According to many of the world’s great wisdom traditions, the ultimate nature of reality is Oneness or Unity. Beyond all diversity and separation is a level of nature that is infinite and indivisible. This oneness goes by different names in different traditions – The Tao, Buddha Mind, Brahman, Pure Consciousness, God, or The Unified Field (to name just a few) and is said to underlie the entire universe as well as flow through, in, and around every particle of creation. These traditions claim that we are this field and it is our true nature. For most of us though, the existence of this deeper level of reality is overshadowed and hidden from us by the restless activity of our mind. However, with the right tools, we can go beyond the turbulence of our daily lives and tap into this transcendent level of reality.

Vedanta, the thousands-year old spiritual philosophy from ancient India is the tradition with which I am most intimately familiar. Translated as “The end of the Vedas,” it is the encapsulation of the entire body of Vedic wisdom as related to health, mind, body, emotions, spiritual practices, and ultimately, spiritual liberation or enlightenment. In regards to the one reality, Vedanta prescribes four paths to unity known as yogas. Each of these yogas can be considered roadmaps to higher awareness and are explored based upon an aspirant’s specific temperament or personal tendencies. Briefly, these yogas are as follows:

Gyan Yoga – The yoga of science and understanding. This is the path of using the mind to go beyond the mind and relies heavily upon intellectual study and understanding.
Bhakti Yoga – The yoga of love and devotion. This path fosters the deepening of loving relationships to a beloved or to the divine.
Karma Yoga – The yoga of selfless service. This path focuses on the practice and recognition that all action belongs to the Supreme Being.
Raja Yoga – The Royal Path. This is the yoga of meditation and all its allied disciplines (including yoga poses, breathing exercises, moral observances, etc.)

Each of these yogas are valid paths to higher states of consciousness and will be more or less appealing to an individual depending on their natural disposition. No path is superior to another and when one begins to progress along one path, the other yogas often express themselves through the individual as well.

With this brief introduction laid down, I’d like to spend the remainder of this post exploring just one of these yogas and describe in some depth the potential pitfalls along the path.

Gyan Yoga – The Razor’s Edge

As the road to unity through intellectual knowledge and understanding, Gyan yoga can be an incredibly fulfilling path leading to the heights of creativity, innovation, exploration and scientific discovery. As the yoga of science, it is a path for probing the laws of nature through our human nervous system. Every scientist that has ever lived, has at heart, been a Gyan yogi – one seeking the truth of our universe through the power of the intellect and its formidable instrument, the scientific method. It may seem a paradox to view science as a tool for spiritual awakening, but science can in fact be a powerful ally for discovering the hidden truths behind great spiritual teachings.

However, Vedanta cautions us that Gyan yoga can be a potentially treacherous path, calling it the razor’s edge. In gaining knowledge into the laws of nature, we run the risk of arrogance. Fed by this arrogance, the ego grows and inflates until it overshadows the spirit, which is the truth at the heart of reality. In an attempt to use the mind to go beyond the mind, we discover just how slippery our ego actually is. Rather than cultivating humility, awe and a sense of wonder at the unknown mysteries of the universe, the small self of the ego tries to take credit for its knowledge and assumes a locked, inflexible and rigid worldview. Thus ironically, what began as a genuine scientific quest for truth and understanding turns into a mutated form of self absorption and hubris, obscuring the wisdom once passionately pursued.

The great scientists throughout history have been truly humble individuals, deeply embracing the unknown and ever open to new possibilities, from whatever direction they might come. As Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This mindset is the mark of a true explorer, whether the field is biology, geology, astronomy, or particle physics. To admit one doesn’t know allows room for new and exciting possibilities to exist. On the other hand, assuming one has all the answers locks out countless choices, options, and prospects for new discovery.

Lost in this twisted intellectual labyrinth, an individual gets swept up into a highly critical, negative worldview that is driven by what I call the three intellectual poisons. Don’t bother looking for these in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, or Yoga Sutras – because I came up with them; or I should say, I’ve observed them to be the fundamental modus operandi of individuals caught up in this warped form of over-intellectualism. Let’s take a closer look at these three qualities and how they manifest themselves.

1. Malignant Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a form of sharp or cutting language (spoken or written) in which remarks that mean the opposite of what they seem to say are used to mock or deride another. Sarcasm is very often employed as comedic tool to deliver an amusing dig or retort to an opponent. Now don’t get me wrong, I occasionally use sarcasm. Used sparingly, it can add some spice to discussions and relationships. Throwing out the occasional well-timed zinger causes a shift in perspective and can lighten the mood. However, this isn’t the type of sarcasm we’re talking about.

As one of the three intellectual poisons, malignant sarcasm becomes a highly destructive force, especially so when combined with the other two poisons. The term comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which means “to tear or strip the flesh off.” Clearly, sarcasm is not meant to be a warm and fuzzy form of communication. It is an intentionally hurtful remark that is in no way constructive. In fact upon closer examination, we can see that sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humor. Sarcasm is a tool the intellect uses to passive-aggressively tear down another. Sarcasm is a form of intellectual violence. For some people sarcasm is their primary form of communication and for others it defines their sense of humor. Personally, I think sarcasm is the poor man’s sense of humor. A great sense of humor relies on creativity, paradox, and absurdity. Violence, not so much…but that’s just my opinion.

Additionally, for most sarcastic adepts, they rarely think about how the recipient feels. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a sarcastic salvo, you most likely feel put down, insulted and as if the sarcastic person is a jerk. At its heart, sarcasm is a subtle form of bullying and bullying is an expression of insecurity and cowardice. Therefore, the sarcastic abuse of another really doesn’t so much define the recipient as it does the attacker. In the end, sarcasm is a hurtful assault on another dressed up as humor. It’s the intellect’s way of imposing its superiority over others to fortifying its self image.

2. Cynicism

Cynicism is a general attitude of scornful or jaded negativity and overall distrust in the sincerity of a person’s true motives. Cynics are often characterized by doubt and pessimism in a general sense and bitter and scornful disparagement of specific ideals or beliefs of which they disapprove. Cynics would most likely describe themselves as realists rather than pessimists, however their unrelenting negativity often paints a different picture. The word cynic refers to a school of ancient Greek philosophy that was known for their overall contempt of innate human virtue and morality. Cynics were often known as dog-men for their fondness of public urination and had the reputation of being rude, insensitive, and otherwise offensive. In contemporary times, the term has come to broadly define individuals who have a lack of faith or hope in the human race on the whole. Although most cynics have a keen intellect and an above average intelligence, they rarely choose to put those qualities to constructive use.

This intellectual poison may come about as the result of minor or major disappointments throughout life, through the recognition that “life just isn’t fair”, or through more deeply seated existential suffering that we all face at times throughout our lives. However, the cynical attitude towards life is most likely the byproduct of what neurologists refer to the “Negativity Bias” in our brains that has conditioned us to look for threats rather than support. If not held in check, this biological inheritance makes us quick to find fault and hesitant to see the positive possibilities in a given situation. Most likely, the choice to become cynical isn’t a conscious one. Long-held cynicism is the result of habitual thoughts that reinforce a view of the world that is untrustworthy. Despite their often keen intellect and love of facts, cynics put their attention on what’s wrong with life rather than what’s right. Over time, all they’re able to see is a world filtered through their own negative perceptions. In a cynical worldview, the intellect has just enough knowledge to be harmful; just enough rope to hang itself.

Personally, I don’t believe cynicism possesses any redeeming qualities as a worldview. It’s a dark, biting, jaded way of looking at life. I’m no Pollyanna – I realize that life can be challenging, that disappointments abound, and that suffering is a very real part of our world; however I also know that the answer isn’t to be a spiteful dog-man full of mean-spirited contempt for the world. In our culture (and thanks to our biology) being negative is easy. Anyone can do it. There’s no skill involved; it takes no real effort. Being positive and choosing to see the bright side of things takes work, persistence and faith in humanity. It’s easy to have low expectations and to be perpetually disappointed when life barely lives up to them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A cynical outlook is a perception, and perceptions can be changed. There are ways out of the suffering and paths to liberation do exist. But they have to be chosen.

3. Ruthless Skepticism

One of the core tenets of our modern scientific worldview, skepticism is an attitude marked by a tendency to question or doubt what others accept to be true, especially so when there’s a lack of evidence to support a particular belief or theory. A skeptic is one who keeps an open mind, but requires evidence for any claim. On the whole, I think skeptical inquiry is a very healthy and natural intellectual instrument for looking beyond appearances or the surface level of an idea or concept. I regularly rely on skeptical inquiry to probe deeper into what I read or hear from any source. As a student of Buddhist philosophy, I have found no better representation of this ideal than in this quote from Lord Buddha:

Do not believe in what you have heard.
Do not believe in tradition because it is handed down many generations.
Do not believe in anything that has been spoken many times.
Do not believe because the written statements come from some old sage.
Do not believe in conjecture.
Do not believe in authority or teachers or elders.
But after careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit one and all, then accept it and live by it.

This is wise council for any explorer, whether the field is religion, science, psychology, molecular biology, or consciousness itself. To not question long held beliefs and concepts is dangerous and can lead to blind devotion, complacency, and a tacit acceptance of the status quo. We must question…and doubt…and ask why, for these are the rules of the explorer. If we honestly wish to learn, we have to be willing to objectively explore even our most long held beliefs and ideals. Only then will we discover their validity, or lack thereof.

The problem arises when skepticism becomes pathological. I call this ruthless skepticism, but may also be referred to as “dogmatic”, “zealous”, or militant skepticism. When fueled by the philosophy of rationalism, skepticism becomes characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence. Anything that cannot be seen, measured, or empirically analyzed is excluded; revelation, mysticism, subjective experience, and knowledge of a transcendent level of reality beyond the physical universe are dismissed as primitive superstitions. This is not the open-minded inquiry in service of the search for truth we mentioned earlier, but rather a perversion of the quest for knowledge. The followers of this narrow-minded and intolerant creed take no prisoners in defending what they believe is an attempt to stave off the forces of unreason. They mock, insult, and character-assassinate anyone who oppose their rigid worldview; portraying as foolish, half-witted, naïve, gullible, ignorant, irrational and stupid those unfortunate enough to hold an alternative point of view. These people are not explorers – but rather believe they are guardians at the gates in an ideological battle between reason and the ignorant masses that risk dragging civilization back into the dark ages.

Ruthless skeptics have made science their irrefutable religion and will deny the existence of other possibilities with the intolerant zeal of a fundamentalist Christian. They refuse to acknowledge alternative views, cannot think outside of the box and are unwilling to critically examine their own beliefs. For such individuals, it is much easier (and safer) to heckle those who don’t share their worldview than to actually roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the hard work of research and personal experience. The ruthless skeptics of the world are no longer scientists in the true sense – they’re not interested in exploring all the possibilities, they are dedicated to crushing all resistance in the pursuit of their agenda.

As you can see, any of these three poisons are insidious on their own, but when combined together, they become a triple-threat of intellectual disaster that the ancient sages warned us about. The intellect becomes a self righteous monster that is more interested in proving its own position than seeking truth, understanding or enlightenment. The servant of the ego, rather than the spirit, it uses clever and hurtful tactics to create further separation, fostering unchecked pride and hubris. While justifying this behavior with claims of science and rationalism, the ego driven-intellect blasts opponents with cynical and sarcastic laced skepticism, chopping off another’s head so it can stand taller.

Sadly, such individuals can’t see past their own biases. The critical intellect is never used for its ultimate purpose – self exploration. This is ironic indeed, because it’s such individuals with their penetrating minds that have the potential to discover nature’s deepest secrets. If they could turn their intelligence inward for exploration rather than outward in the perceived battle against the “feeble minded dupes and dopes of the world,” they would experience an entirely new universe.

If we are to use our mind and intellect to the fullest, to pursue the path of Gyan Yoga and enjoy the countless benefits science, technology, medicine, progress, innovation, evolution and enlightenment have to offer, we must be willing to recognize our place in the greater scheme of the universe. To forget that it is Spirit moving through us and essentially “running the show” is to get caught in the mistake of the intellect. Rather than walking the razor’s edge, we run the risk of slipping off and loosing ourselves in the process.