A Recipe for Spirituality

Knowledge & Belief vs. Experience

Many paths claim a separate self does not exist.  Sometimes this claim takes the form of an assertion that the true self is identical with everything.  Other times it’s a claim that what we normally take as the self does not exist. Whatever the case, the arguments can be compelling and many people are convinced this is true.  However, despite their beliefs, many do not experience a lack of an independent self.

How could someone believe this yet still experience the self as a separate entity?  It’s because belief is one thing, experience another.  In fact, belief can be irrelevant to this experience.  People can and have unwittingly experienced this lack of an independent self using a simple tool.

The tool? A blue vase.

Enter Arthur Deikman

Arthur Deikman is a psychiatrist who studied these kinds of experiences, which he called mystical or spiritual.  Since he uses those terms often and interchangeably, it helps to get his take on the experience:

Profound connection is what the word `spiritual’ properly refers to. The spiritual is not a matter of visions of angels, or of being carried away by ecstatic emotion. […] At its most basic, the spiritual is the experience of the connectedness that underlies reality. The depth of that experience depends on the capacity of the individual to set aside considerations of self, thereby gaining access to connection. Although people differ in the extent and frequency with which they gain that access, the genuine experience abolishes competitive comparisons. `I am more spiritual than he’ is no longer meaningful because the `I’ and the`he’ are now experienced as part of a greater whole, not separate. Comparison requires separation

One day he decided to study spiritual experience, so he rounded up friends and acquaintances,  put them in front of a blue vase, told them they were going to participate in concentration exercises and gave them specific instructions for concentrating on the vase. This was done over several sessions and their experiences were recorded.  Among the experiences reported were a sense of energy, greater vividness of experience and a dissolving of the boundaries of the self. You can read details of the study here and here.

So by concentrating on a blue vase, people with no spiritual beliefs (as far as I know) had spiritual experiences. This implies the key is concentration itself.  But why? His answer is that it enabled deautomatization:

As I thought about the changes that had been reported, it occurred to me that they represented a reversal of the normal developmental process whereby infants and children learn to perceive, grasp, and categorize objects. This learning progresses and as it does it becomes automatic; they no longer have to pay such close attention to the nature of objects. Instead, more and more attention is free and put in the service of thought , of abstractions. The meditation activity that my subjects performed was reverse of the developmental process: the precept(the vase) was invested with attention while thought was inhibited. As a consequence, sensuousness, merging of boundaries and sensory modalities became prominent. A deautomatization had occurred, permitting a different experience of the vase than would ordinarily be the case.

The deautomatization in turn undermines The Survival Self, which is the barrier to spiritual experience:

[…] our survival as biological organisms takes priority in development. This survival requires the development of a self that can acquire supplies, defend them against others, and take from others what might be needed or desired. This is the self-as-object, the survival self. It pervades our everyday experience. Our society keeps it activated with threats of danger, promises of pleasure, prestige and ease, and encouraging competition for wealth and power. 

However The Survival Self is so entrenched it can undermine anything — including the spiritual search:

To illustrate this point, imagine a business man who becomes dissatisfied with material possessions. He then reads about the bliss of enlightenment wants that. So he joins a spiritual group and faxes a notice of his new intention to the computer control centre in his brain. An underling reads the fax and rushes to the boss. `This guy says he’s no longer interested in money; he wants enlightenment. What program should we install?’ The boss glances quickly at the fax. `It’s the same program: Acquisition.

What’s more, not just any concentration will do!  A very special type of concentration is required — meditation:

Since survival self aims dictate the nature of our experience, we can understand the meditation offers some relief from that tyranny by (1) shifting intention from acting to allowing, (2) from identification with emotions to identification with the observer, and (3) shifting from instrumental thinking to receptive experience.

More information on (2) can be found in his article  ‘I’ = Awareness.

How do we bring about (1) and (3)? Well, this is a habitual attitude, which we must practice by bringing it into our daily lives. There are two practices that enable this:  Letting go (renunciation) and selfless service:

Renunciation and service are usually discussed in the context of morality, virtue, and saintliness. But we need not approach this as a moral issue, but as a straightforward matter of cognitive psychology

Letting go is tricky:

Furthermore, renunciation is not to equated with self-denial, self-mortification, or asceticism. As one Zen master put it, `Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world; it is accepting that they go away’ (Suzuki, 1968). `Accepting that they go away’ is an orientation that opens the grasping hand and facilitates the shift away from the acquisitive aims that activate survival self consciousness. Without that letting go, renunciation could be utilized as just another way to fulism’ (Trungpa, 1973).

So is selfless service:

Service is probably the most effective activity for providing access to the connectedness of reality. However, like renunciation, `service’ is loaded with moral and religion associations. It is thought to mean sacrifice, the handing over of time and money and the reward of being a `good’ person entitled to a heavenly homesite. The functional dynamics of service are not appreciated. Consider the problem of motivation.  If one does a good deed in the expectation that it will be noted in the Book of Heavenly Record, what is taking place is a commercial transaction. The survival self is still running the show

The Book of Heavenly records is any idea of a reward, including a “spiritual” one.  Where one act is seen to lead to a result due to the act’s goodness, there’s the Book of Heavenly records.  As such, even Atheists can be subject to this mindset.

Very well, but how is one to do selfless service without the acquisitive mindset?

It is very hard to find a way of being active that is not self-centred, that is not ultimately selfish. The cynic argues: `Doing good gives you pleasure, makes you feel good, so it is just another pleasure-seeking activity and, therefore, basically selfish.’ The argument can be hard to counter, but there is a way out of the quandary: serving-the-task. A carpenter may finish the underside of a chair even though he will receive no more money for doing so and his customers don’t care. He does it because it feels called for. His motivation is not in the service of the survival self, but a response to a sense of wholeness or of need. True service, the kind that opens the doors of perception, is of this type.

You can read the full paper here.

Buddhism in this Light

Since Buddhism has been secularized and is quite popular as a spiritual/mystical path, I want to use it as an example.  Let’s start with the most common formulation — The 4 Noble Truths and 8-Fold Path:

  1.  Dissatisfaction is ubiquitous.
  2.  Dissatisfaction is caused by desire.
  3.  Desire can be overcome to achieve bliss.
  4. This is done by right: mindfulness, concentration, action, livelihood, speech, intention, view, and effort.

Now the typical view of Buddhism is that realizing the truths brings liberation.  However, what happens if we look at it through the lens of Letting Go, Service and Concentration?

Letting Go:  1-3 are reasons to let go.  Mindfulness is the practice of letting go, to be done in the midst of life and as a formal practice.  Action is unconditional compassion which is about letting go — of past hurts, judgments and so on. It is a passive inward attitude.  Livelihood is about letting go — of position, credit, politics and so on.  The most important element of speech is silence: avoid idle chatter.  Silence is letting go, it’s passive.

Service: Action is volunteer work and livelihood is going the extra mile at work.  Both are to be done without expectation of reward, including acknowledgment.

Concentration: Obviously this is done with concentration, to be done in the midst of life and as a formal practice.  Often this and letting go are done in the same step via Mindfulness Meditation.

Livelihood is an important focus because it seems a prime haven for the survival self.  After all, it’s all about acquisition and it fosters a mercenary — if not antagonistic — attitude between employees and even between employee and employer. This coupled with the amount of time we spend at work is an argument that it might just be the most important path element.  It’s sad it’s often the one given the shortest shrift.

Intention, view and effort were dropped because they are more meta-elements — attitudes to have on the path.


Spirituality is not knowledge or belief, but an experience that can be intentionally cultivated.  To this end, Arthur Deikman’s research fits a rare niche. It’s a critical yet sympathetic study of spirituality from a psychological perspective.  Spiritual practice is simplifed and de-mystified.  However, the subtleties, near paradoxes and pitfalls that await the aspirant are still clearly explained.  This gives people the ability to tightly focus their practice.

Looked at this way, a commonality can be seen among many — if not all — spiritual paths, while still understanding and appreciating their differences.  If spirituality is about unity, and unity is to be had with passive Concentration, aided by Letting Go and Service, then spiritual paths are frameworks for implementing these.  Paths would differ in their emphases and techniques and different individuals may find different paths “speak” to them by how they play to their strengths and weaknesses.  This also answers some valid questions:  If spiritual paths are really that similar, why are there  many, why choose a specific one, and how does one choose a specific one?

Finally, Diekman’s views returns the focus of spiritual practice to the practitioner.  Rather than looking for something “out there”, the practitioner is reminded to turn within. The point is not to understand or believe in the unity behind all things, but to change one’s self so one SEES unity behind all things. 

9 thoughts on “A Recipe for Spirituality

  1. Great article, if I may say so. I also read the two articles by Deikman you refer to. Interesting.

    I agree with you that the point is to SEE this unity behind all things. To take it on authority of another or to try and understand it without experiencing it seems pointless.
    I also really like the idea that this kind of spiritualism is not obscured by dogma, strange clothes or other ritual. Sometimes I feel I have to defend myself, as if I would not be a rational person in pursuing this.

    It’s interesting you add service to the concept. This serving-the-task is something that is often referred to in zen. And it’s a very useful practice to let go of gaining merit in any way or wanting the quality of your work to be noticed. Very hard to do!
    From personal experience I know that patients, at the receiving end of health-care, find it quite easy to spot the difference between a do-gooder and somebody that practices true service. From that I derive that there is a real difference, to be perceived from the outside as well.

    1. Thank you!

      I believe Deikman added service, but I definitely agree with him. In fact, I never understood the concept of “Engaged Buddhism” because I thought Buddhism implied service, like volunteering.

      Good points. I especially like your point about rationality and pursuing this. It is sad that the experience itself has been obscured in favor of arguments on either side as to what it means and assumptions about those who follow certain paths. Some spiritual aspirants may be mistaken, but a great deal of scientists have utterly missed the point in their studies.

      1. I see what you mean about Engaged Buddhism. As if there would be a dis-Engaged Buddhism. 😉

        There are buddhists who think doing good deeds or certain other practices to gain merit is a way to escape rebirth. Huang Po (sorry for going on about him, just tell me when you’ve had enough) mentions this quite a few times. So it was probably an issue in the year 850. He’s all for doing the right thing at the right time, but not because you’d expect to gain anything by doing it. And he specifically mentions enlightenment as something that cannot be attained that way.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this and come up with a really crazy idea. For the sake of the argument I’ll probably totally distort your article, so my apologies in advance.
    So you have a brain that’s not enlightened. This happens because of two subroutines in your brain: the “self” and the “acquisition” programs. If you eliminate these subroutines, in theory, you should reach enlightenment. Probably these subroutines are related and eliminating one will eliminate the other, but let’s suppose they’re not just in case.
    Now, in order to suppress those two you can train yourself through meditation. That is quite a lengthy process, because you’re trying to rewire your brain through learning, that is, re-adjusting connections between neurons through accumulated experience. But there is a shorter way.
    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the experiments that inhibited morality in subjects with magnetic pulses. Basically, with this technique you can temporally inhibit a certain area in the brain, without any side-effects. Researchers have used this to show that morality is innate in most individuals and that it resides in a certain area of the brain.
    I suggest doing exactly the same with the self. Building an “enlightenment machine” that (temporarily) removes the self, letting you experience enlightenment for some time. After that, you’ll probably go back to normal, but at least you’ll know there is such a thing, which will probably be a powerful motivator to pursue meditation. In fact, it may even speed up the process, since you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for.
    Yes, it’s probably a completely preposterous idea. I think I’m going to write a post about it because I thoroughly enjoy preposterous ideas like this one.

    1. Actually, I think they invented this. It may be called “The God Helmet”.

      This is not preposterous. If science takes a greater interest in these things for the experience, it stands to reason that techniques, medications and technologies for reproducing them would result.

      I also think some researchers identified meditation as affecting a region of the brain involved in constructing the self…

      Looks like you are on the right track 🙂

      1. Just checked the “God helmet” out. I like the idea, but according to Wikipedia it’s not clear whether it works. Some other people are trying to make an enlightenment machine, but their idea is to potentiate the capabilities leading to enlightenment, more like a cognitive enhancement helmet. I still haven’t seen anyone suggesting using magnetic pulses to actually impair cognitive function. Maybe I should get a patent and launch a kickstarter campaign…

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