Don’t Look Spiritual!

Do you ever try to look or act “spiritual?” When I was a little kid my family got involved in Transcendental Meditation. And right after we meditated we’d all act cartoonishly “blissed out” and mellow. Like we’d had frontal lobotomies. What made this especially comical (and head-explodingly ironic) is that our family was a war zone of alcoholic dysfunction and abuse; all of us were swimming in shame, pain, terror, and loathing. But there we were, floating out of our bedrooms, after having just done our little 20 minutes of TM, with these fake, daffy, beatific expressions of sublime peacefulness on our faces.

When I got into a Zen community at age 15 there was a different way to look and act spiritual – or more specifically, Zenny. To look and act Zenny you tried to appear really “present” and “mindful.” This usually amounted to moving and talking at a glacial pace, performing simple physical movements with geological slowness. You opened a book like you were defusing a bomb, lifted a cup of tea like it was filled with nitro glycerine.

Last anecdote: A guy recently freaked out on me because of my love of MMA (Mixed Martial Art). How, he demanded to know, could a man who professes to be so engaged in spiritual practice enjoy watching something as grotesquely unspiritual and barbaric as MMA?

Most of us who are “into spirituality” have a bunch of images and preconceptions in our heads about what’s spiritual and what’s not. And we often find ourselves trying to look, speak, and behave in accordance with those images and preconceptions – trying to appear (to others or just to ourselves) like they’re true of us. This undermines our actual practice. It also makes us full of shit.

Spiritual qualities either show up spontaneously or they’re bullshit

The truth is that when qualities we think of as spiritual genuinely manifest in a person, they show up spontaneously, mindlessly, unselfconsciously. Those sorts of so-called spiritual qualities are either free, native expressions, without our even noticing, or they’re not. So if you ask me, it’s best to just dump all those rose-tinted, sandalwood-besotted, Japanese-shakuhachi-flute accompanied (or Native American flute accompanied), or sitar-accompanied ideals.

About spiritual ideals

But – you say – aren’t ideals good? Don’t ideals of, say, selflessness, compassion, mindfulness, inner-peace, and so on help to make them manifest? What about “as a man think thinketh?” What about “act as if?”

So here’s what I think about spiritual ideals: They’re fine as long as, 1) You don’t pretend, to yourself or to others, that they’re true of you when they’re not (the “act as if” principle is not supposed to be delusional…you are supposed to know that you are acting as if). 2) You don’t beat yourself up for not living up to them; contrary to popular opinion, beating yourself up for not living up to an ideal does not actually propel you toward that ideal. 3) You hold your ideals very loosely indeed, for the simple reason that, most of the time, our spiritual ideals are infinitely more tiny, lifeless, desiccated, and boring than the real gifts of spiritual life, and if we fixate too rigidly on the waxy ideals we’ve cooked up, we can shut out the real gifts.

“Acting” spiritual comes from shame

The bottom line is that, if you’re “acting” or “looking” spiritual, it’s because of shame. You do not accept the person you are without those traits, qualities, or characteristics. And as the platitude goes, “If you’re not whole without it, you’re not whole with it.” You’re not willing to just be where you’re at, for real – the unmindful, lustful, greedy, agitated, worrying, uncompassionate (or whatever…pick your poison) person you actually, plain old, factually are, right now, right here, today.

My first antidote to shame-based idealism: Henry Miller

The first time I tasted exuberant liberation from my own constricting spiritual ideals was when I was 16 and discovered Henry Miller. He had countless qualities that healed and awakened new dimensions in me—his gusto, his robust joy, his insatiable appetite for life, his wildness. But the very first thing that swept me off my feet was his unapologetic, lusty, arms-thrown-wide embrace of his own imperfections. His lust, his selfishness, his lying, his cruelty, his laziness, his cowardice – it was all, to Miller, beautiful divine nonsense. It was all to be celebrated. The first book that I read, Tropic of Cancer, is filled with sentiments like: “I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions,” that were like nectar to my 16 year old self. He was revolutionary for me, sandblasting big, crusty gobs of spiritual perfectionism off of my soul.


Adi Da Samraj: What do you care what’s true of you?

Adi Da Samraj exhorts His devotees to a ruthless honesty and a reckless indifference to the harshest truths of ourselves, of where we’re really at.

“One of the things you should notice about Me, from reading the History of My ‘Sadhana Years’, is that I never cared one whit what was ‘wrong’ with the body-mind. I did not have the slightest inclination to dissociate Myself or protect Myself from whatever I might notice, whatever might be the case…

 “So you should be. Why should you care what the particular impediments of your own egoic design are, and what its contents are? Why should you be hiding about any of that?…Why should you care one whit about what your ego-patterning contains…? As My devotee, you should have no such concerns whatsoever.

—Adi Da Samraj, My ‘Bright’ Form, pp. 453-454

He drives home the same point on an old audio cassette (!) called Practice In Your Vulnerable Heart, addressing how reluctant we are to reveal our true, unflattering (un-“spiritual”) dimensions,

…all because everything’s so precious to you, you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to confess it, you don’t want to upset the boat, you don’t want to deal with it, you don’t want to notice anything about it, you don’t want to take responsibility for it…

Adi Da goes on to discuss the serious devotee, one who deeply intuits the Greater Reality, the Divine Reality. “Such a one,” He says, “can be profoundly liberal with consideration, able and willing to investigate anything, confess anything…What do you care what’s true of you? What obnoxiousness, what stupidity, what foulness, what crazyness? What do you care? It’s true in any case! So why should you be concerned about what the content is?

Then, my favorite turn in this delicious Talk, is where He equates the willingness to see and own our hidden flaws with adventurousness! He confronts the group He’s talking to with their self-protectiveness, pointing out that they are, “…not really willing to be truly vulnerable and go beyond. You have no adventure in you!”

Still crazy after all these years

It can be harder to accept our multifarious species of egoic ugliness when we’ve been at spiritual life for many years – maybe even decades. The voice in our head goes: “You’ve been doing all this meditating, praying, chanting, service, and studying for three (or however many) freaking decades and look at you, screaming psychotically at that driver (or holding onto this petty grudge, or judging that whole group of people, or ogling the body parts of that person, or binge watching reality TV, or struggling with anxiety, codependency, depression, OCD, or an addiction, yada, yada, yada).”

When that voice is yammering in your head, do like this: first, be open to the possibility that maybe you really have been going about your practice in some fundamentally wrong way. Know that even if that’s true, even after decades, it’s still not some terrible catastrophe. Spiritual life is largely a process of precisely such humbling, deconstructing realizations – not a preening progression of ever-increasing victories. Back to square one, back to the old drawing board, is the shit! That’s where it’s at! Even if you’re 90 years old!

If you think THIS is bad, you should see me if I had NOT been doing spiritual practice!

Plus, it’s often the case that, no matter how fucked up and unspiritual you may seem (or actually be), it’s quite possible that you would’ve been a gazillion times worst if you had not been doing your practice. For example, if I scream like a psycho at someone’s shitty driving, does that invalidate my spirituality? It might. From the conventional, popular perspective it’s certainly not a stellar advertisement for it. But, from my point of view, given the nuclear trainwreck of my childhood, I’m just lucky to not be living in a dumpster having heated arguments with rats. It’s all relative, baby.

You may need a new scale

Here’s another thought: if you’ve been practicing for years and years, and you think you should be, “further along the path” than you are, it may be because you’ve been programmed by Western, pop, consumer spirituality, which has taught you that advancement in spiritual practice is – or should be – a quick, easy, trifling thing—“Enlightenment from a weekend workshop,” and all that unmitigated horseshit. Real spiritual life is an infinitely more profound ordeal than most Westerners suspect. Few American seekers have even the remotest idea of the epic odyssey of authentic spiritual transformation.

The traditions that churn out awakened people like hot cakes – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, etc. – understand that reincarnation is simply how things work. Hence the great journey of liberation goes on lifetime after lifetime. From that wide perspective, your “grand 30 years of practice” is nothing! A drop in the bucket. Why else do you think Zen (and Adidam) have you take eternal vows? So be patient. Take the long view. Chill out. Sure, maybe you’re a steaming hot mess, but you’re probably purifying karmas of being a mass murderer or a member of a boy band in some past life.

A cosmic enema: Purification is an orgy of humility

It’s also quite possible that you’ve gotten more crazy, dickish, unloving, and dysfunctional since you began your spiritual practice. If so, congratulations! Because, my friends, spiritual practice done right purifies like a motherfucker.

Purification doesn’t mean that our Baroque neuroses and insecurities magically vanish. Quite the contrary. It means that all that stuff comes bubbling up into your face and spilling all over the damn place in our lives. Latent, once-dormant monsters of kookiness get roused from their slumbers. Very messy. Very unbecoming. In the talk, The Divine Does the Yoga (My “Bright” Sight, pp.34-35ish), Adi Da refers to the purification process as a “cosmic enema!” He also says,

“People imagine that, as soon as you contact the Guru, things all of a sudden become sweet and ’groovy’, and you are just smiling all the time…No—stuff immediately starts coming up within and without, at every level of your psycho-physical life.”

And this can certainly be equally true of NON-Guru-related spiritual practices. So the non-ideal traits that are horrifying you might well be signs that your practice is working exquisitely!

Or it could also be that you’re finally just seeing stuff that’s always been there, but you had blind spots the size of Idaho. (I am most definitely scheming a whole post on the topic of purification…big topic!)

And remember, if you berate yourself for falling short of a bunch of saintly, cartoonish ideals, your non-acceptance will act as a major blinder, making it almost impossible to see and take responsibility for these ostensibly unsavory parts of yourself. So welcome the crazy! Embrace that shit, like Henry Miller!

Stuff to do

1) Make a list of all the traits, qualities, and characteristics you think a “spiritual” person should embody. Visualize yourself acting out the exact opposite of all of them. Notice, in your day-to-day life, when you actually do act out the opposite of them. Then pretend that you dig the hell out of that person you’re visualizing (or being). Make believe that you adore that person (act as if!). Extra credit: deliberately act out some of those unspiritual traits in real life (if you can do that without hurting anyone). Excellent medicine!

Remember when George Costanza did the opposite of everything he would normally do? This is like that, but you do the opposite of everything a “spiritual” person would do. You might learn more from a week of this than you would from 10 years of trying to act spiritual.

2) When you see yourself falling short of some sort of quasi-spiritual ideal – you catch yourself being mean, or losing your temper, or binging on TV or pizza, or watching clips of MMA icon Nate Diaz on YouTube – use it. That is, instead of saying, “Dammit, I fucked up. Tomorrow I’m not going to fail like this. I’m going to turn over a new leaf and live up to how a spiritual person should be,” just soften and accept the humility your “unspiritual” behavior gives you.

Adi Da often spoke of how spiritual life is—always and constantly—a process of losing face, in ever more squirmy, uncomfortable, mortifying ways. Allow that humility to open you, to tenderize you, to make you more available, porous, teachable; to put you in touch with your totally embarrassing but strangely delectable need for grace.

3) View your images of what’s spiritual and what’s not spiritual with grave suspicion. There are good reasons that countless great spiritual masters – including Adi Da Samraj – worked ceaselessly to demolish people’s fixed preconceptions about spirituality and virtue. That’s what the Crazy Wise Masters were all about. Zen masters, Tibetan Drukpas, Sufi mystics, Taoist sages, Christian fools, all of them took atomic sledgehammers to people’s pious, righteous, dualistic images and beliefs about spirituality. They did this because we all tend to cling – our egos tend to cling – to those images and certainties so that we can stay in control—so that our egos can stay in control. Those images are our egos’ idolatrous teddy bears.

And, ironically enough, we use them – these images and ideals – to avoid the formless, mad, ontological freefall of real dissolution in God. If the conceptual mind doesn’t know what “spiritual” is, then we are forced to surrender into the wild silence and mysteries of the heart. That surrender, that dissolution in Radiant Consciousness, is the only place from which true virtue, true saintly ways of being, flower and shine. And apparently, we won’t even notice when that’s happening.

4) Sometimes it can be good to try to oppose or discipline some of our nastiness, craziness, and neuroses. If you’re into McDonald’s food or Internet porn or people in octagonal cages trying to cause grievous bodily harm to each other while a stadium full of drunken, douchey bros scream for blood, you stop doing that thing, or try to stop. In Adidam we call this counter-egoic action.

The crucial point when it comes to counter egoic action is to know why you’re doing it. In Adidam we do it because (or at least were supposed to do it because) by “working against the grain” of our tendencies and patterns, our self understanding deepens and this, in turn, allows us to turn to the Guru more fully.

The idea is that our every little outbreak of nastiness, kookiness, addiction, and neuroses comes from a place in our being where we are withholding from the God Light, a place where we are contracting from the bliss of Being, a place where we are clinging to unhappiness. It’s so useful to become sensitized to these unhappy rituals and patterns, to find out what we’re really up to. To excavate the clench of egoic pain beneath all our little crazinesses. So we take on various counter egoic disciplines to magnify our practice.

But that is a radically different thing than taking them on arbitrarily to be a “good boy” or a “good girl,” to live up to some generalized image or ideal. It’s a radically different thing than trying to look or act spiritual, virtuous, or saintly in the eyes of others, or even just in the eyes of the inner-critic in our own heads.

While there are easily 10,000 disciplines I could try to take on, disciplines that might make me look more Dalai Lama-ish, that would be idiotic. Instead, in Adidam, we try to be highly targeted, picking those targeted, heat-seeking disciplines that are most leveraged, that give us the most bang for our buck, that most push us up against our edge. The ones that really make us squirm.

For example, being much more emotionally vulnerable with my wife, and not dramatizing with her the “mood of you don’t love me,” but, instead, assuming the adult responsibility of being love. Or like not indulging in my lifelong addiction to alter my mood by filling my head with future-hope images (my favorite drug). Or like not complaining, or in any way dramatizing the disposition of victim, or self-pity. Those kinds of disciplines are challenging af. They get at the heart of some real shit. They press me up against my limits, hard. But quitting silly, dumbass MMA? Not so much. It would please that critical guy, I guess, but it wouldn’t do much else. So if you think taking on some counter egoic disciplines might deepen your practice—but without playing the game of trying to look spiritual, together, whatever—give it a try.

Lastly, just think how unspiritual it will make you look to subscribe to another time-wasting blog online, like, say, this one! Feel the burn of humility! Mmmmm. So yummy.

Also, consider the excellent procrastinating you could accomplish by leaving a comment! (Spiritual people don’t procrastinate, right?) Do you ever find yourself “acting” spiritual? Or beating yourself up for not living up to some sort of quasi-spiritual ideal? Leave a comment and let the world know! Or at least the ten people who read this blog. You’ll feel better (that is not a legally binding claim).

2 thoughts on “Don’t Look Spiritual!

  1. Bob Carroll

    Thumbs up Spirit Mojo. Useful and humorous. And as Mark Twain liked to point out, humor is one of the few positive tools humankind has adopted. Relative to mixed martial arts not being “spiritual,” that may be true in some cases, but it is also not so in many cases. For instance, I’ve been reading Peter Ralston’s The Book of Not-Knowing: Exploring the True Nature of Self, Mind, and Consciousness. (North Atlantic Books, 2010). Here’s a formal description of Ralston’s work:
    In 1975, Peter Ralston founded Cheng Hsin, a dogma-free approach to using direct experience in body/mind training, and two years later opened The Cheng Hsin School of Internal Martial Arts and Center for Ontological Research in Oakland, California. The first non-Asian ever to win the World Championship full-contact martial arts tournament, Ralston is author of Zen Body-Being, Cheng Hsin: Principles of Effortless Power, and other books.

    1. Mark Powell Post author

      Hi Bob, thanks for your comment and your kind words! And, as a matter of fact, when Peter Ralston was in Berkeley, I spent most of a summer training with him. And in his book, Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, he makes a comment in which he speaks very highly of Adi Da. Other devotees have trained with him, too. Thanks, again, brother!

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