There are many possible pitfalls on the spiritual path, and it can be helpful to be aware of some of them.
Most of us fall into one or more of these at different times of our process. The consequences can be minor or major. They can create some challenges and suffering. They are natural, understandable, and ultimately innocent. They are not inherently wrong or a mistake. And when they happen, they become part of our path and process, and – hopefully – something we learn from.
Some of these are phase-specific and some can happen at any point in the process. A few may be what’s needed at one point in our process, and become more of a pitfall in another phase.
I have written about some of the myths of awakening before, and one of the pitfalls is the myths about awakening. We may think awakening will solve our very human problems and challenges. That it’s a state – of bliss, joy, and free of suffering. That it gives us special powers. And so on. I’ll include some of those below.
So what are some of the pitfalls?
Relationship with our human life
We may focus on spiritual practice to the exclusion of our life in general. We still need to be good stewards of our life, as much as anyone.
We may engage in spiritual practice to resolve our suffering. Although spiritual practice can help, it’s equally important to address this in a more conventional way. To seek our healing for trauma and emotional issues, in whatever ways we have available and makes sense to us. The pitfall here is focusing exclusively on spiritual practice and assume it will take care of everything.
We may hold onto beliefs, identities, and assumptions and not identify and question them. A path of awakening involves identifying these, and especially our most cherished ones, and examine and question them and find what’s more true for us.
We may use awakening or spiritual practice as an excuse to treat others badly. (I saw this at the Zen center when I was there, among some senior people.)
We may get overconfident. We may live in intoxication from spiritual ideas or the initial bliss of finding what we are, and not take care of our human life. We may think it’s not important. That we won’t be touched by anything happening in our human life. That we can deal with anything. That it’s all fodder for practice. And not be a good steward of our life in an ordinary sense.
We may get overly discouraged by disillusionment, and not realize that awakening in many is ways a disillusionment process. It’s a process of realizing that our illusions – especially about what awakening will give us – are just that, illusions.
We may wish to retreat from life while it’s life that gives us fodder for practice. Our life, as it is, is usually more than enough for giving us that fodder. And that life can sometimes be in a monastery, a solitary retreat, and so on. That’s life too.
Relationship with teacher, teachings, and tradition
We may idealize a teacher, gild them, and put them on a pedestal. We may forget they are human beings just like anyone. We may assume their views and decisions are infallible. We may hold onto their every word as if it was gold. We may make decisions that go against our better judgment because they encourage us to do so.
We may try to give away what we can’t give away to a spiritual teacher or guru. What we can’t give away is our responsibility for our life – our choices, insights, practice, and so on. We are the final authority for all of this.
We may overlook that what we see in a spiritual teacher is also here. A better approach is to use the teacher and anything as a mirror for ourselves and find it here.
We may make what the teacher or tradition says into a belief. They are, at most, pointers. Something for us to explore for ourselves.
We may mindlessly adopt assumptions from the teacher and tradition. It’s helpful to identify these, question them, and find what’s more true for us. We can find the validity of these assumptions and also their limits.
We may assume that “our” tradition is the best one for every one or even the one true one. If this happens, it’s usually an attempt to feel more safe, remove a sense of uncertainty, and feel better about ourselves.
We may stay too focused on the tradition we are in, and overlook simpler and more effective practices found elsewhere.
We may get overly focused on the form and tradition and overlook what it’s really about: finding what we are and exploring how to live from it.
Relationship with practice
We may have an orientation to the practice and life that’s not so helpful. Sincerity, honesty, and diligence are some of the more helpful orientations.
We may dip our toe in too many streams without going deep in anything. It’s helpful to explore and learn from different approaches. And we also need to go deep in something – preferably an approach that works well for us.
We may stay with practices that don’t do much for us. If you don’t see results relatively quickly, why stick with it? Why not find some that may fit you better and work better for you?
We may rely on overly complex and involved practices when there are simpler and more effective ones out there.
We may engage in one practice or one type of practice at the cost of a more inclusive approach. We are complex beings so it’s helpful with a range of approaches. For instance… Training more stable attention is helpful for just about anything we want to do, including spiritual practice. Basic meditation – notice and allow what’s here – helps us notice what we are. Heart-centered practices help us shift our relationship with ourselves, others, and life. And so on.
We may get complacent about our spiritual practice. We coast along in familiar territory and don’t take it further. We don’t identify and question our stories or underlying assumptions about ourselves, life, and anything connected with spirituality. We don’t make an effort to do what we do with a little more diligence, sincerity, and curiosity. We don’t adjust things – change practice or how we do it – if the practice doesn’t seem to go any further.
We may seek salvation or safety through spiritual practice and awakening. Nothing can give us or take away the salvation and safety that’s already in what we are (capacity for the world), and nothing can give us salvation or safety as who we are (a human being). For this, it’s as or more effective to work on the stressful beliefs and emotional issues fueling our search for salvation and safety.
We may assume what works for us works for everyone. Teaches, traditions, and practices are medicines for specific conditions. For other people, a different approach may be what works better. And for us in the future, another approach may work better than the one we are currently using.
Relationship with awakening
We may seek to hold onto a state and peak experiences and overlook that we are capacity for all of it. We may miss the point of the practice.
We may notice what we are and underestimate it. We may think it’s too simple. It didn’t come with the bells and whistles we expected. We may not realize how profoundly transformative it is to keep noticing and living from it.
We may overestimate what happens in an awakening. We may think it solves all our problems. That it’s an ongoing state of bliss. That it gives us special powers. And so on. (This is one of the myths of awakening mentioned earlier.)
We may overlook the importance of embodiment. We may assume that noticing what we are is where it ends, and not emphasize exploring how to live from the awakening.
We may notice what we are and overlook the many parts of us still operating from separation consciousness. These tend to surface to join in with the awakening, and it’s up to us to support them in this process. In an important sense, they are our suffering devotees and we are their guru.
We may assume that awakening is the end of the path. In reality, it’s a new beginning. It’s the beginning of keeping on noticing what we are in the moment, explore how it is to live from it, and notice what in us is not yet onboard with the awakening.
We may assume there is an end to the path. In reality, it’s ongoing. The clarification, deepening, and exploration has no end. To be more specific, it’s here and now and the “end to the path” can only be found in an idea.
We may assume awakening makes us better than others or who we were. Our true nature is always here and is the same for everyone. Noticing it is just the icing on the cake and doesn’t make us worse or better.
We may assume that going into these pitfalls is inherently a mistake. If we go into them, that becomes part of our process and something we gain experience and hopefully learn from. And that’s no reason to actively seek any of them out.
We may also assume we can avoid these pitfalls. Yes, we may be able to avoid them in an obvious way. At the same time, I can find each one of these in my own life and I assume most others on a spiritual path can as well. It may not be something very obvious, but I can always find some examples. The question is often not if but how.
In general, these pitfalls come about because we believe a story. We take a story as true – often in an attempt to stay safe – and perceive and act as if it’s true. And that gives us consequences that help us notice the story we hold onto, that it’s not true in the way we initially took it, and perhaps find what’s more true for us.
About this list
This list obviously reflect my own biases, including that I mostly have been outside of traditions. Someone else would create a list that’s slightly or very different.
I wrote these as they came to me and then roughly organized them, so there is some overlap and they can be systemized better. The list is also far from complete!Read More