Across all religious traditions, there are warnings about risks in spiritual practice, and especially practices of the mystical variety. This post is about exploring some of those risks, all of which I have experienced the hard way.
I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on spiritual practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences. However, because no practice has a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost. In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.
From this point, let’s consider some different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are welcome to add some ideas of your own. It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like-dislike scale.
- Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight. Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.
- Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support. roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.
- Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation. Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.
- Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.
It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discreet from each other; they are interconnected. In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how much the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices. We can come up with lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction. Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.
It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves. I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion. These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony and fragmentation in our souls. Likewise, they suggest that our choices about spiritual practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to well being, even when they really feel good.
There are many different directions we could go from here, and I encourage you to explore whatever seems to lead you into a place of deeper self-awareness, honesty and wholeness. In the next post I will offer a few further considerations.