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 ambition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ambition. Show all posts

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Power & money: la condition humaine

So. I probably should take a deep breath. On the subject of power and money, I feel like a dilettante, but it needs to be discussed when one writes about pitfalls of spirituality. Please allow for simplifications and oversights on my part. I am positive that on `power & money' many treatises can be written, because power & money pervade our society to the very core.

Perhaps I can start out like this. To me the following seems a fact (with a humane interpretation of `abuse'):

Power and power abuse are a part of nature.

The role of power in nature can from a scientific point of view be seen as part of `survival of the fittest'. Science has repeatedly and increasingly shown that almost all species engage in ferocious competition-between-species AND competition-within-the-species.

Zebra eats grass. Lion eats Zebra. Jackal eats Lion -when given the chance. Lion Male kills Lion Male, to take over the mating rights with the Lion Female. Lion Male also kills off earlier Lion Cubs, and arguably rapes Lion Female. I mean, the list of these things is completely endless. It is `eat or be eaten', `kill or be killed', `dominate or be dominated'. In the process of genetic selection amongst sexual species, science also shows us that the competition between males-males, females-males and females-females is astonishingly fierce. `The selfish gene' is looking for the `best' partner to mate with, in order to produce the best offspring for survival of the gene.

In a group of social animals, like human beings, this leads -without any exception that I'm aware of- to a power structure, a power hierarchy. And since power is tied very closely to `survival of the fittest', positions of power tend to be very gratifying to the persons holding them.

This need not even be, and very often isn't, on a conscious level. Two famous quotations:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.. (John E.E.D. Acton, 1887)

Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. (William Pitt, 1770)


Back to our Spiritual Movement. Let's forget a moment about Movements and Leaders who are consciously looking for Power and Power abuse. Let's assume that the intentions of the original Founder were acceptably spiritual.

The reasons for this assumption are this: I would like to illustrate the pitfalls associated with power and money. If power and money are the conscious goal already, then there is no pitfall, there is only abuse. It becomes interesting only when dedicated, spiritually motivated people are confronted with the power& money issues that arise from a growing Movement.


The previous post was about fulfillment <--> spiritual progress --> ambition --> inner circle --> power. The post departed from `fulfillment'.

This post takes off from the other end: `power'. The pitfall about power by itself, is that it corrupts already on a subconscious level. Like stated above, I believe this to be due to the way that power mechanisms are hardwired into us as social animals. To hold a position of power, is by nature's standards fulfillment enough.

To illustrate in one way: in the past decade there has been a survey of senior administrators in the Dutch government. They were asked if they find their work gratifying and if so, why (in other words: job satisfaction). It turns out that by far the most gratifying part of their job was `influence'. Influence on major decisions in society. Influence on people, influence on money. Respect from other people, other people looking up to you. For this these senior administrators were willing to forego a much higher pay that they could earn in enterprise/consultancy/... I mean this quite directly: they formulated it in these terms.


In many if not most spiritual movements (religions included), I see a completely similar pattern. When the movement is large enough, it has some form of official organization. This organization is -again without any exception that I'm aware of- organized hierarchically. This creates a power pyramid, where each next level to the top represents: fewer individuals having more influence.

Even if I'm not driven by the sequence fulfillment <--> spiritual progress --> ambition --> inner circle --> power, I may still be naturally driven by the shorter sequence: `ambition --> next level in the pyramid --> power'. Because each next level represents also more respect from others, more looking up to me, and more influence.


How to get to this next level in the Pyramid of the Spiritual Movement? Well, this is similar to other organizations. There are various options, which I'm sure are recognizable to anyone familiar with more than passing knowledge of a spiritual movement. An obvious option is:

Work, work more, work even more...for the Pyramid. With dedication and selfless obedience of higher Pyramid levels. Try to get connected to people from higher levels, work on your network. Try to attract attention from higher levels, even the Highest Level, which is of course the Leader. Maintain a spotless existence, and propagate the teachings of the Movement. Be a firm Believer. Proselytize, and then proselytize some more.

Do not hesitate to grasp opportunities left by the mistakes of others in the Pyramid. Their loss is your gain.


A less obvious option is: be already influential outside the Movement. If you are already a part of Society's Pyramid (the movers and the shakers, the influential politicians, CEO's, judges, generals, rich people, famous people, senior administrators, tv commentators and what have we in this crazy world), then you are interesting to the Movement's Organization, the Movement's Pyramid.

One might think, naively: why would an influential person be interesting to the Movement's Organization?


This is because the Movement's Organization usually seeks to establish itself amongst the powers that be. The Organization wants to influence Society. This might be at the outset from some spiritual motivation. But imnsho most often this spiritual motivation is corrupted by the power that the Organization acquires in the course of the Movement's growth. This growth often takes place on many scales:

*Number of followers of the Movement
*Funds available to the Movement
*Influence and influential connections of the Movement
*Physical properties of the Movement
*Activities undertaken or controlled by the Movement, such as schools, housing, hospitals
*Perhaps more, to be added later


Well-connected people who are influential in society are therefore a prime candidate for high positions in the Movement's Pyramid. Vice versa, the arch-bishops and other high positioned people of religions are automatically influential in society, and part of society's inner circle.


OK. Second deep breath. Time for the twin pitfall of `money'. But in order to keep posts manageable, I will tackle it in the next post.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fulfillment, spiritual progress, ambition, inner circle, power

I've been reading some other websites on pitfalls associated with spiritual movements. If one reads beyond the difference in style and personalities, it is quite amazing how widespread these mechanisms seem to be. Also, I'm not sure that what I write has anything new to offer. But I suppose that another way of saying the same things is still worthwhile, if it helps people find their own path.

Anyway, first let me point out this link: the false guru test. The strength of this test (to me) lies in the fact that the author doesn't have a particular guru or spiritual movement in mind. This gives a certain neutrality and objectivity, which is similar to what science in its best form can offer. People can `fill in' the details from their Movement, and see for themselves if they might be in a certain danger zone. [Yes, I know, this presupposes that the author (Andrew Paterson) of the test knows what he's talking about...I think he does.]

I take out three elements of this test, since they fit in with the topic here. Let's start with no. 21:

21. Allows his followers to set up a hierarchy of access:
A guru must be accessible. If he is not, or if he allows his followers to block your access, then he is playing the role of a king and not a spiritual guide. A guru is only useful to the process of awakening if you can directly interact with him.

Of course this is directly tied to no. 20:

20. Is not interested in you personally:
If a teacher or guru does not have time to interact with you personally, then you may as well read his teaching from a book, because merely being in his presence doesn't help you find realization inside you. You may model some of his spiritual characteristics, but that often only places you deeper in illusion.


Although I'm all for tests like these, I also get the feeling that many people try to lay blame on spiritual movements for mechanisms that one sees everywhere, also outside spiritual movements.

Because, to be honest, I have seen the above two items displayed in any large organization, if one replaces `guru' with `director', `secretary of state', `chief executive officer' etc.

So what happens if I were to examine my own role in being seduced by these power mechanisms? It might shed light on why other people do what they do, it might help me understand how supposedly `very advanced persons' (let's call them VAPs) allow themselves to become `very important persons', VIPs.


So the whole thing for me (and there are others pointing this out, see the excellent analysis in Inner Circle of SRCM ) starts with the combination of fulfillment and progress. (I feel fulfilled if I progress, especially if I feel this progress is in the direction of a Lofty Goal.)

These two in turn fuel my ambition. Because I see others, who as a sign of their progress, have attained membership of the inner circle. The inner circle of trusted associates of the Leader(s), who are up-to-date on all the plans, who are often in close personal interaction with the Most Advanced/Important Person(s), say MAP/MIP. Who by this association receive special training, special attention,...extra progress therefore, and in this way extra fulfillment!


Now it is easy to substitute some spiritual movement in the above. But it gets more interesting if I substitute my workplace surroundings, for instance. Or politics. Or a large sports organization, like the International Olypmic Committee. Or a large charity, like the World Nature Fund.

Because in each of these organizations, I am convinced that many people are looking for personal fulfillment, which they measure by their `progress' in the organization; the combination of which fuels their ambition to attract attention of the inner circle etc.


So, going back to spiritual movements, I am not convinced that all these VAPs become VIPs because they are powerhungry. This would be too obvious a mechanism, as a pitfall it can be easily avoided by intelligent well-meaning people, and many people seriously interested in spirituality are exactly that.

Power mechanisms come into my existence as a spiritual `practitioner' because I allow myself to be seduced by the combination of `fulfillment' and `progress'.

The very idea of `spiritual progress' implies some form of judgment. It implies that some people are more spiritual than others. To be honest, I still make these judgments myself, but I have come to realize that such judgments are of a personal practical nature, and not in any sense Absolute or True. They reflect on me probably more than on those whom I place in the category `more spiritual behaviour' and 'less spiritual behaviour'.

And the obvious question is: what will happen if I stop judging like that?


Accepting people the way they are...looks very spiritual. But for me it works in the practical sense only within certain limits. I cannot accept people ruthlessly exploiting other people, or worse. However, I have come to understand why some people are driven in that direction.

But mostly, within the (for me) most common situations, accepting people the way they are works better for me than judging their behaviour. And to come full circle, this of course is a reflection of self-acceptance and self-judgment.

Really accepting myself (within certain limits?) means, I think, not judging myself. It also means letting go of the idea of spiritual progress. There is no objective progress. There might be some mellowing out of tendencies which for some reason bother me (and/or others ;-) ). Fine, big deal.


The appropriate element of the false guru test mentioned above is no. 4:

4. Focuses on enlightenment itself rather than teaching the path leading to it:
It is amazing how much false gurus have to say about enlightenment. They argue their points in the same way that the scholars in the middle ages argued how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. Any fool can talk about the end goal because what is said is irrefutable to most of your listeners. What is skillful is guiding those listeners to having awakening within themselves. The real teacher focuses on the path and strictly avoids any talk on enlightenment.

(I don't agree completely with this phrasing, but the point is valid, and is the same I believe as saying: don't focus on progress. Spirituality lies in `being'. Not in `becoming'.)


With regard to my former spiritual movement, I have come to understand a lot of behaviour that I found mystifying and which made me angry. The same goes for my former workplace at a large ministry in my country. I find, in hindsight, that I can accept better that many people are driven by the mechanisms of fulfillment <--> progress --> ambition --> inner circle --> power. And I know I'm not free of it myself.


This being said, I cannot accept that people willingly and knowingly abuse their power positions. Nor can I accept that they refuse to take real responsibility when they have been given power.

But what can I do, in a concrete practical sense?

First of all, I try not to give power to people who are enveloped in some inner circle mechanism. Famous pop artist? Secretary of State? Guru with 3 million followers? Director of Greenpeace? `Pleased to meet you, but if you'll excuse me I need to talk to my daughter about her new sweater'. No disrespect meant, but I have seen an incredible amount of fawning over VIPs. And am ashamed to say that I fawned a few times myself when meeting my former spiritual guide. Against my better judgment, it was a subconscious thing which I later managed to correct because I dislike these mechanisms.

Second, the asking of critical, insightful questions has always struck me as a good way to remind people of their responsibilities when in a power position.

Here often lie real eye-openers, with regard to the issue `heart' vs `mind'. Because most people in a position of power expect a fawning-like agreement from their underlings. Many even demand it explicitly! But if a technical proposal fails to meet its technical objective, and the VIP hasn't observed this and is all for the proposal...then what do you think happens if you ask the critical technical questions that reveal that the VIP has made a mistake?

It can be, I assure you from personal experience, an extremely funny situation!

And so thirdly, what I can do in a practical sense? I believe that making fun of ridiculous situations and opinions and positions and behaviour is a very effective way of puncturing the balloon of self-importance and Absolute Truth etc.

No wonder, that the least tolerant of spiritual movements are so serious. No wonder, that false gurus do not allow jokes about their proposals, theories and behaviour, except if they make them themselves to show off their sense of humour and humility (`Oh, look, He is so humble, He even jokes about Himself!').

Let alone, that they welcome real criticism and critical questions.