Spiritual Philosophy vs Spiritual Practice

— The Path to Conscious Unity
John Smith—04/2008
Those interested in spiritual development need to become aware of the distinction between spiritual philosophies and spiritual practices so that they can reach conscious unity.

THERE IS MUCH CONFUSION in the New Consciousness movement between spiritual philosophies and spiritual practices (and their description) with a number of high profile New Age authors passing off their philosophical /cosmological worldviews as spiritual instruction. In fact, most popular New Age teachers are primarily preachers of spiritual philosophies, and it would seem that there is growing support for the belief that knowledge of "the system" can somehow lead us to spiritual fulfilment, with spirituality becoming a philosophical or academic pursuit.

But this shows a fundamental ignorance of what spirituality is (and is not), and whilst a modification of philosophy can be helpful in motivating ourselves to undertake spiritual practice, unless we understand the difference between spiritual philosophy and spiritual practice (and its description), a confusion between the two can be most detrimental to our inner growth. So we need to begin with definitions and descriptions of both.

Spiritual philosophies are conceptual road-maps that we use to give our lives meaning and context; spiritual practices are physical or psychological activities that lead us back to oneness or wholeness. In many ways the two oppose each other because philosophies conceptually break-up experience to structure it, whereas spiritual practice works to break-down conceptual structures to open connections and reach wholeness. Too much conceptualisation leads to psychological and physical deterioration — ennui — and the disintegration of society at large; too much wholeness can lead to inactivity and non-creativity (why do or change anything when nothing has meaning and everything is perfect as it is).

Although these two approaches to life oppose each other, we actually need both in a dynamic balance, just at the opposition between antagonist and agonist muscles in our bodies is necessary for movement. The value of a philosophical worldview is that, if we choose the right one, it will not only encourage us to pursue wholeness, but to implement more holistic systems in our lives and in society in general. Meaning is a very powerful motivating factor that can take a species to the stars… or trigger self-annihilation (or both). The value of spiritual practice lies in the connection it establishes, which on a superficial level leads to health and societal harmony, but on a more profound level completely changes our relationship to ourselves, and therefore our relationship to the world at large. Spiritual practice over time will modify our philosophical worldview as we become more accepting, leading us away from strong polarization (a hallmark of spiritual immaturity). So spiritual practice and spiritual philosophy both affect each other, and each tends to bring the other into a more harmonious alignment. Imbalance between them, therefore, is almost invariably when one is lacking.

Today we live in a world that is pathologically fractured by dead philosophies, media-peddled by the corporate sector and military-industrial complex for their own ends. Human beings fractured in this way are easily manipulated and exploited — the old divide and conquer strategy — encouraging us to live disconnected lives that contradict our natural inner rhythms and connectivity. These pathological paradigms were never enforced upon us but are the consequence of the natural progression in the flowering of consciousness — from unconscious unity, to unconscious disunity, to conscious disunity, and finally to conscious unity. [Conscious unity is a complex unity that paradoxically has self-awareness.] So the adoption of paradigms that encourage separation are a necessary step on our journey to ever greater consciousness.

At this moment in history, we are collectively approaching the cusp between conscious disunity and conscious unity, although it is important to realize that this collectivity is an averaging out of individual consciousness, and that there are individuals at all stages of consciousness currently living in this world, and human beings can move through different stages at different times in their lives. But what it means is that it has never been easier for the average person to move towards conscious unity.

There are therefore two very different types of spirituality — unconscious and conscious — both of which can be realized by spiritual practices. The same spiritual practices. The difference is in the consciousness awareness of the individual undertaking them. If someone is at the level of unconscious disunity, spiritual practice will actually take them backwards into unconscious unity. And if someone is at the level of conscious disunity, spiritual practice will take them forwards to conscious unity. (As a general rule, we never go backwards in our level of consciousness — once the apple of knowledge is eaten, we can never return to the unconscious Garden of Eden. But we can go backwards from unconscious disunity to unconscious unity, or from conscious unity to conscious disunity.)

Religions tend to be associated with unconscious spirituality because we tend to be born into them and/or membership comprises the deferment of spiritual responsibility to a set of dogmas, gurus, shamans and priests. Spirituality in former times was actually almost exclusively the expression of unconscious unity, with only a tiny percentage of individuals with the propensity to pursue conscious unity. Most of these were outcasts, occasionally seeding new religions before these organizations descend into expressions of unconscious unity as they became diluted by the collective unconsciousness of their burgeoning memberships. Today there are many spiritual people who are on the retro spiritual path because they are not developed consciously enough in the first place for their spiritual practice to take them into conscious unity, so they fall back into unconscious unity.

So the end result of spiritual practice is very much dependent on the development of a person's consciousness: if an individual is at the stage of unconscious disunity (often assoicated with religious or philosophical fundamentalism), it would be far better for that individual not to seek unity by undertaking spiritual practice but rather to focus things like philosophy, psychotherapy, books or even television so that a certain level of "self-consciousness" can be built up and the shadow (negative aspects) can be acknowledged and accepted. Egotism at this stage should actually be encouraged as it is healthy. (You cannot let go of egotism until you have a well-developed ego.) Otherwise, the unconscious forces of the psyche will scupper attempts to reach authentic spirituality. When conscious disunity or healthy egotism is finally reached — when we own our shadow — we naturally start looking for conscious unity, provided we have not become too entrapped by mental delusion, and it is at this point that spiritual practices again become healthy for us. If on the other hand we focus on spiritual practice in a state of unconscious disunity, we not only end up going backwards to unconscious unity but can also become psychologically disturbed in the process.

Tens of thousands of individuals around the world are now taking the step to conscious unity, embodying the new paradigm locally before it manifests globally. This is the modern spiritual urge, and it must be contrasted with the outdated religious urge. Many of us seek the connection necessary to glue ourselves, our families and, if our vision is broader, our society and world ecology back together — but this time consciously.

The irony is that many (not all) of the teachers that come from the East are actually in unconscious unity because, although they are ostensibly teaching about inner awareness, their path was never a conscious decision but rather they were born into it and see their beliefs not as just beliefs but reality itself. A teacher in unconscious unity can still be useful for those in conscious disunity because spiritual practice is spiritual practice, and the fruit of your spiritual practice for someone in conscious disunity will never be the unconscious unity of the teacher. In many ways, the bumbling Western seeker is more conscious than his or her Eastern teacher, and certainly has far greater potential because of the conscious disunity that has been acquired, something that the Eastern mind is only just starting to become interested in. [That said, it is quite possible that Eastern spiritual development is an entirely different path to egotistical Western spiritual development and cannot be compared in this way. But then, Eastern culture is certainly moving from unconscious disunity to conscious disunity as the Eastern ego finds the Western culture environment to develop.]

As individuals in egotistical Western societies start moving from unconscious disunity to conscious disunity, they becoming aware of themselves, including those parts that seem unsavoury (the shadow). We learn to think abstractly about ourselves, our place in the world and our connection/ disconnection to other people. This process is almost complete in Western society so that the next collective step is to move to conscious connection. Just letting go of separation and walking into unity (the Zen approach) can be difficult for the vast majority as they are so conditioned in using their minds. This is why spiritual philosophies are so important — they set the framework in which we can meaningfully engage (and therefore successfully engage) in spiritual practice. They give us the courage to jump off the cliff's edge into conscious unity.

But the philosophy that illuminates the path should never be confused with the practice of walking that path. If we do confuse them, we can easily become trapped in pseudo-spirituality in which we become armchair travelers, smug in our knowledge of the spiritual path and increasingly comfortable in our delusion. It is important, therefore, that spiritual philosophy encourages spiritual practice, otherwise it only serves to bring us further into conscious disunity.

We become smug because we think we know the answers. We are deluded by our certainty. For if there is one characteristic of the authentic spiritual path that stands before all others, it is uncertainty — not love, not light, not god… but uncertainty. Spiritual unfolding is not something we can control or conceptualise (the two actually go hand in hand). And in that opening up to uncertainty we find authenticity. Forget the world for now, even who we actually are is in a constant state of flux, and unless we can embrace the uncertainty of who we are — our feelings, thoughts, emotions and sensations in any given moment (parameters of authenticity) — then we are cut off from the dynamic flow of ourselves, and are "living" conceptualised lives. Add to that dynamic self the constantly changing backdrop of the universe and you begin to grok the delusion of certainty. [One major characteristic of those teachers who have not yet themselves reached the level of conscious unity is an overriding certainty that what they teach is Truth with a capital T.]

This is why it is so difficult for many to let go into conscious unity: at the level of disunity, consciousness is associated with control. Governments, for example, spy on their citizens so that they can control them. But as we move on to conscious unity we need to let go, but with our eyes open, and that can be terrifying. Conscious spiritual practice is all about being completely present in the moment and allowing whatever processes are happening to happen. It cannot be conceptually led, which is why spiritual practice can seem so boring; it is invisible to our radar because we usually mistakenly believe that anything that cannot be conceptualised does not exist. Hence the yawns!

When we move forward into conscious unity, we do not necessarily let go of conceptualisation. Instead, it takes a backseat, loses its certainty and becoming a useful and entertaining fiction to satisfy that part of our mind that still needs context and meaning… that still loves stories. There is nothing wrong with stories so long as we do not get caught in them… so long as we do not take them too literally, recognizing that they point to something deeper. Paradoxically, in conscious unity there is still self-awareness [it is a paradox because awareness implies a separation between the observer and the observed], although the "self" we are aware of is very different from the self of egotism. This self is the "silent witness" as opposed to the conceptual construct of the ego. As consciousness blooms, it flowers into uncertainty, into the unknown, rather than into the illusion of the ego's conceptual certainty.

Spiritual philosophies and spiritual practices have very different and contrasting qualities and characteristics which are summarized in the table below. Note that I have not included love as even unconditional love is all too easy to conceptually simulate (realization is another matter). 'Love' can have so many different meanings — conceptual and feeling-wise — that it is a misleading barometer for spirituality. (Unconditional love is a central characteristic of conscious unity, but not necessarily of unconscious unity.) Also, please note that the focus of spiritual practice at the level of conscious disunity is to let go of conceptualisation, not to let go into spirit or unity — the process is never goal orientated or controlled, and the conscious unity that develops always arises spontaneously and by grace.

Spiritual Philosophies Spiritual practices
certainty uncertainty
conceptual prescriptive
dogmatic belief-independent
inauthentic authentic
comforting uncomforting
absolute relative
rigid fluid
preplanned spontaneous
judgmental accepting
positional non-positional
hierarchical concentric
conditional unconditional
safe free
uncompromising compromising
disharmonizing harmonizing
quantifiable unquantifiable
exciting (initially) boring (initially)
original repetitive
payment donation
conspiratorial nonconspiratorial
responsibility right action
unhappiness happiness
meaningful meaningless
refined raw
logical intuitional
academic non-academic
powerful effective
arrogant humble
noisy quiet
external internal

The outcome of spiritual practice is inner peace and happiness, which is often the direct opposite of the outcome of spiritual philosophies not assuaged by spiritual practice. (The words "happy" and "happen" actually share the same etymology: we are only happy when we are in the flow of happening, and we cannot be in that flow if we are constantly trying to interpret it with through a philosophy.)

Many of us in the New Consciousness movement are being glitzed by exciting spiritual philosophies, descriptions of enlightenment and other exulted states, and grand cosmologies involving gods, angels, energies, ascended masters, ET's and Higher Selves (usually just spiritualized egos), in which we find we have a central role to play in the birthing of a new world. From insignificant cogs in the machine of unconscious disunity, we have now become the inflated reality-creating gods of conscious disunity, with egos to match. But we must not forget that our grand cosmologies can only take us to the edge of conscious disunity, and that if we truly want to walk the path into conscious unity, we need to undertake quiet and humble spiritual practice, letting go our attachment to being somebody special.

If we hold too long in the spiritual philosophies, we can too easily become mesmerized by the Technicolor detail of the stories we tell ourselves about the path so that we never actually walk it. We become lost in delusion, living virtual spiritual lives. And the more detailed and exciting the spiritual cosmology is, the harder it is to let go into the relative mundaneness of spiritual practice. But let go we must if we want to experience the full flowering of consciousness.




For an example of philosophy masquerading as spiritual practice, click here for this author's review of the Matrix V books.