Pitfalls On The Magical or Spiritual Path
Otherwise benign New Spiritual practices can suffer from some of the same pitfalls as conventional organized religion. Fortunately, once we’re aware of these diversions we can make the informed choices that reunite us with the inspirited world, rather than contribute to our estrangement.
In my life of pilgrimage the voices of the earthen Anima have repeatedly contradicted what I’ve read, was taught, once thought, and so badly wanted to believe... Thus as I became a teacher myself, I deferred again and again— not to presumed authorities or established traditions, but to the actual Source of every real truth they contain. Our realization of wholeness/holiness begins not in contemplation or conclusion but in a great listening. It begins in a vulnerable condition of openness, with fierce focus, gentle humility, and the overwhelming gratitude that makes us worthy of such gifts.
1) THE MYTH OF LIGHT VERSUS DARK:
An all white piece of paper is blank. It’s the relationship of dark and light that defines form and makes movement visible to the human eye. Our lives are defined not only by moonless nights and sun drenched days, but also by what artists call “chiaroscurro”: the delicate interplay of dark and light brought about by subtly shifting shadows.
To make sense of what is illuminated, one must explore the dark depths of its meaning and its being. There’s really nothing intrinsically good or evil about either. Even as the usual metaphor, the darkness serves us in the form of insightful pain, comforting silence, the stillness between periods of tiring activity, the death that begets life— and the blackness that gives birth to light.
2) THE PROBLEM WITH “HIGHER” & “LOWER”:
We have to be careful about adopting a hierarchical model for consciousness and our progress on the spiritual path. Using a scale of “higher” and “lower” is in the tradition of kings and peons, Popes and vassals— a tradition of judging, exalting and condemning.
We speak of “high minded” ideals, “higher civilizations” and “lowly primitives,” “higher” chakras and those base “lower” ones. Science, organized religion and New Spiritual practice largely share the attitude that humans are a “higher” life form... rather than us being uniquely assigned but fully interconnected and cosmically, spiritually, energetically equal to all the other vital forms of the Gaian/Universal whole. We’re taught that mammals are “higher” (and thus more worthy of protection) than reptiles, that reptiles are higher than insects, and that the lowest of low— microbes— have no right to life at all.
In reality the Earth is spinning in space, with no fixed “up” or “down.” All people regardless of their race or their “level” of sophistication, all life forms, and even rock and soil and river are interwoven on the shared plane of Gaian matter, in the shared depths of spiritual/evolutionary purpose.
In order for something to be “greater” it must first be separate. And in matters of Earth and Spirit there is no such thing as separation.
3) WAITING FOR SALVATION:
New Spiritual practices have turned away from the big religions’ reliance on a separate and external God coming to make things all right, but there’s still a tendency to look outside ourselves for something to blame, and something to save us. We can’t help but desire being let “off the hook,” relieved of responsibility for our condition, our acts, our failed or fulfilled dreams. New soteriological dogma tries to shift this responsibility from the individual seeker to malevolent spirits, guardian angels, or manipulative “extraterrestrials.”
In truth, there’s no getting around the work. The assignment is ours. No one else is to blame, and we accept our share of the credit.
4) IMAGINING THAT WE’RE THE DIRECTORS:
There’s a flip side to expecting someone or something to absolve us of guilt or bail us out of our predicaments. While the dominant religious paradigm talks about God-given “dominion” over the Earth and all it’s plants and creatures, the New Spiritual language refers to benign “shepherding.” But either way, we’re being told that we have the wisdom to make decisions about the life and death of other species, and to determine the direction of evolution. There are naturalists who accept that the Earth as a self-regulating system (the so-called “Gaia Hypothesis”), but insist that we were designed to be the “brains” of the living planet. They see humanity as the directors of life and process, and collectively, as the organ of judgment and decree.
If they could, the mountains, the endangered redwoods and vanishing wolves would tell us that we are neither. The canyon, the river, the elk would rather we embrace our true evolutionary role as Gaian sensors, providing information to the planetary “all” by feeling, emoting, and responding to the conditions of the changing environment. Our shared purpose is caring. Our purpose is love.
5) THE “SPACESHIP” EARTH:
The major religions describe the Earth as an incidental stage for the acting out of the human play, the inconsequential testing lab and proving grounds of our benighted kind. Equally insulting, is the notion of the Earth as a “space ship.” Space ships are lifeless and soulless containers, whereas the Earth is a living composite— less a vessel than a seed, sailing not only through space, but through time.
6) THE CULT OF MIND:
The idea of an external and judgmental God has been slowly usurped over the last hundred years— unfortunately, not by a God that is both female and male, that includes rather excludes Creation. Instead, what we’ve witnessed is the ascension and glorification of the rational human mind. And it’s not only the atheists, scientists, pragmatists and materialists who have joined the cult. All too often the mind is treated as the center of our being, when it’s primarily just a word processor. The mind is naturally employed and best redeemed as a translator and spokesperson for the house of our empathy and love, as a servant of the still feeling human heart.
7) PREOCCUPATION WITH PAST & FUTURE:
While New Spiritual thought often extols a mindful Buddhist “here and now,” there’s a countercurrent of distraction from the vital present, a preoccupation with “future states” and “past lives.”
Our spiritual essence and energy is recycled back into the sacred soup, into the holy whole-ly All, and as such we have access to memories from all of creation and not just a lineage of dramatic reincarnations. But even with this great connection to a three and half billion year history of creation, our duty is the immediate mindful moment. Nothing that happened in the past is an excuse for current predicaments, nor are solutions in the hands of the future.
And whatever we accomplish later in our lives, whatever plateaus of revelation and experience we eventually reach, whatever ways that later generations might manifest and excel... will depend upon our sentient inhabitation of now.
8) OMENS, FATE & DESTINY:
There’s no doubt that other life forms, and the rest of the living world are endlessly communicating to us, imparting value and experience, setting examples and offering inspiration. There is indeed significance to everything that happens, and a lesson in every experience. The pitfall is that omens are so easily misinterpreted by a mind seeking predetermined answers. And at best, omens are no more than sign posts at various forks in the spiritual path. It’s still our choice and our responsibility, with every moment a decisive moment.
It’s too easy to credit fate our successes and failures. What we’re really dealing with is destiny. Fate as a concept is absolute, and thus an easy cop-out— whereas destiny requires our conscious and active participation. Destiny is our personal Gaian song, but it remains our choice whether or not we get up and dance to it. It’s a collaborative effort, between the wave, the opportunity, the momentum... and the human volunteer. It’s embracing all that you are, and all that you can be, in alignment with the intentions and forces of Earth and Spirit.
9) THE CULT OF HAPPINESS:
In the pursuit of happiness, some New Spiritual platforms recommend we avoid negative influences. However, it’s exposure to the so called “negative” that tests and fortifies the positive. Systems, habits and regulations are potentially more dangerous to one’s spiritual path than chaos or disruption could ever be. Besides, the Earth teaches that happiness is too easy a goal for our fleeting finite lives, too low a mark for our aims, too little to ask for one’s primary prayer. Better we covet childish exhilaration and sensual ecstasy, strive for quiet contentment and raucous excitement, pray for the realization of our truest, responsive, sensate selves! Better we seek the fullest expression of that being, suffer the price of our increased awareness, and bear the utter joy that is then our reward! After all, joy and suffering are polar twins, pointing to the same capacity and willingness to feel. Together they widen the scale, expand the measure of how alive we truly are! Happiness is the mind freed of immediate worries, the basket of our lives emptied of all disruptive input. Joy, on the other hand, is an ecstatic disruption— that together with longing and sorrow, fills that basket to the brim.
Happiness is comparatively shallow and inevitably conditional— whereas joy is so deep it remains undefeated, even with our honest embrace of the saddest of events. Gaia teaches us to embrace both, and to give thanks. For to really enjoy, one must fully enjoin... and fully rejoice!
10) EQUATING DIFFICULTY WITH MISDIRECTION:
One way in which the old and new spiritual paradigms differ, is that the former assumes the more difficult something is the better indication we’re doing what we’re “supposed to,” while the latter holds that if something is inordinately hard, it “wasn’t meant to be.”
While the spiritual path provides both difficulty and ease, neither is a clear indication that we are doing either right or wrong. Even while acting impeccably, we’ll find ourselves equipped with advantages as well as disadvantages, blessed with both struggle and opportunity.
11) THE VILIFICATION OF DEATH & ILLNESS:
Of course our energy, postures, lifestyles, attitudes and intentions effect our state of health. But many old and new teachings take this to the extreme, implying that all illness is preventable by purifying spiritually. The result is that one can end up equating illness with the level of spiritual advancement, with the sickest made to feel to blame for their maladies, and death seen as a defeat rather than as a teacher and unifier.
Additionally, while healing oneself physically is important, it’s not as essential as learning from our every illness or disability. If we cannot walk, by crawling we’ll notice the ground in more intimate detail. If we cannot see, we’ll surely hear all the more. Because I cannot fly, I am impeccably loyal to the ground. While I work to ease maladies, I cannot and should not ignore the wonderful humility they bring, the way they invite me to slow down and stay close to home. The most important benefit of any bodily arrest, after all, is gratitude for every sensation, every ability, every vestige of health, every moment of vital life that remains!
12) A GOAL OF NO SUFFERING:
Religion has long promised an end to suffering in the “life after death,” while some New dogma promises techniques to rid us of suffering right now. Unfortunately, “no pain no gain” is true in matters of emotion and Spirit as well as body building. Pain is not punishment, but a call to attend. Likewise, suffering is not our duty or karma, but rather the balance to exquisite pleasure. It is the counterweight against which we pull, and it is that pulling which provides the strength of our joy. Suffering is not how we pay the fine for past crimes, but how we pay the dues of our membership in the roles of the aware. It is the price of sensation, and part of the reward of being alive.
13) TRANSMUTATION OF DESIRE & THE DISTRUST OF INSTINCT:
Both old and New Spirituality teach that desire is an unruly child that doesn’t know what’s best for it, that the analytical left-brain has veto power over intuition, and that our instincts are “animal” impulses we must struggle to overcome.
Priests, politicians and gurus alike have taught that we can’t trust our intuition, because it’s what tells us that “something’s wrong with this picture.” They should fear the power of our inherent, native intuition, for it’s what warns us when we’re being disempowered, and what begs us to strike out against what binds us. It’s a red light designed to warn us— about the hours of our lives burned up without engaging in truly meaningful activity, the days spent stuck in artificially lit boxes, our Earth damaging or soul deadening careers, and any partners we might live with who don’t love and honor us like they should. Intuition is simply “body smarts,” ancient corporeal knowledge directing us to what best serves our real needs and authentic selves— and away from anything failing to serve us in this way. It’s fulfilled by mindful food gathering whether in a store or a field, but it recoils at standing in line. It’s attracted to learning, but suspicious of schools.
Our deepest instincts are the still-valid messages echoing the cumulative experience of our evolutionary past, and the forward looking intentions of the Whole. While ideas can be independent of and even contrary to the direction of Earth and Spirit, instincts are inseparable aspects of manifest Gaian will.
Teachers can pass on all the best processes in the world, but we still need to develop intuition and instinct in order to personally know how, where and when to apply them.
14) RITUAL AS RETREAT:
Both spontaneity and repetition can be valuable tools of the spiritual path. One is about responding heartfully in the moment, the other is about the deliberate deepening of intention and prayer. Both old and New Spiritualities employ ritual for that purpose, as well as to stylize their form and distinguish their character.
Repetition is good for ritualizing our intentional acts, and is particularly important for the undisciplined and indulgent modern person. But ever relevant Nature teaches that when ritual becomes unconscious and rote, it loses its meaning. And that when it loses meaning it isn’t ritual anymore, it’s habit. In addition patterns, schedules and constraints can become yet another escape from individual responsibility and unsettling but necessary change. Thus, for the most scheduled and organized of seekers disruption can be medicine, and the collapse of one’s patterns and plans: a cure.
15) THE MYTH OF “COMPLETE” TEACHINGS:
There are no closed systems in the universe, other than the entirety of the universe itself. All the rest are subsets, acting in reciprocal relationship. Thought patterns, beliefs, practices, human beings, entire bioregion, even the Earth— are all open systems that shed substance, energy and ideas, while constantly taking on new material. We’re only complete as part of this greater whole, in connection to all that enjoins and contains us, in intimate consort with all that is.
Likewise, no matter what our teachers or religious leaders might tell us, the borders of all teachings are mutable and transgressible. They’re subject to new input, evidence and revelation. It’s in this way that illusions are shattered, while authentic truths are not only reaffirmed but expanded and augmented.
All real truths are inviolable and insoluble pieces of an ever evolving, ever manifesting puzzle. Because truths are multidimensional, a serious seeker is forever turning them over, exposing previously unrecognized aspects and applications. There’s an element of creative disruption, and right decision becomes more difficult whenever we see the myriad sides of a situation, the myriad overlapping interactive truths.... but there are no contradictions in truth itself. On the farthest side of each piece one finds not its opposite, but those equally valid qualities that provide for balance.
Complete understanding is impossible for us, but a sense of completeness and connection are not. The more sides we unveil, the better we can see how each truth fits into the bigger picture, and understand its place and ours in this magical universe, in/of the living Earth, with/in those reoccurring patterns some call destiny or fate.
When a plant stops growing, it dies. So it is with religions, philosophies, sects and denominations. The beauty of a healthy teaching is that it’s admittedly, forever, incomplete— ever expanding like the universe, a learning practice as humble and resolute as a wizened sorcerer, as wide-eyed and open-hearted as a newborn child.
16) THE PURSUIT OF DETACHMENT:
Both the old and New Spiritual paradigms preach detachment from the material body, and the material Earth— while the Earth teaches and embodies attachment, intercourse and interdependence.
Longing is often fingered as the cause of suffering and discontent: seeking outside of ourselves for that which we fail to find within. But longing is also a force of connection. It’s the desire for the sensation of union, the palpable reality of wholeness, the realization of oneness.
Gaia assures us it’s okay to long for lovers, rivers, the healing of hurting children, the enlightenment of man, the experience of wholeness. For without longing, no bodies would come together in sweat and lather, to make it possible for conception. No soul would make the difficult passage through gestation and birth without the irrepressible longing for life. The bees would fail to make their blossom-time pilgrimages, and no sprouts would beat their soil to sun. Without our longing for clarity, we’d all be nothing but drones. Longing is the act of our essence reaching out a long, long ways— in order to embrace and then embody. And longing that the recipient can depend on, is attachment.
It’s because of a sense of attachment that the moon stays so near the Earth, and that the Earth maintains its orbit around the sun. Attachment is the gathering of atoms into that group hug that we’ve come to know as solid matter, the spin of molecules into transitional forms, and form into the immortality of art.
Love, like gravity, is a force of attachment. It makes us ache when we feel separated from the beloved, whether it be our romantic partner, a precious homeland, or the experience of Spirit. Love binds, not like ropes restrain a prisoner, but the way that egg binds the flour in home-risen bread.
Buddhists are in fact honorably attached to their Buddhism. Students feel attachment to their teachers, but that serves to keep their practices and their communities together. And teachers are attached— to process, without which there could be no cohesive teaching. Attached to truth. Attached to this slow unfolding of miracles!
17) THE MISINTERPRETATION OF PEACE:
According to traditional organized religions, inner peace results from fully adopting and obeying their dogma, and surrendering to their avatar. In New Spirituality, inner peace is considered to be a condition of tranquility. But in Gaian terms, peace is instead the state of being sated and centered— even when faced with deprivation and turmoil. Peace is a deep contentment that arises from self knowledge and self acceptance. It’s an inner balance that, like a ship’s gyroscope, insures personal peace no matter how we’re tossed about by the storms that rage around us.
Peace is more a product of spiritual focus and commitment, than it is of agreement. We are most at peace with ourselves and our beliefs, when they can stand the challenge of detractors, defy consensus, survive disagreement, and continue to grow without outside affirmation or support.
Inner peace results not from accomplishment, so much as from the knowledge that we have done our best... and that we have done so for all the most generous and significant of reasons. It comes from giving more than others may be able to receive, and being comfortable with accepting what others have to give. From a feeling of connection to the rest of the living world. And from fulfilling our most meaningful purpose.
19) THE GOAL OF TRANSCENDENCE:
For the old paradigms, transcendence comes with our death and resurrection. For the new, it comes through practice, in this life. For Gaia, there is nothing to transcend, and nowhere to go.
One needs to exceed their imaginary limits at every opportunity, sense the ways in which their energy and soul extends beyond the boundaries of the skin and into every being making up this Gaian whole, that being which reaches beyond the constraints of time to a condition of eternal oneness. But the concept of transcendence is a dangerous one. At its extreme, it encourages detachment from the sacred, sensual, mortal body, and estrangement from our primordial desires. The Earth is desperate for us to learn how to reinhabit our bodies and our land, not how to transcend them.
To transcend is to leave, while we’ve yet forgotten how to be, and forgotten how to stay. In reality, the most important place for us to go is right here, experiencing our vital presence and total connection to the unfolding universe, taking responsibility for our lives and our planet.
The most mystical of all travel is that return trip: to precious sense of place, and authentic sensual self. As always, the truly spiritual path is the one leading us back to the instructions of Gaia, to authentic self and inspirited place— the path that leads us home.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Animá earth-centered
practice, the author of five books including Gaia Eros (New Page 2004),
and performs on the GaiaTribe CD “Enchantment” <www.cdbaby.com/gaiatribe>. He and
his partners Loba and Kiva offer online Animá correspondence courses, as well as
host students and guests at their enchanted canyon and true ancient place of
power. Opportunities include weekend retreats, personal counsel, shamanic
vision quests, resident internships, and special Apprenticeships for the most
dedicated. Annual events include the Wild Womens Gathering, and the Medicine
Woman and Shaman Path intensives. Contact: The Animá Wilderness Learning Center
& Women’s Sanctuary, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830 <www.animacenter.org> <email@example.com>.
©Jesse Wolf Hardin 2005-2007 Reproduction
in any form is prohibited without express written permission
from the author.