I’ve spent the last several years in a variety of online metaphysical communities, sometimes as moderator, and more recently some in-person communities as well. One thing I have noticed is that within these spaces, many metaphysical or spiritual topics are taken for granted as absolutely real or literally true, especially by newcomers or in spaces where philosophy isn’t a familiar topic. In fact, many people do not even realize that a philosophical claim or position is underneath their understanding of a given metaphysical topic.
In these spaces you’ll often find people asking questions or getting into disagreements about the attributes of say, crystals or energy work, not realizing that their position necessitates the assumption of several premises that are not universally agreed upon. This leads to a lot of fruitless arguments and people missing, in my opinion, opportunities to go deeper with their spiritual practices because they have approached information about spirituality/metaphysics with the same attitude or regard that they may pay towards scientific knowledge. Today I’d like to offer some food for thought on this, with the provided forewarning that I am aware that what I am offering here today is my own set of philosophical suppositions.
What is Metaphysics?
Before I jump in I want to clarify my use of vocabulary within this article. Spirituality, metaphysics, and occultism can often be used interchangeably in the communities I mentioned. Metaphysics specifically, according to Wikipedia, is a branch of philosophy concerning the fundamental nature of reality. The word’s Greek roots literally mean “after or behind or among [the study of] the natural.” Generally speaking, the field of Metaphysics is more than just practicing witchcraft or buying crystals to attune your chakras. It’s about ideas and claims that often are impossible to empirically validate through the scientific method. It’s important to know this because fundamentally at the core of spiritual and occult practices are metaphysical claims about reality, of which there are about as many claims as there are people practicing spiritual or occult paths.
Unlike the natural sciences, which tend to converge toward consensus as empirically validated evidence accumulates, metaphysical practices and ideas tend to diverge according to the teachings and doctrines inherent to an individual’s culture, faith, and community. I don’t mean to say that metaphysical ideas are inherently false or less valid, but they are often not falsifiable, which makes them untestable hypotheses. Therefore, engaging with metaphysical ideas and practices requires a different kind of approach and way of thinking than we may typically pay towards other kinds of information.
Descriptive vs Prescriptive
The most accessible way I can think of to convey the difference between taking metaphysics for granted and not is by framing it as descriptive versus prescriptive metaphysics. I actually owe Christopher Wallis, who goes by Hareesh, for this, as he frames the western misunderstanding of Indian chakras in this way in his article:
“THE CHAKRA SYSTEMS ARE PRESCRIPTIVE, NOT DESCRIPTIVE.
This might be the most important point. English sources tend to present the chakra system as an existential fact, using descriptive language (like ‘the mūlādhāra chakra is at the base of the spine and it is red’ and so on). But in most of the original Sanskrit sources, we are not being taught about the way things are, we are being given a specific yogic practice: we are to visualize a subtle object made of colored light, shaped like a lotus or a spinning wheel, at a specific point in the body, and then activate mantric syllables in it, for a specific purpose. … The texts are prescriptive — they tell what you ought to do to achieve a specific goal by mystical means. When the literal Sanskrit reads, in its elliptical fashion, ‘four-petaled red lotus at the base of the body’ we are supposed to understand ‘The yogī ought to visualize a four-petaled lotus . . .’”
I find that this way of framing the way people think about chakras can easily be applied to other metaphysical concepts, like paranormal entities, divination, spellwork, deity worship, and so on. When one treats metaphysical ideas as prescriptive rather than descriptive, practices can be treated like a set of suggestions or steps (or conceptual frameworks) that, if followed, may produce a particular result in your experience. Personally, I find this approach liberating and pragmatic. You know your own direct experience that follows from performing a certain practice or put faith in a particular conceptual framework (such as pantheism), but you cannot necessarily objectively prove that what you experienced is evidence supporting the framework behind the practice. Another way to put it is that there is no way to know with absolute certainty that the results you experience are because your conceptualization of a metaphysical system is real in the way that you conceptualize it, or that your conceptualization is a symbolic representation of the unknowable acting mechanism – and that’s okay. There is still truth in your experience even if the “ultimate truth” of it isn’t able to be articulated or scientifically validated.
Material Truth vs Other Truth
Of course, everyone will have their own ideas around what is actually happening when they are engaging with a metaphysical practice – I just think it is wise to recognize that these kinds of ideas do not necessarily say the same kind of things about our world as science does – or at least, say it in the same kind of way. Science, which observes the material world, is able to be used as a relatively reliable method of inquiry into the nature of said material world. However, metaphysics and spirituality are often dealing with immaterial beings and experiences – things that cannot be directly observed and documented objectively. In my opinion, to treat spiritual truth as if it is the same thing as material truth misses the point. Take, for example, many of the claims in Christianity about historical events that have since been refuted – such as the great flood told in the story of Noah’s Ark. Does this mean that there is no truth to be offered through this story? Only if you think the truth needs to be materially true or literal. Taken as a symbolic representation of a kind of human experience, the interpretation of Noah’s Ark is able to yield instead a different kind of truth about the transformative experience of unyielding faith in divine guidance.
I understand this may sound like a devaluation of metaphysics, but it would only seem that way because Western society has a heavy bias towards scientism, which is the belief that the scientific method is the best or only way to provide “genuine knowledge of reality.” I guess what I am ultimately trying to say is that we should be mindful to separate our implicit biases towards scientifically-validated knowledge from spiritual matters so that we can actually approach the realm of Spirit – which is transcendent and therefore immaterial in nature. In short, spiritual experiences do not need empirical validation to be true – they are validated moreso through the resonant feeling or intuitive sense of knowing one receives from the experience. That is why faith is such a powerful and revered concept among religions. Sometimes, objective validation does occur and it is quite awe-some when that happens, but we shouldn’t base the value of spiritual practices on how reliably they can be empirically validated. I believe this bias towards scientism is at least partially, if not significantly, why we have people preoccupied with finding physical evidence to validate their religions. In my view, this is a huge mistake.
When metaphysical teachings are taken for granted as facts about material reality, it can lead to dogma and senseless squabbling over details that often cannot even be directly observed – or, have even been reasonably refuted. Engaging with ideas and practices becomes about who has the answers and the correct information about reality. Whereas, when metaphysical teachings are taken as a set of suggested practices to produce a kind of result, it brings spiritual experiences back into the domain of conscious presence and intuition. I believe this ought to be the ultimate aim of metaphysical teachings – to bring people in relationship with their inner experiences and truth, rather than dependent upon external authority or science to validate their experience of meaning. However, this does necessitate a change in the way we regard bodies of metaphysical knowledge.
Again, there is a tendency among newcomers, “baby witches,” etc to treat metaphysics as if it is some unified body of knowledge akin to “hard sciences” like physics or biology (the unity of which is not to be taken for granted as much as one might think). If we are mindful to regard metaphysical teachings as prescriptive practices, then their validity and content become highly contextualized to the culture and even specific lineage or tradition from which they originate. It means that one must exercise due diligence to understand the surrounding context from which these teachings and practices emerged. It’s especially important to keep this in mind when interacting with different practices – especially if you decide you would like to mix and match them, as is common in new age communities.
Basically, a lot of the time a question like, “how do I balance my chakras?” or “how do I interpret my astrological chart?” is going to come down to what tradition or school of thought you operate within or belong to – and the people who answer these questions for you, might not even realize this either. With this being said, there is benefit in following teachers from within established traditions, as there is often a wealth of history and experienced individuals who are able to guide and help one work through challenges, compared to picking a little bit of everything from everywhere and trying to figure out how to synthesize it all together on your own. It is tempting to try to find a way to unify or syncretize different traditions, but I advise against this. I think it is fine to draw from different traditions, but I like to keep my traditions planted within their original framework. When I get acupuncture or practice tai chi, I am working with my qi, but when I am doing yoga and breathwork, I am working with the prana. I might personally believe and even experience qi and prana as the same thing, but I understand that the practices I am using to work with this kind of energy/experience are different – they come from different belief systems and cultures that have different purposes for their practices.
That about covers everything I wanted to talk about. I know that this might be confusing or come across as nit-picky, but if I didn’t believe this was important then I wouldn’t have written about it. It has made a big difference to me to clarify these points for myself over the years, so I hope this is helpful to others on the spiritual path. Thank you for reading!