Jul 03, 2014 I Tom Head

When Spirituality Tears Us Apart

The Atlantic reported last week on the pioneering work of Brown University clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, whose Dark Night Project catalogues the sometimes harmful effects of contemplative practices. The phrase “sometimes harmful effects of contemplative practices” itself can give one pause, but it is hardly news to anyone that people have done unspeakably horrible things for religious reasons. The only question is the role that direct spiritual experience—meditation, contemplative practice, prayer, and so forth—might play in that dark awakening.

It made me think back to my doctoral thesis on Rabbi Max Kadushin, a Conservative Jewish scholar who was not particularly impressed by the kinds of dramatic mystical experiences that attract the most attention from scholars. While acknowledging that “[t]here were some individuals … whose valuational life was affected by abnormal psychologic states, such as visions and locutions,” he was more interested in what he called normal mysticism: the sum total of the quiet ordinary experiences of a religious person, experiences that make him or her a better Jew but do not necessarily prove anything, or transform their consciousness in any sort of dramatic way, or give them access to untold knowledge.

Kadushin’s phrase “normal mysticism” is wonderfully direct, but he was neither the first nor the last to suggest that religious experience can become a distraction to religious practice. The most well-known advocate for that idea was probably the Tibetan Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa, who had his own description of the sort of negative meditation experiences that characterize some of the Dark Night accounts:

People are afraid of emptiness of space, or the absence of
company, the absence of a shadow. It could be a terrifying experience to have no one to relate to, nothing to relate with. The idea of it can be extremely frightening, though not the real experience. It is generally a fear of space, a fear that we will not be able to anchor ourselves to any solid ground, that we will lose our identity as a fixed and solid and definite thing. This could be very threatening.

There is a tendency in religious literature to see this sort of fear, this sort of negative experience, as if it were evidence of the mystic’s unworthiness. This hardly seems fair and, historically speaking, it does not appear to be warranted. In the Jewish tradition, Abraham bartered with God and Jacob wrestled all night with an angel; in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ experienced temptation in the desert and anguish at Gethsemane; in the Islamic tradition, Rumi often speaks of his tender relationship with Allah using the language of heartbreak and grief; most Hindu traditions speak of wrathful forms of the devas; and in Buddhist traditions, fully experiencing and moving past spiritual agony is quite often seen as the point of meditation.

But in a secular context there may be a danger in this idea of “moving past,” because our own status as imperfect human beings operating on limited knowledge means that we have a flawed and, at times, thoroughly dangerous idea of what we are moving past to. Charles Manson, undeniably a violent psychopath and equally undeniably a mystic, is an unsettling case in point.


So how do we resolve the issue of spiritual practice in our own lives—giving in to it completely, but not coming out of the process as monsters who have completely missed the point? In the spirit of normal mysticism, Kadushin might say that it is by looking at ourselves as instruments of our values and emphasizing what spiritual practice does to us—never losing sight of the moral and communal elements of our lives—that we stay centered. But it may also be accurate (and very much in the spirit of Kadushin’s work) to say that staying centered—whether one is involved in a spiritual practice or not—is a constant struggle, and not something we can simply achieve.

Have you had any unsettling experiences with meditation or other spiritual practices? Please feel free to share your story in the comments below.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

Join MU Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions & much more! Subscribe Today!