4 Ways to Stop Being Ashamed of Your Interest in Wisdom

It’s a sad fact that many people who have an interest in wisdom practice keep this part of themselves secret, even from close family and friends.

I know why this is, because I used to do it myself. 

My introduction to wisdom practice came at a young age when I stumbled across a book by Aleister Crowley. Unbelievably, I knew I had found what I was looking for.

However, what I was looking for wasn't Crowley, or Victorian occultism, or dressing up in robes and drawing weird symbols, or the impenetrable references, allusions, and esoteric ideas of his books. I didn’t set out that day looking for a syncretic mash-up of yoga, medieval magic and Christian mysticism packaged in an outrageous anti-Christian stance against moralisers and bigots.

I knew I had found what I was looking for, but I just couldn’t put it into words; nor could I explain why I was devouring everything Crowley ever wrote and diving head first into all of this stuff as a result.

So it was easier to keep the most profound part of my life a secret for almost a decade.

Because no one would understand.

It could have been worse

Thankfully, Crowley was dead, so there was no chance I was going to hurl myself at him as a naive and vulnerable disciple, as so many people did who found what they were looking for in the work of some of the most preposterous, superstitious and abusive gurus over the last few generations.

If only they could have put what they cared about into words!

Or, I could have found what I was looking for in a mainstream religion, like Buddhism, and settled for medieval eastern occultism, dressing up in robes and drawing weird symbols, and impenetrable references, allusions, and esoteric ideas in sutras, which I would never really need to challenge as they’re socially acceptable (and even fashionable). This might actually be the worse of the two.

Shame is the right emotion

It’s politically-correct to say the problem lies with society and not ourselves when it comes to feeling ashamed about who we are and what we do.

However, I’ve yet to see an instance where the shame I’ve described has been about wisdom practice itself; instead, it’s always about the beliefs - and therefore the culture - that we must indulge to participate in wisdom practice.

If it were possible to find what we were looking for and put it into words, we could cultivate an alternative where shame would be the last thing we would feel.

So here are 4 things we can do to stop feeling ashamed of our interest in awakening and wisdom.

1. Stop being ‘spiritual’

You can be forgiven for thinking that if you want to practice wisdom or wake up, you must adopt a strategy of ‘being spiritual’.

The problem with this strategy? If you’re ‘being spiritual’, you’re being creepy, because you’re obviously trying to be other than you are. This is a dishonest agenda, and people can instinctively tell you simultaneously think less and more of yourself than you should.

So drop the affectations. Recognise your ‘spirituality’ as an excuse for self-sabotage in everything you do, because that’s when beliefs show themselves to be what they really are.

The prevalence of people ‘being spiritual’ stems from the cliche of identifying as ‘spiritual, but not religious’. This cliche is good as it shows a growing awareness of the failures of organised institutional belief, and a recognition of the reality of profound spiritual experience. 

Unfortunately, spiritual beliefs come with this spiritual experience, and so we must go one step further if we wish to avoid being both wrong and creepy: we must make sense of the experience so we can see it for what it really is. And this is wisdom.

So we can say:

Wisdom is to spirituality, as spirituality is to religion.

We should aim for a new cliche: ‘I practice wisdom, but I’m not spiritual’.

[I once told someone this and they replied, ‘Won’t people think you’re arrogant if you say you practice wisdom?’ 

Is it strange I think it would be arrogant to not say that? Anyway, ‘contemplation’ works just as well.]

2. Ask if there’s a way of knowing. Are your beliefs literally meaningless?

If we make the error of thinking experiencing something is the same thing as knowing it -  as we do when ‘being spiritual’ - then we can recognise profound spiritual experiences exist but we end up trapped in best guesses about not just the experiences, but everything else too.

This basically means that if you say anything that isn’t a part of the practice itself, or a way of knowing that the person can actively take part in with you, then you are talking meaningless drivel.

You will notice that if we follow this advice, it is impossible to play the role of the ‘spiritual knower’, because you can’t dress yourself up in the latest fashionable beliefs.

It’s just one human being talking to another.

You will also notice that for the majority of the time, the crap we have to entertain to explore what we find most meaningful in life is nothing but the pantomime of the ‘spiritual knower’.

This is shameful, because it denies a shared growth in understanding together in favour of driving a wedge between people based on what they believe. And belief and identity take the place of wisdom on our altar.

The next time you come across an explanation for anything, ask yourself if the answer is the introduction to a way of knowing, or if a way of knowing could even exist for the claim in question.  

If not, regurgitating the same nonsense demands embarrassment, no?

3. Actively take part in research

Spirituality isn’t alone in placing beliefs - and the identity that follows - before actually knowing something is true; scientism, materialism and pseudo-rationalism suffer from their own versions of the role of the knower, and arguably more poisonous ones at that. 

Anyone denying the reality of wisdom, based on nothing but best guesses and fashionable interpretations, has more to be ashamed of than anyone who might don a robe and chant strange words.

What is weird is that so many spiritual types are also pseudo-rationalists, jumping on anything vaguely ‘scientific’ if it serves their spiritual conceit.

To avoid the shame of indulging anti-rationalism - whether as a ‘spiritual’ type or as an ignorant materialist, or both - requires that we get involved in other ways of knowing beyond contemplation that come under the umbrella of scientific research.

I say ‘get involved’ as opposed to simply reading about research findings, because reading the conclusion of a study is not the discovery of scientific evidence for anything - and often studies suffer from ‘great leaps’ in interpretation from the data to the conclusion (cf. mostly everything in neuroscience) - nor an understanding of science as a way of knowing. Even worse is to read science journalism and take the conclusions of an article over the conclusions of a study - because very rarely are they the same thing - and then pass off this fantasy as a ‘scientifically-backed’ badge of knowledge you’re only to happy to let everyone see you wearing.

As a minimum, we should understand how to design an experiment (and the problems that are encountered with study design), and that many such experiments need to be done and vigorously critiqued by peers - meaning we have many studies, often with contradictory results, some of which may be unrepeatable, and upon which we are very unlikely to have a consensus of agreement - to then inform meta-studies, before we can even begin to say anything ‘backed by research’ about the subject in question.  

If you can read research material in this way, you quickly come to see how very little we know in any field, and you will future-proof yourself against looking like a fool when the ‘latest scientific understanding’ you would otherwise jump on turns out to be a fad created by a misleading article based on a single inconsequential study with poor methodology where the interpretation of the researchers was never supported by the data anyway. (And I’ve not even mentioned a possible corporate or political agenda.)

Better yet, you can actively take part in an open wisdom research program, such as Structure + Purpose.

4. Get professional

It’s not strange to have a teacher. Society demands we have teachers as children usually until we are young adults, when we (even if informally) shift to finding teachers or mentors in our work lives. It hardly needs arguing we would benefit from having teachers of various stripes our entire lives.

In many areas of life it would even be considered unethical to not have a teacher, and we would argue that the more important the subject, the more likely we are to feel this way. Medicine, construction, and science come to mind. (Politics and state-craft came up, but their inclusion would be too much of a joke at the time of writing.)

But the most important area of our lives - where we seek to understand ourselves, each other and reality - is the one where it is at best considered eccentric to have teacher, at worst morally reprehensible.

To admit to having a spiritual teacher or guru is not permitted in polite company.

Nor should it be.

Spiritual teachers are the epitome of embarrassment. 

Why is this? What separates the ‘spiritual’ teacher from a teacher of engineering or psychotherapy?

For a start, no other teacher in any area of life would wear clothing specifically at odds with the culture to alert everyone to the fact they are not the same as everyone else. Ridiculous robes, massive hats (literally to signal stature), ‘spiritual’ jewellery, pseudo-Asian pant suits, etc.

No other teacher would dare assert themselves as an authority on any serious topic to that many people with zero qualifications or a means of demonstrable justification.

No other teacher would take the credit for everything a student achieves and deny it’s possible for the student to reach the same level of understanding anyway.

No other teacher would be allowed near gullible, mentally ill or vulnerable people without any training, supervision or best practice in place.

No other teacher would be allowed to simply make shit up with no peer group to challenge those beliefs or a mechanism for exposure to criticism.

Frankly, spiritual teachers shame their followers because they are both amateurish and dangerous, and they should be ashamed of themselves too.

‘Spirituality’ is the last - and most - important area of human life that religious organisations and spiritual teachers cling to for relevance (the scientist took away the priest’s explanatory role, the school teacher took away his educational role, the doctor took away his healing role, the politician took away his governing role, the psychotherapist took away his counselling role), and spirituality is yet to make the transition to the modern institution of a regulated, accountable, research-based profession.

The Fountainhead Wisdom Service is the beginning of that transition, and the vocation of the wisdom counsellor will be the end of the priest’s spiritual role, and with it the amateurish and dangerous spiritual teacher.

It will take some time and a willingness to be misunderstood, but eventually training to be a wisdom counsellor with a teacher will be sufficiently normalised and a moral given as to be culturally invisible, as it is with any other profession.

And when you tell your friends and family you want to train with a wisdom counsellor, or even become one yourself, you can feel nothing but pride.

Wisdom Culture Design: The Master Plan

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother shared a dream of a society with no religion, money or crime. The beautiful Auroville was born; but today survives through bickering and barter, and suffers from un-policed paedophiles.

Chogyam Trungpa came to the west to create Shambhala, the enlightened society, and despite numerous meditation centres sharing the name, Shambhala remains but an unrealised vision in Trungpa’s magical mirror. (I’m sure there are many who believe this is the point when it comes to visions of an enlightened society; the dream is understood to be impossible, but we should try anyway. I’m not sure why one would wish to practice failure in this way, and it’s easily demonstrable that the founders in question had success in mind.) 

History is the result of countless individuals who come not to start a religion but to create a better culture; but wherever we see this attempted through the promotion of belief, we witness failure in the irony of generating a society opposite to the one intended. (The horror show of the 20th century is the western secular attempt at this; to engineer human society based on political prejudice and beliefs, instead of the usual spiritual ideas (although sometimes with both). In the microcosm, we see the same dynamic in every single community belonging to a guru.)

It’s a short move to dismiss these intentions of a cultural utopia as naive and megalomaniacal; but the shared longing for a better society is precisely what informs this cynicism. 

Outside of spiritual dreams, there have been real successes in improving culture; where the suffragettes saw gender inequality, they measured success through achieving the vote for women. Where the civil rights movement saw racial inequality, it measured success through law reform and the ending of segregation.

None of these movements aimed to end prejudice or human failing, nor did they believe they could - which is what separates them from the politics and spirituality of today - and yet they succeeded in realising a better society through a demonstrable change.  

If, as I do, you believe our culture would be better off if it was common knowledge that wisdom and profound spiritual experience is not only real but intelligible and open to public participation, we could ask how we might measure success in a similar way, without entertaining the delusion of altering human nature itself.

I believe psychology offers an instructive example.

Today, the west is a highly psychologised society, reflected in its common language: ’You’re just projecting’, ‘It’s a repressed memory’, ‘He’s a narcissist’, ‘You should go and talk to someone’, ‘That’s my personality type’, ‘She has a big ego’, ‘a Freudian slip’, ’I’m a bit ADHD’, etc.

Psychological beliefs and opinions are pervasive, and everyone knows what is meant by a ‘shrink’. 

Psychotherapists and counsellors number approx. 500,000 in the US; in the UK/Europe, about the same; and arguably it is the demonstration of the benefit of therapy - both as a profession and as a focus of research - that is responsible for psychology’s contribution in shaping our culture.

If, instead of a psychologised society, we wished to cultivate a culture based on wisdom, it would follow that wisdom would need to be demonstrable and of benefit; and this would mean a profession and a field of scientific research

As a profession, access to wisdom practice would need to be available to clients without the necessity of membership to a particular set of religious or spiritual beliefs, and unburdened of the conflicts of interest found in charitable religious organisations. (Imagine a therapist asking a vulnerable client for their inheritance to ‘promote the cause’.)

Regulation, best practice, supervision, and registration would all be required, necessitating the creation of a governing body to provide oversight for practitioners.

Members of the profession would need to be free to work independently, in partnership or as part of an organisation separate from any one particular institution, or even in competition in a free marketplace.

A rigorous scientific research program would need to be initiated to articulate, measure and demonstrate the efficacy of wisdom practice, in contrast to the best of what is on offer currently in resolving personal problems (including mental illness, addiction, etc) and the understanding of the mind and consciousness. 

No doubt if there were a comparable 1 million wisdom practitioners in the west as there are psychotherapists/counsellors today, we would be living in a wisdom culture; and yet exactly when we entered the era of the psychologised society and with what number of professional therapists is difficult (perhaps impossible) to pinpoint. This is not necessary, however; all we need to know is there is a trajectory with a broad range of success for the example to be useful. We can be sure we entered what we might describe as a psychologised society way before today’s current number of professionals, so we know it must have occurred with less than 500,000 practitioners in either the US or Europe.

If we were to aim for 500,000 professional wisdom practitioners in one of these locations, how long would it take to produce that number?

Given there are institutional frameworks already in place in the form of psychotherapy and medicalised mindfulness that could - once the research is in - shift to the wisdom counsellor profession, could the adoption and growth of the wisdom counsellor be much quicker than both psychotherapy and mindfulness were in becoming normalised and pervasive?

Taking an optimistic view of wisdom counsellor training - come what may - and the inevitable adoption of the practice by established institutions, it seems reasonable that we should set the ambitious goal of transitioning to a wisdom culture within 20 years.

Master Builders

I've wanted to build the Fountainhead Wisdom Service for a long time. As a boy, I could only look to a dead western esoteric tradition if I wanted to realise the truth about reality on my own cultural terms. So I dreamed of a future in which there was a recognisable place for me in my society, and people like me; except I had never met any.

As my search for wisdom unfolded, I never once met a person who seemed to want what I did; instead, they had chosen traditions and teachers from other cultures, or settled for seemingly related roles within our society, which although I respected I could not accept.

Over time I became a teacher, and with this title an awareness I was treading a well worn and usually disastrous path. After 7 years of teaching - observing myself, my students, the effects of belief and organisational structure - I came to identify what I consider to be the problem, and what we can do about it. And with it, the realisation I was wrong about the people I had met and their choices: the desire for a recognisable and appropriate place in our society isn’t missing at all; rather, there just hasn’t been any means of achieving it that people could see before.

Now I want to build the Service so everyone like me can see a different path is possible.

I want to build the Service for the veteran of 20th century spirituality, who saw first hand the disaster of the guru phenomenon and came out the other side unable to forget both the reality of awakening and the absurd horrors of submitting to such an institution. 

I want to build the Service for the best of the online vocal critics of the guru institution who isn’t afraid to dig up the dirt and name names, who appreciates rationality plays a role in making sense of non-duality; but in seeing no credible social alternative to the institutions of belief, must bear up under the weight of a crushing cynicism with no apparent end.

I want to build the Service for the western Buddhist disillusioned with teachers on a moral crusade against scientific research into awakening, and happy to deny training to anyone even associated with a movement of honesty about the Buddha’s teaching. 

I want to build the Service for those students failed by the practical dharma movement, exhausted with being told they must be doing it wrong if it hurts or it hasn’t worked yet; and growing weary of receiving instructions with prescribed dosages, a general map of stages with strategies appropriate for each, but no understanding whatsoever should they simply ask why reality must be this way.

I want to build the Service for my friend whose profound realisation inspired him to explore advaita vedanta, only to be met with derision from online 'pure nondualists' (for whom it is forbidden to speak of awakening); and after having a family, found his only socially viable option for helping others was to settle for becoming a mindfulness teacher: a practice whose divorce from awakening is complete.

I want to build the Service for the Zen Master I once met in London, sorry for his encounter with the many ‘damaged people’ enabled by a religion simultaneously ill-equipped to help. Despite the reality of his awakening (of which he was forbidden to speak by his tradition), I left him losing out to his pessimism at the thought of continuing to preach.

I want to build the Service for all those psychotherapists who secretly play a role in uncounted realisations, including the awakening of a number of people mentioned above; but lacking no credible avenue to offer the most profound service one human being can offer another, must settle for a close approximation in the career of the psychological counsellor: a vocation in which awakening is neither recognised nor provided for.   

I want to build the Service for everyone out there who is tired of compromise and ready to finally come home to a modern wisdom institution.

More: I want to build the Fountainhead Wisdom Service with everyone who wants to build it with me.