Spirituality and the Intellectual Struggle

Spirituality and the Intellectual Struggle May 10, 2018

An intellectual struggle with spiritual concepts, such as God and Spirit, seems to be a necessary precursor to gaining important insights. In Jnana Yoga, for example, the process is to use the intellect to rise above the intellect, to push the intellect to a breaking point, much like in a Zen koan would, until it finally subsides, and one can transcend the mind and unveil the Spirit, Self or Soul.

Discouraging Thinking and Intellect

In my experience, the intellectual struggle is an important part of the spiritual process, which is why it is hard to understand why nearly all mass religious and spiritual movements overtly discourage thinking.

Thomas Moore portrays this tendency well in his book, A Religion of One’s Own:

“The one ingredient missing in much of modern spirituality is intelligence. Yet, when you examine the religious traditions of the world you find study, study, and more study. Monks amass libraries, whether in France or Tibet. Spiritual teachers amass ancient wisdom, whether in Germany or Africa. To be spiritual, you have to be on guard against flimsy ideas and practices. The whole area of religion and spirituality invites flimflam and is filled with con men and con women. Both the real teachers and the charlatans are asking you to accept their approach to insoluble mysteries. It’s difficult to know where to stand. You need your intelligence and your skepticism.”

Exactly. You need both discernment and an intellectual understanding of spiritual principles to navigate this space. But what about those I mentioned before, those who seek to move beyond the mind?

Moving Beyond the Mind

In areas of spiritual growth where one aims to transcend everything that is bound in time and space, the unveiling process seems to require intellectual struggle. The struggle is to use the mind to see something beyond the mind. Granted, once the beyond is seen, the intellect seems like an unimportant toy, but up until that point, it is a very important tool.

In that context, I understand where the tendency to dismiss the intellect comes from. When spiritual masters—i.e. people who have uncovered spiritual states beyond the mind—speak about the intellect, they are tempted to dismiss it as a non-important part of the process in the same way that a teenager might be tempted to dismiss toys as an unimportant part of childhood now that the teenager has outgrown his or her own toys; even though toys played an important role in the teenager’s development.

It’s a Process

My point, with this short contemplation, is to say that if one accepts that spiritual growth is a process that requires certain steps—which many mystics and spiritual teachers have described—then it is counterintuitive, unhelpful even, to denounce or belittle any part of the process… and that includes the intellect.

My advice: Keep thinking deeply about topics that are hard to think about.

Gudjon Bergmann
Interfaith Minister, Author, and Speaker
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative

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