David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.
Theological Tethering, Hijacked Meditation, and Bounded Moksha
David Christopher Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane
One’s religious beliefs serve as a sort of curved trajectory wherein one’s inner quest is a priori bounded by one’s expectations.
I am not sure when I exactly noticed the connection between one’s experiences and theological tethering, but I suspect it first dawned on me after I spoke in tongues when I was 15 years old. The projective arc is such a normal process that it oftentimes skims under our critical antenna even as we pride ourselves for not being blind to such happenings. Right after my first glossolalia moment I was handed the Bible by my religion teacher at Notre Dame high school, Brother August, and informed to read certain passages in the New Testament which directly related to what I had just undergone.
So I eagerly took up the suggestion and discovered that what happened to me appeared to dovetail (even if only partially) to what had occurred to some early Christians post Jesus’ death. But finding this correlation led me to almost irretrievably intertwine my experience with the theological underpinnings of Christianity in general. In sum, my experience was no longer my own but rather part of a larger mosaic and instead of seeing other possible and perhaps more viable interpretations of what transpired to me, I ended up binding my transformative encounter with a particular theological purview.
At first glance, this may seem innocuous enough, but on a closer analysis one can readily see how misleading such a theological tethering can be. I became keenly aware of how this of type projective arc works when I witnessed it more objectively a few months later when I met followers of Father Yod, a self-styled guru who ran a well known restaurant in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip called the Source. Due to intensive sessions of kundalini yoga, several disciples reported having mystical experiences, including unique sensations of an awakened shakti and other paranormal phenomena. Each of them attributed the numinous occurrences directly to Father Yod and his teachings as espoused in his one published book, Liberation.
Several years later I would notice this same connecting pattern during my research trips to India where I met a number of gurus in the shabd yoga tradition. Followers of Kirpal Singh, and later his son, Darshan Singh, in particular, were keen on attributing their inner experiences of light and sound to their gurus and seemed to believe that without their interventions such transmundane occurrences would never have manifested.
Faqir Chand, a radical sage in the Radhasoami movement, argued that disciples worldwide were being deceived into thinking that their respective masters actually had mysterious powers and the magical ability to know things beyond the five senses when in point of fact they had neither. Faqir indicated that all such incredible experiences were entirely due to the faith and devotion of the devotee who had in his blinding allegiance to his guru failed to see the true modus operandi which was within himself.
This procedure creates within the disciple a persistent tendency to take his or her experiences and filter them within the interpretative nexus that is provided by his/her spiritual path. But in so doing the student all too often ends up trying to relate what transpires in meditation to the expectations or desired aims of the religious matrice in which he is grounded. And in other instances, the disciple begins to justify or legitimize a given spiritual paradigm by injecting it with his own internal elevations. Such a dyadic loop can literally tether the aspirant to a given theology and lock him or her into a set series of bounded interpretations.
The danger, of course, is that this two way intersection tends not to be open to alternative explanations (which might be more viable) and also prevents a more free form of exploration. Analogously this is akin to an ocean explorer like Columbus who consistently tries to conform new lands and new vistas with a prefigured map that he brought with him before his voyage. That he may be wholly mistaken in his conflations doesn’t readily occur to him and thus whatever newness that arises in his expeditions is refashioned to fit in with his preconceived model. This kind of habit can, if not checked, lead to one trying to substantiate the given map versus letting the newness or virginal state dictate a reformation.
A more concrete, even if a bit odd, example of this type of behavior comes from surfing contests. In a subjectively graded sport such as surfing, it is oftentimes the case that the surfer contorts his style and his maneuvers to what he expects the judges will score highest. In other words, he is riding the wave with the judges foremost in his mind and thus invariably adjusts his bodily motions with what he thinks will please them most. He is no longer “free” surfing. He is, to the contrary, “image” surfing with the ultimate goal of correlating what he does with what the judges expect and desire. It is little wonder therefore that modern contest surfers look like clones of each other.
In the same way, those on an inner mystical quest will often reframe what they experience in light of what they believe best correlates to the desired aims of their path.
Instead of a free voyage to unexplored lands, we are sabotaging our quests by trying to measure what we encounter with preconceived cartographies.
My argument is that we are putting the cart before the horse. Instead of a free voyage to unexplored lands, we are sabotaging our quests by trying to measure what we encounter with preconceived cartographies. Our meditation gets hijacked and we end up trying to make our mystical encounters correlate to our chosen traditions. If anything new happens we don’t recognize it as such and thereby attempt to ideologically spin the discrepancy between the map and the real territory away.
In this context, one’s religious beliefs serve as a sort of curved trajectory wherein one’s inner quest is a priori bounded by one’s expectations. Everything gets filtered via our accepted mediums (whether it be a master, a path, or an ideology) and that very medium derives a continual benefit from our projective arcs.
In the Wizard of Oz, the lion, the scarecrow, the tin man, and Dorothy are under the false impression that the Wizard actually has power so they end up going through a dangerous journey to secure the wicked witch’s broom stick so that he may grant them their wishes. Their quest, however, is sabotaged by the Wizard for his own purposes, even as they believe otherwise.
So it is similar in the case of spiritual aspirants who can have their own inner journeys manipulated by a given theology or teaching which instead of freeing him or her actually does the opposite by kidnapping their meditation to serve ulterior needs and motives.
One can historically see this most markedly in the case of Indulgences where the earnest desire to be forgiven for one’s sins is twisted to actually fill the coffers of higher-ups in the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, what is fueling this perversion is the earnest Christian who desires to be better but who doesn’t realize that their sincerity is fodder for those with less idealistic motives.
A more extreme example of how one’s good intentions can be thwarted into something detrimental can be seen in the famous scene from the 1960 film version of H.G. Wells, The Time Machine. The futuristic sun people unanimously respond to a bombing siren that dates back thousands of years prior when such warning signals were designed to move people to safe shelters. But in this era, the sirens have been used by cannibals who live underground and who trick the sun people into entering the shelters only to be slaughtered and eaten.
Spiritual theologies, even if encouraging benign practices such as meditation, can in some instances be viewed as spider webs where the naive disciple gives credit to an exterior belief system and not to his own consciousness. Thus instead of achieving liberation he ends up creating a situation where his desired moksha is conversely entrapped.
No doubt it can be forcefully argued that all inner experiences are infused (more or less) by some sort of peculiar biographical or cultural flavoring. But there is something amiss when one’s inner search becomes boomer ranged into a theological echo chamber. Perhaps it would be more fruitful if we allowed our pioneering spirit to be be less encumbered by the already over wrought baggage that certain spiritual cartographies bring with them. Perhaps it would be wiser to let pioneers of the inner quest be precisely that . . . pioneers.