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

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Spiritual guidance vs. authority (pitfall 1)

Not surprising, I think, that many of us try to find spiritual guidance. Especially since some people living or in the past claim to be spiritual guides, offering their service in this respect.

For clarity: I believe the idea of spiritual guidance is above board. But -you will ask, since this is purportedly a blog about pitfalls in spirituality- what then do I see as the pitfall associated with spiritual guidance?

The pitfall -imnsho- lies in the gradient between guidance and authority.

For some reason, for almost all of us, guidance and authority are overlapping areas. Furthermore, because of herd instinct?, most of us want to be led more than guided. Leadership has always been held in high esteem. Most of us prefer not to have to think about tough decisions all by ourselves, we follow a (the) leader. In my eyes this is often not a positive thing. I can be bolder and state that imnsho most truly detrimental human actions come from this herdlike following of leaders.

So I see a big difference between guidance and leadership. Leadership often translates in authority structures. Hierarchy, in other words. Seniority, some rank structure like brown belt, second star, 14th ring... If you happen to participate in some spiritual movement I'm sure you can fill in something here.

But does a guide need a 14th ring? A black belt? It seems to me that WE need these signs of achievement in order to trust the guide. `I can safely listen to this person, because she is in the 12th state of consciousness, so she should know.' So we look for some legitimization, some authorization which puts our guide in a higher position than ourselves. And then -herd instinct?- often we try to make the guide into a leader.

Is it any wonder that we often will not accept guidance from peers? `Oh no, I've known you all my life, you're nothing special, what could you know about this? But Shri Paramahamsabii, who is the Special Descendant - as attested by his Master, the holy Pujashri Lama Ricoche - now He says: put all your faith in the Guide, do not waver from the Path. Hold His hand, He will guide you to your Destination

Now, does any of this look familiar?

When you think about it, this is a common element to all spiritual movements. The guide is made into a Guide (Guru, Master, Pope, Ayatollah, Dalai Lama, Rinpoche,...). This by Special Authority, mostly of a Divine Nature. Next the Guide is made into the Leader, the Absolute Moral Authority (often not in so many words, or only gradually...since it takes most western people time to get used to the idea that someone could have absolute moral authority over their life. After all, we kind of got rid of that phenomenon, didn't we? But it never loses its appeal, the idea to give your life over to someone completely loving, the living representative of GOD...)

But wait a minute: how could I possibly check if this Special Authority, Divine Nature is what other people in the Movement (not novices, Senior Members...) allege it to be?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Spiritual guidance 1 (pitfall 1)

For the moment, having waited 6 weeks to see if I would really go ahead, I see nothing wrong with simply starting at the top of the provisory list of the first post.

I think that much of what I perceive to be the trouble with many spiritual movements [this includes religions] starts with the issue of spiritual guidance.

Right at the beginning I would like to say that this and similar issues have very subtle shades. Therefore it is easy for the novice of a spiritual method/movement to be confused and even beguiled. [perhaps this is worth a separate mention as pitfall].

To illustrate what I mean, consider a violin teacher. Obviously a violin teacher can do many things to help someone wishing to learn how to play the violin. A good teacher to me is someone who with a keen eye for the person (s)he teaches, strives to help attain good technique AND love for music, love for the violin.

To me, it seems very difficult -although not impossible!- to learn how to play the violin without a good teacher. This teacher can be seen as a violin guide giving violin guidance.

So then, is it so strange to presume that one would need spiritual guidance in order to learn how to live a spiritual life - something which many of us crave, but do we even know what it is, let alone how to attain it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spiritual guidance: the violin teacher analogy 2

After reading the first posts here, a friend suggested to expand a little on the violin teacher analogy. He also asked whether I was aware that my writings perhaps will not make much sense to people who do not have some firsthand experience with a spiritual movement and its organization.

[Yes I'm aware of this. This blog, although meant for all, probably has as imagined primary audience: people with a firsthand experience of a spiritual movement, who are struggling, like I was struggling, to put things into some perspective that makes sense on both the heart level and the head level. I hope that also `novices' and other spiritually interested people will find some things useful. Maybe later I will provide some details on the movement that I participated in (for 12 yrs), but for now I'm content to look at general issues having to do with many if not most spiritual movements.]

Let me take another look at the violin teacher analogy. A good violin teacher -imnsho- knows she can only teach well by devoting personal attention, tailormade even, to her students. How many students can one violin teacher therefore have at any given time? And why do we have so many amazing violinists? It can only be because, by devoting her personal attention, skill, love, motivation to her students, enough of her students grow out to be future violin teachers themselves.

But none of these students is required to play the violin in precisely the same way as the teacher. Because a good teacher -yes, imnsho- recognizes the true individuality of each of her students, recognizes her own limitations, and simply tries to help her students bring out the best in themselves.

Is there any need for her students to `surrender completely' to their teacher? Do they need absolute, unquestioning trust? Is immaculate obedience a sign of progression? Or would you, as a teacher, be happier if your student said: Well dear teacher, that is probably fine for you but it doesn't work for me. I'm going to play this largo part intensely emotional, to follow it up with a very subdued allegretto ending. And by the way I think Mozart is for restaurants only, I would like to concentrate on Prokofiev for the time being.

It takes time for a good violin teacher-student relationship to develop. The teacher is happy when the student becomes a master himself, becomes independent, and maybe a teacher himself too. There is no need for orthodoxy, because the love of music is such an obvious and overriding aspect of the whole violin undertaking -if this undertaking has any quality. And imnsho true love is never orthodox.

On the other hand, orthodoxy is seen to abound in spiritual movements.

`The Great Saint Bahjamahanuji, affectionately known as Bahji, said: Obedience is the highest form of Realization. Start your day at dawn with a pure Longing in your heart, repeating these words in your mind:

Oh Divine One
Oh Guruji
To be with You
is to liberate our hearts
from the Slavery of Material Existence
You are the Path
and the One to guide us to the Goal


Performing this prayer precisely as prescribed will benefit a practising aspirant in a most effective way. It is very important to use these precise words, since they carry a special spiritual charge. The Prayer was revealed to Shri Bahjamahanuji by his Master , Shri Ram Krasnapolsi, in a Vision.'


So I do not hesitate to oppose love and orthodoxy. And true guidance to me is the opposite of mass guidance. Because if a violin teacher has more than -well let's be real optimistic here- a hundred students at a time, how much personal attention is this teacher able to give each student?

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, January 15, 2009

The false guru

frank waaldijk, the false guru (drawing, 2005)

The false guru (own work, 2005)

The above drawing I made in 2005, after seeing a video of my former Sahaj Marg guru Chari. In this video he `gracefully' allowed people to fall at his feet, perhaps to kiss them even. To understand my indignation at this, one should know that Chari repeatedly stated that hís master never allowed people to fall at his feet, because this would be a false and impeding interpretation of the relationship.

This is not a blog about Sahaj Marg, but I do think it very illustrative of the way in which guru worship can take over the real spiritual issues. This I tried to analyze already in the posts on `spiritual guidance' (pitfall 1). But a picture speaks a thousand words. In the drawing, the false guru enjoys the fawning devotion and the illusion of a special light that radiates from `his presence'.

He doesn't display anger, or irritation like:

`Get up, you fool. What are you doing? Don't worship me, tend to your own inner master. By losing yourself in this outer form worship, you are running away from your spiritual self. Do you want to believe in fairy tales, or do you want to work on the real issues which are perhaps not so pretty but have the decided advantage of being real?'

He also doesn't display a single drop of true humility, modesty even. He only acts the part by folding his hands together, and putting on a serene expression.

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The drawing to me seems to capture what goes wrong when we start elevating somebody to the position of Guru, Spiritual Master with capital letters, Absolute (Moral) Authority, you name it.

What really happens is that we create fairy tales that `He' will somehow do our work for us. We experience bliss from this fairy tale, because -duh- now we don't have to do any real, likely confrontational, work on ourselves. Plus we are no longer responsible for the outcome!

Another downside to this transfer of responsibility is that the practicant opens her/himself up to a wide variety of manipulation. Not only from the Spiritual Leader, and the Movement's Pyramid, but also from her/his own subconsciousness.

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Which is why I believe that a true spiritual guide would abhor any sign of worship. (S)he would relentlessly refuse to be put on any kind of pedestal (dais), be it physical or figuratively speaking.

In fact such a person would in my not so humble opinion most likely not call her/himself a spiritual guide at all (out of true modesty, and insight in the incomprehensibility of our existence). But people would turn to such a person nonetheless, without the elevation -which creates distance- and the worship and the false humility.

But it would not be in large numbers. Because then where to find the time and true attention which is the basis of any true relationship?

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Please also check out the false guru test at energygrid.com, which was discussed to some extent in a previous post on fulfillment and spiritual progress.

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.

#####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bliss & pain, spiritual energy & meditation, unique selling points

Continuing from the previous train of thought, there are some other attractions offered by spiritual movements which to me appear to contain a number of pitfalls. In other words, these attractions add to the temptation side of the sequence `fear<-->temptation-->manipulation'.

If one looks at various spiritual movements, the common denominator of these attractions could be called `bliss'. Or `reprieve from worldly pain', `reprieve from the fundamental loneliness of being an individual' or something similar. Or: `union with the Divine', `going back to my Home' etc.

Since it is easy to be misunderstood in these matters, I repeat that I personally do not consider myself capable to say anything absolute about these characterizations. A feeling which cán be described as being cut off from some `Spiritual Origin' is actually well known to me personally.

And I find that a certain (personal) form of meditation helps me to keep a certain `spiritual' feeling, connection, whatever you wish to call it.

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There, I've admitted it, I'm as nuts as everybody else! Or perhaps even nutser. Sorry if your hopes for a completely rational author of this blog have been dashed. But I never promised you a rose garden, did I?

On the contrary, that's what many spiritual movements do, by and large. Apart from promising Salvation, Redemption, Heaven, Liberation, ... in the afterlife (for which noone has to my knowledge ever produced any tangible, incontrovertible evidence), they also offer Bliss...during certain elements of the Spiritual Practice.

During ecstatic chanting maybe, during intense praying sessions, during meditation sessions, during some purification session, by being in the presence of the Leader who just Radiates Love, by sitting on the Leader's Holy Maternal Lap where she Cradles you for 10 seconds, leaving you Completely Transformed...

That kind of thing.

Or Holy Food, charged with Special Energy. Or Holy Water, please donate freely to the Fund to make it available for everyone on the planet, because only This Holy Water is the Real Holy Water.

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From personal experience, I think I `know' what I would call a spiritual atmosphere. Being with other people who are not looking for entertainment but for such a spiritual atmosphere, already gives a rare reprieve from what one usually encounters when people gather. Exchanging with other people on `spiritual' matters - I would rather say `daily life matters from a spiritual point of view' or something like that - helps to feel less cut off, for me at least.

But none of this is the Special Merit of the Spiritual Movement or the Method or the Leader. Still, many movements would claim this effect as uniquely theirs, as a proof that Their Method is effective, producing Very Spiritual People.

This is a broader tendency: many movements would claim as their `unique selling point' (you know, from marketing) what is actually a quite general phenomenon, and can be found in many different places, in or out of many spiritual movements.

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For example, meditation (unlike afterlife and beforelife etc.) has a basis in science. In the past three decades say, research in the electromagnetic fields which are produced by the electric impulses in our brain has shown that meditation has a clearly detectable influence on the type of electromagnetic waves that the brain produces.

More specific, a certain increase in what is called alpha-waves, is found to accompany feelings of `bliss', deep `spiritual connection', `religious ecstasy' even [[All references are welcome. See comments]]. Other studies show that various forms of meditation can help reduce stress, anxiety, and a host of other stress-related physical ailments.

Well, good, wouldn't you say?

Yet many spiritual movements try to claim these beneficial effects as Uniquely Due to their Method. `Oh no, beware of charlatans trying to influence you with gross hypnosis. Spiritual energy must be of the Purest Form. Our Leader, who was Specially Designated, can transfer His Light onto you. In order to bring this Light to Mankind, He has enabled special Helpers around the world. They have been trained to bring you the same Pure Light during special asnahamsi meditation sessions. The technique of asnahamsi is what sets our Method apart from all other movements.'

Now we're in the temptation business. Suppose one believes this unique selling point. `I feel so wonderful during and after meditation! Therefore what the Leader says must be true. Oh, yes, this surely is the only practical Way to reach the Ultimate.' Then the guilt/fear/... part creeps in automatically: what happens if I do not follow the Leader's instructions? I might be cut off from this wonderful feeling. I'm shaming Him in his Endeavour to save Humanity, which can only be saved by Our Method of course. Etc. etc.

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Many people have written about these types of pitfalls, like I said earlier I'm not sure if what I say brings anything really new or more insightful. But perhaps it will be of some benefit to someone. At the very least it helps me to analyze my experiences and my uneasiness with these experiences.

So let me continue. There is, I believe, another pitfall associated with meditation which is less frequently pointed out. And that is the following.

If meditation affects our brain, as science shows, then how do I know that all types of meditation are beneficial to all people practicing that type of meditation? Brain science is still only an emerging field, because our brains are very very intensely complex, and the cause-and-effect chains are mostly still largely uncharted territory.

For this reason, all sorts of neurological afflictions are still largely ununderstood in their working, their genesis, their treatment etc. To mention some: anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, migraine, epilepsy, chronic fatigue, obsessive compulsive behaviour, well the list goes on.

So, if I start some form of meditation, what guarantee do I have that the influence of this meditation on my brain patterns is beneficial to me?

But even apart from `too much in general', brain science shows that each brain is unique and reacts in its own unique way to for instance medications, but also to other stimuli. So who is to say if a particular type of meditation is beneficial to me, especially in the long run? Because I may feel really Fine during meditation, but if after a few years I'm stuck with a splitting migraine...

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In my not so humble opinion, most spiritual movements who advocate some form of meditation do not have a good checks-and-balances system to evaluate possible adverse health effects on the practicants. They may have some form of spiritual counselors, who keep an eye on things, but have these people been trained in spotting possible adverse effects? Are they even open to the idea that their particular form of meditation is not `Always Beneficial since it is under His Guidance'?

But what to do then, to avoid possible adverse effects? I still think the remedy is partly the same as in the previous post. Self-reliance. Observe your mental and physical health. If you get headaches, contemplate stopping the meditation for some time and observe the effect of this. If you get lethargic, similar. Don't blindly trust what you cannot observe for yourself. (This goes for doctors too, and taking medication. But remember that doctors have been thoroughly vetted by society in a long scientific tradition. And look how many mistakes they still make.)

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Finally, it seems to me that moderation is an understated virtue. So if a Spiritual Movement consciously or subconsciously advocates a lot of meditation, and more, until a Blissful Condition has been achieved...then I start wondering. Is my brain designed for such amount of meditation, for such a quantity of alpha waves? Is my purpose in life Bliss? Is this natural, or should I simply accept that life is not Bliss?

`So many questions from the Mind...' is what a true Believer would respond. `You must feel with the Heart'...

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.
'

Monday, August 18, 2008

Us & them: homosexuality, woman, man AND science

What sparked this short series of posts on sexuality was a recent speech by my former spiritual guide in which he condemns homosexuality as unnatural and against the wish of God. Giving this as reason for not performing same-sex marriages.

The implications of such condemnation by a spiritual `leader' are manifold. I will probably not go into all of them.

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But the first thing that strikes me is that, coming from a Moral Authority, such condemnation divides humanity once again. We already had men vs. women, now we have also heterosexuals vs. homosexuals.

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The second thing that strikes me is the word `unnatural'. Here obviously this spiritual guide (and many like him) knows very little about nature. I cite wikipedia (article on homosexuality here, article on sexual orientation here):

Homosexual behavior in animals


Homosexual sexual behavior occurs in the animal kingdom, especially in social species, particularly in marine birds and mammals, monkeys, and the great apes. Homosexual behavior has been observed among 1,500 species, and in 500 of those it is well documented.[130][131]. This discovery constitutes a major argument against those calling into question the biological legitimacy or naturalness of homosexuality, or those regarding it as a meditated social decision. For example, male penguin couples have been documented to mate for life, build nests together, and to use a stone as a surrogate egg in nesting and brooding. In a well-publicized story from 2004, the Central Park Zoo in the United States replaced one male couple's stone with a fertile egg, which the couple then raised as their own offspring.[132]

The genetic basis of animal homosexuality has been studied in the fly Drosophila melanogaster.[133] Here, multiple genes have been identified that can cause homosexual courtship and mating.[134] These genes are thought to control behavior through pheromones as well as altering the structure of the animal's brains.[135][136] These studies have also investigated the influence of environment on the likelihood of flies displaying homosexual behavior.[137][138]

Georgetown University professor Janet Mann has specifically theorized that homosexual behavior, at least in dolphins, is an evolutionary advantage that minimizes intraspecies aggression, especially among males.[139] Studies indicating prenatal homosexuality in certain animal species have had social and political implications surrounding the gay rights debate.[140]


Almost all forms of human behaviour are seen in other animals as well. Nature is vast and complex. Who of us can really divine (this word is not a coincidence, you understand) what Nature is about?

But I can rather safely say that one does not see animals praying, or meditating under the guidance of a guru of the same species (please let me know if you spot something like this in Nature, outside of humanity). Therefore we can safely conclude that it is quite unnatural to meditate and to pray...

Also, egoless behaviour is seen in primitive to very primitive animals, but in higher mammals it doesn't normally, naturally occur. How about non-agression, altruistic love, non-powerhungry social behaviour?

I think we can safely conclude that most of the behaviour that spiritual movements advocate as spiritual, advanced etc. is quite un-Natural. Does this make a more united humanity, a more loving humanity, a peaceful humanity... undesirable?

`No no, it is unnatural you see, and against the wish of God. If God would have wanted a peaceful humanity, He would not have created us so aggressive.'

(Truth is, most great apes are far less aggressive than we humans. Very few mammals fight so violently amongst their own species as we do.)

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So, as usual, science comes to the rescue when medieval bias and unfounded popular beliefs and attitudes threaten some minority (or weaker part) of the population. No, dear Spiritual Leader, women are not spiritually different, and a woman can be as good a spiritual guide as a man. No, dear Spiritual Leader, homosexuality is not unnatural, and the sun does not revolve around the earth.

The (pre)medieval idea that the sun revolves around the earth is a good example of not being able to look beyond one's own nose. Galilei was -I'm not joking- persecuted by the roman catholic church for stating that the earth turns around the sun. Why did the catholic church consider this a dangerous idea? Because the bible stated otherwise. And surely, since humanity was so important to God, everything in creation revolves around us?

In fact, if we look at the truly mindstaggering number of stars and the incomprehensible dimensions of our universe alone, I think the greatest arrogance is to assume humanity is even anything close to important in the Grand Scheme of Things.

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So for someone to state that something is against God's wish...he or she has to think that they have some Special Connection to God, or am I mistaken? Is it a humble statement? Not that I take strongly against arrogance, I consider it a lot better than false humility. But spiritual movements often preach humility as a spiritual value, a desirable character trait. And they often claim that their Great Leader is so humble, a shining example to all.

`No no, you see, my Master is the most humble person I ever met. It is true that in His books He claims He is the Special Personality, sent down to help Humanity. But His Divine Grace shines through in every word. And of course He avoids to write directly that He is the Special Personality, He only infers it, out of humility.'

Humility? A truly humble person would - in my not so humble opinion- never agree to be a Great Leader, Guru, Guide, Special Personality, Master, Pope, whatever. She or he would never claim to know God's wishes. She or he would probably not feel unhumble enough to judge someone's sexual orientation either.

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That being said, I cannot even imagine the pain that homosexual followers of some spiritual movement or religion must feel when once again their sexual orientation is under moral siege by the Great Leader.

Does this loving Special Personality even stop to consider this pain? Or is it irrelevant, since by Special Divine Communication, God has spoken out to the Great Leader on this subject?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Universal truth, absolute truth (pitfall 2)

I apologize for not having a clearcut direction, other than the preliminary list of 15 pitfalls which formed the first post of this weblog. Although there is much more to be said on the subject of spiritual guidance, it seems time to also write about the other 14 pitfalls a bit more. So let's move on to pitfall 2: absolute truth and universal truth. As pitfall 1, it ties in with the other pitfalls in an often nicely woven pattern. This pattern can be hard to disentangle, especially if one is truly interested and willing to accept `mystic' statements of `very advanced' people. Why so hard? Well, partly out of humility I guess. How to know that what they say does not contain new valuable insight? It may not always sound very logical, but then how far did logic bring me up until now? Did logic make me happy, fulfilled?

So, if you have an open heart and mind, you might probably try out what these `very advanced' people say. After all, it takes time even to get to the point where one understands that a physician - very advanced medically one might hope- can be more clueless than yourself even in certain medical matters.

But wait a minute: a physician must study, take exams, can be brought up for malpractice, in a long-developed system of checks and balances...and even in this system there are still quite a number of not-so-excellent doctors.

Now take these `spiritually very advanced' people that practically any spiritual movement counts amongst its members. How do we know they are `spiritually advanced'? Well, now, everybody in the movement says so, so it must be true mustn't it? And look at their behaviour, so loving and dignified, and listen to their speeches, so full of wonderful words. Feel the wonderful energy flowing around them, why, the very room becomes still when they are there. Oh, and they took exams, courses, special trainings, sittings with the Master/Leader/Guru/etc and have diplomas and other credentials to go with it.

Together with the other practicants, we thus get a body of endorsement for the Theory of the Spiritual Movement.

I have yet to come across a spiritual movement which does not consider its Theory to be the Absolute Truth. Anybody questioning the absoluteness of this Truth is immediately contained in one of the following categories.

- hopeless Unbeliever: will never be recruited, waste of energy, but God is loving so one does one's best and maybe with God's Grace / Master's Grace...

- doubting Novice: very important category, lots of energy needed and worthwhile, the novice of course has questions and doubts, but through loving and attentive behaviour, the novice can be brought into the fold. Questions and doubts are to be dismissed or answered with orthodox theory, and of course the adagium: Faith, my dear fellow. The mind in in its impurity keeps on spouting doubts and questions. Develop stillness in your heart. Rely on Him, and Him alone.

- doubting Senior: difficult and dangerous category. Various strategies can be employed. The above adagium of course, plus some extra attention perhaps from the Leader...pat on the back, shoulder to cry on, nice organizational promotion? If that doesn't help it becomes more tricky. Doubting seniors cannot be allowed to openly dissent, in speech or writing, because this might cause the (doubting or not) novices to think twice about really staying with the Movement/Mission/Church/... A combination of `ignore' and `discredit' usually does the trick. Remove doubting seniors from organizational tasks as soon as possible, to show the flock that doubting is bad for your spiritual progress. Emphasize that Organizational work for the Spiritual Mission is in your spiritual interest, and that `advanced' positions in the Spiritual Organization are a sign of spiritual advancement. (Of course, for counterbalance also assure that they are not necessary for spiritual advancement, otherwise many senior members will feel bad).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A first list of pitfalls of spirituality

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

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

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