The first person I ever knew who had her own guru in India was a woman named Shakti. She wore brilliant-colored, filmy clothes, exotic bracelets and amulets of carved snakes and jaguars. She spoke frequently about harmony, manifestation and unconditional love.
I'll admit that in her presence I always felt inadequate, ashamed of my "lowly" struggles with righteousness, resentment and materialism. So it came as a surprise to learn how harshly Shakti judged people who were not vegetarians or who found meaning in traditional religions. I discovered, too, that her friendships seemed troubled, and all relatively new: she had kept none of the friends she had made in the past. She also had no contact with her family at all, and brushed off the fact, noting that her parents were both alcoholics and that she had left home at fourteen.
Shakti had never dealt directly with the pain and anguish of her early experiences. Instead, she had taken a spiritual "bypass": she was using spirituality as a veil to hide her problems from herself.
By contrast, there were other people I admired, who had been practicing a spiritual way of life for a long time. They didn't act pious or superior, and they didn't romanticize how they lived either. They were modest about both their mystical experiences and their daily practice. They smiled easily, expressed sorrow, admitted to moments of anger and judgment, and were the first to laugh at their own human foibles.
It occurred to me, then, that not only did our culture mistake the idea of "love" for "romance," we also misunderstood what it meant for a person to be "spiritual." Our distorted view has led to myths that have created shadows on the spiritual path.
Here are three myths about spirituality (quite commonly held) that may be keeping you at arm's length from what's really going on inside.
1. Enlightenment is a destination.
The illusion of "enlightenment" as a light at the end of the tunnel is a common pitfall — with its promise of a permanent place of arrival. But in fact, enlightenment is not an ultimate state of being that can be perpetually sustained. Buddhist students are warned not to become attached to enlightenment as a goal.
Sometimes we may experience transcendence or deep inner peace, and that's great. But the trick is not to dwell on the moment so much that we become fixated on how to achieve the feeling again. Rather, it is deeply spiritual to appreciate the feeling as a glimpse of what's possible as we move on to the work of living this very human and (often) unenlightened life.
2. "Spiritual people" are superior to others.
Sometimes the idea of "being on a spiritual journey" can be misperceived as gaining membership into a secret society or an exclusive country club. People inside the clubhouse are on the true path. Those outside it are not; because their focus is elsewhere they are inferior, right? Wrong.
Our connection with spirituality is meant to shorten the distance between us and the rest of the world, not to set us apart from it. We're only one small part of a very large design. Everyone is on a "spiritual journey." We only know what is the right one for us.
Through a true practice, we gain in compassion and humility, and this gain reduces our need to feel special. True spirituality permits us to see that we're a part of everything, that we're all a part of each other, rather than separated into those who know and those who don't.
3. Spirituality rids your life of all negativity.
Whether our spiritual evolution leads us to scale mystical peaks or to settle into the repose of quiet new thoughts, eventually we reach a point where parts of our old life (and some of the people in it) no longer fit in the same way. To try and describe our new beliefs can be awkward. In turn, those that hear us may respond with cynicism. They may be dismissive, critical, or feel threatened by what we say. Spiritual discovery is a subjective experience; it cannot be told to another without the sacrifice of some of its magic.
Inner change sometimes reveals itself in dramatic outward shifts in attitude and behavior. We may find that we can no longer maintain our old relationships in the same way because something inside us has deeply changed. The challenge then is to admit that the fit is not the same, to mourn the loss of some relationships, and even to grieve for the old self we've lost. It may be as painful to let go of who we've been as it is joyful to welcome the new self.
The real destination on any spiritual path is to reach a broad acceptance, which includes the beginnings and endings that take place along the way, without the need to denounce any part of our experience.
Whatever wonders we witness in our journey, we remember that we're still humans in the physical world. Cosmic moments of understanding come and go, and we plummet back into ordinary life. We cannot hold on, nor are we meant to. We may have been to the mountain and seen miracles, but we still need to do the laundry and remind our kids to brush their teeth. We have the potential to claim more wholeness and peace of mind than we imagine.
We also have egos, body-centered personal dramas, instincts, and a variety of hard-wired emotions. Spirituality isn't a goal; it's our essence. Depression, disillusionment, and doubt are part of life. So are sorrow, anger, and struggle for meaning, and difficulties with love. There is no escaping the human condition and, when we try to bypass it, we fall into the shadow-lands of the journey.