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Spiritually Transmitted Diseases
Sundari: The qualifications for Self-inquiry are non-negotiable if freedom from the limited and suffering egoic “small” self is to obtain. The ego is that part of us that believes it is the doer, that owns objects/people, experiences and action. It believes it is separate from everything and must gain something to complete itself and shore up security in an uncertain world. If we are sufficiently prepared for Self-inquiry, which is very different from spiritual seeking, a critical part of discernment and, more importantly, discrimination required is understanding the pervasive egoic self-deceptions inherent in everyone because ignorance is so tenacious and hardwired. It is easy to fall into a sense of despair and self-diminishment and lose our confidence in Self-inquiry. Therefore, apart from a mind that is purified and prepared, we need a sense of humour, a valid and independent teaching and the support of a qualified teacher to face the obstacles to freedom from limitation.
Here are some of the most common “spiritual diseases” as they relate to Vedanta:
1. Group Mind: Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality, or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress and act. Individuals and groups infected with “group mind” reject individuals, attitudes and circumstances that do not conform to the written or unwritten rules of the group. Genuine Self-inquiry can only be conducted alone, with the help of a qualified teacher. It is not for needy or ambitious people. Vedanta is for mature adults who can stand on their own and think for themselves.
2. The Chosen-People Complex: The chosen-people complex is not limited to Jews or Christians. It is also prevalent in the “alternative” spiritual world, the belief that “our group is more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened and, simply put, better than any other group.” Vedantins are not immune to this, as the ego can co-opt the teachings. There is an important distinction between the recognition that one has found the right “path,” teacher or community for themselves and having found The One. Vedanta is the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge, but it is not a path. It differs from other paths because it is both a means of knowledge – a pathless path – and a path of action, meaning that it provides tools and instructions for how to use them. Assuming qualifications and a qualified teacher, when applied rigorously and with dedication Vedanta will remove ignorance and its effects. It will set you free of the limited person you previously took yourself to be, who depended on objects for happiness. Additionally, because Vedanta is a non-dual teaching which provisionally acknowledges duality in order to negate it, there is nothing special about being the Self, because that is the only option.
3. Faux Self-Inquiry: Faux Self-inquiry is the tendency to talk, dress and act as we imagine a guru/spiritual person would. India is full of this kind of spiritual seeker. It is a kind of imitation Self-inquiry that mimics “Self-realization” in the way that animal-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of an animal. If some qualifications are present, this illusion may dissolve of its own; if not, “Self-inquiry” will remain faux.
4. Fast-Food Self-Inquiry: Mix Self-inquiry with a culture that celebrates speed, multitasking, and instant gratification, and the result is likely to be fast-food Self-inquiry. Fast-food spirituality is a product of the common and pernicious fantasy that relief from suffering can and should be quick and easy. One thing is clear, however: if you genuinely want freedom from limitation, freedom from ignorance is never a quick fix, usually quite the contrary. Self-inquiry requires dedication and commitment to all three stages of Self-inquiry: sravanna (listening/hearing the scriptures, putting your own beliefs on the shelf); manana (contemplation of the teachings); and nididhyasana (Self-actualization, applying the teachings to life). This takes many years for most, which is why Vedanta does not appeal to entrenched or lazy egos.
5. Confused Motivations: Although our desire for freedom from suffering may be genuine and pure, if all the qualifications for Self-inquiry are not well developed, it often gets mixed with lesser motivations. These often include the wish to be loved, the desire to belong, the need to fill internal emptiness, the belief that Self-inquiry is a spiritual path which will fulfil our spiritual ambition and make us “special,” masking the need to be better than, to be “the one,” i.e. spiritual materialism. Or sensitive damaged egos using Self-inquiry as a cover for protecting the jiva identity instead of negating it. Also, getting trapped in the “golden cage” of sattva because you have had some feel-good spiritual experiences, chasing the experience instead of assimilating the knowledge it imparts.
6. I Can Do My Way to Enlightenment: Prevalent in the yoga world is the idea that keeps the doer alive and robust – that there are things it must learn and do, like yoga, meditation, devotional practice, chanting, etc. which will lead to enlightenment. Vedanta is a traditional path known as jnana yoga – or Self-knowledge, but this yoga is knowledge-based, not experience-based. It is the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge and experience. Yoga involves many practices that are meant to put the limited self “in contact,” or union, with the real, or true, Self, i.e. limitless awareness. Vedanta says you are never not “in contact, or in union” with the Self, because you are the Self. You just have an ignorance problem which cannot be removed by doing anything, because no action taken by a limited entity can produce a limitless result. Ignorance can only be removed by Self-knowledge, which requires Self-inquiry. While Self-inquiry is also an action, it can produce a limitless result because its fruit is Self-knowledge. Though yoga can be very useful as a means to prepare the mind for Self-inquiry, it can never take its place. Vedanta is a valid, tried and tested, methodical and progressive means of knowledge for awareness. It is not about experiencing anything but removing the ignorance that stands in the way of you appreciating the fact that you are only ever experiencing the Self. Vedanta is the means (teachings) that deliver that knowledge when wielded by a qualified teacher to a qualified inquirer.
7. Identifying with Spiritual Experiences: In this disease, arrogance infects the ego and it seeks out and identifies with high-voltage spiritual experiences, which it sees as the hallmark of “enlightenment.” It is constantly seeking out more or better highs, which it and takes it as its own. It believes that it embodies the insights that have arisen during such experiences, though sadly, it can never hang on to them, because all experiences begin and end in time. When they inevitably do end, the limited doer is still there, as frustrated as ever, chasing another experience. Experience does contain knowledge, but the knowledge is like a slow-release time capsule. If it is not properly assimilated or understood, it is lost.
8. Mass Production of Spiritual Teachers: In the “spiritual supermarket” there are any number of trendy spiritual traditions sprouting people who believe themselves to be enlightened, or “spiritual masters,” when they are anything but. Because most people in the spiritual world do not know the difference between ignorance and knowledge, anyone who sounds like they know what they are talking about and does so with confidence can quickly gain credibility. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. All you need to do is talk as though you know what you are talking about, put on this glow, wear convincing clothes and – voilà! – you’re enlightened and ready to enlighten others in a similar fashion, further confusing the already confused. How many inquirers have been seduced by what they took to be the genuine enlightenment of a “guru” when it was merely cleverly manipulated and marketed “spiritual” charisma, delivering white-bread, personal teachings dressed up as gourmet? Too many, sadly.
9. Spiritual Pride and the Spiritualized Ego: Spiritual pride arises when the inquirer or “teacher” through years of laboured effort and “study” has actually attained a certain level of Self-knowledge and some mastery of the teachings. But the last stage of Self-inquiry, purifying the last vestiges of the doer and its binding vasanas, is never completed. Self-realization has obtained, but has not matured into Self-actualization. Typically, this type of inquirer consciously or unconsciously believes that freedom is an object to obtain and uses that “attainment” to justify shutting down to further inquiry because it believes the “work” is done.
This is what we call “enlightenment sickness” and it is the worst of all spiritual viruses. It occurs when the ego co-opts the teachings and interprets them according to its own ideas. The deadly enlightenment virus leads to the illusion that “I Have Arrived.” The very structure of the egoic personality becomes deeply embedded with its own spiritual concepts and ideas instead of independent Self-knowledge. The result is an egoic structure that is “bulletproof.” When the ego becomes spiritualized, we are beyond teaching, new input, constructive feedback and, most certainly, to genuine freedom from limitation because we believe we “know it all.” We are bound ever tighter to the small-self egoic identity under the illusion of enlightenment and stunted in our spiritual growth, all in the name of “spirituality.”
Though we may fool the ignorant and ourselves, the belief that “I have arrived” at the “final goal” of the spiritual path is so potent that our spiritual progress ends at the point where this belief becomes crystallized in our psyche. A feeling of “spiritual superiority” is a clear symptom of this spiritually transmitted disease and manifests as a subtle but pervasive feeling and attitude that “I am better, wiser and above others because I am Self-realized,” sattva in the service of ignorance, and it can and has led to much abuse and adharma in the spiritual arena, even among genuine inquirers. Though this kind of hubris is unlikely to take root if we are genuine inquirers, eternal vigilance is always the price of freedom because of the nature of ignorance. True freedom, which is freedom from and for the egoic entity with all its puffed-up ideas about its own importance, cannot obtain if we get stuck in this trap.