Vices in the Shadows of Mystical Paths
There are many different things that move us to take a mystical path. Some of those things are genuine motives and intentions, meaning they really are aimed at the essence of mysticism, which is realizing our oneness with That which we call “God.” Other motives and intentions aren’t so genuine, are more deceptive, and we may see in mysticism opportunities to satisfy them along the way. I’m convinced that sometimes the genuine and the deceptive work together in ways that are truly beneficial in the long run. But, it also seems to me that at times one must yield to the other. If for no other reason than simplicity, we may refer to it as an instance of virtue when the deceptive yields to the genuine, and thus the opposite is an instance of vice. Here are some of the vices that have seemed especially tempting to people I’ve known on mystical paths, certainly including me.
Hypocrisy: choosing to appear more virtuous, principled, or adherent to some belief or value than one actually is; more of an intentional deception or pretense than an unconscious dynamic.
Spiritual Pride: attitudes of arrogance, conceit, self-righteousness, or vanity based on the conviction that one’s spiritual beliefs or practices make one superior to others in one or more ways.
False Humility: denying one’s own value, strengths, or accomplishments or otherwise assuming an inauthentic appearance of being meek, lowly, or servile; a pretense often motivated by the fear of seeming prideful.
Spiritual Materialism: collecting things as evidence to oneself and others of being spiritually or philosophically sophisticated, advanced, or praiseworthy; such “things” may include artworks, books, concepts, historical knowledge, jargon, degrees, titles, honors, positions, vows, practices, spiritual experiences, students, disciples, etc.
False Asceticism: adopting forms of austerity, abstinence, and fasting, or appearing to do so, for the purposes of seeming more holy, enlightened, or pious to oneself or others; a somewhat ironic blend of hypocrisy and spiritual materialism.
Acedia: a state of apathy, ennui, boredom or laziness connected with a devaluation of the ordinary activities of life; often involves a conceptual opposition of the spiritual and the physical aspects of existence.
Romantic Despair: similar to acedia, but a more extreme attitude of hopelessness, pointlessness, pessimism, and defeatism, involving dissatisfaction with life for failing to be congruent with one’s ideas about the way it should or could be.
Romantic Rage: an extreme attitude of loathing, hatred, and ill will toward various aspects of life for failing to be congruent with one’s ideas about the way they should or could be.
Debauchery: an extreme indulgence in one or more forms of sensual pleasure; on the one hand this can be connected with concepts about communing with the immanence of the divine in materiality, while on the other it can be related to notions of the material being entirely disconnected from the divine.
This is not a complete list, by any means, but perhaps it is a good starting place for anyone interested in the topic. As you no doubt see, these vices can intersect in countless ways with each other. For example, the alcoholic person whose drinking is a debauchery combined with romantic despair and/or romantic rage. (I’ve met many people in recovery that I knew or suspected were frustrated mystics.) It is probably also obvious that all vices can involve greater or lesser degrees of both conscious and unconscious factors. As I leave these things for our further consideration, I note that all of it involves the illusion of separateness and the ensuing spiral of illusions needed to defend and reinforce it. And my closing questions are these: How might reflection on these vices be useful to someone who desires to realize a greater union with God? How might it assist us in serving the Great Commandments to love?
What comes to mind right away for me is the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15, in which the opportunity to return to the son’s father was always clearly available, but because of the situations and shame the son kept focusing upon his own sins/vices which clouded his mind. As such, the true source of resolution was elusive.
Once the son “came to himself” and realized he could and would make the effort to return to his father’s household even to be received as “he thought” possibly as a servant then his life would be better.
On the other side of the fence, his older brother felt he was wronged because of the return of the younger brother who had gone out into the world and sinned; and then, having returned was well received. Still the father made it known to him – all that he had was available to him and more importantly, his father was always with him.
To answer your questions: “How might reflection on these vices be useful to someone who desires to realize a greater union with God? How might it assist us in serving the Great Commandments to love?”
In the case of the prodigal son, we find ourselves struggling with vices. In the case of the older brother we find ourselves at home and still struggling with vices. Despite all of that, the Father still loves both sons and discards the vices. The Father never mentions any of the vices only the promise of blessing that has always and is always available as well as His presence.
We have vices but we also are vice free. We see the vices, but God sees us. We focus upon the vices, but God brings us to an awareness to focus beyond them and seek Him. If He didn’t then we would not be having this conversation, ha, lol.
In a sense the vices are like blindfolds upon our spiritual lives. We grope around in the darkness trying to see the light only to be baffled. How can we, as mere humans, remove such blindfolds? The love is constant, we know that, and it would seem we might have to take account of our own thoughts and struggles to take captive of them and renounce them as God has guided us to do in order for us to come to ourselves and realize the Father’s love is still available and the Father is constantly available to see us through.
In every sense of the word – guidance – God has never given up on us. Even blindfolded in our vices, God is still constant and the source of ultimate love and acceptance. From His enrichment into our lives the power of change is magnified and seeps out through us into the lives of others. The vices/blindfolds are lifted and light penetrates our souls, we recognize the vices having been there but the desire to be drawn back to the Father is much more consuming and the desire to once again be embraced by God is the ultimate desire of our hearts. In like manner, we share that love because it cannot be contained.
Thanks for such a nice response. 🙂 I like the suggestion that we can come to see through our vices, not be blinded by them, and know the love that is always available to us, even if the vices remain. Without directly saying so, you have nonetheless alluded to the possibility that obsession with our vices is itself a vice that can blind us to God’s presence.
My personal opinion (mere opinion mind you), is that all of the vices you mentioned and many more are fatal errors. Fortunately we don’t all suffer from all of them!
I understand them as states of mind, which if left intact will lead to unhealthy, non-virtuous actions. While I have sampled most if not all of the vices on your list, I am intimately familiar with debauchery and, honestly, that is the most fun of all the vices. I really get where the Prodigal Son was coming from!
What I have noticed most about this particular vice is how few people actually eliminate it from their lives. Most people take this to their grave; if not the actions, at least the mental state. And, I’m fairly certain that this is probably true of most vices. So, it seems to me that the vast majority of people will never eliminate their vices.
There is a belief that some of us will have all of these vices, or stains, washed away in the blood of Christ (or it has already been accomplished), and that these people will be “saved”. That’s a view that I respect, but one I do not hold. I don’t think anyone is saved, and certainly not free, until the mental states themselves are eliminated. And, this is the work of the spiritual life. We can only accomplish so much, and what we cannot or will not eliminate will stay with us.
Again, just my opinion.
I always appreciate your insight and appreciation for both the simplicity and the complexity of things. 🙂 I definitely agree that most, if not all, of us continue to have vices in our being.
It occurs to me that your definition of salvation may be significantly different from many people, at least in Christianity. Would you be willing to say more about what this word means to you?
I have a vice and like a vice I am in its grip. I don’t even know what it is called or whether I want to relinquish it. I ponder and to some extent pray (I say that because I pray in my own way).
I came into this world full of anger – what is it they say about the sins of the father – and from our English Bard, ‘the Child is Father of the Man’. The world I was born into fully reflected my feelings and desperation. Though years of searching and practices I found Divine Love and that Love remains with me at all times.
The vice is now that I have grown to love the world that I am in, even the unpleasant bits; ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. This growing to love this world and enjoying Creation is very, very recent. Despite the problems around me in my life and in the lives of others around me, I have found a new happiness. It is all consuming; I enjoy everything I think and do. For so long I have wanted nothing more to escape this world and be at One with God. In a way I always feel at One with God, how could it be anything any other? Yet the yearning has gone and has been replaced with a joy in Creation including my own. I am reminded of Vivian Greene’s quote, ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain’.
I feel that I should be doing something more positive. I should be meditating. I should be living as a contemplative. I should devote time during the day to practice what I have learnt, but I can’t motivate myself to do that.
Maybe it is debauchery in another guise. If this happiness is a conditioned state of mind, then in Buddhist teachings it will pass… Or will it? What harm might I be doing to my spiritual state?
Had you not spoken of your state of loving the world, even the unpleasant bits, as a vice, I don’t imagine I would have personally seen it as such. The fact that you feel you should be doing things differently is significant, but I seriously doubt that it is only a sign of spiritual sloth. In response to your closing question, we might be able to generate some possibilities, and many will be heavily shaped by one’s ideas about meaning or purpose for our lives. So, perhaps asking oneself the question about meaning or purpose might come first? Also this, “What do I, deep, deep down, beyond all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ of any teaching or tradition, most desire to experience and express?”
Thank you, Chuck, for your much appreciated response.
When I read your articles on vices, the thought that arose was that I should be doing more spiritual work and not get stuck on ‘happiness’. I later thought that maybe I was being melodramatic and smiled to myself.
As you know (I think) I am a mod. in another forum and as I responded to somebody’s post I realised that although the circumstance was different the root cause in both cases was the same. It is to do with meeting our own expectations and those expected of us by others. This thought, this mental construct, was like a cloud covering the sun. The sun remains there but our perception has changed. We do still know the sun is there shining. So my happiness returned. However, the tears streamed because this revelation meant such a lot to me. I was not being melodramatic; it was a real issue.
These expectations of what others may think of us, and what we think of ourselves with the ‘musts’, ‘shoulds’, and ‘have tos’. are false. These falsities have been programmed into us by our cultures and beliefs. They are in the realm of ego and not in the spiritual heart.
Gentle happiness – being happy for no reason – is our natural spiritual state. We don’t have to worry about expectations, in fact we don’t have to concern ourselves with anything. We recognise that Diving Love ( please substitute whatever word you would use) is the source of all Being, of all Creation and Creation is beautiful.
I was thinking falsely that I was doing nothing but being happy and that it not at all true. I still continue to work on the ego level especially watching what I am about to say to people. I no longer feel the ‘need’ to be right. I no longer feel the ‘need’ to impose my opinions on others. When there is a genuine need then there is a response from the heart not from ego. I watch for the little things that cause me to ‘prickle’. What expectation am I holding there and having seen that I release it.
You asked , Chuck, for me to consider what I really want in the depths of my heart. I have thought and thought and sat to allow things to arise. The answer is absolutely nothing. I have no yearning for anything. All I need comes to me. I respond to needs of those around me and situations as I am guided.
I said I now loved the world , even the bad bits. What is ‘bad’ when we don’t know the full picture? When something saddens me then compassion arises and I try to send warmth, love and healing to those involved. Then the compassion dissolves into the quiet, still happiness again.
What I want to say now, Chuck, is that without your article I would have been unable to see that piece of baggage called ‘expectations’ that I was carrying around with me. It is a huge move on the Way of the Heart and it is possible that I also would not have been able to help the person on the forum.
Namaste dear Brother.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful account. I’m happy for you! 🙂
I think you’re going to find a lot in tomorrow’s blog post that resonates with what you’ve just said.
Thank you, dear Chuck. I so look forward to your blogs as there is always much that resonates with me. I am delighted and thankful that I was guided to this site when I most needed it.
I think this is beautiful and interesting: ” … I found Divine Love and that Love remains with me at all times.” I particularly like it because personally I have never experienced what people call Divine Love. Compassion, yes, that was one of the driving forces behind my interest in the transcendant. But I think people who speak of Divine Love are having a type of experience and/or vision that I haven’t experienced.
Happy? wow, enjoy – if it’s not permanent rejoice for the moment you’ve been given.
My path was quiet different. I saw that this world was created by God and I learned that I could see/find God through it.
There are times when you are not supposed to be meditating. But I have found this difficult to discern in myself.
Anyhow, I enjoyed and found interesting what you have said.
Thank you so much for your comments, I really appreciated them. We all see our ways as different although at the core they are the same. It is this diversity and choice that give variety and beauty to Creation.
LOL I can’t help but see the list of vices as a flight of stairs that I am perpetually falling down, bouncing my head off of each one…
I have recently had to face the reality that though I may experience amazingly beautiful ecstasies, it doesn’t miraculously change me into a more virtuous man. My wife and I were talking recently and she said that even though I may be having these experiences and fallen in love with God, I don’t seem any happier.
It may be the case that these experiences have inspired my vices to work harder to avoid seeing things as they really are (because then I might have to change) I am trying to keep my eyes open as these vices (and perhaps more importantly the reasons I choose/have them) are dragged kicking and screaming into my vision. I think the stress of my life as a father, husband, employee and provider often shakes the can of my soul making the bubbles of vice and/or brokenness to come roaring up into an undeniable froth that spills all over the place, inspiring the prayerful response, “Oh shit… I’ve got a long way to go.” But I am often consoled with a gentle warmth urging me to be patient for I am ever moving towards replacing more and more of the burnt out sinner with the joyfully abundant spiritual… sinner. 😉
Thanks for commenting with such authenticity and genuineness! Yes, I definitely agree that spiritual experiences rarely have transformative effects on our basic characters that are both immediate and deep. It’s not that sudden and dramatic shifts in personality don’t sometimes happen, but that, in my experience at least, what appear to be big changes are often only temporary roles we impose upon ourselves to try to seem more like what we think we’re supposed to be. The fact that you are aware and accepting of your own resistance to change suggests to me that you’ve made it past one of the biggest hurdles in spirituality of any sort, and perhaps especially in mysticism. In your testimony, I see an awareness that deep change is typically a slow evolution, and that, contrary to what you might have once expected, most spiritual experiences work their magic on us more through the butterfly effect than otherwise. In your last sentence, you clearly speak of a less judgmental and more nurturing kind of love for yourself, yet one that nonetheless remains attracted to the possibilities of transformation that love promises. My experience has been that the more we can love ourselves this way, the more we can love life this way. It’s an irony that is both funny and sad that punishing ourselves for missing the mark is itself a missing of the mark set by love. 😛
You are right when you say mine is not the traditional Christian view of salvation. Actually, it may not be Christian at all.
In one of the “lower” branches of Buddhism, there is a doctrine of the “stream enterer”, which was taught by the Buddha. A stream enterer is a person who has eliminated certain “fetters” and “mental afflictions”, which is indicative of the first stage in the path to enlightenment. Christians would probably call these fetters and afflictions “sin”, or perhaps states of mind that give rise to sin. I find similarity here with the Purgative Stage described by St. John of the Cross, except that his stages are confined to our current existential experience.
What remain for the stream enterers are no more than seven rebirths in fortunate realms of existence prior to full enlightenment. This is certainly not the Christian sense of “salvation”, because if we are saved, it will follow immediately after this particular realm of existence. Except for the doctrine of Purgatory, a very intriguing intermediate state, Christianity does not account for the fetters, afflictions, or sinful mental states of the person which remain with them at the completion of this life. In a very real sense, we are cheated in fulfilling our full potential, a potential that is rarely realized by the vast majority of persons. Most of us are left imperfect within an imperfect world.
When I observe persons in the world, it is quite clear to me that they are all at various stages of spiritual development. Some even appear to be highly “realized” beings. The Buddha said that we are all like lotuses. Some live on the surface of the pond where we thrive and bloom beautifully. Others live at various levels below the surface where we are able to take advantage of the sunlight from above, but still have far to go to reach the surface.
So, when I think of “salvation”, it is not in the Christian sense, because that doesn’t seem to me to be salvation at all. It may merely be a noticeable improvement in our spiritual development. Some of us can speak of “entering the stream”, but few of us can honestly say that we have arrived at the other shore.
Thanks, Steve. Interestingly, your definition of salvation is not far off from what some Jewish sects teach about purification of the soul, as in Chabad.
Really the snake is always attentive to our heel. Taking advantage of any weakness in our spiritual imagination, to inoculate the appropriate poison to us into the most appropriate deviation of the moment. Sometimes, attacked from childhood through the magnetization of the personality of our parents. Acquiring so, negative unconscious behaviors, which undoubtedly further affect our direction. Only constancy in the pursuit of perfection, by looking out to the Holy Spirit, is how we go filing those edges so sharp and hurtful, with which we think that we stand before the world. When in spiritual reality, are other weapons with which we must defend against the offensive of the snake that is always attentive to the weaknesses of our heel.