Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Religious Irony

Spirituality is often a double-edged sword. It often starts with an experience that draws one’s attention to the “bigger picture”. Rather than focusing on the temporal, one starts thinking about the “ultimate” and their relationship to that. One might be at a religious service and have a sudden vision or epiphany, one might survive a horrible accident and have a near-death experience, or there could be some other related catalyst that somehow changes a person forever, and now puts them on a spiritual quest.

The problem is that most of us do not have the virtue of humility, or at least we don’t start with it. We like to be confident, in control, knowing where we’re going and how we’re getting there. Humility demands that we admit we don’t know. The initial spiritual experience often produces the opposite result; we now believe that we are “chosen”, or “special”, or somehow hand-selected by divinity to stand out against all the “others”. This is, at best, unlikely. One has to look at the experience in a larger context, and not place too much importance on it. But initially, it will get someone started on the path. If they can drop the idea that they’re chosen or special, and that their experience is just that—a passing experience, they will likely make some progress. If not, they will either remain in their delusion (hopefully not harming others with it), or give up on the spiritual path entirely because it doesn’t satisfy their ego.

The lack of humility is the bane of most religious organizations. Often, members are fighting to become recognized socially—to be someone with power in the religious organization. For whatever reason, religious organizations breed the most insane kinds of egoism. I imagine it is because you are dealing with what is “ultimate”—what greater power could you possibly have than to have “God” behind you? Such people can be like the Biblical Pharisees—they want everyone to see how spiritual they are, they discuss all of their experiences, and carry on about how much work they are doing for others. In short, they are doing it for attention and accolades, not because of any selfless dedication to a spiritual path.

I should be clear that most people start out this way. It’s a new experience, they are excited, they want to share their vision with others, and find a social connection with the group. Over time, experience teaches that a.) No one really cares about your personal religious experiences, and b.) those who do profess to care often become “competitive”, or at least envious. I’ve heard the old “Why did she/he have that experience and I’ve had nothing?” many times. Some religious groups look for such experiences, seeing them as “proof” of being “right” with God. But one should be wary of such experiences—they are a good example of the double-edged sword. Instead of teaching you to be humble, they puff you up, and you may get the idea that you’re more important or more spiritual than others. When people tell my guru about such experiences, she is dismissive of them, and has even said, “Why do you talk about your experiences? Do you want people to look at you and tell you how wonderful you are?”

If one reads the accounts of mystics in any religion, the pattern seems to be that the moment when you feel spiritually dead, like “God” has left you, is the moment when you’re actually getting somewhere. The trick is not to give up. Spirituality does not have a “goal”, though we may talk about spiritual goals. It’s not about making you feel good. There should be no goal whatsoever—except, perhaps, learning to accept life as it is, both the beautiful and the ugly, and to respect both. Anyone who has tried knows this is one of the most difficult things to do.

This would also account for why a lot of spiritual seekers seem like first-class rat bastards. Some of the cruelest and most horrible people I have met are “seekers” in large spiritual organizations. While this may turn you off to an organization, it shouldn’t turn you off to the spirituality, if it is sound. Having a bad experience in a church with a highly political priest and a bunch of back-stabbing gossipy parishioners doesn’t invalidate Christianity as a religious path. The same is true of other religions and teachers. Sometimes I think we encounter such people just to remind ourselves that it’s not all about everything being peaceful and “feel-good”. If we can’t maintain our spirituality in the face of petty and ignorant people, then what good is it? It’s like learning to meditate in a noisy city apartment—there is more accomplishment in doing that then learning to meditate in a silent atmosphere.

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