Measures for the “Right” spiritual path, or, An MMPI for the soul

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 14 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: One of the jobs of the field of Transpersonal Psychology will be to someday find ways to evaluate the actual kind of changes that take place in people as a result of spiritual pursuits, and then start correlating those with what kind of techniques we use to bring them about, what kind of people they were in the first place, what their teachers were like, their support structures, and things like that. So that some day we won’t just kind of expose people to a hodge-podge of spiritual growth techniques and hope something takes, but be able to give something that is suitable for a particular person.

My fantasy research project for you young folks to devote your lives to is to take the next million people who go into various spiritual paths and test the hell out of them. And I say test the hell out of them because we don’t know what test is going to have any relevance at this point, but we can get a lot of data and eventually empirically find out. Then follow these people up every five years. What percent are still happy in the particular path they’re on? What percent of suicides in a particular path? Which ones have left it, denounced the whole thing? What kind of actual personality changes for the better have taken place in these?

Follow them up every five years, something like that. Do this for the next 30, 40, 50 years. Eventually you’ll be able to empirically condense this down into a test where if someone says “I want to become more spiritual,” you’ll be able to give them a test and then say something like, “Well, with 80 percent confidence, I warn you to stay clear of Zen because the psychosis rate for your personality type is too high with Zen. But Sufism works very well for your type.”

But the next person that comes in, you say, “You’re a natural for Zen. For your type, there’s only a 1 percent psychosis rate and a 20 percent enlightenment rate.” That’s a pretty good deal to be able to say things like that.


Student: Does that take away the fun of finding out for yourself?


CTT: Well there is the fun of finding it out for yourself, but then I think there are too many people who come toward the end of their life and find they’ve wasted it. Because they wanted to grow spiritually and they feel like they haven’t done that.

Student: Arms and legs, Charley.

[Student thinks I’ve lost my mindfulness, probably correct, I get too excited sometimes!]

It would be nice if we had tests that were already developed that could tell you a person’s spiritual strengthens and weaknesses, and be able to then rationally suggest particular things that they should do. But we don’t really have anything like that and we’re not sure how you could develop them. I mean, eventually we can develop them, but meanwhile this could be done in a purely empirical way. One of the most widely used psychological diagnostic techniques is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). I used to know it pretty well because where I went to graduate school, a couple of people who were the main developers of it were on the faculty. So we MMPI’d the hell out of everybody.

The MMPI was developed empirically. That is, they gave up ideas of, “If you answered true to liking roses, that means you’re more likely to be schizophrenic.” Who the hell knows what a liking for roses has to do with schizophrenia or hysteria or manic depression or something like that?

But working at the Minnesota General Hospital, they had hundreds of people already diagnosed through intensive psychiatric interviews. Here were the manic depressives. Here were the hysterias and so forth. They gave them, I don’t know, something in the order of a thousand true/false questions, all sorts of ways and then they simply saw which questions did the schizophrenics generally answer as true, especially as compared to a control group?

The control group being the visitors to the hospital who were, by and large Minnesotans, right? So Minnesotans were taken as a standard of normality.


Something to be said for that!

And eventually narrowed this down into 400 and some questions which turned out to be one of the most valid tests around for being able to diagnose somebody. And you paid no attention to the meaning of any particular question. You just knew that if they answered true to a lot of these questions on the schizophrenia scale, the probability was getting higher and higher that they were schizophrenics.

You could do this sort of thing for various spiritual paths. You could find out that lots of true answers or particular choice answers to this question correlates with the fact that people who do a Zen path feel pretty enlightened after 15 years or something like that.

You could find it out empirically and, of course, you couldn’t help but analyze this stuff, and think about it, and come up with some ideas that way.


  1. This theme – of empirically testing spiritual paths, candidates for them, and the results they get – is one of the recurrent threads of your work. You discussed it in the newsletter you were running back in the 1980s, to which I was a subscriber, and which went into your 1989 book Open Mind, Discriminating Mind. (Because of a comment I sent your newsletter back then, I have the honor of appearing in the index of that book – which was called to my attention by the mother of my brother’s fiancee, who was reading the book at the time her daughter became engaged.)

    Quite recently, I came across a convincing argument that Gurdjieff was also using the experimental method when he was running the groups that Ouspensky attended, memorialized in the book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. In his eye-opening book Hidden Meanings and Picture-form Language in the Writings of G.I. Gurdjieff: (Excavations of the Buried Dog), John Henderson also identifies the various incarnations of The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, prior to and including the Prieuré at Fontainebleau, as part of Gurdjieff’s “experimental period”. Henderson quotes G. as saying so – in conversations reported by senior students in books they wrote, as well as G.’s own writing, in the only substantial piece of his work published while he was still alive and able to prevent the posthumous revisions – “Wiseacreing” – which G. foresaw as the inevitable fate of his writings.

    Are familiar with Henderson’s book? If you have read it, I would be very interested in your reaction.

    1. It’s easy to assume a “Master” knows everything and so everything they do and teach is perfect. Well I wouldn’t rule out the idea of perfection, but don’t think it’s very probable. There’s also the problem that this desire may be fueled by the childish elements in our psyche that want all knowing Mommies and Daddies, leading to all sorts of projections. I’ve always assumed G was an experimenter, and some of his experiments didn’t “work” the way he wanted. But there is, of course, a “faithful disciple” mentality that preserves everything as sacred….
      Both G and the Buddha told us not to believe them, but to test their ideas and methods and see what worked for us…..

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