Stereotypes of the Spiritual Person

Kathy Ryndak, Gord RiddellDuring our many years of working and studying in the field of spirituality, we have often been asked to differentiate between what is considered spiritual and what is considered religious. It is a good point, since all spiritual philosophies and practices are lumped together as arising from a religion. It doesn’t seem to matter that there are hundreds of religions and just as many spiritual practices; inevitably they are put in the same basket and labelled as though they are one experience.

This is especially true for individuals who have had less than stellar experiences with religion, more commonly known as the “church,” while growing up. “Spirituality” is a vague term. It means different things different people. We will use it here to refer to intentional (i.e., directed consciously) practices that develop the mind/body connection causing it to change the perspective of the self and lessen the suffering of the self and others. The important part is that it’s intentional; a decision to do various practices which will over time change how one experiences oneself and the world at large.

Religion, on the other hand, is the structure, the building, into which spirituality is nudged, redefined, and governed by laws which everyone ideally must follow. It is here that spirituality is named. At the heart of all religions exists the very essence of spirituality, whether clearly visible or lost under man-made laws and interpretations. These are the spiritual underpinnings which inspired most religions and are there for all to find, with a little work. Conversely, spirituality at its heart is not religion. While religion has worked to delineate, define, and structure its brand of spirituality for the masses, intentional spirituality that develops the body/mind connection is neither defined nor structured. Although some practices may require prescribed rules, each individual can participate on their own or within a group practice, experiencing with their own mind and body the meaning of such activities and ultimately bringing it into their own understanding and life. While there are many religions and spiritual practices, each chosen path has its own trajectory. They do not all lead to the same place nor the same experiences. One direction may lead to the healing arts, another to the mystical path of any one of the world religions, and yet another to working with mystical angels and demi-gods. No matter the path, all roads taken do not go to Rome but they do lead, over time, to the heart of the human soul.

Spiritual Qualities or Stereotypes

All spiritual practices or religious experiences are uniquely individual and defined solely by the internal awareness of the many levels within each human. We are attracted to those spiritual practices with which we resonate. It can be our intellectual, emotional, or our soul level which identifies the attraction to a specific pathway. We may stay with the same path from the beginning or move from one to another.

Over time there appears to have evolved a checklist as to what a spiritual adherent and a spiritual teacher are supposed to be, act, think, and appear as. This is a rule book which has more ‘thou shalt not’s’ rather than a statement or list of the attributes which propel anyone along the spiritual path.

Perhaps this developed image is closest to the archetypical image of the Wise man/Sage with the long flowing robe and beard who searches ceaselessly for the answers, the truth, to the world’s most mystical questions. This is a stereotype that encompasses the idea of perfection in human form. Perhaps it is the guru or yogi who emanates a radiance of love and caring, never wavering in their embrace of every human condition without judgment, or a Mother Teresa embodying outreach to all who need help and to be cared for. A personality of pure love, peaceful calm, and nonjudgment, can best describe the stereotypical expectations we may have of a person on the spiritual path. Combine that with refraining from unhealthy behaviours – such as a glass of wine in the evening, smoking, fried foods, too much sexual activity – and you have a list that takes being human out of the human experience.

Words like “striving” and “perfection” play out as important recurring ideas when considering the qualities of the spiritual person. Certainly the very concept of spiritual denotes action. Spirituality is something we do, and it is done through our spiritual practices and through our life. The important part is the striving, continually moving forward. It is not capped with an outcome. We do not know where the path leads; we just know that it is the place for us to be.

Limiting Beliefs

The idea of perfection becomes problematic insofar as perfection does not exist, at least within human form. When we project a perfectionistic construct onto others, we rob them of their humanity. We create such a judgment as to obliterate the soul journey of the target of our projection. Every person, including those who are our spiritual teachers, struggle with the many limitations placed on us by our human-ness. We are here for a reason, even many reasons, yet these reasons are a mystery. Aside from the reality that teachers are human and subject to all that is human, whether good, unhealthy, or indifferent, they continue to progress further along their own path knowing they have chosen a difficult trajectory. Anyone who enters and embraces the spiritual path has taken on an accelerated learning curve. Circumstances and events will always speed up the pathway of the spiritual seeker. Most often there is very little control as to the speed of learning once we have set foot on the path and there is not a teacher out there who would have it any other way. The rewards are great and the journey can be difficult. In some ways we never reach perfection and in other ways we are already perfect. The important part is the striving, not the outcome. A spiritual person progresses in spite of difficulties, or perhaps because of them.

An additional problem with these stereotypical images occurs when everything we project onto others and expect of others on a spiritual path, we also tend to believe about self. If we are judging others from a perfectionistic purity, you can be sure that is extended to ourselves. If such a “no-flaws allowed” attitude is allowed to persist, we may become unnerved by such a decree that we simply sit on the sidelines and never fully commit to the path. This is an example of being able to talk the talk but never walking the walk for fear people will see right through us.

Not being able to live up to our own expectations of ourselves can be debilitating. The projection of extraordinary qualities and expectations on others and ourselves creates an impediment to our spiritual growth. It is also unfair and judgmental to assume that we could presume to dictate spiritual qualities for all and extend those limitations to others.

Spiritual misconceptions can obstruct spiritual progress. Yes, there is such a thing as spiritual progress. Like anything else, as you practice, you get better at it – and not just in terms of brute skills, but in terms of observable changes to the mind, and maybe even the brain. Let us support those who struggle on an accelerated path and whose progress may not be as chartable as a marathon race, but they are chartable nonetheless.

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