10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality…

Via Julian Walker
on Jun 6, 2011
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…or 10 Portals Beyond New Age Delusion.

Pt. 1: The Dance of Psyche

I am passionate about the relationships between three things:

> inquiry-based practices (yoga, meditation, bodywork and ecstatic dance happen to be my favorites)

> critical thinking (also called “viveka” in yogic parlance, or discriminating wisdom)

> and shadow work (after Jung – the psychological idea that we have a “shadow” that is where we hide the emotions, experiences, thoughts and aspects of self that we would rather not face. Shadow work then is the process of courageously turning inward to bring honest awareness and compassionate attention to this place.)

Having been a yoga teacher for the last 18 years, and having spent my adult life swimming in the waters of popular spirituality, my sense is that more often than not these three elements are missing both in theory and practice. My sense is that this comes down to one revelatory observation. You may find it offensive, you may think it is untrue, or too general. My hope is that by the end of this article, perhaps you will agree that not only are these 10 obstacles quite problematic, but that they can also serve as 10 doorways or portals that lead to a more sane, integrated next stage of spiritual growth. This requires curiosity about what lies obscured from view underneath or behind each obstacle.

What is this one incendiary insight? Simply this: the basic tenets of the New Age belief system can be understood as an elaborate psychological defense system that is actually in the way of the work with which a transformative, healing and sane spirituality is concerned.

The laying out of these 10 obstacles is intended to be both humorous and instructive, and with each obstacle I will provide one general suggestion and one suggestion for teachers and healers on how to use it as a portal towards integration and sanity.

This article is broken up into two parts for ease of reading and also because obstacles 1 through 6 are more psychological in nature and 7 through 10 will be more philosophical in nature.

So here goes, Obstacles 1 through 6:

The Dance of Psyche.

1) Dissociation – I am in touch with some other reality that you all don’t see and it is more “real” than this world. I use my yoga and meditation as a way of leaving my body and traveling to other dimensions. Its hard because I am very sensitive to this world, I am not really “from here.”

General Suggestion: If this sounds familiar, practice gradually sensing every area of your body  both in savasana and in meditation, as you feel your breath moving in and out. Remind yourself that you are safe. During your asana practice focus on noticing what is grounding, calming or pleasant in each pose. Take it in.

Teachers/Healers – be aware: Dissociation is almost always a sign of unresolved trauma. This person does not need to be encouraged to be even more “out of body” – they are in need of deep healing and integration in order to really be here and live their lives. This is a common way that spirituality can perpetuate a coping mechanism that was used before the person had access to good tools and support. Knowing it for what it is can help us be effective guides toward healing, grounding and accessing real resources.

More here.

2) Denial – now that I believe this new idea I can see how there is nothing bad ever, anywhere, and everything in my life has always been perfect.

This one is also usually a way of pushing out of awareness anything that is painful or evokes fear, shame, helplessness. Once we have done the awareness and healing work we can have a more grounded and less one sided perspective on reality and our lives.

There is literally a split here that has to make “everything” ok/good by denying that “anything” could be otherwise…

General Suggestion: In your practices, allow space for experiencing whichever sensations or emotions may be present for you – without the overlay of any agenda, belief or spiritual identification of how you are “supposed to feel.” Trust the powerful medicine of open, receptive awareness to your own authentic experience.

Teachers/Healers – be aware: This person needs resources to be able to face and work through all that has been left out/denied here. The greater the denial, the greater the pain being obscured by it! Support them in using their practice and community to cultivate the compassion and courage necessary to face their shadow.

More here.

3) Rationalization – karma explains why poor people suffer and how there really are no victims, my last relationship didn’t work out because my partner was a Pisces with a Leo moon and I think she may have been my jailer in a past life, I lost my job because spirit has other plans for me – I just don’t know what they are yet, but I am trusting that the universe has a perfect plan and  is always taking care of me….

Think about how often we hear such BIG statements about everything and always and never and the whole universe etc – think about the sheer size of what is being asserted – how big therefore must the unconscious perception of the pain/fear be that there is this much overcompensation?

General Suggestion: In your practices, stay present with the specific details of your own life, while recognizing that everyone experiences loss, disappointment, and uncertainty. Cultivate a compassionate, accepting attitude that can be present with this reality without having to tell yourself a metaphysical story about it.

Teachers/Healers – be aware: A lot of rationalizing explanations for why things happen and how absolutely everything is part of a big metaphysical plan is usually covering over a sense of helplessness or panic – an inability to tolerate uncertainty or guilt/shame about mistakes and failures.

All of us can learn to courageously tolerate the unpredictable nature of life and the risks we  take again and again when putting ourselves out there. In the words of contemporary poet David Whyte, “Human life is so magnificent precisely because you can fail at it…”

Being supported in owning how we really feel and seeing events without a rationalizing overlay actually helps us be more effective in relating our inner and outer worlds and taking the necessary risks in life while accepting that things may not always turn out as we’d hoped, and exploring what that does and does not mean from a grounded place. It also allows us to access a deeper sense of compassion for the reality of suffering, victimization, unfairness and injustice that is part of the world we live in and of the lives of so many people.

More here.

4) Grandiose Inflation – Because I am such a powerful manifestor I can have anything I want simply by focusing my mind. We are all kings and queens and our power will magnify as we approach 2012. Doing more yoga puts me more in the flow of what the universe is asking me to channel for the benefit of all humanity. On my vision board, I have a photoshopped picture of me with barack obama in a helicopter with big smiles on our faces and money spilling out of our pockets.

General Suggestion: In your practices invite a sense of genuine humility and calm. Be where you are. When setting goals, ask yourself what steps you can take today that will build toward making your life more enjoyable, rewarding and satisfying. Practice lovingkindness meditation for the part of you that might feel uncertain and afraid of failure.

Teachers/Healers – be aware: What is there to be said? Grounding, grounding, grounding – encourage  goal setting and a positive attitude without becoming completely caught up in an almost manic and fantastical grandiose inflation that overlooks vulnerability and a little thing called “reality” itself.. When positivity becomes grandiose magical thinking, there’s a problem. Ever hear of the tragic case of teacher from “The Secret” James Arthur Ray? Also: the bigger the inflation, the deeper the insecurity and unworthiness. Hold a compassionate space for the vulnerability that is underneath the grandiose posturing.

‎5) OCD – I pay close attention to the signs from the universe. All my apartments have had the number 7 in the address and amazing synchronicities happen every day – like when the song we are champions came on as I was driving to my job interview and i didn’t make it to the job because I had this car “accident” – but get this, the woman was driving a Mercury, and queen’s lead singer is Freddy Mercury and when I checked my astrology it turned out Mercury is retrograde for another 3 days! So the car crash was really a way to avoid starting a job during that inauspicious phase. I muscle tested myself to see whether I should even tell you that and it turned out on the 7th test i got three yes-es in a row, so here we are!

My sense is that a fair number of people drawn to New Age ideas have mild tendencies toward conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is then amplified by these kinds of swirling, free-associative beliefs that rabidly assign symbolic meaning and detect synchronistic signs of the pattern that connects all things in every event and detail of our daily lives. This becomes a big obstacle to genuine spiritual depth and maintains a kind of manic wheel-spinning on the surface of life, often driven by whatever we are afraid we might have to feel if we just park the car for a minute. When we do not make distinctions between what is random and what is meaningful, life becomes a flatland of tangential, speculative attempts to squeeze self-affirming significance out of nonsense. The BIG shadow side of this is also a kind of superstitious prison in which the negative/paranoid metaphysical interpretation of events can dominate.

General Suggestion: Slow down your mind. Meditate on the movement of your breath. Don’t count breaths, the numbers don’t “mean” anything – just feel the breath rising and falling as it is. Practice accepting change, uncertainty and randomness – ask yourself if there might be meaning in life that has more to do with love, work and creativity, without the hyperactive attempt to make it fit some mental pattern of numbers, signs and symbols.

Teachers/Healers – be aware: if you observe this going into hyper drive you could be dealing with a real psychiatric disorder, be it true OCD or perhaps bipolar mania. Pay attention, this person may need you to intervene and suggest they get real help. For most of us though, this kind of thinking is more of an expression of a general anxiety about what is beyond our control. Encourage acceptance. The serenity prayer is a good meditation aid.

More here and here.

6) Delusions – me and my friends are channelling a group of spirit beings from beyond the Pleidies and they have so much deep wisdom and information they are imparting. I can feel them all around me during the day, guiding me in what to do next. Sometimes I will be about to make a decision and then I feel them and one of their little alien voices says ” dont do it!” it’s amazing!

The pervasive absence of critical thinking and healthy distinctions between metaphorical or archetypal inner experience on the one hand, and literal belief in other worlds and disembodied beings on the other, makes many a newbie spiritual seeker vulnerable to some wildly delusional beliefs.

General Suggestion: During your practices ask yourself what your own inner wisdom has to say. You have emotional, embodied and intuitive wisdom that is all your own and based in your real life – all of us can train ourselves to be more in touch with these beautiful resources, in fact that is the purpose of spiritual practice. It is also important to use our mental intelligence to cultivate discrimination and critical thinking, so as to stay grounded on the path and stay balanced between our perceptions and what is objectively, demonstrably  true.

Teachers/Healers: Encourage critical thinking. Do this with humor and warmth, but model clarity and frankness at the same time. Encourage an owning of the capacity for wisdom that need not come from some far away and fantastical supernatural place. Keep supporting the gradual fluency in embodied open-hearted awareness that is not at odds with reason. Also be aware that in a small percentage of people this kind of language may indicate some kind of psychotic tendencies – very few people literally hear disembodied voices, and most of those that do  have some kind of mental illness. This person may need your help in steering them toward psychiatric support. More here.

That does it for the psychologically-based obstacles.

Part Two: What is Truth – Obstacles 7 – 10, is up now!


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com


69 Responses to “10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality…”

  1. […] deeply involved in insular communities full of lies and manipulation, and clinging desperately to crazy beliefs that reinforce pathological psychological patterns. It’s all pretty disturbing, really, and nothing to take lightly. The Serpent & the Tree […]

  2. […] 10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality… […]

  3. […] a recent pair of articles, 10 Obstacles to Sane Spirituality Part One: The Dance of the Psyche and Part Two: What is Truth? I discuss a path out of the delusional, denial-based extreme […]

  4. SueBee says:

    New Age seekers tend to be troubled to begin with and vulnerable to delusional and, too often, unethical teachers. So, thank you for including the suggestions for those at the front of the room. Brilliant!

  5. […] Attempting to be a good yogi, I didn’t react in the moment. Instead I did my best to give my feelings internal space and to let them play out inside myself. I tried not to magnify or attach to the physical sensations or to the thought patterns the pain evoked. I spent most of the night alone, watching it live inside me and waiting for it to go away. Photo: Lisa Yarost […]

  6. downdogandcats says:

    I wonder how many people out there like myself, pragmatics to the core, suffer needlessly because they see the muck and the yuck and refuse " to go to the happy place" because they understand denial is not healthy. They aren't Debbie Downers but aren't Rose Colored Glasses either. Why is this one place where gray area is not considered helpful or healthy?

  7. Yogini5 says:

    I think the ability to see shades of gray correlates to the ability to understand existential irony.

  8. lotus 62 says:

    brilliant love this grounded no bullshit perspective , just watch UG.Krishnamurti he says much the same thing but with his all bullshit approach, feeling his words shook me into my body and reality

  9. […] within the religious hierarchy. What to speak of how debilitating such memes are on a personal, spiritual, and psychological level. For some reason, anytime you get a bunch of monks held together by an intense body-negative […]

  10. Hey There. I discovered your weblog the usage of msn. That is a very neatly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your helpful information. Thank you for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  11. […] door een artikel van Julian Walker in The Elephant Journal van 6 juni 2011, 10 Obstacles to sane Spirituality , wil ik proberen geheel vanuit mijn eigen perspectief een aantal voorbeelden te geven van wat Ken […]

  12. elenistoryteller says:

    What a great post. I share a similar passion as you mentioned in your opening. And it parallels a series I started on spiritual objectivism.

  13. I disagree with Julian's disdain for new age methods. Some of them do work, and some of them do really help people. Personally, it's my opinion that every tool can be helpful if you know how and when and for how long to use it. I started meditation and Western Zen 28 years ago.

  14. elithia says:

    so much truth here, and yet … still, there is much more in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy. While we need to beware the extremes of New Age thinking, we also need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Miracles abound. However, reality is a trickster. The veil between insanity and reality is thin.

  15. Kimberley McGill says:

    "letting this and all other magical, mythic, otherworldly, metaphysical fantasies go has turned out to be the doorway into another stage of spirituality that locates the sacred in our human experience and embraces the limitations, struggles and realities of being human as the only journey we have."

    Thank you for this article and for this clear response to a sincere inquiry. It speaks to all the things I've found troubling along my own "spiritual" unfolding. I've come to this same conclusion. Thank you again, it's good to hear the voice of spiritual sanity!

  16. Amy says:

    Absolutely brilliant! I just got out of a relationship with a Pagan. I was brought to them because they asked the universe for me, but now the universe has a different plan, and it just wasn’t meant to be. Well there goes all sense of personal responsibility.

    The OCD was spot on! The clock was especially meaningful, and seeing the clock at 11:11 meant that they were instruments in a spiritual awakening. I tried to explain that it’s just a psychological phenomenon in which you look for evidence that confirms your beliefs and discount everything else. Even I now notice when it’s 11:11! But try to explain this actual phenomena based in evidence to someone who is a “believer” is too challenge their core beliefs, and then you get cognitive dissonance. All I can say is I’m glad to be amongst those with a foot in reality again.

  17. Tera says:

    BRILLIANT 🙂 Bless!!

  18. matastrarium says:

    Interesting article. It evoked powerful reactions from me, which means it was a good article. A lot of it I agreed with and a lot of it made me cringe.

    The main things that made me cringe were his blanket statements and attitude towards "New Age" which reminds me very much of people's attitudes to the terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" and felt the term is being used unfairly. The second thing that really bothered me about this article was his use of a Jungian concept of the "Shadow" while completely ignoring and contradicting other aspects of Jungian Analytical Psychology which work intrinsically with shadow theory, which Jung came upon through enduing his own disassociation to bring these concepts into "this reality" (The Red Book – Carl Jung) The irony in all of this is that even the "shadow" is considered an important aspect of the New Age and like almost all of Jung's work is considered "Psuedoscience" by acadamia standards, which is ironic due to his stance on "psuedoscience". His comment about shamanic journeying / astral projection as being related to traumatic induced disassociation is absolutely bizarre to me.

    His #9 "Regressive Traditionalism" advice is the basis of what the New Age is, looking to the past traditions for insight without dogmatic views and being spiritually progressive with those concepts.

    "The New Age is really about the old age, taking ancient spiritual principles and making them accessible to the modern world." – Christopher Penczak (Ascension Magick)

    "The New Age involves taking a lot of mysticism from the ancient world and putting it in a modern context." – ibid.

    The author of the article does have a lot of great insight, but everything he's discussing doesn't seem to be a problem with "New Age" – but rather the imbalance of any spiritual path. He is equating "New Age" with "delusional". While there are definitely delusional and imbalanced "New Agers" the same can be said about any path.

    His association with anything non-physical or scientifically validated as a "mental disorder" makes me a bit uneasy as well. However, the biggest cringe with the article however, came from the overall attitude. The author seems to be asking the reader to think critically, question everything and go inside to see how you feel about the information – when really he's telling you what to believe and how to think with definitive blanket statements and authoritative commands.

    While there are a lot of great points throughout his article and some are very important his overall attitude comes across as judgmental instead of discerning and condemning instead of compassionate and helpful. I'm totally fine with different perspectives and beliefs – but I don't find anything spiritual about a teacher who automatically dismisses complex spiritual topics as "mental disorders" while providing a very shallow and limited explanation of those concepts before condemning them and the overall vibe was ironically dogmatic to me.

    I'm far from being a spiritual master or anything of that sort, or having all the answers. But as a seeker, with an ever evolving belief structure, that is my current .02 cents at this time in my path. Perhaps that will change. However, like I said, it's a powerful article since it evoked a lot of emotion from me which may indicate that there's a shadow issue involved for me. I just feel like the term "New Age" is beginning to need some reclamation from the projection of others. A few imbalanced "new agers" does not define "the new age".

  19. Jordan says:

    Great article Julian, thanks for sharing. I love how you provide students and teachers practical suggestions for contending with these obstacles in themselves and others. Bravo! Keep up the good work.