Tag Archives: excellence

Spiritual Teachers and Discernment

“This blog post will change your life!” Actually, the truth is, it won’t, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of anyone using this phrase a little too often with a little too much enthusiasm, in my humble opinion. besides the fact that people reading this are probably alive and reading these words are adding to your life experience, (in a positive way, I hope,) most experiences are not life-altering. Some experiences, especially spiritual experiences, genuinely do transform you. In changing your inner world, your behavior, your relationships, even sometimes the way you hold yourself in the world will change.

I have personally had many such experiences, and none of them came prepackaged with the claim, “This will change your life!” There were no claims about outcome, only compassionate suggestions. There was no anecdote to uncertainty, only direction based on a plethora of past experiences. As a spiritual friend said recently, there is a reason people in the spirit world are called spirit guides. They don’t live your life for you, (by for instance, telling you how an experience will effect you or how you will feel afterward) and thank goodness they don’t! If things were different, life would be quite boring, disempowering, and distancing and you’d learn a lot about dominance and control and very little about authenticity and freedom.

The thing is, not everyone in this world has a healthy sense of compassion, unconditional love, personal responsibility, or honesty. Everyone knows that. But this statement is true, sometimes even more so, of self-identified spiritual teachers.

Two months ago I signed up on a mailing list to receive access to free telephone calls with various well-known spiritual teachers whom I had never heard of, because I was very curious about others’ experiences and approaches to their spirituality and the theme for the series of calls was waking up, something I am more than passionate about. It was a mixed bag. There were many genuinely spiritual people interviewed on those calls. There were also cooky cutter new agers and blatant scam artists. The host of the program seemed, in my opinion, to have a discernment problem of her own, and every call she hosted, she claimed, would “change your life!” The claim became statistically unsustainable after, say, call number 5, and yet she continues to make it.

For Aristotle, true excellence was synonymous with practical wisdom–sound rationality and emotional balance— and it was notoriously hard to achieve. Some scholars of ancient Greek philosophy surmise that to this date there has not been a single human being who has achieved this ideal. All this to say that, whatever excellence is, it ought not be a quality such that everyone and their adopted cat possess it. Such is true of the property of being life-changing, I think. It cannot be given to every experience, lest the concept lose its meaning entirely.

In any case, life transformation, as well as excellence, often were both sadly absent in this realm of inquiry.

First, there was a call with a spiritual practitioner who manufactures a filter which produces “structured water.” Skeptical already, I went to his website, only to find that the filter specifications explicitly state the apparatus does not take toxins out of the water. It simply “purifies” them with spiritual intentions. The rest of this filter’s enormous, and yes, “life changing!” benefits are scientifically proven facts about water itself. I was appalled by this person’s willingness to call himself spiritual while making a cash cow off of his dishonesty and people’s ignorance, both scientific and spiritual. (I was not surprised however, given the power of human egotism.) Here is a site discussing the scam:

People who don’t realize hydration has huge positive effects on the body whether or not it is “structured” but who have, for instance, heard accurately that water is contaminated by fracking could potentially be one set of scam victims. Structured water systems don’t prevent or reduce, let alone eliminate, contaminants in water.

People who want to evolve spiritually but still believe the authority to empower them lies outside themselves could be the second set of victims, and there will probably be overlap. Here’s the secret people: you are the one who empowers yourself, you are the author of your own life (not the same as the creator of reality) and you and everything else is interconnected. You can infuse as many intentions into water as often as you like, because ultimately you and the water are inseparable. If you need proof, your body is 75% water. You can infuse intentions in the water existing already within you, and get the same results as if you placed them in a glass of water and drank it. Water isn’t just outside you, it is you.

In general, you have all you ever would need within yourself to arrive at the threshold of your belonging, because that threshold has always been at the center of you. You can structure water for free. You can also skip the step of structuring water and become who you have always been and already are, from the inside out.

Several other people featured on the mailing list sold products that, though might have some nominal benefits, are wholly unnecessary to spiritual development. In the end, many spiritual tools are developed to help people focus and get into a state to access what is already within them. Tools aren’t bad in and of themselves. You don’t need a fork to eat pasta, but it’s sure helpful! However, if someone is trying to make you dependent on a product for enlightenment, run.

Another tragic example. The spiritual practitioner who is speaking tonight and who already has my discernment radar flashing red was introduced with the now increasingly meaningless “This will change your life!” guarantee which accompanies every single call, along with the following reason for why I should listen to her (which I will not): “Her popular Twitter feed has over 54,000 followers.” (No, I didn’t make it up!) For anyone philosophically inclined, but even for those who are not, arguments from popularity are fallacious and scream ego trip.

Just to be sure, I went on her website , where, sadly, she offers many blatant self-promoting reasons why people ought to work with her, including the particularly horrifying reason that she is “unique” because she works with the most high-ranking spirits on the other side. Now, this is one of the most blatant fallacies of argument by authority I have ever heard and, again, a huge ego trip. (Not to mention, if someone on the other side actually said something like this to her, she is being lied to.) What spiritual truth could a person possibly impart while fully believing in her superiority? While pointing out why your skills as a stock broker are unique in the business helps you gain customers and successfully compete in your field, the tactic is terribly tacky and telling when it comes to imparting spiritual wisdom.

There is a great and profound responsibility that befalls anyone wanting to spiritually guide others, whether in this world or the next. Those looking for direction (not a prescriptive formula) are, by the very nature of the relationship, making themselves extremely vulnerable. In such a situation, maintaining spiritual equality isn’t the ideal, it is necessary; otherwise one or both of you could get seriously emotionally, spiritually, and in extreme cases physically hurt. This intrinsic spiritual equality is one of the very first things I learned about with my ancient family. Spiritual relationship falls apart without it.

Yes, not all of us have the same skills. That is why there are teachers and learners. But hierarchies of expertise consist of inherently spiritually equal people, period. I would personally avoid anyone who believes otherwise.

I don’t understand how it is possible to be both consciously aware, aware enough to be in the circumstance of walking a spiritual journey with many others, and continue to hold the opinion of yourself that you are unique, and because of your otherworldly connections (who would undoubtedly insist on their equality) besides. I cannot fathom a more hypocritical message, personally. I can only conclude, as seems reasonable and my right in the circumstances, that such people are only pretending to be spiritual for their own personal gain.

I am unfortunately now not just wary of a few practitioners booked for calls through this program, but wary of the person conducting the program as well. What could have been a journey of interesting and insightful discovery has, most of the time, proven to be nothing more than a disappointing marketing campaign. I feel fortunate to have listened to the people whose energy and message resonated with me and to know to look within, rather than out to my culture, or to the popular spiritual culture in which this all takes place, to know when something feels like a scam and honor that feeling. I did not have to learn how to do this with a teacher, and I am not unique, nor special. I am one among many and I am learning and imperfect and very human in all that entails and my authority extends to my journey alone, and really not even that far. And, contrary to the innumerable claims made lately about everything and its lookalike being there to save you and change your life, if you just follow such and so or if you pay for it, I have this to say, which you can take or leave:

I have learned that I am valuable, I am needed, as is every other person here, and our worth is with us from before we were born, and each of us is one among many. We are whole. We are enough just as we are. I believe we don’t follow a spiritual path because something or someone needs to fix us. I follow my path for the joy of it, for growing, and because in changing I become more myself than ever before. I have learned that comparison is conformity, and conformity stifles authenticity. I am here to speak my truth, to finally see I am enough in my eyes, and be completely who I am. Isn’t that all we can ask of ourselves?

So, when someone bombards me with unsupported and incessant claims that “This (whatever it is) is going to save your life!” I remind myself that nothing outside you changes your life. You are alive. To transform our lives, we only have to go full out in living and being all we are.


In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 2

How many people struggle with doubts, with longing to feel alive, with finding purpose and meaning, with finding what and who they are, and then when they finally get a sense of such things, actually like what they find? (Oh hopefully!) One of our greatest consolations in life should be that we are stumbling around but while we’re doing that, everyone else is too.

Is it as simple as doing the best you can in a world that is capable of embracing you one minute, then swallowing you whole the next? I don’t think so, because defining what is meant by “do your best” is a complicated matter. Doing your best does not mean striving to be perfect. If we were meant to be living exemplars of ideal, we would have been born as something other than human. Surely our standards should exist in proportion to the kind of being we are? We’re fallible, we fall short, we let others down, we are vulnerable, we break easily (I mean this in a literal sense.) Held up to the immaculate, sterile, and pristine light of perfection, we are nothing worth keeping. The short argument against this primacy of perfection is that it cannot be substantiated, and it rests on false premises and assumptions (see the examples.) I also believe that perfectionism partly drives the illusion of separateness, and that if we lived in a way that honored our interdependence on one another, we would be less apt to constantly compare ourselves with each other and we would lead healthier, happier lives for it. But that’s an argument for another time.

Examples of my point follow:

The problem with trying to separate authentic expression from speaking honestly:
Once you say something you cannot take it back. So you should watch what you say. But if you stall out, self-consciously weigh your words each time you want to speak, you will quickly befriend silence. Do you want to be remembered as nothing or as something, consequences included? So while it is important to say what you mean and not be deceptive, dishonest, perfection is not the ideal. Get out there and say what you need to say, and decide later if you could do a better job of it. Too many people, my former self included, shelve their voices believing they are inadequate, not good enough to have something to say. You personally are never inadequate, but the response that does seem to be inadequate is saying nothing at all.

Also, many people believe that an excellent person is always composed. Aristotle’s great souled person comes to mind. Yet although such a person is just and generous, she cannot admit to her own vulnerability and reacts to her own needs with quiet contempt (which obviously she’d never admit to anyone else.) Such conceptions of “right conduct” destroy rather than create honest communication between people. In modern virtue ethics, it is important that a person have both practical rationality and emotional balance. Someone who suppresses her feelings, or who is able to give but incapable of receiving, who believes that to admit to her vulnerability or her anger or her sadness is akin to failure, is someone who has let herself down in the name of some unnatural ideal. Such incidious conceptions of perfection create conditions where a person is incapable of honesty because she cannot even be honest with herself,. If she is ashamed of her own needs, she cannot respect others who have needs of their own. I think it is imperative to be able to express ourselves authentically, realistically, honestly. All three can’t exist without the other. The alternative impoverishes people and renders it impossible to live in the wise and balanced way that is crucial to human flourishing.

The problem with conflating the perfect life with the life well lived:
Aristotle says in relation to living an excellent life, that there are many ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable to constant failure or falling short. Should life be measured exclusively by whether you got to the top, “being productive in every waking moment,” (a lovely philosophy professor’s words) and ultimate success? How about the compassion you and others show toward your friends and family?

I would argue it’s the latter. The hand-wavy brief argument goes like this: think of a person who was highly successful but lacked compassion, empathy, patience, balance. Does a tyrant or insufferable CEO come to mind? Or perhaps, instead, have you thought of someone who is generally a good and decent person but is such a perfectionist that she never realizes her dreams, is so obsessive about doing every last thing right that she can’t cook her own meals, get anywhere on time, meet any deadlines, pay her bills, or drive herself home from work? Are you living with a person like this, because if you are your life is probably miserable. Most likely, their life is just as miserable. Any life that makes you miserable is not an ideal one, and just perhaps perfection is the bad ideal in the bunch here.

If there is merit in this, then a good life is one that dissuades the cultivation of only one or two character traits in favor of a balance of dispositions and values that can help shape a well-rounded and integrated, multifaceted person.

Our culture encourages CEOs and other business entrepreneurs, as well as academics and doctors, to choose what people, beliefs, character traits, or values to give up in order to achieve it all, and gain the highest position in our respective fields. We encourage people to learn arrogance, develop splintered highly specialized skills, value work above family and friends, put our own research above our responsibility to teach our students, forfeit our spirits as the process of due course in med school, tear each other down, refuse to cooperate, believe it is normal to never have time to care for our children, and so on.

But, brash and burly people are more often bullies than courageous, a person who gets to the top through ruthless competition and prides herself on cutting down everyone in her way is not strong, but one who has replaced her authentic self with a self image, inert, static, and unable to grow. The med student who has closed herself off to empathy and compassion, even for herself, because it was expected of her lives in a hollow empty shell of the rich and powerful being she once was, the one she was born to be. The person who is so off balance that she allows herself to become single-mindedly obsessed with writing the perfect novel, getting the perfect hair cut, or being the perfect teacher, actor, and so on is not living her life, but chasing after shadows of what her life might have been. These people might be at the top of their field, but why should that matter if, in gaining the world, they’ve lost themselves?

Standards have an important place in living, it’s just that their place is not above human flourishing. Our culture often sells us the myth that we are what we do. Are we who we are, or only who others want us to be?

The problem with equating excellence with achievement, honor with being honored, doing your best with doing it right, and success with status:
Is it always getting it right that makes your life worth living, or is it more getting it wrong honorably? Again, I think the latter is the ideal, not the former, not perfection at the expense of your acting authentically. Because often people get so caught up in being the best, getting it right, that they forget who they are. I think people should stop being afraid of getting it wrong and be really afraid of getting it right, badly.

Not everyone can be, or even wants to be, the best at something either. What happens when you fulfill everyone’s highest expectations of you and die regretting that all along you lived someone else’s life? Who are you? You don’t know, because you never took the time or opportunities to find out. That’s not an ideal, it’s a tragedy.

In part 3 I’ll discuss one person’s partial and incomplete, imperfect solution for breaking out of the cycle of perfectionism and the dual fears of success and failure that accompany it. It is my own point of view, as I can only speak for myself. It’s also subject to a myriad of changes, as most things in life are.