In the realm of New Age spirituality or meditation groups, lots of people seem pretty certain about various spiritual teachings. But what if dogma and certainty are the antithesis of one of the most valued spiritual qualities—the humility of beginner’s mind? What if the minute we insist that we know something is true and we aren’t open to questioning it, we lack the very humility that could deepen our connection with the love, openness, truth, and compassion of the Divine?
It seems to me that any spiritual teaching worth applying in our daily lives deserves to be filtered through our own inquiry with the inner Divine (the part I call your “Inner Pilot Light“). When we fail to enter into humble inquiry about the spiritual teachings that get taught, we make ourselves vulnerable to the imbalances of lopsided dogma, as well as to prideful certainty about how the mysteries of the unknowable universe work.
In preparation for an online class I taught this week about The Shadow of Spirituality Uncensored, I made a list of spiritual teachings that many people I know practice hook, line, and sinker without questioning the validity of the teachings. In making this list and teaching the class, I came to a potent realization—that every one of these teachings has a gem of truth in it, but that in many circumstances, it’s opposite can also be true. In other words, as we develop a deeper connection with our inner Divinity, we come to realize that we must hold potentially infinite paradoxes. The mind craves duality—the certainty and comfort of black and white thinking. Paradoxes create discomfort in the mind. How can something be true and not true at the same time? Yet we learn as we grow that the mind cannot hold a paradox; only the heart can.
I invite you to question the following spiritual teachings, gleaning from them the gems while being willing to entertain the paradoxes, allowing yourself to see how an unbalanced, rigid, or dogmatic adoption of teachings like this may actually be harming you or causing you to inadvertently harm others.
1. You’ll never hurt if you stay present in the peace of Now.
So much of our pain stems from thoughts rehashing painful episodes from the past or anxious imaginings about worst case scenarios in the future, so learning to be present in this now-walking moment can greatly reduce human suffering. That said, as seductive as it is to think this might be an option, avoiding human pain is impossible. When you find out a loved one died, you experience a serious injury, or the love of your life betrays you, it’s going to hurt, even in this present moment. If you’re set up to believe that being present in the Now means you’ll avoid feeling human pain, you’ll be disappointed, and if you try to bypass human pain, you’ll also miss out on the richness, vitality, and joy of feeling the full range of the human experience all the way in your heart and your bones.
2. All pain is caused by limiting beliefs or thoughts that aren’t true.
Spiritual inquiry is at the root of much Eastern philosophy. Because we experience suffering when traumas cause us to ruminate on painful limiting beliefs, such as “I’m not lovable” or “Everyone is going to abandon me” or “Nobody can be trusted,” learning to question your thoughts is a cornerstone of spiritual practice. This kind of tool is very helpful when you’re stuck in cyclical ruminations about long past events. However, some pain cannot be questioned away. When you’re in the midst of acute grief, for example, it’s not helpful to inquire as to whether limiting beliefs are causing your heartbreak. When you’re acutely grieving, you need comfort, support, and permission to feel your painful grief in the embodied depths of your sorrow. Over-intellectualization with mental inquiry can interrupt the grief process and move you out of your heart, where true healing happens.
3. Everything you desire is within your reach via the “law of attraction.”
According to many New Age teachings, all you have to do is visualize, affirm, align your energy, remove your blocks, and PRESTO—you’ll get everything you want, whether it’s a million dollars, the girl of your dreams, or the promotion you’ve been jonesing for. For many, it’s empowering when you get exposed to law of attraction teachings. You discover that you’re not a victim of a hostile universe, but that you’re powerful beyond measure and can participate in the co-creation of your reality, whether it’s healing yourself from illness, calling in the love of your life, or manifesting a successful career. However, there’s a dark shadow to this kind of teaching that suggests that if you’re not manifesting everything you want, you’re not practicing the law of attraction skillfully enough, that you’re somehow spiritually inferior and if only you were “spiritual” enough, you’d get everything your ego wants. While manifestation is a known “siddhi” (spiritual superpower in the yogic tradition), it’s a gift, not a law, and it can be co-opted to feed the ego’s “hungry ghost” of endless and insatiable desire. The “law of attraction” suggests that if only you do it right, you can visualize a Ferrari and somehow, magically, a Ferrari will end up in your driveway. But Divine Will doesn’t work that way. It’s wonderful to learn that you have spiritual power and can participate in co-creating your reality, but when you move to the next phase of spiritual development and realize that even if you could “manifest” every desire on your ego’s infinite shopping list, you still wouldn’t feel fulfilled, you begin to long for a deeper level of surrender. Your prayer moves from “Help me get what my ego wants” to “Make me a vessel for Divine love in the world and help me recognize what that is, because my Small Self doesn’t know what serves the highest good.”
4. Everything you judge about someone else is a projection of something you don’t like in yourself.
Psychological projection is a known defense mechanism whereby you project undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings in yourself. In other words, you judge your neighbor as being greedy, while all the while, you’re greedily withholding love, compassion, and acceptance of the very person you judge, or maybe you’re greedy with waitstaff and only tip 10%. While it’s always helpful to inquire about our judgments because there’s often a great deal of insight we can uncover about our own growth edges and we can grow in compassion of ourselves and others through this practice of self-inquiry, this teaching can be easily misinterpreted as a way to gloss over unacceptable behaviors that lead to disrespect or even outright abuse. It’s fine to find the projections and turn the mirror back upon yourself, but don’t forget to keep your discernment honed, your boundaries clear, and healthy consequences for unacceptable behavior enforced. Paradoxically, it can be true that what you judge is an aspect of yourself; it can also be true that you’re being harmed by a flaming narcissist and need to get a restraining order.
5. Forgive and forget.
Forgiveness is at the root of most spiritual lineages, and when you reach a place of genuine, authentic forgiveness in your own heart, it can leave you nearly ecstatic with relief and true freedom. However, as Robert Masters writes about in Spiritual Bypassing, “premature forgiveness” is really just conflict avoidance in holy drag. Authentic forgiveness requires us to fully feel our anger, hurt, righteousness, dismay and despair before we get to the true forgiveness that sticks. Even once we forgive, we don’t necessarily want to forget. If someone betrays your trust, you may want to dial down the intimacy dial, offering unconditional love but conditional access. If someone keeps needing forgiveness, you may need to withdraw. This may be a sign that someone cannot be trusted with your intimacy and vulnerability. If you tell yourself you’re supposed to forget, and that spiritual people never establish consequences when someone hurts you, you’ll be vulnerable to repetitive violations of your trust and painful traumas to your tender heart.
6. The ego is something to get rid of.
An orphaned child standing in front of a crowd of spiritual seekers approached the guru through her tears and asked for help. He furrowed his brow, turned stony cold, pointed a finger at her, and said to the child, “The ego is a beast. You need to kill it. Do more spiritual practice.” Ouch. What if the ego is not a monster we have to kill, but a wounded child we need to love? What if exiling the imperfect, hurting, or protective parts of the ego doesn’t deepen spiritual growth; it only makes these natural human parts more recalcitrant, as they double down to exert their influence over the soul? What if spiritual growth actually begins when we open ourselves to radical self-compassion and acceptance of our wounded parts?
To join in the inquiry about more spiritual teachings we might need to question, and to listen to a 3 ½ hour dialogue about other shadow aspects of spirituality, such as the 10 “Spiritually- Transmitted Diseases,” how to protect yourself from untrustworthy spiritual leaders, shamans, or healers, and how to see where you might be vulnerable to the shadow as a healer or spiritual leader yourself. We also discuss tools for discernment, conscious discipleship, and self-compassion if you’ve been vulnerable to being hurt. You can register for The Shadow of Spirituality Uncensored here. To those who participated in this lively dialogue, thank you for giving us the opportunity to make this not just a lecture-style class, but a genuine teaching community that took advantage of the wisdom in the room. I hope it helps all of us deepen our discernment, forgive our own shadow, and grow the light in our own hearts.
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