12 Ways Your Spiritual Path Might Be Letting You Down
How To Run a Systems-Check on Your Spiritual Vehicle
article by LiveReal Agent Thomas
Is your “spiritual path” letting you down?
If you consider yourself to be on a “spiritual path,” well, there are ways that it might be gearing up to let you down.
Meaning, there are ways that it might be falling down on the job. Failing you. Setting you up for a spiritual faceplant.
This article is about trying to prevent that from happening.
Let's imagine you're about to take a long road trip.
Being the smart, handy, dashing (and did I say good-looking?) person you are, you'd probably check your gas, oil, tires, and maybe even figure out why that "Check Engine" light is on before setting off.
Presumably, you don't want to wind up stranded in the middle of the Mojave Desert with an empty water bottle and dead cell battery, thirsty and stuck. ("Umm, are those vultures circling?")
But of course, we're already smack in the middle of this road trip called "life."
And presumably, we don't want to wind up, stuck and thirsty, in some Mojave of the soul.
Our goal here is to prevent that from happening.
OK, so the whole idea of this might be controversial to some folks.
After all, what does "letting you down" mean? Who says, anyway? And isn't "failure" just "another step on the road to success"? And who are you to judge someone else's spiritual path?
And so on.
"Letting you down" means leaving you broken down, stranded and thirsty in some Mojave of the soul. It means heading down a road that eventually gets exposed as an illusion, cul-de-sac, dead-end alley, or waste of time.
"Who says?" Well, you.
Or, "Reality." Or the Universe. Or "God," however you might understand that word. Either way, it's not me.
I'm just humbly offering a few yardsticks.
You'll be the one actually doing the measuring.
"But isn't failure just another step on the road to success?"
Sure, it can be. But that doesn't mean we should seek failure.
Sure, breaking down in the Mojave might turn into a great, life-transforming adventure. That doesn't mean we should drive out in the middle of the desert in hopes of breaking down. Arriving at your destination as planned might turn into a great, life-transforming adventure too.
And of course, the real kicker...
"Doesn't this question presume that some spiritual paths are better than others?"
Let's see...how can we say this...
"But isn't that, well, kinda mean? After all, aren't all paths valid in their own way?"
There are plenty of rabbit holes we could dive down here.
We aren't going to. Not right now. Maybe later, if we can.
For now, we'll say this:
We're just going to assume for now the premise that "some spiritual paths are better than others." Some folks might say that this statement is wrong - that everybody is actually right, everybody is doing everything perfectly, and nobody can improve anything.
Maybe you really can twerk your way to heaven or couch-surf your way to Nirvana. It's a strange world.
That said, we're going to play the odds. For now, to me, "the odds" seem to indicate that some folks have more going on in the spiritual department more than, say, someone who spends all day, every day, kicking puppies.
Maybe one day, puppy-kicking will one day be revealed to be some kind of super-awesome spiritual path. But right now, well, that idea seems pretty stupid. And the rest just follows from there. So, we're just going to treat this as self-evident for now and move on.
And this means that some paths might be leading you on the straight and narrow...
- and some might be gearing up to let you down.
The basic idea here is to prevent a spiritual faceplant before it happens.
Many folks wait until it becomes a crisis before acting to fix it.
But not us, right?
We know that preventing a spiritual belly-flop can be much better, easier, and more downright pleasurable than scrambling to clean it up after being blindsided.
And that’s the idea: to do a quick “systems check” of your spiritual path, to flag potential issues before they erupt into something that's seriously no fun.
Fluids? Check. Brakes? Umm, let’s definitely double-check those.
Here is our complementary 12-Point Systems Check.
12) Maybe it’s stale.
Maybe it’s like a crusty old dry piece of bread.
Maybe your spiritual path is the equivalent of an ancient history lesson, taught by a droning, sleepy, Ferris-Buelleresque history professor who gave up a long time ago. Or, reruns of a video of an old history lesson that was recorded many moons ago. So, maybe five degrees removed from real life.
Or a basket of clichés, and reruns of those clichés.
Or even a museum full of reruns of clichés from ancient history. (We could keep going like this, but we won’t).
Don't get me wrong: a lot can be learned by stuff that's happened in the past. But dwelling on the past, endlessly? Beyond a certain point, can’t it become, well, watching reruns of reruns of a show we’ve already seen a hundred times? About a topic where all the real action apparently happened long ago, and we missed it?
Why did all the “real” action apparently happen way back then?
What about now?
The main problem can become removing you out of your real, current, present life and providing a way to escape it through studying, retelling, or dwelling on history.
And of course, the fault might not be with the story. The fault might well be with the storyteller. A bad storyteller can turn a very good story, bad.
But if something like this is going on, maybe it’s time to change the channel. Life is too short for too many reruns.
If there’s no life in it, if it’s too old, too tired, too stale to really put wind in your sails…
It’s letting you down.
11) Maybe it’s boring you.
Maybe it’s as dull as dishwater.
When you talk about spirituality, do you put yourself to sleep? And everyone else around you?
Are the words “hallelujah” and “glory” mumbled in tired, bored, monotone voices? Do topics like “mindfulness” or “nirvana” come up in conversation wih all the vigor and intensity of yesterday's half-eaten bowl of oatmeal?
Then maybe your spiritual path is…well, dull.
We sometimes want our spirituality to be a source of safety and security. And we can naturally prefer beliefs that make us feel comfortable, secure, safe as we are.
But security can lead to constructing a cocoon of comfort that eventually ushers in complacency. That eventually results in, well, being dull.
Sometimes folks are reluctant, when it comes to spirituality, to rouse, to try something new, to shake thing up a little. To stoke some fresh new life. Refresh. Invigorate.
Large, established corporations are notorious for squashing initiative, fresh thinking, innovative solutions, trying new things. Management has a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. Not upsetting the apple cart. Not straying from the tried and true.
Religions can be like large, established corporations in this way.
Except they're older. And more established. And there's way more at stake.
And of course, "boredom" in and of itself isn't necessarily a sign that something's clearly wrong. Practicing anything for long - weightlifting, the piano, writing - means long periods of boredom. Those are what champions endure and push through. Nobody said your spiritual path was supposed to be a source of entertainment and distraction.
But if you’re too bored, for too long? If it's all boredom, stretching out as far as the eye can see? If it doesn't seem like there's any great championship of the soul coming down the pike anytime soon?
Well, maybe it’s letting you down.
10) Maybe it doesn’t challenge you.
Is your spiritual path less challenging than slipping off a really slippery log?
Then it might be letting you down.
Just to be clear: “being challenged” here means being challenged in a good way. It means growth, life, vigor, strength. It means sharpening up and clarifying your arguments, your senses, your soul.
Being "challenged” - pushing against some kind of resistance - makes muscles and bones grow stronger. It makes artists and scientists dig deeper. In the right circumstances, it can make all of us, well, better.
Things in nature tend to either grow or die; not much stays “even keel” for long. And growth comes from being, to some degree, challenged.
When there’s no challenge at all, complacency sets in.
A good spiritual path should challenge you. Jostle your thinking. Sharpen you. Invigorate you. Bring the world into focus. Clarify things. Or confuse you, temporarily, so you can struggle for more clarity. It should test you, knock you off balance, unsettle you…so you can respond with more balance, centeredness, strength.
But if it’s letting you just sit in total comfort, and puddle?
Then well, it might be letting you down.
9) Maybe it's providing you with glib, shallow, bumper-sticker answers to hard questions.
Maybe it provides just enough to make you think you’re covered.
Maybe it provides you with an easy, back-of-the-book answer.
For example: "Be here now." "Be yourself." "Just have faith." "It's all an illusion." Etc.
Back-of-the-book answers work just fine…up until the moment when you have to show your work. And that’s the moment that counts.
Then, suddenly, you realize that you might not understand it quite as well as you thought you did.
And sooner or later, life always wants to see your work.
Sometimes tiny little nuggets of wisdom are great. They can encapsulate a lot of punch into a few words. They say a lot with a little. They’re easy to remember. They're easy to pass on.
Other times, they can be a cheap way to sound deep.
When they get parroted, and no one pays the price in really understanding them with much intimacy and depth…they can become a pretense of depth. A phony mask. A pose.
The idea then becomes about tricking others into thinking we’re wiser than we are.
Or worse: they can allow us to trick ourselves into thinking we’re wiser than we are.
When they’re really working against us, they can allow us to bypass the difficult work of actually “thinking about things” and “soul-searching” and hard stuff like that, and allow us to get back the really important stuff like celebrity gossip and Netflix-surfing.
Of course, in the long run, bumper-sticker platitudes wear thin. When the heat gets turned up, as it always does, eventually, suddenly that clever phrase that sounded so profound before can suddenly ring hollow. It can sound fake, even coming out of your own mouth.
What eventually matters is not how much you can parrot a phrase, but how deeply you understand and embody and live it. There's an intimacy with these things that offer no shortcuts.
If it’s nothing but a slogan, a pose, a mask… in time, that mask can get ripped off, exposing the fact that we might not even really understand what that slogan really means. And that can happen at the worst possible time.
And that lets us down.
8) Maybe it focuses too much on one part and excludes everything else.
Sometimes a spiritual path lets us down by focusing us too much on the wrong things.
For example, sometimes there might be too much focus on what happens after death, at the expense of focusing on what’s going on now, in this life.
Or the opposite. Something there might be so much focus on “living in the now” that you get blindsided one day by the passing of time. (This might take the form of waking up one day and realizing that suddenly, you’re old. Like, your parents old. Or, there are plenty of gamblers and alcoholics who seem great at the “now,” but aren’t so great at the whole “future” thing.)
There’s a place for now, and there’s a place for later, or “thinking it through.”
There's a place for giving Caesar what's his. But that doesn't mean we should spend all day busting our butts for that guy Caesar (who probably won't even notice anyway.)
Another example: if you're an introvert, you might find yourself on a spiritual path that emphasizes quiet introspection and meditation. Or, if you're an extrovert, you might find yourself emphasizing, say, social work or karma yoga or social butterflying.
And maybe what you truly need, if you're an introvert, is to get out of your own head and mix it up in the real world - the world beyond your own ideas. Or, if you're an extrovert, what you really need is to stop with the nonstop activity for a few minutes, and be quiet and alone for long enough to hear yourself think.
It all depends. But it can be a matter of, well, "balance."
If it’s imbalanced...it might just be letting you down.
7) Maybe it's actually inflating your ego instead of taming it.
Some folks can slip into a mindset of “I’m enlightened/saved/faithful/virtuous...and you’re not.”
Some folks practice "competitive spirituality," and use every opportunity to engage in subtle games of spiritual one-upsmanship.
(Sometimes not so subtle.)
Pointing out "ego" in others or "duality" in almost any statement, wordplay about "self" or lack thereof, not to mention "sin," "oneness," "who's-enlightened-and-who-isn't" can exploit poorly defined words that deal with complex, paradoxical concepts to create endless fodder for "who's-on-first" verbal games, while the real objective is simply looking smarter/deeper/more spiritual than the other person. (If you've been anyway near any of this, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, consider yourself lucky.)
The point is...sometimes your spiritual path can give you a false feeling of superiority to everyone around you. It can lead to ego inflation, crazy beliefs, and all kinds of confusion.
Of course, maybe you really are enlightened, and everyone else around you really...isn’t. Maybe.
Or, maybe you have a clear vision of the splinter in everyone else’s eyes, but you're missing the beam in your own. Maybe your spiritual path is secretly becoming a mental-virtual-reality world where I'm the One-Chosen-Neo-Guy, and everyone else is a bunch of sleepwalking turkeys, or boobs, or turkey boobs.
"The sin which makes you sad and repentant
is like better by the Lord
than the good deed
which turns you vain and conceited."
- Nahjul Balagha, Saying 44
Either way, there’s a chance that your spiritual path might be creating distance between yourself and others (others you could potentially be spreading your "enlightenment" to, if they want it?) - or it could be an elaborate exercise in ego-puffing and self-delusion.
This stuff can be hard. There are a million ways this can happen. Some good books on this are Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Spiritual Bypassing, and Halfway Up the Mountain, among others.
There's a saying that “spirituality is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” As Shakespeare said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose," and sometimes we can do the same for ours.
And it's not always easy to sniff this out. When it comes to this stuff, when it’s your own little secret, it’s hard for other folks to even know about it, much less say anything about it, much less prove you wrong in a way that you can hear it. And it's rare for us to have anyone close enough and honest enough to risk pointing it out to us.
It's not easy. But it happens. All the time.
And if that’s happening, your spiritual path might be letting you down.
6) Maybe it doesn’t give you a “why?”
Why do we get up in the morning, and struggle through the day?
What’s our reason for enduring the slings and arrows that a sometimes-cruel life can hurl at us?
Why should we persist in our goals and dreams when the strain is great, when the odds are daunting, when our strength has nearly exhausted?
Well…your spiritual path should provide that. At least most of the time.
Your spiritual path should give you a “why.”
If it doesn’t…or if it fails you, right in the critical moment
- then, well, it’s letting you down.
5) Maybe it’s not preparing you for The Big Trip.
This is a big one.
We all make "The Trip."
You know the Trip I’m talking about.
The Final Destination. The Soft Parade. The Cure for Life. The Cashing In of Chips. The Grim Reaping. The Worm Buffet. The Last Roundup. The Sleeping With Fishes. The Swim With Concrete Shoes. The Fertilizer Business. The Pine Box Condo. The Coming to a Sticky End. The Mortal Coil Shuffle. The Dirt Nap.
It’s one of the few things in life that are certain. Yet everyone is still continually surprised when it actually comes around.
And if your spiritual path isn’t preparing you for it, in one way or anothing…
- well, it’s letting you down.
4) Maybe it's not preparing you for what life is going to throw at you.
You never know what life is going to throw at you.
Life can be absurd.
Bad things happen to good people. Good guys and girls don’t always win. Bizarre things happen for no apparent reason. Stuff doesn't always make sense. The race doesn't always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Life is hard.
Stress. Freak accidents. Jerry Springer.
Sometimes “your spiritual path” completely falls apart under pressure.
Sometimes, it's inevitable. Sometimes - even often - life throws stuff at us that nothing can truly prepare us for.
But other times, it does.
Sometimes you know exactly what's coming. And it's possible to prepare, at least to some degree.
And your spiritual path should prepare you for that. To some degree.
And if it doesn't?
Well, it’s letting you down.
3) Maybe it has no basis in reality.
Maybe you just made it all up.
Is there a chance that your spiritual path is actually an elaborate exercise in fantasy and wishful thinking?
If it is…then well...it’s letting you down.
2) Maybe there’s nothing actually “spiritual” about it.
Maybe your “spiritual path” is actually just a “life-coping strategy.”
That's not necessarily a bad thing. We all need coping strategies.
But if that’s the case, let’s not call it a “spiritual path.” Let’s call it a “coping strategy.”
For example, if you become a yoga instructor because it provides easy access to lots of easy sex with women...well, your "yoga" might be a lot of things. But let's not kid ourselves.
Other cases might be less obvious. Stuff might be inspiring, reassuring, relaxing, clarifying, confidence-building, hope-inducing, and so on.
But none of that necessarily means that there’s anything actually “spiritual” about it.
And taking the wild leap to assume that a spiritual path is, to some degree at least, supposed to be, well, “spiritual”…
- then if there’s nothing actually “spiritual” about it...then well, it’s probably letting you down.
1) Maybe it isn’t there.
Do you have a “spiritual path” at all?
If your "spiritual path" isn't there at all, for practical purposes (does it ever fully go away?) - this is pretty much the culmination of all the other points.
Maybe it's been so ignored or neglected that it just might as well not even exist.
Or, maybe you've decided, deliberately and consciously, that every spiritual path actually is a cul-de-sac, in which case, if we wanted to have some fun, we could say that atheism is your "spiritual path."
At any rate...life can be distracting. It happens to almost everyone.
Maybe it's the case that, in the spiritual hockey game of life, you’re in the penalty box. Or on the bench. Or in the locker room. Or the parking lot. Or back home on the couch. maybe it’s pretty far from the real game.
Or maybe, wherever you are - whether you're in the arena soaked in sweat and dust and blood, or home on the couch chain-chugging bon-bons - you could push it harder than you are.
Maybe you feel like your team is so far behind that the game isn't worth playing anymore. (Which may never actually be the case. It could well be that no matter where you are, there's still a chance you can win.)
But if your spiritual path has been drowned out by all the other distractions to the point of being forgotten, or if it seems like such a bad route that it's better left not taken at all...
- then, well, it’s letting you down.
For what it's worth...
Personally, I've failed pretty much all these tests at one point or another, with flying colors. I've spent more than a few hours at the mechanic, and even a few in the Mojave (complete with buzzards and etc.) And I'm probably past due for another few more hours at the mechanic.
So, don't take this as anything holier-than-thou, or even a holier-than-much-at-all.
So, does your spiritual path avoid these traps?
Then congratulations. It’s probably in at least moderately decent shape. At least enough to pass this particular inspection.
Or...did any of the above throw any red flags?
Did a "Check Engine" light come on? Or seven?
If so, then stick around.
We’re all working, around here, to learn how to become better mechanics.
Hopefully soon, we'll all have hot rods.