My partner came home from his weekly yoga group very upset. It seems that on that night the class got into a discussion, prompted by the teacher, on the subject of enemies. Turns out, quite a lot of the people in the class felt that they had enemies. And to the bewilderment of my partner, they shared a common enemy – the rich. Here were these “spiritual people” saying things like whenever they see the house of a wealthy person they want to go up to the front door and slug the person living there.
How is that spiritual?
His experience got me to thinking of the things I’ve seen, experienced, or thought myself as a once self-identified “spiritual seeker” and the ways in which spirituality can be used as a cover for a whole host of unseemly behaviors.
We all come to spirituality with different needs but I think the one thing that a spiritual life is meant to deliver is a state of “Wholeness”. To be a truly spiritual person is to live a life of spiritual integrity, one that reflects this idea of wholeness.
Unfortunately, too often spirituality has been corrupted by being used for selfish purposes or to permit a prolonged adolescence in which one eschews the responsibilities of a healthy adult life.
People are hiding behind the curtain of a spiritual life in avoidance of taking on the responsibilities of this world. Because, look, wouldn’t figuring out how to astral travel be more fun than figuring out a 401k?
I get it.
This is why spirituality can be problematic – because if you are not conscientious in your pursuits, it is far too easy to be seduced by the realm of spirit and lose your grip on all things practical and mundane.
What Spirituality Is and What It Isn’t
Spirituality offers lessons for being a good person, exhibiting traits such as compassion, tranquility, and love for all beings. Each spiritual path teaches in a slightly different way but there is more overlap than there is divergence and the main tenet within the major spiritual teachings and wisdom traditions is that of Peace. Another is selflessness and abandoning the ego for the benefit of all humankind.
One could argue that spirituality doesn’t teach you practical life skills like how to interview for a job or how to balance a checkbook. Yet what spirituality does teach are ways of being and ways of living day-to-day. It teaches discipline, for example, and the importance of self-mastery – controlling your mind and the impulses of the body.
But there are a number of areas in which “spiritual” people have been witnessed not using these teachings or adhering to the very doctrines they say they live by.
If we take a look at what was happening that night in my partner’s yoga class, for example, you see a yoga teacher prompting a conversation on enemies by first confessing his own problems with people with money. This started a popcorn effect of “Yeah! Me too! I hate those people!” And as it went on anger, hostility, and resentment grew.
One of the foundational books in yoga is the Upanishads. Within it, on the first page in fact, is the Peace Chant, “Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!” One of the most revered prayers in yoga calls for peace to all beings and the universe.
How strange and disturbing then to find a yoga teacher speaking hate into the world and fostering that within his class.
This kind of thing (hating people with more than you) isn’t new and within this context may stem from the misguided application of what has long been revered as a virtue: poverty. Many who devote themselves to a life of asceticism, eschewing worldly comforts, take a vow of poverty.
Depending on the lineage, people may do it be more “Christ-like” or they may do it to turn away from the materialism of this world like the revered guru Ramakrishna who vowed never to touch money in all his life.
With scriptures such as it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven, it’s easy to understand why people have come up with the idea that money is bad and rich people are evil.
However, that is just flat-out wrong thinking. Money is a means to an end. It is an exchange of one thing for another. And it’s necessary to live a life of security of dignity. Granted, there are some unscrupulous people making money in dishonest ways but they are not the norm.
What many people with money find out is that once they have discretionary income it is so much easier to help other people. That is what many of them choose to do. And this kind of charity isn’t limited to the wealthy. A regular person who once knew what it was to be broke and has found their way out of that is often eager to extend a helping hand and assist others in doing better themselves.
Charity and generosity are spiritual virtues – virtues that are applied every day by regular people not claiming to be spiritual.
This misguided valorizing of poverty and the vilifying of riches may explain why so many “spiritual” people are habitually broke and struggling to make ends meet. Living out of your car because you’d rather be destitute than take part in a system that only makes rich people richer isn’t virtuous. It’s dumb. Having to “bum” money or bum rides off your friends and family may lend your life a sheen of just the right amount of melodrama but becoming indebted to those closest to you can build resentment over time and alienate you from those you love.
Yogi Bhajan, the man responsible for bringing Kundalini Yoga to the west taught that Kundalini Yoga was intended for the “householder” – the people who go out and make a living every day. It wasn’t for the ascetics who vowed to be penniless and live their lives meditating in caves.
This yoga was created with the understanding that there is a world outside your door that you must be prepared to interact with. Yogi Bhajan, through his teachings and example (he was a successful businessman) taught that money isn’t evil, that hard work is a virtue, and that creating a cozy home for you and your family is a worthy pursuit.
Ways People Use Spirituality to Avoid Life
One of the great books in the yoga tradition is the Bhagavad Gita. It serves as a timeless metaphor for real-life challenges. In the Gita, we have our hero, Arjuna, who has a moment of crisis upon the battlefield in which he sees his brethren on both sides about to engage in bloody warfare.
He is aided in his time of need by the god Krishna, Lord of Love. The moral of Krishna’s teachings are this – You must live, Arjuna. You cannot remain here paralyzed in fear. Your actions will have consequences. You cannot avoid that but you can choose and make of those consequences either beneficial or detrimental.
Oftentimes you will find people who profess to be spiritual not living by this principle and trying to avoid life. They do this in any number of ways, one of which is “spiritual bypass”. In spiritual bypass, a person avoids dealing with the tougher realities of life by hiding behind their spirituality.
Adyashanti, Buddhist teacher and author of the book The End of Your World shared the story of a man who was doing very well in his spiritual pursuits, taking on greater responsibility and rising higher in his spiritual community all the while allowing his marriage and home life to suffer.
Yet, I have also been guilty of this. Years ago, someone I knew did something that hurt me deeply and I spoke with my spiritual teacher about the incident. Yet when I did, I spoke quickly and rushed to words of forgiveness and understanding. But my teacher told me, “No. Don’t do that. Don’t jump to forgiveness when you haven’t even given yourself time to feel. What she did hurt you didn’t it? Then feel that. You have to let yourself feel pissed off and hurt before you get to forgiveness.”
Had she not said that I surely would have bypassed my more difficult emotions that made me uncomfortable for the transcendent spiritual high ground.
And what of the man whose marriage was in trouble? He was ordered by his guru to stay in his room with his wife during a retreat in which he had intended to work. But his teacher saw what he was doing and made it so that he could not run from his wife but was forced to stay in a room with her and work on their problems.
Nothing comes from running away from your problems but more problems.
Granted life is hard sometimes with feelings and situations that we would sooner not deal with. But spiritual teachings are meant to help us face life with courage not run from our feelings or our responsibilities.
The Trouble with Ego
One of the more ironic guises of spirituality is “spiritual-ego” – ironic since the whole thing is supposed to be about transcending the ego. Listen to the popular spiritual teachers of today – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti – and they will all talk about getting beyond the ego, the self-limiting, self-centered ego.
Spiritual ego is witnessed when someone becomes so puffed up on themselves because they think that being spiritual makes them special. You see this in yoga classes where people are bending themselves this way and that, not as a true practitioner of an ancient tradition but just to show off.
Or you hear it when someone starts speaking and you can hear within their voice this very big “I” as in “I’ve done this cleanse or I’ve done that retreat or I’ve been to that studio and I know that teacher”.
It’s one of the uglier sides of “being spiritual”. Beware the wearer of prayer beads as a bracelet who sips kombucha and dispenses arm-chair spirituality while they show you how popular their yoga pics are on Instagram.
Oh, it’s real.
A person who has advanced in a legitimate spiritual practice is humble. They use the word “we” before “I” and they tend to shy away from the limelight. Such humility comes from the understanding that we all come from one source and this source connects us all.
No person is any better or worse than any other person.
Because we are all one.
The great, most enduring wisdom traditions in the world agree that we emerged from one thing and we will return to this one thing.
To sow discord, to hide from the challenges of life, or to live only for oneself – these are not the ways of spiritual life. And anyone who does these things and calls themselves spiritual needs to take a closer look at themselves and where they are not living in integrity.
Living the life of a truly spiritual person means applying the teachings so that you live your life not with hate but love, not in chaos but harmony, and not with aggression but peace.
Tamara Jefferies is a holistic life coach and wellness writer based in Long Beach, California. Through her coaching, she guides women at major life crossroads to discover their worth and their way.