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  • Writer's pictureMartha Hartney

How to Be a Good Consumer of Spirituality

My hometown is a spiritual mecca, or so people say, also known as the Boulder Bubble. On any given weekend, you can find pretty much any spiritual experience you might want. If it feels even remotely spiritual, we got it here. Gurus, shamans, satsangs, ceremonies, kirtans, drum circles, spiritual dances, medicine circles, intense meditation retreats, sound healing, women's temples, men's groups, lineage healings, ho'oponopono, gong baths, circling and authentic relating, tantra of all kinds, tea temples, frog poisons burned into your skin, and tobacco snuffs blown up your nose. My personal experience has been all over the map--literally and figuratively. I've traveled nationally and internationally to explore what amounts to a miniscule amount of wisdom available in the world. I have sat in circles that have been profoundly important in my personal development. And I have witnessed incredibly dangerous teachings and teachers---both through traditional "religion" and through the burgeoning spiritual marketplace of new and revived indigenous-derived ideas.

At this point in my own path, it feels important to help people who are entering the spiritual realm be good consumers of all the amazing stuff that is out there. The main point of it is to know your leader/teacher/shaman/guru.

Research on Christian leadership indicates that about one-third of Christian spiritual leaders qualify under the DSM IV as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A pastor friend of mine suggests to me that, among megachurch pastors, it may be as high as 90%. I haven't found any research about the rate of NPD among spiritual leaders who are not Christian but in my experience, it feels to me that rate has to be at least as high as Christian leaders if not higher.

As evidence mounts that the mystical experience profoundly and positively impacts our quality of life, and as more and more Americans seek spiritual growth, we must become good consumers of the spiritual and mystical experience and take personal responsibility for what we encounter and from whom we seek our medicine.

The mystical or spiritual experience itself is a vulnerable state. That alone should alert all who seek enlightenment of the need to take great care with our spirits and minds within any altered state of consciousness (including run of the mill prayer) or within any pathway that purports to offer us a fresh worldview. In spiritual seeking, we look for someone who knows more than we do. Because we have lost a great deal of natural spiritual knowledge through the agrarian and industrial ages, and we have been spiritually starved for hundreds of years, it's not hard to find someone who knows or appears to know more than we do. That does not make the teacher a spiritually-enlightened one, or a master, or a guru. It just means they have something we think we want, and makes us prey to the unscrupulous machinations of charismatic, narcissistic leaders.

There are a plethora of spiritual leaders out there. But precious few of them actually have good medicine. Good rule of thumb, if someone calls themselves a guru, shaman, or master, you can bet your sweet bippy they're a shyster. The truly enlightened teachers are incredibly hard to find because they don't say much about themselves at all. You have to find them by word of mouth, not on Facebook. They don't have a gallery of Insta photos of themselves on a beach or in a hot yoga pose. They don't have massive conferences or trips to Bali with hundreds of followers.

Narcissistic spiritual leaders are master manipulators. So skilled they are at replacing your sense of reality with their own, you may be unable to notice when you've shifted from being your own person to being completely on their agenda. They accomplish this sweeping feat through the mind control techniques, which work at our most basic needs of self-worth and belonging. If you're a spiritual seeker, odds are pretty good you're working with wounds around these basic needs. Spiritual buyer beware!

Let's first demystify the idea of mind control. We don't need to get all bent out of shape by the term. We all use it. We all learn how to change people's minds from a young age. Even children learn quickly how to manipulate others around them (often with comic results). What makes a narcissist different is that as he or she grows up, they learn ever more subtle methods to get attention and power over others, and they are capable of doing so with little personal accountability or remorse. For most of us, that's not the case. But the narcissistic spiritual leader is much more dangerous because their goal is to get their victims to do what they want and think what they want. They derive pleasure and personal power out of being able to divert people from their personal lives to their own--where they will feed on the adoration of their congregation or community.

Even otherwise good-hearted leaders can get high off the drug of power--it's intoxicating to have others hang on your every word and follow your instructions and do what you want them to do and love you to pieces while they're doing it. Charismatic leaders who might have once been humble and good can get lost in the world of their own awesomeness with even a small taste of power. I'll spare you the idiom about power and absolute power.

As more and more of us seek connection with the spiritual world, and more and more spiritual pathways open up, how can we keep ourselves safe? After all, we're looking for more feeling, more sensation, more openness to the unseen realms of existence. Doesn't that put us at greater risk of being prey to the spiritual poachers in the world? Why, yes it does. That's why we all need good spiritual hygiene and to become informed consumers of spirituality.

Spiritual leaders are by definition charismatic--unless he's a priest and then he doesn't need much personality at all. But if a spiritual leader is growing a community, the leader is going to be compelling, interesting, attractive, and actually have some spiritual goods to offer. And this is where being a good spiritual consumer comes into play. You may be making a bargain with the devil in angel's clothing. You may want what they have, want to know what they know, want to feel what they feel. But spiritual information is not the same as wisdom. People can pick up the language of spirit and wield it as if they know what they're talking about and that's compelling for people new to the spiritual realms.

So here are some tips for the spiritual consumer:

1. Know you're vulnerable. Everyone is. Seriously, there isn't a person of conscience among us that isn't vulnerable to a spiritual narcissist. I say "person of conscience" as the differentiator because narcissists are distinguishable by their relative lack of conscience. They feel little or no remorse. If they feel upset at all, it's less because they harmed or hurt someone than because they lost someone or something they had. But even good spiritual teachers can inadvertently cause a student to become too reliant on their every word--the difference is, if they knew of it, they'd do something to right the student's excess reliance on their authority.

Accept your own vulnerability and take good care of it, like a baby that needs to be kept warm. Don't let your vulnerability out of your sight. If you reveal your vulnerability, watch for signals that the leader is later using it against you, reminding you of it to invoke its power over you. Don't ignore the subtle twinges in your body when you feel that vulnerability has been poked to stir your need for acceptance and love. Many, if not most, of us have some level of dissociative tendencies when hurt. That means we may not cognitively register when we're hurt or a boundary has been violated. If you feel a twinge physically to a verbal or non-verbal cue, try to write it down immediately or at least make a solid mental note of something passing your awareness even if you can't put your finger on it. Over time, and with a trusted person or therapist you can speak of these things to, you may notice a pattern that needs your loving attention.

2. Watch for a "Lift Up/Cut Down" pattern of behavior. One of the most powerfully addictive patterns we can be hooked into is an intermittent reinforcement pattern. Studies on animals have shown that an animal given reinforcement in a random, unpredictable fashion will become addicted and crazed toward the reinforcement faster and more reliably than any other pattern of reinforcement. A narcissistic leader knows that and will lift people up with praise and attention, only to subtly cut them down. As social creatures, we need and crave positive attention to help us feel safe and loved. When that attention is removed or replaced with negative attention, our neurology automatically turns our desire to the person who has taken away their good will and will do almost anything to get it back (that is if we're wired as normal adults with normal human needs). In this way, a narcissist can control the dose and become the center of our world as the giver of the love and attention we need.

3. Be on the lookout for "Spiritual Bypass". Spiritual bypass is defined as premature transcendence over psychological material and shadow. We have a great many of spiritual leaders who bypass the shit out of the real material of life. In fact, I would suggest that most all spiritual teachings have some form of bypass embedded in them. Spiritual seeking comes out of some kind of discomfort--from mild dissatisfaction and wanting more out of life (is this all there is?) to extraordinary pain that drives us toward God or a Creator. Spiritual bypass happens when we're trying to "up and out" of our suffering, instead of "down and in" toward our suffering. Even meditation is a bypass if we're avoiding the dirty, gritty material inside. I know folks who've meditated for 40 years and not dealt with childhood traumas that are still running the show. We would all do ourselves and each other a great service if we would just get a therapist already. There's nothing shameful about therapy, particularly the newly hatched field of trauma therapy. (Also, be a good consumer there too). Heck, even Jean-Luc Picard had an onboard therapist at his beck and call. Shouldn't you?

4. Watch for spiritual leaders who do not to address their own sexual shadow. Most spiritual leaders can't see their own ugly material, particularly the parts of them that manipulate in order to take from others. That stuff is darn near impossible for a guru or teacher to see and is the driving energy behind the sexual predation we see so often in spiritual teachers. Many teachers believe themselves to have transcended the rules of social convention, particularly around sexuality. These are the Prem Babas and Johns of God of the world (pun intended) we've seen so much lately. Even so, I know lots of spiritual teachers who don't have sex with their students but still take the sexual adoration offered them and even nurture it so they can keep getting that kind of attention. Spiritual teachers are still humans and have the drives we all feel. As a student, make no mistake, your sexual and sensual attention toward your teacher is valuable to them. They do get a wicked charge out of it and may make themselves more attractive to you, or bring you into an intimate space with them where you feel special and wanted at an even deeper level. That kind of attention from your teacher can wither your powers of self-determination and discernment. Take care of yourself and be on the lookout if your teacher starts putting their arm around you or asking for one-on-one attention from you.

5. Take care of your mind! Spiritual narcissists use mind control techniques. There is a lot of good information on the internet about mind control. Get familiar with it. Mind control is different than brainwashing. Someone who is being brainwashed knows who the enemy is and it usually occurs in a violent captive situation like a prisoner of war or an abductee. In the spiritual setting, we don't know who the enemy is and often feel we're making voluntary decisions when really, we're not. We're so wrapped up in someone else's world that we've forgotten our own and that might even feel normal and natural. Mind control is much more subtle than brainwashing and is bound up in the very mundane aspects of being a human: our need to be loved and accepted by our teacher and our community, our inability to disrupt a social setting, fear of criticism.

6. Research the lineage of your teacher and find out what kind of training they have had. Whether you're seeing a shaman or a meditation teacher, the good ones have had more than a few month's of experience and have a teacher of their own. Shamans need years and decades of training to walk among the worlds safely. Gurus sit at someone else's feet. Medicine men and women do learn from the earth herself, but they have also learned from others. Find out who they learned from and how much they know. The more intense the path, the more training they must have had and the more strength of lineage they must be able to call upon. If your teacher is only teaching you how to get away from your pain, look for a new teacher. True teachers and medicine people are not afraid of your pain or your questions.

I don't consider myself a spiritual leader. I'm still a seeker. I know some stuff. I've been down a lot of roads. But I am not enlightened. I'm kind of wise in some ways. I'm not compassionate like the Dalai Lama though I have a ton of compassion. I still feel furious about the travesties of the world and am not willing to say "It's all one" because to me, it's not (at this level of existence). Okay, there is a place where it is all one but I don't live in that place. I live here, on earth, where children are starving and molested and killed in the name of all manner of crazy-ass shit. It sucks here on earth and no spiritual teaching is going to talk me out of that. There is a lot in this life that is intolerable. Any spirituality that purports to lift me out of the muck of real life--ain't for me.

What I'm looking for in a teacher is a person who is comfortable living on the edge of destruction (life is, after all, a sexually-transmitted terminal disease) and who is willing to walk deep into the hole of the psyche to unearth the stuff in there. I'm looking for a teacher who has laid down his or her life before the Creator, with all their disgusting and glorious qualities in their sights, knowing they are completely powerless in the sea of existence but who has the humbly found the medicines and pathways that invoke grace.

I've had a TON of amazing teachers in my life--starting in college to the present moment. I've had a few that have done more harm than good. And there have been a few amazing ones that still harm. It's a mixed bag out there, folks. Be smart. Guard your heart and your mind. Use your powers of discernment and intuition and honor them impeccably.

On your travels in the spiritual realms, if you happen to find a teacher of impeccable character, humility, grace, and power, please let me know. I'm always looking.

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