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

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Us & them: Sexuality, woman, man

Dear reader, I apologize for not having a clearcut path for this subject. Please understand that with sexuality being such a charged issue in many human communities, I won't be able to even slightly disentangle all the knots that we tie ourselves in around sex.

But the perspective of this blog (pitfalls of spirituality) would be incomplete I feel, if I left this subject out.

Because, like stated in the previous post, practically all spiritual movements and religions place emphasis on:

  • The purported spiritual difference between men and women, which is also used to explain why the Leader must be a man.
  • The `great spiritual importance' of sexual morality (the moralities differ greatly between movements though)
  • The purported immorality of homosexuality.


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Morality and moral pressure is one of the pitfalls of spirituality, in my not so humble opinion. Sexual morality is just an element of more general morality, but somehow spiritual movements place great emphasis on sexual morality. Having sex with a `wrong' person is often condemned far more strongly than -for instance- not helping someone in need, not caring for others, greed, etc.

It often seems that if one just not sleeps with anyone but the appointed spouse(s) - of the opposite sex of course- then one's morality is ok, according to the Spiritual Movement.

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To me, it appears that in our age some form of sexual morality is still necessary in a society/community to ensure a basic level of trust, working together, upbringing of children, not fighting over sexual partners, etc.

This is a far cry from the Great Sin which many spiritual movements make of `sex with the wrong person'.

Don't misunderstand me: breaching of trust, deception, callous lust, abandonment of children etc. do not strike me as very spiritual. But breaching of trust and deception can be just as bad or worse on a nonsexual level. Abandonment, not being there for someone in need, unlovingness, closed heart, the list of things we do to ourselves and others is far broader than just our sexual acts and thoughts and feelings.

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When sex is more than the physical act, it is also called making love. Make love, not war I recall as a slogan which made quite an impression on me when I was young.

The great spiritual problems of humanity to me lie more in the divisions of mankind, the fighting, the strife, the warfare, the power struggles etc. than in sex. Making love to me seems a very spiritual thing.

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So why do spiritual movements (religions included as always) make such a great deal of sexual division (man/woman) and sexual morality?

I think it ultimately has to do with power and control. Sex is an important issue to most people -one could well wonder why, since to me love is far more important, but things are what they are, and many people tie love & sex together etc and we end up with all these knots around sexuality.

Assuming moral authority over sexual issues therefore achieves a double goal. First, the Moral Authority gets an important hold over people's feelings and actions. This yields tremendous power, much of it subconscious but also regularly quite explicit. Second, the division between men and women usually gives organizational and societal power to the men. One can wonder why men-of-spirituality would like this, since supposedly spirituality is some sort of opposite from power struggles...

But for the time being I suspect a lot of the divide-et-impera (divide and rule, old Roman adagium) tactic behind much of spiritual movements' sexual morality.

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, September 24, 2008

Ego and selflessness, selfishness and malice

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

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

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

6. Wonders & miracles
13. Ego & selflessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sexuality and same-sex marriage from a spiritual point of view

I came across this open letter to religious leaders for marriage equality.

It shows a very different approach to same-sex marriage than the narrowhearted and narrowminded one of my former spiritual guide, and its writers are people from various religious backgrounds. Their institute is called Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing (website here).

I'm not in favour of religion in general, nor of any religion in particular. But please read the below declaration from the institute, and decide for yourself which is the more humane, loving spiritual approach. (Don't take my posting this text here as a sign that I fully agree with all its words, I don't. I just consider the basis of the approach below to be spiritual, loving, uniting instead of divisive).

Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear, and respond to the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth seeking, courageous, and just. We call for:

* Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.
* Full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same sex unions.
* Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.
* Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denomination.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society. We call for:

* Lifelong, age appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries, and community settings.
* A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment.
* Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.


With this I will end this thread for now, and turn to other pitfalls.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Us & them, woman & man, (homo)sexuality

`Us & them' is my shorthand for a fundamental division of humanity amongst any line. In my not so humble opinion, uniting humanity is a worthwhile and spiritual undertaking. Division of humanity hampers this undertaking, in my belief. Now in many spiritual movements, there is in words a large emphasis on seeing humanity as one. `We are all children of God'. `Consider all human beings to be your brothers and sisters'. And similar uplifting statements.

But there is at least one division which the vast majority of spiritual movements seem to underline, reinforce, advocate: the division between men and women.

For some reason, we seem really hooked to the idea that men and women are completely different in some fundamental spiritual way. The (physical) difference in reproductive organs seems to lead to some non-physical `spiritual' difference, even though we are summoned to see other physical differences -such as length, weight, skin colour, etc - as trivial in the spiritual sense. Even large cultural & age differences are seen as outer wrappings, not significant at all in the spiritual sense. But gender, boy, girl, that really makes us sweat.

This leads to the amazing conclusion that for most spiritual movements I have far more in common with an 81 yrs old Mbuti man [the Bambuti are hunter-gatherers from Congo], than with my wife who has the same age as me, who has lived in the same country as me, etc.

This perceived fundamental difference historically has translated into many discriminatory situations, where mostly men put themselves in position of religious power, and then dictate some version of sexual morality. Women are mostly banned from these positions of power, and this banishment is justified by variations on the claim that since men and women are so spiritually different, only men have the necessary spiritual make-up for these positions.

To me it seems a spiritual pitfall which branches out from sexuality to morality, from `woman & man' to `us & them' and ultimately to power. This is a complex issue, and I imagine it will take me several posts to only skim the surface. One thing that I would like to say in advance is that sexuality is some kind of hot potato in most spiritual movements and religions, and I believe this to be intimately linked to power and control issues. Ultimately I see this as the reason why homosexuality is considered such a threat (`unnatural', `against the wish of God', etc.) by many spiritual movements.

In subsequent posts I will therefore turn to scientific knowledge about homosexuality, to show why the above positions of spiritual movements on homosexuality are comparable to the 17th century position of the christian church on the question whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa.

Two weeks ago I saw the documentary `Jerusalem is proud to present', and tears sprang in my eyes to see the active violence and death threats against gay people by fundamental religious movements. A short description from the website of the uk jewish film festival:

Last summer [2006] Jerusalem was due to host the annual World Pride celebrations and gay pride parade, unprecedented in the city’s history. This hair-raising documentary captures the homophobic hate campaign launched by fundamentalist religious groups. Death threats pour into the Open House, Jerusalem’s LGBT community center, while in the Jerusalem City Council arguments for equality from its only openly gay member are met with verbal abuse, and a mayor so disinterested in democracy he simply leaves the room.

Orthodox Jews riot in the streets, their chief Rabbi apparently sanctioning violence to stop the ‘defilement’ of the holy city (interviewees include a gay rights activist stabbed during a previous march). The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further impedes World Pride preparations, and the eventual compromise was controversial among the gay community. Gilady’s film is nevertheless an important record of bravery in an environment where the only thing uniting some Jewish, Christian and Arab leaders is their hatred for gay people.


This `woman & man' thread will be continued over the next posts. But let me state again, if one purpose of spirituality is to unite humanity, then it will not do for a spiritual movement to make such distinctions between men and women and anyone in between, and between heterosexuals and homosexuals and anyone in between...

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]

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.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Logic, love, faith, power

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

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

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

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

#####

So, let's continue from the previous post.

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

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

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

So when a Spiritual Movement says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#####

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

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

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

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

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

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

[to be continued]

Monday, August 25, 2008

Belonging & fulfillment and group dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

######

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

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

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

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

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

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

#####

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

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

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

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

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

#####

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spiritual authority needs legitimization, but do we need spiritual authority?

Following up on the previous post, the common path of spiritual movements with a Guide who is really a Leader seems to be as follows.

In order for Someone to have absolute moral authority, this Person must in some way be legitimized. Most movements spare time, effort nor money to reinforce the Legitimization of the Guide. (Who is a man, in say 99.99% of the spiritual movements.)

A very good practice is to have the current Guide legitimized in a line of previously established Superholy Predecessors. The Great Founder of the movement obviously is the first, and His Legitimization can be embellished all the more the longer He is no more with us in His Physical Form.

`Stars began to blaze in that night of that year, and the holy Aszjnabaraki spoke: He has come. Already at His birth, it was noticed that people and animals grew quiet around Him. At the age of four, His mother was surprised one day to find Him....etc.'

It becomes more elaborate as time passes, but the essence of the legitimization mythos is practically the same in all movements: the Guide is legitimized through Holy Divine Sources (backed up by a lot of books, testimonials etc), which of course cannot be tested by mere mortals, BUT mere mortals can experience the Love emanating from the Guide as a palpable proof of the legitimization... Although of course proof is not necessary since we must rely on Faith. [more on faith later]

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I'm putting in these #-s because already we are being pulled in a direction here which -in my not so humble opinion (imnsho)- should read CAUTION, do you really want to go here?

Because to me it seems that any TRUE spiritual guide would NEVER go near anything having to do with moral authority.

A true spiritual guide...that rarest of all human beings...might be inclined to help you find a true spiritual guide within yourself. I would be surprised if this was not the case. And it would mean that the number of guides increases. No followers to speak of.

Oh, but wait! If I am my own guide, then blimey, I must make my own decisions, take my own responsibility...no way, I'd rather be with the herd, in the herd, cosy, warm, following Him.

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If you are a seeker of true spirituality (and why else would you read this blog, or to put it more directly: what other thing in life is really worthwile?) then my question to you is:

Is not in yourself the very thing you seek?

You may be desperate, you may think someone else can help you feel spiritual, balanced, loving,...and I think this is correct, there are people everywhere willing to devote their time and energy and love to help others find spirituality, balance, love. But where does this idea of moral authority come from? Where does the idea even of morality as an external obligation come from?

If my guide (or one of my guides, or all of them) gives me some clue, some direction, some example - where's the authority? And if I don't follow the clue, direction, example...well so what? SHAME on me? A WASTE of a UNIQUE opportunity to wash away my sins, clean my samskaras, shorten my longsuffering reincarnation cycle?

Please, dear reader, consider what would happen if you don't believe this type of moral pressure. If you refuse this combination of Fear and Temptation which characterizes the vast majority of so-called spiritual movements. And shed it, like you take off an ill-fitting itchy garment.

Would it mean, as most movements suggest or (more likely) strongly affirm, that your Salvation becomes endangered? That your Soul will accrue more darkness, and that you are at risk of debauchery, materialism, clogging your spiritual arteries?

Or would it mean you are realizing your own path, with your own heart, following the true guide within, with HELP from your loving guides but without authority, rank, surrender, obedience, submission, ... and other excess luggage.

If you were this loving God, which of these scenarios would you choose for your human beings who are after all made in your image?

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.