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 belonging and fulfillment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label belonging and fulfillment. Show all posts

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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fulfillment, mind & heart, and power

Much of what I wish to write about power as a spiritual pitfall comes from my experiences with a specific spiritual organization. But I have seen similar power mechanisms in other organizations, and similar fulfillment issues behind them.

So how to add something insightful to the vast literature on power? I'll try, but it won't be easy.

First question: why power can even become an issue in spiritual movements? It seems to me that in general we, the members of a group, empower people in the group to become group leaders. In my not so humble opinion we generally do not empower the people who I find the most spiritually suited for this group leading thing.

Too put it bluntly, mostly we want leaders who reduce our indecision and insecurity, who give us a sense of direction and purpose. Especially when it comes to spirituality. The previous post details some reasons for this that I see. I think most people are intelligent enough to be unsure about themselves, the purpose of their existence, the behaviour which they would like to adopt, etc.

So, once again not putting too fine a point on it: the mind is that which makes us homo sapiens (the thinking human). but the mind also makes us homo dubitans (the doubting, unsure human).

Does a dog wonder about its existence? Does it fret over whether to mate with other dog A or other dog B? Does it conceive of a before-life and afterlife? Does it fight with other dogs over whether the Great Shepherd in Dog Heaven is a german shepherd or an irish setter? I think my point is clear: dogs do not have enough mind for this, in my eyes. Mind you, I think dogs are very intelligent.

And dogs have a wonderful heart, at least in principle when not emotionally crippled by a bad owner. The dogs that I have had and known, were sensitive to my moods, would come to comfort me, would always greet me with joy, etc. etc.

All in all, with a good master, a dog's life seems simple and full of love. The dog might not be able to mate as freely as it would like, it might not always be free to roam as it would like, but all the rest is peaceful and assured, I think (I'm not a dog).

Whereas for us, with our roving and questioning and imaginative minds, life is seldom simple. We are also raised with many conflicting issues, desires, morals, etiquettes, group codes etc. And so, while many of us long for a heartful existence, where love & peace are predominant and the barking order is clear (the dog life...), this is not to be for us humans for two reasons.

First, to repeat: our own minds won't let us. When one looks at the stars, one cannot completely ignore the question `where does all this come from?' When a beloved dies from an accident, one cannot help but feel a deep grief, and the mind will most likely shout: `why did this happen? how could it have been prevented?' and on and on. Life is difficult, life is strange, and we are not intelligent enough to grasp what it is all about, but we are too intelligent to ignore the question `what is it all about?'

Second, because of our complex minds, we have formed complex societies. No simple herd model for us. So no simple role playing for us either. Our mind is constantly working to evaluate our roles in different groups, our standing in these groups, our ambitions, etc. etc.

So what does one say when one is offered a way to let the heart speak more? In my experience, most people understand very well what is meant by this. There is also a scientific basis which I would like to discuss in some next post. But the main point here is: to me it is attractive to give my heart a more prominent role in my life. In doing so, I personally feel my choices to be truer (I cannot define truth of course) and closer to where and who I want to be.

So in this sense my heart can give direction. My mind can also give direction. But this seems more complex. It seems to need more work, more attention. What if there was a way to live from the heart so to speak? And quiet the mind? No more doubts, no more hard work to think through and evaluate the possible consequences of actions, no more worries about myself, about others...

It seems an attractive proposition.

It is, I feel, largely this attraction which is behind the empowerment of `spiritual leaders'. I put my faith in this Spiritual Person, I let Him do the work of defining good and bad and moral behaviour etc. And then I try to live like that and commend myself for my spirituality in doing so. Win win. Maybe sometimes I feel guilty if I cannot live up to the high expectations that the Spiritual Leader is bound to put down. But that's all in the parcel. If the Spiritual Leader does not put down high expectations, why then my efforts are not special, and my life becomes ordinary and then I'm besieged by the same doubts as before. But if there is a real Spiritual Goal, then my life acquires a purpose. So I need the Leader to put down a Special Goal, in order to feel secure in my purpose, and I need the Leader to exert Moral Authority, in order not to have to think for myself what to do and how to behave.


And so we could come to a point where the question is asked:

Mind over heart, or heart over mind?


The duality of this question (by which I mean the assumption that the choice has to be either the one or the other) is of course ridiculous. But one would be surprised how many spiritual movements first pose this question, and then answer it by saying: heart over mind.

I will continue this thread in the next posts. But I would like to state here, beforehand, that in my not so humble opinion mankind is not helped by `heart over mind'. [OK, to be complete, I don't think `mind over heart' is completely helpful either].

We are not dogs. We will never be dogs. We will never be doglike. This is why the idea of a Spiritual Leader has to fail in real life. Even if well-intentioned, and perhaps many movements start out in this well-intended way, I don't know.

So, in my opinion please beware beware of any movement/leader saying `heart over mind'. It is a first step in what I see as a complex power pitfall. No matter if well-intended.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Belonging & fulfillment and group dynamics

As you know, I started out with a preliminary list of 15 pitfalls. All are pitfalls that I have come across during my participation in a spiritual movement. Perhaps the most difficult thing about analyzing these pitfalls is this: they hang together. I know I made that point in an earlier post, but it strikes me again with this subject.

And there are some more pitfalls that I forgot to mention in the preliminary list. In order not to forget one important other pitfall, I mention it here, to comment on later:

16. Spiritual energy, holy energy, transformational power,...

(in Sahaj Marg for instance it is called `transmission')


OK, back on topic: belonging and fulfillment. Belonging...I can belong to a group, but I can also belong to a way of life. I can feel fulfilled if some longing inside my heart for a loving existence is met by a spiritual way of life.

Practically all of us belong to a number of groups which are important to us. In all of these groups, I'm quite convinced, there are group mechanisms and group dynamics. And in many groups, the basics of these dynamics are very similar.

So I think that issues like belonging, fulfillment and group dynamics only turn into real pitfalls -ones we should be aware of and heed- when a group becomes over-important to us.


Considering further, it seems to me that fulfillment is a real issue for most of us. What are we here for, what do we do with our lives, how to give our existence meaning? How to become happy or at least...fulfilled? Life doesn't seem to make much sense, people are often hard on each other, solitude and existential doubts beset us. And if that is not enough, shit happens too. Illness, accidents, bereavement, negligence or even being injured physically or emotionally on purpose by malicious persons.

And then there is self-doubt too. And guilty feelings, shame over egoism or greed or other traits and thoughts that we are well aware of in ourselves, but hesitate to share with others since these traits/thoughts/feelings are socially unacceptable.

Keeping things to ourselves, we also keep many judgments to ourselves, knowing how judgments will be received unfavourably by the judged. The flip side is that we know we are judged ourselves, but we often do not know how we are judged, favourably or unfavourably.

This leads to various important forms of insecurity. Who am I? Am I a good person? What is my standing in this group? Do I belong here? How am I supposed to behave? etc. etc. etc.

Therefore -all this in my not so humble opinion- we seek security in our emotional life. We look for groups which welcome us and give positive feedback. Which help us find a direction for our behaviour, which help us find meaning in our existence.


This can be family. It can be the office, the people around our income activities. It can be around music, or football, other sports. It can be volunteer work. It can be around art, literature, sex even. It can also be church, a religious or a spiritual movement.


What makes spiritual movements more susceptible to the pitfall of (overly) belonging? Of too much fulfillment?

I think it is in the nature of many of these movements to emphasize the Superior Importance of Spirituality-according-to-the-Movement. Whereas football can be a major fulfillment for many people, I have never heard even the best football-coaches say that Everybody should Believe in Football. Perhaps they still think it...but they are wise enough to see that there are other things in life beside football.

Not so with many spiritual movements. They easily proclaim that their Absolute Truth is the only worthwhile thing in life, the rest is temptation/illusion/samskara...what have you.

From here on, things can get in a self-propelling spiral. Because if their Absolute Truth is the only worthwhile thing in life, then it becomes extra fulfilling for practitioners to not waste time over other groups and activities.

`Oh no, I never go to the movies with friends. You know, my old friends, they are not spiritual people. They drink beer, and they talk about football. Let them waste their time on these foolish samskaric temptations. But I work for my Master and His Mission. He is my fulfillment, His Work is Holy and I'm proud and happy to help Him. For the benefit of Humanity, you see! My family and my ex-wife, they don't understand of course. But you know, in spirituality there is no in-between. Once you get to a certain Stage, you can only do the Right Thing, which is to obey the Master. He will take care of my worldly problems. Of course, I remain loving and open to my family and friends. Maybe one day they will see the light. But they are angry and suspicious, it is practically hopeless. I pray to my Master for them.'


So spirituality in many spiritual movements is given this position of Overriding Importance. Overriding anything else. And joined to Absolute Morality. Since Spirituality-according-to-the-Movement is All-Important, and since certain types of behaviour are More Spiritual than becomes Sin to behave otherwise. Of course, one does not need to call it sin. As a Spiritual Leader one can simply say:

`After all the Work that was done for them, on them, by the Grace of my Guru, I still find people drinking alcohol. These people are a disgrace to the Movement. They have made only token spiritual progress, by wasting the Gifts bestowed upon them from the loving Heart of my Master.'


`As an ordained official, you took the Work upon you voluntarily. How can you not work? How can you throw away this unique opportunity to help people find Absolute Truth and Liberation? Do you think holy Shri Baznakurjan ever rested? He was always working! He gave His Everything! But you complain about your family life, that your husband needs attention, and your children. But surely God will look after them, if you do God's work, isn't it? So stop these silly ego-driven excuses, because I'm sick of people wasting the Opportunity given to them by the Almighty Grace.'


Imagine how this works, in a group where the dynamics are running along rather strong hierarchical patterns. I don't think it is exaggerated to call this type of commentary `moral pressure'.


The feeling of belonging and fulfillment in this way easily becomes a very dangerous pitfall, I believe. Because it lulls me to comfort, to sleep, while slowly some Absolute Truth is being fed to me, while slowly some Absolute Morality is pressed on me, and while slowly I'm being convinced that other groups and other truths and other moralities are less. And later on even damaging, better to avoid, better to cut loose from these other groups and damaging influences.


To see how subtly this works, just consider that this blog more or less does the same...! (but vice versa). A difference is perhaps that I do not hesitate to point this out. Also, although not humble, I do not consider my opinion to be absolute truth in any way. Many of these issues are too complex for me to fully grasp, I feel. Yet I cannot avoid analyzing them if I want to discuss these pitfalls. My analysis will be shortcoming in many ways, so be it. Constructive comments, which may be very critical, are therefore welcomed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Belonging & fulfillment

Many of the comments so far on this blog carry their own food for thought. A comment how many `followers' of a spiritual movement find a lot of benefit from it, for instance.

I agree. So perhaps it is good to repeat that the word `pitfall' is meant traditionally, in the sense that one can fall into it, but one can also avoid it. I also would like to repeat that I have seen many people following some spiritual movement, who lead their lives in what to me seems a very spiritual way.

In addition I feel I have also enjoyed benefit from my 12-yr association with a spiritual movement. Beforehand I had a vague idea of how I wanted to be a spiritual person, now my thoughts and feelings on `being' seem much clearer, and in this direction it gives some peace and acceptance inside.

Another benefit which I always felt clearly is the meeting of other people who are interested in a spiritual way of life (whatever that may mean). Now that I've stopped participating in that particular movement, I find much less opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences around (practical) spirituality, with others. And another drawback: a number of good friends I see far less than before, because we used to see a lot of each other at spiritual gatherings (biweekly group meditations and seminars). Since agenda's are usually full, in retrospect I see that these gatherings tend to work positively on people having time and a secure setting to exchange `real' issues.

Where in the secular world can one find a trusted place to regularly exchange deeper feelings, problems, suggestions about daily life in a spiritual light, with well-meaning heart-oriented people?

So if you would ask me, I would have to admit that I miss certain people, I miss some of the special aspects -like inner quietness, tranquil social being together, interested timeless exchanges- of especially the smaller spiritual gatherings.

In a way, I think, belonging to a spiritual movement (including religions) resembles belonging to a family. And if one is a beloved cherished member of a family, well then it is easier to experience fulfillment in one's life. Is my estimate, based on our gregarious nature. But it is also my personal experience. Having stopped `belonging' makes it harder for me to experience a sense of contributing to a more spiritual humanity, for instance. Having stopped `belonging' makes me feel less connected to certain cherished people who I used to see far more often before. And there is more to this than meets the first glance.


So...pitfalls? What pitfalls? We usually consider belonging and fulfillment to be very positive things. What could possibly be an issue of concern here?


It is perhaps not a simple thing, so I hope to be able to express myself sufficiently clear with regard to this question. First of all, one issue of concern -already discussed in previous posts- is the `us & them' phenomenon. Members of the spiritual-movement-family are `us', non-followers are `them'.

But what I really mean here is this. The feeling of belonging and fulfillment can be a major reason for people to become, be or stay a follower of the spiritual movement. With some spiritual movements one could even say that people are lured into membership precisely by appealing to their sense of belonging, which is then consistently reinforced by family-like gatherings or even living together as a commune.

But in the end, membership of the spiritual movement/family means acceptance of the Method, the Leader, the Theory of the movement.

To put it more sharply: one is accepted and cherished as a `spiritual family member' only as long as one is an unquestioning and uncriticizing participant. Because the whole well-being of the spiritual family depends on the Absolute Correctness of the Theory, the Holiness of the Leader, the Efficacy of the Method.


So what can this do with people? Will we, like the herd animals we are, accommodate and adjust our opinions and thoughts and questions to the prevailing group authority? Or will we stay focused on purity, clarity, simplicity, consistency, deeper understanding?

Will we -even if only subconsciously- weigh what we say and more importantly what we think, together with what the `family' says and thinks? And if the two do not agree, can we even contemplate to cut ourselves loose, or do we want to remain belonging? Remain connected, part of the family?


So group dynamics also come into play. But that is not what I primarily mean by the pitfall `belonging and fulfillment'. To repeat and summarize, what I mean is this.

Belonging to a group (any group, but some are more fulfilling than others) gives us fulfillment. To me this seems to be hardwired into the human being as a social animal. The feeling of belonging and fulfillment can easily become a mechanism to accept flawed ideologies, implausible ideas, money schemes, contradictory behaviour, coercion even.

If I feel belonging and fulfilled, I can easily think this comes from the Absolute Perfection of the Method.

`The Method has to be wonderful, because I feel so wonderfully fulfilled ever since I started it'.

(From this it is but a small step to the pitfall `happiness & bliss'.)


To me, in any spiritual movement that I would want to belong to it should be common to address these issues. To encourage individual thinking, criticizing, questioning. To be aware of group dynamics and, as a group, to not give in to group dogmatism. To not ostracize or silence people who speak out against prevailing winds, and to not overly welcome only positive sounds.

Something like that. Although Groucho Marx probably said it all with `I would not want to be a member of any club that will have me'....

[Not the clearest post, I admit, I find it hard to express what I perceive as the real issues. perhaps later posts will clarify some more. To be continued.]