In the last few decades we've witnessed the development of a number of "feel-good" spiritual movements, and they all seem to pursue one or both of two worthy goals: Healing the self and healing the planet. Unfortunately a great many of them nowadays push methods and techniques that are, at best, two or three steps divorced from addressing problems directly.
Case in point, and a highly simplified example: There are hungry, homeless people everywhere. One spirtual teacher will tell his or her students, "Let's all sit in a circle and meditate or pray together, and send the healing energy forth into the universe."
Another says, "Let's get some food, make a big pile of box lunches, and go feed these people. Afterwards let's see if we can find them shelter." Which of these will actually achieve concrete demonstrable short-term results? As my teacher Sri Kaleshwar says, "You cannot teach spirituality to a man whose belly is empty."
In science, we refer to cause and effect scenarios as having an order — that is, first order effect, second order, and so on. A first order effect is I give a sandwich to someone, and as a direct result he's no longer hungry (well, for a time anyway). A second order effect, for instance, might be that I give a money donation to a local food bank. They buy food with my money, and feed people. Third order is I pay my taxes, and the government, as one part of the services it provides, gives money and food to people in need. See where I'm going with this though? If I simply pray that food be provided to people I've never seen and do not know, maybe there's a chance that God, or the Universe, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster will provide. But really, all I did was sit there and wish really, really hard for someone else to do the work of feeding these hungry people. At this point, we're not even at 3rd or 4th order effects; cause and effect are virtually divorced from one another.
Alternatively, instead of sitting there, I could plant a garden, tend it lovingly for months, then take baskets of produce to be given to the poor and needy. Which of those alternatives is truly more nourishing to one's own soul? (Lots more after the break, including things that'll probably offend some)
What I think this gets down to is a mistaken notion that spirituality can be a passive exercise. I'm seeing new spiritual groups and movements which appear to be in a competition to dumb down and package spirituality to make it easier and easier, requiring less and less effort. Many seem to want to boil down to a single message — "Think happy thoughts. The Universe is your ATM." The messages may be valid, but unfortunately the result is a shedding of effort and of any truly selfless goals.
Most recently, there are a few elements appearing as common features in what I feel are the most misguided belief systems:
- An insistence that significant spiritual development is easy and effortless
- Selfish spirituality, taking care of ourselves and those nearest to us before helping others
- Transmissions of invisible yet purportedly benign divine energy, in lieu of time and physical effort
- People being taught not to think for themselves, but instead to adhere to dogma and unproven doctrine
- A core tenet that this method or path or spiritual leader has sole access to the real Truth, and that the select believers are special or divinely chosen
- An apocalypse prophecy, usually to take place within 2-10 years
I'll take each of these in turn.
Spirituality is Easy!
Centuries ago, or even decades, it was generally accepted that the truly holy men and women spent their entire lives at it. They devoted their existence towards following their path, and often were tested sorely in their faith by circumstances or the outright persecution by others. Decades spent in contemplation, prayer, and meditation, and in providing spiritual guidance and service (seva).
Buddha was said to have meditated for years under a tree before finding answers. A Yeshua bin Yusif fellow apparently traveled for years, learning from a great many masters, before going home, trying to reform his birth religion and teach a new way of loving one another, and got tortured and nailed to a tree for his trouble. The holiest of the Hindu yogis lived (and still do) as hermits in caves. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, Native American faiths — to be the spiritual guide and teacher for one's village or town, to be a holy man or woman was presumed to be one's vocation and full-time job.
Nowadays, we have people claiming one need only attend a few weekend seminars and voila! Instant Enlightenment. Just add water. Or, more typically, large amounts of cashy money.
Worse, people are being told they don't have to do a single blessed thing to be granted happiness, bliss, and Universe-level revelatory Enlightenment. Some of the newest movements are telling their followers they don't need to meditate, don't need to do good deeds, don't need to truly change how they're living, thinking, or being. Just do this ceremony here, be touched by someone there, and boom — done. These concocted philosophies could not be more wrong, nor do greater harm.
Personal development and spiritual evolution are, by definition, conditions of change, and nobody is going to change themselves to any signficant degree by reading a few books or listening to seminars. To be different, one has to do different. To be changed, we must change. I know that sounds circular and silly, but that's how it is.
If, for example, let's say you attend a weekend program and come home feeling energized and blissful. Big optimism. Then comes Monday, and you've slept poorly. On the drive to work, you behave like an utter ass on the highway, cutting people off left and right. At the office, someone else is having a bad morning, and instead of being understanding, you're rude back at them. You sneak off early at lunch to run errands, telling yourself you're justified in cheating your employer out of a couple hours work. Etc., etc. By time you get home again, you're fully re-immersed in your former lifestyle and habits, and honestly you might've gotten more enjoyment by spending that program donation on a new television or some other toy for yourself. Okay, perhaps over time the lessons can be learned and re-learned, and eventually maybe they'll stick…but really, is this the most effective way to go about it?
Me Before Thee
Seeking answers, truth, and enlightenment are worthy goals, don't get me wrong. We should work to better ourselves, become better people, and work towards growth and evolution of the self and the soul.
However, this can all too easily become entirely self-centered, and what I refer to as Self-Help Spirituality. Here, the focus is on "How do I fix my life? How do I be happier and more successful? What's in it for me? What about meeeeeeee?!"
I saw this among some of my fellow Sri Kaleshwar students in a number of contexts, but particularly on the subject of Vaastu (essentially Indian-style Feng Shui, but more strict and with way more rules). Some became so fixated on their own housing situation, on making things just-so, they would become totally focused upon and attached to it, often spending tens of thousands of dollars on renovations and rebuilding, all for the sake of their own happiness and prosperity. Which they would justify as necessary for their spiritual development — money which could have helped others directly, and in concrete, tangible ways. Consider what it costs to rip off a perfectly good roof and gables and rebuild it to have a proper Vaastu slope. We're talking enough money to pay for college for somebody's kid.
Another angle I witnessed were people spending tens of thousands of dollars on spiritual programs, seminars, and ceremonies — for their own benefit. The counter-argument might go as thus: "I had to spend the money to become a master. Then I can help others." But I could see in these folks a total obliviousness to anything but what they themselves could get. "I bought the entire menu" was one comment I overheard once at an event where a number of special ceremonies and blessings were being offered. It made me sick to my stomach. It also made me question my own choices, and I realized I myself may have been a complete unwitting hypocrite.
Trouble is, the 'becoming' never quite happens. We can and are morally obligated to help at all times, not after some arbitrary and possibly unobtainable spiritual goal is reached. Until we internalize and live the ideal of "thee before me", we'll never get past our own attachments and egos.
Enlightenment Now! (Cash, Checks, and Major Credit Cards Accepted)
You take the average person, with an average life, and an interest in philosophy and spirituality, but perhaps not a great deal of exposure to it. You don't tell them they need to think about how they're behaving, all their habits of thought and emotional reaction, all the little ways they do and don't know how they're screwing up their own lives. No introspection required. No self-examination. No time spent quieting the monkey mind so as to hear the voice of the Divine inside us all. No work to try to make other people's lives better, or service to humanity and the planet.
No. All you have to do is go through some ceremony, possibly doing trance-y exercises to make you more suggestible. We screw with your sensory inputs a bit, make your brain tilt like that little dog's head in the old RCA phonograph ads, then we show you something, chant a phrase in a forgotten language, sketch a mystical secret symbol, or touch your body or head in certain prescribed ways — and from that, you are supposedly being given transformative energy which will, from that moment on, change you and your life forever!
Now actually, I do believe in unseen energies, including of the spiritual kind. I believe in miracle healings (and other kinds of miracles.) I do believe there may even be a physical basis for the efficacy of positive thought, manifesting our desires and fears, and spiritual healing. (I additionally believe I had an extraordinary clarity moment while I was studying in India a couple years ago, which some might term Enlightenment.) Where it goes off the rails for me is in believing the majority of people out there who are screwing around with these energies have the least idea what they're really doing. I feel like some of them are like eight year olds who've just been handed the keys to a brand new sports car. They've seen an adult operate the controls, but have no clue how really to drive.
For instance, I knew of one Reiki training program which purported to create masters in less than three weeks. Mikao Usui developed the Reiki system in 1922 after a personal revelation during a Buddhist training course, and he's said to have trained over 1000 people in it. After he died in 1926, Chujiro Hayashi took over the movement, and simplified it, and he trained Hawayo Takata, who brought Reiki to Hawaii and adapted it to westerners; she's the one who insisted that in order to be trained as a Reiki Master, the price should be $10,000. This was in the 1970 dollars. And one of the basic philosophies of Reiki is the practitioner doesn't actually need to know anything, not even what condition they're treating — the energy itself is said to be intelligent and self-directed.
In the transmission of invisible divine energy, people are being told that all they need is to be touched in a certain way by someone charged with divine energy, their lives will transform and all will be well. If ill, they'll be healed; if sad or depressed, they'll feel better. I'm mostly of the opinion at this point we're in the realm of "Probably can't hurt, might help, but people shouldn't avoid seeking allopathic medical care if warranted."
The problem really hits when purported energy transmission is billed as a means to give people Enlightenment. That all one needs to do is sit there, get zapped in the 3rd eye, and all of a sudden… Moksha! No introspection, no lifestyle changes, no attitude adjustments, no alterations in relationships or daily behavior. Just pay some money (usually a significant amount of cash), and supposedly the universe itself will be revealed.
If spiritual enlightenment and salvation was that easy, if it could simply be purchased, billionaires have the potential to be the holiest people on the entire planet, just by giving enough money to the right dude with the touch. Does this make any sense whatsoever? We can see this is clearly not the case. Camel through the eye of the needle and all that.
Another way to look at this is people want a transformative experience, to truly become something greater and better than they are now — but they want to do it without giving up any of their bad habits or personality traits, and without making any sacrifices beyond a little time and a big cash donation. Somehow they've convinced themselves can become a different person…without becoming a different person. Suddenly to turn into an idealized and often unrealistic version of what they imagine to be their better selves, or the better angels of their nature. But they think this can be imposed upon them, by an outside source — God, or divine energy, or whatever it is, operating through the spiritual channels of another human being.
In other words, they believe they can have Enlightenment imposed upon them, despite every character trait and habit of behavior within them that actively refuses to accept it. They want unthinking ignorance and boundless knowledge, both at once.
It doesn't work. It never works. You are not a wild horse to be broken to the saddle of Moksha. Enlightenment must be invited and courted like a lover. You need to be free of all the things which keep you from accepting Truth, and this takes effort.
In still other words, we have to learn to stop behaving like immature children, demanding everything be given to us.
Back to the topic of 'transmissions' and closer to home, I've had people offer to give me energy treatments, balance my chakras, give me retransmissions of energy given to them by someone else (which always gives me the unwanted vision of a wad of spit, being passed from mouth to mouth to mouth). Every time, I turn them away politely.
I see it this way: Assuming this stuff exists, that these spiritual divine energies are real. Assume further they have immense power to affect one's health (physical and mental), life path, karma, and soul. Does it seem at all wise to let someone who may have had the spiritual equivalent of an online correspondence course muck with your destiny to that degree? It's like that clever ad for Holiday Inn Express, only with the random schlub who slept there overnight offering to perform exploratory brain surgery on you.
Just Listen To My Voice
Another development in modern spiritual developments is the same one plaguing many of the longer-standing organized religions in the world, and that is the accumulation of dogma and doctrine, often with supremely circular false logic and unproven — or even demonstrably false — assertions of fact.
"Read my book — all the answers are in there." "Buy these tapes and transcripts." "Come to these seminars where I'll give you all the answers you seek."
There's a passive absortion of information, asserted to be true and given presumed divine assurance of veracity (hence one is not allowed to dissent or argue against it, even when what is asserted is patently false), and little or no analysis. Years ago, I knew a Jesuit with whom I had a number of discussions, and despite my own issues with Christianity as an organized religion, he had some very wise things to share with me. One was this: Faith without knowledge, without questioning, is useless. You absorb and believe one idea; someone comes along with a different idea. How then are you to know your idea is true and right? If you say God exists and I say no such being exists, neither of us can prove the other wrong.
But if we sit down and talk about our differing theories, delve into the deeper mysteries of what this universe of ours really is, where it came from, and how a bunch of purportedly self-aware beings came to inhabit a tiny, tiny speck of dirt within it — ah, then we're getting somewhere.
Again, unfortunately many of these newer groups (and also the older ones) tell people to just sit there, listen to what they are told, accept it as utter truth — and never, ever question it. I referred to it earlier today to a friend as "Spiritual Television." You're not participating, you're not growing or evolving in your understanding, and you're certainly not doing anybody else any good. You're absorbing, without analysis or true comprehension, and as often as not when someone outside of the group asks what you've learned, you're unable to express it in any terms other than newly learned jargon and parochial argot.
We Few, We Happy Few
Old religion or new, a common element between many (but not all) of them is a belief that they and they alone have the Answer. The Truth. Salvation and an assured place in heavenly afterlife bliss. But only if you believe exactly as they do.
As if that's not enough, belief in the salvation of the chosen few is countered with the corollary that anyone not belonging to the group and not adhering totally to the belief system is thereby doomed. Some of the more generous faiths just say the person's soul will fail to achieve enlightenment or advancement until they change. Others flat out assert that if you do not follow exactly their system and are not a member, you will suffer in horrific unspeakable torment forever, no matter how virtuous you might have been and even if you never heard of their religion for your entire Earthly mortal life.
Well, the newer groups are doing this to some degree as well, and both this aspect as well as the next I'll get to are hallmark signs of cults. Members take an unseemly smug self-satisfaction in their wise choices and good fortune in belonging to the group. Others who listen and choose not to follow are denigrated as deluded fools, unbelievers, heretics, and infidels. Those who join for a while, find it not to their liking and leave get the worst treatment, usually shunning and slander.
Confucius said this of spirituality: "There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is all the same."
Universal Truth is not the trademarked property of any given religion or system of belief, because quite frankly I don't think we humans are intellectually equipped to comprehend the infinite — especially not when we continue to insist egotistically that we are the best, most important, and most beloved of God in the entire vast universe. Given the size of the place, and how often we've been demonstrably, provably wrong in all our assumptions as to our place in the cosmos and the origins of our planet, you'd think we'd absorb the idea, "Hey, maybe we're not all that important, and just maybe there are more advanced beings out there."
Mother Theresa has another more succinct saying: "I'm just God's pencil."
Both of these boil down to humility. When asked why I chose to study under Sri Kaleshwar, I respond, "He's a pretty good Sherpa, and he certainly seems to know the way up the mountain better than I do."
One thing I really don't like to hear is, "Our master is going to make masters of us." The reason I don't like it isn't that the goal is unworthy — it is, in theory. What I hear under the words is a degree of smugness and complacency, as well as egotism. As if the subtext is, "I will be a spiritual master. And you and these unchosen others will not."
Many fail to understand that 'spiritual master' is never, ever a title you should confer upon yourself. You don't wake up one day and say, "Hey, I'm a Master now. How cool's that?" Well, you could say it, but in saying so, you've just negated it being true. Other people call you a master or guru or holy person or saint. If you actually are any of those things, you respond with, "I'm just God's pencil."
But just because you may have found a particularly fruitful path or a learned spiritual teacher, it's a tragic, fatal mistake to then go thinking that because of good luck, fortunate karma, or a divine blessing that you are therefore Chosen. Special. Select. Better Than. Nobody is.
It's the End of the World As We Know It
I stuck this last bit on because I'm seeing it everywhere, but I don't know really to say about it, save that every single one of these prophecies has proven to be wrong. (Okay: So far. But the track record is really lousy, don'cha think?)
End of the world myths appear to have been part of humanity's cultural heritage for as long as we've been able to invent stories. Disaster movies have only gotten bigger and more violently destructive as our CGI capabilities have advanced to meet our wildest imaginings. Unfortunately, many religions have absorbed these memes as well. For some reason, it's not enough to speculate about the origins and ultimate fate of a human soul. We go through phases in our culture where disaster stories and predictions become insanely fashionable, as if our own capacity for self-destruction isn't enough.
When I apply just a wee touch of cynicism to my motives analysis of those making disaster predictions, the outcome isn't pretty. At the turn of the Christian calendar's first millenia, the Church urged people to donate all their worldly belongings, so as to ensure a heavenly reward after God destroyed the world. William Miller created a surprisingly vast (and surprisingly almost forgotten) movement in the 1840s, where he regularly predicted the imminent arrival of Jesus and the end of the world. Four different dates were determined to be laid out in Biblical scripture; they arrived and passed without incident. Many left the religion after that, but there do remain some true believers, even to today: The Seventh Day Adventists.
A religion or belief system that predicts an imminent end to the world is doing just one thing: Appealing to fear.
They're trying to create a sense of urgency, as if it's not enough for you to be worried about your fate in an afterlife. You need to worry right now. When that happens, it's time to watch your wallet.
Some of the newer belief systems though do seem to be coming at this a little bit differently, especially if they do not believe in evil, or don't believe evil will prevail. Instead, they predict a vaguely defined transformative paradigm-shifting moment for humanity. Something is is supposed to happen, although they never say exactly what, unless it's the return of a long-dead religious figure. Somtimes the date is well-fixed; other, more savvy types leave the schedule deliberately vague, but usually it's sometime in the next 2-10 years. Right now, most of the groups and cults are fixated on 2012. December 21, 2012, to be exact, and they read huge significance into the one-two numerology of that date according to the current western calendar.
That calendar is purely bunk, and based upon dates which aren't what they were intended to be at all. The months? Invented by the Romans, and named for Roman language words, a few of their gods, and two of their emperors. The days? Purely arbitrary, and 31 were given to the emperor months (July and August) because they wanted to be important. Why 28/29, 30, and 31 days? Because they wanted 12 months. The Romans loved the number 12. Also arbitrary. They were kind of aiming at the lunar cycle, but missed the target entirely. What about 2012? They miscalculated the beginning of their 'Christian Era' calendar, missing the likely date of birth of the Yeshua kid by four years. Anyway, my point is the numbers are just something we made up and that particular date is significant only because people today want it to be.
Not long ago, the world was supposed to end or hugely transform when we went to the year 2000. Despite the fact that although this number is generally accepted globally — and has been re-designated "Common Era" to remove the Christian bias — every other culture has its own year dates. Or none at all. Even the Mayan experts say now that their supposed 'end of the world' prediction is not at all what they meant. Their number system and calendar is just that by their count, the proverbial odometer is about to flip over.
Here's another part that may get me in some trouble. Absent some physical world-changing event, I do not predict any kind of mass catastrophy or mass transformation of humanity. We are not all going to wake up one day and realize, "Wow, we were being stupid. Let's all Ascend." Neither is the planet suddenly and for no reason going to split open and swallow every non-believer.
I say 'absent some world-changing event' because we could have one. An asteroid or comet hitting the planet (which given our level of technological prowess, we really ought to be setting up to defend against). Catastrophic collapse of the biosphere caused by or contributed to by human activity, but could also include a super-volcano going off. Nuclear war. Alien invasion and involuntary exo-forming of the planet. A nearby supernova. Massive economic collapse, possibly caused or exacerbated by natural or man-made disasters. Actually, the one I think is our greatest danger right now isn't nuclear but biological/genetic warfare, followed close behind by a biosphere tipping event caused by global warming.
All of these things, and even all of the apocalyptic/transformative events being predicted or prophecied by these religious and spiritual groups are outside the ability of individuals to affect, mitigate, or avert. But where some see either hope for a new world or fearful urgency to repent and make right with one's deity, I see attempts to distract and manipulate people. The innocent ones I think are just trying to tap into that "ooh, love disaster movies" vibe to win additional adherents, and to get folks to stop being complacent and wasting precious time. The line though gets mighty blurry between good intentions and outright exploitation.
When someone tells me their faith or spiritual leader is predicting some huge world-changing event to take place "very soon", it simply is not useful information, excepting only that it makes me doubt the veracity and motives of the source. Doubt leads to examination, which more often than not leads soon to disproof. Then the date comes and goes, whoever made the first prediction makes a new one, modifying or clarifying, "Oh, that's not what I meant." Or, "God intervened — our prayers stopped it." At which point I have concluded the basic guiding philosophies and ideals are almost certainly hopelessly corrupted.
Nearly every worthwhile religion or belief system has at it certain core ideals and truths. Memes which, if adopted by enough people, could indeed transform the entire human race. Unfortunately, religious organizations are singularly prone to be corrupted by scoundrels, thieves, and monsters out for little but their own self-aggrandizement and -enrichment. Good ideas like, "We should all take off one day in seven to rest and relax together, maybe give thanks for our good fortune just to be alive" become "it is the holy day, attendance at these lengthy religious ceremonies is mandatory" become "death by stoning to he who desecrates the sabbath."
Bad men corrupt good ideas. Through ignorance and misunderstanding, sometime both of which are willful, we stray from that mountain path, and mistake the sudden easiness of giving in to baser instincts — including fear, hate, pride, and laziness — as progress, when all we're doing is running downslope as fast as our feet will carry us.
Where Do We Go From Here
- A religious faith or movement or system of beliefs which asks nothing of you in service to your fellow humans or to the planet will give little or nothing of value in return.
- Beware when money is linked to the acquiring of Enlightenment or other spiritual goals, or when money is raised to be equivalent to service. It's even more dangerous when that's added to you not having to do anything substantive to achieve spiritual progress. Rich people cannot buy Moksha, period.
- Belief systems which play up some notion that you are special or chosen or extraordinarily blessed for the happenstance of your being born into, finding and/or belonging to the group are dangerous, in that they risk a massive inflation of your ego and attachments. In its most corrupted form, it causes members of the group to hate and despise those who do not belong, sometimes going so far as to declare non-believers as less than or simply not human at all.
- Beware spiritual leaders who claim to have exclusive access to the Truth. When they do this, they are attempting to put themselves between you and the Divine.
- If there are prophecies or predictions of apocalyptic or massively transformative events in the near term, ask yourself why these unsubstantiated claims are being made, and who stands to gain if you are manipulated into believing them.
- Prayer and meditation = Very good for the body, psyche and the soul. It's been proven to reduce stress chemicals in the body, ease depression and emotional problems, and promotes serenity and equanimity. It also requires a bit of effort, in that one has to take the time to actually do the praying or meditating. The time to start doing these isn't tomorrow or next week when you have some time cleared from your schedule. The time is now. There is nobody, no matter how busy or important, who cannot find 10 uninterrupted minutes to meditate each day.
- Be good, do good. One of the purest forms of devotion is to help others, for no other reason than it's the right thing to do. Having empathy for others is no character flaw — it's what connects us to our fellow humans (and animals, too). An even better version of the Golden Rule is this: Do unto others what they would have you do unto them. It's not that hard, either, it just takes stepping outside our own skin to imagine how others feel. You see a person in distress, you ask if you can help, simple as that. Why? Because if you were in distress, you'd want help yourself.
That's all for now. I suppose there's a chance I may revisit this post in the future to elaborate on the ideas expressed here, or to write new ones. For now, I leave you with Namaste.