The Spiritual Trap

The so-called ‘spiritual path’ that we hear so much about is a deeply confusing thing; it’s a deeply confusing thing from the point of view the conditioned self, at any rate! When we think of spirituality and the spiritual realm we think of light and love and creativity and the outpouring of blessings and abundance but all of this is necessarily seen from the perspective of the conditioned self. What other perspective would we see it from, anyway? We have no other available perspective to us – if we did then we wouldn’t need to be thinking or talking about ‘the spiritual path’ in the first place because we would already be there.  That’s where we want to be, not where we already are. It’s our ‘fantasy’, so to speak…


But why, we might want to ask, is it such a great problem to relate to the spiritual path from the POV of the conditioned self or ego? Surely we have to start off somewhere? The conditional self must after all be entitled to its own (however narrow) way of imagining what the spiritual life would look like.  This however is precisely the problem because the condition self sees everything in an inverted way – it can’t see things straight no matter what it does! That is beyond it. The self cannot help but see everything in terms of limitation and the projections that arise out of this unacknowledged limitation; it can’t help seeing things in terms of its own unacknowledged limitations because that is its nature, but how can freedom ever be represented in time terms of a limitation (or rather an ‘inversion’) that has not been acknowledged?


The self can’t understand anything except ‘through its own viewpoint’ and so when it thinks about freedom it naturally thinks about freedom for itself. It imagines that it’s going to obtain this great blessing called freedom (or peace or joy or whatever). But how can an imaginary entity that is constructed on the basis of ‘the absence of freedom’ actually obtain freedom for itself – this is a contradiction in terms. The nub of the contradiction is this: we know that freedom is wonderful but the thing is that we want to experience it at the same time as hanging on tightly (as tightly as ever we can) to our lack of freedom, which is where we get our sense of security from. We want two mutually exclusive things at the same time therefore, and we can’t for the life of this see any problem with this. Our fundamental allegiance is to our sense of ontological security, and yet somehow we imagine that freedom is something we want, even though freedom means ‘freedom from this restrictive (and entirely illusory) sense of ontological security’.


The only reason we are interested (the only reason the condition self is interested) in the so-called ‘spiritual path’ is because – on some level – it is convinced that there is going to be profit to be had in travelling down it. There is something highly attractive there that the conditioned self is reaching out for, in other words. The actual irreducible mechanics of the situation means that conditioned self can only be interested in something if it thinks that it can exploit that situation and the very nature of ‘the spiritual realm’ is that it is the one thing that can never be exploited by the self, or indeed be ‘related to’ (in any way) by the conditioned sense of identity. The spiritual life is what happens in the absence of this grasping, controlling, manipulating, perennially greedy and insecure self.



What we call ‘the spiritual realm’ is after all precisely that realm of being that is not a projection of the self; it is that realm of being that does not serve as a backdrop to the self, as a context for its activities. How can the self exploit its own absence, therefore? How can the self exploit reality, when reality is reality precisely because it is not being seen or constructed via an act of reference to that ‘unreal centre’ which we call the self’? And yet – despite this profound anomaly –the conditioned identity’s most sophisticated strategy for validating itself is to take up an interest in spiritual matters, ‘consciousness expansion’ and so-called ‘self-development’ in general. This is the point Chogyam Trungpa makes here in ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’

No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.

‘Appropriating spirituality’ is however only one example of what the conditioned identity is always doing in order to validate itself – the everyday self is forever hitching its cart to one sort of ‘good cause’ or another, and as far as ‘good causes’ go anything religious or spiritual is pure gold dust! There will never be any better validation and this. The conditioned identity or self-concept is by its nature always insincere therefore. It always has a hidden agenda and that hidden agenda is simply itself. This however is – generally speaking – a rather unacceptable agenda, a rather unattractive agenda, and so the self-concept comes up with something else instead, something more palatable and wholesome sounding, which it manages – very easily – to wholeheartedly believe in. Spirituality is no exception to this and this is why the world of ‘spiritual teachers’ and ‘spiritual seekers’ so often has bad smell to it, a bad smell which we might not notice straightway because of the glossy packaging it comes with. Generally speaking, we can say that ‘the glossier the package, the worse the smell will be’.


The essential contradiction is therefore, that the ‘attractiveness’ of the package is an appeal to specifically to the conditioned identity, and this is starting everything off on the wrong foot right from the word ‘go’. To revisit the example we gave earlier – we hear all this talk of abundance and manifestation and being empowered or supported by the universe (and so on) but this is all pure illusion, pure fantasy. It’s a projection of the conditioned identity – a projection which is so attractive precisely because of where it is coming from, which is ‘a place of chronic impoverishment’. Abundance is no good to the conditioned identity – the greater the abundance the greater the desire and the greater the desire the more misery we are going to be in. The conditioned identity will swallow all those riches down in a flash and become bigger and greedier and more miserable than ever. This is simply what we always do – we are always chasing the good stuff, no matter how we might happen to see it. In reality, nothing exists for the conditioned identity except for a very long, rocky road leading to its eventual extinction, and there’s not a lot of appeal in that! ‘Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment,’ says Chogyam Trungpa; there is no ‘good stuff’ out there that the self can win by playing the game of spirituality well enough, by meditating assiduously enough. There’s nothing for it take home and bank.


This is a there is of course another side to spiritual endeavour and that is the path of self-denial, self restriction, self mortification and we are of course very familiar with this from the example of the more ‘joyless’ forms of Christianity.. The puritans banned theatre and dancing (and merrymaking in general) in 16th century England, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan when they were in power. Smiling and laughing were not seen as a good thing! The ‘ultra-serious’ forms of religion always ban everything that has no bearing on the all-important task of fighting sin and purifying the soul. This is just another sham however – it’s just another strategy of the conditioned identity in its attempt to get what it wants. The more I reject and deny myself the more this shows my craven desperation to ‘obtain the prize’!


There is no ‘prize’ however – that’s just the crazed fantasy of the conditioned identity, as we have said. The prize I can’t wait to get my hands on is the prize of my ultimate unquestionable self validation, the prize of knowing that I’m definitely ‘doing the right thing’. This is absurd however – the conditioned identity can never do the right thing. Nothing it does can ever be ‘right’ (in the sense of being free from the taint of self-interest); the conditioned identity can never be validated the way that it wants to be because its motivations are never going to be honest and straightforward. The self’s motivations are never going to be honest because honesty would mean acknowledging its own inherent emptiness. The truth is the one thing that is never welcome at the door of the conditioned identity; its fundamental orientation – necessarily – is always towards fantasy.


This raises the question as to what ‘genuine spiritual endeavour’ might consist of – the type of spirituality that is not about chasing rainbows and unicorns on the one hand, or the humourless malignant denial of joy on the other. What is left after we take these two extremes away? The one thing we can say is that it is not helpful to try to step into the shoes of ‘an alternative version of ourselves’ who just happens to be more spiritually advanced (whatever that means!) and less screwed up than we are. ‘Spiritual bypassing’ is not the answer! Not only is this quite pointless (in the sense that it’s never going to get us anywhere), it is also actually going to work against us because we will be prone (in fact more than just ‘prone’) to believing that we have achieved some of virtue when we haven’t! Our illusory sense of ourselves is going to thrive, and we’re going to be happy about this wonderful ‘sense of spiritual identity’ and encourage its growth as much as we can. We’re going to water and feed it ever day…


Believing that we have achieved some sort of virtue when we haven’t (or believing that we are ‘more spiritual’ than we really are) is a recipe for an especially virulent type of shadow, and spiritual groups or communities have more than their fair share of ‘unacknowledged negativity’. There is all sorts of unacknowledged nastiness that goes on here. The same is true of course in mainstream religious circles – some the most vicious and inhumane acts in history were carried out in the name of God, or in the name of religion. On a less conspicuous level, it is always the case that when we imagine ourselves to be living life ‘more righteously’ than our fellow men (or fellow women) then this is going to give rise to a very unpleasant form of judgementalism on our part and this toxic judgemental attitude (the toxic judgemental attitude of the righteous man or woman) is how the ‘shadow of religion’ shows itself. The judgement of the righteous followers of the way upon their less worthy fellows is always a manifestation of the shadow. Very peculiarly, we tend to imagine that God Himself is judgemental and intolerant in this same way, and so – it could be said – we only taking our cue from Him! It’s as if we assume the Deity to be suffering from the same malaise that we are – the malaise of thinking that we are ‘more spiritual than we really are’, the malaise of having false ideas about ourselves. This – after all – is the only place intolerance and negativity comes from.


The cure for such hubris is simply for us to live life as we actually are, to walk in our own shoes, rather than in the shoes of some more spiritually-advanced ‘version of ourselves’. What could be a better way of being ‘cut down to size’ than this? Our idea of ourselves (the self-concept or conditioned-identity) operates by always promoting itself above its actual station. That’s what it does, that is ‘natural activity’. The self-concept makes itself into ‘the centre of things’; who after all doesn’t feel themselves to be ‘the centre of things’? We can feel that we are the centre of things in either a pleasant or an unpleasant way, as ‘the hero’ or as ‘the villain’, but it’s a false perception either way. Whether I feel like the best in the world or the worst in the world, it is still an inflation of my actual situation. Any thought of myself at all as an inflation of ‘the actual situation’ and the self-concept is never any more than just a thought’! The self-concept is only ever just a thought and all thoughts are inflationary (i.e. they make something special when it just plain isn’t) and so to live life as we actually are (rather than as we would like to be) is the infallible cure for spiritual hubris.


If we were to ask what the ‘true’ spiritual path might look like one good answer would therefore be to say very simply that it is to live our own life as we actually are rather than striving for some attractive ideal. ‘Striving’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, in other words! ‘Spiritual striving’ is not all it’s cracked up to be because on the one hand it blinds us to the way we actually are, and on the other it causes us to fall headfirst into the delusion of thinking that we are other than we actually are. This doesn’t mean that we stop striving however, because striving to be better is how we actually are. It’s not as if we should now turn things around and ‘strive to be non-strivers’! The unpalatable thing is always to be the person we actually are, and realize that in doing this we are being as honest as we ever possibly can be, and that this ‘honesty’ is the most that we can ever do. That’s the one thing we can do – be honest, and if we’re not honest (as we of course aren’t) then that’s fine too because all we need to do is pay attention to that.


It’s the truth that sets us free, as Jesus says in John 8:32, not any spiritual fantasy that we might be indulging in. We don’t need to try not to fantasize (if we do that then all that’s going to happen is that we’re going to run a fantasy in which we aren’t fantasizing) we just observe the fantasy we are running about ourselves whenever we it comes to us to actually remember to observe – how often – if at all – we do remember to notice the fantasy that we are currently running is another matter entirely, of course! A reorientation is involved here therefore – a reorientation from fantasy towards the unvarnished truth of what’s actually going on for us, however unglamorous or unpalatable that might be. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche puts it, ‘we stop looking for our dreams to come true’:

As long as you regard yourself or any part of your experience as the “dream come true,” then you are involved in self-deception. Self-deception seems always to depend upon the dream world, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen, rather that what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now is what is, nor are you willing to go on with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifests itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream world, the nostalgia of the dream experience. And the opposite of self-deception is just working with the facts of life.




Art: Lora Zombie Reykjavik