Spiritual competition: My spirituality is better than yours!

Is it possible to be competitive in your spiritual pursuits?

Depiction of the concept of spiritual competition

The word spirituality conjures up all kinds of references, implications and ideas in people’s minds. People’s notions of spirituality may consist of: the spiritual character of thought, incorporeal ideology, devotion, traditional religion, the supernatural, or a delicately refined amalgamation of these. Irrespective of what spirituality means to each individual, those driven by it seek to make progress towards some sort of attainment. If this was not true, the person would be pursuing something else. This is the basis of “spiritual competition” or the “mine is bigger than yours” phenomenon in spirituality. It’s another aspect of the phenomenon known as spiritual ego.

While the phenomenon has its roots in concepts like the peacock tail effect in evolutionary psychology, the word “bigger” here doesn’t merely refer to size. It refers to a higher level of sophistication, forms of superiority and validation of authenticity of the spiritual experience. Apart from the base idea of one religion being better than another, this phenomenon shows itself up in multiple ways, especially in an age of ‘power yoga’ and ‘power spirituality’. These are just some instances in which you might see the spiritual competition manifest itself in the world of spirituality.

Signs of spiritual ego

The inner circle syndrome

In many ashrams or retreats there are likely to be one or two key spiritual leaders who are at the so-called helm of affairs. It is quite common in such situations to see some followers losing focus on their spiritual pursuit, while aiming to get closer to the Guru or spiritual leader. They want to become part of the inner circle — it is the spiritual ego at work. Demonstrating the typical spiritual competition mindset, there are some who even go to the extent of wanting to be the “favorite” follower or disciple. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this, it simply isn’t what a spiritual journey should be about.

The journey/destination conflict

In spirituality, there are several roads that lead to the destination, and many a times the spiritual experience is the road itself. There is an unsaid clash of different mindsets here. While one set of people pursue spirituality to get to a final point of bliss, enlightenment or whatever you choose to call it, there is another set that attributes more importance to the spiritual journey rather than the destination. Of course there is a third group that gives equal importance to the spiritual journey and the destination, or see no difference between the two. While there’s some truth to each of these mindsets, it certainly doesn’t establish the superiority of one mindset over the other. All it establishes is that people need to pursue spirituality based on what works for them.

The time myth

The time frame factor plays a crucial role in people’s perceptions of a spiritual practice. While there is no debate that, with time and preparation, one gets better at anything including spiritual practice, the duration is not certainly an indicator of spiritual progress. It is as if a quick path or easy access to a spiritual experience is not real or authentic. There are some who’ve had profound spiritual experiences in their very first attempt or class while there others who’ve had a life-changing spiritual experience after many years of practice. There are still some for whom a trek in the mountains or just watching children play in a park triggered a spiritual awakening.

Another dimension of the spiritual competition around the time myth is related to the time spent doing the spiritual practice itself. For example, many meditators see the ability to meditate for extended periods at a stretch to be more advanced than meditating for a few minutes a day. Again, it is one’s spiritual ego that measures and compares. Though it might require a certain amount of practice and ability to even sit in the same position for more than an hour, it is certainly not an indicator of the quality or level of one’s spirituality.

The experience trap

It is not uncommon in any spiritual practice for people to have interesting experiences at different points. These experiences could be anything from getting a feeling of immense peace, to stillness or even feeling the presence of god in one’s own way. What mostly gets missed out is that spirituality is beyond these experiences. Unfortunately, many individuals get sucked into or sometimes even get addicted to these experiences. Worst still, people even equate the nature of the experience to spiritual progress. This is nothing more than reducing spirituality to a mere set of experiences —a sure shot sign of spiritual ego.

A spiritual experience can’t be described

Many believe that a spiritual experience needs to be complex. No it does not. There are talks by some spiritual gurus that specifically state that if someone can describe a spiritual incident to you then it is not real because a true spiritual occurrence cannot be described in words. While an extended spiritual experience could be more difficult to explain than simpler feelings and emotions, it is certainly not a metric to measure the caliber of the experience itself. The fact of the matter is that it is perfectly possible for someone with a good enough vocabulary to explain the range of feelings and emotions that one has experienced during a spiritual trip. That does not take away from the quality or genuineness of that experience. On the other hand, it is also true that some deep spiritual experiences are nothing more than simple feelings like gratitude, humility, peace, love and togetherness, which are well understood by most people.

Worshiping the unknown

This is an extension of the previous point and a cornerstone of sorts when it comes to spiritual comparison and, by extension, spiritual ego. In many parts of the world, the whole idea of spirituality leans heavily on God, mythology and other beliefs. A belief is something that one has conviction in and takes for granted; something that is held as true, despite the odds. So the concept of belief is foundational to spirituality. Even with respect to spiritual experiences, our treatment is no different. When someone has a spiritual experience that is inexplicable, unclear and perhaps incomprehensible, it is given greater importance than an experience that is more direct and clearly understood.

For instance, when a person is involved in a spiritual practice and experiences a series of colors passing through their closed eyelids, feels a burst of energy from their gut and transcends into a space of peace and tranquillity like never before, it is treated as a blessed event—perhaps one that is showered on the person by the almighty and one that the person was ‘lucky’ to experience. On the contrary, if someone sits down for a spiritual practice but gets lost in thought, they think about their school days and school friends and feel great and light at the end of it, but it is treated as a daydream. This is also the same reason why an out-of-body experience is treated as a more spiritual experience than the feeling of bliss you experience while lying on your couch on a Sunday afternoon reading your favorite book.

In conclusion: Beware of the spiritual rat race

The truth is that no spiritual experience is better or worse. Driving a bigger and fancier car is no superior to riding on a bullock cart or vice versa. They are both different and have their own place in the scheme of things; the same concept applies to spirituality. To grow spiritually, you need to be one with the spiritual pursuit and experience. Stepping out of that and focusing on ideas, like the superiority of the experience and the tenure, takes people several steps back or at best keeps them marking time—they are trapped in  spiritual competition, which is just another form of rat race.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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