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 proselytization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label proselytization. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 6: boundary control & Santa Claus

Since I'm stuck inside with swine flu (pandemic H1N1/09 officially), why not continue the thread on cognitive dissonance?

Still, the following example of boundary control might strike you as ... childish. Consider the common practice of Santa Claus. Most young children in the western world are made to believe that this fairytale figure really exists, and brings them presents around Christmas...provided they've been `good'.

To maintain this elaborate charade, adults and older children lie and cheat. Even the television and other media play along. Still, for any child, inevitably the cognitive dissonance of the situation grows to a point where it can no longer be avoided. Sometimes the child finds out for her/himself, sometimes the child is told by others that Santa is in fact a deception. (This can be a disturbing experience, although to many it seems relatively harmless.)

But until that moment, the parents (mostly) try to control what information about Santa is available to the child. By keeping secret that they are the ones buying the presents, by asking others to keep silent about the charade, etc. etc.

This conscious effort to shield the members of a group from `outside' views and information is part of what I would call `boundary control'. Also part of it are the attempts to explain away inconsistencies, to cover up contradictory activities, to limit interaction with `outsiders'/`unbelievers'/..., etcetera.


Anyway, it might surprise you that children already have complex motives and mechanisms for avoiding the cognitive dissonance arising from the Santa Claus deception. Be it consciously or not, it turns out that many doubting children are afraid that if they stop believing in Santa Claus, then there will be no more presents and no more fun-time at Christmas.


But that is not the main issue for this post. We were discussing the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement, and its possible conscious efforts to control the doubts and misgivings of the followers of the Movement. In my not so humble opinion, for many if not most spiritual movements (religions included) these doubts and misgivings are often well-founded (see also the list of pitfalls in the sidebar of this blog).

Especially charismatic groups cannot function when there is too much visible doubt in the followers or a clear contradiction in the Theory and/or the practice of the Leader/Inner Circle.

So let's discuss some of the common forms of boundary control that Inner Circles use:

1) Intensive recruiting of new followers
2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
4) Partial truth & secrets (but this was already discussed intensively in previous posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed in previous posts)
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.


Ad 1): a for me striking insight from Galanter's book was his observation, that intensive recruiting of new followers is a conscious instrument used by many charismatic groups to control the cognitive dissonance of existing followers.

The mechanism behind this is obvious, once you think about it. In order for a Universal Truth theory to make sense, it must be universally recognizable...If the Theory promises that out of the Movement shall come a New World Order, then it is rather disheartening if after 50 years of intensive proselytization still only one in 50,000 (say) has been attracted to this Truth.

So new followers are a boost to the rationality of the whole Movement. `See, what we say makes sense, because how would we attract new people otherwise?'. This mechanism is frequently used by the Inner Circle (I have seen this in my own former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg) in the following way:

* The number of followers is reported as much higher than it is in reality.
* `Senior' followers are exhorted to devote time and energy to spreading the Message
* Growth in numbers is seen as very important and duly rewarded
* Decline in numbers is frowned upon, and often blamed on inadequate conduct of members - the attractivity of the Theory is not to be questioned. Members are expected to be shining examples, thereby attracting family and friends.


To be continued with 2) 3) and 6) from the above list.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Honesty, truthfulness & openness (partial truth, secrets & things unsaid 2)

(continued from the previous post)

So let's look at things from the other `positive' side. Personally, one of the most important qualities that I associate with spirituality has to do with truthfulness, honesty, transparency or openness, whatever you prefer.

Of course I'm not talking about situations where one lies to the Gestapo to save fugitives' lives. I'm not even saying that it is humanly possible to be truthful all the time, simply because I think we cannot discern even our own personal truth 100% accurately. Perhaps I could even come up with situations where it would be more kind, more humane to lie to another person, even if there are no fugitives to be saved.

I'm not talking about all that. I'm talking about the large majority of cases where telling partial truth -leaving important things unsaid, hidden- or even lying is simply an instrument to avoid confrontation, or for personal gains. In a large majority of cases, I think we know what the truth is, or we know so enough, but we choose to tell only a part of it.

All a part of la condition humaine, I suppose. Still, for me it is a spiritual tenet to strive for truth, honesty, transparency / openness. The fact that we're not on that level yet doesn't mean for me that it would not be better if people were more honest with each other.

I believe this tenet to be advocated by most spiritual movements. Be truthful. Don't deceive. Yet many spiritual movements practice a graded truth in their Pyramid. And many spiritual movements keep things hidden, unsaid, unknown but to the Inner Circle. Examples of things kept hidden:

  • Financial holdings & dealings for instance, to be sure! But also controversies, power struggles, power abuse, sexual indulgence, other not so holy-looking behaviour, well the list of cover-ups is probably endless.
  • Marketing strategies for new books (what and when to release, what price to ask). Proselytization strategies (where to hold gatherings, which countries to visit, what message to give to newcomers, how to ensure retention of (new) practicants).
  • Also, and not as infrequently as one would think!, secrets and secret rites, initiations, secret organizational groups, secret meetings.
  • Parts of the spiritual theory (to be revealed when a practicant is singled out as a trainer or priest-like functionary)
  • Less-than-shiny details of its History
  • Criticism of the Movement by serious well-meaning people


Suppose our generic Spiritual Movement consistently shows any or many signs of the above. In all honesty I do not see how one can rhyme this with `be truthful'. Apart from other unwanted effects, it also comes down to separating humanity once again: `Us in the know' and `Them not in the know'.

As I wrote earlier, uniting humanity to me seems a worthy spiritual endeavour although we are surely a far cry from such unification. To me, many of the pitfalls that are discussed on this blog actually hamper us in becoming united.

For me, to respect you and to feel connected, I cannot willingly deceive you. The same, but more difficult perhaps, holds for me deceiving myself as well. If I am honest to myself, only then can I be honest to you. Making mistakes, holding less-than-desirable thoughts, reacting `badly', it's all part of the game. To play the game sportingly, with respect and with others as my equals, this to me means that conscious deception of any form is out of bounds - ball to the other side...;-) so no moral pressure but you get my drift.


In short:

To me, a spiritual movement which is not truthful and open about its finances, about its holdings, about its power structures, initiation levels, spiritual theory, history, criticism from well-informed and well-meaning members, proselytization strategies, ...

does not deserve the name `spiritual movement'.

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.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Us & them: humanity united, humanity divided? And what about proselytization? (pitfall 11)

As this blog progresses, I will probably find it more difficult to deal with the pitfalls from my preliminary list separately. Many of these pitfalls hang together, like I already stated.

Allow me to continue with the pitfall `us & them' (pitfall 11 from the preliminary list). I believe this pitfall derives from the pitfall `absolute truth', as discussed in the previous post.

By `us & them' I mean the strong distinction that many followers of many a spiritual movement make between followers/believers/practitioners (of that movement) and other people. You might well ask why I consider this a pitfall, because this mechanism seems to pervade humanity throughout its history. Well, I call it a pitfall of spirituality because to me spirituality means a more united or at least less divided humanity. The position that many different spiritual paths -also the ones with no name or method- are not essentially different, seems to bring this about more easily than a position of `us' vs. `them'.

To illustrate this pitfall from personal experience might create quite a waterfall. A few good selections should suffice though.

But first, I would like to emphasize something else. I've met so many loving people who practise some spiritual path, be it religion or otherwise. This goes also very much for the movement/method in which I participated, and many people dear to me still practise this method. To criticize them is not something for which I feel sufficiently wise, I do not feel more insightful in their personal spiritual approach than they themselves. And I can only say that their lovingness to me is like water in the desert.

So for me to list and discuss pitfalls of spirituality might well be seen as the criticizing of (many) spiritual movements, but it would not be accurate to interpret it as `followers of such and such are blind / fool themselves / should stop ' or something similar. My purpose with this blog is more, I think, to support those who feel uncomfortable with some spiritual movement and perhaps help them in some way by clarifying certain mechanisms which I see and have seen in action many times.

Another purpose is probably, I admit, to provide some counterweight to the many claims made by spiritual movements especially regarding their own exalted spiritual approach. I'm simply still too much attached to some objectivity, some truth ideal, to be able to sit back quietly while others proclaim as truth what is to me misleading misrepresentation. I guess I still have hope for a bias-poor, largely objective and lovingly connected, united humanity...even though history gives very little evidence of humanity going along with these adjectives...and even though of course I have not got any proof that such a humanity serves a Higher purpose better than the biased, divided, war-faring humanity that I see all around.

I have no such proof, because I never had a Higher Communication from/with God or something like that. And even if I thought I had had such Communication, I would not consider this as proof since many to me quite repellent `spiritual' figures in history have claimed such proofs...with horrendous results.

To be honest: I don't know what any Higher purpose could be. Perhaps on Judgment Day God will swoop down from the sky and say: `the Vikings were right, my name is Wodan and you are all going to Walhalla after we finish the administrative details. You can change your euros, dollars and what have you for local Walhalla currency right after the commercial break.'

What I know is limited to my personal take and feelings in these matters. My own feeling regarding `us and them' is complex, but seems to crystallize in a willingness to have contact on an individual basis, with unique humans, from heart to heart. Group identifications -even though they seem unavoidable to some extent- seldom leave me with a lighter heart.

Therefore you will understand that it made me uncomfortable to be part of a movement which talks about `abhyasis' and `non-abhyasis' (abhyas=practice). In which abhyasis are consistently called `brothers and sisters', but non-abhyasis are very seldom addressed in these terms. In which the spiritual progress of meditation centers or even countries as a whole is measured in terms of proselytization: how many new abhyasis this year? In which the leaving of the movement and its guru are considered the cutting of a spiritual bond and the destruction of a unique spiritual opportunity for `liberation' (whatever that may be).

So, with all due respect to the many loving abhyasis and other spiritual practitioners and seekers and non-seekers and non-practitioners and..., I consider `us and them' to be contradictory to the -to me spiritual- goal of uniting humanity.

And I consider it to be a major pitfall in a more practical sense, that in many movements people are actually encouraged or at least not actively discouraged to break off relations with their family or other longstanding relations, if these relations remain critical of the spiritual movement. Also the formation of practitioner-practitioner relations is often encouraged, morally rewarded, whereas the opposite is often opposed, put in a black light, or simply forbidden.

`No, no, how could a Catholic possibly marry an Orthodox Jew? It is unthinkable.'

`Your Duty is to the Master. If your wife does not want you to attend service, that is her problem. But you should not let that interfere with your own spiritual progress. Worldly relations are but the playing out of samskaras, whereas your soul yearns for Him. Pray for her, remain loving, but be firm in your resolve.'

`If your friends are critical, remember that the Guru is the only real Friend. A spiritual person needs no friends, he loves all. Friends are demanding and often impede your progress by asking you to join them in their immoral behaviour, or by spending your time on worldly pleasures instead of your spiritual development.'

`A prefect of our movement should always be receptive to brothers and sisters. If they come to you at midnight, will you send them away? It would be unwise, for who can be sure they will be able to come back?'


Say there is something deserving the name `God'. Say God really is responsible for the spiritual progress (what does that mean?) of humanity, all 6 billion of us/them. Would It really put all Its eggs in one (mostly small) basket? `Ahem, although it never got posted on the Internet before, this is a certified announcement from me, God, stating that Movement X really is the only true God Movement. The rest are fakes, or from inferior factories'.

Somehow it doesn't strike me as very plausible. As very credible.

Plausibility and credibility don't go well together with `one plus one equals three'. Faith however has no trouble with `one plus one makes three'. Faith can move mountains - that is if you have faith in this statement. Like us. Faith in the Absolute Truth unfortunately is not shared by everyone. The others are the infidels, the non-believers, the heretics, the heathens...them.