How to Know You’re on the Right Spiritual Path

My religion is called Do-Be-Do-Be Do, pronounced “doo-bee-doo-bee doh.” The final “doh” (Japanese for “the Way”) is more properly written like this: Do-Be-Do-Be means “the Way of Do-Be-Do-Be.” According to the religion’s only member—me—it aims to balance the active “doing” of Western religions with the serene “being” of Eastern religions.

This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that “laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I’ve studied and pondered the subject intensely. I’ve come to believe Marx’s dictum, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn’t wrong—but he didn’t know that opiates aren’t purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the “endogenous opioids” necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn’t about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It’s about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.

Flying High on Faith

My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling “high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said.” Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. “I’d always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty.”

Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. “I was euphoric for more than a year,” he says. “Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside.” Drew found himself questioning Preacher X’s insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious “high.”

Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.

This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It’s why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We’re wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.

Compared with the other side effects of religion, getting high off religious participation, even becoming “addicted,” as Drew says he was, is a relatively innocuous one. In addition to the obvious Jonestown-style cult craziness, mainstream religions present their own dangers—because their substantial history, sizable population, and organized structure make their members even more certain that they have the Truth. When another group shows up with another version of the Truth, all hell breaks loose. “Us versus them” thinking can swell from prejudice to unspeakable violence. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and countless other atrocities had religion at their cores. The perpetrators were so stoned on being Absolutely Right that they never noticed the mind-blowing irony of hating in the name of love, killing to defend the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and waging war under the banner of peace.

One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and…oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You’ll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.

In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.

Make Your Own Opiate

Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that this practice could “turn on” the same natural opiates I’d once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I’d become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.

The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:

Embrace Uncertainty

The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren’t…but if you were, how would you know?

René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, “dazed.” Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t sure. Most people know Descartes’s famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). But he actually wrote “Dubito…cogito, ergo sum.” “I doubt…I think, therefore I am.” Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.

You’ll be vulnerable to “bad drug” religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: “Nobody’s absolutely sure of anything, and that’s okay.” This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.

Test Every Idea with All Your Senses

The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?

That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X’s ranting. It’s what led Copernicus to dispute the religious “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. It’s what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.

Asking if something “makes sense” has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the “self-evident” truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew’s problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.

We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can’t be sensed: “I can see how that might be true,” we might say. “It sounds right.” Or, “Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That’s why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song “This Smells Funny, and I’m Not Gonna Eat It.” If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don’t swallow it.

Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides

The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together.” I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it’s not religion—its absolutism. That drug’ll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.

“The problem for me,” Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, “wasn’t that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn’t just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice.”

In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.

So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we’re following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other’s company, but we don’t need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.

20 replies
  1. Kristy Alagna
    Kristy Alagna says:

    Thank you so much Martha, for your words that cleanly-express why/how I don’t proclaim myself as religious or spiritual or atheist or atlantian or lemurian or 4th way work or agnostic or any one devotee-path – I don’t feel the need to! Identifying with, or defining myself within any one idea arena is simply too limiting. I’ve had past forays into ‘lockstep’ practices, and after assimilating some gold-nuggets that empowered, nurtured, and made sense(s) to me – I’d step back, have gratitude… and go play with my cats.
    When folks persist in laying their agenda on me, their Right-Way that I would be better off agreeing with, and they challenge me to define and defend ‘my way’ (since I don’t wholly embrace theirs – I must have something to say about mine), the thing that stops them, and sometimes they laugh is when I tell them my way is like Popeye: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam and I just try to be the best YAM I can be”.
    And now I have your eloquent words that I’m going to print and carry around in my pocket. So if Pope Popeye doesn’t silence them, I’ll say “Martha says it best” – and read your words out loud.
    My deepest gratitude,

  2. william
    william says:

    Very well-written Martha. I enjoyed it very much. But I’m not sure you answered the question, “Why are we so susceptible to absolutism?” I know there’s the “feel-good” element. I’ve experienced it myself. But I think there are many, many people who endure a religious community despite having not had a “feel-good” experience in a long, long time. They fail to leave though they’ve come to have an inner feeling of despair about their faith community. I believe there is a powerful motive that keeps them there. It may not be perfect, but they gain a sense of security and significance there. They may have doubts about both at times, but a better alternative never seems to present itself. Leaders of these communities often are gifted at giving these people regular experiences of being part of the “oneness”, which reinforces the sense of security and significance. You refer to these experiences as similar to the feeling opiates provide, and I agree. But they give people a sense that they are in a family, which provides significance and security. Perception may be reality in these cases, where a more critical review would lead to a better understand of how they may be participating in a delusion. Thanks for sharing this article and for “carrying on” with your work.

  3. CI
    CI says:

    The gnosis has been forbidden since such a long time and by all religions. When I saw angels between my parents funeral, and I was lucky enough to be with my boy friend at that time, so we were two to witness it. It was full of love, joy, like a white storm, but what stroke me the most was the non judgement. It was a white white and any judgement would have put a grey inside it. Later on, I had a coronal chakra awakening in Canada, after having fasted 10 days, i ate again one week and did the 10 days intensive meditation like Buddha taught, and the fourth day I had a kind of blue pearl living myhead, and joining a sea of love, endless love. When I came back my body was full of this etheric love, I felt wet of it. It was like sticky but beautiful. And I observed later on, the days that followed, that all the atoms were stuck together with this etheral high frequency love. And in fact the atoms seemed to give their authorisation, seem to agree to become shapes. It was in fact a little like a fairy tale when the pumpkin can transform itself in something else. I did not succeed to go further as someone helped me to be grounded again. To come back. I was no more there. I had the kundalini all along my spinal column giving me kind of ectasy. And I was no more in love with anyone, sexually attracted with anyone, I was no more interested in this life. It was difficult to come back. I had to go to Santa Fe, in a high frequency place like that, to stand the vib. It was interesting as an experience as I was so not good at meditation. I was such a bad student. But when I came back 20 minutes later from this endless sea, that I would call the source maybe, so I was a different human being, it was no more me. My ego had gone, my personality had gone away. I had no more attachements to anything. And I could have got killed or see the love ones getting killed without moving a finger. My bliss was total and not destructible. There was no life and death anymore.
    A lot more to say.
    But well, religions for me are old texts, written by writers. It is a literature.
    Some of this literature is very interesting, some is not that great.
    But as the human beings do not have any direct contact with the source, so of course they got attached to those texts, and think those texts are god.
    As we will all die soon, all those problems are solved at a moment.
    Every body finds the source at the end. A life time is not that long.

  4. Bobi
    Bobi says:

    Thank you. Loved this. I am in the midst of disentangling myself from an orthodox religion that i was raised in and fully believed for 40 years. I now revel in the idea that i don’t know anything for sure, and that’s ok.

    The problem i am now having is that i mistrust anything metaphysical….this is exactly what i needed to read today. Thank you!

  5. DC
    DC says:

    This article was published in O Magazine several years ago. I’ve noticed a nontrivial number of other articles on this blog for which that also holds true. While I don’t object to recycling content in theory, something about it bothers me here, especially when no mention of the earlier publication is made. Having said that, I would be eager to read any new content that Martha turns out.

    • Editor
      Editor says:

      Hello! You are correct: some of these blog posts were previously published in O, the Oprah Magazine. Because they are Martha’s intellectual property, we do publish some of them on her website from time to time, completely free of charge. We also publish new material from her newsletter here as well. This gives Martha the chance to focus on writing books, which is her passion right now. We love being able to introduce new fans to her work and to give her existing fans a chance to revisit material they may have read previously, regardless of its original publication date. Thanks for your feedback!

  6. John T
    John T says:

    i think Buddha concluded, here in life one needs to find peace within without judgement of others. we each follow our own paths, out of the billions on earth, not one thinks the same, life would be boring if we were all the same, Buddha had great insight on how life should be lead, with love and forgiveness, lets hold hands and embrace how we are all so different

  7. Deneen
    Deneen says:

    I enjoyed the article so much! Now I have a reference to back me up on religion and absolutism. I’ve attempted to explain how I’ve felt to family and friends for years, but to no avail. So, thanks for repeating the article, otherwise, I would have missed it. I love all of your work Martha. Please continue sharing your gift with the world! Ps: I’m saving for your life coaching class as we speak.

  8. Chirag Mheta
    Chirag Mheta says:

    Just stumbled on your blog Martha and I consider it as an enlightenment.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts regarding spiritual path as most people nowadays seek for it.
    Always a pleasure reading blogs that speak out of the box.

  9. Deborah
    Deborah says:

    Thank you for this great article. The only thing I don’t agree with is that atheists are not spiritual. I don’t believe in a God but I believe in a divine force of nature and I am a very spiritual person. My spirituality is what led me to this site.

  10. FontsDownloadFree
    FontsDownloadFree says:

    Definitive Ways To Tell You re In Love With The Right Someone Falling in love is one of the most exciting, rewarding and scariest things you could ever do.Once you’re in love with someone, it’s hard to remember how you lived without him or her.

  11. SageBlue
    SageBlue says:

    There's a world of difference between 'spirit' and 'religion'; the spiritual and the religious, the spiritual path and the religious path.

    One is about growth, enlightenment, understanding; the other is about conformity, customs, rules, regulations, restrictions, control and money.


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