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Toxic Spirituality: My Top Tips for Avoiding It

In this article, we discuss toxic spirituality and look at my six tips for avoiding it.

Toxic spirituality is imbalanced, unrealistic and disempowering. Spirituality should improve our lives, help us feel more fulfilled, and foster deep self-understanding, not the opposite.

On my spiritual path, I’ve witnessed various kinds of toxic spirituality. In some cases, it is down to toxic spiritual teachers – check out my article on spiritual teachers for more info. In others, it’s down to seekers. In any case, it’s super useful to have some guidelines to follow so that you know how to lead a healthy spiritual life.

Toxic Spirituality & My Tips for Avoiding It

Toxic Spirituality Tip #1: Don’t Overidealise Spirituality or Spiritual Teachers

We tend to overidealise spirituality and spiritual teachers. Part of the issue is that spiritual language, no matter what set of teachings you follow, sounds extremely sexy.

Awareness, awakening, emptiness, enlightenment, asanas, mind, Buddha nature, namaste… the stream of sexy language is endless.

Besides, spiritual teachers talk about the path as though it were a kind of panacea. They promise an end to all suffering, a remarkable inner transformation, a huge shift in our levels of compassion and altruism, contact with deep joy and contentment beyond all conditions, and more.

I don’t deny these things are possible. With enough practice and inner work, you can contact and embody these qualities. But don’t idealise them – they are the endpoint of a long, tricky path, and they probably aren’t quite what we think.

If at any point you’re trying to escape life’s difficulties by clinging on to these fancy concepts, take a step back. If you notice you get excited about a concept but have no idea what it really means, practice until you do.

Concepts are useful pointers, only that. And if we never contact what they point to, they have failed to serve their purpose for us.

Toxic Spirituality Tip #2: Hold Ideas and Beliefs Lightly

I also suggest you hold beliefs about God, reality, spirit and non-duality very lightly. Your ideas are just ideas, and they can be wildly disconnected from the living, breathing essence of what they refer to.

I see many people holding rigid ideas about these topics, and when things occur to them in the objective world, their beliefs are shaken and their whole world falls apart: “Why do people lie if we are all God?” “Why is there suffering if everything is perfect?” “Why do I feel separate if I’m one with others?”

Your ideas are just ideas – general statements. They usually don’t match up to the nitty-gritty reality of human life, they cause you suffering, and they ultimately keep you stuck in concepts rather than your present experience.

Spirituality is really about direct experience, not about developing more elaborate belief systems. And the more elaborate, the more subject they are to damage. Use them as a guide, not a rigid filter.

Meet life directly as it is, knowing you participate in everything that happens to you, and that though you can’t change the basic rules of the game, you can radically change how you are in the game. Face your problems head on, never letting spiritual ideas preclude or deny practicality.

Toxic Spirituality Tip #3: Don’t Talk It – Walk It

It’s easier to talk spirituality than to walk it. I’ve met plenty of people who talk a lot about presence, and awareness, and compassion, and self-knowledge, yet the way they talk betrays their lack of knowledge about these very topics.

Here’s the principle I use: the deepest spirituality is non-verbal. It’s completely silent, fully embodied, fully felt, fully present. As soon as you open your mouth, you lose pure contact with the spiritual path. You tip over the container.

Besides, when you talk, you often make it about other people, not yourself. This is a huge blind spot.

Even before you reach the point that you can understand the depth of this, you can start preparing the ground by avoiding too much talk. Rely on direct experience and on coming back to the path moment to moment to moment. Don’t talk it, live it.

Toxic Spirituality Tip #4: Practice Regularly

I advise you to truly practice spirituality, not just read about it.

Don’t get lost in reading a million books, buying all the paraphernalia, saying namaste and burning incense. If you do, you’ll forget what this is really all about. It’s the same as playing golf, having all the fancy golf clubs and clothing, knowing all the pro players, using all the golf lingo, yet being useless at the game of golf.

Establish a regular practice of (real) yoga, meditation, contemplation, or some other spiritual practice, and accumulate thousands of hours of practice. This is the backbone of the spiritual life. This is how you really walk the spiritual walk. All else is just appearances.

Tip #5: Get a Life

I say this both as a joke and as a serious recommendation. It’s easy to become too absorbed in spirituality and forget about the many other dimensions of life.

All interests and passions can turn into obsessions and means by which we try to escape, and spirituality is even more liable to this than ordinary pursuits. It seems to offer both a perfect escape and a philosophical framework for justifying that escape. But this is only an appearance – in reality you can’t use spirituality to escape all the ordinary challenges of life. If anything, it should help you more fully embrace your challenges, then go through them.

If you find your life is imbalanced and you feel unsatisfied, adding more spirituality should only be part of the solution. You also need to meet the problem head on, without trying to explain it away with contrived spiritual excuses or justifications.

In any case, whether you feel satisfied or not, life is about way more than just getting enlightened. Forget that, and you miss the joy of being alive and experiencing life in all its richness.

Tip #6: You’re Just Some Person

My final tip is to remain humble on the spiritual path, regardless of your attainment. Lack of humility, in my opinion, is one of the reasons spiritual teachers turn toxic.

Spirituality can bring life-changing realisations. It can transform your sense of identity, your view of life, your way of treating others, and your levels of fulfilment in ways that nothing else can.

But I encourage you to never identify too much with your realisations. Live them, embody them, enjoy them, but don’t take them too seriously. If you do, you might start taking yourself too seriously and send yourself down the slippery slope to narcissism and devilry.

Always remember you’re just some guy or some girl… regardless of what others say, or what you think, you’re not a saint, or a Buddha, or a guru. You’re just one of the 8 billion humans on this planet that is living the game of life.

Learn how to avoid spiritual abuse and toxic gurus in this episode of the Deep Psychology podcast.