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...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is not a cult

Below is a post by `corboy' from the rick ross forum topic `what is not a cult'.

I reproduce it for general benefit. It is a different way of looking at certain pitfalls, and it might in its brevity help to determine quickly if a spiritual movement is cultish or not.

What is not a cult (by corboy)

* The group generates courteous behavior and does not produce a high percentage of trolls. Discussion venues that are independent of the group are left unmolested.

*If people complain about incurring harm, the group uses this as a sign to clean up its own act, not vilify and shame the people reporting this information.

*You do not sign any document in which you waive your legal right as a citizen to sue or mediate for damages in case you are injured during an event run by the group.

You are not pressured to go past your boundaries or disclose intimate or traumatic information. Your confidentiality is respected. You do not live in fear that any intimate disclosures you have made will be used to shame or control you.

** The leader and group tell the full truth about their origins, their finances, methods and you are able to give full and informed consent before deciding to participate. Methods are not kept secret.

*Your car keys, your phone, your laptop are not taken away from you.

*You are ensured 7 to 8 hours of sleep and breaks during events and you can bring your own food or have a choice of food options available. You are allowed to go sit by yourself at lunchtime or breaks if you need a privacy break.

*The leader and group are capable of reciprocating the loyalty they demand from you. In cults and bad relationships, the loyalty flow is always in one direction--to the leader and group. The few times the leader seems to reciprocate loyalty, a huge deal is always made and the many other times the leader is a selfish person are ignored.

*Actions match words.

*Principles before personality. You don't get all caught up in the leader's specialness or the group's specialness.

*The group does not claim endorsement by the scientific or medical establishment unless studies have been done by outside entities with no personal investment in the group and that material has been published in peer reviewed journals.

*The group and leader trust in attraction not promotion. They do not use the workplace, the client caregiver relationship and do not push people to use their friendships as sources of new recruits.

*A group that does not constantly change its doctrines or methods, forcing you to buy endless series of books, CDs, tapes.

*Doctrine remains stable--it doesn't get so complex that only its leader can understand it and the rest are left confused.

* Older editions of a groups books or literature are not destroyed or suppressed in an attempt to re-script the group or leader's history.

* The amount of money, time and attention you are expected to offer a group is clear in advance.

*You are never pressured to cut off friendships or associations with persons outside the group or who disagree with its teachings.

* A non cultic group does not encourage you to patronize a small network of 'recommended' businesses. You can consult therapists, doctors, contractors, yoga teachers, who are not in any way involved with the group.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quakers in the UK embrace same-sex marriage

Writing on the issue of homosexuality in earlier posts (click on pitfall 12: Woman & man), I am happy to repeat some news from the UK earlier this month:

(from the Guardian, 31 July 2009):

The Quakers today agreed to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples and said they would ask the government to change the law to allow Quaker registering officers to register same-sex partnerships in the same way as marriages.

At their annual meeting, held at the University of York, 1200 members gave their unanimous approval to revise relevant parts of Quaker Faith and Practice to treat gay marriages in the same way as heterosexual unions.

Michael Hutchinson, of Quakers in Britain, said: "Many of our meetings have told us that there are homosexual couples who consider themselves to be married and believe this is as much a testimony of divine grace as a heterosexual marriage. They miss the public recognition of this in a religious ceremony."

Following the Civil Partnership Act of December 2005, same sex couples in England, Wales and Scotland who share Quaker beliefs may opt for a blessing or commitment ceremony after entering a civil partnership.

While legislation allows same-sex partnerships to be registered as civil partnerships in law, the registrations cannot take place in the context of religious worship. Civil partnership is not recognised as marriage, although registered civil partners share almost the same legal rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples.

During this week's meeting, Quakers spoke about their personal experiences and said "whereas there was a clear, visible path to celebration and recognition for opposite sex couples" the same was not always true for those in same-sex relationships.

Quaker spokesman Anne Van Staveren said she did not foresee a surge in membership numbers following the decision.

"Anyone is welcome to attend a Quaker meeting but to become a Quaker, to understand the ways we live and worship, takes a little longer," she said. "Marriage ceremonies are for Quakers, but we are open to people to come and belong."

Resolving the hotly disputed issue of homosexuality in the church has not been as easy for other religious groups. This week the archbishop of Canterbury conceded the matter had caused an irreparable division in the Anglican communion.

I'm really happy that one spiritual movement has come out like this. And in fact they are ahead of the UK legislation, which still discriminates same sex couples. They are also far ahead of my former Sahaj Marg guru P. Rajagopalachari who said in a recent speech that homosexuality is unnatural and against the wish of God. Hopefully one day, spiritual leaders like him will be seen for what they are doing: adding to the division of humanity, instead of uniting humanity.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Some closing remarks 2

Last september, it seemed to me that what I set out to do on this blog was done. So I wrote some closing remarks 1, with the idea `enough is enough'.

In January, I realized there were still some things left to discuss, so after some hesitation I started posting again. And now I find myself yet again at the point of closure: the relevant issues have been discussed enough.

So first: thank you, all commentators who provided me with feedback and suggestions, and thereby with inspiration to continue.

Then let me simply repeat my earlier closing remarks, putting them at the top of this blog where they belong.

####### (Repeated from September:)

The best way to read this blog (I think) is to start out at the oldest post and click on `newer post' (at the bottom of the post) each time. This might take some time though, I have no idea how much pages of a regular book these posts would fill.

Notwithstanding the pitfalls discussed here, I've had many positive experiences with regard to spirituality, and also with regard to practising a spiritual method. In my life I've been privileged to have met many kind, loving, wonderful people from whom I have learned a great deal about what spirituality means to me. Many of these people have given me what cannot be expressed in words, without second thought or reserve, out of what to me seems true and inspiring altruism. Thank you all.

It might seem negatively balanced also to only talk about pitfalls of spirituality, but I really do not feel that I can add significantly to the many beautiful texts on positive aspects of spirituality existing already. (My personal attitude is to read beyond certain often-occurring pitfalls to find what is to me the real meaning in a spiritual text.)

Non-absolute, non-divisive, individualized spirituality to me seems necessary to bring about what I would call a better world. A world free of exploitation. A world where children are safe, and can grow up playfully. Where `war' and `poverty' are strange concepts from long-forgotten times. Where humans are the custodians of nature. Where human and animal rights are respected. Where difference of opinion goes together with a friendly helping attitude. Etc. You might say: `dream on'...and I would reply (I think) with John Lennon's song Imagine:

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

This better world is far more important to me and probably you (why else would you be reading this blog?) than most other things. Including of course this blog, which is as personal as it is imperfect. Let's put aside our differences and combine our efforts to make this world a better place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

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

(continued from the previous post)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


In short:

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

does not deserve the name `spiritual movement'.

Partial truth, secrets & things unsaid

OK. From my last comment on the previous post, one more pitfall strikes me as occurring commonly enough to mention separately.

In many spiritual movements (religions included), there are things unsaid and unrevealed, especially to `newcomers'. For instance, one may start out innocently in our Spiritual Movement, and slowly notice that all the top executive functions in the Pyramid and even almost all the midlevel executive functions are filled by men. So then one asks: `how come?'. And only then it turns out that in the philosophy of the Movement, the spiritual essence of `woman' is seen as different from the spiritual essence of `man', leading to the conclusion that men and women need to be separate at meditation and that the Guru can never be a woman, and all sorts of other consequences.

Truly Interested Seeker (TIS): `But you said spirituality unites? You said we are all humans, and we should not distinguish between race, age, poor, rich, man, woman,...yet here you are, drawing this thou-shalt-not-cross-line down the middle?'

Orthodox reply (OR): ` As one progresses on the Spiritual Path, insight grows. In the beginning, our Leader kindly takes the hand of the seeker, and slowly reveals the Truth according to the capacity and condition in the practicant. Do not doubt, doubt poisons the heart and weakens the will. Although man and woman are equally important, they are not spiritually equal, it is a given of Nature. As your heart sheds its old beliefs and false western preconceptions of emancipation, you will progress to the next stage.'


Of course such examples of enlightenment-in-degrees set the stage for a glorious role of Partial Truth.

Partial Truth is where one can claim: I never lied to you, I just didn't tell you everything. A nice example of this (I think):

I push your car in the canal at night. You come back the following day, and think it stolen. I say: `One never knows, perhaps someone pushed it into the canal'. Did I lie?


Partial truth is the perfect strategy to avoid confrontation, and yet still maintain a facade of truthfulness. It is an essential ingredient of manipulation. To be continued.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obedience & groupthink: the Sahaj Marg example

Recent speeches by my former Sahaj Marg guru Chari have convinced me that `obedience' is worthy of being mentioned as a separate pitfall.

Although this blog aims at a general analysis of the pitfalls which commonly occur in many spiritual movements and religions, the example given in these speeches is stronger than anything I could possibly come up with myself.

Dear reader, perhaps you are participating in some spiritual movement, and some of the below sounds familiar. Please then ask yourself if you really wish to give up your own, independent thought to someone else? Especially since a true spiritual guide would never ask you to give up your own independent thought. A guide is a guide, guiding humans. A guide is not a shepherd herding sheep. Or do you prefer to be a sheep? Part of the unthinking flock? Fine. But then you will never be a master of yourself, now will you?


I quote from Chari's recent speech `Read with your Heart' (given 2 February 2009 in Satkhol, I emphasized the last paragraph in bold type):

`Again and again Babuji Maharaj emphasizes the fact that Sahaj Marg does not ask you for all your life earnings, to give up your family and go into the jungle. It is a very simple method: meditation in the morning, cleaning in the evening, prayer at night. No major sacrifices involved. Only to live a good life, in the right way, but with the only stipulation being obedience to the Master's wishes, and that again is only for our benefit.

We obey to benefit. Unlike in public life, in human life, in our day-to-day life, we obey for somebody else's benefit. In spirituality we obey for our own benefit. You obey; you benefit. You don't obey; you don't benefit. In obedience there can be no questions: "Why have I to obey?" If you ask such a question, it would probably mean several lives more to be taken before you understand why I have to obey. In obedience there is no `why'. There is no search for logic. There is no demand for your question to ask: "Why this question should be obeyed?" or "Why this order should be obeyed? Why does the Master have to tell me and not somebody else? Why does he ask me to obey and not somebody else?" No questions. Totally unquestioning obedience is the only requirement of this spiritual way that I know, Sahaj Marg. The moment you start asking questions, it is implicit that you are questioning the wisdom of your Master, the intentions of your Master and his existence itself - never done, except at the peril of your own evolution.'

Notice the not so subtle use of `fear and temptation' above. If you ask questions: it will probably cost you several lives! (fear). If you obey blindly: you benefit (temptation, the implication is `liberation in this life', whatever liberation may mean of course).


And I quote from his speech `Preceptors, the arteries of Sahaj Marg' (given 4 January 2009, Manapakkam, the bold type emphasis is mine):

`When Babuji says eat, you eat. When he says don't eat, you don't eat. You don't think.

One thing that our people must understand is, in obedience there is no place for thought. You are not to think whether this is to be obeyed or not. The Guru orders, you do it. The famous example in our mythology is Parashuram. When he said he was devoted and loved his father, his father said, "Will you do what I tell you?" He said yes. He said, "Cut off your mother's head." Chichick. And the head came off. Mother's head! - obedience.
Of course, then the father said, "I am pleased with you. Ask for a boon." He said, "I want my mother alive again." And the mother came alive again.

So, you see, obedience never gives you personal loss, though apparently it may look so.'


Sahaj Marg, like many movements before it (and after, no doubt alas), has turned into a religion, in my not so humble opinion. I see no difference at all between the organization of the Pyramid in Sahaj Marg and the Pyramid of the Roman Catholic Church. The preceptors are the priests, the centers-in-charge are the bishops, the zonals-in-charge are the cardinals, and the guru is the pope, each with their Inner Circle of powerful confidants.

Blind obedience imnsho is necessary to keep the whole Pyramid from toppling over, to maintain closed ranks to all the critical questions that are posed. Questions which are increasingly difficult to answer, because -like the child saying: new clothes? but the emperor is naked! - not even God can make the square root of 2 equal to π (pi). Not even the emperor can make imaginary clothes cover his nudity.

The point is -if one believes in God- that God saw to it that the square root of 2 is necessarily not equal to π (pi) . Logic, science, rationality are perhaps just a part of reality...but reality nonetheless. To deny critical self-reliant thought a worthy place is to renounce spirituality, in my not so humble opinion.

Many great scientists were deeply spiritual persons. They saw God in the wonder of reality all around us. They marveled at the insights that the human mind could glean into Nature, by not accepting religious dogmas and by following the logic of the cosmos. By allowing all questions, especially the critical ones, since the critical questions challenge what we think we know, and lead us further on our slow path of both scientific and spiritual evolution.


Spiritual evolution, that is what we need, if you would ask me. If we would have obeyed religious leaders in the past as blindly as Chari is suggesting, we would still be cannibals. Does one need religion to be kind, loving, sharing, concerned for other beings? Does one need blind obedience for this? Let's get real: we do not need anything, anyone, but our own commitment and dedication to becoming `spiritual'...whatever that may mean.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Positive thinking 2: groupthink and denial

One obvious question regarding `positive thinking': Who gets to decide what is `positive'? Let's paraphrase the obscure poet from the previous post, to arrive at:

There is nothing either positive or negative, but thinking makes it so.


Now, to stay with Shakespeare, suppose there is something rotten in the state of Denmark (meaning our Spiritual Movement of course). What do you think will happen? A likely scenario: someone(s) with real commitment to making things better notices that there is something important not right. This person (these persons) will try to correct the issue, but if they are not in a position of power and the issue has been caused by people higher up in the Pyramid...then their efforts will be perceived as threatening to the position of these higher-up people.

Now the person trying to ameliorate things is caught between two grindstones. The denial of the Inner Circle (=the people high up in the Pyramid) is the top grindstone, and the bottom grindstone is ... the denial of the majority of followers. Because the followers are in the Movement for `positivity'. They want to believe in the purer-than-pure heart of the Leader, they want to believe in that God has granted Special Power to the Special Personality, and that they themselves are Special because they follow Him.

The followers cling to these beliefs because it offers them escape from the pangs of life. But then when someone criticizes either the Movement, the Pyramid, or the Leader...their rosy world is threatened.

And so, an emphasis on `positive thinking' & `no criticism' most often occurs in groups where there is a strong hierarchy and a tendency of `groupthink'. By `groupthink' I mean of course the phenomenon that everyone is encouraged to say the same (`positive') things, and critical, self-reliant thought is frowned upon.


From this point, how far are we away from fundamentalism, from becoming a sect? Well, this is difficult to say. Most large government organizations tend to show the same mechanisms. Last weekend, a 2003 memo from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs resurfaced in a major newspaper. In the memo, the Legal Affairs Department advises the Minister that entry in the Iraq war is most likely illegal under international law.

It turns out the memo was blocked from reaching the Minister of Foreign Affairs by the Secretary-General of the Ministry. It was deemed untimely since the Legal Affairs Department had not been asked to give a `negative' advice. But it was archived, and resurfaced now that 5 years later the Senate is asking insistent questions about the legality of the Dutch participation in the war.

So, with or without any label of sect, inside or outside of spiritual movements and religions, I dare still say that `positive thinking' can be a pitfall. `Positive thinking' can be a power tool, used by the top of a Pyramid to smother criticism.

Is this an effective strategy?


Well, yes, from the Pyramid's perspective. One might think not, because almost inevitably, in the end the truth will come out. At some time, the falsities will be exposed. You can fool some people some time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.

But the word `time' is of the essence in understanding why the strategy is still effective. Because by the time things are exposed, often the ones who stand to suffer from the exposure have moved on. Or they will say: `Ok ok, so we made some mistakes, LONG AGO, but let's stop arguing about who killed who...and please don't be so negative, we must look to the future and forget the past.'

In this way I have seen so incredibly many cover-ups, even clumsy ones, succeed.


The one perspective from which the `positive thinking' strategy does not succeed, in my not so humble opinion, is the spiritual perspective.

Be truthful.

I cannot imagine any spirituality without such tenet. Truthful can mean praise as well as criticism. Truth is the opposite of denial. Truth means: open to criticism.


The pitiful attempts by many so-called `spiritual' movements to stall criticism, to block criticism, to deny criticism are in my eyes a sure sign that such criticism is justified.

What to think of a memo sent by a member of the Working Committee of the Shri Ram Chandra Mission (Sahaj Marg) to the organizer of an orkut webcommunity on Sahaj Marg in Iran? (See here, where you can also see how this movement's Pyramid prefers people with positions of power in the secular world.)

Paraphrasing this memo:

`Dear brother, although your community serves 1500 people, we strongly urge you to remove your community because we fear it will be the target of individuals spreading misinformation about Sahaj Marg'.

Of course, webcommunities and blogs are new instruments to create open source exchange of information and ideas. And open, non-hierarchical exchange of ideas always threatens the Pyramid.

No surprise that spiritual movements (religions included) seek ways to maintain their Absolute Truth by denouncing open exchange.