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

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?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Spiritual marketing techniques 3: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachings

I recently came across a wonderful article called `Spiritual marketing techniques', written by Andrew P on Energygrid.

It is quite lengthy for a web article, but I will reproduce it in 3 parts. (Kind permission is granted by Energygrid)
Part one: So you want to be a spiritual teacher
Part two: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachers
Part three: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachings

[This post is part three.]

Spiritual Marketing Techniques
Andrew P—10/2009

An examination of methods used to market spiritual teachers and teachings. Whether you are an authentic spiritual teacher or just playing the guru-game, there is good money to be made in active spiritual marketing.
[Part three:]

Techniques for Promoting Spiritual Teachings

The other focus of spiritual marketing is on the teachings themselves. Here are a few of the characteristics of successful teachings (again, these are difficult to separate from the above so there is a certain amount of overlap):

  1. Conceptual Spiritual Path: This is the number one rule in successful marketing of any spiritual teaching: present it in such a way that your customers can bring along their minds and their egos on the spiritual journey. This allows them to maintain the illusion of control, so that their concepts of a spiritual person can be acted out. Any system that encourages the development of the spiritual ego is going to be very popular, because it maintains the psychological status quo by not challenging the ego. (Ironically, such ego-centric systems are increasingly being presented as ego-dropping systems so that we egotistically learn to simulate being ego-less. Brilliant marketing!) Ego-centric spiritual teachings are very popular in a modern, ego-obsessed society. They usually involve a story about the world and our place in it, giving us a purpose and a special significance, and has the benefit of triggering attachment to both teacher and teachings, which of course leads to dependency.
  2. Promises Immortality: Death is a big fear for most people so any system of spirituality that promotes some kind of immortality (even if it is just the immortality of the soul) is going to be attractive to potential customers. Most people fear death for obvious reasons, so you must ideally not only allay their fears but adequately describe how they will continue after death — give them a road-map into the unknown. There are even some spiritual teachings that promise physical immortality, but this is more difficult to justify over time, but in the short term can be a very lucrative approach.
  3. Focuses on the Teacher: Okay, so you have nothing original to teach, but at least you yourself are original. So if your teaching keeps pointing back to the teacher as a key component in the awakening process (perhaps by direct transmission) then you end up with a unique product, one that customers do not feel that they can get anywhere else. So, in effect, by putting yourself squarely in the centre of your teaching, you end up with a monopoly on a unique product.
  4. Teachings Offer Certainty: In a world which presents uncertainty around every corner any belief system that offers certainty is naturally going to be very popular. This goes hand in hand with conceptualisation (without conceptualisation there can be no certainty). The certainty that is promoted can even extend to the future in prophecy and prediction. The more areas of mystery conceptually expelled from people's lives, the less fearful they feel and the more attached they will become to you and your teachings.
  5. A Promise of Bliss, Health and Happiness: Most like to believe that the final destination of the spiritual path is a state of eternal bliss, perfect health and sublime happiness — enlightenment. This means that there is a huge payback for following the spiritual path, which can be a strong motivating factor. After all, many people start following the spiritual path when they become disillusioned and unhappy with normal life. Maybe they are unwell or maybe they have been through traumatic experiences.
  6. Special/Secret Teachings and Techniques: Try to associate yourself with a special type of teaching or meditation/fantasy technique that is kept secret (like any trade secret) and then convince your students that they will only find awakening if they follow these particular teachings/techniques. This locks them in to you very strongly. The increasing problem with this is that, with the internet, nothing remains secret for long, so you are advised to also use some concept of "direct transmission" so that the teachings/techniques are only "activated" if given personally by the teacher or appointed student, not just "stolen" from the internet. You can also claim that each student needs a unique revelation and so stolen secrets are meaningless.
  7. Promotes emotional expression: Modern society can be very rigid in how it allows individuals to express certain emotions, more specifically sexual emotions and loving emotions. So any teaching (or community based on particular teachings) that encourages free emotional expression can be very attractive and freeing. This can be a strong component of hijacking feel-good techniques (see "i" below). But be careful if you do this to make sure that if free sexual expression is practiced, for example, that safety measure are also taken. After all, the spread of STD's through an organisation is not good publicity for it!
  8. Strict Codes of Conduct: People love to be told what to do. In fact, the impulse for bondage is stronger in most people than the impulse to freedom. So having a strict codes of conduct and attire can be very attractive to many people. This may seem contradictory to g) above but they actually go hand in hand. After all, the excitement of free sexual expression is actually the excitement of letting go to (being controlled by) bliss and ecstasy. Having strict rules also also fits in with the spiritual ego that wants a formula to do everything right.
  9. Copyrighted and Trademarked Issues: Even if what you teach is not unique, you can call it a special name and then copyright/trademark that name. This way you end up being able to own and control the teachings that that name represents. Copyright must be added subtly: too in-your-face and you won't look spiritual. And if you are ever questioned about copyright and trademark you can just blame it on your organisation so that it looks like the master wasn't the one with the attachment. Another successful approach if you are questioned about the legal restrictions you have placed on your teachings is to claim that you are only trying to protect them from being bastardised by a third party.
  10. Teachings have Material Outcomes: This can be a good customer puller because it means that those who follow them will find many of their material needs and wants met (including physical health issues). So rather than spiritual awakening being seen as a subtraction of what is not real, it is seen as an addition to our powers, potentials, wholeness and bank balance. This is attractive to customers egos and also justifies any opulence that the teacher may have relative to his customers. (Quantum physics is often used to justify this position.)
  11. Hijack Feel-Good Techniques: Most of the more successful systems of teaching will hijack tried and tested feel-good techniques such as meditation, mantras, relaxation, dance, tantra, fasting and breath control to make customers get associate a feel-good fix with you and your teachings. The key is to control the inner process enough for that feel-good fix, but not let customers get carried away with inner focus so that they awaken and leave you. (This should ideally be coupled with copyrighting/trademarking the feel-good technique if you can.)
  12. Testimonials for Teachings: Spiritual marketing is like any other kind of marketing, you need testimonials and case-studies for the media to promote a particular spiritual teaching and teacher. Fortunately, with the rise of social networking, this often happens spontaneously. For book covers, publishers will often get endorsements for a teacher from their other clients, making sure that even the dullest of spiritual manuals has rave reviews from someone other than the author who is also regarded as a teacher.
  13. Make Teachings Self-Validating: By making the sublime value of the teachings part of the teachings themselves, you help to validate them in your customers' eyes, especially if they are in their heads. It is important to describe your own teachings in the very highest terminology, and make it clear that anyone who does not understand this is just "not ready" for them yet. This goes hand in hand with marketing yourself as the very highest spiritual master.
  14. Present the Teachings Sequentially: Don't give it all away in one go — there is less money in that. Instead, spread out the teachings in a series of courses that goes from beginner all the way through to advanced, a journey that might take a number of years to complete. That way your students remain your students for the whole duration as many on the spiritual path believe that the journey to enlightenment is a long and arduous one. And by the time your students have "graduated" they will have invested so much time, money and effort with your system that they are unlikely to quit due to both their investment (the so called sunk-cost fallacy) and the fact that their spiritual ego will be reinforced by feelings of achievement. And you should also tweak it so that when your students reach the final hurdle, you let them know that they still need just a tad more direct transmission to lift them into enlightenment, so they still need to stick around.
  15. Give a Pseudo-Scientific Justification: Link your teachings with modern physics as it really does increase credibility of what you are saying to anyone who is not scientific literate (which is most people). And remember that those who are scientifically literate are less likely to be seeking "spirit" anyway. So you are relatively safe. Key terms to use in your teaching are: "quantum", "relativity", "scalar waves", "quantum entanglement", "Bell's Theorem" and "photons". And you might constantly allude to the fact that what you are saying has been "proved" by quantum physics. (Nobody is likely to have any real understanding of quantum physics to challenge what you are saying.)
  16. Exotic and Foreign Words and Phrases: Students are always more impressed with teachings that are sprinkled with foreign words and phrases. For example, rather than vaguely speaking about the consequences of actions, use the word "karma", and instead of describing the world as illusion, use the terminology "maya", and so on. This makes your students really believe you know what you are talking about as you will sound very impressive, and using ancient terminology like this helps to strongly validate your teachings by throwing the whole weight of an exotic religious tradition behind them. And as the student learns this spiritual vocabulary, she will feel that she is becoming increasingly spiritual herself. This also serves to link groups together by having an "insider" vocabulary and phraseology. (This is similarly to the name-change technique used by both teachers and students to reflect their new spiritual selves or egos.)
  17. Associate Teachings with Exotic Places: As mentioned above, offering holiday and Mecca-type retreats in exotic places not only gives you an opportunity to make more money than local retreats, but whatever you teach is far more likely to be cherished because customers outside the confines of their everyday lives tend to be much more relaxed and focused. Your teachings also get to be associated with feel-good "holiday" vibes, not to mention the fact that you will get a free holiday out of it.

* * *

The above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of methods, but rather an outline of some of the main ways that you can successfully market yourself as a spiritual teacher. What is important to stress is that the use of any combination of these methods does not necessarily indicate the value or authenticity of you and your teachings. After all, even an inauthentic teachers hiding behind slick marketing can be useful for some people at some point in their spiritual awakening (if only just to learn not to be so gullible).

However, although both authentic and inauthentic teachers have successfully used many of the above marketing strategies, the type of teacher you are and the type of teachings you teach will determine the emphasis you need to put on the different methods of spiritual marketing.

As a general rule, the more authentic you are as a spiritual teacher, the more you have a tendency to be putting yourself out of a job, which is not good business practice. Authentic spirituality is non-conceptual, and this presents a serious dilemma for spiritual marketing for most of what attracts people is conceptual. Therefore, most authentic teachers strike a balance between marketing and non-conceptual teaching, so that there is enough conceptualisation to hook people (the more you hook the more people you can potentially help), but not too much so that conceptualisation is badly interfering with the awakening process. Inauthentic teachers, on the other hand, let rip with the above marketing methods, hiding their ineptitude behind concepts and dogma.

So whatever type of teacher you are, spiritual marketing can really help you succeed, increasing both your customer base and your income. I wish you every success. Namaste

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Moral authority, orthodoxy, rituals: the common trinity of spiritual movements

Now that I've made up my mind to write about the pitfalls of spirituality, I find the train of thoughts gathering some momentum. For the past 15 years I've been thinking on these issues. Also I devoted and still devote a very substantial part of my energy to developing an inner spiritual comportment, as well as different types of analysis of what I mean by that, and what others appear to mean by that.

I apologize for writing long and sometimes complicated sentences. Perhaps my style will improve over the posts to come. For now I'm trying to get a certain stream flowing, and therefore I give my mind free rein.

I've discovered that many people participating in some spiritual movement will block out the mind, block out simple logic. Their reaction to this blog could very easily be: You must not trust the mind, you must feel with the heart. How to explain to someone blocking out logic, that for me also the mind is just an instrument? Spirituality involves a loving heart, first and foremost in my not so humble opinion. To arrive at this, I believe we can well use the mind. This use is perhaps not a necessity for everybody. But if my heart experiences unease, if I get signals that not all is well on the path, then why not use my mind to determine where I took a wrong turn?

The orthodox answer of many spiritual movements: you cannot trust your own mind. Oh, I say, but it is my heart which is protesting. Orthodox answer: your heart is not yet pure, therefore you are guided by desires, please surrender to God, Guide, Method because that is the only way to get past your own blocking desires.

So now we have it. Here comes a real crux. The question is:

What do I trust? Who do I trust?

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Orthodox answer 1: You cannot trust yourself. Why? Because: look at the mess you have created in your life. Look at the mess people create in their lives. You and they are running after worldly desires. But your heart is protesting, deep inside. The Real You longs for spiritual fulfillment. But your desires and your mind are blocking the Real You. You will never overcome this by yourself. You need help. Well, actually help is not enough. You need to surrender to higher authority, set aside your ego, set aside your mind, to free your heart of all the unnecessary rubbish and grossness it has accumulated. Come to our Method. Surrender unto Him. He will guide you. In your heart you will feel Love start to blossom. Your problems will be over, although perhaps not your worldly trials. But these will no longer bog you down. Experience our Divinity for yourself, and do not trust your Western mind. Look at the spiritual mess Western society is in, can you trust the Western approach?

First objection by truly interested seeker (TIS): I've tried your method for a long time now. I find my heart protesting against many elements of your method and movement. My mind finds serious flaws in your reasonings. My eyes see that the followers of your method are creating the same spiritual mess as most any other organization, only they are more hypocritical about it: they cover it up. Sanctimonious behaviour is rampant, especially amongst senior members and authoritative figures. Your `Guide' is inapproachable in a normal manner, but does not hesitate to tell me I need to feel ashamed of wasting my unique opportunity to escape eternal damnation / reincarnation / samskaric pain / whatever. (Why ashamed? Because He is giving His Everything, He suffers immensely, He is putting Himself out for Humanity, and I carelessly refuse to cooperate, thereby draining Him and Humanity for completely selfish reasons.)

Orthodox answer 2: You are being fooled by your ego. The Guide is pure love, and is not pressuring you in any way. This is just resistance from your ego, which clings to its lower desires like an infant clings to its lollipop. Please participate in a special cleansing session, so that you may become rid of these ego-bonds. You cannot trust your feelings in this. Has not the Guide brought you, lovingly and with completely selfless service to humanity, past many similar obstacles on your path? Do not make the mistake that many have irredeemably made before you by leaving our movement, you might never get another opportunity to attain liberation, to find God.

Truly interested seeker: First you tell me to trust my heart, and disregard my mind. Now you tell me to not even trust my heart, since it is corrupted by my ego. According to you I must only trust the `Guide'. But by whose authority can I trust this guide, if not by my own heart and mind? Look at all the other movements which say exactly similar things, but which you nonetheless denounce as mistaken and potentially dangerous. But moreover: look at your own movement. You are claiming that (other) religions are mistaken, and that the hearts and minds of their practitioners are so rigid that their Real Heart cannot speak. Yet now I tell you what my heart and mind are speaking, and then you say that this cannot be my Real Heart because it is not in concordance with what the Guide says and what the Method says and the Scripture...and they are Always Correct. Because they are Divinely charged, inspired,...

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We can go on like this for some time. My point is this:

Most spiritual movements try to establish some Moral Authority outside of the practitioner -even though many of these movements claim that the only Real Authority is in the practitioner's own heart.

From this outside Moral Authority (yes, the Leader which most of us prefer, because we are after all group animals with herd instinct) comes orthodoxy. Because to disagree with the Moral Authority is to disagree with the moral majority, which this majority does not find appealing because it threatens the group functioning and the Leader mechanism.

Orthodoxy is then solidified in rituals. Because if an Absolute Moral Authority has said that prasad / chalice of wine / headscarf / prayer at noon / circumcision / group meditation / scripture reading is... Holy & Mandatory & ... then for ages to come, no one will dare question these things. Until some dissenter starts the following movement, becoming Guide etc. etc.

And so the natural tendency of spiritual movements is to grow into religion. What are basic characteristics of religion, apart from the obvious abundance of rituals? This merits new posts.

To finish my point, let me put forward the way I've come to see things. God (spirituality, universal love, ...whatever name you want to use) is inside. Need we any authority outside to tell us what is inside? I don't think so, and it doesn't feel right either. Logical, because in the end this is an impossible setup. Without some final authority inside, we will not know how to choose from all the conflicting authorities outside. Perhaps we come across a guide who is willing to help us clarify what is inside.

When can we trust such a guide, in the normal sense of trust? Probably when this person doesn't ask us for Absolute Trust. When this person is simple, personal, unassuming, not dressed in white with 25 important followers clinging to His Every Sacred Word. And very important (although one would not believe that such a shallow precaution could be so prevalently necessary): when this person is not asking for money all the time. Oh, but it's not for Himself you know! He never thinks of personal gain! He only needs money -and really speaking He doesn't need anything, He only does it for us and for His Master- so we can help truly interested seekers find this wonderful Method, which is unique.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 4: former followers & boundary mechanisms

Let's continue with discussing possible answers to the second and third question from the previous post, which I repeat here for readability:

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?

$$$$$$$

So with regard to question 2, I think it is relevant to note that the body-of-thoughts-and-beliefs of dedicated followers of a particular spiritual movement is often quite different than the body-of-thoughts-and-beliefs of non-followers. And like I said in the previous post, for both sides the problem in communication can lie in the fact that what is logical to the one, is contradictory to the other.

If we forget about most established religions for a moment -in most established religions, children are brought up in the religion also-, then strikingly, many followers of newer spiritual movements joined their movement later in life, most likely as an adult, after having first experienced an existence as `normal' non-follower of that movement. Often it is precisely some more-or-less articulated disappointment with that `normal' society which brings them to try out participation in their spiritual movement.

This `disappointment' can well be formulated in terms like `spiritual longing', for reasons explained in the previous post. As opposed to the `normal' materialistic or ritualistic/orthodox approaches to life.

However, most non-followers have not experienced an existence as follower. To me it often seems that they underestimate the benefits of following, and they overestimate the `normal' society -in which we have human neglect, abuse, violence, depravity, isolation, greed, power hunger etc... thankfully with many exceptions, but still dominant enough to shape the world in a seldom peaceful and respectful way. Is it surprising that many followers of a spiritual movement often dismiss the arguments against following from non-followers? It is in a sense less surprising, I believe, than that many non-followers often dismiss the arguments fór following from followers...;-)

There is however an interesting group of non-followers whose arguments cannot be so easily dismissed by followers: the former followers, especially those who participated for quite some time. People who know the Movement well, who know the Theory, the Practice, the Pyramid, the Inner Circle and the Leader. And who of course also know quite some followers on a personal basis. Probably or possibly there are some other non-followers who are well-informed, well-experienced, and well-connected to followers. For brevity's sake consider them included when the term `former followers' is used.

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So, it is my personal experience that it is easier for followers to completely avoid talking with me about most things related to the Movement (in my case Sahaj Marg), but especially on the subject of why I decided to stop with it.

Although surprising to me, and initially not pleasant, I found this blanket of silence illuminating. I now think that followers whom I really care for, and who vice versa care for me, see no other way to reconcile the different positions than by adapting the position that I'm an OK person, but am deluded by the foils of my ego. They find it painful to be confronted by the use of my inside knowledge to bring out the discrepancies between the Theory of the Movement and the daily state of affairs. My bringing out the discrepancies causes them to experience cognitive dissonance, precisely because what I have to say in that respect makes too much sense to be easily dismissed.

And so I have learned to see this silence as a sign of their caring for me, which I appreciate. Still, I would of course like more to be able to discuss things out in the open. Perhaps I would learn about my own ego foils then too - no doubt they exist, and are seen sharply by the people who know me best.

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This gives us a straight lead to question 3: How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?

Once again I have to say that I do not know anything even close to a complete answer to this question. To recognize my own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, I think both the heart-approach and the mind-approach which I mentioned at the closing of this previous post might sometimes be helpful:

Heart-approach: I think part of the answer lies in `unease'. If I'm experiencing some form of unease for a prolonged period of time, then this could well be an indication that I'm avoiding some insights and some conclusions which would force me to change my belief system. (Accepting this unease for a prolonged period of time might well lead me to a serious form of self-delusion, I believe).

Mind-approach: `face the facts'. Making a factual list of the important issues, I might be able to pierce through the cognitive dissonance avoidance mechanism.

(For me it sometimes helps to make an alternative fact list. By this I mean a list of alternatives to what I perceive as problematic. For example: what if there were more recognized Guides in the Movement, instead of just one Leader? So that a Guide would be truly accessible for all seekers, and there would be far less personal idolatry etc. OK, if this seems better, then why isn't it like that in the Movement? Does not the Theory state that everyone can become a Master, and that the Method is simple and efficacious....so why aren't there more Masters, after all these years?...)

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Recognizing the avoidance of cognitive dissonance in others seems so much easier ;-). I recently came across a really funny postcard stating:

Be reasonable...do it my way!

It made me laugh because of its utter simple and yet accurate description of what I consider to be at the root of most of our world's problems.

However, if I think to be wise enough to spot cognitive dissonance avoidance in someone else, perhaps this can help me in changing my strategy for communicating with that other person. Perhaps I might consider finding some other level of communicating than that of rational argumentation. Or perhaps I might just switch to asking some neutral-in-tone questions, not meant per se to convince but more to illustrate my own position. Or perhaps I might want to discuss only simple facts, which can be easily recognized for what they are.

Or, a different strategy which I fear is the most common: avoid the subject altogether...which is however not usually my initial style with people whom I really care for. Still, in my eyes it seldom helps to harden positions and go into verbal battlemode. Changing belief systems is a slow process, at least for me, so probably for others too. Why not give ourselves and each other time?

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The above also describes what Marc Galanter calls `boundary issues' (if I remember correctly). Many spiritual movements consider themselves separate from `normal' society in some way (also see the posts on the pitfall Us and Them).

To give an interesting example: in Sahaj Marg participants are encouraged to know all people as thy brethren and treat them as such. This no doubt has helped bring about that participants are used to start talks with words like `dear brothers and sisters'. But also, unconsciously, to bring about that the words `brother(s)' and `sister(s)' are often being used exclusively to indicate other Sahaj Marg participants like in the sentence: `our brothers and sisters in the United States are all very happy that Master is coming to visit'.

Now, to me it seems obviously impossible that all the people in the United States are happy that the Master of Sahaj Marg is coming to visit. So the statement can only be read as to imply that `brothers' and `sisters' are particularly those USA residents who also practice Sahaj Marg. So Sahaj Marg promotes a family feeling among participants (also quite explicitly in speeches and texts), but thereby excluding the rest of humanity, in direct contradiction with their own maxim 6: `Know all people as thy brethren and treat them as such.' In other words: not uniting humanity as is their stated intention, but dividing it. And being blind to the division, I would wager, because it is not out of malice or lack of empathy or lack of concern for others.

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.

This will be the focus of the next post, to be continued therefore. Still, I feel that there is not longer much more for me to say on this subject, so maybe one or two posts and then I will be done with it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Spiritual marketing techniques 2: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachers

I recently came across a wonderful article called `Spiritual marketing techniques', written by Andrew P on Energygrid.

It is quite lengthy for a web article, but I will reproduce it in 3 parts. (Kind permission is granted by Energygrid).
Part one: So you want to be a spiritual teacher
Part two: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachers
Part three: Techniques for promoting spiritual teachings

[This post is part two.]

Spiritual Marketing Techniques
Andrew P—10/2009

An examination of methods used to market spiritual teachers and teachings. Whether you are an authentic spiritual teacher or just playing the guru-game, there is good money to be made in active spiritual marketing.
[Part two:]

Techniques for Promoting Spiritual Teachers

Here are some of the main spiritual marketing techniques that are used if we want to become teachers ourselves. The general idea is to present a spiritual image of the teacher to the customer so that the authority of the teachings is not doubted:

  1. Psychological Transfer: Encourage followers to psychologically transfer divine qualities and goals onto you, so that both you and your customers are locked into a dynamic system of projection. This way the teacher maintains his or her role as an awakened one, and his or her students maintain their roles as the unawakened ones. You must always keep your students in line by dismissing any show spiritual autonomy as this will only encourage others to believe that they can do without you. The other approach is to inflate yourself to the top end of the spiritual master spectrum — to a full avatar or God's right hand wo/man — which will forever lock your clients in the student role (apart from the odd one that thinks that he or she actually is God).
  2. Fashion and style: First impressions are everything in marketing and so your presentation as a spiritual teacher is very important. The first thing a potential customer is going to see is the outer package, so this has to fit with the image expected by the target audience. So if you are going after more alternative lovely-dovey followers, non-conventional attire is required such as white, yellow or orange robes, or a purple, blue, black or white silk shirt; long-hair/shaved head; crystal jewellery; and bare-feet or simple sandals or walking shoes. Alternatively, if you are going after a more corporate audience then you might consider dressing in bespoke dark suit, tie and white shirt, black dress shoes and an expensive watch. It is important to get into the minds of the target audience and really understand their expectations and what they are comfortable with and, more importantly, not comfortable with. Get it wrong, and you could end up with just your cat as a follower; get it right and a whole lucrative organization will form around you.
  3. Name change: Changing your name to an exotic sounding one is very important in presenting yourself as a spiritual master. After all "John Smith" does not carry the same weight as something like "Shivananda" or "Mountain Blue Ray". Names should ideally be reflective of the the type of spiritual teaching that you give. So if you are teaching concepts that originated in India, it might appear more authentic to your followers to have an Indian name, whereas if you are teaching concepts that come from South America, using an appropriate South American name is important.
  4. Nationality: If you originate from a country far different from the one in which you plan to teach, you have an important advantage in being a successful spiritual teaching. For Westerners, this means that any connections with places like South/Middle American, India, Tibet, Africa, the Far East or any Pacific Island can be very important in your marketing campaign. Having indigenous roots (no matter how tenuous) could mean the difference between success and failure. This is because, to most people, spirituality is seen as something special that comes from outside the confines of their society, so trading on any heritage that places you as an outsider can be very effective. And if you don't have those roots, don't worry, you can always upgrade your spiritual resume by traveling to India or South America and getting adopted by some traditional or native teacher/tradition. (If you can't get any one's attention, just throw around some money. It works a treat in poor countries and you will soon find yourself revered as a spiritual master.) This marketing angle can also be aided by a name change mentioned above. Alternatively, you can claim that you are from far outside this culture but then incarnated into it to teach (a "walk-in" perhaps). Alternatively, you can keep giving retreats in exotic places: not only will you make a greater profit, but some of the exoticness of these teaching locations will rub off on you and your teachings.
  5. Behaviour: Spiritual people are generally regarded as very peaceful and loving, so ideally, you have to behave this way all the time, at least in public. The problem with constantly trying to be peaceful and loving is that you end up with a huge unexpressed psychological shadow of all those qualities you try not to express, and so you can often have episodes of acting like a complete jerk (preferably behind closed doors). Fortunately, if such behaviour becomes public it can be justified by presenting it in the context of "crazy wisdom", presenting imbalance and erratic behaviour as a valuable lesson in non-attachment to expectations regarding the teacher. One marketing technique that is becoming increasingly popular today is to just sit and stare at the audience way beyond what is considered comfortable in modern society, and in this way you give maximum space for your audience to project the inner spiritual images onto you, catalyzing a strong attachment. It is amazing how wise we can appear if we just keep out mouths shut!
  6. Vocabulary and Phraseology: Most people listening to you will be listening from the heart and not the head (usually with a wistful and/or far-away look in the eyes). Therefore, when speaking to audiences you don't have to actually say anything particularly meaningful because the message itself is not actually that important. For example, you could be talking about your dog and how important it is to give him the right food, and your students will be nodding their heads in thinking that it is somehow an analogy about making sure they give themselves the right spiritual food. So the story itself is not important and does not have to make sense. Even contradictions are okay because they illustrate the paradoxical nature of the spiritual path. Words and phrases that are important to drop into your presentations, to keep the audience impressed, include: "oneness", "infinite love", "loving ourselves", "loving what is", "we deserve", "meditation", "quantum ******", "non-duality", "opening the heart", "letting go", "being yourself", "finding what is true", "authenticity", "opening the chakras", "touching the void", "reaching within", "connecting", "opening the heart", "advaita", "it is simple", "everything is inside". You should also sprinkle your presentations with foreign words and phrases to give your teaching an exotic edge, throwing the weight of religious/spiritual tradition behind you. (This is not to imply that these words and phrases do not have profound meaning, only that they can be used merely to pep-up spiritual presentations.)
  7. Self-Confidence and Charisma: Nothing is more attractive to potential customers than if have or can develop an abundance of self-confidence and charisma (a certain amount of narcissism is very attractive). You want your customers to fall in love with you. Egos love these qualities, and most people will choose a confident, egotistical teacher over one that is not so sure of him or herself. You must have the self-confidence not only in yourself as a teacher but also in your teachings. Never show doubt or admit to not knowing something. If you don't know what to say to your customers then just remain silent and let them project their hopes and dreams on to you. If they ask a question you cannot answer, just turn it back to them and tell them to answer it themselves. The benefit of displaying such confidence to your students is that you dupe them into believing that the mind can hold truth. This makes it far harder for them to escape the clutches of conceptualisation, thus trapping them as your students (students with a profound acceptance of their own ignorance can wake up and walk off, so best to bind them in the surety of conceptual truth). A good sense of humour is also very helpful in attracting customers.
  8. Comprehensive Teaching Materials and Opportunities: With* a constant stream of videos, lectures and lecture recordings, guided meditations, books, internet updates and weekend courses and holiday retreats in exotic locations, you can make a very good living. Remember, when you have someone first hooked on your teachings, rule number one is to up-sell, rule number two is to up-sell, and rule number three is to up-sell. This cannot be stressed enough as people can get bored and move to another teacher, or become awakened and no longer need your services, so you need to sell them the complete enlightenment package before they lose interest in you. To do this, constant self-marketing is vital, especially online methods such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. A monthly newsletter (both paper and online) or even magazine is also vital to keep individuals in the fold, as well as regular "satsang" meetings and video/audio downloads. Customers have to have plenty of opportunity to become totally dependent on you and your message.
  9. Lineage and Direct Transmission: This is important in order to keep your customers. If they believe that the teacher and the teacher alone energetically transmits spiritual awakening from a long successful lineage of transmitters (an idea that is popular with Hindus and Buddhists) then they are unlikely to take the core of the teaching and run with it themselves. Even secret teachings, after all, can be easily uncovered by a Google search. So if you want your followers to stick around, focus most be transferred from the teachings to the teacher, so that followers will hang around waiting for enlightenment to be bestowed. Lineages can be contrived or genuine: what matters is the perception of them. Whether direct or contrived, spiritual lineages give you the spiritual authority of a spiritual heritage. If you don't have a lineage, a modest amount of money can buy spiritual patronage in any poor country.
  10. Pseudo-Objective Corroboration: If you have the creative nous, formulate a pseudo-objective evaluation systems to "calibrate" levels of truth. This can be applied by something as simple as dowsing or muscle testing. You can then calibrate yourself and your teaching at the highest end of the scale, giving your customers "objective" reasons for buying your books, videos and CDs. In this way, you end up lifting yourself by your own bootstraps — an accepted feat in the spiritual marketplace. It is remarkable how many people fall for these sorts of self-corroborations because they are in ego-mind. The ego loves calibration systems or scales because they justify comparison and judgment — the lifeblood of the egoic mind. And to make these fantasy-systems complete, just calibrate critics of your system as low on the scale so as not to be worthy of attention.
  11. Promoting the Rareness of Spiritual Awakening: This is important for you to do as it will keep your customers customers. After all, if they believe that enlightenment is so rare that it may not happen until the next life, your students will not be disappointed when it does not happen quickly (and it won't because such beliefs are self-sabotaging) and will just keep coming back to you for more teaching. Remember that customers who awaken are customers who are lost, so it is very important to plant the seeds of failure early on. Fortunately, the prevailing belief in spiritual communities is that enlightenment is very rare indeed (but like the lottery which has similar odds, seems to be endlessly captivating).
  12. Extraordinary Powers: You don't have to actually be psychic or a healer to use this marketing tool. All you need to do is have a few close followers spread rumours about your magical and mystical feats — how you healed so and so etc. Everyone is looking for an energetic handout so any chance to be "healed" will be taken. And remember, everyone is going to want you to have magical powers, so you don't actually have to be that convincing to be convincing. Always remember that the guru is the ultimate placebo effect, and the placebo effect can be very powerful indeed. Also, if you can sit in mediation for 48-hours or go without food for a month, if you can administer shakti pot or manifest vibhuti, all that will help to bring in the punters. You may even able to market themselves on the back of extraordinary levels of love, so that just the promise of a simple hug is enough to attract crowds of followers.
  13. Third-Party Endorsements: The New Age / New Consciousness is a close-knit community with different teachers endorsing each others books and teachings. This is usually operated on a tit-for-tat basis whereby endorsements are reciprocated for marketing purposes. This way, even the most contrived of teachers can come with very high recommendations. (One New Age teacher even has an endorsement by Mother Theresa on one of his books, although no proof of such an endorsement has ever been made public.) Another thing that will give you great spiritual credibility is to get a picture of yourself with a spiritual leader such as the Dalai Lama and reproduce it in your book and on your website. This will certainly pay dividends in your spiritual marketing.
  14. Build up a Hierarchy of Followers: Hierarchical access to the teacher is important when the teacher become more successful because it separates the teacher from the bulk of his or her students. This makes it much easier to maintain the spiritual front for the majority. Those in the inner sanctum have so much time and money invested at this point that it doesn't matter if they see the halo slip a bit behind closed doors. In fact, they will often conspire to keep private the unsavoury behaviour of their teacher, convincing themselves that the teacher is beyond normal human morality. Hierarchies are also much better control structures that can lock people into an organisation because "rank" gives them spiritual status, something they are unlikely to want to give up easily. The other advantage of hierarchy is that wealthy customers can buy access by making large donations.
  15. Start an Educational/Charitable Foundation: This allows you to look like a real do-gooder and will really open your customers' wallets. You can talk about the need for a better world and by telling your customer base how your spiritual message can really make a difference, you can use these charitable donations to support yourself as well. These types of money making exercises when thought through properly can offer substantial tax breaks. Ideally, such foundations should be set up in poor developing countries to garner the most sympathy, and perhaps offer off-shore tax status.
  16. Open an Ashram or Spiritual Centre: This adds credibility to your organization by literally placing it on the map. And the good things is that, in league with 14) above, it should be possible to get your customers' donations to cover the entire cost. Once a centre is built, you can then more economically run weekend retreats and spiritual workshops without having to pay expensive hotel/hall rates. And by having a fixed place you really can build up a strong residential core of followers that will bring in a lot more people. And of course the ultimate is to have a spiritual center in some kind of holiday destination or spiritual-mecca destination.
  17. Website: It is now vital for any 21st Century master to have a web presence. The domain name should probably be your spiritual name and should be a ".org", which will associate yourself with non-profits and other do-good organizations. The website should have a lot of close-up photos of you looking very spiritual (you know what I mean) and offer tasters for the different talks that you have given. The full versions of your talks and retreats should be available in the shopping part of your site as either downloads or CDs/DVDs. The website should also sell pictures of you and other related paraphernalia.
  18. Multiply Yourself But Retain Control: The fact that you are just one person limits your ability to directly teach others, especially if you have proprietary/secret spiritual techniques. So it is important, once you have grown your organization and or spiritual teaching, to multiply yourself, so that your trusty inner circle of customers can go and and repeat what you are doing, not for themselves but for the good of you, your centre and your spiritual message. Think of it as a franchising scheme where you cream the profits.
  19. Donation vs Set Price: This is a difficult one, a bit like whether to set a reserve on an Ebay item. If you don't, you could end up with very little, but chances are that donation will outstrip cost. Donations make you look far better as it distances yourself from the world of commerce. In some instances, such as weekend retreats in hotels or centres that need to be booked, set prices may have to be used, but try to generally keep to donational contributions as you will look a lot more authentically spiritual. You can also have a "recommended donation" or "suggested donation" amount to make guilt people into giving more, as well as making sure that someone is always standing right by the donation box to witness your customers generosity.
  20. Supplementary Sales: It is not just your teachings that you can market but also your energetic vibration. Apart from pictures of yourself, you can also flog crystals, energized water, pendants, key-rings and other items imbued with your visage/spiritual vibration. These can can be marketed to help develop devotion, protection, success (in finance and relationships), healing, awakening, or whatever.
  21. Reward Sycophantic Followers: Keep telling your most ardent followers how fantastically they are doing on the spiritual path so that you feed their spiritual egos. This will give them an ego-investment in staying loyal to you and your teachings, and together they will become an effective controllers for the rest of your followers. This way, your inner circle of devotees end up having a huge emotional investment in making sure that, even when your halo slips occasionally as it inevitably will, that you will be picked up and put you back on the guru pedestal.

* * *

[*: the original article writes `without' but I believe this to be a simple error]
[this was part two, part three (final part) is the next post on this blog]

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.

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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.

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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, 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?


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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.

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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.]

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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.'

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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...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 2: mind & heart

Back to the last question raised in the previous post:

How can it be a problem and a pitfall, if by a slow process of avoiding cognitive dissonance, I gradually come to hold views and beliefs which earlier would have been paradoxical or morally wrong to me?

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In my eyes, the question is relevant (otherwise I wouldn't ask it of course ;-)), but my answer will take some time because I do not perceive this as a black-and-white issue.

Any development, any learning implies (I believe) that I change my views and beliefs. And even in mathematics, I have experienced that what I first thought to be contradictory or impossible, later turned out to be correct or possible, once seen in the correct light or with the correct enabling definitions. (Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the other way round also occurs frequently in mathematics.).

So to me the pitfall lies not in the changing of my views and beliefs per se. The pitfall lies in me deluding myself. In the posts on partial truth I raised the example of me riding over your bicycle, and then claiming that at the last moment your bicycle jumped under my car, damaging my front fender. You might laugh at this example, but I'm sure that people have given stranger testimony of events. Witchcraft, voodoo, and also Divine Intervention are but a few names given by people to justify things they say and/or think to have witnessed.

This car-bicycle example is of course rather mild. Things get more worrisome, when we consider a number of psychological experiments in which more profound consequences of belief-changing and rationalization were found to occur easily. Some of these experiments have become famous, also for their ethical dilemma: is it ethical to subject people to such an experiment?

In the famous Milgram experiment the participants were asked to give punitive dosages of electricity to subjects (this was actually not really happening, but the participants thought it was real). Although most participants had some initial trouble accepting that it was okay to do so, in the end they ended up giving really painful electrical shocks to their subjects (so they thought). The authorative figure of the doctor in charge told them it was ok, and rather than upsetting this expert authority and being a troublemaker, they chose to believe that what the doctor said had to be true.

From wikipedia:
Milgram's testing revealed that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.[3] Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:

`The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
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In another famous experiment The Third Wave, a class was slowly led by their history teacher to accept and join a (fictitious) movement `The Third Wave' which had clear fascistic tendencies. Quoting from Wikipedia:
Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment (Monday, April 3 1967[2]) with simple things like proper seating, drilling the students until they were able to move from outside the classroom to their seats and take the proper seating position in less than 30 seconds without making a sound.[3] He then proceeded to strict classroom discipline emerging as an authoritative figure and improving efficiency of the class dramatically.

Jones closed the first day's session with a few rules, only meaning to be a one day experiment. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or less, and were required to preface each remark with "Mr. Jones."[3]

On the second day he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community.[3] Jones named the movement "The Third Wave", after the common belief that the third in a series of ocean waves is last and largest.[3] Jones made up a salute resembling the one of Nazi regime[1] and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.[3]

The experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in: on the third day the class expanded from initial 30 students to 43 attendees. All of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. All of the students were issued a member card and each of them received a special assignment (like designing a Third Wave Banner, stopping non-members from entering the class, etc). Jones instructed the students on how to initiate new members, and by the end of the day the movement had over 200 participants.[3] Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.[3]

On Thursday, the fourth day of the experiment, Jones decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The students became increasingly involved in the project and their discipline and loyalty to the project was astounding. He announced to the participants that this movement is only a part of a nationwide movement and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the movement would publicly announce existence of the movement. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement.[3]

Instead of a televised address of their leader, the students were presented with an empty channel. After few minutes of waiting, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism and that they all willingly created a sense of superiority that German citizens had in the period of Nazi Germany. He then played them a film about Nazi regime. That was the end of the experiment.[3]


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[As an aside, these types of experiment are why I am really extremely wary of anyone advocating obedience-without-thinking to some Moral Authority. Any spiritual guide which I deem worthy of that name should have knowledge of these experiments, or at least insight in how the atrocities of the second World War and similar genocidal practices could possibly happen.

With this insight and knowledge in mind, I don't believe a spiritual guide would ever ask for total unthinking obedience (see also the posts on obedience). Because this insistence alone could very well be very painful for all those who have suffered under the consequences of totalitarian regimes.]

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So, to come back to the pitfall that I perceive in the avoidance of cognitive dissonance, can I find out the divide between learning and development on the one hand, and self-delusion on the other?

I'm sorry to say that I believe this to be very difficult for most if not all of us.

As an example, I'm quite positive that many practicants of my former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg will consider me self-delusional. I am being led astray by my mind, and -poor soul- have lost contact with my heart. My mind is creating all sorts of ego-fed illusions, and therefore I am blinded from the love of the Master. Something like that.

I cannot find a 100% proof that they are wrong. It is just that their view no longer jibes sufficiently with mine, which leads me to holding more the opposite view. So perhaps this is a good moment to explain why this blog is meant mostly for people who are uneasy with their spiritual movement, and cannot put their finger on their unease. This is partly because I do not think that I cán influence people who are happy in their heart-oriented participation in a spiritual movement. But also partly because I'm not sure that I want to influence these people.

If they are happy and fulfilled, and they do not grievously wrong others, then who am I to want to change that?

The counter-remark to this is of course that if I consider the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement to be actively deceptive and power abusive, then I would also hold the well-meaning members responsible to some extent, for they are the ones giving power to this Inner Circle.

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The question for this post remains:

How can I, personally, just for me, decide whether I am deluding myself (or am being led to delude myself)?

I think part of the answer lies in `unease'. Accepting some form of unease for a prolonged period of time might well lead me to a serious form of self-delusion. (You might call this the heart-approach)

Another part lies in: `face the facts'. Making a factual list of the important issues, I might be able to pierce through the cognitive dissonance avoidance mechanism. (You might call this the mind-approach).

I will come back to this, but for now this post is already terribly long, and should take its ending. To be continued.

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.


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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.

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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...

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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.

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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 22, 2008

Fear & temptation, leading to spirituality or manipulation?

On rereading the last post, it seems not the most clear, coherent one so far. I apologize. Perhaps I can tie some strands together in this continued post.

It seems strange to me that many people in as recent times as the middle ages really believed in Hell, eternal Damnation etc. Did anybody ever produce incontrovertible evidence for such horrifying institutions? I don't think so. But then, what in heaven's name made people believe in this nonsense? What made them fear such an invention as `the Devil' to the extent where they were willing to burn so-called witches?

One can wonder at this, and to me (definitely no expert) it seems not unlikely that these fears and terrifying entities were part of a package deal so to say. Because the flip side of the medallion was the belief in Heaven, eternal Salvation, the frequent apparition of angels/saints, other miracles and the presence of a loving God in their lives.

And so, if you were poor and probably being exploited, with little chance of attaining any position of influence, with high mortality of your beloved ones...then religion still offered something to make life bearable. Because if you lived your hard life `piously and just', then you would gain an afterlife with the angels in Heaven. And those who exploited you would get their just comeuppance, for surely God would send them to Hell.

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So, once again being brief to the point of major omission, thinking along these lines explains to me how people are led to believe in the strangest things. The belief in benevolent fairies, goblins, space aliens, gods comes together with the belief in malicious spirits, kobolds, space aliens, devils.

These beliefs help us to make our life `special'. They help us to convince ourselves that we matter, somewhere, to Someone - even when in daily life no-one seems to care. When we are Good, Someone notices and we will be Rewarded. This is the temptation part. The flip side, the fear part, is that when we are Bad, we will be Punished.

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We have come some way from medieval times. Like stated before, science and the efforts of many many people have helped at least western societies to free themselves largely from the stranglehold of christianity. But a lot of this is not really so long ago. There are still many people that I've spoken to who in their youth were brought up in a very strict `fear & temptation' template, in catholic or protestant schools. The idea of `sin' has not lost its hold on society.

What is more worrisome to me (and many others) is that many modern spiritual movements (including religions) have evolved and adapted the fear & temptation mechanism, instead of getting rid of it.

Why worrisome? Well, in a way it's none of my business of course, but if I write about pitfalls of spirituality...then I feel I should mention that this age-old fear & temptation mechanism can cause a lot of mental anguish. And can cause people to be manipulated by others, and to live in shame, guilt, anxiety, performing time-consuming and tedious rituals, separating themselves from other people...in short the opposite of what spirituality to me is about.

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If I'm afraid of death (fear), I might be tempted to buy into the Grand Story of this wonderful Spiritual Leader (temptation) which tells me that my life has a Purpose, and that there is such a thing as Redemption / Liberation / Heaven / ...you name It.

If I'm insecure what my life is about, and how I should behave (fear) then I might be tempted to buy into the Grand Story of etc.

If I'm afraid to be alone, if I'm frightened and hurt by the cruel things in my life (fear), I might be tempted etc.

The Grand Story invariably promises me the Sky (temptation). It provides solace for my grief, it gives direction to my behaviour, it brings me the company of other Believers, and it stills my fear of Death. It also provides the possibility of becoming Special, a True Saint! I, who was always insignificant both to myself and others, I can be Transformed into His tool! (One doesn't have to buy into all the options of course, I'm just mentioning some).

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By buying into the Grand Story (the Absolute Truth of previous posts), in most cases I open myself up to manipulation. This I see as a real and dangerous pitfall, because usually the manipulation is subtle. The more coarse manipulations of medieval times have been exposed for what they were, we don't fall for them any more. (Well, most of us don't.).

I'm thinking along lines like:

`It takes a Master of Great Caliber to liberate a person in the course of only one lifetime. We are all caught in an endless wheel of reincarnation, having to come back on earth again and again until our soul is cleaned of all samsaric and karmatic grossness. We suffer, life after life after life, because of our desires. Our desires lead us to accumulate grossness, where our soul just longs for Reunion with the One. Only if we are fortunate enough to attract the attention of such a Master, we can shorten the cycle, and even attain the Goal within this lifetime.

These are the teachings of the Great Saint Pujashri Parakrishna Mahamsi, our beloved Adiguru. He developed a special meditation technique to aid the sincere spiritual seeker, called `asnahamsi'. The sincere spiritual seeker is instructed to try out this technique under guidance of a capable Master such as our current Guruji Shri Radhu Amfimakassar, and observe the results.

After a few months of sincere practice, a feeling of lightness, of oneness with the Divine starts to pervade. The seeker's Journey has begun. Still, the Master is necessary more and more as the Path continues. There are knots and obstacles on the path which can only be overcome with the help of One who has crossed these obstacles Himself. Complete surrender to the Guide is necessary, otherwise we become trapped by the foils of our ego. For western people, the concept of surrender can be difficult, but we assure you that the Master is only one who has mastered Himself. To develop faith, at some point we must bid the intellect farewell. It can only bring us so far, and no further. Once we develop Faith, obedience to and complete dependence on the Master becomes our second nature. Now our work is done, He will take us to the Goal.
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