Safeguards in mystic exploration
Some ideas or thoughts on protecting one's self as one explores mysticism and spirituality in all its forms
I've been burned a few times now in my spiritual exploration, much of it from mainline religions or from pop culture fads in spiritual pursuits — but this time around I've established for myself a few rules of engagement to keep me sufficiently grounded and insulated from more predatory practices, bad actors, and just altogether poorly thought-through ideas.
Hanging on for dear life
This picture of the kid hooking himself up to the zip line is a fantastic comparison to what it sort of feels like as you start to explore expanded states of consciousness — whether that’s through meditation, psychedelics, shamanism, breath work, or other spiritual practices that are outside the cultural norm of Westernized civilization. You’re scared spitless about making that leap and are triple-checking the harness and the carabiners to make sure you’re not going to end up face-first in the forest floor going 50 miles per hour down the zip line.
I know for myself, as I’ve started to explore many different spiritual or mystic perspectives on the question, “who am I?”, I have experienced worldview-dismantling states of being and perspectives the deeper I go. As I have opened myself up more through meditation, contemplation, reflection, breath work, as well as methodically integrating plant medicines with these disciplines, I have been able to do some deep internal work on myself and shift a lot of my behaviors toward a path rooted in loving awareness, compassion, curiosity, and kindness. The glowing result is that I’ve been more present in the moment, overcoming those moments when I’m fixated on the past, the future, or some other thing that my mind has conjured up for me to obsess over. This has also led to doing the hard work of facing up to my fears, facing my aversions, the people I have a harder time getting along with, and a lot of other deep-seated ideas that I’ve been able to bring love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding into those spaces in my life — at least more than I have historically.
One thing I’ve really lacked in my quest to deepen my understanding of my non-duality and my path towards a more awakened state [I use the term “awakened” because over the course of our life, our brain functions in a reductionist way, filtering out much of what we experience for one reason or another], I have historically lacked the safeguards to protect me in my spiritual exploration. I’ve been burned a few times and consequently found myself in some deep spots that I’ve had to work my way out of. Looking back on how I had been burned while practicing Evangelical Christianity, I was all-in and never questioned anything — or more accurately, I had my doubts but had suppressed them because I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be on the “good” side, and be more “spiritually advanced”. Well that blind allegiance really set me up for some serious issues later on, things that I’m just now coming to terms with and finding loving acceptance despite how much trauma it caused me.
I mention this because on my path towards seeking a greater understanding of the totality of it all — of who I am, of what I’m a part of, the whole of our ecosystem, time, energy, all of it — I have come across some really interesting people and very interesting ideas. But even those same well-meaning, fascinating, and spiritually deep people have their moments when everything coming out of their mouth sounds like a half-baked trope that’s had more than adequate time to marinate in a grow bag of “what the hell are you on, man?”
Ram Dass is one of those cats for me — in the very same lecture he gives, on one hand he leaves me awe-inspired and has helped me see truths that have been there all along going virtually un-noticed; and then the very next moment he will go off on the extreme deep end of the pool — that area roped off and reserved for self-made philosophers and mystics to discuss all the reasons our existence is just one giant computer simulation. But that topic is for another time.
Safeguards to protect your spiritual exploration
One thing I wish I had back in the day, was some sort of framework to protect myself against questionable ideologies and self-made manipulative mystics. In the absence of reason (which is a helpful tool to shield oneself from counterproductive dogma), I’ve jotted down a few thoughts to consider as you explore spirituality. By no means is this a comprehensive list of ways to protect yourself as you explore various spiritual, mystic, or ritualistic practices. I feel that it reflects wisdom in a person when you slowly, carefully, and methodically implement various mystic traditions, ideas, or practices into your life — take it slow. There’s no rush.
I feel it’s also important to remember that the past is just an illusion — you can’t ever change it, so learn what you must and get your head back in the present moment. And the future is simply infinite potential wrapped up in endless possibility, but it’s a space you cannot control. There is ever only the eternal present moment — now. The past and the future are only tools – learn what you must, but remain rooted in the present moment.
Alright, let’s get on with some of the things I do personally to minimize the likelihood of getting burned by bad actors or well-meaning “influencers” that finally experienced ego death for the first time and are ready to change your mind in a short 60-second reel. Let’s go!
I almost don’t even need to say this, but because I live in America and I’ve seen the collective behaviors of my compatriots — use your common sense. Please. Throw that strand of mystical spaghetti against your metaphorical pink meat computer that is your rational firewall and see if it sticks or not. Chances are, if it sounds too good to be true… you can fill in the rest.
As someone who is generally more science-minded, I cannot in good conscience intentionally contradict the irrefutable, peer-reviewed findings supported by the scientific community. So when it comes to talking about truth or what happens in a mystical experience, or what things are transpiring in the invisible, seemingly immaterial plane of consciousness — if you’re making material claims about the effect of something in the material world, it had better align with the actual findings and measurements found as a result of actual scientific inquiry. If science says that up is up, and down is down, no amount of belief, superstition, or long sequence of spiritual-sounding phrases is going to change the status of up and down.
I’ll give you a great example — in my research about Amazonian traditions, Ayahuasca ceremonies, and traditional shamanic healing, I’ve been curious about their integration of sacred plant medicines, including the use of white sage and other dried herbs and grasses in consecrating the ceremony. In an attempt to learn more about the practice’s origins and their function, investigating what purpose it actually serves — I turned to the Internet. …you know, that reliable source of half-baked ideas, trending pseudo psychology, and Influencers with the latest of 60-second hot takes. A cursory glance through Instagram Reels and Tik Tok posts might lead you to believe that smudging your space, yourself, or others will remove bad energy in the room and will purify the air with all the negative ions generated from the burning of sage, which will then bond to all the impurities (which by the way allegedly have positive ions, because negativity apparently gives off positivity), and then the two magically cancel each other out. There’s no studies to back the claim that smudge sticks actually purify a room. These sorts of claims are squarely subjective and cannot be measured or repeated, and must be taken on blind faith.
This is the sort of thing that is quite frequently sold as fact and with absolute certainty, and to question it is to question indigenous beliefs or traditions. It’s untouchable in some circles of thought. While I don’t want to entirely dismiss the possibility that some of the claims have the potential to be even partially true (or more accurately, subjectively true), I am of the persuasion that they don’t quantify as a universal, objective truth. A universal truth, for my point of view, is something that can apply to everyone regardless of one’s opinion — meaning that opinion and belief take a back seat to what universally is. Like gravity — that’s just one of those universal laws established by science that hold in check the delusions of human beings that think we can fly or float in the air, unassisted by technological means. It’s an absurd example, but it works when you carry it over to more subtle areas.
An important aside about so-called “bad” energy. Numerous ancient, eastern traditions that take a nondualist approach do not teach the concept of good or bad energy. Energy is just energy. Similarly, it’s commonly taught in nondualistic spirituality that there is no good or bad, there is just consciousness in all its forms and expressions. It’s not a denial of “evil” or so-called “bad things” in the world, but seeing it as an integral part of the whole. You cannot have darkness without light. You cannot have cold without heat. You cannot have “good” without “evil”. All of these things are a part of us — goodness and light, darkness and evil. One healthy response to the concept of “bad energy” isn’t how to dispel it, to cancel it out, or to get it to “leave the room” — but rather to just work with it and see what you can learn. Observe it from as many angles to more adequately understand than rushing into judgment.
Relative realities or relative truths — there I have a bit more space for possibilities when it comes to the unexplored cosmos within one’s mind. It’s a much different world in there filled with what could be limitless potential and possibility. But when it comes to claims that affect the material world out in front of us, much of which has been processed through scientific inquiry, the mystical claims should align with scientific findings. I can claim that I can float or levitate all I want, but I physically cannot contradict in this ecosystem with the laws of gravity being what they are, that my mass exceeds that of the mass of the ambient atmosphere I find myself in, and therefore am planted pretty firmly on the ground.
So if you’re prepared to try and convince me that smudge sticks kill air-born pathogens because of their negative ionic charge, you better come at me with peer-reviewed scientific journals or findings instead of that link to some editorial you found on Buzz Feed, Daily Wire, or whatever other nonsensical source of information you glean your facts from. Furthermore, just because you find dozens or hundreds of articles on alternative health magazines that support the claim, if they fail in the ability to cite peer-reviewed studies that irrefutably prove their claims, they’ve failed to make a compelling enough case to believe them. So move right along. Don’t even give it a second thought.
One statement that I feel I need to make to balance out my curmudgeonly stated ground rules for spiritual exploration, is that when it comes to the landscape of one’s mind, the rules are a lot different when it comes to truth, to reality, to what is real and what is manufactured. It’s not necessarily cut and dry when it comes to matters of the mind. There’s a lot more room for potential in that vast expanse of possibility.
As one illustration that encourages us to keep exploring, I had learned something interesting that I’d not known before, a theory that seems worth exploring, yet is at a place that should be balanced with healthy critique and scientific inquiry. I virtually attended the Expanded States of Consciousness World Summit and one of the presenters had a very interesting research-backed hypothesis that suggested the brain and body’s default mode is to be able to heal itself, to fight off infections and disease, and to heal injuries that it has sustained — that effectively our default mode is the so-called placebo effect. It works because your mind says it works.
According to the presenter, it’s when our body and our mind run into blockages that inhibits the ability for healing to take place. Depression was one of the conditions they cited as an example — that normally the mind is able to resiliently bounce back from short, minor depressive episodes. However when you have significant blockages (mental, physical, chemical, etc), the mind is impeded in its ability to heal itself and requires additional help to resume its healing capabilities. The presenter went on to explain how changes in the mind often result in changes in the body — think it, be it.
One of the topics they covered was the power of psychedelics to effectively rewire the neural network and deal with trauma in short order. It demonstrates something that could be subjective on the outside world and vary from person to person, but the right human with the right conditions of the mind (or the substance taken) can substantially alter one’s perspective, generate greater neural plasticity, and create real and lasting change. But I digress.
Some things aren’t so cut and dry, and while I have sufficient “space” to contemplate some of these ideas that challenge conventional thinking, I have very little room for dogmatic certainty.
The plague of certainty
I will invariably ruffle a few feathers here, and for that I don’t apologize — I’m not here to get you to agree with me, to believe me, or to change your mind or your opinion. That’s not my job nor my intent. This is simply the realities that I have experienced so far in exploring expanded states of consciousness, spirituality, and mysticism, and held all these things in balance with the scientific world.
I came out of a long history of Western Evangelical Christianity — had spent much of my later formative years in the “charismatic Lutheran” camp, your run of the mill “filled with the Holy Ghost” charismatic non-denominational churches, churches held in schools, black gospel churches that are holding service in another church’s basement, suburban-flavored trendy Christian churches, a brief stint in Orthodox Christianity, and an even briefer stint in Catholicism. While I really don’t have a problem people believing or practicing these various faith traditions — really I don’t, you do you — where I draw the line at is when one expresses certainty on matters of faith and belief.
“I know for a fact that I’m speaking in an angelic language when I speak in tongues.” “I know for a fact that the Bible is real and the infallible word of God.” “I know for a fact that the world was created in six days.” Lots of facts. Lots of certainty. Almost all of it backed by quoting verses from the Bible (circular reasoning), most likely lacking historical context, understanding actual ancient cultures and civilizations and their actual history.
Lest I completely alienate Christians, the place of balance for me is when you can approach these ideas or concepts with an openness to all or many of the possibilities — the possibility that it could be true, but that you very well could be wrong as well. So when I’m exploring ancient Aztec traditions, religious practices found in Hinduism, or working through the well of wisdom found in Buddhism and Taoism, I remain open to the possibilities, but look upon certainty itself with great suspicion.
When someone says “believe me when I say”, you would be wise to add in a healthy dose of skepticism. Work the ideas out for yourself, read what the scientific and educational institutions have had to say on the matter. Do research that involves cracking open books, visiting the library, read various commentaries on the subjects you’re exploring. And pin the ideas against each other. Whichever seems to withstand the bullshit test just might have more credibility. And in the same breath, be open to the possibility that there may be a deeper, internal truth that can only exist or be accessed in the mind, and isn’t a material reality.
Humility pairing with one’s spiritual curiosity
Another red flag for me when pursuing spiritual ideas or trying out mystical practices, is when the presenter lacks a fundamental humility in all they do and say. If there’s a hint of arrogance, a feeling of “I’m more superior”, or a sense they think they know more than we do — I look for the catch, or in many cases, I follow the money. If the practitioner is more in it for the money and manifesting wealth for themselves, or seem to be caught up in the external wrappings of pursuing mystic ideas, and less about making universal truth and universal enlightenment more accessible, I start looking elsewhere.
The hallmarks of a person with authenticity and a sincere desire for others to learn and grow, will invariably be marked with some degree of humility. Watch in how they carry themselves in their videos, their social posts, their overall presentation. If it’s a spiritual practice and it stinks of ego, it may be best to keep looking elsewhere for that wisdom, guidance, or information that you’re looking for.
The other end of this is that no two people will have the same spiritual path toward enlightenment and unity with All that is. I like to think of Mount Fui as a metaphor of our spiritual path — it’s a mountainous landmark that can be seen far off in the distance, and there are many possible ways to reach the summit. While there are some well-worn paths up the mountain, those well-worn paths will eventually give way to markers that people have left along their trek, leaving the individual with periodic guides as they strive to forge their own path up the mountaintop.
This is why I find dogma so destructive and counter-productive. It’s just another example of the human reductionist mind at work — reducing the complexity and breath-taking diversity of human spirituality down to a system of rules, laws, and expectations. While mainline religions are not bad in and of themselves, they can be quite limiting to the individual who seeks to wade in deeper pools of experiential truth about the cosmos, our connection to the Earth and Its ecosystem, and our unity as Creator and Creation. Frustrated by the limits of mainline religion, many of us have left in search of deeper pools to draw from — and it invariably requires the flexibility of thought to weigh in practices from around the globe that fall outside standard religious practices or belief.
Mainline religions do have their place in the world — some people find the wide-open expanse of possibility in spirituality disconcerting and stressful. Some don’t like open-endedness, some find comfort in rules and structure, others find it agreeable to conform to a certain pattern of behaviors or structured rituals and ideas taught in churches, mosks, temples, and the like. Each religion has its own potential to connect you with the Divine, along with a framework to structure your life around. Inherently these systems are limiting and by their nature will only take you so far up the mountain. (Remember my analogy of markers further up the mountain as the well-worn paths disappear from view.)
Integration: one step at a time
Before I wrap up this post, it has to be stated and clearly so: take your time when integrating or trying out these spiritual practices. Don’t go “whole hog” and dive into all of the practices at once, attempting to make wholesale changes in your life. Unless you have a very good reason for making dramatic changes, ensure that these new practices are sustainable and can be worked into the fabric of your every day living.
In the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic-aided spiritual practices, the most important step in a journey of healing or spirituality is integration. Examine all that you’re learning, pore over different ideas and angles of thought, increase your broad understanding of the ideas you’re working with, and integrate them into your ordinary states of being and consciousness. Ask yourself questions like, “what beliefs or ideas have I held which aren’t compatible any more?” or “what about my life runs in contrast to these ideas (and is that a bad thing)?” or “what can I do now in my wakeful state to bring some of these ideas into my ordinary living?”
You cannot spend all of your time in meditation, or prayer, or in expanded states of consciousness — you have a life here on earth that is ripe for cultivation and requires nurturing to produce the kind of “fruit” you’re hoping to manifest in your life. Figure out how to integrate your practices for yourself, and as the added bonus, learn how to be able to talk about it in real terms that the uninitiated would be able to understand and empathize with. And that brings me to one final point.
Talking about spiritual things: the tension between the objective and the subjective
The greatest challenge of working with practices that are squarely in one’s mind is that we all too commonly talk about the subjective experiences we have as if it were objective reality — after all, we experienced it… it must be real. And it is real, but subjectively so. When I think about the myriad of beliefs I’ve held at one point or opinions and perspectives on reality, I look on a lot of those experiences as real, real to me anyway — and yet unable to translate it into something less “Woo”.
It also doesn’t help that both the ordinary states of consciousness and the expanded states of consciousness look upon one another with suspicion and a lack of trust. The part of our brain that is deeply rooted in our every day ordinary states of reality look upon the immaterial claims about life with a healthy dose of mistrust — and the part of us immersed in expanded states of consciousness, spirituality, and mysticism looks upon our ordinary states with equal levels of mistrust. There’s a palpable fear of getting it wrong and being misled down a path that’s either wrong or downright unhealthy.
But how does one talk about these ineffable experiences without sounding like you’ve taken one too many steps off the reality catwalk? How does one talk about the intangible facets of consciousness and spirituality — facets that deal in experiences and not necessarily in crystallized in concrete thought or backed by our primary senses of perceiving the world around us?
Perhaps a better starting point isn’t necessarily to talk about the experiences themselves, but rather what has come as a result of your integration work in this practice of yours. You may have taken up shamanic drumming, or perhaps vipassana meditation, or combine entheogenics with meditation to explore as only a psychonaut would — but what has that practice resulted in? What outward and inward changes have you seen in your life? Are you more loving towards other people? Have you been able to suspend your judgment toward others and their own ideas and beliefs? Have you started practicing kindness — toward yourself, your partner, your family, your neighbors, complete strangers? How is your state of equanimity and your ability to remain placid as you go about your life, when life around you is anything but peaceful? How has your relationship with the Earth and our ecosystem evolved? Do you still see yourself as a separate entity, or as a part of the Whole?
Where the rubber meets the road, that is where you will find the first threads of objectivity to be able to talk about the ineffable. In other words, if you can point to how you’ve become more loving, more present, more aware, more conscious of your connectedness to everything, you now have things you can use to point others toward the objective realities that lead to peace, equanimity, and other states of being. Your spiritual or mystic practice will always be difficult to talk about with those that have not experienced it for themselves (and even if they had, they likely will not have remotely the same or even a similar experience as you.)
What you can objectively talk about is the more broad-stroked ideas that need not be subjected to such scrutiny, for the scientific and philosophical thought leaders have already done much of the heavy lifting for you. You can point to our deep desire to belong, to understand our place in the universe, to know our purpose or reason for being, and to feel a strong sense of peace and equanimity — agency to determine our own path, to forge our own destiny, to do the things that are important to us, and the freedom to explore endless possibilities knowing that some will lead to dead ends and others to fruitful paths that lead toward enlightenment and a greater understanding of ourselves and our place in this ecosystem we call home.
I’d like to hold all of this knowing and talking into balance with one word: being. From the Tao Te Ching, the very opening line reminds us:
“The Tao that can be understood is not the eternal, cosmic Tao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words is not the Infinite Idea.”
In other words, you can talk about God or Consciousness or Source or the Great Eternal Tao all you like, but it will never fully encapsulate the ineffable, the indescribable, the incomprehensible that is the Totality of All. No human model, no analogy, no detailed treaty or explanation will ever be able to describe the totality of Infinite Loving Awareness that just is. We are left to our own devices to find creative ways to talk about these things, held in tension knowing that they really cannot be talked about to gain true understanding and achieve a state of loving awareness. God, Source, Consciousness, The Eternal Tao, Buddha, Allah — it is far more than we can ever hope to communicate, and the minute we attempt to do so, we invariably run into the limitations of language and our inability to express the deeper states and planes of consciousness.
One useful antidote to this predicament is simply this: just be here now. You don’t need to come up with the right answers, you don’t have to change other people’s opinions or beliefs, you don’t need to change what our culture thinks and believes, and you don’t need to subject yourself to a multi-stepped belief system to achieve some end result. In fact, when one simply practices just being here, being present and filled with loving awareness in your own now moment — the goals, the striving, the reaching, our attachments, our aversions, the perception that we must defend our ideas, the noise of it all slowly recedes to just presence and being.
I want to leave you with one more parting thought from Sadhguru, whose perspectives and ideas I’ve been enjoying immensely and have held juxtaposition to all my own ideas and idiosyncrasies. His insight here is both humbling and re-assuring:
“Your role in the existence is so small. Everything that’s vital to life is happening, is it not? Your business is just to become receptive to the bounty of life, to know life in its fullest way.” - Sadhguru
Explore more ideas. Work with those ideas in the playground of your mind. Learn from your choices and all that is happening around you. Try new ideas on for size. Reflect on how they make you feel and how your life changes. Just be here now.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the topic. Post them in the comments below, let’s start up a conversation!