Side Effects of Spiritual Awakening
I spent nearly three years reading spiritual techniques and applying them to my own life before I realized that spirituality has a dark side. Naturally I was surprised. I felt betrayed.
How can something that seems so pure and good be harmful?
The answer has to do with something psychologists call “spiritual distraction”. This term was coined in the early 1980s by psychologist John Wellwood and refers to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid confronting uncomfortable feelings, unhealed wounds and unmet basic emotional needs.
The spiritual deviations cause us to withdraw from ourselves and others, and hide behind a spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices. Psychotherapist Robert August Masters says that spiritual diversions not only distance us from our pain and difficult personal problems, but also from our own authentic spirituality, make us stuck in a metaphysical state of indeterminacy, in a zone of exaggerated tenderness – pretty and superficial.
“Aspects of spiritual drift include exaggerated lack of attachment, emotional numbing and suppression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too thin boundaries, distorted development, crippling judgment of one’s negativity or dark sides and the illusion that you have reached a higher level of existence.”
What are the ten hidden tendencies in spiritual people that show they use spirituality as an excuse not to face themselves and their real problems:
TO FEEL BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE
This is perhaps one of the most widespread aspects of the dark side of spirituality, and the bad thing is that it can take many forms. Some people feel better than others because they read Alan Watts, for example. Or because they go to work by bike. Or because they refrain from watching TV. Or because they are on a vegetarian diet. Or because they visit temples. Or because they practice yoga or meditation. Or because they use cannabis.
Notice that I’m not saying anything about the value of all these activities. I love Alan Watts and I think meditation is a pretty useful thing. What I am saying is that it is all too easy to allow our spiritual ideas and practices to become an ego-trap. To believe that we are much better and more enlightened than all those others – the flock of sheep, just because we do these things. This dysfunction actually suppresses true spirituality by making us focus on how much more significant we are than other people, without ever cultivating our sense of connection to the cosmos and the poetic sense of wonder in the grandeur of existence.
JUSTIFICATION FOR ASSUMING LIABILITY
It is very easy to twist the meaning of certain spiritual mantras or ideas into an excuse for being irresponsible and untrustworthy.
Things are what they are; Or the universe is already perfect; Or everything happens for a reason; All of these can function as excellent reasons to never do anything and never question someone’s human behavior.
We’re not commenting on the truth of the above statements here. Just keep in mind that if you’re constantly late for work, if you often neglect your loved ones, if your roommates can’t count on you to pay your rent on time, probably it won’t be bad to stop saying to yourself: “So what, reality is an illusion anyway” and then try to be someone others can count on.
In this line of thinking, it’s surprisingly easy to fool yourself into thinking that when someone has a problem with your behavior, it’s because that person is not aware of the laws of the universe or just need to develop spiritually. It’s very easy to make excuses like this, but it’s very hard to admit how often the times we act recklessly, selfishly, or thoughtlessly cause other people suffering. It is also difficult to admit that we are far from perfect, and that growth and learning are never-ending processes.
THERE ARE FASHION TRENDS IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD TOO
Human beings have a need to fit in. We all have a deep need to feel that we belong to some kind of community. And we form groups of all kinds to satisfy this need. Spirituality is one of those interests around which people create all sorts of groups. These are groups with great potential, but they also have their dark side.
There are people for whom spirituality is just a very cool thing where there are a lot of people who care about each other. So, they join yet another spiritual group to practice yoga, put on New Age fashion items, attend music festivals and think that this makes them spiritual. These spiritual seekers blur the meaning of true spiritual matters, of contemplation, experience and realization. They wish to be spiritual people using spirituality as a reason to feel that they stand above other people.
JUDGE PEOPLE WHEN THEY EXPRESS ANGER OR OTHER STRONG EMOTIONS, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE REASONABLE
This is one of the first patterns I noticed in myself after being introduced to spiritual practices. I noticed that when I upset or made people angry, my response was things like, “getting angry doesn’t help anything or I have a feeling we would have less trouble if we kept calm, while I think to myself, If only they were a little more enlightened, we could have avoided all this drama.” In most cases, this was my way of avoiding the deep problems that remained unresolved.
Anger is a natural human emotion and a completely justified response in many situations. Often, anger is an indicator that there are serious issues we need to face, either in ourselves or in our relationships with other people.
Ironically, many spiritual people suppress all non-spiritual emotions and artificially increase spiritual qualities such as compassion, kindness and coolness. This leads to untruthfulness. If you’re constantly trying to come off as calm, gentle, nice, and in a state of constant peace, you’ll eventually end up looking and feeling like a fraud.
SPIRITUALITY AS A JUSTIFICATION FOR EXCESSIVE DRUG USE
Many people believe that psychedelics can induce mystical experiences and intensity of spiritual experiences. Some people take this too seriously and use it as a way to carry out the self-destructive patterns that lead to drug abuse.
Substances that affect the psyche, including cannabis, definitely have their dark side. If you are even more irresponsible, stronger psychedelics such as LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms can lead to traumatic experiences with long-term negative consequences. Even cannabis, which will subtly cloud your mind for a moment, is so easily seductive that it will sap your motivation if you indulge too often. Respect substances and use them wisely.
THEY OVERVALUE POSITIVISM TO NOT SEE THE PROBLEMS IN THEIR LIFE AND IN THE WORLD
Just be positive! Often used as a diversion mechanism in spiritual people who wouldn’t bother to face their own internal problems, traumas, pains, let alone the problems of the world. The positivity has exploded in Western culture in recent years.
20 million people die of poverty annually on the planet. Just stay positive! Namaste. While there is certainly value in cultivating gratitude for the many wonders of existence, this movement seems to overlook something critical: The dark aspects of life do not disappear simply because we ignore them.
In fact, many problems in our individual human lives and globally seem to only get worse and worse while they are ignored. In the same way that it would be absurd to tell an addict the phrase “just think positive!” This could in no way be a solution to his problem, as positive thinking does not offer any kind of solution to major global problems such as climate change, poverty, industrial agriculture, etc.
This does not mean that we have to carry the problems of the world on our shoulders and feel bad about them all the time. It is healthy to recognize and we have the right to feel optimistic about the fact that on many significant aspects, the world is indeed getting better. However, a balance is needed and along with optimism, we need to face the real issues in our personal lives, our society and our world.
SUPPRESS THE UNPLEASANT EMOTIONS THAT DO NOT FIT INTO THE SPIRITUAL IMAGE
There is no way for me to feel depressed or lonely or scared or anxious. I love life too much, I’m too wise, too enlightened to let this happen to me. I was forced to face myself and to admit that I am no Zen master after all. Or rather, I should have understood that the ability to go with the flow and accepting everything that happens as a gift sometimes means I have to accept, from time to time, feeling like a steaming pile of shit.
It is easy to delude ourselves into believing that spirituality will turn our lives into an endlessly floating cloud, but in reality it is not. Life is still full with suffering, and to truly grow and learn from our experience, we must be honest with ourselves about what we feel and allow ourselves to experience it fully. In my case, my desire to always be Zen, to go with the flow, to project an image of inner peace onto others, prevented me from seeing the truth in various problematic situations and robbed me of the ability to take responsibility and to deal with them.
FEELING SELF-HATING WHEN FACING THEIR IMPERFECTION
I noticed this in myself quite quickly. I saw that my narcissistic image of a wise person who has achieved a higher self-realization just causes me a ridiculous amount of cognitive dissonance. I judged myself scathingly and felt overwhelming, crushing guilt for all the not-quite-virtuous decisions I made.
It is easy to ascend into a Buddha or Dalai Lama’s cult, and to think that they are perfect, having always acted in full awareness and compassion. Even if it is true that some people reach a level of realization where they always make the right decision regardless of the circumstances, we must admit that such a thing is a trademark of the very few.
In reality, we are all fallible, and we all make bad decisions sometimes. It is impossible to live even a few weeks of adult life without making a few mistakes, even small ones. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and strive to do better in the future.
Paradoxically, one of the most important spiritual lessons – the one to forgive yourself is especially difficult for people who are interested in spirituality. It is likely that it was guilt and feelings of remorse that led them down this path. But the spiritual teachings put on a pedestal some frighteningly high ideals that lead to even greater feelings of guilt and self-loathing, as it is almost impossible for one to respond appropriately to them. This is the main reason it is so common for spiritual people to avoid responsibility – the recognition of shortcomings is even more painful for them.
BAD SITUATIONS DUE TO EXCESSIVE TOLERANCE AND REFUSAL TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PEOPLE
For a long time, I took extremely seriously the idea that every human being deserves compassion and kindness. In several foreign countries, I found myself in potentially life-threatening situations because I was too trusting of people I didn’t know or too nice to people for whom I refused to see their dark side. I wanted to believe that the people I treated well would do the same back. That line of thinking was terribly naive, and I’m still trying to recover from the realization that in certain situations, benevolence is not the answer.
The sad fact is that the struggle for survival is still a real problem for vast numbers of people on this planet. Many people grew up in poverty, surrounded by crime, and learned that the only way to survive was by taking advantage of the weaknesses of others.
THEY COMPLETELY IGNORE SCIENCE
There’s a pretty strong anti-science streak in many spiritual communities, and I think that’s a shame. It seems to me that many spiritual people become hostile to science because some beliefs and practices they hold dear are unproven or pseudoscientific in the scientific field. If a belief or practice is unproven, it only means that science has not yet been able to confirm its validity through repeatable experiments in a laboratory setting. This is not to say that science is crap, has no value, and should be ignored.
The scientific method is one of the best tools we have for understanding the mechanisms of the visible universe. It allows us to discover the deep truths of biological evolution, to observe the far reaches of space, to extend our lifespan by decades, to step on the moon and many other things. When you reject this, you lose one of the most powerful lenses for understanding reality.
Carl Sagan says:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality – it is a powerful source of spirituality. When we realize our place among the immensity of light years and the passage of ages, when we understand the complexity, beauty and grace of life, then a sublime feeling arises in us both pride and humility at the same time – which is certainly spiritual. The same are our feelings when we are faced with great works of art, music, and literature, or with acts of remarkable and selfless courage, such as this of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The idea that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive does both a disservice.
THE BELIEF THAT MONEY AND CAPITALISM ARE EVIL
Many spiritual people sabotage their own opportunity for substantial success. This is because they are seemingly allergic to wealth, associate money with greed, and mix it all with a general malice. Capitalism is seen as a driver of inequality and corruption.
If you are attracted to spirituality, you somehow feel obliged to mock at materialism. In reality, however, this view is too simplistic. Yes, capitalism has its real flaws, but in many ways it is a force for good, a force that has spawned a huge number of innovations and lifted billions of people out of poverty worldwide. In 1820, 94% of people on Earth lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, that figure had dropped to just 9.6%, thanks to a large extent to economic growth catalyzed by regulated capitalism.
In addition, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make money. Money is an amazing tool. The truth is, we need more compassionate people who possess significant wealth and are willing to use it effectively and altruistically for the betterment of the world.
And spiritual people who write Capitalism is evil on social networks usually do it from their unnecessarily expensive phones.
I think that the various interconnected global spiritual movements, in order to be maximally impactful and beneficial need to deal with their darker aspects.
The alternative is a type of spiritual and intellectual death – a state of permanent stagnation in which people live under the endless illusion that they have all the answers and have reached the ultimate form of human being. And in a rapidly changing world, continuous learning is paramount.
At its best, spirituality is a force that can help humanity realize our common identity as conscious beings who are ecologically aware, feel our connections to the universe, and desire to answer the most pressing questions of our time with compassion, ingenuity, composure and what Einstein called – sacred curiosity.
Spirituality is a force that pushes us towards a more harmonious and sustainable future and towards creating a more beautiful world.