Traps of the spiritual ego

The ego is very clever and turns itself into many forms as a means to avoid its demise. The ego is a collection of ideas, beliefs, and identities and will use those very structures to create a spiritualized ego as a distraction from authentic awakening. This results in various forms of ego-based spirituality, including (but certainly not limited to) spiritual materialism, bypassing, mastery and elitism. The spiritual ego can arise before and after liberation. Vigilance is required until the very last breath. 

Spiritual Materialism

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, defined the term spiritual materialism in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: “We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” Spiritual materialism turns the path into a series of accomplishments and enlightenment into a goal that the ego thinks it can possess. A spiritual materialist tries to accumulate empowerments and “high” experiences like badges, all the while avoiding true moments of awakening and deep spiritual work. Even the dress, language and mannerisms of what one imagines a spiritual person or liberated being to be can be worn as a false disguise that strengthens the spiritual ego. Spirituality becomes yet another identity that traps us rather than making us more free.

“Let your identities go. Identities create false comfort because we think they give us purpose and tell us how we fit into the world. But really, they just keep you stuck.”

Advanced Path book

Spiritual Bypassing

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s student, John Welwood, further elaborated on an aspect of spiritual materialism that he termed spiritual bypassing: “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business’…all in the name of enlightenment.” Spiritual bypassing can take many forms, but at its core is avoidance of our spiritual, emotional or developmental limitations by taking spiritual language or practices out of context as a means to circumvent real change. Spiritual bypassing is often couched in pithy spiritual statements used to avoid pain or accountability, such as, “It’s all just an illusion,” or “Now that you’re awake, whatever you want is the dharma.” Ultimately, it is a childish relationship to spirituality and prevents real, grounded, authentic awakening.

“Becoming spiritually mature requires taking 100% responsibility for yourself.”

Advanced Path book

Spiritual Mastery

Spiritual mastery is most often found in those who have had awakening experiences. They come to believe that they are “done” with the awakening process, or that their version of the truth is the ultimate Truth, or that they are more evolved, powerful or knowledgeable than everyone else. Spiritual mastery is a superiority complex. It is an egoic perspective that shuts down any further development or awakening.

“The trap of mastery ends your spiritual feedback loop and you stagnate in your evolution.”

Advanced Path book

Spiritual Elitism

It is normal to feel love and affection for one’s spiritual community and teacher. There is often a sense of finally finding “home.” The trap of spiritual elitism is the dark side of this attraction when it evolves into a group superiority complex. There is the feeling that the community or teacher is better than other groups or teachers, and by association, that the practitioner is also more evolved, special or powerful. Particular practices, modes of dressing, talking or living, and other preferences are all deemed more advanced or better. The attitude of elitism keeps us separate, stagnant, and firmly rooted in the ego.

Questions for Inquiry

* How am I using spirituality as yet another identity or achievement-based exercise?

* In what ways am I sidestepping real spiritual development? How am I using spiritual language, teachings or practices to avoid examining spiritual, emotional or developmental limitations?

* In what ways do I think that I’m special, or that my spiritual community or practice is special?

© 2015 Mu. Mu is the author of the book Advanced Path: Guideposts on the Radiant Path to Liberation and Beyond, available on AmazonAmazon UK and Amazon DE.

6 thoughts on “Traps of the spiritual ego

  1. Thinking about spiritual bypassing – what’s interesting about it is that in fact there are many bits of unfinished business that can be bypassed. A lot of issues/karma don’t need to be solved. If you had to “finish” them all, you’d never become enlightened. But I do get what you’re saying, so trying to figure out the difference – is it not being honest with yourself and pretending you don’t need to deal with something when in fact you really do?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you – trying to “fix” the ego or make it more spiritual is a totally futile exercise, delays awakening, and definitely, a lot of stuff can be simply washed away through immersion in Light. That is surrender and letting go of what is not authentic. Bypassing is a strategy of avoidance. It co-opts teachings or uses spiritual language to avoid taking responsibility for oneself. For example, I once pointed out to a student that their practice was stagnating due to laziness. The student immediately found an online teaching by a beautiful enlightened teacher talking about laziness to prove that it is okay to be lazy. The teacher was pointing out that when you are living fluidly, your decisions may change or you may need more time for contemplation – not that it’s okay to be lazy! But the student co-opted that language to brush aside and ignore behavior that was having a real impact on their awakening journey. This is just one example, and bypassing can have many forms. I think honesty, discrimination and vigilance are key qualities that help us know the difference between surrender and bypassing.

      Liked by 1 person

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