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 groupthink. Show all posts
Showing posts with label groupthink. Show all posts

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obedience & groupthink: the Sahaj Marg example

Recent speeches by my former Sahaj Marg guru Chari have convinced me that `obedience' is worthy of being mentioned as a separate pitfall.

Although this blog aims at a general analysis of the pitfalls which commonly occur in many spiritual movements and religions, the example given in these speeches is stronger than anything I could possibly come up with myself.

Dear reader, perhaps you are participating in some spiritual movement, and some of the below sounds familiar. Please then ask yourself if you really wish to give up your own, independent thought to someone else? Especially since a true spiritual guide would never ask you to give up your own independent thought. A guide is a guide, guiding humans. A guide is not a shepherd herding sheep. Or do you prefer to be a sheep? Part of the unthinking flock? Fine. But then you will never be a master of yourself, now will you?


I quote from Chari's recent speech `Read with your Heart' (given 2 February 2009 in Satkhol, I emphasized the last paragraph in bold type):

`Again and again Babuji Maharaj emphasizes the fact that Sahaj Marg does not ask you for all your life earnings, to give up your family and go into the jungle. It is a very simple method: meditation in the morning, cleaning in the evening, prayer at night. No major sacrifices involved. Only to live a good life, in the right way, but with the only stipulation being obedience to the Master's wishes, and that again is only for our benefit.

We obey to benefit. Unlike in public life, in human life, in our day-to-day life, we obey for somebody else's benefit. In spirituality we obey for our own benefit. You obey; you benefit. You don't obey; you don't benefit. In obedience there can be no questions: "Why have I to obey?" If you ask such a question, it would probably mean several lives more to be taken before you understand why I have to obey. In obedience there is no `why'. There is no search for logic. There is no demand for your question to ask: "Why this question should be obeyed?" or "Why this order should be obeyed? Why does the Master have to tell me and not somebody else? Why does he ask me to obey and not somebody else?" No questions. Totally unquestioning obedience is the only requirement of this spiritual way that I know, Sahaj Marg. The moment you start asking questions, it is implicit that you are questioning the wisdom of your Master, the intentions of your Master and his existence itself - never done, except at the peril of your own evolution.'

Notice the not so subtle use of `fear and temptation' above. If you ask questions: it will probably cost you several lives! (fear). If you obey blindly: you benefit (temptation, the implication is `liberation in this life', whatever liberation may mean of course).


And I quote from his speech `Preceptors, the arteries of Sahaj Marg' (given 4 January 2009, Manapakkam, the bold type emphasis is mine):

`When Babuji says eat, you eat. When he says don't eat, you don't eat. You don't think.

One thing that our people must understand is, in obedience there is no place for thought. You are not to think whether this is to be obeyed or not. The Guru orders, you do it. The famous example in our mythology is Parashuram. When he said he was devoted and loved his father, his father said, "Will you do what I tell you?" He said yes. He said, "Cut off your mother's head." Chichick. And the head came off. Mother's head! - obedience.
Of course, then the father said, "I am pleased with you. Ask for a boon." He said, "I want my mother alive again." And the mother came alive again.

So, you see, obedience never gives you personal loss, though apparently it may look so.'


Sahaj Marg, like many movements before it (and after, no doubt alas), has turned into a religion, in my not so humble opinion. I see no difference at all between the organization of the Pyramid in Sahaj Marg and the Pyramid of the Roman Catholic Church. The preceptors are the priests, the centers-in-charge are the bishops, the zonals-in-charge are the cardinals, and the guru is the pope, each with their Inner Circle of powerful confidants.

Blind obedience imnsho is necessary to keep the whole Pyramid from toppling over, to maintain closed ranks to all the critical questions that are posed. Questions which are increasingly difficult to answer, because -like the child saying: new clothes? but the emperor is naked! - not even God can make the square root of 2 equal to π (pi). Not even the emperor can make imaginary clothes cover his nudity.

The point is -if one believes in God- that God saw to it that the square root of 2 is necessarily not equal to π (pi) . Logic, science, rationality are perhaps just a part of reality...but reality nonetheless. To deny critical self-reliant thought a worthy place is to renounce spirituality, in my not so humble opinion.

Many great scientists were deeply spiritual persons. They saw God in the wonder of reality all around us. They marveled at the insights that the human mind could glean into Nature, by not accepting religious dogmas and by following the logic of the cosmos. By allowing all questions, especially the critical ones, since the critical questions challenge what we think we know, and lead us further on our slow path of both scientific and spiritual evolution.


Spiritual evolution, that is what we need, if you would ask me. If we would have obeyed religious leaders in the past as blindly as Chari is suggesting, we would still be cannibals. Does one need religion to be kind, loving, sharing, concerned for other beings? Does one need blind obedience for this? Let's get real: we do not need anything, anyone, but our own commitment and dedication to becoming `spiritual'...whatever that may mean.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Positive thinking 2: groupthink and denial

One obvious question regarding `positive thinking': Who gets to decide what is `positive'? Let's paraphrase the obscure poet from the previous post, to arrive at:

There is nothing either positive or negative, but thinking makes it so.


Now, to stay with Shakespeare, suppose there is something rotten in the state of Denmark (meaning our Spiritual Movement of course). What do you think will happen? A likely scenario: someone(s) with real commitment to making things better notices that there is something important not right. This person (these persons) will try to correct the issue, but if they are not in a position of power and the issue has been caused by people higher up in the Pyramid...then their efforts will be perceived as threatening to the position of these higher-up people.

Now the person trying to ameliorate things is caught between two grindstones. The denial of the Inner Circle (=the people high up in the Pyramid) is the top grindstone, and the bottom grindstone is ... the denial of the majority of followers. Because the followers are in the Movement for `positivity'. They want to believe in the purer-than-pure heart of the Leader, they want to believe in that God has granted Special Power to the Special Personality, and that they themselves are Special because they follow Him.

The followers cling to these beliefs because it offers them escape from the pangs of life. But then when someone criticizes either the Movement, the Pyramid, or the Leader...their rosy world is threatened.

And so, an emphasis on `positive thinking' & `no criticism' most often occurs in groups where there is a strong hierarchy and a tendency of `groupthink'. By `groupthink' I mean of course the phenomenon that everyone is encouraged to say the same (`positive') things, and critical, self-reliant thought is frowned upon.


From this point, how far are we away from fundamentalism, from becoming a sect? Well, this is difficult to say. Most large government organizations tend to show the same mechanisms. Last weekend, a 2003 memo from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs resurfaced in a major newspaper. In the memo, the Legal Affairs Department advises the Minister that entry in the Iraq war is most likely illegal under international law.

It turns out the memo was blocked from reaching the Minister of Foreign Affairs by the Secretary-General of the Ministry. It was deemed untimely since the Legal Affairs Department had not been asked to give a `negative' advice. But it was archived, and resurfaced now that 5 years later the Senate is asking insistent questions about the legality of the Dutch participation in the war.

So, with or without any label of sect, inside or outside of spiritual movements and religions, I dare still say that `positive thinking' can be a pitfall. `Positive thinking' can be a power tool, used by the top of a Pyramid to smother criticism.

Is this an effective strategy?


Well, yes, from the Pyramid's perspective. One might think not, because almost inevitably, in the end the truth will come out. At some time, the falsities will be exposed. You can fool some people some time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.

But the word `time' is of the essence in understanding why the strategy is still effective. Because by the time things are exposed, often the ones who stand to suffer from the exposure have moved on. Or they will say: `Ok ok, so we made some mistakes, LONG AGO, but let's stop arguing about who killed who...and please don't be so negative, we must look to the future and forget the past.'

In this way I have seen so incredibly many cover-ups, even clumsy ones, succeed.


The one perspective from which the `positive thinking' strategy does not succeed, in my not so humble opinion, is the spiritual perspective.

Be truthful.

I cannot imagine any spirituality without such tenet. Truthful can mean praise as well as criticism. Truth is the opposite of denial. Truth means: open to criticism.


The pitiful attempts by many so-called `spiritual' movements to stall criticism, to block criticism, to deny criticism are in my eyes a sure sign that such criticism is justified.

What to think of a memo sent by a member of the Working Committee of the Shri Ram Chandra Mission (Sahaj Marg) to the organizer of an orkut webcommunity on Sahaj Marg in Iran? (See here, where you can also see how this movement's Pyramid prefers people with positions of power in the secular world.)

Paraphrasing this memo:

`Dear brother, although your community serves 1500 people, we strongly urge you to remove your community because we fear it will be the target of individuals spreading misinformation about Sahaj Marg'.

Of course, webcommunities and blogs are new instruments to create open source exchange of information and ideas. And open, non-hierarchical exchange of ideas always threatens the Pyramid.

No surprise that spiritual movements (religions included) seek ways to maintain their Absolute Truth by denouncing open exchange.