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 inner circle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label inner circle. Show all posts

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 7: boundary control (end of thread)

So let's finish with the three yet-undiscussed elements of boundary control that I perceive to be used often in spiritual movements by their Inner Circle:

2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.

(the other elements being:
1) Intensive recruiting of new followers (see previous post)
4) Partial truth & secrets (already discussed intensively in earlier posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed))


ad 2): There are various ways for the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement to limit contact of the followers with the broader societal views. Clearly, physical separation is frequently seen, by creating communes and the like. But Marc Galanter's book gives several examples which are more subtle. From my own experience with Sahaj Marg, I remember that various law suits in which SRCM is involved are being kept largely from the followers. As well as the fact that there are sizable dissenting factions which claim (with more than passing credibility) that the guru-succession in SRCM on the death of its founder has been a vicious power struggle involving decidedly unspiritual manipulation. This is perhaps also a case of 4): Partial truth and secrets.

Anyway, the reason for limiting contact with `outside' world views and conflicting information is obvious, as Marc Galanter points out. For a charismatic group to maintain its group identity and group rationale, cognitive dissonance should not become too big. Certain anomalies and contradictions -between the Theory on the one hand and on the other hand the worldly activities of the Movement plus the possible worldly opposition against the Movement- are most easily managed if the followers are largely unaware of their existence.


The motives behind 3) and 6) are of course completely similar. In Sahaj Marg, followers are repeatedly asked by guru P. Rajagopalachari not to create discussion forums on internet, with the reason given that these forums could be targeted by `malicious' individuals (looking to harm SRCM specifically). This of course holds for any discussion forum on the internet. Generally, the pros of a discussion forum outweigh the cons, especially if one takes some simple measures against `trolling'. Therefore, a more likely reason to prohibit these forums is that they are uncontrollable by the Inner Circle, and thus prone to becoming a source of cognitive dissonance. Discussions on whether it is `spiritual' to ask €250 for a book of which the guru says that it is essential for your spiritual progress, for instance...

The internet therefore poses a real problem for Inner Circles wishing to exercise boundary control.

Because most spiritual movements have their own publisher's media, such as newsletters, quarterly journals, videos, cd's, books etc. These media are in many if not most cases under rigourous guidelines/supervision by the Inner Circle. Typically therefore, one encounters in say a quarterly journal -say Truth at Home or something similar- lots of positive feedback from both Inner Circle and `ordinary' followers. Truth at Home, like the other publications, so likely becomes an active instrument of the Inner Circle to reinforce the Message. Critical letters, `bad' news, accounting figures, property holdings, etc...are simply not published.

But the internet today is easily accessible to all followers. It cannot be controlled by the Inner Circle, yet it also yields results about relatively unimportant and obscure groups - in contrast with the traditional media (books, television, radio, newspapers). So therefore, it can also contain specific criticism against their Movement, small though it may be. Criticism which the Inner Circle cannot edit out or block from reaching followers.

This criticism is often the most threatening -like stated in one of the earlier posts on cognitive dissonance- when it comes from (longtime) former followers. Because they are really in the know, and their arguments are often not so easy to dismiss as the more uninformed criticism coming from general society. Often their arguments point out the fundamental internal inconsistencies in the Movement. (And then, what happens with the child who repeatedly sees different Santas? Who comes across a Santa whose beard accidentally falls off? Who sees Santa drunk, who sees parents sneaking in with presents, ...).

One way for the Inner Circle to deal with this particular `former follower' threat is to blacken their character and motives. (Yes, this occurs in all types of organizations, I know. One just would expect this not to happen in a spiritual organization...). As an example, I have been called an `enemy of spirituality' by my former guru P. Rajagopalachari ;-) And with me, all former followers who blog about their experiences with Sahaj Marg. It's funny enough, but I'm not kidding. Still I can't possibly take it very seriously, for me personally I mean.

It does beg the question what part of the boundary control is conscious and what part un- or subconscious. Personally, I'm inclined to believe in `good' intentions of most people. This would imply that many Inner Circles have a high level of cognitive dissonance and corresponding avoidance. Indeed Marc Galanter describes this to be very often the case, complete with delusional world views and self-aggrandizement / overimportance / self-proclamation of divinity (direct or indirect) etc.

One should not forget that it often takes decades for Inner Circle members to attain their Inner Circle position. Time enough to build up a significant cognitive dissonance avoidance. Also, by the nature of the enormous time & effort investment made, if their position and/or their rationale is threatened one should not be surprised to see them react in what I would deem rather unspiritual ways.

Dear reader, to me it seems none of us are free from these mechanisms. But for me, having been at the receiving end of such unspiritual reaction, it has been a great help to analyze the possible motives. This analysis gives me a fresh perspective, and also allows for understanding and forgiveness, on the personal individual level.

Then, if all is peace and love now ;-), you might wonder why I still find it necessary to write on this blog from time to time. The answer is still the same simple one that I started out with: it helps me to analyze my experiences, feelings and thoughts, and I find it likely that some other people can benefit from this analysis also.

Still, I think it will be quiet on this blog for some time to come, since this particular pitfall (cognitive dissonance avoidance & boundary control) has had enough attention, I believe.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Charismatic groups (intermezzo)

Once one starts looking for information and studies regarding spiritual movements, there seems to be a vast amount of research and descriptions of experiences. So much so, that I wonder once again if this blog has anything substantial to add.

But then again, it won't hurt either to look at these things from a personal perspective of a former follower of a `charismatic group'. Marc Galanter starts out his book with a description and very short definition of this term:

A charismatic group is characterized by the following:

1) Members have a shared belief system
2) Members sustain a high level of social cohesion
3) Members are strongly influenced by the group's behavioural norms
4) Members ascribe charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Notice that these traits can hold also for non-spiritually-oriented groups. Also notice that for the large religions, most of these traits are watered down due to the large numbers and the diversity of the followers. Which is why the large religions are usually not considered charismatic groups, although they all count various much smaller submovements/subgroups which can be very charismatic.


For the purpose of this blog, it might once again be helpful to list some characteristics of charismatic spiritual groups that I have seen in many descriptions:

a) Gradual introduction/conversion of new members, usually through personal contact, in a family-like setting. Repeated enhancement of the `family' feeling through spiritual gatherings and other activities, often involving an ashram or other facility where communal living is the norm.

b) One's own physical/spiritual well-being is linked to a higher noble spiritual Goal (`Meditate, and you will feel better. But also you will help uniting Humanity, and bring about a world where love is the predominant guiding principle.')

c) Some special practice, usually involving some state of altered consciousness. Very frequently this includes some form of meditation. The experiences with and results of this `special' practice are discussed among members, and good things are associated with it. The specialty is stressed from time to time: `other movements do not have this Method' (exclusiveness).

d) A Special Leader, who has a direct Divine connection. His Guidance and Helping Hand are mystic and beyond rational understanding. `Surrender' is the way for a follower to achieve spiritual progress.

e) A strong behavioural code, together with a lot of `positive' groupthink. Occasional criticism might be possible, but is made relatively light of. Fundamental criticism of the Leader or the Movement is frowned upon. Positive `witnessing' is encouraged and rewarded [witnessing: relating one's experiences with the Method/Leader and one's resulting insights; `So when I was having a real difficult time in my life, the image of the Leader appeared when I was doing my Morning Prayer. He spoke to me and said: `Be strong, and do not listen to your Ego. Let God do His work on you, do your Practice and have Faith'. So I decided to go to satsangh regularly, and my other problems became lighter!'].

f) An Inner Circle of long-practicing members, who are close to the Leader. Positions in this Inner Circle are coveted, as a sure sign of spiritual progress and the elevated opportunity for direct Guidance from the Leader. Management of the Movement's Organization is organized hierarchically, with the Inner Circle at the top of the Pyramid.

Dear reader, if much of the above looks familiar to a movement that you participate(d) in, then it might interest you to know that from many many studies it has been assessed that in such charismatic groups the risks of manipulation and power abuse are manifold.


One thing which strikes me particularly is the element (c) above: the special practice. Often it is some form of meditation (prayer, chanting) which can both be done individually and in a group.

The altered state of consciousness arising from meditation is well-documented, even scientifically. Generally, mental health benefits are associated with many forms of meditation (that doesn't mean that all forms of meditation are beneficial to everyone, and like stated in this previous post on spiritual energy the human brain is still largely uncharted territory). Many charismatic groups however claim these benefits as being uniquely due to their Method.

But more importantly, the altered state of consciousness is often used to `prove' the Leader's specialness (and the Movement's specialness) and to underscore the need to let go of rationality. Therefore the `transcendental' experiences are often used to manage the cognitive dissonance which can arise out of internal contradictions of the Movement/Theory/Inner-Circle-Behaviour.

A frequently occurring advice when followers are experiencing doubts and start asking critical questions: `Meditate more. Don't try to understand with the mind. You must feel what is right. Especially since God cannot be found with the mind, but only through the heart.'...or something similar.

(to be continued with the thread on `Cognitive dissonance and boundary control')

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 5: boundary control and Inner Circle

Continued from the previous post, which ended with:
This forming of some kind of `family feeling' is very common in spiritual movements, religious groups included. What Marc Galanter describes as boundary issues, concerns the interaction between that `family' and the rest of society.

On rereading, it appears that Galanter only uses the term `boundary control'. I'm glad however to have used `boundary issues' previously, since I associate boundary control more specifically with conscious management of the boundary issues. Galanter uses a systems-theoretical approach for charismatic groups; for him `control' can be brought about in and by a group on the human subconscious level also [an interesting and valid approach, I believe. I will come back to the term `charismatic group'].


Anyway. To resume: the vast majority of spiritual movements (religions included) make a marked distinction between followers and non-followers. In my not so humble opinion this already casts a strange light on any claim by such movement that uniting humanity is one of their goals. Yet such or similar claims are very common to these spiritual movements. This is just one example of cognitive dissonance avoidance, but I repeat it because I believe it to be a telling example.

Telling in the sense that the need for some `separate' group structure is so strong, that the resulting logical contradiction between goal (`uniting humanity') and behaviour (dividing humanity) is blocked from perception - cognitive dissonance avoidance.

Why does the need to form a `separate group' arise? It is precisely to maintain a certain set of beliefs, in the face of a surrounding society which challenges these beliefs. And the more the movement's beliefs differ from what general society holds as normal, the stronger the need for reinforcement of the movement's beliefs through a close-group mechanism.

And even stronger, when the movement's beliefs start becoming self-contradictory or unlikely to the point of self-delusion. Because then, even a relatively neutral outsider can point out: `but the Emperor is naked!'.


So, it is in this light that I would like to discuss `boundary control'.

And let me start with a perhaps unexpected example from history. One would say that Christianity is supposed to be a spiritual movement centered around the love for humanity. So how would it strike you if a high and undisputed Church authority would pass the death penalty on the complete population of the Netherlands, with the expectation of it being carried out as well?

It simply beggars belief, yet it is exactly what took place on 16 February, 1568. The Inquisition condemned the entire populace of the Netherlands (around 3 million people at that time I believe) to death, and king Philip II of Spain was all set to have it carried out too. Why? Well, simply put, the Dutch were heretic. They had taken it in their convoluted minds that Catholicism was wrong, and that Protestantism was a better way of looking at Christianity.


The extreme example above is meant to show to what lengths the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement can be willing to go to protect the Movement. Lutheranism and Calvinism were seriously threatening the Catholic Church's stranglehold on Europe. (And there was a good reason for this: the inner contradictions of Catholicism had become too large, and increasingly impossible to ignore.)

In this series on cognitive dissonance avoidance, this is a natural point to mark my difference in looking at individual followers (often kind, loving, concerned people) and the Inner Circle (also individually often kind etc, but somehow so strongly in the grip of maintaining power/control and preserving the Movement that they are willing to twist even the most basic principles of their own Theory to achieve their control and preservation goals).

As you can guess, I tend to look on many individual cognitive dissonance situations as being relatively equal from different positions. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance avoidance, I believe. Does any one of us know even in the slightest what this Universe is all about? [OK, I know a majority of people might answer yes to this...but I mean: really?]

But I have great difficulty accepting the manipulation schemes which many Inner Circles in Spiritual Movements (religions included) employ to control their followers, and to protect their boundary as a group.

(to be continued, with examples)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 3: followers and non-followers

Dear reader, you might wonder where the theme of cognitive dissonance is headed. To summarize, I am trying to focus on the following questions:

1) How can novices in a spiritual movement be led slowly to accept a situation where facts, theory, practice and behaviour are contradictory, when seen from a rational or even moral point of view (based on common societal rationality/morality, or on the rationality/morality preached by the movement itself)?

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

3) How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?


1) How can novices in a spiritual movement be led slowly to accept a situation where facts, theory, practice and behaviour are contradictory, when seen from a rational or even moral point of view (based on common societal rationality/morality, or on the rationality/morality preached by the movement itself)?

I hope the previous posts covered a lot of the first question. But there is perhaps room for improvement. In Marc Galanter's book (see this post) one can read many interesting accounts of practicants of various spiritual movements.

Marc Galanter studied their motives also using questionnaires, and one of his results I found remarkable, although Galanter seems to attach a different explanation to it. The result being this:

Participating in such spiritual movement provides significant stress-relief. Stress-relief from life's difficulties, comfort when life is tough, support from other members, support from the Theory, ... whatever: it works.

I think participating in such spiritual movement also has quite a few other benefits, like mentioned in earlier posts. Personally I find our society quite materialistic. And there is too little talk and effort to really bring about a world free of war, hunger, ...etc. It was to me a relief to meet so many kind and loving people who also wish to actively help build a better world. Who think and talk about non-materialistic issues, who are willing to work on self-improvement etc.

So let me repeat in a different way some things stated in earlier posts:

There is a good reason that many kind and loving people turn to spiritual movements. This reason to me being, that the world outside these movements can hardly be called a kind and loving world, although there are many kind and loving people in it.

Put yet differently: it is relatively easy to scoff at the many spiritual movements' shortcomings. But such scoffing is hardly fair, if one refuses to see the many and severe shortcomings of the not-spiritually-oriented society.


This is why the counterquestion from spiritual movements makes so much sense:
Look what rationality and materialism has brought society. Look at how we avoid recognizing that the way we exploit the natural resources, and the way we exploit people in far away places, would be considered immoral if we would see it happening in our own backyard. Do you feel spiritually fulfilled in your life? Or are you feeling caught up in the treadmill, the rat race? Do you feel you live like a free loving person, or are you being lived by your fears and materialistic desires?

How can one free oneself of these mechanisms? Join our Movement, try our Method, meet our Leader, and experience for yourself the transformation.

Or something similar. Anyway, suppose you meet kind and caring, interested people, who invite you to try out their spiritual movement -no strings attached. Suppose you are looking for some way to live a more caring, loving, connected existence than that of our modern hardworking individualistic material society. Your critical questions are welcomed, and there are only few requirements of your behaviour.

Suppose you join, to try it out. Now you start bonding with some of the participants. Gatherings are pleasant in atmosphere, meditations are uplifting, you find that you can talk about real things in life, and few waste their time on the latest Gigabyte-expansion of the iPhone X36gT or what have you.

You take up the practice, and after some time you notice certain anomalies, discrepancies, contradictions in either Theory or behaviour or practice. But by now, people who you consider friends tell you: `Oh, that is all but words and rational thinking. Not the real essence. Feel with your heart, have faith in the Leader, He is such a radiant wonderful person! When I started out, I had quite some doubts myself. But with one meditation, he cleared my heart, I didn't understand but I felt I had to trust Him all the way.'

So you decide to try out the heart-approach, and develop faith in this Leader who by now you have met and who seems -albeit from quite some distance as there are many followers all eager to be with Him- to be indeed a loving and very spiritual person. Especially since everyone around is also constantly repeating this, and telling amazing stories about His Grace.

Over the years, it will not be surprising if you find yourself a member of a close group of kind loving people, with whom you share many of your deeper feelings and insights.

But what happens if over the years you also come across increasing contradictions?

* When for instance you are asked slowly but steadily for more and more money? [Where the movement claimed in the beginning that spirituality should be free of charge.]

* When the Leader starts asking more and more for strict obedience? [Where in the beginning you were given texts stating that critical thought was a requisite for spiritual progress.]

* When you find that supposedly `very advanced' and long-practising people from the Inner Circle have lied outright to you, and manipulated you in a distinctly non-spiritual way? [Where the movement promises to be very efficacious in bringing about spiritual progress, and where `Be truthful' is a main tenet in the movement]

* When the purity which attracted you in the beginning, is not practiced at all in the running of the Movement's organization. An organization which turns out to be very hierarchical, a Pyramid structure, dominated by men, and rife with intrigue and Inner Circle mechanisms, often favoring a limited number of nationalities? [Where the movement preaches equality of all, novice and `advanced' alike, woman and man alike, all nationalities alike]

* When slowly but surely, all sorts of `magical' or `paranormal' or spiritualistic elements are being introduced as essential in the Theory, and/or practice. For instance the existence of ghosts, or voices from the afterlife, and mediums; the affirmation of the truth of reincarnation; special visions etc. [Where in the beginning the movement promised that these things were to be left aside, and not relevant anyway.]


Yes, I think that this is the moment where the avoidance of cognitive dissonance can lead one beyond what is really self-acceptable. Because who wants to give up this warm nest of spiritual ` family' , `brothers and sisters', who feel so close and caring and interested in the real you? Who wants to give up this practice which makes one feel connected to some higher purpose, adding to a better world?

It is quite understandable why it can be a lot easier to simply close one's eyes for the inconsistencies, and quickly accept some non-rational explanation like:

`Some things in our World are beyond our understanding. The intellect however strives to be in command, and will therefore block our progress, beyond a certain point. We need a True Spiritual Leader, who has traveled the narrow passage Himself, to shake off our intellect and depend on Faith. For this Faith to develop, it is best to surrender completely to one's Leader. Pujashri Ammehula has repeatedly stated that the aspirant can only cross the seven Rings to the Central Level if he is carried by his Master like a child by its mother. To reach this level, where one is completely dependent on one's Leader, it is absolutely necessary to develop unthinking and unquestioning Obedience at all times.'


To me, the mechanism of cognitive-dissonance-avoidance explains why so many followers of spiritual movements prefer not to listen to rational arguments, or rational presentations of facts. In a sense, one could even argue that the more rational the approach, the more many followers will shut their ears to it.

And this brings us to the second question posed at the top of this post:

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

I believe this question calls for a two-sided answer, but the elements for this have already been described.

On the one hand, non-followers will be quick to point out the inconsistencies of the movement, and possibly certain -in their eyes- dangerous or detrimental effects. (`You are in a cult! You are being brain-washed! Look out for your sanity, your family, your health, your money!'). But they probably do not see the flip sides of this coin: namely that the followers derive quite some benefit from their participation. Family-like ties for instance. These benefits, built up through the years, have helped build a world view that is not so rationally based as non-followers might assume. And therefore from the followers' point of view, it is the non-followers who are inconsistent and in possible danger (`You live a materialistic life, you are not spiritually fulfilled. You are being brain-washed by society to believe that ego-driven materialism is the road to happiness. You are wasting precious time needed to cleanse your heart and your soul. Look out for your spiritual well-being, look out for your eternal soul!')

So, you might be a bit surprised to find me thinking that both followers and non-followers often avoid their own cognitive dissonance.

This does not in any way diminish my conviction that it is morally wrong for the Inner Circle to deceive the followers of its Spiritual Movement. And I believe this to be a very frequent occurrence.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Techniques used by Gurus to control

In the same vein as the previous post, I repeat a post from Michaels blog. It gives a different perspective on many of the pitfalls discussed here, and may be easier to recognize for some.

Seven Techniques Used By Gurus to Control The Masses (by Michael, from his blog Inner Circle of SRCM)

Establish High Ideals

• Establish noble, high sounding principles, such as selfless service, closeness to God, and brotherly/sisterly love.

• Insist that your teachings are free and the birthright of all.

• Demonstrate charity in a highly visible manner.

Define and Enforce Exclusivity in the Organization

• Every Guru must have an exclusive hook to differentiate themselves from others.

• The exclusive nature of the system or Guru must be re-emphasized at every opportunity.

• Disciples are trained to also extol the virtues of the system’s exclusivity in every conversation.

Exploit a Higher Authority

• Designate a “Higher Authority” that can be attributed to for literally everything.

• Higher Authority must be easily identifiable by disciples. Abstract higher authorities such as “God” are generally not as effective as a dead person.

• It is critical that the Guru can claim to be in direct communication with this Higher Authority.

• The Guru’s example of love and servitude to this Higher Authority serves as an example to disciples as to how to treat their Guru.

• Miracles, which happen naturally in an emotionally charged environment, can be attributed to this Higher Authority

• Disciples will naturally transfer all things credited to the Higher Authority to their living Guru.

Establish and Maintain an Inner Circle

• Guru creates contentious environment around themselves for people to earn their trust.

• Those who fight the hardest and most effectively for inner circle status are rewarded with positions of authority and grandeur.

• The Guru must treat inner circle members with strictness and humiliation when necessary to maintain their loyalty and subservience.

• The Hierarchy established through the Inner Circle is a critical tool for a Guru to maintain exclusive control as the organization grows.

Foster the Image of Humility

• The Guru will exploit any ailments or physical injuries to get sympathy by silently suffering.

• If no physical ailments exist, the Guru can use exhaustion from serving his disciples as an ailment.

• The Guru does not directly complain about ailments, but uses the Inner Circle to propagate stories of his humble suffering for the cause.

Establish and Maintain Total Control

• Demand total devotion and trust

• Guru uses their own total devotion and trust to their “Higher Authority” as an example

• Blame all disciples failings on not having sufficient faith in the Higher Authority or lack of dedication to the practice.

Reap the Benefits

• Establish an organization to hold and manage wealth collected.

• Exploit that wealth through the organization, not directly

• Enjoy the services of devoted disciples as their expression of devotion to the Higher Authority.

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.