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...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spiritual damage caused by false gurus and their spiritual movements

This year I haven't written much on this blog myself (notwithstanding andrew p.'s long article I just copied in three parts last week).

But there is a subject that has crystallized lately which I want to write about: participation in a spiritual movement isn't always beneficial, and can even cause real damage to people. For this reason, one can now find several avenues of counseling available to former members of cults and sects. You can find some links in the sidebar of this blog, but there are many more sites dealing with the fall-out of bad experiences in a spiritual movement or cult.

It would be beyond my reach to address all the types of such damage (which involve a large range, even from psychological to physical violence). But there is one type of damage which as far as I can tell hasn't been extensively described on the internet, and which on the large scale of things perhaps doesn't weigh quite so heavy, yet which can affect individuals profoundly enough to merit a mention on this blog, I believe.

Perhaps it is appropriate to call this type of damage `spiritual damage'.


One might well wonder why I still devote time to writing about the pitfalls of spirituality [and truth be said, this past year I didn't write so much ;-)], having left my former guru and his movement Sahaj Marg already more than 5 years ago. After all, a negative experience usually takes some time to overcome, but often people come to terms with it and move on.

This goes for me too, I think, mostly...but I also observe a difference in my outlook on spirituality and my expectations in this field, perhaps especially with regard to the capacity of people to organize and/or promote spirituality.

After my negative experience with Sahaj Marg, I find myself largely incapable of simply believing in any organization proclaiming lofty goals. Often I have the feeling that I see similar patterns of marketing and deception, or that I would see these patterns if I was more in the know about a certain organization.

This is not limited to spiritual movements or organizations with a definite `spiritual' signature, but reaches as far as NGO's tackling hunger, disease, poverty, environmental issues, human rights, etc.


So the one word which describes the feeling I am left with from my former spiritual movement is...deception. And I think that the damage that I feel from this deception goes deeper than damage from being deceived by say a conman or even by a dear friend.

Somehow, if I must make some sort of analysis, it seems that what is so discouraging about this deception is that this deception is helped being maintained by very good-willing people, many of whom kind and oriented towards a spiritual way of life.

In the end, I believe it comes down to this: in order to maintain a rosy feeling of well-being and a false sense of `special purpose' in our existence, many benevolent people will willingly help maintain the deception that a false guru / spiritual movement offers. The attraction of life-as-in-some-spiritual-fairy-tale wins out, at the cost of truthfulness and real betterment, in my not so humble opinion.

Thus, instead of building for a world where true spirituality thrives within and between people, we add to to the conglomerate of religious / spiritual divisions and falsehoods and deceptions.


So what, nothing new under the sun...right?

But regarding my 12 years of participation in a spiritual movement, what if I had devoted my time and energy to a worthwhile cause instead? And why can I now no longer bring myself to organize something for people like me, who still wish to see this world becoming more spiritual, and who also look for spiritual development in themselves?

So that last question somewhat describes the spiritual damage I feel. Because although I still believe that most people look for spirituality on some level, I no longer believe it possible to organize something that will help speed up spiritual development in this world. And I used to be a person who devoted a lot of time and energy to trying to organize such things, both in my work and in my free time.

In any such organization, how long before we start flocking around a new false guru?

On the other hand, without organizing something, without making some sort of difference in numbers, the many voices of the many people like me will likely be drowned out by the clamour coming from all sorts of organizations with less spiritually oriented objectives, religions and spiritual movements included ;-). And also, in this way the many positive aspects of spirituality will come less to the fore.


Therefore, a challenge seems to rise up: how to maintain a spiritual outlook on life, how to see the good in people, how to endeavour for a better world, and yet not be drowned out too much, and yet not add to some deceptive set-up coming from an organization with lofty goals....

So far this challenge has been too heavy for me. How would it be to have an organization with no members and no ideology too...and certainly penniless, which would nonetheless bring people together in a spiritual atmosphere and which would make a voice heard petitioning for spirituality instead of materialistic gains...?

Such an organization might see me at its meetings, from time to time. Because nowadays, I find less opportunity to exchange on spirituality, and to work together with a focus on this common goal of a better world. Not out of lack of goodwill in the people around me, but because there is no facilitating `structure', few facilitating `occasions'.


I hope to have described some sort of spiritual damage which may (or may not, we are all different) occur from participating in a spiritual movement. Summarizing: having put one's true faith in a so-called `Very Spiritual Person' and in the often good-willing followers of the accompanying spiritual movement, it can be a serious let-down if this VSP and his/her movement are finally perceived as untrustworthy.

This let-down often has serious emotional fall-out, for which nowadays there are many counseling options. But even when this emotional fall-out is not so bad, or when it has subdued, there can well be residual damage. This may, I believe from my own experience, well result in a subsequent distrust of other initiatives for the benefit of mankind, and a lack of enthusiasm to join groups with even just a slight spiritual orientation.

Seeing this damage for what it is may, I hope, form part of the cure.


franka waaldijk said...

so perhaps it would be interesting to try and think out a design for a spiritual non-organization, a non-movement, with no name, no money, no guru, no followers...yet bringing people together, for meditation, for exchange, ...

perhaps i can bring myself to devote some time to this thinking, if so, and if it brings anything worth discussing, i'll put it up here.


in the meantime, i forgot to sharpen this post with a little addendum:

in order to cause spiritual damage, a false guru does not need to terribly misbehave in the sense that we know from certain excesses, like financial fraud, sexual abuse, you name it.

simply by falsely claiming to help followers on a spiritual path, a false guru / spiritual movement damages trust in spirituality itself.

this might seem comparatively insignificant, but in my not so humble opinion, spirituality is the only thing which will help us advance from our more beastly nature to a humane existence for all, and a nature-friendly use of our planet.

supporting a false guru and/or his/her movement therefore imnsho is not without reproach...and yes this goes for me too.

Michael said...


You've done a great job describing the damaging effect of dysfunctional guru/disciple relationships. It makes me wonder if a non-dyscfunctional relationship with a guru is even possible.

When a guru reinforces the disciples belief that they are incapable of a direct relationship with Creator/Creation, then imposes his/her spiritual dominance upon a disciple, don't they create a dangerous dependency in each and every case?

That is not to say that one cannot receive assistance on the journey. Our respective research, however, tends to imply that the entire guru/disciple relationship is all but impossible to exist without crossing the line into the realm of co-dependency.

So whats to prevent us from simply stating that all guru's are fake?


franka waaldijk said...

dear michael, i'm happy to see your comment. i read your blog inner circle of srcm, and it helped me a lot with my own analysis. especially your analysis of `inner circle' is very sharp, i find.

i'm glad you find this blog worthwhile too.

as to your last question, i think you put the finger on the sore spot, so to speak. is there a guru-disciple relation thinkable which does not create an encumbering dependency?

i think i agree with you when you say:

"the entire guru/disciple relationship is all but impossible to exist without crossing the line into the realm of co-dependency.

So whats to prevent us from simply stating that all guru's are fake? "

so let's just state that, but like you say, without ignoring the possibility of assistance.


so if assistance is possible, then why are guru's fake?

for me it hinges on the word `guru' and `disciple'...

if someone calls her/himself guru (master, spiritual leader,...), or allows others to call her/him so, then there is some sort of division, some sort of status, some sort of superior quality/wisdom/faculty bestowed.

of course, in any field one can look up to a teacher to a certain degree without losing oneself. but `certain degree' means to me that this should not be too much. and ideally after some time the student reaches own levels and insights. the word `guru' implies that this `looking up to' is ok and that some `supernatural' or some `truly superior' being/wisdom/faculties reside in the guru.

which is nonsense, generally. some people lead a very spiritual life, are loving and kind and exude an inner peace. we might crave this for ourselves also, and no doubt we can learn from these people. but there is nothing supernatural or truly superior about this, imnsho.

meditation can help calm our minds, and keeping our attention on the really important things in life will help us to become more loving, tolerant, understanding. acceptance of who we are (not all of us are by nature soft-spoken and gentle, and on a large scale this seems to me a good thing) without undue expectations and judgments also helps i think to gain some inner peace.

not easy perhaps, but not mystical either.

our whole existence perhaps is mystical. the fact that there is a world in which we live, ok that i can concede is rather a strange thing.
to feel some connection with this world, some sense that there is a `good' direction or `purpose', or some bond between all living creatures,...`god'...
that might be helpful too.

such a feeling of `being connected' at least helps me a lot, as well as acceptance that i'm just a very tiny insignificant part of an overwhelmingly complex universe.


about assistance you are correct in my case: i have had a lot of assistance from many wonderful people, also from chari and babuji and other (self- or not) proclaimed spiritual leaders.

so in my current view, we are all in a position to help one another, without question of authority or rank or elevation or what have you.

thanks again michael, kind regards, frank

Michael said...


I'd go one step further and say that not only is the culture of Gurus/Masters disruptive to ones personal Journey, but so is any spiritual practice that claims to take one to some "Ultimate" achievement.

If the Journey is infinite, how can there be a some who are further along than another? There is only the possibility of a helping hand from fellow Journeyers along the way.

The Guru culture might best be compared to a highway bandit who entraps fellow travelers into a sideshow distraction.


franka waaldijk said...

michael, i mostly agree, although i personally doubt that there is an infinite journey. (`infinite' to me already sounds so exalted also). but some people imnsho have developed a spiritual attitude, and spiritual insights from which i can learn (and have learned) a lot.

the image of some people `being' more `advanced' only becomes problematic i think, when this goes together with some special status. otherwise it seems to me just a natural state of things.

some people are more advanced in writing/tennis/cooking/... than others...doesn't make them special Beings to whom we should look for moral authority or (heaven help us;-)) divinity or stuff like that.

but if i'm interested in cooking, then it probably won't hurt to read some books by cooks, and follow a few classes.

the strange thing is that already in such things as cooking we are prone to look for some guru who will provide for us...

therefore, i think that part of the reason for these false-gurumechanisms lies in the need of people to follow. we are group animals, like it or not. we dislike having to think for ourselves, we prefer to look to the group and to its leader(s). if no leader is manifestly present, we will endeavour to correct that situation.

but this is not in disagreement with what you say, merely some kind of nuance.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. I am a victim, too. I have learn the following lessons from my experience of betrayal.

Strive to be innocent instead of spiritual. Spiritual knowledge does not allow us to love and live a simple life. There is no big or small here. All are equal, and all deserve love in their life. Everybody makes mistakes but one should not use knowledge to crucify, but use innocence to love and heal.
Yes, the damage I have faced is enormous. It feels like my soul has been raped. But, then again, when we are not sure of the power of our own innocence, fake gurus come in our lives and teach us the hard way.
Now, let us drop spiritual knowledge, and just cherish this innocent love within our self, because at the end of the day, that's all that counts.
No need to talk about love, just be loving. Just be love.

Unknown said...

I'm interested (because of my own experience ... and resulting disdain of spirituality and religion in general) what your concensus has been? IMNHO, it seems to be a devotion to our own inner discoveries and journies, sharing when and how we can in a totally informal / unorganized / comnmpletely friendly (meaning, believe it or not, take it or not, critique me or not ... let's just share) / while completely autonomous (ie: up to the individual) way. I've discovered I can not take what I find valuable in any one ideology or system (though, I say that LIGHTLY) and leave what I don't like. And by take, I simply mean contemplate or ruminiate upon... not necessarily adopt. What has been your experience, though? I am surely curious to know. Thanks, by the way, for your clear, simple and refreshing writings.

franka waaldijk said...

dear holly, to answer your question: briefly put my experience is a mixture of many positive exchanges/meetings (with people) and some negative experiences (with the pitfalls of a spiritual movement).

i agree that sharing in an unbiased way, individually and autonomously, is enriching. like you i've never found any one ideology or system that really suits me.

i suppose most systems/ideologies tend to claim more truths than i can see for myself.

thanks for your encouragement! best wishes, frank

Srivalli said...

Dear Frank,

Thank you so much for writing this objective, generic blog about spiritual movements and pitfalls. I too have spent 12 years in the same spiritual movement as you and I quit 2.5 years ago. I have moved on for the most part, but the spiritual damage you speak of, is very much done and can't really be cured.

What I feel is that my faith on God has been shaken completely and I feel like an orphan in the world. Statements such as - "God has no mind" and "Prayer is begging. Praying to lesser gods is futile" and "Completely surrender to your Master and he will look after your physical, mental and spiritual well being" - all these create a toxic dependency on the Leader.

Now that I have come out of the system, I can't go back to believing in a God, who has no mind. I have gone back to my religion, but the attachment and longing are gone. My prayer is superficial because I feel that there is no one listening on the other side.

One good, I have to say, that has come out of this is that I believe in myself now. Everything begins and ends with me. It is my responsibility to make my life what I want and there is no external God or Master who can bestow anything on me.

The cognitive dissonance became so unbearable that I was drowning in shame, guilt and a sense of failure... And that resulted in resentment and hatred towards the Master, who was supposed to look after me. Then came the speeches that said "Master doesn't do anything for your physical existence" which then morphed into "Master doesn't do anything on spiritual plane either". Then I began questioning why I came into this movement in the first place. The premise that complete surrender would mean complete looking after turned into complete surrender = you are on your own for both physical and spiritual.

I ask this... Why make false promises? Why not be upfront in the beginning? Why shatter someone's faith and soul?

For now, I stay away from organized religion and I shun spirituality. I react aggressively if I have to listen to one more spiel about spiritual journey.

I believe in goodness. I believe in being a good person, not harm other intentionally and live and let live. I will be content in my hear and if my conscience is clear at the end of my life, I've lived a good life.

Thank you for being objective and not ranting as some other blogs are. I too believe that mildness is important when you are reaching out to injured souls. Because that's what I have... An injured, broken soul.

I loved Him with all my heart... I joined as a 16 year old girl, and I loved as a 16 year old girl does. Put all my faith on Him, who promised to look after me and I've been left along, naked in the rain. It broke my heart. It broke my soul. It was only after His passing that I could leave and I was shattered. I'm still picking up the pieces and your blog has given me some closure. It wasn't all my fault.

Now I pray saying " May I have peace, prosperity, health, wealth and happiness" - sort of blessing myself and the universe will cooperate. I don't say "God bless you" anymore.

Thank you once again. You have given respite to one wounded soul.

May you have peace, prosperity, health, wealth and happiness.


franka waaldijk said...

Dear Srivalli,

thank you for your very kind message.

Writing about your experience will hopefully benefit other people too, if they find themselves caught up in a spiritual movement that troubles them.

I'm really glad to see you finding your own path and regaining your balance. This can be quite hard after being desillusioned in a spiritual movement, as I know from my own experience and from the experiences of others (whom I talked to or which I read about).

For you especially, I would say, since you were so young when you started. And I sincerely hope that you will manage to not become too cynical. Because the things you talk about (and other issues mentioned on this blog) often do not arise out of conscious intentions. They are truly pitfalls.

We humans have a long long way to go before we can realize a more spiritual society. But there are many many spiritual people, who really try to help us moving towards such a society. Being desillusioned by a guru is painful, it can shatter one's belief that a more spiritual way of living together can be realized in the near future.

But you have now freed yourself from some age-old pitfalls, meaning that (as I see it) you can help yourself and others around you to find spiritual meaning and a spiritual attitude to life. In such a personal, small-scale way, you and I and many others help create spiritual evolvement, I believe.

In short: you no longer have a name or a form or a group for your spirituality...BUT you are connected to many others in your spirituality and your longing for a more evolved human spirituality, and if you reach out to them they will respond.

I wish you all the best, and most of all a soft heart,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words Frank. I have noticed that the moment I quit SRCM, all my abhyasi friends simply dropped me like a hot potato. "Us vs. them" pitfall I guess.

I notice that I gravitate towards self development, mindfulness, compassion now. I have read books on mindfulness to come out of chronic depression, the divided mind by Dr. Sarno and compassionate mind by Paul Gilbert. The first time I read about mindfulness, I was shocked to see that sahaj Marg isn't talking about some revolutionary technique, it is simply professing mindfulness and there is nothing in mindfulness that takes you to brighter world.

I suggest reading "the compassionate mind" by Paul Gilbert. It is a wonderful book.

Take care.