For about thirty-five years, from age 20 to 55 (I'm now sixty-one), I meditated assiduously in accordance with the tenets of Radha Soami Satsang Beas -- an India-based guru-centered organization whose teachings claim to be able to unite the soul with God.
However, what I learned from my immersion in the deep waters of organized religosity is applicable to almost every sort of spiritual path (to mix watery and earthy metaphors).
True believers generally feel that they're becoming less selfish, egotistical, and me-centered through their devotion to...whatever or whoever. God, guru, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, cosmic consciousness, Great Spirit, etc. etc.
Yet as some commenters on a recent post have noted, whenever someone believes that he or she is a distinct entity -- an "I" -- who is moving in the direction of salvation, enlightenment, satori, God-realization, or such, a huge freaking usually-unnoticed contradiction lurks at the core of their supposedly selfless spiritual practice.
Namely: a self can't be selfless. So whatever is done with the intention of improving one's self, even if this is to become less egotistical, will have the opposite effect.
This is where certain varieties of Buddhism and Taoism have a lot better understanding of what spirituality is all about than other more self-centered religions, mystical practices, and spiritual teachings.
I say "certain varieties" because Buddhists and Taoists aren't immune from falling into the trap of desiring to become desireless, working hard to achieve effortless ease, and following specific practices to enter into a state of unity.
Here's what Buddhist teacher Rodney Smith says in an opening chapter of his book, "Stepping Out of Self-Deception." It's firmly in line with findings of modern neuroscience, which doesn't find any me at home in the human brain.
The inevitable fallout from this mental reorganization of reality is the belief in a separarte self, which is formed through this restructuring principle, and leads the subject to believe that reality is external to itself.
Once "we" have been established, we start arranging the data to suit our desires and fears, and then act upon reality as if it could be aligned with our needs and wants. That is when all hell breaks loose, because reality is not divided, and acting upon reality as if we were separate creates the pain and suffering of the world.
The fundamental principle we must remember when traversing a spiritual path is that "we" do not "have" a mind. The mind has created the sense of you and me from the way it perceives reality.
The truth is the mind holds "us" within it. "We" are not the possessor of a mind, and the mind is not something happening to us as if we were outside looking in. "We" are a part of the mental processing of the mind.
The thoughts of the mind and the sense-of-I are not two separate events. "We" exist only because the mind thinks us into creation.
Smith goes on to persuasively argue that any form of spiritual practice which emphasizes discrete goals and effortful discipline is going to lead the aspirant further up the slopes of Mount Ego, even as he or she feels like their devotion is causing them to become selfless.
It is helpful if we consciously verbalize our spiritual intention: is our intention to be a person waking up, or to awaken out of being a person?
...Unwise view seizes the opportunity by following the desire [to be a person waking up] and looking outside itself for completion. We go searching for teachers, retreats, pilgrimages, we engage in ceremonies, do austerities, chant, meditate, bend our body into yoga postures, all in the name of satisfying a longing that only needs our attention.
The longing, if read correctly, does not need to take us outside to search for an answer. It is a longing to connect more deeply with what is already here, not to try and find something missing.
Our primary intention is to completely resolve all outside searching and to know our intrinsic wholeness of being. To meet this primary purpose, simply allow your attention to rest with the longing rather than with what the longing seems to indicate is missing.
...The space between fixed notions of reality holds the Dharma. The confusion we feel is the wonderment of the Dharma trying to get through our cognitive maps and indicates the sense-of-self is on shaky ground.
...The momentary confusion keeps us from becoming mechanical or complacent within our ideas of the truth, because the truth cannot be located or mapped. In fact, a quality of truth is that it is not definable.
...I have seen many practitioners overstay their efforts and arrest their understanding. They practice a certain method based upon a logical formula for awakening, and then stay there despite internal cues to the contrary.
The practitioners feel safe and unassailable, expertly following their breath for hours according to the Buddha's instruction, or sweeping their attention from head to toe over and over, knowing they are practicing in accordance with long-established traditions or progressions of insight.
But scratch beneath the surface and their hearts are dry. The mechanics of the approach eventually dulls their aliveness. They are often waiting for the results more than seeing into the mystery, and have opted out of the wonder for the mental fulfillment of precision.
This impediment is often accompanied by firm views and opinions about their methodology, and an equally firm resistance to hearing feedback, making the journey through the maze much longer.
...If we look down from above the maze, the path leading toward the exit is obvious. It is not obvious from inside the maze because the walls of self prohibit the clarity of observation.
The effort involved in seeking the truth is paradoxically long and arduous because the truth is what we intrinsically are, and therefore cannot be sought. From the beginning we need to invert the effort so the effort is not externally seeking what is already here or creating a fixed spiritual terrain.
This new effort is releasing the need to be separate.
Nicely said, Mr. Smith.
When people identify with a particular religious, spiritual, or mystical teaching, they feel closer to that belief system than to competing faiths. So they go through life thinking, "I am a _______. I'm on a special path."
How could this lead to genuine humility, selflessness, and identification with our fellow human beings?
Most forms of spirituality aspire in some way or another to oneness, lessening the sense of isolation we feel from ourselves, the natural world, and other living beings. Yet all this aspiring, all this desiring, all this trying to be something other than what we are, and to make reality into something other that what it is, fosters separation.
We divide our personal characteristics into what is OK, and what needs to be changed. We divide time/space into where we are now, and where we believe a better there-and-then exists. We divide reality into what we consider to be true, and what those fools who lack our unique understanding falsely view as truth.
As I observed in another post, spiritual ego is worse than worldly ego. So it's better to be naturally self-centered, than artificially (and falsely) believing that your religiosity is making you into a selfless person.