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 logic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label logic. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cognitive dissonance: something we all avoid

Let me begin with a quote from the wikipedia article on cognitive dissonance. This article is very informative, but I will not repeat it all, just the beginning:
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The "ideas" or "cognitions" in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one's behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.[1] Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Dissonance normally occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency among his or her cognitions. This happens when one idea implies the opposite of another. For example, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states. When people's ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony, or consonance. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance.

A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a good person" or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.


The reduction of cognitive dissonance is a very powerful human drive, I believe. And imnsho it very often seems to explain a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication between people.

Because, although it is often couched in scientific language, the gist of the above description of cognitive dissonance (avoidance) seems to be this:

We mold the facts that we perceive, to fit the conceptions that please us.


If like me, you have ever tried to have an open discussion with Jehovah witnesses ringing at your front door, you will understand that it is a difficult feat to accomplish. From both points of view. From the Jehovah witnesses' point of view, I am blind to the word of God, and therefore cannot see the facts clearly, such as that the Bible is the Absolute Truth. From my point of view, they are blind to the fact that the bible is a book, written by humans, and that there is no such thing as Absolute Truth.

And any discussion is not likely to bring about much change, since the giving up of either position would require such a dramatic effort to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance...


On a more subtle level, I believe that avoidance of cognitive dissonance can play a significant part in the way I see my spiritual movement, as a practicant. This could be a (sub)conscious reason why many spiritual movements have a graded introduction to the `finer' aspects of the movement's Theory and Practice.

Because if I start out as a novice, and I am received in a loving atmosphere, by loving caring people, giving me time and attention and goodwill...and where questioning is okay, and where my `not yet fully compliant' behaviour is okay, then on a subconscious level, I might well develop the idea that this is a very ok group. Giving me lots of freedom etc.

Then, later, if my mind starts to perceive certain anomalies, it could well be that cognitive dissonance kicks in:

On the one hand, my spiritual movement is very fine, and I feel really uplifted by being connected to it.
On the other hand, something seems to be not quite right. Perhaps the Leader is focusing on money quite a lot, whereas in the beginning everybody said, no no, this is a free movement, no money required. So I ask a question, and the possible answer could be: `He is only doing it for us, you see. It is not about money, it is about teaching us to let go of our material bonds which are holding us back. Love is giving, giving to those that need us. If you give without thought, you will receive benefit thousandfold.'

So what to do? Will my mind say: `Well, it was nice this past year, but inconsistency is inconsistency, goodbye you all.' Or will it say: `OK, perhaps I am too focused on my intellect, and on my rationality. Of course, in true spirituality we share our resources. Let me step in too.'

In the second case, it would not surprise me if it continues like in the wikipedia car example. I have given money, so now I will change my belief system and perceptions to justify even more that I gave money.


Slowly, over the years perhaps, can I imagine that this would lead me to beliefs and thoughts which would have been paradoxical to me in the beginning?

Yes I can.

But why would this be a problem or a pitfall? Is this not a simple fact of life, that we learn, and thereby come to accept things which we firstly rejected?

(to be continued)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Logic, love, faith, power

Just to clear up two possible misunderstandings from the posts so far (thanks to the kind commentator who pointed this out):

1. When using direct quotes, I mention the source. But I sometimes also use imaginary quotes, for example `How could a Catholic possibly marry an Orthodox Jew? It is unthinkable'. I don't know of anyone directly saying this, but I'm sure something pretty similar has been said many a time. The reason for using imaginary quotes is that I want to illustrate in a general sense. This also helps to give people from many spiritual movements room to fill in their own specific details.

In these `quotes' you will also see a number of imaginary `saints' `prophets' `gurus' etc. I will typically take some semi-mystical name, and attach Shree or Shri and/or His Holiness. Example: `Performing this prayer precisely as prescribed will benefit a practising aspirant in a most effective way. It is very important to use these precise words, since they carry a special spiritual charge. The Prayer was revealed to Shri Bahjamahanuji by his Master , Shri Ram Krasnapolsi, in a Vision.'

2. When saying `heart' and `mind', I'm mostly using these as metaphors and I'm not referring to the actual organic functions. With `heart' I want to indicate a certain non-analytical, intuitive way of thinking, feeling, decision, behaviour, as opposed to `mind' by which I mean the rational, analytical, questioning, sometimes scientific approach. This description is not even very accurate, since our thinking and feeling is probably far more complex than such dichotomy, but it will (have to) do for the time being.


So, let's continue from the previous post.

Why do the vast majority of spiritual movements insist so much on `heart over mind'? The simple answer would be, I believe, this:

Most spiritual movements incorporate in their Theory of Everything a number of very illogical and contradictory elements. The rational mind cannot help but pick at these elements. Because the rational mind knows, somewhere, that one and one simply doesn't add up to three.

But the rational mind can be suppressed, overruled, by the non-rational mind (which when seen from a positive perspective I call `heart', associated with love, trust, courage, etc.).

So when a Spiritual Movement says

`Ye of little faith, do you think that God is limited to what we can understand? Develop Faith in your heart, forget the mind. The Way to God is to cut the chains of rationality. Rationality leads to Doubt. But how can you doubt God? It is like pushing God away from you. Did not His Holiness Rinpoche Gelek Dharmi say: `When you see contradiction, you are still in the throngs of Duality. Reality lies beyond, and you must strive harder to still your mind.' ? Believe in the Leader, believe in the Method. Do not trust the workings of your dualistic mind, live and feel from the heart'.

then what happens as a by-result is that even the glaring inconsistencies of the Theory and History of the movement can be glossed over.

`You wonder how a saint of the caliber of Pujashri Amme Hula could possibly write such a negative text on homosexuality, when He proclaims that real-life tolerance and love are the pinnacles of spirituality. But you see, on the cosmic scale things have to be balanced. A Master must sometimes destroy, and for this Special Capacity is bestowed on our Master. So for a sincere follower it is essential to have faith in Our Leader, we cannot grasp His Role in the cosmic plane. Obedience is the only way to Heart Realization, there comes a point when we must bid the mind farewell.'


You can imagine what happens, if when coming to a spiritual movement you see people behaving kind & loving & open all around you (with interesting exceptions of course). They share, they are interested in each other, and they really try to make something spiritual of their life. When compared to society in general, that is a relief. It can feel (and it did feel to me) like an oasis of human connectedness in a desert of individualism.

So the less simple answer to why spiritual movements insist on `heart over mind' could be that `mind over heart' doesn't work so well either when one is looking for ...well, a heartful existence!

Is it so difficult to conclude that what we are looking for is `neither this, neither that'? The opposition of `heart' vs `mind' to me seems artificial and dualistic in a limiting way. We are all of that and more. So if the heart protests, we should take heed. But if the mind protests we should take heed equally well. (I'm pushing my own convictions here, sorry)

Can anyone point out to me a spiritual movement which really gives rationality and science the place they deserve - imnsho of course?


OK, now we can move on to power. The insistence on Absolute Faith, Obedience, Trust in the Leader/Prophet/Guru/Saint/... may even at one time have been well-intended, who knows. But in the course of time, one has to conclude that this mechanism has been misused over and over and over again by spiritual movements to establish Power.

Now, I'm not talking foremost about obvious and/or physical power.

Someone sometime very aptly observed (was it Mark Twain, I'm not sure): `Violence is the last resort of the incompetent'

The same holds for obvious power. Therefore typically, most spiritual movements try to establish moral power. For this, like discussed in previous posts, there has to be Absolute Morality, Moral Authority and Legitimization of the Leader.

When moral authority is established, moral power follows. And from moral power, also physical power follows. Because people start to act according to their thinking. If one can convince followers that the infidels must be driven out, according to God's Holy Wish, then sooner or later you will have followers starting a war to accomplish just that.

In less extreme forms, one can use Absolute Morality to appeal to `love your brothers and sisters in need, please donate to our good cause, for the benefit of all humanity'. A nice way to obtain Serious Money...leading to physical power.

[to be continued]