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...

Friday, April 16, 2010

False gurus and spiritual energy

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Yet how reasonable are these expectations?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Let me give yet another example.

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

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

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

Does that make these people Divine?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 1, 2010

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 7: boundary control (end of thread)

So let's finish with the three yet-undiscussed elements of boundary control that I perceive to be used often in spiritual movements by their Inner Circle:

2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.

(the other elements being:
1) Intensive recruiting of new followers (see previous post)
4) Partial truth & secrets (already discussed intensively in earlier posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed))


ad 2): There are various ways for the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement to limit contact of the followers with the broader societal views. Clearly, physical separation is frequently seen, by creating communes and the like. But Marc Galanter's book gives several examples which are more subtle. From my own experience with Sahaj Marg, I remember that various law suits in which SRCM is involved are being kept largely from the followers. As well as the fact that there are sizable dissenting factions which claim (with more than passing credibility) that the guru-succession in SRCM on the death of its founder has been a vicious power struggle involving decidedly unspiritual manipulation. This is perhaps also a case of 4): Partial truth and secrets.

Anyway, the reason for limiting contact with `outside' world views and conflicting information is obvious, as Marc Galanter points out. For a charismatic group to maintain its group identity and group rationale, cognitive dissonance should not become too big. Certain anomalies and contradictions -between the Theory on the one hand and on the other hand the worldly activities of the Movement plus the possible worldly opposition against the Movement- are most easily managed if the followers are largely unaware of their existence.


The motives behind 3) and 6) are of course completely similar. In Sahaj Marg, followers are repeatedly asked by guru P. Rajagopalachari not to create discussion forums on internet, with the reason given that these forums could be targeted by `malicious' individuals (looking to harm SRCM specifically). This of course holds for any discussion forum on the internet. Generally, the pros of a discussion forum outweigh the cons, especially if one takes some simple measures against `trolling'. Therefore, a more likely reason to prohibit these forums is that they are uncontrollable by the Inner Circle, and thus prone to becoming a source of cognitive dissonance. Discussions on whether it is `spiritual' to ask €250 for a book of which the guru says that it is essential for your spiritual progress, for instance...

The internet therefore poses a real problem for Inner Circles wishing to exercise boundary control.

Because most spiritual movements have their own publisher's media, such as newsletters, quarterly journals, videos, cd's, books etc. These media are in many if not most cases under rigourous guidelines/supervision by the Inner Circle. Typically therefore, one encounters in say a quarterly journal -say Truth at Home or something similar- lots of positive feedback from both Inner Circle and `ordinary' followers. Truth at Home, like the other publications, so likely becomes an active instrument of the Inner Circle to reinforce the Message. Critical letters, `bad' news, accounting figures, property holdings, etc...are simply not published.

But the internet today is easily accessible to all followers. It cannot be controlled by the Inner Circle, yet it also yields results about relatively unimportant and obscure groups - in contrast with the traditional media (books, television, radio, newspapers). So therefore, it can also contain specific criticism against their Movement, small though it may be. Criticism which the Inner Circle cannot edit out or block from reaching followers.

This criticism is often the most threatening -like stated in one of the earlier posts on cognitive dissonance- when it comes from (longtime) former followers. Because they are really in the know, and their arguments are often not so easy to dismiss as the more uninformed criticism coming from general society. Often their arguments point out the fundamental internal inconsistencies in the Movement. (And then, what happens with the child who repeatedly sees different Santas? Who comes across a Santa whose beard accidentally falls off? Who sees Santa drunk, who sees parents sneaking in with presents, ...).

One way for the Inner Circle to deal with this particular `former follower' threat is to blacken their character and motives. (Yes, this occurs in all types of organizations, I know. One just would expect this not to happen in a spiritual organization...). As an example, I have been called an `enemy of spirituality' by my former guru P. Rajagopalachari ;-) And with me, all former followers who blog about their experiences with Sahaj Marg. It's funny enough, but I'm not kidding. Still I can't possibly take it very seriously, for me personally I mean.

It does beg the question what part of the boundary control is conscious and what part un- or subconscious. Personally, I'm inclined to believe in `good' intentions of most people. This would imply that many Inner Circles have a high level of cognitive dissonance and corresponding avoidance. Indeed Marc Galanter describes this to be very often the case, complete with delusional world views and self-aggrandizement / overimportance / self-proclamation of divinity (direct or indirect) etc.

One should not forget that it often takes decades for Inner Circle members to attain their Inner Circle position. Time enough to build up a significant cognitive dissonance avoidance. Also, by the nature of the enormous time & effort investment made, if their position and/or their rationale is threatened one should not be surprised to see them react in what I would deem rather unspiritual ways.

Dear reader, to me it seems none of us are free from these mechanisms. But for me, having been at the receiving end of such unspiritual reaction, it has been a great help to analyze the possible motives. This analysis gives me a fresh perspective, and also allows for understanding and forgiveness, on the personal individual level.

Then, if all is peace and love now ;-), you might wonder why I still find it necessary to write on this blog from time to time. The answer is still the same simple one that I started out with: it helps me to analyze my experiences, feelings and thoughts, and I find it likely that some other people can benefit from this analysis also.

Still, I think it will be quiet on this blog for some time to come, since this particular pitfall (cognitive dissonance avoidance & boundary control) has had enough attention, I believe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 6: boundary control & Santa Claus

Since I'm stuck inside with swine flu (pandemic H1N1/09 officially), why not continue the thread on cognitive dissonance?

Still, the following example of boundary control might strike you as ... childish. Consider the common practice of Santa Claus. Most young children in the western world are made to believe that this fairytale figure really exists, and brings them presents around Christmas...provided they've been `good'.

To maintain this elaborate charade, adults and older children lie and cheat. Even the television and other media play along. Still, for any child, inevitably the cognitive dissonance of the situation grows to a point where it can no longer be avoided. Sometimes the child finds out for her/himself, sometimes the child is told by others that Santa is in fact a deception. (This can be a disturbing experience, although to many it seems relatively harmless.)

But until that moment, the parents (mostly) try to control what information about Santa is available to the child. By keeping secret that they are the ones buying the presents, by asking others to keep silent about the charade, etc. etc.

This conscious effort to shield the members of a group from `outside' views and information is part of what I would call `boundary control'. Also part of it are the attempts to explain away inconsistencies, to cover up contradictory activities, to limit interaction with `outsiders'/`unbelievers'/..., etcetera.


Anyway, it might surprise you that children already have complex motives and mechanisms for avoiding the cognitive dissonance arising from the Santa Claus deception. Be it consciously or not, it turns out that many doubting children are afraid that if they stop believing in Santa Claus, then there will be no more presents and no more fun-time at Christmas.


But that is not the main issue for this post. We were discussing the Inner Circle of a Spiritual Movement, and its possible conscious efforts to control the doubts and misgivings of the followers of the Movement. In my not so humble opinion, for many if not most spiritual movements (religions included) these doubts and misgivings are often well-founded (see also the list of pitfalls in the sidebar of this blog).

Especially charismatic groups cannot function when there is too much visible doubt in the followers or a clear contradiction in the Theory and/or the practice of the Leader/Inner Circle.

So let's discuss some of the common forms of boundary control that Inner Circles use:

1) Intensive recruiting of new followers
2) Limiting contact with `outside' world views
3) Blackening of former followers
4) Partial truth & secrets (but this was already discussed intensively in previous posts)
5) Stressing the need to forego rationality (likewise already discussed in previous posts)
6) Limiting free discussion between members, that is discussion which is not in some way controlled or influenced by Inner Circle orthodoxy.


Ad 1): a for me striking insight from Galanter's book was his observation, that intensive recruiting of new followers is a conscious instrument used by many charismatic groups to control the cognitive dissonance of existing followers.

The mechanism behind this is obvious, once you think about it. In order for a Universal Truth theory to make sense, it must be universally recognizable...If the Theory promises that out of the Movement shall come a New World Order, then it is rather disheartening if after 50 years of intensive proselytization still only one in 50,000 (say) has been attracted to this Truth.

So new followers are a boost to the rationality of the whole Movement. `See, what we say makes sense, because how would we attract new people otherwise?'. This mechanism is frequently used by the Inner Circle (I have seen this in my own former spiritual movement Sahaj Marg) in the following way:

* The number of followers is reported as much higher than it is in reality.
* `Senior' followers are exhorted to devote time and energy to spreading the Message
* Growth in numbers is seen as very important and duly rewarded
* Decline in numbers is frowned upon, and often blamed on inadequate conduct of members - the attractivity of the Theory is not to be questioned. Members are expected to be shining examples, thereby attracting family and friends.


To be continued with 2) 3) and 6) from the above list.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Charismatic groups (intermezzo)

Once one starts looking for information and studies regarding spiritual movements, there seems to be a vast amount of research and descriptions of experiences. So much so, that I wonder once again if this blog has anything substantial to add.

But then again, it won't hurt either to look at these things from a personal perspective of a former follower of a `charismatic group'. Marc Galanter starts out his book with a description and very short definition of this term:

A charismatic group is characterized by the following:

1) Members have a shared belief system
2) Members sustain a high level of social cohesion
3) Members are strongly influenced by the group's behavioural norms
4) Members ascribe charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Notice that these traits can hold also for non-spiritually-oriented groups. Also notice that for the large religions, most of these traits are watered down due to the large numbers and the diversity of the followers. Which is why the large religions are usually not considered charismatic groups, although they all count various much smaller submovements/subgroups which can be very charismatic.


For the purpose of this blog, it might once again be helpful to list some characteristics of charismatic spiritual groups that I have seen in many descriptions:

a) Gradual introduction/conversion of new members, usually through personal contact, in a family-like setting. Repeated enhancement of the `family' feeling through spiritual gatherings and other activities, often involving an ashram or other facility where communal living is the norm.

b) One's own physical/spiritual well-being is linked to a higher noble spiritual Goal (`Meditate, and you will feel better. But also you will help uniting Humanity, and bring about a world where love is the predominant guiding principle.')

c) Some special practice, usually involving some state of altered consciousness. Very frequently this includes some form of meditation. The experiences with and results of this `special' practice are discussed among members, and good things are associated with it. The specialty is stressed from time to time: `other movements do not have this Method' (exclusiveness).

d) A Special Leader, who has a direct Divine connection. His Guidance and Helping Hand are mystic and beyond rational understanding. `Surrender' is the way for a follower to achieve spiritual progress.

e) A strong behavioural code, together with a lot of `positive' groupthink. Occasional criticism might be possible, but is made relatively light of. Fundamental criticism of the Leader or the Movement is frowned upon. Positive `witnessing' is encouraged and rewarded [witnessing: relating one's experiences with the Method/Leader and one's resulting insights; `So when I was having a real difficult time in my life, the image of the Leader appeared when I was doing my Morning Prayer. He spoke to me and said: `Be strong, and do not listen to your Ego. Let God do His work on you, do your Practice and have Faith'. So I decided to go to satsangh regularly, and my other problems became lighter!'].

f) An Inner Circle of long-practicing members, who are close to the Leader. Positions in this Inner Circle are coveted, as a sure sign of spiritual progress and the elevated opportunity for direct Guidance from the Leader. Management of the Movement's Organization is organized hierarchically, with the Inner Circle at the top of the Pyramid.

Dear reader, if much of the above looks familiar to a movement that you participate(d) in, then it might interest you to know that from many many studies it has been assessed that in such charismatic groups the risks of manipulation and power abuse are manifold.


One thing which strikes me particularly is the element (c) above: the special practice. Often it is some form of meditation (prayer, chanting) which can both be done individually and in a group.

The altered state of consciousness arising from meditation is well-documented, even scientifically. Generally, mental health benefits are associated with many forms of meditation (that doesn't mean that all forms of meditation are beneficial to everyone, and like stated in this previous post on spiritual energy the human brain is still largely uncharted territory). Many charismatic groups however claim these benefits as being uniquely due to their Method.

But more importantly, the altered state of consciousness is often used to `prove' the Leader's specialness (and the Movement's specialness) and to underscore the need to let go of rationality. Therefore the `transcendental' experiences are often used to manage the cognitive dissonance which can arise out of internal contradictions of the Movement/Theory/Inner-Circle-Behaviour.

A frequently occurring advice when followers are experiencing doubts and start asking critical questions: `Meditate more. Don't try to understand with the mind. You must feel what is right. Especially since God cannot be found with the mind, but only through the heart.'...or something similar.

(to be continued with the thread on `Cognitive dissonance and boundary control')

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 5: boundary control and Inner Circle

Continued from the previous post, which ended with:
This forming of some kind of `family feeling' is very common in spiritual movements, religious groups included. What Marc Galanter describes as boundary issues, concerns the interaction between that `family' and the rest of society.

On rereading, it appears that Galanter only uses the term `boundary control'. I'm glad however to have used `boundary issues' previously, since I associate boundary control more specifically with conscious management of the boundary issues. Galanter uses a systems-theoretical approach for charismatic groups; for him `control' can be brought about in and by a group on the human subconscious level also [an interesting and valid approach, I believe. I will come back to the term `charismatic group'].


Anyway. To resume: the vast majority of spiritual movements (religions included) make a marked distinction between followers and non-followers. In my not so humble opinion this already casts a strange light on any claim by such movement that uniting humanity is one of their goals. Yet such or similar claims are very common to these spiritual movements. This is just one example of cognitive dissonance avoidance, but I repeat it because I believe it to be a telling example.

Telling in the sense that the need for some `separate' group structure is so strong, that the resulting logical contradiction between goal (`uniting humanity') and behaviour (dividing humanity) is blocked from perception - cognitive dissonance avoidance.

Why does the need to form a `separate group' arise? It is precisely to maintain a certain set of beliefs, in the face of a surrounding society which challenges these beliefs. And the more the movement's beliefs differ from what general society holds as normal, the stronger the need for reinforcement of the movement's beliefs through a close-group mechanism.

And even stronger, when the movement's beliefs start becoming self-contradictory or unlikely to the point of self-delusion. Because then, even a relatively neutral outsider can point out: `but the Emperor is naked!'.


So, it is in this light that I would like to discuss `boundary control'.

And let me start with a perhaps unexpected example from history. One would say that Christianity is supposed to be a spiritual movement centered around the love for humanity. So how would it strike you if a high and undisputed Church authority would pass the death penalty on the complete population of the Netherlands, with the expectation of it being carried out as well?

It simply beggars belief, yet it is exactly what took place on 16 February, 1568. The Inquisition condemned the entire populace of the Netherlands (around 3 million people at that time I believe) to death, and king Philip II of Spain was all set to have it carried out too. Why? Well, simply put, the Dutch were heretic. They had taken it in their convoluted minds that Catholicism was wrong, and that Protestantism was a better way of looking at Christianity.


The extreme example above is meant to show to what lengths the Inner Circle of a spiritual movement can be willing to go to protect the Movement. Lutheranism and Calvinism were seriously threatening the Catholic Church's stranglehold on Europe. (And there was a good reason for this: the inner contradictions of Catholicism had become too large, and increasingly impossible to ignore.)

In this series on cognitive dissonance avoidance, this is a natural point to mark my difference in looking at individual followers (often kind, loving, concerned people) and the Inner Circle (also individually often kind etc, but somehow so strongly in the grip of maintaining power/control and preserving the Movement that they are willing to twist even the most basic principles of their own Theory to achieve their control and preservation goals).

As you can guess, I tend to look on many individual cognitive dissonance situations as being relatively equal from different positions. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance avoidance, I believe. Does any one of us know even in the slightest what this Universe is all about? [OK, I know a majority of people might answer yes to this...but I mean: really?]

But I have great difficulty accepting the manipulation schemes which many Inner Circles in Spiritual Movements (religions included) employ to control their followers, and to protect their boundary as a group.

(to be continued, with examples)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cognitive dissonance 4: former followers & boundary mechanisms

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

2) How can the avoidance of cognitive dissonance lead to communication problems between followers of a spiritual movement and non-followers?

3) How, personally, can one recognize one's own avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and how that of others? And how to deal with it?


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Be it my way!

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

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

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


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

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

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

This forming of some kind of `family feeling' is very common in spiritual movements, religious groups included. What Marc Galanter describes as boundary issues, concerns the interaction between that `family' and the rest of society.

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