The post is part of the series: The Four Horsemen of Spiritual Ego.
“I know it’s not spiritual,” I say to Sanya, “but I’m really angry.” Minutes before, I’d had a confrontation with someone who stepped in front of my car on a quiet road, telling me I should have given him more room. I lost my cool. After a week’s retreat away from the hustle and bustle, this was my venture back into city-living. “There’s no need to step in front of the car,” I said, “I could’ve hit you.” We exchanged heated words, my body flushed with adrenaline.
Hours after, the incident replayed over and over. I oscillated between justifying, reasoning, and self-minimising. What I’d done wasn’t awful, it was mild, no one was harmed, we both had our reasons and our shortcomings in the exchange. But in my mind’s eye, spiritually evolved people don’t get angry, or if they do, they take a few deep breaths, articulate how they’re feeling, and don’t act from that anger. The sense of failure added to my shame.
You might find this experience familiar. So often we compare ourselves to the correct way to be spiritual, a judgement that suppresses our authenticity and leads to self-censorship. What are the causes of spiritual correctness, and how are these standards reinforced in group dynamics? Learning this can help you to find your authentic spiritual path amidst the noise.
What is spiritual correctness?
First we have to understand political correctness. The term originated from left-wing thinking in the 1970s to avoid causing harm to marginalised or disadvantaged groups from harmful language or policy. Over time, the concept became weaponized by right-leaning politics. The sweeping criticism was that political correctness was excessive, an attack on free speech.
Such is the duplicitous nature of politics and language, this was true and untrue. Political correctness gone mad was a buzzphrase to hide harmful intentions under the guise of free speech. But political correctness is a form of censorship, which has been applied beyond its scope, especially in our so-called woke culture. Research by Harvard Business School has shown that zero tolerance to politically incorrect behaviour has a detrimental effect of both majority and minority groups.
Another study found that politically correctness, with the intention to avoid harming others, leads to cognitive exhaustion. It doesn’t create a space for forgiveness and understanding. When internalised, it stops people from speaking out when they feel their view could be offensive. No one wins.
The genesis of spiritual correctness
“[Divine judgement is an] act of God affecting the life or destiny of his rational creatures. It is called judgment by analogy with the function of a human judge who weighs the pros and cons of a situation and makes his authoritative decision accordingly. During life it often refers to what are considered divine acts of retribution, such as some natural disaster. More properly, it is the decision that God renders to each human being at death, and his final judgment of mankind at the end of time.”Catholic Culture
Religious dogma enforces spiritual correctness. People raised in religious environments may have been shamed for acting in so-called unspiritual ways by their parents or caregivers, or when contradicting the ‘rules’ of whatever religion is followed. In years gone by, the rules were set by the church, and the symbol of God reflected this, as an all-seeing, omnipresent judge of right and wrong, virtue and sin, the final judgement leading to salvation or damnation.
In non-religious contexts, spiritual correctness is harder to detect, its rules implicit, or unconscious. Take Buddhism. When learning about concepts such as right speech, loving kindness, sympathetic joy (all of which are life-enhancing when practised authentically), there’s a risk of comparing your behaviour to an idealised Buddha nature, and the spiritually correct way to be Buddhist.
Spiritual correctness applies to secular spirituality, too. It can be spiritually incorrect to get lost or immersed in dualism (see: daily life), to experience emotional reactivity, or to become attached, as nonduality is about identifying with the eternal and infinite self. Statements such as “I am not this body,” or “I am God” can lead to judging the sensual, the emotional, or the human, as incorrect.
Pluralistic ignorance and spiritual ego
Modern spiritual movements create their own echo chambers of what is correct, and what isn’t, rules which are implicitly passed on through languaging or behaviour. Some teachers become deliberately contrarian, living up to an unspiritual image, as a way to discreetly imply they’re more evolved because of their nonconformity. Groups then create their own contrarian rules, and spiritual correctness, or incorrectness, will adapt to those rules accordingly.
How do those rules remain unchallenged, hidden in the collective shadow? In social psychology, pluralistic ignorance is the phenomenon where the majority of people in a group privately disagree with consensus of ideology, belief, or opinion, but mistakenly believe they’re the minority. Through self-censorship, and wishing to align with their idea of the group, the prevailing beliefs are upheld, even when most don’t agree with them.
Censorship keeps the group in stagnation, unable to give the ‘unspiritual’ the awareness it needs to transform, to say when the guru has no clothes. The less self-honest people are about the inner reality of awakening, the more obscure the truth becomes. The point of reference is distorted, creating a feedback loop of the correct way to be, banishing certain qualities further and further into the shadow.
There’s no correct way to be you
“When you are freed from being out to improve yourself, your own nature will begin to take over.”Alan Watts
I wonder if the myth of a judgemental God, of punishment and reward, is embedded in unconscious beliefs about spiritual development. Reinforced by an education system where teachers, symbols of authority, score and rank students. Yet spirituality is not conditional, there are no standards to succeed or fail. No correct, or incorrect. It’s practice, not performance, and the practice lasts a lifetime.
Each of us is in the battle ground between our highest potential and the vulnerable and human. Any time you behave more compassionately, with more integrity, with more selflessness, with more forgiveness, is to be celebrated. The times we act ‘unspiritual’ motivate us to do better — as long as our standards are healthy.
Spiritual perfection, such as unconditional love or Christ-like compassion, is a North Star to be inspired by. Few, if any, embody those qualities all of the time. Have self-compassion when you fall short. Don’t fall into the trap of self-judgement.
Move towards that North Star as best you can, each day, each moment, an opportunity to try again.