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, 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')


Anonymous said...

Dear Frank,

The practice I have been involved with in the last 18 months very much fits your description of a charismatic group.

The drawcard is that the practice seems to have the ability to 'Open people's Hearts' through special meditations, and at higher levels (yes, there is a hierarchical levels system) people can supposedly ask their 'inner heart' any question whatsoever and can get a reply if they are 'open' enough.

This specialness factor adds great weight to the guru's assertion that he has been sent by Source to "Take us Home", and I admit to being afraid to miss out by leaving the practice.

At retreats, the guru asks us questions and we try to feel the answers our inner hearts give us. Of course, if I am in my 'mind' disagreeing or am critical of what the guru is saying or am trying to objectively observe the proceedings, I have no hope of feeling my heart. So I am forced, if I wish to feel the sweet heart feeling, to abandon my intellect.

I can see there is a serious problem here, because sometimes the guru says things that I strongly consider to be false, or he says things that my experience strongly contradicts. Or things that make no sense at all.

And then he gets us to close our eyes and feel the answer in our hearts to the questions that he poses. "how much does Source love you if you pray to Jesus" (and no-one feels anything). Then, "how much does Source love you if you pray to Source" - and moans fills the room as people feel their hearts reacting.

And here is an example where my intellect contradicts at least the feeling of the 'hearts' of the collective. I don't think the Creator loves me a lot less if I happen to pray to Jesus or be born into a Christian household. And yet this does not agree with the 'heart truth' of the room.

I am strongly suspicious that the guru is somehow throwing energy around in order to illicit the answers that he prefers to his questions. Which always, always leads to the reinforcing of his philosophy. Which means more devotion, more money going into his pockets etc.

But of course, this is the answer 'of my mind'. If I was more advanced and 'in my heart', I would 'feel the truth' of the guru's words. And I half believe that.

Of course, I am surrounded by people that are so devoted, and so invested in the practice that they would never believe they might be being manipulated.


franka waaldijk said...

dear chris, what you describe also strongly strikes me as a charismatic group.

i also recognize the classic combination of fear and temptation:

- fear to miss out a Special Unique Opportunity for Spiritual Redemption if you leave

- Spiritual Redemption if you stay

the comparison that you mention being made between `Source' and `Jesus' illustrates how important it is for your movement/group that your Guru and your Practice is Special, Better, Unique....

whereas i agree with you: what could it possibly differ to god what name and approach we use for spiritual development, if it is spiritual love we are aiming for?


the abandonment of the intellect is a necessary step for charismatic groups, the more so when the claims made do not add up to reality.

this holds also when money schemes are involved.

in my not so humble opinion (imnsho) money is hardly necessary for a truly spiritual movement to function.

so the demand for money, or even the large scale commercial selling of books/videos/expensive courses and seminars is to me an indication that there are other goals being pursued by the Inner Circle beside the spiritual one.


lastly, you mention being surrounded by non-critical believing followers. this blog also has some posts on group dynamics and `positive thinking' which you might find interesting.

being in such a (probably warm and loving) group is a very likely cause for cognitive dissonance avoidance....since being critical will isolate you and disturb the nice atmosphere.


all in all, i hope that you will be able to find your way, without losing too much energy. imnsho it is better to have no guru than a false one (self-convinced or not). but these are individual choices, i can only speak for myself.