I took today's perceptive title from a blog post I read recently written by Dr. Mariana Caplan, an internationally acclaimed author and teacher on Western Spirituality, and a psychotherapist specializing in spiritual issues and somatic and body-centered approaches to transformation. She has an active practice in San Francisco and Marin County. You can read her whole post here. Dr. Caplan provides what I think is a helpful description of the some of the dangers inherent in the spiritual life. These are dangers that we often don't want to think about or simply don't see, especially in relation to ourselves. In the midst of our genuine desire to grow spiritually, to commit ourselves to experiencing transformation and positive change in our lives, regardless of the specific religious environment we're a part of, there are certain blind spots that have the potential of derailing our spiritual growth.
Blind spots are those places that we simply don't see but by not seeing them, we are susceptible to crashing. Remember taking driver's ed training and the teacher talking about being careful of the blind spot between what you see in your rearview mirror and what you see in your driver's side mirror. There could be a vehicle in that blind spot and if you make a lane change too quickly, you could hit that vehicle. So what are you suppose to do? You're suppose to check your mirrors first, and then look over your left shoulder to take a specific visual cue of what's actually there. And if there is in fact no vehicle there, you turn on your signal blinker and slowly make the turn. You've checked your blind spot in order to navigate safely.
The title also suggests another spiritual reality. If we aren't aware of our spiritual blind spots, not only will we hurt ourselves, we'll hurt others, too. Dr. Caplan describes these spiritual diseases as transmittable - we can infect others with our spiritual deformities. Our sneezes pass on our diseases. How significant, then, for us to be aware of our own issues and work hard to deal with them effectively. It's good for everyone in our lives! The health of a spiritual community is only as good as the health of each individual's personal spirituality.
So here are Dr. Caplan's 10 spiritually transmitted diseases. Ask yourself which one(s) you tend to suffer from.
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."
And I would even add this caution for Christians: though belief in the grace of Jesus is hugely significant to building confidence and security (we can't work our way to God's favor and the Next Life - it's a gift), grace is no substitute for the intentional discipline of applying that grace to every aspect of our lives. Transformation doesn't happen in us spontaneously or magically. It takes effort, determination, and practice. Healthy, transformational spirituality cannot be purchased in a drive-through, fast-food delivery system.
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."
This is true because deep spirituality works from the inside out. It deals with motives and values, feelings and thoughts, not just behaviors. Even Jesus, in commenting on many of the religious professionals of his day, called them "white-washed tombs; cups that were clean on the outside but dirty on the inside." Their kind of spirituality was external only - what you see on the outside is what matters most, not who you are on the inside. That kind of spirituality was not acceptable to Jesus.
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.'"
Have you ever asked yourself, what tends to motivate my actions when I'm around other people? Is my spirituality being driven by healthy motivations?
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."
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."
Perhaps this explains why oftentimes it's spiritual or religious people who simply can't be argued with. They know "the truth" and they believe they're embodying it, which makes them right and everyone else wrong. They're already on "the way" so what can anyone else teach them, especially those who don't have "the truth" like they do? They've allowed their identities to become completely enmeshed with their spirituality - so if their spirituality is threatened in any way, their identity feels threatened. So they cannot allow their spirituality to be questioned. And they will fight to keep their "rightness" and certainty.
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."
Contrary to many church's religious zeal and methodology, you cannot mass produce spirituality through attempts at mass movements or mass conversions. And genuine spirituality is not a "cookie-cutter" life where everyone looks and acts and believes the same or where everyone only has to utter the same words in a simplified formula. Authentic spirituality looks different in different people. It's achieved differently because everyone is unique. Embodied spirituality
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.'"
I find it significant that the primary spiritual teachers and leaders from the major spiritual traditions (people like Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad) were people of great humility. Jesus commented about his spiritual life by saying, "I assure you, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing." No wonder, on the eve of his death, in an upper room where he and his disciples had gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, when it became clear that there was no servant to wash their dusty feet, he took off his outer robe, picked up a towel, and began to wash his disciples' feet. Genuine spirituality is not driven by pride but by authentic humility.
8. Group Mind: "Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. 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."
Every authentic spiritual tradition encourages inclusivity and compassion as core to the spiritual life. Ironic, then, that so many religious groups develop an "insider" vs. "outside" mentality - an "us" vs. "them" worldview. "You can only be here if you become like us!"
9. The Chosen-People Complex: "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."
This deadly spiritual disease has been the motivator of countless persecutions, executions, and shunnings in the name of God. The paradigm is, "If we have been chosen, then you can't have been chosen, too. For you to be equally chosen like us, you have to join us, believe what we believe, live like us." So the whole mission of the "chosen people" is to bring everyone else into alignment with them. And if they resist, they are resisting God. So we either have to "fix" them, or walk away from them lest we get contaminated by them. This is a deeply destructive spiritual disease that can often be terminal for both parties.
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."
I'm reminded of the super-disciple of Jesus, Paul, who once wrote about himself that he had not arrived. He was still on the journey. And so he kept his gaze on the one he was following, Jesus, in order to stay focused and remain moving forward. Spirituality is not about arriving, it's about traveling; it's about a transformational process and journey that continues one's whole life. That reality should produce great humility in us.
So which of these 10 spiritually transmitted diseases do you struggle with the most? Is there one you tend to be infected with more than the others? How does the disease manifest itself in you? What are your primary symptoms?
Dr. Caplan's partner, Marc Gafni (an author and teacher), makes this statement: "The essence of love is perception. Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly--including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself."
And when you and I begin to truly love ourselves, we are empowered to love others in healthy, meaningful, and compassionate ways.
So are there any spiritual vaccinations we can take to prevent and/or heal ourselves from these spiritually transmitted diseases? In my next blog, we'll take a look at some powerful antidotes that have the potential of effecting profound, honest, authentic spiritual growth and transformation. Stay tuned!
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