Critical Thinking as a Spiritual Practice

Keen Category: Spiritual Advice

A woman concentrating on a thought with a mystical background

Awakening spiritually brings you out of a cocoon and into a whole new world of enlightening experiences. Your heart is awakened and your soul is reborn. Heaven seems not that far away after all. With awakening, there is an innocence about you and the world looks just as innocent, somehow less dangerous. Spiritual teachers will tell you to continue to expand your mind, banish your ego and let the currents of a creative pulse with infinite possibilities carry you. In this way, you can awaken further to the miracle of you. But at some point your feet need to touch the ground to integrate your experiences before you can push off again to further explore states of higher consciousness.

Mindless bliss is not the ultimate state of higher consciousness. Love is. Yet droves of spiritual seekers pour into meditation and consciousness-raising seminars, paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to self-proclaimed gurus who promise spiritually enlightening experiences. The mind-altering experiences and consciousness-raising activities can have a hypnotic effect, causing many to abandon reason in favor of bliss. In October of 2009, one such event in the high desert of Sedona, Arizona proved lethal. Sixty people were crammed into an incorrectly constructed sweat lodge and for two hours sat in suffocating heat. Eighteen were hospitalized and three died of heat stroke. The tragic event was well publicized and the leader, James Arthur Ray, has been charged with three counts of manslaughter for what many consider callous and irresponsible behavior. From the testimony of participants, there were significant warning signs that participants were losing spiritual ground rather than gaining it. During one exercise or "game", Ray played the role of God and instructed participants to pretend that they were dead. For one participant the "game" had a toxic effect reducing her to tears. When asked why she didn't get up and leave, she said, "I didn't want to ruin the game for everyone else."

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Some New Age tenets, such as "you can create anything you desire without limitation just by aligning your thoughts and envisioning it", seem too good to be true. And they are. Common sense, experience and the empirical evidence should tell you that the universe works in more complex and mysterious ways. Why then do New Age consciousness types stubbornly adhere to tenets that don't measure up under testing? Some are merely following the pack, others have been personally persuaded, and still others are comforted by a newly found faith. But the vast majority believes, because the notion glitters.

On the spiritual path, "spiritual gold" is mined through a long and even heroic journey into the terrain of the soul through which the individual is alchemically transformed, redefined and refined through countless tests. The consciousness of the initiate expands to touch the divine and to realize the creative potentials held within. The gold that the initiate emerges with is not material in nature, but is something far more precious—humility and enlightened wisdom.

Let Your Intuition Guide Without Abandoning Reason

As your intuition sharpens and those hunches prove true more often than not, you will be propelled to use your clairvoyant eye more and more. However, basing all your decisions entirely on the intuitive function can result in being pulled into a rabbit hole with Alice and having a tea party with the Mad Hatter. In other words, you can become and appear a bit daft. Balancing the intuitive function with the critical thinking and sensate functions is crucial to the process of discernment.

What Is Critical Thinking?

On the spiritual path critical thinking is often equated with being judgmental, overly critical or negative, all New Age taboos. However, as defined by Robert H. Ennis, author of The Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, "Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do." Critical thinking requires clear perceptions, analysis, inductive and deductive reasoning, interpretation and evaluation to guide the decision making process.

Here are some necessary components to the critical thinking process that can be applied when testing spiritual tenets:

  1. Consider What Is Being Said with an Open Mind While Being Mindful of Alternative Conclusions

    Let's apply this component to the "so called" universal law of attraction, "like attracts like". Some alternative conclusions might be: "opposites attract", "complements attract", "like attract like sometimes" or "like attracts like more than not."

  2. Ask Clarifying Questions and Try to Answer Them

    Using the same tenet as the topic of inquiry, ask: What is a "universal law" by definition? The result after a simple search with Google reveals that the term "universal law" is usually applied to the practice of law, specifically law and ethics, and not to the laws of nature or physics. Therefore, the theory could be a misnomer. But for the sake of agreement, we can accept that the term relates to how the universe operates. Next, we might want to identify how the authors define "like attracts like". Most authors on the subject explain that your thoughts, emotions and actions send out a signal to the universe that manifests a matching experience. Therefore, you attract like-minded people, for instance, because they vibrate at the same frequency and their thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned with yours.

  3. Consider the Expertise and Credibility of the Sources

    Beyond how many books an author has sold and how successful they appear, examine an expert's background, history credentials, character, methods and motivations.

  4. Identify and Reflect on Assumptions, Reasons, and Conclusions

    What assumptions and conclusions can be drawn about the tenet of inquiry? For instance, can one conclude, as many do, that "like attracts likes" is analogous to "birds of a feather flock together" and "misery loves company?" Can the tenet be applied with certainty to each and everyone's life and every circumstance without too much variance in the result? How are variances explained? For instance, variances and contradictions with the law "like attract like" are often explained in this way: You may not be aware of the number of negative thoughts and emotions you are sending out into the universe that contradict what you would want to magnetize. But does worrying necessarily produce hardship? Also, could there be another spiritual law, such as the law of karma, in operation?

  5. Consider the Quality of the Argument, the Acceptability of Its Reasons, Assumptions, and Evidence

    Can you follow the argument, understanding how the person came to the conclusions they did? How sound are the facts and reasons? Based on your experiences and the experiences of others, are there too many areas of disagreement for you to embrace the tenet wholeheartedly?

    For instance, with the tenet "like attracts like" are there too many times in your life when you attracted people who were nothing like you and situations that were not about you and your thinking after all?

    As an example, a friend of mine came to me very upset because three times in one week she saw a baby that had been left in a vehicle unattended. She wondered why she was attracting child endangerment scenarios. In this case, the law "like attracts like" seemed out of the question because there was never a more responsible parent than she nor had her mother neglected her. As it turned out, her husband had been frequently left unattended in the car as a young child by his alcoholic mother. The repetitive scenarios had been presented as a test requiring her to step up to the plate to rescue the children, her husband included. She was the one who could best help him confront and heal the pain of early childhood abuse. It was her karmic promise to serve his evolution and her duty to do something about a child who was being endangered.

  6. How Well Can You Defend the Position or Theory?

    If after careful analysis, you arrive to the conclusion the tenet may be for you, try presenting it to someone else as if it was your own. If you can present enough evidence and examples of your own without much debate, you may want to consider the belief is something worth embracing, at least in part.

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