At the Spiritual Naturalist Society, one of the things we write, talk, and teach about are practices that help to transform our character over time. That is, a transformation toward freeing ourselves from the tiny box that is the ego. In this, becoming more aware of the feelings, motivations, and their sources that arise within us, and attuning those reactions to wisdom.
Many of us have been the member of church congregations, pagan circles, temples, or other spiritual communities – or even organizations working for enlightened causes. And, if you’re like most of us, you have witnessed hypocrisies, small or large.
In these kinds of settings, when the topic is often on something very wise and enlightening, just talking about it puts us all in a state of mind that makes the community and the people seem a lot further along the path than we are. It also gives the impression that the speaker or writer of noble ideas, is of equal level to them, which is rarely the case. For example, the ideals I write about here do not mean that I perfectly practice them at all times myself. These are as much self-affirmations as a message to the reader.
Anyone can smile and be patient for a time. But few, if any, naturalists have a conception of enlightenment as a binary state in which perfection exists. We are all imperfect human beings and fellow learners helping one another along the path.
Often, the cracks show when one community member has said something offensive or taken offensively by another. In society you’ll often see instructions and warnings to be contentious in your words, to avoid misunderstandings or unintentional offense. That is surely very important. But the fact is, these are bound to happen – either because of a slip of the speaker, or because of a miscommunication in the intended message. Therefore, we need to be sure we have an ‘error trap’ to keep the inevitable offense from becoming more damaging to a community or cause or our own personal goals than it needs to be.
Most people in spiritual practice are already trying not to be offensive people, though they may need things pointed out to them when they have been. Organization leaders may have responsibilities to address people being offensive, but what I am focusing on here is how the individual (you, the practitioner) responds.
When it comes to opportunity for learning, the important part when something offensive happens between community members is how the offended party reacts. That is where the spotlight goes because that’s where you’re going to learn the most about their progress – not for the purpose of blame or judgement, but for the purpose of learning from what they do or don’t do and apply that to your practice.
Pay attention to those times when the rubber meets the road – when it isn’t so easy to keep an ‘enlightened’ poise. I say this, not so that you may judge others or judge organizations, because you aren’t going to find perfection anywhere. But observe those times because they offer teaching moments about how far the distance is between where we seem to be on the path when we are on our best behavior, and where we really are. If we are observing this in others, focus not on them, but turn that toward yourself to see what lessons you can learn about how you are, how you think, and how you might be more conscious of the mistakes being made. More importantly is to observe these moments in yourself. An honest self-assessment shouldn’t make you feel guilty, as there’s no utility in feeling bad – but instead should give you pointers for the future and have a sense of progress.
Namely, in the reaction to offense (of others or yourself, even if only in thought), observe the use of self-referential personal pronouns and phrases. “They did this to ME”, “You have stained MY honor”, “You have twisted MY words”. These are signs that the main activity going on here is defense – specifically, defense of the ego.
Look also how the “you” is included. This is a zero-sum approach that seeks to defend the Self by assaulting the perceived attacker of the Self. It may be you who feels this way, or you may see it in others.
When humans communicate within a spiritual community, they are often either working on a project together as organizers, or they are are discussing things related to their own learning and growth as members. If your reaction to offense is going to be withdraw (or worse, an escalation), then you are a ticking time bomb in whatever you do with others, and your efforts to engage within a spiritual community are not going to come of much.
When you go in, you should assume there will come a time when someone rubs you the wrong way, says something you take great offense to, encounter something that impugns your dignity, pride, etc. There is no community in this world where you should not expect something like this to happen at some point, so have a long-term approach.
An alternative to circling the wagons to defend the Self, is to ask, what would happen if I did nothing? What would happen if I didn’t defend myself? It may be that the need to defend isn’t as critical as the lizard brain is telling you. Maybe wait. Time is the wings that give us a birds eye view.
This isn’t to say inaction, however, but effective action. But what is efficacy? It is not ‘efficacy in defense of the ego’ that is our goal (that is the misdirection of the lizard brain again). Our goal is harmony, understanding, happiness for all beings, and progress on the noble aims of the community and our practice. So, actions and reactions need to be effective to these ends.
If something incorrect is being said, the important thing is to look at what is our motivation behind correcting it. Correcting the incorrect can help people to understand one another better, it could also help avoid some pitfall of misunderstanding and therefore be an act of kindness. So, as we respond to the words of others, if we keep this motivation in mind, it removes our ego from the equation, and gives more fine-tuned guidance on what things we need to say, to not say, and how to phrase them.
When someone is responding in this way, there will be fewer self-referential personal pronouns, the topics will be more abstract than personalized, there will be no passive-aggressiveness, and the tones will be kinder. But the effectiveness in turning the situation around will be greater.
Throughout this process, we will be imperfect and may not always reach understanding. It will be bumpy and hard, but that is why compassion and empathy should be at the forefront of our consciousness – especially when we are a wounded animal prone to strike out. These practices we promote aren’t for the times we’re sitting on a cushion in quiet, or the times we are all getting along with our “church faces” on. These practices are specifically for the rough times.
The philosopher Epictetus taught ethics and often spoke against an approach to philosophy that placed too much emphasis only on reading, study, and talk. He said:
“After you have digested these principles, show us some resulting change in the commanding faculty of your soul, just as the athletes show their shoulders as the results of their exercising and eating, and as those who have mastered the arts can show the results of their learning. The builder does not come forward and say, ‘Listen to me deliver a discourse about the art of building”; but he takes a contract for a house, builds it, and thereby proves that he possesses the art.” (Diss. 3.21.3-4)
When you’ve been offended, that is an opportunity to learn or test your practice. It could be that a test is too much for us during a stressful time and we need to remove ourselves from a situation. We shouldn’t pretend we are further along the path than we are and need to be compassionate to ourselves as well. But if we are mindful and ready for them, these tests can be the very stepping stones of progress for which we engage in community. In that respect, dealing positively with the conflicts within your spiritual community can be a test bed for handling conflicts in your work, home, and life. It is the one place where everyone there is at least claiming to try on some level to be mindfully compassionate and as such, makes a good training ground.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.