Ryan J. Bush, Ph.D.
Self-Sabotage in Religions and Spiritual Traditions
Unfortunately, there are several ways that religious and spiritual traditions tend to sabotage themselves. One type of self-sabotage that has been in the news a lot is doing things that are hurtful to others, as in the Catholic abuse scandals, or the many spiritual leaders who have been accused of sexual harassment or taking advantage of their followers. Another type of sabotage consists of wasting time in conflict with other traditions, as in all the religious wars, crusades, sectarian strife, and ongoing hostility between members of various faiths and traditions.
However, the type of self-sabotage we'll focus on in this article consists of talking about our own traditions in ways that turn people off. For example, Buddhism’s focus on suffering, letting go of the ego, and emptiness, all of which seem like such downers and chores. There are many reasons why these things are important, as they are essential parts of the spiritual path, and our experience at various points along the way, but we don’t have to focus on them in ways that turn people off. Meanwhile, Christianity places such importance on certain specific beliefs, such as heaven and hell, the miracles in the Bible, and that one specific person is the only person who is Divine, and the only source of redemption and wholeness. If people have doubts about any of these beliefs, they may be turned off from the entire tradition of Christianity.
The system of Reiki has its own ways of being off-putting to some, as the very idea of using our hands to share and balance energy can seem ‘woo-woo’. It doesn’t help if we describe energy as mysterious and other-worldly (rather than being the fundamental nature of everything everywhere, which we can feel for ourselves with our hands, and which follows the laws of physics). Practices like breathing exercises, meditation, chanting, and symbols may be unfamiliar to some, and can take a little while to explain, but anyone can feel the effects themselves in a weekend Reiki class.
Every tradition has its own challenges, and ways in which they may come across to outsiders as off-putting, unbalanced, unwelcoming, or confusing. My intention isn’t to disparage any religions or traditions, as I firmly believe that every single tradition is doing the best it can to understand and share something that is ultimately beyond all of us.
Like blind men touching an elephant, we’re all touching on part of the whole, overarching truth, but each from our own perspective. When we hear different descriptions from other traditions, we call them pagans, infidels, and non-believers, rather than recognizing that they are just seeing a different part of the same vast whole. That is a key reason for the second kind of self-sabotage I mentioned above, that people spending a lot of energy bickering about how all the other traditions are wrong, and all vying for the title of ‘the one true faith’. I’ll talk more about this type of conflict and how to work on overcoming it, in my forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Integral Spirituality, but the key point here is that we need all need to work together to show that everyone is reflecting the same fundamental truth.
Until this Integral worldview is more widely accepted and people are more open to finding teachings everywhere (even if we don’t agree with everything in a particular tradition), we need to recognize that people will always misinterpret things, and focus on anything that seems different, weird, or off-putting. So, for anyone who wants to talk about consciousness or spirituality, especially when talking with people outside our own tradition, it’s essential that we be able to talk as directly as possible, avoid overly-symbolic language, and not focus on terms that are easily misunderstood like ‘emptiness’, or ‘the death of the ego’.
There are already enough obstacles on the spiritual path, let’s not obscure the entrances to the path so much that people can’t find them!
If anyone has any thoughts or questions, please let me know.
Peace and love.