March 24, 2015

Healthy and Pathological Spiritual States

By Heracles Panagiotides, Ph.D
University of Seattle, Department of Neurological Surgery


Virtues have their opposites, but they also have their pseudo-virtue counterparts. Whereas faith or belief on the one hand is one of the most fundamental religious attributes, on the other hand, it is one of the most misunderstood concepts. Faith to most people is equated with a cognitive conviction that is based on acceptance of ideas that are communicated by others. The basis of acceptance is often either an emotional or a cognitive argument. It is an affirmative response to someone's saying "take my word for it". The cognitive mechanism behind this type of persuasion is a topic in itself, so I will not expand on it at this time. There is, however, another epistemological source of persuasion that is based on empirical knowledge.

This last element separates faith that comes from experience and belief that is the product of emotional or rationalistic persuasion. Subsequently, I will be referring to persuasion that is the result of a rationalistic or emotional argument as belief, whereas for empirically based conviction I will be using the term faith. This distinction is important because it represents the two different types of conviction that one finds in religion. In both cases the cognitive understanding might exist, but, while faith is the result of experience, belief comes through emotion or rational sounding arguments. Along this line of thinking, one often observes the phenomenon, where experience can produce knowledge that is beyond understanding and language. This would be the definition of a mystical experience. Another important yet difficult point is that of defining the authenticity and validity of empirical knowledge. This is a rather difficult task that also deserves a special treatment.

Having said that, I can now introduce the concept of piety. Piety is related to faith. While faith can be thought as an input mechanism of spirituality, piety is the expressive side of it. The word expressive should not be thought of as being synonymous with overt behaviors. In this sense, piety is a rather cognitive phenomenon that is not limited to behavior but can be extended to attitudes, thought processes, etc.

In the absence of experience, faith and piety become belief (as I defined belief earlier), superstition and pietism. All these attributes are commonly seen in religious cultures today and in the past. Fanaticism is an example of superstitious pietism coupled with aggression.

There are milder forms of pietism. In these cases, the person is attached to ritualistic practices and/or doctrinal fixations. He/she separates people between "us and them" between good and bad or believers and nonbelievers. That person thinks that he is a member of an elect group, while others are thought as outsiders in need of conversion. On a rather personal level, a "believer" spends much time on external practices and feels proud for such behavioral accomplishments. He judges the worth of others, even those with the group, on the basis of these external ritualistic practices, and condemns or at least pities those who have not achieved such levels. Ironically, his focus is mostly on how others are lacking in such practices, while his efforts, even if they are minuscule, are greatly valued.

At a cognitive level, beliefs are often based on authority figures. In the world of science, the authentication of a claim must follow the rules of validity and reliability. In order for a hypothesis to be viable it must be both testable and falsifiable. A personal experience might or might not be authentic, unless it can be replicated or verified by an independent observer. The concept of independence in this case is very important, since it is common for people to claim similar experiences, but these experiences are not truly independent but copies of behaviors.

A belief can lead to pathological states. Fanaticism is of course an obvious extreme example of such pathological states. There are, however, stages of pathologies of lesser severity, yet still posing problems for the psychological and spiritual state of the individual and can lead to more serious pathologies. Such attitudes and behaviors are alarmingly common in religious groups. When lacking persuasive power, they resort to problematic and often unethical or coercive practices. From a psychological point, these practices lead to problems of emotional and social isolation and alienation.

The motives of pietism are selfishness and pride. There is typically a present of future gain toward which he works hard. An example of such selfish thinking is the future promise of some kind of reward. In that context, salvation is a personal eternal reward that carries an almost material value. Goodness and virtue become means to this end and in the absence of that goal, they cease to retain their value, and they disappear.

Pietism is closely related to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not necessarily an intentionally deceptive practice, where the hypocrite knowingly tries to deceive others. As the case is with pietism, hypocrisy is also concerned with external behaviors and less with essence. The hypocrite is convinced that whatever behavioral practices he follows are enough to please God or to satisfy his moral code. Others are judged on the basis of their adherence to legalism or moral practices. Moralism is an expression of pietism and hypocrisy. Moralism is an attitude concerned with judging the behaviors of others.

The self is defined by overt behaviors and not by the health of the inner person. In the moralistic way of thinking, there is a gap between the inner world and the behavior. A person of that mindset is mostly concerned about feeling good now and in the future. When he does not achieve that state of mental euphoria, he becomes confused. This confusion leads to psychological paralysis or blame of others, unsuspecting that this condition might be the result of his own spiritual pathology. It is not uncommon to see these people fall into a hyperactive or manic state for saving the world either through coercion or punishment.

The pietist is constantly searching for signs and miracles to validate his theories. He feels an existential void and tries to fill it with anything that looks real. But since he has either lowered of eliminated all together the criteria of authenticity, he confuses what is real with what he hopes might be real. Thus he has an insatiable appetite for validation.

It is important that these distinctions between faith and belief, between piety and pietism are made, because they define the difference between authentic and non-authentic faith, between healthy and pathological spiritual states. There are times in a person's spiritual development, when he desperately looks for authentic answers to profound existential questions. Instead, most commonly, he encounters pseudo-virtues that lead to disappointment and often a cynical abandonment of their spiritual quest. History is full of such examples; unfortunately, healthy encounters are rather exceptional.


Now that I have outlined what faith is not, I will expand on the concept of authentic faith. As I said in the pietism section, faith has both a cognitive and an experiential component. To illustrate this distinction, I will relate a personal story that happened a few years ago. I was on the phone speaking to a friend in Seattle, 45 miles away from where I was. In the middle of the conversation, there was a pause in his voice, and then my friend said: "There is an earthquake here". It was not until few seconds later, when I felt the ground shake where I was. It took those few seconds for the shock waves to travel the distance from Seattle to Tacoma, the city where I lived. The perception of my friends telling me about the earthquake was a cognitive event, but it took the ground shaking under my feet to produce an experience. Both elements have their place, but in the world of spirituality, the cognitive component without the experiential part is incomplete and can lead to problematic conditions.

There are many people today who object to religion. One of their objections is "why should one believe in your religion. After all, they all claim to possess the truth". What these people object to is belief and not faith. One can argue more with rationalism and less with experience. The answer to this dilemma is freedom and the willingness to inquire. Faith is about freedom to experience, freedom to grow and freedom to reject.

Truth is not afraid, truth does not coerce, truth produces free people. One should not be afraid to explore, because only through a personal and exhaustive inquiry, truth can be known. Not in books, not in rationalistic or emotional statements, but in authentic experiences. This faith is not subject to change. For this faith and truth, a person is ready to even give his life. Anything short of that is counterfeit.

There is an elegant exposition by a seventh century renown ascetic, Isaac the Syrian, on the topic of faith. He talks about two faiths, one that comes from hearing and one that comes from seeing. The first is what I call believing. It has its place. Its function is to direct attention to an idea that might be worth considering. It is just that and nothing more. The latter, however, refers to experiential faith. What Isaac calls "seeing" is experience. In the life of Jesus, there is an encounter that nicely illustrates this point.

After a man named Philip met Jesus, he went to his friend Nathanael and told him that he met the Messiah, but Nathanael doubted. "Come and see," was Philip's reply. When Nathanael met Jesus, Christ told him that he "saw" him sitting under a fig tree. That was the existential moment for Nathanael that created faith within himself. Listening to his friend Philip was belief, but Christ's revelation offered him experiential faith.

Experiential claims must be verified through a process analogous (but not identical) to deductive reasoning. In the realm of spirituality, deduction has its own rules. In the spiritual tradition of the Christian East, such criteria exist and are explicitly stated. They are the expression of centuries of spiritual encounters. Such experiences must be valid, authentic and reliable. In the natural sciences, if an observation is valid and reliable, that is enough to satisfy the inquirer. For spiritual experiences, the requirement of authenticity must also be satisfied. Falsehood is not defined by whether a phenomenon is itself real or not, but whether its ontology is what it claims to be. Natural science, in that sense, does not concern itself with truth, but with a mere observation, and how this observation relates to other observations. Inferences about the nature of realities is left to philosophy. Spirituality on the other hand is concerned with the intimate knowledge of the nature of beings both natural and supernatural (γνώσις των όντων).

Experiential faith is therefore associated with this epistemological aspect. It is this intimate knowledge that defines faith. In the words of Paul, faith is the vision or knowledge of things that are not visible through natural eyes (πραγμάτων έλεγχος ου βλεπομένων).

What is experience, in this case? It is the result of spiritual vision. Spiritual vision is not an abstraction in the same way that we speak of "having a vision" for the future, which is just a thought process or a plan. It is very common to mistake concrete spiritual constructs with abstractions. Abstractions are only metaphors or symbolic representations of concrete constructs and not ontological elements. Spiritual vision, on the other hand, is an experiential phenomenon that requires a properly functioning sensory organ. In the same way that we have physical eyes and other physical transducers that translate light and sound to neural signals in our brains, there are, according to Isaac the Syrian, parallel spiritual senses that can detect the spiritual world. The existence of a spiritual world should not be an a priori or an axiomatically accepted assumption. This is a commonly made mistake in religious circles. Western Christianity has lost and eventually formally rejected experience. This led to a theological controversy, a further alienation from empirical faith and a reliance on sterile rationalism. The rediscovery of empiricism in the sciences was ironically perceived as a threat to religious beliefs. This drift exists even today. Religion is guarded with paranoid suspicion against the sciences. One cannot help it but see that the 14th century theological controversy between East and West is not much different from modern day attitudes that separate rationalistic religion and science. Only a valid experience can lead to a valid faith. The absence of an authentic experience will inevitably lead to deception.

If spiritual senses exist in all people, then why is it that not everyone experiences spiritual phenomena? Their mere existence does not imply that they are also functioning properly. If the physical senses function in a suboptimal way, they atrophy. For example, when the physical eyes develop cataracts and remain untreated, this leads to blindness. In the case of spiritual senses, the illness is the passions that result from adherence to physical desires. This happens at the expense of the spiritual realities. Modern man has become neglectful of himself. He takes care of his physical health and needs, yet pays little if any attention to his inner needs. Psychological pain is treated with "analgesics" designed to divert attention from its causes. Unfortunately, man has become increasingly alienated from himself and by extension from all spiritual realities that surround him. Subsequently, his philosophical orientation also follows the existential reality of his illness. In other words, the existential neglect results in a theoretical denial of his spiritual reality. It is this neglect that constitutes the core of spiritual illness.

In Eastern Christianity, healing of the spiritual senses is dependent on a process called purification. Purification is the first stage of spiritual perfection. The stage that follows is illumination and refers to spiritual vision that is the source of experiential faith, as discussed above. The typical, natural sequence is to first experience healing of the senses, then the experience. Purification is a necessary prerequisite for illumination.

There are two factors that interfere with the process of purification. The first one is deliberate avoidance of self. In our times we have become particularly sophisticated with technological gadgetry designed to occupy our physical senses almost every waking moment of our lives. They take attention from anything spiritual. Even our social interactions aim at keeping our senses stimulated. The second factor is that the purification processes requires labor which involves first the exploration of one’s self and second an effort to go against the passions, a process called ascesis. In both cases, we have become passive participants in our environment. That is, we have become intake organisms, but our productive or expressive efforts are only limited to ensuring that we continue being supplied with goods, whatever those goods might be.

We do not produce, and, when we do, we make sure that our productivity does not exceed our intake. Thus, we become consumers. As we view the world, we only think of "our own interests" and those alone. We have grown lazy, unmotivated and consequently lethargic. To a greater or lesser degree, we have become narcissistic and selfish. It is no wonder that words like the Greek word φιλότιμο (philotimo) are almost impossible to explain let alone translate to a different language. If faith is to be viewed as a passive phenomenon, it automatically loses its meaning and essence. Most people today have no faith but a belief, because a belief does not require much mental or spiritual effort.

Accepting some idea that is served to us is a passive process. Following the same reasoning, agnosticism, the rejection of any belief, is the flip side of the same coin. An agnostic refuses to accept any belief, because he does not want to engage in the labor of inquiry. Faith, on the other hand, that is the product of a painful inquiry requires serious effort.

A relevant and important question is: how does one know whether an experience is authentic or not. Practitioners of spirituality have concerned themselves with this very question regarding personal or other people’s experiences. They realized that experiences are not always real (i.e., truly spiritual), and if they are real, they are not necessarily authentic. The term "real" refers to experiences of physical or physiological phenomena that are falsely interpreted as spiritual. It is common knowledge today that chemicals can affect the brain in a special way and may produce hallucinations.

Emotional or particularly stressful situations can have similar to drug-induced experiences. Mass hysteria can result in a wide spectrum of states of consciousness and behaviors. Interestingly, such behaviors and reports of experiences are copies of others. This can be mistakenly interpreted as replication, and subsequent verification of the phenomenon, when in reality it is nothing more than mimicry.

Assuming that an experience is real, it must still pass the test of authenticity. Authenticity here refers to whether the source of the spiritual reality is what it claims to be. Is it from good or bad sources? The concept of a good and a bad spiritual world is an old one. Practitioners of spirituality have always questioned the real sources of spiritual encounters. Their experience taught them that there are “false positives” that are the result of deception. In fact, deception has been regarded as one of the most dangerous problems for spiritual encounters.

To discern a spiritual experience, purity, maturity and real humility are needed prerequisites. Although these factors are necessary, they are not sufficient. There is yet another factor that in the language of Eastern Christian theology is called "grace" and refers to divine energy. There is a narrative from the life of a modern day ascetic by the name of Avakum which illustrates this point. Avakum lived alone in the desert of the Holy Mountain in Greece. One day, as he was standing on a rock at the edge of a cliff praying, an “angel of light” appeared before him and urged him to fly into the cliff, since, as he said, “he had already become himself an angel and had wings”. Mature and humble Avakum uttered: “My God, who am I, to have wings and fly?” Immediately, the “bright angel” was transformed to a dark creature and disappeared into the abyss. The literature of the lives of ascetics is filled with similar encounters. The motivation of deception is pride. It is inspired by pride and attempts to inspire pride to prospective victims. In the absence of humility, the person can become a prey to deception. Once again, by humility, I am referring to real humility and maturity, and not simply behaviors that superficially resemble these attributes. In the absence of real humility, a humble-like behavior is pride in disguise.

If this type of authentic faith is such a rare phenomenon, is it possible for an inquirer to have some intuitive knowledge about it? Spiritual experiences that take place within a person may remain hidden from the conscious mind, while the task of recognizing such experiences in another person becomes even more challenging. This is a complex and difficult issue to address, since it involves subconscious processes that might be intuitively perceived but difficult to express with words. It involves the inner perceptions of one's own spiritual experiences as well as the perception of spiritual experiences of others. Caution and the rules of verification should particularly apply to this kind of perception. Pure intuition is the process by which a subconscious event resonates with the conscious mind. It does not necessarily involve language. The lack of a verbal expressive component makes it difficult to identify it as a conscious event. There are physical phenomena that resemble this effect. When the occipital lobe, the visual cortex in the brain, is damaged, a person can still perceive visual information without being conscious or aware of it. These patients are for all practical purposes blind. If you show them a picture, they say that they did not see anything. If, however, the picture has a humorous component, they will act amused without knowing why. In the neuroscience domain, there are numerous examples, where the subconscious mind leaks information without full awareness of the event that causes it. In a similar manner, such subconscious spiritual experiences can leak via a resonating process to consciousness. The information is incomplete, but it may contain validity and must be verified.

When we hear that people lose their faith, or that they have no faith, they talk about belief. Their discontent is an expression of a deep disappointment. It is a reaction to a gross misrepresentation of faith. I believe that the need for faith, that is the need for spiritual experiences is native to humans. People long for such experiences that become the ultimate connection with the spiritual world. Charlatans and spiritually bankrupt representatives of religion bare a tremendous responsibility for this disappointment. When people object to "organized religion", the object to the hypocrisy they encounter, no less than Jesus objected to the established religion of that time. He spared no words, when it came to exposing their hypocrisy. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the responsibility of the individual. To give up one's own personal exploration is not the answer. Socrates was a fierce proponent of seeking the truth. The truth is an intimate and very relevant part of our ontology. To ignore it is to deny ourselves. If one has not found the truth, that means that he might have been looking in the wrong place. Reality should never be constructed according to our own image and likeness. We must find the original archetype, and that exploration must start from within.


Christianity in its authentic expression has been an experiential faith from its very conception. In addition to miracles, Christ revealed to His disciple the glory of His divinity in His baptism, in His transfiguration and finally in His resurrection. That experience was passed on from the disciples to subsequent generations. The experience of God required purification. Christ articulated that spiritual rule when he said that the pure in heart will see God. He did not say that the intellectually enlightened, the educated or even the philosophers would have the experience of God, but the pure in heart.

Throughout Christian history, we see that God reveals Himself to humble people. As a rule, these people remained hidden for the most part avoiding recognition, because they realized that the very moment others recognized and honored them, they would lose the experience. Many lived “in mountains and caves”, as they struggled with their own passions on their journey to purification. In the Old Testament, Elijah experienced God's presence as a fine breeze alone in a cave. In the Christian era, we have the phenomenon of monastics and ascetics who left the busy life of the city and went to deserts of various forms. It was in absence of noise and interaction with others that they were able to descend into their heart, they transformed their passions and found God. When I say found, this was not a static discovery but a continuous dynamic exploration for the divine. A hunter once lost in the forest came across one of these ascetics. The hermit asked him what he was doing. “ I am hunting,” the man said. “And what are you doing,” he asked. “I am doing the same,” the hermit replied. “I am hunting my own God.”

The experience of God is not a phenomenon defined and limited by time. It is a timeless event that starts in the heart of man and extends into the infinite dimension of God's love. It starts on earth and reaches heaven and beyond. It has no rules and is driven by the insatiable desire of man to find meaning. Man is built in the image of God. Knowingly or unknowingly, he seeks to find his archetype. The irony is that the struggle for meaning often becomes more difficult the deeper this image remains hidden within the layers of pretenses and passions. Man's struggle is go through these layers and find the hidden image. This effort requires stillness.: “Be still and know that I am God.” In stillness, man comes face to face with two things: his own self with all the pains and the anxieties he has accumulated over time, and the light of God that comes from within, the hidden image.