The Benefits & Dangers Of Spiritual Communities
by Asoka Selvarajah (e-mail: ASelvarajah@liberator.net) [March 27th, 2002]
Being involved with a spiritual group has many tremendous benefits over going it alone, but it can also have many pitfalls. On the one hand, you have the benefit of interacting with people of like mind to your own. However, on the other hand, you have the many frustrations and challenges that come with participating in a group of diverse individuals, each with a separate opinion of what constitutes a correct approach to the spiritual path.
One danger we can very easily fall prey to is that of comparing ourselves to others. Of course, each of us has spent a large portion of our lives making endless comparisons of just about everything. However, when this is applied in a negative fashion to the spiritual arena, it can have dire consequences.
“[T]he point is not to become judgmental or regard yourself as superior. Rather, you should observe and be aware. Guard against falling into the same trap yourself.”
Many people quietly ask themselves, "what's wrong with me?", and can make themselves very depressed by doing so. It seems that other people are making good progress in their spiritual growth, but when you look at yourself in the mirror, not a lot has changed. This problem is also magnified by the fact that many individuals in spiritual circles like to parade their supposed achievements, sometimes subtly but often quite blatantly, and let everybody know just how advanced they are. Hence, sensitive souls, who insist on comparing themselves to such people, can undermine whatever growth they have achieved. Indeed, they can even cause themselves psychological problems in the process; depression being the most common of these.
This is why it is often best to keep your counsel. Spiritual work is best kept secret and personal. It is not intended to be a beauty competition. Otherwise, there is a tendency towards making negative comparisons. At the other extreme, it is also possible to develop spiritual pride and boastfulness through some imagined superiority of your own.
Neither extreme is of any benefit to your spiritual life. Therefore, if you give away some money to a worthy cause, keep it to yourself. Should you one day see a vision of Christ or Krishna during your meditation session, only you and your spiritual diary should know anything about it. if you do share your insights with another person, ensure that you only do so in order that the other may benefit, or because you are genuinely uncertain about your experience and need clarification from someone further along the path than yourself.
Comparisons can be most valuable if used in the correct way. By comparing yourself to those who have attained what you seek, you see where you are lacking and are given a role model whom you can seek to emulate, however imperfectly at first. Thus, Christ, Krishna, Buddha, and others have been used as role models to the great benefit of those who have done so. By studying the lives of such people - by pondering on their thoughts, words and teachings - you inspire yourself to want to be more like them, and actually accelerate the process of doing so.
Actions do speak louder than words in the context of spiritual society. Words are cheap and easily spoken. They are no measure whatsoever as to the spiritual progress of the individual speaking. Mere head knowledge of the esoteric is no guide either, since books are plentiful these days and anyone who wants to can rapidly obtain a "spiritual Ph.D" in esoteric chatter! Sadly, the spiritual arena does attract many psychologically maladjusted individuals, whose greatest pleasure is vaunting themselves up on the good opinions of others. It is important that you are not easily fooled, and especially that you are not depressed and discouraged, by their antics and claims.
However, actions that are sincerely motivated speak clearly of what lies deep within the heart. There is a lot of hypocrisy going on within spiritual groups. You may find one person making all kinds of spiritual pronouncements, and yet this same person will quite thoughtlessly walk past a beggar in the street without even thinking of helping in any way. Here is an actual example of this kind of behavior. A yoga teacher was preparing to send cash donation overseas to a worthwhile charitable course. She mentioned this to her class and asked if anyone else would like to contribute too. The silence was deafening!
As you observe spiritual people in such groups and communities, you will see many such examples. However, the point is not to become judgmental or regard yourself as superior. Rather, you should observe and be aware. Guard against falling into the same trap yourself.
It is also vital to respect your spiritual teacher, and listen sincerely to the teachings, without crossing the line into worshipping your teacher or regarding him/her as having descended from heaven. This can lead to tremendous disappointment, and has done so for many followers in many different places and times. It is always wonderful to find a perfect teacher giving perfect teachings. All too often though, the teacher you end up with is just as human and fallible as the rest of us. Moreover, the greater the degree of advance, the greater the distance there is to fall, should it happen. Spiritual teachers have been known to "come off the rails" and get involved in sexual affairs, or other such behaviors which their disciples would regard as improper. Others engage in ashram/temple politics, apparently for their own self-aggrandizement.
Hence, it is always a good idea to use discernment at all times. If the teachings are valuable and true, then heed them. However, if the teacher should ever bitterly disappoint your expectations one day, beware of throwing out the teachings with the teacher! This is what many disappointed aspirants do. They give up their practice and drift away disillusioned forever.
If you are a teacher in a spiritual community, it is quite common to find people in the group who do not respect you, and who seek to undermine your authority, or belittle you in subtle ways. In such instances, it is wise to remember that in any spiritual group, there will always be sheep, as well as wolves in sheep's clothing. It is not your job to sort them out. Rather than become discouraged, or get into a bickering contest, focus instead on always giving of your very best, regardless of praise or appreciation. Your chief point of comparison should be yourself, and how well you are holding to your own values. Let the world's opinion come and go.
Spiritual groups can truly be a wonderful place to grow, and to meet other people of like mind. If used in this way, they can be a tremendous spur to your inner development. However, it is always wise is to remember that no group is perfect. You are dealing with real and fallible people, no matter how they might like to represent themselves or be thought of. Therefore, rather than focus on the imperfections and get distracted by them, approach the spiritual group or teacher with realistic expectations. Since the whole point of a spiritual community is to aid growth, it should never be a cause of disillusionment and sorrow. By working within a group in this manner, and by never neglecting your own vital individual practice, you set yourself up for success and steady advancement upon the spiritual path.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Kenneth Brown, Minister Church Of Scotland, Master's Graduate in Psychology: Psychological Needs and the Practice of Religion: Analysis of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs from a Psychology of Religion Perspective Google Directory: Science: Social Sciences: Psychology: Psychology and Religion
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