After leaving Eckankar, I came away with three questions that became the seeds of my philosophy.
First Question: The first question is: Are spiritual experiences real? There was something very odd about the two incidents that led to my disillusionment with Eckankar. The content of the messages was that Eckankar was not what I believed it to be; but the vehicle the messages came in was eerily other worldly.
Each incident had a faith-shattering aspect to it, and each had an aspect indicating events are connected in mysterious, non-linear ways. Darwin Gross not recognizing me was faith-shaking, but running into him on my way to get a job so I could get closer to him, was a synchronicity (a meaningful coincidence). Finding David Lane’s book The Making of a Spiritual Movement was the end of my faith, but finding the book after listening to Nixon and Rossman scrutinizing cults, then feeling pulled by a mysterious force across town to the back table in a bookstore—that was extraordinary.
After having those experiences, I concluded that there is something more than causal explanations. Jung called synchronicity an acausal connecting principle. Some profound experiences cannot be explained by logic and science.
I had mystical experiences before, during, and after Eckankar. Some of those spiritual experiences were more real than daily life. I also have a critical mind, without which, I’d still be in Eckankar. Some days my critical mind is strong, and I believe in science, and think spirituality is an illusion. Other days, I connect to something transpersonal, and the spiritual realm isn’t a matter of belief or doubt; it just is. I have come to accept that I live in the tension between a critical thinking modern mind and a mystical, timeless being.
Second Question: The second of the three questions concerns the social structure of groups. Eckankar is a hierarchical social organization. It is striking that political activists, who stood up against hierarchical social institutions, were so willing to accept spiritual teachers who ran their groups in a dictatorial manner. (This is the central theme in Rossman’s New Age Blues book). Question authority applies, especially with charismatic leaders.
I have since encountered many spiritual and psychological groups that focus on personal growth, while casting a dark shadow of dysfunctional power. While the teachings of these groups have enormous variety, what is striking is the similarity of these groups’ authoritarian social organization.
Third Question: The third of the three questions is about belief systems. After leaving Eckankar, I was acutely aware that it had a comprehensive belief system—a map of reality, and a set of values and customs. While I was a member, I had taken on that belief system as my own. Upon exiting Eckankar, I shed that belief system. It struck me as peculiar that I could put on and discard a belief system like clothing. I had never thought of belief systems like that before.
The next few years were disorienting for me, as I sorted out what I believed and valued from what I just accepted because Eckankar told me it was so.
I was checking out different things—the I-Ching, Jungian dream work, Berkeley progressive politics, reading auras and chakras, and Huichol shamanism.
After leaving Eckankar, did I just need to find a better path? Would I turn into a serial guru monogamist? Falling in love with a new belief system; feeling as if I finally found the truth; only to become disillusioned, and move on to the next “this time is for real and forever” belief system?
With my fresh realization about beliefs, I was acutely sensitive to other groups’ and people’s belief systems. I noticed people around me going through belief system conversions. One person joins EST (Erhard Seminar Training) and (s)he starts behaving, thinking, and speaking differently than the person I knew before (but creepily similar to other EST adherents). Another person joins the Young Socialist Alliance. And, more in the mainstream, someone goes to work for IBM, and their dress, attitude, goals, and language transform almost as radically as a freshly converted Hare Krishna.
Eckankar inoculated me against cults, so there was no need to repeat that lesson. I wondered about alternatives to just taking on someone else’s belief system. Can a person create their own philosophy? What does that look like?
Over thirty years ago James Nixon helped me philosophically think my way out of Eckankar. It was a non-intrusive approach that allowed me to self-direct my learning process. James facilitated me to reflectively look at my learning process, my beliefs, and my thinking. It was very simple, yet very profound. Leaving Eckankar was a revolution in my life. I am grateful to James for his role in freeing me from the clutches of a cult, and I’d like to pass on the “do-it-yourself/do-it-together” philosophical approach.
A lot transpired over the next three decades. I became a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. I burned out, and became a successful entrepreneur. I studied and practiced many kinds of psychology, spirituality, and politics. I was left with unintegrated chunks of learning and life experiences from personal relationships, spirituality, psychology, science, and politics.
What I want from a philosophy is to make sense of my learning and experiences in a way that gives each a voice, without over-simplifying any of them. I don’t want to integrate them into mush, but rather value each, and give them their distinguishing complexity. I want to honor and respect science, mysticism, psychology, politics, and the arts.
I want flexible maps that I can apply to my life and the world, so when I find myself in complex or confusing territory, I can refer to a map that provides some orientation and perspective. But, I don’t want a rigid, inflexible map, because one map doesn’t fit all. I don’t want to be stuck with a single map that claims to explain all of reality (Been there, done that). I don’t want a better belief system; I want a mapping process that is alive. Life is an ecology of buzzing noise, order, shadows, and opposing tensions. Philosophical maps should account for such diversity.
I desire dynamic maps that can adapt to more accurately represent reality. And when it falls short or fails, I can tweak or revolutionize the map.
We organize information to make sense of our world. But life is more complex than our representations of it, so we do a disservice to life by shackling it in our mental cages. On the other hand, we can’t live without maps. Maps orient, guide, and interpret our encounters with nature, people, and the daily news.
Philosophical maps are both descriptive and prescriptive. Philosophy describes reality. A map reflects what is. But philosophy (like all maps) is also prescriptive; it creates a reality. By using a map to guide one’s understanding and actions, a particular world comes into being shaped by that map. If a culture or individual believes that life is a struggle between God and the devil, a game to win, or a classroom to learn; then living one’s life with those expectations brings forth those characteristics. So, in developing philosophy, it is wise to have a map that both accurately reflects what is and brings forth a world one wants to live in.
Recently, I reconnected with James Nixon, and we are writing and reading our non-academic philosophies, and creating the planetaryphilosophy.com website to share our philosophies and assist other people to develop their philosophies. I would like to inspire others to make their own maps, and to question and discuss the assumptions and ramifications of maps.
In the context of Planetary Philosophy, we make a distinction between a comprehensive philosophy, which has value as a guide to experience, explanation, and action for larger groups of people, and a personal philosophy, which has primary value as a guide to experience, explanation, and action for its creator. To get some help in building your own personal philosophy, go to the Build Your Own Philosophy section of planetaryphilosophy.com
The Weaving Web is my comprehensive philosophy, and it is an experiment in creating a philosophy. What happens if we don’t just accept someone else’s belief system, but develop our own? The art of doing philosophy is the process of creating, comparing, applying, and modifying maps. It may be that you will find the ultimate map for you, and spend the rest of your life using it. Many religious believers do this. But, it may be that you will join in the adventure of non-academic philosophy and evolve and fine tune your map as you live.
I will have failed miserably if people unquestioningly take on my map and become Spencer clones. Wisdom comes in the process of developing your own map.
Swallowing someone else’s map is the mistake of merging too much with a collective mind. Developing one’s own map is an exercise to avoid that mistake. But to develop one’s own map in isolation is a mistake in the opposite direction—too much separateness. Sharing and discussing maps integrates the power of the individual with the power of the group. That’s why I call it a “do-it-yourself/do-it-together” practice.
There are a variety of life practices. Eckankar is a both a mystical teaching and a devotional practice. It is a mystical path in that it teaches contemplative techniques that allow a practitioner to experience for themselves higher states of consciousness. Many other religions offer techniques and exercises that allow the practitioner to not just believe, but to experience other realms of being.
It is also a devotional path. I was devoted to and felt love for the Living Eck Master, the teachings, and my fellow seekers. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I sacrificed some of my individuality to the group mind and beliefs. Creative expression was encouraged inside the box, but thinking outside Eckankar’s belief system was unthinkable. I swallowed Eckankar’s beliefs, unquestioningly accepting them as my own.
Eckankar was a safe place to grow, but within the confines of a boundaried garden. That was the trade-off that worked for awhile, and then it no longer did. Through studying philosophy with Nixon, I started entertaining perspectives that differed from Eckankar’s beliefs, thus creating conflicts in my psyche and with Eckankar.
Philosophy is more akin to jñāna yoga, the practice of discernment, the path of exercising and refining the mind. Philosophy probes to unearth and question one’s fundamental assumptions. When I dug deeper into Eckankar’s basic assumptions, I could no longer be a devotee. Philosophy helped me to outgrow and leave Eckankar.
Whatever we believe in—God, science, psychology, or humans as greedy, selfish animals—we are making assumptions that are the foundation we build our lives on. The practice of philosophy sheds light on the dark recesses of the foundation of our knowledge. That’s what makes philosophy so powerful and important.
Learning is a remarkable thing. When we learn, we change what was, and come into a new relationship with the world. Once we’ve learned something it becomes engrained, so we don’t have to think about it anymore. We’d always be returning to the starting line if we had to rethink everything we’d already learned. Accepting as true what we’ve already learned is one of life’s most profound shortcuts.
But, there’s a price to pay for shortcuts. While I was in Eckankar, I had no idea of the high cost of an unexamined foundation (homeowners and followers take note). That’s where philosophy comes in. Philosophy brings awareness to our forgotten learning. Without it, we act according to the default settings of our culture and personal psychology.
Philosophy is not the only way to recalibrate the default settings of our individual and collective mind. A spiritual practice and psychotherapy are two other ways to increase consciousness to change one’s life. I value and practice meditation as a way to spiritual awakening. Meditation and other spiritual practices are ways to come into a new relationship with life.
I value psychotherapy as a way to self awareness. Psychotherapy can help make changes to unwanted, old patterns of thinking and behaving. Political and cultural awareness and action are another way to change our individual and collective lives. I also value philosophy as a way to exercise the mind, and think clearly in a world filled with deception, information overwhelm, and confusion.