Be a Spiritual Outlaw

Sons of AnarchyTV has come a long way. Used to be that crime show characters were either saints or sinners. Take Sons of Anarchy, about a biker gang in Charming, California. The cops are jerks, and the robbers have a sense of justice you can relate to. The moral lines that are so clear-cut in theories of law and order are actually a tangled mess.

I wondered, “Do bikers watch this?” Probably not; more likely, dentists and bankers, shopkeepers and ex-Buddhist monks. Guess I’m not the only one to dream about the outlaw life.

For me it all began in primary school. My childhood teachers called me a holy terror because I always brought up the awkward questions. If you want to understand your eternal afterlife, it seemed to me, you can’t just accept what you’re told. My teachers wanted me to because that would have made their lives easier, not because it was right.

Rather than suppressing my sense of rebellion, they spurred it on. Of course.

Entering the stream means exiting your comfort zone

Religious communities provide a secure and reassuring framework for life. By institutionalizing right and wrong they take a load off your shoulders. That’s okay for beginners and children, but accepting rules you don’t understand should always be provisional. From day one they should be nudging you toward independence of thought. In early Buddhism that turning point is called stream-entry. However, entering the stream means exiting your comfort zone.

In practical terms, some stay while others leave their spiritual home. Either way, it’s a struggle. Your relationship with truth and reality changes forever. Thinking independently doesn’t mean always being sure of yourself. Far from it, it means taking risks and learning from your mistakes. And yet, when you do step right, you know it and grow from it with integrity.

Be ready to question bad decisions and break bad laws

History is peppered with outlaws. Jesus was a renegade Jew who needled the temple authorities. The Buddha left his station to become a hobo. Can you imagine either one at the head of the multinational institutions that bear their names today?

You don’t have to be a full-time outlaw. You just have to be ready to question bad decisions and break bad laws. In exchange, you’ll be freed of conformity for its own sake, and even when you agree with the law-makers, you’ll do so with a clarity that’s out of reach for mere followers.

Still, go against the current and you’ll find yourself out in the cold, maybe even crucified. My writing has upset a range of people from orthodox Buddhists to hardcore rationalists. The accusation is always the same: in one way or another, I’m wrong.

We’re called on every day to tell right
from wrong; most of the time, we know

They don’t get it. The point of this blog is not to be right but to voice the doubts that lie just beneath your conscious threshold. You don’t have to agree; if you’re using your wits you won’t believe a thing I say anyway. This is just a starting point. You’ll figure stuff out for yourself.

Still those accusers do worry me, not because of their opinions but because of the way they hold them. Don’t they see that reality is constantly shifting, that our descriptions of it are provisional, that the unexplored human mind sees only what it wants to see? Perhaps they’re worried that deep questioning makes everything meaningless, even right and wrong. That’s misguided. We’re called on every day to tell right from wrong, and most of the time we know, even if we don’t do right. But that’s another matter.

To be an outlaw you have to be ready to correct the authorities, sometimes with diplomacy, sometime bluntly. The point is to seek fairness and truth while knowing it’s dangerous. Imagine if everyone were willing to step outside their comfort zone.

We stand alone, are born and die alone. Why would we not make our own decisions? As Caroline said the other day, “If you don’t have conflict, you’re not alive.”


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

16 thoughts on “Be a Spiritual Outlaw”

  1. My own reflection is that it all gets more interesting the more I improve in asking better & better questions. I am also working on looking for what drives my question asking (sometimes it is my ego wanting to “look smart;” other times it is not really a question at all but rather a statement in the form of a question; and then there are the questions that come from who knows where that sometimes are best left to “slow cook” and not necessarily to be said out loud…). One more change i have noticed is that my questions are changing (or evolving?) from “why this and why that..? and “what is the meaning of life etc…?” to “how can i live more awake, how can i not “miss/waste” my life etc..”.

    What does a shift from mostly “what and why? to “how?” mean? Don’t know, but sounds like a possibly good question!

    1. Hi Stephen: A little rephrasing might help. The classical Western question is “Why am I here.” The classical Buddhist question is, “Here I am, now what?”

  2. “If you don’t have conflict, you’re not alive.” Well if that ain’t the truth! Trying to wake up brings one face to face with all kinds of uncomfortable realities, from my own internal stuff to the darker underbelly of tradition where the human ego tends to make a big mess. I do find though that it is the uncomfortable stuff that causes growth, spiritual maturity, patience and compassion to grow. Facing the ugliest stuff has been so helpful and healing. And I’ve done it well outside of what a traditionalist would call “proper.” After all the Buddha had his cousin trying to kill him, jealous teachers framing him for murder, schism and more! Good thing the supposed conflict is actually the dung causing the fruit to grown 🙂

  3. Why are TV shows like Sons of Anarchy popular? Why are shows that make heroes out of bikers, mobsters or serial killers considered dramatic entertainment? In a twisted kind of way, is it because they are outside looking in? It seems to be a deep desire amongst many to follow a way of life that is outside of society, free from its constrictive rules, hypocrisies, conformity and mediocrity. Could this be the same desire that sets some people on a spiritual path?
    In reality, either way is a dangerous game. Society in general does not take kindly to outlaws of any kind, criminal or spiritual. Both are a threat to the status quo. But whereas society knows how to deal with the criminal outlaw, with courts and prisons, it is not clear on how to deal with the spiritual outlaw, the one who questions everything. Even in a culture where freedom of speech is cherished, thinking way outside the box makes one very subversive.
    When going deep inside to question who one is, inevitably one calls into question the society around us. It seems to me that our psyches are deeply entangled with the structure of society’s values, and one has to question the basic tenants of both in order to dispel what is not true. This process upsets people who cling to the norms of institutions of power, organized religions, and nationalism. They feel the ground shift beneath their feet.
    You never see a spiritual outlaw as a character on TV. I suppose it would be just too difficult for the audience to vicariously empathize with them, unlike Dexter, the Sopranos or a biker gang. If portrayed true to form, the spiritual character would strive, like the criminal outlaw, to be outside of society – not merely to rebel against the establishment, but to see it more clearly for what it is, in a search for something more real.

  4. I totally relate to the sentiment of this blog big time. Thank you. Especially the further involved with my particular Buddhist organization I got the more annoyed I was that teachings were consistently turned into formula and adherance to ritualistic nonsense from ancient Tibet. The method of wisdom delivery if you will seems constantly mistaken for the wisdom itself. Which leads to personal boredom on my part.

  5. Hi Stephen

    You write,

    “The accusation is always the same: in one way or another, I’m wrong. They don’t get it. The point of this blog is not to be right but to voice the doubts that lie just beneath your conscious threshold. You don’t have to agree; if you’re using your wits you won’t believe a thing I say anyway…Still those accusers do worry me, not because of their opinions but because of the way they hold them. Don’t they see that reality is constantly shifting, that our descriptions of it are provisional, that the unexplored human mind sees only what it wants to see? ”

    This brings up a lot of questions for me.:

    1. The point of the blog is not to be “right”? Surely you strive to write truthfully and accurately, right? In this very blog post, you seem to be presenting a version of “right view,” are you not?

    2. Why should we not use our wits? Why would that disable us from understanding you? That sounds like something the leader of a cult would say.

    3. Can you give an example of how “reality is constantly shifting”?

    4. Ok, so your descriptions are “provisional,” but what if someone wants to argue that your *provisional* description is wrong/inaccurate? Is that ok?

    Please set me straight, Stephen – it sounds as though you’re saying that if someone objects to something you write they are (therefore) misguided. Does it not strike you as ironic that you simultaneously praise the act of questioning spiritual authority and denounce those who question you?



    1. Hi Matthew,

      1) Of course I’m doing my best to make sense and say what I believe to be true, but my objective is not to gain your agreement; it’s to raise your doubts.
      ‘Right view’ is not about holding opinions. It’s about seeing through them. Sometimes our opinions are rational, but not as often as we like to believe. We are guided largely by our emotional instincts.
      Even ‘correct’ opinions are contingent; none stand on their own. To the extent that my experiences are relatable to yours, you’ll be more likely to share my opinion, and vice-versa.

      2) You misunderstand: I presume you are using your wits, otherwise you’d have no interest in this blog.

      3) All descriptions are provisional; not just mine. Check out the theory of the origin of the universe: it’s revised every few years with staggeringly different interpretations, and yet each one is presented and accepted in the interim as ‘true.’ Another example: the Catholic Church was a unifying and pacifying force following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Today it’s old and corrupt, perhaps beyond repair. And yet the debate goes on as to whether it’s a ‘force for good’ or a ‘force for evil’ as if ‘it’ is something outside of time and context.

      4) I’m not denouncing those like you who make me think twice. I’m referring to those (mostly hardcore Buddhists and hardcore atheists) who denounce me as ‘wrong’ because I don’t go along with their particular beliefs. I’m also stating as emphatically as possible that I won’t be drawn into long and pointless arguments about matters of doctrine. There’s a place for that, but I have neither the time nor the interest. That’s theoretical stuff. I find raising existential doubts to be far more substantial and worthwhile.

      Perhaps I am being ironic. I try!

      Thanks for the challenge Matthew!

    1. Stephen
      Like the premise, yet do not totally agree with the analogy.

      See, my friend Peter is so easy going but,…Wait a second, he simply does not like conflicts.
      Same behaviour, different motivation.
      An outlaw and an innovator are simply NOT the same. An outlaw is angry, an innovator is driven. To put them in the same category is like calling a domestic cat and a tiger FELINE.
      Having a synthetic mind (questioning for a functional purpose), is different than having a rebellious mind (acting on impulse), and that is applicable to all human experience from religion to morality to science.
      Both reactions can be culturally driven but must be characteristically present in our personalities.
      Thesis>>Antithesis>>Synthesis, is the formula used by innovation.
      Thesis >>Antithesis>>STOP is the one followed by the outlaw.

      1. Ralph; I disagree, outlaws are not angry. Not always. Usually, from experience, they are more imaginative than the society they live in.

  6. One of the common definitions of outlaw is someone who is outside the protection of the law. I believe this is what Stephen is describing here. Someone who is outside the sangha and who thinks for himself or herself. Religious communities can be soothing and stifling at the same time.

    People who question authority are often labeled as “angry”. That’s just a control mechanism to minimize them and their viewpoint.

    “Imagine if everyone were willing to step outside their comfort zone. ”

    Stepping outside of your comfort zone is the first step to growth.

  7. Your post rings very true for me Stephen. Like you, from an early age I questioned everything and have learned that this doesn’t always win me friends. I’ve realised over the years that I value truth more than popularity, even though like everyone, I feel deeply the need to belong and be accepted. I felt at a visceral level that saying nothing when I encountered falsity or group-think was forsaking my own integrity.

    What I’ve also learnt though, through trial and error, is to choose my battles because sometimes questioning in order to challenge is futile if you are dealing with closed minds or hidden agendas. I’ve also learnt to tune into my own intentions when I feel the urge to question. I too am familiar with questioning to gain attention or impress. But I also used to challenge because I felt ‘they’ were ‘wrong’ and I wanted to show them the error of their ways. Whether there are institutions or laws involved or not, we can arrange our own opinions to sound very much like doctrine themselves.

    Of particular interest to me in your post was the use of the word ‘should’. Shoulds often point us in the direction of our own sacred cows or un-questionables. For you perhaps (and I can relate to this) there is an inherent valuing of seeking truth. I get that. And I’ve also learnt that not everyone lives their life driven by this imperative. I used to think ‘well, they ‘should”. But why ‘should’ they? We each choose where to draw the line for our own lives between comfort and as Stephen Batchelor says, ‘living life with unflinching honesty’.

  8. I’ve discovered that oxymoronic ideas like (sacred whore, spiritual outlaw, spiritual playboy etc) work for the absolute freedom of aloneness. In the end all those ideas die. They are a subtle way of attempting to make the bad good. Rebel, revolutionary, outlaw are all reactionary tricks associated with the ways of what I call the Luciferonic effect-the one who wanted all the glory above god and JC because he/she thought that all IS alone and creates alone. However that is BS. I’ve walked alone to the ends of the earth. I’m not going to tell u who saved me. What I will say is I still go it alone, however I now do it through relationship.

  9. Hey Stephen. I normally probably wouldn’t find your blog because I’m not into buddhism (yoga sutras & taoist alchemy fan here) but I was googling for stuff on celibacy and your blog came up. I like your attitude and comments section is mentally stimulating, so many views in one place. Keep it up. I’ll read from time to time, maybe. Good stuff.

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