An Outsider's View of Transpersonal Movements

by Paul O'Brien

There is a bit of a paradox here on The Neural Surfer; some sections are devoted to addressing spiritual and transpersonal topics, while others offer critical and philosophical articles. Though in itself this is no strange matter, there is enough of a difference between the two in style and content to make me pause. While one side of this web page offers Western philosophical viewpoints, another addresses a more Eastern-style, religious way of thinking.

Mostly, I cannot help but wonder why these two distinct intellectual proclivities can seem to oppose each other so much on one hand, and yet seem perfectly married on the other. Thematically, philosophy and spirituality clearly seek to understand and explore the meaning of life (to use that cliche). While philosophy covers more rigorous and skeptical ground, searching the more logical and definable areas of human existence, spirituality seems to cater to the less precise, but nonetheless personally powerful sides of our lives. One could say that together the two keep both an open heart and an open mind to any potential truth and meaning.

But the connection between the two seems so untenable at times, so foreign, that sometimes I almost wonder if these two schools contradict one another fundamentally. If so, I feel something would be lost in both pursuits; so much of what I hear and read about in New Age or transpersonal movements seems in desperate need of some basic philosophy, while academic philosophy seems in dire need of spirituality's humanizing and personal touches.

If I may, I would like to offer some thoughts and concerns about both perspectives' methods and matters. I speak as a neophyte to either field, but nevertheless, I am someone very interested in the progress of both. From my outsider's vantage point, I simply want to voice some basic questions.


One thing I've never quite comprehended is the linguistic style of New Age movements. I hear so much about "Infinite Bliss," "Absolute Love," and "God-Consciousness" (among many similar terms), and frankly, I cannot seem to find a very clear definition of any of them. I have no problem with these ideas if they are in themselves ineffable, or at least very difficult to articulate; but instead, they are used as if their meanings were as clear as "dog" or "tree." When they are defined, it is in terms equally as strange in their vagueness.

What many of these terms and phrases have in common is that for whatever they lack in denotation, they gain in impressive connotation. If you use such words as "infinite," "absolute," and "eternal," you're going get a psychological response from many people. These concepts just seem so ultimate and powerful; add words like "God" and "love" --and then go so far as to capitalize the phrase-- and you get something that sounds rather impressive. It's too bad it merely sounds so impressive and does not offer something simpler and clearer to someone who may not be as familiar with the material first-hand.

What I fear is that if you use such powerful language as these hyperbolic terms and phrases exemplify, then tell someone that they are these things, or at least can one day attain them (or "realize" them), and furthermore, promise them such immense rewards as infinite bliss, triumph over depression and meaninglessness, attainment of unconditional love, eternal life, etc., then you're going to get a lot of suckers. Frankly, this language is an attractive lure that will shine so brightly in style that many people will not stop to assess the ideas' substance. I do not see the harm in such claims and ideas if they can deliver what they promise and if their connotation best captures their denotation. But I fear that the vagueness mixed with epic- proportioned connotations will lead to too much gullibility and potential fraudulence among charlatans exploiting the very same linguistic style.

I can't see what would be so bad about breaking down the language of transpersonal movements so that outsiders could get a better appreciation of a given movement's idealogy. If this breaks down powerful connotations, I still can't see how this would affect the genuine article. Only those idealogies with overly-bloated language would have something to lose from this deconstruction. A level of description that is more basic and testimonial, if too difficult to describe, would surely serve to ground Metaphysical ideas in more traditionally western metaphysics.

Yet the imprecision of New Age movements and some schools of philosophy, like the Continental tradition, has certainly inspired Western philosophical movements like the analytic tradition to emulate science's grand success with linguistic exactitude. It's not uncommon for a philosopher nowadays to begin an article by defining terms, clarifying those definitions, and then moving forward with them once they are fairly clear and precise. This creates a more detailed, logically clean environment for any given topic while stripping away any bias-inducing connotations that vague rhetoric often permits.

But it's too often the case that the analytic tradition demands too much of its formulations of philosophical problems. To expect a propositionally precise definition of some ideas related to the human condition seems unrealistic. Perhaps this is exactly why so few philosophers ever talk about things like love. Beneath the possibly inflated connotations of "Infinite Love," and above the possibly deflated theory of sexual evolution, is something quite powerful and pervasive to the human condition (even to philosophers themselves, I would think, since many of them are married). I would think that something that so many people find meaningful would find itself under philosophy's purview, a discipline that purportedly seeks wisdom and truth. I cannot help but suspect that something like falling in love isn't addressed in philosophy classes precisely because it's so imprecise in its articulation. If so, this would be a drastic and costly subtraction.

I have always felt that in those cases where ideas defy exact definitions, phenomenological accounts are the next best thing. Instead of ignoring an issue or phenomena because it not as articulate, philosophy would do well to at least chart future landscapes by describing the experience. Some great works related to mysticism are wonderful examples of exactly what I mean (St. Theresa of Avila's writings come to mind).

So what is this drastic swing from New Age connotations --that all too rarely dig any deeper into ideas, but seem instead to dance upon their outskirts-- to analytic denotations, which all too frequently dismiss human issues simply because they cannot be phrased precisely into propositions? Although I'm sure many technically-inclined thinkers will always expect precision in their philosophy, and many romantically-inclined thinkers will always respect the more poetic qualities of vague speech, it nonetheless seems wise to begin setting a different linguistic style to both spiritual and philosophical works. A work that grounds its discussion in personal honesty, nuts-and-bolts description, humble interpretation and theorizing, and human interest would surely be clearer and more appreciated.

Logical Approach

Certainly philosophical works seek to be as logical as possible, but every work has its own internal logic, be it poor or proper. Again, however, there seems to be a noticeable distinction between philosophy and spirituality in the way this internal logical is played out. In logical pace and context, I see the same drastic polarization between the two approaches.

One of my regrets about New Age works is their leaps in logic. Although not all books about spirituality or the New Age are guilty of it, too much of what I've read in the field makes incredible assumptions, presumptions, and in turn, questionable conclusions. There seems to be too much automatic faith in a higher power without any real quest for lower-level answers first, and thus, there seems to be some essential intellectual analysis lacking.

I realize that this criticism cannot be applied to many books in the field that never claim to have this sort of rigor, but instead serve as expressions of personal experiences. That seems perfectly fine; but still, enough works make such impressive claims that a modicum of careful scrutiny seems required to give them any grounding. There seems to be a tendency to take a few premises, mixed with some general terms, and then create radical conclusions, like achieving "self-realization." In between are absent steps that an outsider would surely desire to see in order to understand the main ideas.

And yet the pendulum swings too far the other way with many philosophical works. From the often careless logic of numerous New Age texts comes a trend to be so careful that it is almost overly- cautious. Moving surely and slowly from premise to premise is wise enough, it would seem, but then the pace of the approach leaves so much uncovered. If philosophy seeks to find more fundamental and significant theories about reality and humanity, there are going to be moments when it has to take some more risks. Many current theories are so specific and specialized, they virtually lose all contextual meaning.

In so doing, philosophy often loses the forest for the trees, while spiritual works seem to forget that the forest still requires wood and leaves. It's as if we've entered a dark, mysterious room and two approaches have developed because of it. One moves slowly through the chamber, feeling the floor and walls carefully and closely to be safe and sure... all the while, not moving very deeply into the space. The other closes its eyes, smiles, and dashes forward into the room, having faith that their movement is safe and best. The first approach moves too slowly, forgetting the larger aspects of the room's context; the second approach moves too quickly, forgetting that the context of the larger room can be better understood by the pretext of its floor, walls, and ceiling.

I would think that the purpose of being logical is to be clear and careful, to avoid falsehood and mistakes. Therefore, any theory or system seeking truth should try to be logical fundamentally. But to expect perfect logic of some ideas and concepts is too demanding, and would only serve to paralyze discussion of some very human issues. An approach that would seek to be logical wherever possible, but then offer humble theories and ideas where logic is not as strong or applicable, would probably keep one foot rooted in solid technicality with the other foot well-grounded in humanity. It seems plausible that when confronted with that dark room, we can proceed into it carefully, one step at a time, with our eyes fully open to explore whatever unfolds before us.


Let's be frank: What are we really after in our pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, our search for truth? If there is no personal meaning behind a truth, then it is of no interest to us, really. Though every fact or truth means something, it doesn't necessarily apply to anything we need or care about, and in so doing, can be virtually meaningless. Therefore seeking truth for truth's sake is not as plausible as seeking truth for the pursuit of meaning.

So again, there is that fundamental (though cliche) search for the meaning of life, though this too is a means. We want meaning in our lives because we believe it will make us happier, more fulfilled, more satisfied with our existence. Beyond these motives, I do not see a further ends; wanting to be happy does not seem to be a means to some other desire or goal, at least on the surface of it.

Therefore a solid motive for writing a work exploring human issues, be it philosophical or spiritual, would be to show (hopefully) some intimations of truth, offer some interpretations of that truth to give it meaning, and all in order to enlighten the issue so that it, even if in just a small way, better satisfies us. Again, however, there is a radical difference between transpersonal writings and philosophical ones. Spiritual works frequently move too quickly past truth and its foundations and assume it has grandiose meaning. It's common to get extraordinarily strong claims from such books, such as by claiming to convey knowledge of the "Absolute Truth." Philosophical works, on the other hand, frequently focus so much on facts and truth, that they rarely get to interpret much meaning (at least very extensively) much less have these truths relate to human well-being.

I question the motives for many of these writers, be they spiritually or philosophically inclined (or both). For example, people have great respect for research, science, and logic for good reasons: they tend to yield useful, practical, verifiable, and clear pieces of information. What, then, is this strange veil of pseudo-science that can be found in too many New Age books? There are times when I hear phrases like "quantum healing," and it makes me cringe to think that such an approach would try to smuggle in science's venerable clarity by invoking its language, while ignoring the precious scientific method itself, the thing that makes that veneration justified. Holes in fact and truth cannot be thinly covered with a pretextual style without someone noticing. Is it no wonder, then, that there are so many skeptics among us? Is it no wonder that philosophers and scientists want little to no association with such works, especially considering the way these Metaphysical systems try to seem deep and scrutinizing by quoting (and misinterpreting) a quote from Einstein or Nietzsche, without making any attempts to be as deep as they sound?

There is enough of a skeptic in me to wonder if these spiritual, transpersonal thinkers are simply too focused on the human fulfillment aspects of their system. Such motives are well- intentioned enough, and they may even seem wise from certain perspectives. After all, if happiness and fulfillment is what we're ultimately after, then the currency of strict fact and logic is not as necessary. Of course, this stance fails to recognize that logic and fact makes that happiness and fulfillment accurate to human existence because it's been tested, doubted, scrutinized, and analyzed extensively/em>. Science and philosophy is not opposed to spiritual or personal fulfillment; it's simply opposed to systems that claim to offer such fulfillment, but are false and illogical in themselves, and hence, not as practical or realistic as they ought to be.

This criticism can be turned on its head against philosophers and scientists too, of course, because indeed many of them have myopically sought research results for so long, that they don't seem to bother to connect these findings to potentially greater meanings. To use the dark room example again, the philosopher can become too focused on the details of their search and of making sure their magnifying lens is clean, they can forget what they hope to ultimately accomplish. On the other hand, the spiritualist, by running so quickly and faithfully into the room to seek the truth behind the room, can become easily tripped up by their own shoelaces.

What would be so wrong about a more honest, humane motive for such works, one that admits to the inherent humility behind such a pursuit and yet seeks to do its best to find both fact and meaning, all in order to serve human interests well? That may seem too simplistic --even too idealistic-- but small changes would surely move both the spiritual and the philosophical approaches in the right direction. For example, some simple humility in New Age works would be wonderfully refreshing, and some simple human flair and personal flavor to philosophy works would excite more outsiders to follow its strides. Such motives would sure shine though the rhetoric because they would ring truer to the authors themselves, and in turn, gain the trust of readers and outsiders alike.

I realize just how simplistic and small this discussion of mine is, because it ignores far too many gray cases and does not apply to many works in either field. Again, I am a new-comer to both disciplines. Still, I offer these questions, concerns, and proposals as food for thought with the hope that the disparity between the two basic trends here of spirituality and philosophy here on The Neural Surfer might seem more congruous than one might originally think.