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Spiritual Privilege

CONTENT WARNING: This blog post introduces concepts that may damage your relationships with yourself, your fellow humans and/or the universe you live in.

Yup. I typed that. Then I wallowed in jealousy for a while, thinking of all those people who write or teach about spirituality with no warnings at all, or with the reassurance that as long as we follow their teachings, we are safe. They seem to think their spirituality is safe and beneficial in all possible ways. That's what I call spiritual privilege.

When I was done wallowing, the question remained: Is it ethical for Tamias to post this, and if so, why is it starting off with a warning?

The warning is there because I might be setting someone up for an experience that could leave them unhappy and unable to function in day-to-day life, for a very long time.

The post is here because I'm working on ways to help people who've had that kind of experience, which I'm calling a harsh awakening for lack of another term.

Someone who's had a harsh awakening might present as going through an existential crisis, or as psychologically "damaged" after a psychedelic experience, or with symptoms of PTSD that get worse rather than better with treatment.

I'm posting this publicly in hopes of connecting with anyone else who's had a harsh awakening. I don't know exactly how to help them yet, but hearing their story would be immensely valuable to me.

What does Tamias mean by "Harsh Awakening?"

I propose that, just as some humans have empowering, pleasant, connective "awakening" or "enlightenment" experiences, some have awakening experiences that are unpleasant, disempowering, disconnective and traumatic.

There's no arguing with a spiritual awakening. It is a direct experience, it has an inescapable clarity that changes everything without changing anything. If I'm losing you here, scroll down to find an exercise that may or may not help.

My premise is that harsh awakenings have all the power and clarity of enlightenment experiences. They come with that absolute certainty that is experiential rather than memetic.

Just as enlightenment experiences can dramatically change a person's way of being in the world for the rest of their life, it makes sense to me that a harsh awakening can have a powerful, long-lasting effect.

Just as enlightenment experiences can be facilitated by psychedelics, I see no reason why harsh awakenings wouldn't be.

Enlightenment experiences may be facilitated by hearing about them, reading about them or thinking about them. There are definitely people out there making money off the promise that reading about their enlightenment experience will enlighten the reader. Well, then ... does reading about harsh awakenings increase one's chances of having one? I don't know, hence the warning at the beginning of this post.

Unlike people who feel enlightened, a person who's had a harsh awakening generally doesn't feel empowered to publish a book about it. They probably can't have a conversation about it. We're lucky if we find them alive and functional enough to have a conversation about anything. There's a statistical bias here, an inherent privilege of enlightenment experiences and the information received from them. Harsh awakenings are marginalized to the point of invisibility --- and that doesn't mean they're not happening. It just means the information we could receive from them is getting lost, going to waste.

That's why I'm so keen to talk about harsh awakenings. I don't think we can stop them from happening. I do think we can find ways to welcome a person home after a harsh awakening, validate their experience, learn from them and help them re-integrate into day-to-day life.

What might we learn?

On Psychedelics

Having mentioned psychedelics above, I want to point out that I wouldn't count every bad trip as a harsh awakening.

When psychedelics are harmful in the sense of producing lasting effects that interfere with a person's enjoyment of day to day life, I see two likely explanations. Well, actually three, but one is simply that, if a person's life is really boring and unpleasant, having fun on psychedelics might remind them that fun is possible and that fun is lacking in their life.

The second is, if a person is traumatized in any way while they're in a psychedelic state, they may have trauma flashbacks that come with psychedelic effects like hallucinations or the spacetime warp. I assume there are people out there already working on how to deal with flashbacks.

The other kind of harm, I call spiritual trauma, but that's rather broad. I might define spiritual trauma as trauma that damages our relationships with the universe as a whole, or with the essence of our own being. Spiritual trauma could result from living with an expectation of going to hell, from suddenly deconverting from a religion one was attached to, or from perceiving paranormal phenomena while remaining loyal to dogmatic atheism. These are experiences that can occur in normal waking consciousness, and they can be adequately described in English words.

What I'm calling a harsh awakening is a very specific kind of spiritual trauma, qualitatively different from anything the English language is adapted for.

Speaking of the limitations of the English language, I am very curious whether anyone is working on these same ideas in other languages. If you know of anyone who is, please put me in touch with them!


These are here to appease my inner language geek, and to ackowlege that my definitions might not match anyone else's.

My spirituality is my very basic way of relating to myself and my universe. It's not the same as belief or non-belief in "spirits" or "Spirit." I wouldn't say someone who believes in ghosts is any more spiritual that someone who doesn't. The spirituality I'm talking about is the uncanny egde of philosophy, metaphysics and mysticism.

Privilege is dissociation. When it happens in groups of humans, we call it privilege. When it's between parts of one human psyche, we call it dissociation. The pattern is the same.

A privileged entity has the option of ignoring a marginalized entity, and it generally chooses to do so because that's what makes its life easy. The marginalized entity has no option of ignoring the privileged entity. It has no way of getting the privileged entity to take it seriously or listen to it.

Spiritual privilege, then, is the option of believing that all is well and that one is safe on some spiritual plane that's somehow more important than any other plane. I've heard some people express the belief that everyone is safe on the highest spiritual plane. Others make it conditional on belief in Jesus or obedience to Allah or trust in oneself or whatever, and believe themselves to be safe and rightious because they fulfill the conditions.

I've heard spiritually privileged people tell me in so many words that my struggles in life are illusion, insignificant, necessary, consensual and desirable, all at once. Talk about gaslighting!

(Actually, I think the modern usage of the term "gaslighting" is misleading. In the movie, Gaslight, it seemed to me that the husband was intentionally leading his wife to self-identify as "mad." I think most expressions of privilege, including male privilege and spiritual privilege, are innocent mistakes. People with privilege honestly don't understand when what they say is hard on people who are marginalized.)

Here are some results that I found when I ran a DuckDuckGo search for characteristics of mystical experience:

Noesis, timelessness, ineffability and paradox work for me. The sense of connection to something greater than oneself, I consider specific to positive, empowering mystical experiences, or connective awakenings. Transience and passivity, I'm not so sure about. I wonder what cultural assumptions or political agendas may have gone into including those in definitions of mystical experience, and also whether they go with specific methods of seeking out mystical experience.

A harsh awakening, then, is a mystical experience that is harmful, not because it's unexpected or difficult to integrate or produced by a traumatic event, but because the information received makes life harder.

Last year, I started calling such an experience a "dark awakening" to name both the similarity to and the difference from enlightenment experiences. Recently I read, in one of Arnold Mindell's books on Deep Democracy, a caution about using the words dark, shadow, etc. to indicate unpleasant, undesirable, marginalized. It could be perceived as relating to skin colour, and anyway, I don't mean to marginalize darkness and privilege light. For now, I'm trying out the term "harsh awakening." If you have a preferable term for the same concept, I'll happily adopt it.


Now I'll make a foolish attempt to make this accessible to readers who've never had an awakening experience:

You're reading words. Notice the content of the words. That's one level of reality. What colour are these words right now? What background colour are they on? That's another level of reality, and it doesn't change the words, but it affects how one feels, reading the words. (Maybe you know that they're encoded in HTML and stored on a server somewhere. That knowlege consists of memes, not the kind of reality I'm trying to point out.) Notice that the words are on a rectangular screen, and that you're a human body and mind reading them. That's the next level. If one were to continue shifting one's attention from what is being experienced to how it's being experienced and what or who is doing the experiencing, one might come into an awakening. Try it.

Okay, If you're now enlightened, congratulations! If you're not, don't let it bother you too much. That paragraph did provide me with a useful analogy:

My body is to the content on my screen as my awakened consciousness is to my human experience.

Memes can be changed by content. I could type words that would prompt you to question whether this is actually HTML stored on a server.

Awakened experience isn't changed by content. There's probably nothing I could write in this paragraph that would change the shape of your screen, or prompt you to seriously question whether you're human.

If you tried that exercise, you might have noticed that your body felt comfortable, that you could relax and just laugh at any content you dislike, or that you have a mouse and a keyboard, or a touchscreen, that allows you to change what content you see. Capture that feeling of safety and empowerment, shift it to the next level, the spiritual level, and you can imagine the kinds of awakenings that I hear about all the time. (Yes, all the time. It's the in thing on this island.)

You might have noticed an unmet need, gotten yourself a drink of water or something, and come back to read this from a more comfortable perspective. That's also a kind of awakening I hear about often.

Or, maybe you have a toothache, like I did last week. Screen time was a total blessing. If I noticed my body at all, my jaw hurt, and I struggled to get my attention away from it.

If you lost a leg yesterday and a parent the day before, the invitation to notice your human body might be awful. I mean, it doesn't have to be that dire. The point is, not everyone on the Internet has a comfortable, relaxing embodied experience that they can access whenever they choose to, to ground them and empower them in whatever they're doing on the Internet, or to protect them from traumatic effects of whatever they experience on the Internet.

Zoom out a level or two, from the Internet and human life to human life and spiritual life, and there's my theory. Not everyone is safe, healthy, comfortable, loved, empowered or connected on the spiritual plane. It's just that those of us who aren't, generally don't talk about it.

Hey, cool! Exploring the online game analogy a bit farther, I just reframed my spirituality, and it's helping me feel grateful for my website and kind-of-okay about staying up until midnight, typing.

I'll post more another day about my explorations of the online game analogy. While it's super fascinating in my mind and in my embodied experience, I haven't got it into anything like standard English yet. I am honestly working on it, though. This is really neat.

[I finally added a post about the Computer Game Analogy in May of 2022.]

Spiritual Privilege by Tamias Nettle is marked with CC0 1.0