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 sorted by relevance for query belonging. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query belonging. Sort by date Show all posts

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Belonging & fulfillment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2008

Belonging & fulfillment and group dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

False gurus and spiritual energy

frank waaldijk, the false guru and his Divine Energy (drawing, 2010)

The false guru and his Divine Energy (own work, 2010)

From time to time, people correspond to me about this blog via email. One of these exchanges, coupled with some comments made by people on this blog, prompted me to draw yet another `false guru' drawing, see above. Because obviously, there are many different false gurus all employing some form of `spiritual energy' to draw followers, and to assert their own Special Status.

In the drawing, one sees the false guru emanating his Special Unique Divine Energy (Cosmic Consciousness, Divine Awareness, whatever). This was somewhat discussed in previous posts on `spiritual energy' (pitfall 16), but I believe I may have left out a certain important angle.

$$$$$$

The thing is, certain meditation techniques really work, in my not so humble opinion (imnsho). Therefore, imnsho, it is possible for people to develop certain altered states of consciousness, and I even believe this can be felt by others.

Now, some individuals have more talent in this field than others. And some of those spend a great deal of time to develop themselves in this field. None of this is in any sense reason for precautions.

This changes, when a certain individual who has so developed her/himself, starts claiming that the particular technique used is `Divine' or concerns `Divine energy', and that the only practical way to reach such a Divine State is through the help of this individual, the Guru, and Her/His Technique.

Suddenly, a whole different ballgame is being played. Because now, if we accept this premisse, surely our guru must be as close to Divine as is humanly possible. Therefore, this guru must be a Very Good and Ultimately Loving Person, and have Divine Knowledge as well, and...(fill in any of our human conceptions about `Divine').

Imnsho, a false guru plays upon these expectations, and uses them to enhance her/his Specialness, her/his Moral Authority, the need for Obedience, etc. etc.

Yet how reasonable are these expectations?

$$$$$$

One could compare it even to mathematics (bear with me here for a short while). In a sense, one could really make a case for saying that mathematics is a divine language, and that higher levels of mathematics bring about altered states of consciousness. Mathematics is the language used to describe reality and predict events in a way which our long-ago forebears would surely think of as `divine' and `superhuman'.

Some individuals have more talent than most, and in devoting a lot of time and effort, they reach levels of mathematics that mere mortals can only dream of. These are Special Mathematicians.

Does that necessarily make these individuals kind, caring, `good' people? Do they have Divine Knowledge? Should they be obeyed in moral matters, in any matter? Can one of them be the Unique Person from which you can learn mathematics?

Of course not. They have mastered certain mind levels, using certain techniques, applying advanced levels of concentration, and devoting an incredible amount of effort and time. That is all. If one wishes to learn mathematics on those levels, it is probably wise to study their teachings, but history has shown convincingly that there is no such thing as a unique approach for mathematics. Many ways lead to Rome.

$$$$$$

Back to our false gurus with the `enhanced consciousness' / `spiritual energy'. Does the mastery of certain meditation techniques, a certain stillness of the mind, a certain `energy' if you like, give any guarantee that the person who has achieved this mastery is indeed `good', kind, caring, wise, spiritual, ...?

Personally I don't think so. Science has shown that meditation affects human brains, and brings about different brainwave patterns. Mastering these `energy' techniques might be not so easy, and some have more talent than others. But still, it is an effect which has been widely observed for different techniques and very different people practicing such technique.

There is in other words, nothing `divine' about it - apart from the `divine' mystery which envelops all of Reality.

$$$$$$

Now you might think that I am a skeptic with regard to `enhanced awareness' and `superhuman knowledge' and things like that. You are then mostly correct, but I also allow for `strange' phenomena which might or might not have an explanation in contemporary science.

Even the apparent mastery of or access to such `strange' phenomena does not give ANY guarantee that the person in question is a good, spiritual, loving, ...etc..., person. Let alone that such a person should be `Divine'.

Let me give yet another example.

From scientific experiments, it seems that there is a possibility that humans can look a little into the immediate future. From experiments with cards and other images, it seems that many people can anticipate around 3 seconds ahead of time, what type of card they will be dealt, or what kind of image they will be shown. Not with 100% success rate, but yet with more success than average statistics would predict.

Science as of yet has no explanation for this phenomenon. We could easily call it Mystical. Divine! (if you remember that ` to divine' means to guess correctly...).

No doubt some people are better at this than others. Successful poker players might be found to have elevated potential in this respect...

Does that make these people Divine?

$$$$$$

To finish, I am somewhat amazed at how often these pitfall mechanisms occur in many many different spiritual movements. Imnsho, `simple' spirituality suffices for our planet. Anyone can if they wish learn to be kind, loving, connected, concerned for others' well-being and the well-being of nature. We do not, I believe, need any `divine' energy for this. And we certainly don't need false gurus, if you ask me.

&&&&&&[later addition on 17 April:]

There is one more aspect of this which I forgot to mention above. And some might therefore misinterpret what I'm trying to say, and dismiss it out of hand as being altogether biased against all `spiritual' methods.

However, I don't feel biased against all `spiritual' methods. One could say: well, some forms of meditation calm the mind and help diminish the inner disbalance which so frequently leads to unkind/uncaring/selfish etc. behaviour. There is some merit in that statement, I believe.

And of course someone who really strives to develop her/himself as a kind caring connected person, and who does so unsanctimoniously, is bound to become a `spiritual' person, if you ask me.

So, among the many gurus of this world, I have no doubt that there will be quite a number of `spiritual' persons. And this type of spirituality can inspire, and be of help to others looking to develop similar spirituality in themselves.

So when does the term `false guru' start to apply? It applies like stated above, when things are made Absolute. When mind-calming techniques are made Divine, and proclaimed as belonging Uniquely to the Movement, when altered states of consciousness are associated with Divine Energy, when the Guru becomes Infallible, and -whatever She or He does- is Always Spiritual, beyond the criticism and understandig of mere mortals...

And like I said, this happens far more often than one would think likely.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ego and selflessness, selfishness and malice

Last week I've been considering the list of pitfalls that this blog started out with, and the one addition of `spiritual energy':

  1. Guidance
  2. Universal truth & absolute truth
  3. Bliss & happiness, pain & sorrow
  4. Morality & moral pressure
  5. Before & after life
  6. Wonders & miracles
  7. Money
  8. Power
  9. Belonging & fulfillment
  10. Group dynamics
  11. Us & them
  12. Woman & man
  13. Ego & selflessness
  14. Mind & heart, logic & feeling
  15. Fear & temptation/reward
  16. Spiritual energy, holy energy, transformational power,...

Almost all of these pitfalls have been addressed in the previous posts, I feel. Some probably better, sharper than others, due to natural limitations of the author. The two pitfalls that have not been explicitly addressed, I think, are:

6. Wonders & miracles
13. Ego & selflessness

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About wonders & miracles, I think I can be short. From the personal perspective, they play on my wish to believe that there is a Special Purpose to my life, and that God is giving me Special Signs. From the Spiritual Movement's perspective, wonders and miracles are very handy to boost the Absolute Truth. If something extraordinary happens (and this occurs all the time of course) which we perceive as `good', then it is a Miracle, by His Grace etc. If something extraordinary but `bad' happens, well, suddenly no-one is so hot to claim it as `by His Grace'. Suddenly, the negative Event is due to our own negative tendencies, our failure to live up to His Standard.

I mean really. Let's not waste more words on it than this: any all-powerful Entity (God, Master, Leader, Spirit,...) is by the very meaning of the word `all-powerful' completely responsible for anything that happens in all the galaxies, in Existence (if you think that galaxies aren't enough). So in calling one thing a Miracle, and to blame the other on something else than the All-Powerful,...one certainly has one's work cut out trying to explain this to an unburdened mind.

Calling some things good and other things bad reflects our own morality. To me, this shows that the human concept of Absolute Morality doesn't go well together with the concept of an all-powerful Entity. But if it helps people to accept life's harshness, if it helps them develop mildness towards others, etc. then I don't feel like criticizing too much. If on the other hand it drives them towards fundamentalism, separatedness, all the other pitfalls, well then I think some counterweight is necessary.

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A final pitfall that seems to me abundantly present in spiritual movements concerns `ego', `selflessness', `selfishness'.

Many spiritual movements claim that the `ego' is responsible for our lack of spiritual progress. And they advocate a giving up of the ego, and living a selfless life full of sacrifice for others (and often of course also for the Leader/Movement).

In my not so humble opinion it would be too easy to dismiss all of this. The reader will recall my opinion that people generally do not act out of malice. But still, it hardly bears contemplation what people do to each other in this world. I cannot even really bear to write about it in any detail. And if I could name some common denominator in people's motives for being so `wolflike' to others, then I think I might call this `blind selfishness'. And how far is `blind selfishness' from `ego'?

So to me, this examining of the `ego' as a hindrance to a more spiritual way of living is not illogical. In my personal experience, it has even helped me get a better understanding of what it is I'm looking for `spiritually'.

So once again the question becomes: where is the pitfall in denouncing the `ego'? What is possibly harmful in advocating an ego-less, self-sacrificing way of life?

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The thing is, to me, that our `ego' is a very natural part of our being. It seems completely comparable to other natural parts of our being, such as bodily parts and functions, our capability to love, to analyze, to create, to destroy, to imagine, etc.

So the classic pitfall here appears to me to be this: since the `ego' can arguably be blamed for much of the world's misery, the solution must be to do away with it altogether!

It isn't necessary I think to elaborate on the obvious fallacy of that argument. But there are other pitfalls strongly associated with this `giving up of the ego'. Like stated earlier on this blog, it is the intricate combination of many pitfalls which -imnsho- can make it difficult to understand what one is being subjected to in a given spiritual movement.

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Giving up the `ego'...for many movements goes directly against self-reliance.

`The ego has the tendency to cling to its old habits. It will influence your mind, distract you from the Path. Many sages rose to a certain spiritual level, and no further, because they were foiled by their ego. To obtain a completely pure heart, you must surrender to One who has no ego at all. Put yourself completely in His hands, give up doubt (which is an instrument of the ego), cherish Faith. How to achieve the Goal? Do not do what you want to do, but give yourself over to His Wish. Work for the Movement, the Pyramid, the Mission. By doing so, your ego will diminish. Obedience is the key, when we start obeying Him completely, our ego will no longer have control over us. Now we reach a state of blissfull Divine Remembrance.'

Likewise, the ego can be blamed conveniently for any criticism of Movement, Method and/or Leader. In this way, serious and real criticism from sincere followers is often trivialized by the inner circle of the Movement's Pyramid. `Oh, it's just her ego you know. Shame really, after all our Leader has done for her. I pray to Him that this veil may be lifted from her mind.'.

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Even more dangerous in my eyes, is the tendency to work endlessly, to the detriment of normal daily life, for the Movement's Pyramid. After all, where are the checks-and-balances? If `ego' is bad, and if friends and family are just distractions from the Goal, and if working for the Mission is a `sure way of progress'...then is it so strange that some people are blinded by this combination into becoming zealous proselytizers, organizers, `spiritual counselors', fund raisers, ... etc.?

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So, at the near-ending of this blog, it seems to me that once again moderation and self-reliance are called for to avoid these pitfalls.

To me it seems a fact of life that I will be selfish to some extent in my life. By my living, other beings will suffer and even die. Every step I take will in fact kill many many organisms. I cannot avoid this, it is Nature. Imnsho, Nature dictates that I should take care of myself to a certain extent. Perhaps I can modify this extent to the point where others are hindered only a little, that would be nice. But to me, this doesn't change my fundamental responsibility of taking sufficient care of this person who is uniquely entrusted to me, namely ... myself. Who will prevent myself from overworking, from draining my physical and mental batteries, from under- or overnourishment, from falling into pitfalls of Spiritual Movements...if I don't do it myself?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A first list of pitfalls of spirituality

In this first post, let me simply name some pitfalls of spirituality that i perceive to crop up in many spiritual efforts, movements, religions.

  1. guidance
  2. universal truth & absolute truth
  3. bliss & happiness, pain & sorrow
  4. morality & moral pressure
  5. before & after life
  6. wonders & miracles
  7. money
  8. power
  9. belonging & fulfillment
  10. group dynamics
  11. us & them
  12. woman & man
  13. ego & selflessness
  14. mind & heart, logic & feeling
  15. fear & temptation/reward

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and I don't think that the above items are all completely separate either. It's just a working list to start from, as we go along the blog probably will evolve.