Neurodivergence And Spirituality

Is it possible that neurodivergent people experience spirituality differently than neurotypical folks?

The answer is obvious. Yes, we experience spirituality differently than neurotypical folks. Why should spirituality be any different from the other realms of existence? I’ll remind you that I used to think that we perceive the world in more or less the same way. Then I realized that I’m neurodivergent. This neurodivergence has an impact on how I perceive the world, like my inability to perceive glares when I’m in the midst of an interaction with someone.

Perhaps the abstract ideas that serve to explain a specific spirituality are received in a way that is mostly the same for everyone. Note that I say “perhaps.” I’m not even sure about this. However, it is certainly the case that when we talk about the experiences that a spiritual path is supposed to provide, neurodivergent people will not live these experiences in the same way as neurotypical people do.

Note here that I do not have all the answers regarding how this experience differs. I am barely starting to think about this fact. For most of my life, I thought I was neurotypical. I do think, however, that this is a fact worth examining.


Because, like everything else in life, we may need to adapt our methods of teaching to the neurodivergent crowd. Of course, there are the obvious adaptation that we can make. Let’s take the case of meditation. We can allow people to stim quietly. We can allow them to turn off their camera when this form of meditation is virtual. We can avoid thinking anything special is going on if they don’t want to make eye contact, etc.

It is the less obvious adaptations that I’m wondering about. I did ask my Zen Master about a type of practice appropriate for someone who was suffering from psychosis. I was thinking sitting meditation might be appropriate, but my master suggested doing chanting meditation because of its grounding effect. I can see the wisdom in this.

Moreover, I’m wondering about the reported experiences of spirituality. Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, both allow for many paths towards enlightenment. I’m wondering, however, how many of these paths are reflective of the paths that neurodivergent people may take. One of the obstacles for a lot of people practicing Zen is to cultivate the ability to focus the mind. Fair enough, but what if, as an autistic person, I already have this ability, but I don’t know it? How much time am I going to waste chasing after something I already have?

Chasing after something we already have is one of the ironies of Zen practice. We are already enlightened. (Yes, even you.) However, we do not know that we are, and those of us who practice Zen spend our life chasing after this enlightenment. If I can make a parallel, the world is naturally ever-changing. It does not need to attain change in order to be able to change. I don’t think, however, that the fact that we are already enlightened says anything about our ability to focus.

Within Zen, we have multiple ways to practice. We can merely sit in silent meditation, or meditate using a koan. Which one is the best? Sometimes people use the term riddles to speak about koans, but this word is not entirely accurate. However, you need to understand the language of the koan to be able to answer. Maybe a neurodivergent person who has difficulty with language should just sit silently, rather than try to parse out the meaning of a koan.

As for myself, I have evolved spiritually since I’ve started practicing Zen meditation more than 27 years ago. However, my path hasn’t really been concordant with what I’ve heard about practice. I’ve not had visual hallucinations. I’ve not seen any Bodhisattva materialize. However, a lot of my perceptual experiences have been auditory. For instance, at the start of a seven-day retreat, I find the clanking of utensils at mealtime annoying. However, as the retreat progresses, this clanking turns into a beautiful harmony. Yes, it is still clanking, but my relationship to it changes.

In addition, I’ve received teachings in dreams, like the Tibetan Buddhists do. No, I don’t think this is supernatural. I’ve also had realizations that were triggered not by sitting in meditation but by my life experiences. Maybe the sitting meditation that I did prior to those life experiences was helpful?

How much of this is due to my neurodivergence? I don’t know. At any rate, with this article, I merely wanted to bring up the problem. As I said above, I don’t have all the answers.






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