by Marcia Sirota

When I was nineteen years old, I went traveling with a friend on the West Coast of the United States. We met a lot of very interesting people along the way, and one of them stands out. He was a 20-something, self-proclaimed “spiritual seeker.” Let’s call him “Cool Breeze.”

He was the first person I’d ever met who meditated daily and who saw himself as being on a spiritual path. I’d read some Books about Zen Buddhism and Eastern mysticism, and was interested to discover what it might be like to put some of these principles into practice.

Over the communal dinners at the New Mexico youth hostel where we were staying, he explained his thoughts about the road he was taking toward enlightenment. He seemed pretty serious about it, and over the few days that we spent in town, I got to know Cool Breeze as much as one can in such a short time.

Initially, his demeanor was calming and soothing. He seemed to float above everything, detached from the messiness and complications of everyday life. His spiritual practice seemed to enable him to avoid the mundane dramas that the rest of us couldn’t help becoming involved in. Still, as the days went by, my initial impression of him began to change.

There was a fussiness about him; an insistence on having things a certain way. Even though his explanation for being so particular was that this was part of his spiritual practice, it made him appear rigid and controlling rather than simply committed to his path.

He began to come off as a bit grandiose, and I got the impression that he felt superior to the other young people around him. It was like he saw himself as better than the rest of us because he knew an important life secret, which he’d discovered through his practice of Eastern Mysticism.

He also revealed himself to be somewhat selfish and insensitive to others’ feelings. It was as though his spirituality granted him special dispensation to disregard the petty needs and feelings of us non-spiritual types. He seemed to feel that he could justify this by explaining how he was compelled to prioritize his spiritual practice over everything else. When others became annoyed that he wasn’t helping out with the chores, as we were all expected to, this was his rationale.

I was a fairly naïve teenager with not a lot of life experience, but it struck me that Cool Breeze’s philosophy didn’t totally make sense. My idea of spirituality at the time – simplistic as it might have been- was that this way of living would make a person kinder and more thoughtful toward others; not the other way around. I also figured that being spiritual ought to make someone more easy-going, rather than more uptight.

by Britt Wilson

by Britt Wilson

The most disappointing thing about Cool Breeze was how self-involved he was. Again, in my teen-aged take on spirituality, I assumed that someone who meditated and sought enlightenment should have less ego and be more compassionate toward others. If Eastern philosophy promoted the idea that “we are all one,” then why should a spiritual person be superior to any other person?

Also, I understood that spirituality was a way of detaching from some of the materialism of modern life, but it made no sense to be as disengaged as Cool Breeze was, seeing as how he was choosing to be around other people and that his behavior was having a negative effect on those around him.

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. I tend to look at experts, teachers and bosses; really anyone in a position of power or authority and ask myself if what they’re saying makes sense and whether or not their behavior is consistent with their message. Over the years this urge to question things has served me well, as long as I chose not to ignore it.

While attending university just north of New York City, I made friends with three girls in the year ahead of me. They all took yoga and meditation classes in Manhattan at a center run by a man known as “Gurudev.” It struck me as odd that they had such strong reactions when he went away for the many speaking engagements which funded the center.

My friends were behaving more like lovelorn women than mere followers of a guru and his spiritual practice. It didn’t take long foe me to discover the reason for my friends’ intense reactions to Gurudev, As it turns out, he had been sleeping with the three of them, as well as with many of the other girls who attended classes at the center.

Not that I’m batting 1000 when it comes to judging character: on occasion, I’ve talked myself out of what I sensed, and came away a bit worse for wear, but most of the time I listen to the wise little voice within, and it didn’t let me down when it came to Gurudev and his center.

Whenever my friends invited me to a lecture or a party over there, my impression of Gurudev was of a creepy, middle-aged man who was having just a little too good a time with these young kids. He almost seemed to be gloating over his privileged position as father-figure to his group of fresh-faced devotees.

When the secret came out, my friends were devastated by the betrayal. It turned out that Gurudev had been seducing each girl by telling her that he and she were meant to have a special relationship and that their being together was essential for the “good karma” of the group.

Gurudev kept these affairs secret by insisting to each girl that telling anyone about their relationship would cause “bad karma” for the group, because of potential hurt or jealous feelings in the other members, who wouldn’t understand the “specialness” of what the two of them had together.

Unfortunately, Gurudev was just too good at getting my friends to fall in love with him, and his frequent absences became so intolerable to them that their deep feelings of love, and the reasons for these feelings, eventually all came pouring out one evening when the three of them, and a few other female devotees were all hanging out together in his absence.

The center was closed not long afterwards, and Gurudev disappeared. It turns out that he had gotten into the same sort of trouble in his previous role as the leader of an ashram in India, and had had to flee to the United States to escape prosecution. No-one knew where he took himself off to, this time. My friends, meanwhile, got on with their lives, graduating university and forevermore eschewing gurus of any kind.

I was studying philosophy at the time, which was how I’d met my friends. The difference between them and me was that I saw the essence of philosophy as a critical inquiry; a method of asking tough questions about the nature of things, as opposed to becoming enthralled by an idea or by the person who promotes it.

Because I hadn’t been involved with the center or the scandal, my feelings about spirituality weren’t tainted and after graduation I maintained an interest in philosophy, both Eastern and Western. I began to attend lectures by various people who were practicing and writing about spirituality, and was able to gain some insight into my earlier experiences.

I remember Ram Dass, a popular and well-respected practitioner of meditation who taught that one of the pitfalls on the spiritual path was how easy it was for people to become self-important along the way. He himself struggled with the impact of his fame, and I remember hearing him say on more than one occasion that what was important was his message, as opposed to his personality. He was sincerely trying to break free of the trap of spiritual egotism.

The art of deceptio

People who choose to pursue spirituality, whether as the main course in life, a side dish or a condiment,  all do it for very personal reasons. Some people believe that we have a soul which needs to be nurtured, developed or healed. Some people practice spirituality as part of their religion, while others are secular yet spiritual. Some people take their spirituality for granted as a natural part of their life, with others making a conscious choice to embrace it.

People choose spirituality with many goals in mind: it can be a means of seeking freedom, achieving transcendence or learning how to be more detached from the people or possessions which might ultimately cause them suffering. Spirituality, for some people, is a way of expanding their consciousness; some are searching for inner peace, and others want to attain what are called “siddhis,” or the powers which come from intensely focusing the mind.

People can use their spirituality in order to do good or for less noble ends. Like anything that is associated with power, spirituality can be misused. Some individuals practice their spirituality by following a charismatic leader, and sometimes these followers are only too willing to give up their personal power, becoming dependent on their “master” most likely in the unconscious hope of being loved and cared for by this replacement parent.

These spiritual leaders, when surrounded by adoring followers who idolize them, can sometimes find it hard to resist the temptation to exploit their position of absolute authority. To some followers, their leader is near-divine, and even the most serious spiritual practitioner must have their act squarely together or risk succumbing to the dark side of their psyche.

Some people choose a spiritual path as a way to escape from their emotional or psychological problems or a dysfunctional family environment. Rather than going for counseling or psychotherapy, they withdraw into an ashram or a spiritual community. Often, this experience is disempowering and only serves to reinforce their passivity, because they are treated much like children who must practice strict obedience to the will of the parent-like leader.

If someone leaves the community, they find themselves ill-prepared for the world outside. They still have their unresolved emotional or psychological issues; only now there’s an added layer of learned helplessness attached to their already-fragile ego. Spirituality in the service of avoiding one’s problems, escaping from life or finding the “good parent” they never had is, in my opinion, the antithesis of what it ought to be.

In the mid-1990’s, I was beginning to work as a psychotherapist and interested in incorporating some meditation and relaxation techniques into my practice. One of the most enlightening talks I attended was given by a woman named Ruth Gilbert. She was a psychotherapist and a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Her explanation of the risks inherent in spirituality made a lot of sense to me.

What Ms. Gilbert said was that meditating brings energy to every part of a person; to the body, the soul, the emotions and the psyche. She explained that any emotional wounds or psychological complexes a person is carrying will therefore be reinforced by the practice of meditation.

She advised us that if someone is seriously interested in taking up meditation, they should also have a course of psychotherapy, so that when the emotional or psychological issues came up they could be properly dealt with, rather than leaking out as some sort of dysfunctional behavior.

This put into perspective the seeming epidemic of gurus who take advantage of their disciples. Whether they exploit their followers financially, sexually or emotionally, many gurus or spiritual leaders seem incapable of resisting the temptation to misuse their power. In fact, consistent with Ms. Gilbert’s theory, the more powerful or influential the spiritual leader, the more likely they are to be abusive in some way.

Just recently, there was a huge scandal coming out of a very famous yoga center in Massachusetts, where the highly-regarded guru was found to have been mismanaging the finances as well as sleeping with some of the female devotees, while at the same time preaching his philosophy of chastity and poverty.

The idea that spiritual powers can be both positive and negative makes sense to me, in that spirituality embraces the idea of yin and yang, or the unity in duality. Since I came to understand this idea, I’ve been that much more aware of how easily a person involved in spirituality can be taken down a path of egotism and the abuse of power, as opposed to one of compassion and connectedness.

Very recently, there was a terrible tragedy involving a noted author and spiritual leader who brought together about 50 people in order to spend several days meditating in a large sweat-lodge, but who failed to provide sufficient food, water or breaks to cool off.

It appears that this gentleman didn’t have a thorough understanding of the proper design or use of a sweat lodge. Traditionally, these are small structures, meant to be used by just a few people over periods of 20 or 30 minutes, not days on end. This man also seemed ignorant of how the human body collapses in response to extended periods of intense heat, physical and emotional stress and dehydration.

According to eye-witness reports, after three days in the sweat lodge, people were fainting; some were screaming and begging to be let out. In his hubris, the leader had decided that this was simply their resistance to the experience, and no-one was permitted to leave. In the end, dozens were deeply traumatized; at least two people succumbed to the heat, and a number of court cases are now pending.

This, to me, is the supreme example of spiritual egotism: a man is so convinced of his moral superiority and the rightness of his vision that he proceeds in ignorance, deciding that regardless, he alone knows what’s good for other people; the result being a needless tragedy.

As a psychotherapist, I’m well aware of how resistance can impede the process of personal growth, but I’m also educated and experienced enough to know that forcing someone to confront their resistance before they’re ready will result in the undermining of their trust in me and their therapy.

Tragically, even if these participants had been caught up in psychological resistance, as opposed to the physical crisis they were actually facing, a competent group leader would have never forced anyone to remain in a situation which was causing them distress.

I believe that the leader’s huge ego completely distorted his ability to recognize the reality of the situation. His spiritual egotism prevented him from acknowledging and properly responding to the legitimate signs of emotional panic and physical desperation in his followers, and it’s this which ultimately resulted in the horrifying outcome.

Spiritual Egotism is a travesty of the principles of spirituality, and goes against basic spiritual values such as kindness, acceptance and altruism. In part two of the article, I’ll discuss some current examples of spiritual egotism and how the practice of Ruthless Compassion is the antidote to this.

Originally published in OmTimes


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