Cultivating Spiritual Discernment
(adapted from Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path, Sounds True, 2009)
It is a jungle out there, and it is no less true about spiritual life than any other aspect of life. Do we really think that just because someone has been meditating for five years, or doing 10 years of yoga practice, that they will be any less neurotic than the next person? At best, perhaps they will be a little bit more aware of it. A little bit. It is for this reason that I spent the last 15 years of my life researching and writing books on cultivating discernment on the spiritual path in all the gritty areas—power, sex, enlightenment, gurus, scandals, psychology, neurosis—as well as earnest, but just plain confused and unconscious, motivations on the path. Along with my partner, author and teacher Marc Gafni, we are developing a new series of books, courses and practices to bring further clarification to these issues.
Several years ago, I spent a summer living and working in South Africa. Upon my arrival I was instantly confronted by the visceral reality that I was in the country with the highest murder rate in the world, where rape was common and more than half the population was HIV-positive—men and women, gays and straights alike. As I have come to know hundreds of spiritual teachers and thousands of spiritual practitioners through my work and travels, I have been struck by the way in which our spiritual views, perspectives, and experiences become similarly “infected” by “conceptual contaminants”—comprising a confused and immature relationship to complex spiritual principles—that are as invisible, yet as insidious, as sexually transmitted disease.
The following 10 categorizations are not intended to be definitive but are offered as a tool for becoming aware of some of the most common spiritually transmitted diseases.
1. Fast-Food Spirituality: Mix spirituality with a culture that celebrates speed, multitasking, and instant gratification and the result is likely to be fast-food spirituality. Fast-food spirituality is a product of the common and understandable fantasy that relief from the suffering of our human condition can be quick and easy. One thing is clear, however: spiritual transformation cannot be had in a quick fix. [Actually, it only happens instantaneously, it is the understanding leading to it and allowing a person to present themselves as such for that transformation to happen that requires so much time and effort.]
2. Faux Spirituality: Faux spirituality is the tendency to talk, dress, and act as we imagine a spiritual person would. It is a kind of imitation spirituality that mimics spiritual realization in the way that leopard-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of a leopard. [Well, but isn't this humanity's sincerest form of flattery? I don't see the need for suggesting this as being corrupting when it is the basis of everyone's socialization. There are much deeper issues involved that speak to genuine spiritual growth in a person in which their self-expression loses the fetters of conformity. I don't think imitate out of any desire to achieve today, it is simple habit when one considers enough to belong to any person, thing, or place. You adopt patterns habitually. This is not a disease, just mental habit.]
3. Confused Motivations: Although our desire to grow is genuine and pure, it often gets mixed with lesser motivations, including the wish to be loved, the desire to belong, the need to fill our internal emptiness, the belief that the spiritual path will remove our suffering, and spiritual ambition—the wish to be special, to be better than, to be “the one.” [Once again, how is a disease, this is a characteristic of the human condition to be in conflict, experience stress and ambivalence, etc. You don't get this from the spiritual paradigm you bring this to that paradigm.]
4. Identifying with Spiritual Experiences: In this disease, the ego identifies with our spiritual experience and takes it as its own, and we begin to believe that we are embodying insights that have arisen within us at certain times. In most cases, it does not last indefinitely, although it tends to endure for longer periods of time in those who believe themselves to be enlightened and/or who function as spiritual teachers. [This is clearly a good one. It's the heart of weakness that we live imprisoned by, IMHO.]
5. The Spiritualized Ego: This disease occurs when the very structure of the egoic personality becomes deeply embedded with spiritual concepts and ideas. The result is an egoic structure that is “bullet-proof.” When the ego becomes spiritualized, we are invulnerable to help, new input, or constructive feedback. We become impenetrable human beings and are stunted in our spiritual growth, all in the name of spirituality. [There's a weakness to this disease though being limited to a certain level of consciousness. The moment one begins to release themselves from dualistic thinking, this kind of structure falls apart from lack of use and value to he self. It also is natural to the process of spiritual growth just like a shadow is natural to someone standing in the path of very bright light (like our sun). The closer one gets to the light, and remains separate from it, the greater will be the growth a shadow. This is not a disease but part of the natural process. It is encumbent on the ascending soul to manage that shadow's influence and role in their actions and not identify but keep grateful and humble.]
6. Mass Production of Spiritual Teachers: There are a number of current trendy spiritual traditions that produce people who believe themselves to be at a level of spiritual enlightenment, or mastery, that is far beyond their actual level. This disease functions like a spiritual conveyor belt: put on this glow, get that insight, and–bam! –you’re enlightened and ready to enlighten others in similar fashion. The problem is not that such teachers instruct but that they represent themselves as having achieved spiritual mastery. [LOL, yeah, this is definitely sick and well said.]
7. Spiritual Pride: Spiritual pride arises when the practitioner, through years of labored effort, has actually attained a certain level of wisdom and uses that attainment to justify shutting down to further experience. A feeling of “spiritual superiority” is another symptom of this spiritually transmitted disease. It manifests as a subtle feeling that “I am better, more wise, and above others because I am spiritual.” [Hard to imagine when so few individuals ever actually escape their mortality fully by spiritual attainment, even though there's really nothing else worthwhile staking our claim on, it is only unconscious and those of us asleep that express pride in anything impermanent. Life is sweet, don't get me wrong, I only have this moment to enjoy and then its gone, where does the pride come in that? If it comes, check me in the hospital please
8. Group Mind: Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality, or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional codependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Individuals and groups infected with “group mind” reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group. [Being a rebel my entire life, has led me always in the other direction from anything remotely looking like this]
9. The Chosen-People Complex: Unfortunately, the chosen people complex is not limited to Jews. It is the belief that “Our group is more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened and, simply put, better than any other group.” There is an important distinction between the recognition that one has found the right path, teacher, or community for themselves, and having found The One. [Ouch, now this is one of the biggies, responsponsible for more maybem and carnage and violence between man, himself, and nature that I know of.]
10. The Deadly Virus: “I Have Arrived” This disease is so potent that it has the capacity to be terminal and deadly to our spiritual evolution. This is the belief that “I have arrived” at the final goal of the spiritual path. Our spiritual progress ends at the point where this belief becomes crystallized in our psyche, for the moment we begin to believe that we have reached the end of the path, further growth ceases. [Yep, I've seen this one too.
It is in the spirit of Marc’s teaching that I believe that a critical part of learning discernment on the spiritual path is discovering the pervasive illnesses of ego and self-deception that are in all of us. That is when we need a sense of humor and the support of real spiritual friends. As we face our obstacles to spiritual growth, there are times when it is easy to fall into a sense of despair and self-diminishment and lose our confidence on the path. We must keep the faith, in ourselves and in others, in order to really make a difference in this world.
[In my humble opinion, Mariana has limited her view to the negativity of what is essentially false in ourselves in relation to ascending in the spiritual paradigm. The concluding remarks on Marc Gafni's quotes suggest this knowledge is critical in discerning one's path beyond. I find nothing critical about this knowledge which is does not of itself protect anyone from being "infected" LOL. However, there is some empowerment in being reminded of how many varieties of our shadows exist today. What is critical? The essential question begins with the verification of a teacher's lineage and living relationship to the divine.]