Some pitfalls on the spiritual path

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.

In general

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!

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A common pitfall: “I know, it’s obvious”

I once listened to a podcast where one of the hosts – who is typically quite intellectual and takes pride in it – talked about his experience with mindfulness. He had taken a course and said he didn’t get much out of it. Why? Because the instructor said things he already knew and were obvious, for instance that “we are not our thoughts”.

Knowing about versus direct noticing

Yes, we all know we are not our thoughts, at least intellectually and from our own understanding of what it means. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about exploring it for ourselves. When we look, what do we find? What do we find in our immediate experience, outside of thought? That’s very different from knowing something intellectually.

Memory versus direct noticing

At some point, we may have a direct experience of how we are not our thoughts. This may be reflected in our thoughts. (We think about it, talk about it with ourselves.) And after, we may know it through memory. And that too is very different from noticing it here and now. Whatever the memory points to will be new, fresh, and different as we explore it here and now.

We can discover more when we set aside the idea that “I know”

In this case, with the “we are not our thoughts” pointer, it may also be that he would discover something surprising had he only set aside his “knowing mind” and explored it for himself with some receptivity and curiosity.

Perhaps he thought he was this human self, and not his thoughts? Perhaps he would have found that he instead is capacity for the world as it appears to him, including this human self? Perhaps he would have discovered that what he is, is what all his experience – including this human self, thoughts, and the world as it appears to him – happens within and as?

Perhaps he would have discovered that when we are identified with something, for instance this human self, it’s actually an identification with or as the viewpoint of a thought? On the surface, it may seem silly to say “we are not our thoughts” if we think we are this human self. But, in reality, our identifications are with thoughts – including the thought of being this human self. We assume we are the the thoughts, although we may not always notice it.

Wherever we are in the process, and however much we have discovered, there is a world of difference between the memory and thought and the immediate noticing, and there is always more to discover. If we explore something with sincerity and receptivity, we may find that we surprise ourselves.

The terrain is different from the map

As many have pointed out, this is the difference between the map and the terrain. Or reading a menu and eating the food. Or hearing about a place and being there.

I may know a lot about a place through second hand information. I may be able to talk about it as if I have been there. But that’s very different from actually being there. And even if I am personally very familiar with a place, there is always more and new things to discover.

The terrain is always more than and different from any map. The maps are different in nature from the terrain. And even within their realm of ideas, the maps all come from a certain limited point of view, reflect a certain limited worldview, and highlight certain limited aspects of the terrain. No matter how familiar we are with the terrain, they also reflect a very limited experience.

In real life: often a combination

When I write here, I notice there is often a combination. I notice something in immediacy and I write partly from memory (phrases, points) and partly from immediate noticing. They go hand-in-hand.

And it’s good to set aside the pointers for a while, even if it’s just a little while, and be with the immediacy of what it points to. It will be fresh and new, and we may discover something we hadn’t discovered before.

Pitfalls of meditation

As different forms of meditation practice become more popular in the west, there is also a growing awareness of the possible pitfalls of meditation.

Here are a few:

We may be guided – either by ourselves or through a teacher – by misguided ideas. This may lead us to inadvertently practice or reinforce something unhelpful.

We may open up to various transcendent states and experiences and not know how to navigate them.

We may open up a Pandora’s Box of unprocessed psychological material.

In general, we may enter certain areas of the path or landscape without good guidance. Areas that are not fruitful. Or areas that are confusing, disorienting, and sometimes scary or overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to have access to a guide who understands and knows the terrain well from their own experience. Unfortunately, that’s often not

Unfortunately, many teachers – including many who have a formal training within a certain tradition – have a very limited skillset and experience. If anything slightly out of the ordinary happens, they may not know how to guide the student through it.

And fortunately, there are people out there who have this experience and the necessary skillset. What I have seen is that these are often people who are not bound by any one tradition. They may have training and experience from one or more tradition. But they also know and understand that the terrain we are exploring is far wider than any tradition typically covers, and that the pointers and skills needed to navigate is found in many different traditions and also outside of any tradition.

Of course, I am biased. The previous paragraph describes my own path and background, and the background of those who have guided me, so that’s naturally what I am more familiar with and inclined to see as helpful.

Pitfalls of openings and awakenings

Here are some common pitfalls of openings and awakenings:

New identifications. With an opening or awakening, new identities may surface and the mind may identify with these for safety. These identities include but are not limited to awareness, oneness, spirit, free. These are just more thoughts that the mind identifies with, and it’s good to notice and inquire into these as soon as they arise.

Unprocessed material. With an opening or awakening, the lid may be taken off any unprocessed material. Anything that’s unfelt, unloved and unquestioned comes up to be felt, loved, and questioned. Any unfelt emotions or feelings surface to be felt. Any unloved parts of us or our experience (including our whole world) comes up to be loved. Any unquestioned stories surface to be questioned. This can lead to a version of the dark night of the soul.

Kundalini. With an opening or awakening, kundalini may activate. For some, this may lead to a kundalini overcharge. It may feel like high voltage is going through regular house wiring, and as if parts of us – and perhaps our brain – is fried. This can be prevented and reversed.

What do I mean with an opening or awakening? I mean that we realize what we are, or what we are realizes what it is. This is what the mind may call awareness, oneness, no separation, spirit (or even Buddha Mind, Brahman if it’s so inclined). This may be a glimpse, or it may be a more stable recognition. Often, there is a mix of this recognition and remaining identifications which partially obscure this recognition. We then live partially from noticing what we are, and partially from remaining identifications. This is very natural, and there is not really any problem here, but it’s good to be aware of and acknowledge, and also to have ways to work with these identifications.

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Pitfalls on the path

1-Pathological Regression

Retreat into infantile prerational uroboric fusion. Indulgence in dissolution and fragmentation; often due to lack of modeling, support, structure or clearly defined developmental framework of ascent that covers all sides of the whole human (survival, somatic, emotional, social, spiritual). Desire to let ones life collapse in the hope of being rescued. Retreat into depression and grief to escape more expansive perception and profound sense of being.

2-Running Away

Retreat and evasion through dissociation and denial. Inertial holding back to former modes of perception and being. Effort to pull energy down, back and in through substance addictions, heavy food, sedentary lifestyle and through avoidance of “opening” practices and therapy. Secondary fear chemistry due to negative interpretation of kundalini events resulting in panic, paralysis, stagnation, isolation and avoidance. Even running away from bliss and increased wellbeing with various forms of anaesthetization, self-repression and self-destruction.

5-Fixation on Internal Processes

Overly fascinated, morbidly curious, distracted by and absorbed in kundalini symptoms, psychic phenomena and newfound spiritual powers (siddhas). This compulsive obsession with symptoms and phenomena feeds inflation and interferes with relationships and functional utility. Possible secondary fear or depression over the temporary loss of adaptive functions and left-brain sharpness. Inability to disembed to perceive emotional storms as psychosomatic events of alchemical cycles. Excessive reactivity to conditions both internal and external.

– from Pitfalls on the Path (I added the underlines)

I can find most or all on the full list in myself, and the three above seem especially relevant to me at times in my recent process.

Some statements and topics for inquiry….

Collapse: I need to be saved. I need someone to save me. It’s hopeless. I can’t do it. It’s too much. If I collapse, someone will help me. I need to collapse to get what I need. I don’t have what I need. –> Look for command to collapse. Command to find someone (something) to save me. Look for the one who needs to be saved. Look for the one who is collapsing. (Living inquiry.)

Compulsions: I need to move away from this experience. I need to distract myself. Food is comfort. Internet is comfort. Friends are comfort. Clarity will keep me safe. –> Look for command to move away from experience, to eat for comfort, to go to the internet for comfort, to go to clarity for security. Look for the one who is doing (or needing) these things.

Emotional storm: It means something terrible has happened (will happen). It’s too much. These emotions reflect reality. –> Look for the threat in the thoughts, images, sensations. Look for the command to move away.

And in general:

If I do any of these – go into a pitfall – it means I am doing it wrong. I am not up to it. I won’t get through it. I will fail. I am unable to cooperate with the process. –> Look for command to do it right. Look for the command for perfection. Look for the one who is doing it wrong. Look for the one who is doing it right. Look for the one who is doomed. Look for doom.