Why Our Spiritual Practices Can Lead Us Off-Course

What we call ‘intuition’ might be our conditioning.

Beth Bradford, Ph.D.
5 min readOct 4, 2022


train tracks leading to a different path
Photo by Christopher Beddies on Unsplash

In Chapter 18 of The Cloud of Unknowing, the author describes how some contemplatives might easily go astray or go insane. We see this today with modern “contemplatives” — the “spiritual, but not religious” — who want to make their own rules concerning their practices. There’s a part of me that can’t argue with them because I often wonder how the many rituals of my own faith might need to be tossed out because they no longer serve a purpose.

I’m reminded of Anthony de Mello, who described how specific traditions served a practical purpose centuries ago, and we practice them in the name of “tradition” without acknowledging that they served a utilitarian purpose rather than a spiritual one.

On the other hand, I know firsthand how choosing your faith practices can lead you more into yourself rather than into God. For some, that might be the goal, especially if they don’t believe in God. Getting to know yourself, particularly how you contribute to your own pain, is very important in living a healthy life. However, I also know that many people in the spirit of “contemplative” will abandon all reason and only rely on their “intuition.”

When our hearts are pure, our intuition can easily guide us in making certain decisions. However, what we sometimes claim to be “intuition” is learned knowledge. It’s the patterns we’ve accumulated perhaps subconsciously over time. We call it “automatic” thinking, but it’s often where many of our biased perceptions reside.

On a cognitive level, it’s about how concepts in our memory are organized. We know this as “priming,” where similar thoughts and ideas are stored for efficiency. Computers do this, organizing packets of information so that the computers run faster. A popular priming example is when we’re asked to say the first word that comes to our mind when given a specific word. When given the word, “doctor,” we often will say, “nurse” since those concepts are similar.

We call it “automatic” thinking, but it’s often where many of our biased perceptions reside.



Beth Bradford, Ph.D.

Former TV person, college professor and media researcher. Ironman triathlete, meditation teacher and yoga instructor. https://www.brad4d-wellness.com