Dear reader

Why do I write about pitfalls of spirituality?

My purpose with this blog is to crystallize and share my thoughts and experiences, in the hope that you and I may benefit from them. From 1993-2005 I practiced a so-called spiritual method (Sahaj Marg). Ultimately I realized that this method - and especially the organization around it (Shri Ram Chandra Mission or SRCM)- was contrary to some deep spiritual layer in myself. I came to some clear conclusions, and also to some still developing insights.

One still developing insight is that almost everybody is looking for some form of spirituality in their life. Therefore there are many spiritual methods and movements, often with similar pitfalls to the ones I experienced.

Many people follow a well-trodden path which is defined by the group in their immediate vicinity. Others are prompted by their heart and/or head to look for spirituality that makes sense on a personal level. Spirituality gives fulfillment -humanity as one, universal love growing, one with the buddha- as well as direction through life's tough questions.

I write about the pitfalls of spirituality because so many others seem to write mostly about the bliss of their own approach to spirituality. This bliss to me actually seems a pitfall.

Understanding the pitfalls I deem essential to gain more spiritual insight. For me this actually translates into a lighter and more loving heart. I do not believe that understanding is the key issue in spirituality. But I do believe that misunderstanding can block key issues (although to which degree probably varies with each person).

Please bear with my frequent use of I feel, seems to me, in my not so humble opinion and so on. It is to emphasize that I do not consider any of my opinions to be more than that. I cannot bring you universal truth. In my not so humble opinion [imnsho] universal truth is a major pitfall in spirituality.

Dear reader, I hope you find something worthwhile on these pages. Friendly reactions, which may be as critical as you like, are always welcome.

Tips how to read this blog

* Please start with the closing remarks (click on the link), they should provide a balanced perspective on this blog.

* There is a list of 20 pitfalls in the sidebar. Clicking on a pitfall will provide a number of posts in which that pitfall is discussed to some extent.

* If you have time, consider starting with the oldest post, and simply going through to each next post. This probably gives the most faithful ;-) reading...
Showing posts with label Partial truth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Partial truth. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 2: mind & heart

Back to the last question raised in the previous post:

How can it be a problem and a pitfall, if by a slow process of avoiding cognitive dissonance, I gradually come to hold views and beliefs which earlier would have been paradoxical or morally wrong to me?


In my eyes, the question is relevant (otherwise I wouldn't ask it of course ;-)), but my answer will take some time because I do not perceive this as a black-and-white issue.

Any development, any learning implies (I believe) that I change my views and beliefs. And even in mathematics, I have experienced that what I first thought to be contradictory or impossible, later turned out to be correct or possible, once seen in the correct light or with the correct enabling definitions. (Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the other way round also occurs frequently in mathematics.).

So to me the pitfall lies not in the changing of my views and beliefs per se. The pitfall lies in me deluding myself. In the posts on partial truth I raised the example of me riding over your bicycle, and then claiming that at the last moment your bicycle jumped under my car, damaging my front fender. You might laugh at this example, but I'm sure that people have given stranger testimony of events. Witchcraft, voodoo, and also Divine Intervention are but a few names given by people to justify things they say and/or think to have witnessed.

This car-bicycle example is of course rather mild. Things get more worrisome, when we consider a number of psychological experiments in which more profound consequences of belief-changing and rationalization were found to occur easily. Some of these experiments have become famous, also for their ethical dilemma: is it ethical to subject people to such an experiment?

In the famous Milgram experiment the participants were asked to give punitive dosages of electricity to subjects (this was actually not really happening, but the participants thought it was real). Although most participants had some initial trouble accepting that it was okay to do so, in the end they ended up giving really painful electrical shocks to their subjects (so they thought). The authorative figure of the doctor in charge told them it was ok, and rather than upsetting this expert authority and being a troublemaker, they chose to believe that what the doctor said had to be true.

From wikipedia:
Milgram's testing revealed that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.[3] Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:

`The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

In another famous experiment The Third Wave, a class was slowly led by their history teacher to accept and join a (fictitious) movement `The Third Wave' which had clear fascistic tendencies. Quoting from Wikipedia:
Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment (Monday, April 3 1967[2]) with simple things like proper seating, drilling the students until they were able to move from outside the classroom to their seats and take the proper seating position in less than 30 seconds without making a sound.[3] He then proceeded to strict classroom discipline emerging as an authoritative figure and improving efficiency of the class dramatically.

Jones closed the first day's session with a few rules, only meaning to be a one day experiment. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or less, and were required to preface each remark with "Mr. Jones."[3]

On the second day he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community.[3] Jones named the movement "The Third Wave", after the common belief that the third in a series of ocean waves is last and largest.[3] Jones made up a salute resembling the one of Nazi regime[1] and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.[3]

The experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in: on the third day the class expanded from initial 30 students to 43 attendees. All of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. All of the students were issued a member card and each of them received a special assignment (like designing a Third Wave Banner, stopping non-members from entering the class, etc). Jones instructed the students on how to initiate new members, and by the end of the day the movement had over 200 participants.[3] Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.[3]

On Thursday, the fourth day of the experiment, Jones decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The students became increasingly involved in the project and their discipline and loyalty to the project was astounding. He announced to the participants that this movement is only a part of a nationwide movement and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the movement would publicly announce existence of the movement. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement.[3]

Instead of a televised address of their leader, the students were presented with an empty channel. After few minutes of waiting, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism and that they all willingly created a sense of superiority that German citizens had in the period of Nazi Germany. He then played them a film about Nazi regime. That was the end of the experiment.[3]


[As an aside, these types of experiment are why I am really extremely wary of anyone advocating obedience-without-thinking to some Moral Authority. Any spiritual guide which I deem worthy of that name should have knowledge of these experiments, or at least insight in how the atrocities of the second World War and similar genocidal practices could possibly happen.

With this insight and knowledge in mind, I don't believe a spiritual guide would ever ask for total unthinking obedience (see also the posts on obedience). Because this insistence alone could very well be very painful for all those who have suffered under the consequences of totalitarian regimes.]


So, to come back to the pitfall that I perceive in the avoidance of cognitive dissonance, can I find out the divide between learning and development on the one hand, and self-delusion on the other?

I'm sorry to say that I believe this to be very difficult for most if not all of us.

As an example, I'm quite positive that many practicants of my former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg will consider me self-delusional. I am being led astray by my mind, and -poor soul- have lost contact with my heart. My mind is creating all sorts of ego-fed illusions, and therefore I am blinded from the love of the Master. Something like that.

I cannot find a 100% proof that they are wrong. It is just that their view no longer jibes sufficiently with mine, which leads me to holding more the opposite view. So perhaps this is a good moment to explain why this blog is meant mostly for people who are uneasy with their spiritual movement, and cannot put their finger on their unease. This is partly because I do not think that I cán influence people who are happy in their heart-oriented participation in a spiritual movement. But also partly because I'm not sure that I want to influence these people.

If they are happy and fulfilled, and they do not grievously wrong others, then who am I to want to change that?

The counter-remark to this is of course that if I consider the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement to be actively deceptive and power abusive, then I would also hold the well-meaning members responsible to some extent, for they are the ones giving power to this Inner Circle.


The question for this post remains:

How can I, personally, just for me, decide whether I am deluding myself (or am being led to delude myself)?

I think part of the answer lies in `unease'. Accepting some form of unease for a prolonged period of time might well lead me to a serious form of self-delusion. (You might call this the heart-approach)

Another part lies in: `face the facts'. Making a factual list of the important issues, I might be able to pierce through the cognitive dissonance avoidance mechanism. (You might call this the mind-approach).

I will come back to this, but for now this post is already terribly long, and should take its ending. To be continued.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Honesty, truthfulness & openness (partial truth, secrets & things unsaid 2)

(continued from the previous post)

So let's look at things from the other `positive' side. Personally, one of the most important qualities that I associate with spirituality has to do with truthfulness, honesty, transparency or openness, whatever you prefer.

Of course I'm not talking about situations where one lies to the Gestapo to save fugitives' lives. I'm not even saying that it is humanly possible to be truthful all the time, simply because I think we cannot discern even our own personal truth 100% accurately. Perhaps I could even come up with situations where it would be more kind, more humane to lie to another person, even if there are no fugitives to be saved.

I'm not talking about all that. I'm talking about the large majority of cases where telling partial truth -leaving important things unsaid, hidden- or even lying is simply an instrument to avoid confrontation, or for personal gains. In a large majority of cases, I think we know what the truth is, or we know so enough, but we choose to tell only a part of it.

All a part of la condition humaine, I suppose. Still, for me it is a spiritual tenet to strive for truth, honesty, transparency / openness. The fact that we're not on that level yet doesn't mean for me that it would not be better if people were more honest with each other.

I believe this tenet to be advocated by most spiritual movements. Be truthful. Don't deceive. Yet many spiritual movements practice a graded truth in their Pyramid. And many spiritual movements keep things hidden, unsaid, unknown but to the Inner Circle. Examples of things kept hidden:

  • Financial holdings & dealings for instance, to be sure! But also controversies, power struggles, power abuse, sexual indulgence, other not so holy-looking behaviour, well the list of cover-ups is probably endless.
  • Marketing strategies for new books (what and when to release, what price to ask). Proselytization strategies (where to hold gatherings, which countries to visit, what message to give to newcomers, how to ensure retention of (new) practicants).
  • Also, and not as infrequently as one would think!, secrets and secret rites, initiations, secret organizational groups, secret meetings.
  • Parts of the spiritual theory (to be revealed when a practicant is singled out as a trainer or priest-like functionary)
  • Less-than-shiny details of its History
  • Criticism of the Movement by serious well-meaning people


Suppose our generic Spiritual Movement consistently shows any or many signs of the above. In all honesty I do not see how one can rhyme this with `be truthful'. Apart from other unwanted effects, it also comes down to separating humanity once again: `Us in the know' and `Them not in the know'.

As I wrote earlier, uniting humanity to me seems a worthy spiritual endeavour although we are surely a far cry from such unification. To me, many of the pitfalls that are discussed on this blog actually hamper us in becoming united.

For me, to respect you and to feel connected, I cannot willingly deceive you. The same, but more difficult perhaps, holds for me deceiving myself as well. If I am honest to myself, only then can I be honest to you. Making mistakes, holding less-than-desirable thoughts, reacting `badly', it's all part of the game. To play the game sportingly, with respect and with others as my equals, this to me means that conscious deception of any form is out of bounds - ball to the other side...;-) so no moral pressure but you get my drift.


In short:

To me, a spiritual movement which is not truthful and open about its finances, about its holdings, about its power structures, initiation levels, spiritual theory, history, criticism from well-informed and well-meaning members, proselytization strategies, ...

does not deserve the name `spiritual movement'.

Partial truth, secrets & things unsaid

OK. From my last comment on the previous post, one more pitfall strikes me as occurring commonly enough to mention separately.

In many spiritual movements (religions included), there are things unsaid and unrevealed, especially to `newcomers'. For instance, one may start out innocently in our Spiritual Movement, and slowly notice that all the top executive functions in the Pyramid and even almost all the midlevel executive functions are filled by men. So then one asks: `how come?'. And only then it turns out that in the philosophy of the Movement, the spiritual essence of `woman' is seen as different from the spiritual essence of `man', leading to the conclusion that men and women need to be separate at meditation and that the Guru can never be a woman, and all sorts of other consequences.

Truly Interested Seeker (TIS): `But you said spirituality unites? You said we are all humans, and we should not distinguish between race, age, poor, rich, man, woman,...yet here you are, drawing this thou-shalt-not-cross-line down the middle?'

Orthodox reply (OR): ` As one progresses on the Spiritual Path, insight grows. In the beginning, our Leader kindly takes the hand of the seeker, and slowly reveals the Truth according to the capacity and condition in the practicant. Do not doubt, doubt poisons the heart and weakens the will. Although man and woman are equally important, they are not spiritually equal, it is a given of Nature. As your heart sheds its old beliefs and false western preconceptions of emancipation, you will progress to the next stage.'


Of course such examples of enlightenment-in-degrees set the stage for a glorious role of Partial Truth.

Partial Truth is where one can claim: I never lied to you, I just didn't tell you everything. A nice example of this (I think):

I push your car in the canal at night. You come back the following day, and think it stolen. I say: `One never knows, perhaps someone pushed it into the canal'. Did I lie?


Partial truth is the perfect strategy to avoid confrontation, and yet still maintain a facade of truthfulness. It is an essential ingredient of manipulation. To be continued.