oliver Cowdry got it wrong, and was gently corrected by an all loving, gentle God. There’s no room left for alternative explanations- like the most plausible in my mind- Joseph Smith had a unique mind and only he could have seen words appearing on a rock in a hat!
Breaking yourself against the commandments
Another illustration of this principle of “receiving divine teaching” from perceived spiritual authority figures is a concept I heard in Mormonism called “breaking yourself against the commandments”.
Many religions contain large numbers of lifestyle prescriptions. You need to go to church on Sunday. You need to keep the Sabbath day holy. You need to not have sex before marriage, etc. In Mormonism these are called “commandments”- they’re taken as divine instructions on how to live. If you live your life in harmony with these instructions, you will feel peace, joy, the presence of God. But if you don’t, you will be punished and God will withdraw his divine love and serenity from you.
Growing up, it was called “keeping the commandments” or “breaking the commandments”. But later on I heard another phrase that truly captures how Mormons see it. It’s not “you break the commandments”, it’s “you break yourself against the commandments”. The analogy that’s used is of water breaking itself against the rocks. The rocks are the dictates of God. You are water. You are nothing compared to this solidarity. When you disobey God, you’re merely breaking yourself against his commandments- his commandments stand firm.
Overall the concept is that there’s this objective spiritual reality and you are interacting with spiritual authority figures who are explaining it to you. If you’re confused about something, that’s not because the teaching doesn’t make sense, rather- that’s because “you have not understood”. For people who awaken to this dynamic, it comes across as patronising, dominating and dismissive. Countless religions contain one or another version of this interplay between adherents and authorities. I believe part of what makes religious ideas so sticky is the precisely the perception of spiritual authority, absorbed in massive doses in childhood. Many people are helpless before these ideas. Based on my recent visit to a graveyard, I would suggest most people go to their graves utterly convinced of what their spiritual authorities told them throughout their lives- you can see it right there on their gravestones.
One of the key principles driving this engine is the lack of openness on the part of the “spiritual authorities” to revising or overhauling their conceptual ideas about spirituality and the implications of their spiritual experiences. In almost all cases they’ve had countless spiritual experiences and interpreted and re-interpreted those experiences countless times across a lifetime in favour of whatever religious doctrine or framework they’ve received in childhood. If you ask a Mormon “how do you know the church is true?”- their answer is generally “it’d take me two hours just to give you a high level sketch of how deeply I know this and all of the countless spiritual experiences I’ve had that prove it to me”. A Muslim would say the same thing. A summary of those two hours could be found in the words of one religious leader I once had “I asked, God answered, and that settled it”. It’s impressively difficult to look back at and critically analyse the brain circuits that have been forged in the fires of religious experiences (perhaps because those experiences themselves are often characterised by a very open, suggestive state of mind).
William James pointed this out too (in the Varieties of Religious Experience):
“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great worldruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience ~p 58
Incidentally, a lot of this dynamic revolves around the language and style being used by “spiritual leaders”, in particular the subtle linguistic differences between suggesting something is the case (inviting them to investigate), versus explaining that it is the case, versus asserting that it is the case. Suggestion always leaves the question somewhat open for the explorer to investigate for themselves. Much of the issue I take with “spiritual authorities” is how they assert their views with unhedged authority.
Awakening from the awakening
Related to all of this, one of the most important moments of my life was a non-spiritual experience. An awakening from the awakening.
It was simple. I was in the middle of a massive investigation into Mormonism when I came across this video. The video features a number of adherents from various religions bearing witness regarding the ‘truthfulness’ of their religion and justifying their claims from the religious experiences they’d had.
It was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, as the entire infrastructure of ideas that had been constructed in my head about the nature and implications of spiritual experiences was being challenged.
One of the takeaways I took from that into my future explorations of spirituality was a keen sense of when and how we are constructing stories about our spiritual experiences.
When I read The End of Your World, there are moments when I think “this author needs an awakening from their awakening”. That is to say, a series of powerful subjective experiences, paired with subsequent and related absorption of ideas about those experiences have produced, within the mind of the author, a framework of ideas, in my view with no more evidence than many of the views espoused by Mormon adherents.
With all of that as preamble, let me now turn to the fascinating and subtle transference that I’m experiencing.
You’ve indicated that you gained a lot of value from reading Adyashanti’s book The End of Your World. This intrigued me since I respect your viewpoints and, I believe, we have a lot in common by way of our “spiritual worldview”.
So, I attempted to read his book three times, and, in short, bounced off it all three times.
A lot of very interesting and complex thoughts arose when reading his work. I only made it about a quarter of the way through before I put it down, after the third time, for good. I have critiques to offer, and I think they’re genuine. The question is- are you open to them? (Is Adyshanti open to them?). Are your spiritual worldviews fixed and established? Do you “already know”?. Now that you’ve read this book multiple times and felt an internalisation of a lot of wisdom from it, are you now open to critically reviewing its concepts?
In summary, the transference is perceiving you and him as some kind of spiritual authority figures, and, encountering a prefixed set of spiritual ideas within you, which are projected outwards with the certainty so characteristic of spiritual authority. The question thus is, how open are you?
Over to my critique.
My main critique
Overall, my criticism of this book follows this logic:
Some “spiritual teachers” are able to teach methods of introspection and ways to use our attention that are ultimately capable of disclosing to people that what they call their “self” is very much like an idea or a complex infrastructure of thoughts that are more or less permanently kept in mind and frequently referred to. This “self concept” is incredibly useful for navigating the world, lubricating social interactions, and interpreting what’s going on, but it nonetheless has illusory qualities. In certain moments, consciousness can sort of “flip around” (when attention is focused on the self) and we lose the sense that we are “appropriating” experience, and return to an open, free, gentle state where “everything is just appearing”.
We experience things as more connected and unified. This has a freeing character and can be deeply helpful and meaningful for a person’s life and engagement with the world. Old stories or images that we identify with are loosened. We realise what we take ourselves to be is more flexible than we thought.
This is the deconstruction journey. I have no issues with any of that.
The issue comes for me with “what next”, which is, to a large degree, the entire premise of this book. This is where “spiritual concepts” and “frameworks” and some kind of “spiritual pathway” come into play (however, in my view, it is precisely at this point that we’d do well to turn to psychology and philosophy instead).
I could go into great detail. But the reason I bounced of this book at a high level is that it is precisely that- it is a conceptual framework about how so-called “awakening” pans out in a person’s life. To use the words of Yuval Noah Harari- “they’re all just stories”- it struck me as being just as credible as any other story, not necessarily special or unique in its insights when compared to countless other ways to conceptualise “the pathway of spirituality”.
I think the book would have worked better for me if it were framed more how Sam Harris framed Waking Up- this is a Seeker’s memoir. “This is how I constructed stories about the experiences that unfolded for me”.
Coming at this as an outsider who considers themselves unapologetically secular, I sense the presence of a large number of themes and ideas in the book that are, simply put, religious. “awakening” “dream state” “delusion” “true” “false” “karma” – the list goes on. I bounced off those ideas and didn’t find them helpful or generally applicable. What might be lost here is that these words themselves are “part of the conditioning”- they set expectations and in their own way become prescriptive.
In the words of Christopher Ryan in his book Civilized to Death:
“We tell stories about what happened, but, just as often, the stories we tell determine what happens. Narrative becomes paradigm, because origin stories are as predictive and constraining as they are explanatory. The map showing where we came from delimits where we can go from here.”
In a nutshell, that is exactly my critique of this book. It lays out a framework, and by so doing, delineates a pathway that adherents to the framework then go on to expect and (very likely) experience.
Having said that, (and this is where the subtlety comes in), I had an uncanny sense while reading the book that this model of spirituality is a kind of “close cousin” to my own. This diagram illustrates the impression that started to form in my mind as I read the book.
The woo woo stuff could be stripped down, translated, and edited in my brain to become something more palatable. The problem then becomes the exhaustion of doing the editing. Here are some examples:
Example 1: healing powers
Quote from the book:
“A person who has awakened may acquire the capacity to heal. Just being in the person’s presence may be healing for others.”
This strikes me as vague and somewhat superstitious. But it could be made into something I could get behind. Here’s my translation:
“A person who stays connected with certain insights can acquire the capacity to become soothing to others. Just being in the person’s presence may be soothing. This shouldn’t be taken as the ability to heal people from physical ills (E.G cancer), but it can have a profound psychological effect (consider for example psychosomatic illnesses)”
Example 2: previous lives
Quote from the book:
“In one lifetime, I drowned and did not know what was happening, and there was tremendous terror and confusion as the body disappeared into the water. Seeing this lifetime and the confusion at the moment of death, I immediately knew what I had to do. I had to rectify the confusion and explain to the dream of me that I died, that I fell off a boat and drowned. When I did this, all of a sudden the confusion from that lifetime popped like a bubble, and there was a tremendous sense of freedom. Many past life dreams appeared, and each one of them seemed to focus on something that had been in conflict, something that was unresolved from a different incarnation.”
We have no good reason to believe in reincarnation. Overall the idea that we might reincarnate is fascinating (even comforting, on some level), but we simply don’t know this in the same way we don’t know about heaven or hell. From a scientific standpoint, this is an unprovable hypothesis, and, in the words of Christopher Hitchens “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.
However, Adyashanti is referring to a peculiar kind of subjective experience that he had that is thought-based. He visited a certain landscape of the mind. Does he identify with those thoughts (the thoughts of drowning in a previous life)? How seriously does he take them? Are these thoughts to be believed?
When I was Mormon I once had a deep religious experience accompanied by the sense that I knew Joseph Smith in the premortal life. It was powerful and interesting. But the implications I painted around it aren’t real.
Example 3: Perception of energy
Quote from the book:
“After awakening, people often find that their sense become extraordinarily acute…We might also start to sense things, to feel things we didn’t feel before. We might be able to feel what someone else is feeling, or we might find that we have become sensitive to the energy environments and the energy fields of other people. We might sense, for the first time, the energy fields of animals or trees or plants or our house or particular rooms”
Meditation is certainly able to make our connection with our senses more acute. But this need not be taken too far. For instance, the “energy fields of other people”- whatever this is- still refers on a fundamental level to theory of mind– and can certainly be inaccurate.
In Mormonism this is called “The gift of discernment”. Part of my deconstruction journey was realising it’s just not that real. You can think “someone has this particular energy” but that is ultimately your mind’s guess about them, they might not feel that way at all.
Unapologetically critical of ideas used for introspection
As someone who was raised religious and then transitioned out I’ll say- when looking at your self and performing all kinds of introspection, the toolkit you use is absolutely essential. A bad toolkit can result in serious harm and suffering. So I have a standard for introspective frameworks that Adyshanti isn’t able to meet.
In my view, this book is not a good enough toolkit. It is not refined enough through critique.
Having said that, I enjoyed his meditations and would do them again.
How I think we should approach spiritual experiences and frameworks
While tripping on LSD one day I had one of the most meaningful and profound experiences of my life.
An “enlightened being” appeared to me in the visual field behind my closed eyes in the form of a fractal mask (a mask of masks). It was understood that the being was on both sides of the mask, and it had no face. There was music playing in the background. Then the being proceeded to provide me with a “meditation teaching”. I experienced synaesthesia. A bright white dancing figure appeared in the lower left of my visual field and had no centre, and it danced in perfect synchronicity with the music. Eventually the dancing ended and the enlightened being disappeared. It was utterly wonderful. I simply said “thank you for the meditation teaching”.
As I processed this event in the days and months afterwards, my viewpoint of it became very plain.
It was a deeply meaningful, significant and beautiful experience that my mind generated. It was artful and fascinating. I’m deeply grateful for it. But I would never claim that there’s any objectively true “fractal mask enlightened being” floating around in the universe. I didn’t start a “cult of the fractal mask”, start writing “the scriptures of the fractal mask”, start creating “fractal mask meditation teachings” or start telling other people “if only you take the right dosage of LSD, you’ll see the mask too”. I understand that the experience itself was highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t prescribe it to other people nor assume they’d experience anything like it- even under the influence of LSD.
None of this takes anything away from the experience and how meaningful it was to me. I love this experience and it was highly valuable to me. I’m deeply grateful that I could have had it in my lifetime.
This is the kind of qualification I wish Adyshanti would have in his work. Strip down the stories even further. In what way are the concepts and frameworks of your spiritual tradition influencing your ongoing, unfolding experience of the world? Would you experience anything about past lives if you didn’t already believe them to be possible? In what way is the “healing power” real? What do you mean by people’s “energy”?
In my view, there’s certainly more room for deconstruction here, and, I think the exact point where someone might pick up Adyashanti’s book is where they might do better to go to a therapist, learn about philosophy or psychology, or even just journal about their “awakening” experiences, reflecting with deep gratitude that they happened, but leaving the question of “what now” to other lines of enquiry.