Critique of "Do It Yourself" Spirituality
Dr. Chris Tong is the founder of The Practical Spirituality Press, and the author of the Practical Spirituality Series, which is aimed at addressing all the core issues of genuine spiritual practice, in a manner that is very easily accessible to readers with no particular background in spirituality or spiritual literature.
This article is an excerpt from Beyond Spiritual Correctness: Appreciating the DIFFERENCES Among Religions, Paths, and Saints, Part 1.
To those of us looking for something real, the spiritually dysfunctional rituals and the social religiosity of many mainstream religions can be off-putting. So, too, the endless talk (and non-practice) of armchair "comparative religion" professors. In contrast, the various practices of the New Age movement may seem a step up from mere talk or mere ritual. Meditation practices, sweat lodge experiences, encounter groups, or flotation tanks the list is a long one may provide pleasant or interesting experiences that we often call "spiritual". But such practices generally are quite limited in what they can achieve on the full scale of Spiritual possibility.
In marked contrast with “establishment” religions (from which New Age practitioners generally set themselves apart very openly) with their fixed creeds and moral codes, one of the commonalities among the many diverse practitioners of the New Age is the “do-it-yourself ” character of their practices. One’s “holistic lifestyle” might be comprised of a hatha yoga class on Monday; meditation and astral projection on Tuesday; psychotherapy on Wednesday; communal bread baking and Ayurvedic medicine on Thursday; a day of intimacy with one’s spiritual/sexual partner on Friday; a long walk out in nature on Saturday; and a day of just “vegging out” on Sunday. It’s completely our choice!
At first this may sound like a dream come true: we get to define our own spirituality. This do-it-yourself “dream” is a direct descendent of Martin Luther’s Protestantism, eschewing, as it does, the need for any kind of “priest” or necessary mediator between oneself and God (though “astral guides” and “angels” that is, helpers or advisors are okay, just as are parsons and ministers but not priests are okay within Protestantism). This at least has the advantage that no one who is corrupt or sadistic (like many of those folks in the medieval Church theocracy) will have power over us.
Well, that's the up side of it. But here’s the rub: We must define our own spirituality as though we are in any position to be our own Spiritual Authorities. We are the Spiritually blind! We are exactly the wrong people to be telling ourselves the nature of the Greater Reality and our relation to it, and what will best serve our own Spiritual maturation. Worse (and more common), we often don't even go so far as to think very often about the nature of the Greater Reality and our relation to it; instead, many of us create our so-called “spiritual life” on the basis of a motley set of whims, intuitions, books, and workshops. And all the while, the Spiritual Reality truly exists, with its own real and fixed laws which determine whether or not beings will be able to discover it and participate in it. Whether or not our "spiritual" whims and our "spiritual" workshops have anything whatsoever to do with the real laws of the Spiritual Reality is largely a matter of chance.
Thus, creating our so-called “spiritual life” in a piecemeal manner, based on whims and judgements formed from a fundamentally materially-oriented life, is something like walking into the local auto parts shop, without any profound understanding of cars or driving, selecting this part because it is “shiny”, and that part because its shape is “pretty”, and then hoping that the collection of parts one has purchased will turn out to be a working car, that will drive us to “heaven”! There are at least two problems here:
We are human beings whose relatively beginning level of Spiritual maturity is clearly signalled by the fact that we have incarnated in the material world. Those who are Spiritually more mature aren't here! The only exceptions to this rule are the great Spiritual Masters who have incarnated here by conscious choice, moved by compassion (even as someone might choose to dive to the bottom of the ocean to rescue a friend who is drowning, but otherwise spends most of his or her time on land). The rest of us simply gravitated here unconsciously.
Because we have little or no real Spiritual experience, our “measures” of what is valuable are grounded in our expertise as materialists living in a material world. And so our own personal assessments of Spiritual means will tend to be as inappropriate as “pretty” and “shiny” are for gauging the functionality of car parts. We would do much better by finding Someone who is actually living in the Spiritual world, but fortunately is accessible here as well, and who can tell us what we need “to drive from here to There”.
When we want to learn nuclear physics, we go to a university where trained professors in the area of nuclear physics teach us first the basics, then the esoteric details. It is usually a rigorous process, with both college and graduate level training. If we are interested not only in the theoretical details, but in becoming a nuclear engineer, then we need to know not only the theory, but the practical details of the engineering discipline, ideally from someone who practices this discipline "out in the field" himself or herself. We would never presume we could pick up either sufficient theory or sufficient practical details of the engineering discipline on our own! Can you imagine someone "playing around" on their own with radioactive materials, in order to learn nuclear physics?! But taking up a spiritual practice such as "kundalini yoga" without having an experienced Master and much training is just as dangerous on the personal level.
Isn't it very strange then that we could presume we can "do it ourselves", relative to the extraordinarily difficult art, science, and discipline of spirituality! The report "from the field", that is, from the longstanding tradition of genuine spiritual practitioners be they saints, yogis, shamans, or Spiritual Masters is that genuine Spiritual Realization requires a very difficult course, and extensive training from a true Master. Indeed, the traditional approach has always involved a "mentor / apprentice" relationship (between the Master and the disciple), much like the relationship involved in training for any practical discipline.
Where, then, did our "do it yourself" presumption (and anti-authoritarian stance) come from? In part, it is because the field of spirituality is a realm of the invisible to us who have been raised in a materialistic culture. Many of us talk about it, but have little direct experience of it ourselves (except to the degree that we bastardize the word and start calling anything from an orgasm, to a good movie, to a walk on the beach, a "spiritual experience", or even "God"). Our reactions to those who claim to be masters of a realm which we ourselves do not witness range anywhere from childish credulity (believing anything any "spiritual authority" says about invisible matters) to adolescent incredulity (disbelieving anything any "spiritual authority" says about invisible matters). Both are limited reactions. Clearly what is needed is a freedom from merely childish belief and merely adolescent disbelief that is only earned by adult maturity. What is needed is great intelligence and discrimination, both in assessing what is being said, and in assessing the "school" from which it comes, relative to the full spectrum of schools. For instance, relative to conventional education, an Ivy League school tends to give a better education than a community college (even though the latter may have very well-intended teachers). The same principle holds in the circles of genuine spiritual training.
have already mentioned the Protestant Reformation as a primary source
of our cultural bias against "spiritual authority". We can now
see how such an unconscious bias easily throws out the baby with the bath
water. Fine, learn to recognize and steer clear of corrupt church bureaucrats,
pedophilic priests, exploitive cult leaders, and the like. But, noting
the bad apple here and there, do not also fail to notice the true Spiritual
Authorities! Every one of our "establishment" religions
was originally founded by just such a Spiritual Authority (from Jesus
of Nazareth to Gautama the Buddha) being spiritually active in
their own time. Even if many of these religions have devolved over the
centuries to the point of spiritual bankruptcy, remember their origin
in a spiritually alive Master and
look for such a spiritually alive Master now.
When the Protestant reaction to spiritual authority (triggered initially by some corrupt Church clerics) is taken to the extreme as is often the case among New Age adherents one holds no spiritual authority but oneself, and one’s “spiritual practice” will consequently tend to be piecemeal, mostly in touch with one’s own subjectivity and relatively little in touch with the actual Greater Reality. There is an inherent limit in how far we can pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We simply are not in a Spiritual position that allows us to see clearly and directly where we are, and more to the point where we are stuck in the Greater Reality, and how to go beyond that “stuckness”. (All those who are currently communing with God for real on a regular basis, like the saints of old, may excuse themselves from this criticism.)
In the area of genuine spirituality in which the fundamental principle of growth is self-transcendence why settle for the worst teacher of all: one's self? As Adi Da Samraj put it: "The ego is a Guru with a fool for a disciple. . ."