Spirituality: with or without violence?
Violence is characteristic of toxic spirituality.
In its extreme forms, it is war violence directed against physical enemies. Think of the Muslim Jihad which calls for a holy war against the enemies of God. Think of the conservative Evangelicals in the United States conceiving the current political tensions in terms of an axis of evil and of combat between the true faith and its enemies. Think of the racist and religious hatred in Burma in the name of fundamentalist Buddhism or in India in the name of nationalist Hinduism.
And this warlike violence is also present in less extreme and less literal currents: Islam will speak of inner Jihad, interpreting the sacred texts on Jihad as invitations to lead the fight against what, in us, is opposed to living in accordance with divine principles. Evangelical Christians will speak of spiritual warfare, not against other human beings but against evil forces at work in the community and in individuals.
Until then, few of you will feel concerned. These views remain radical and off-putting for most people. However, a week does not go by without the news reminding us of the somber accuracy of this theme across the globe.
But violence also manifests in more subtle ways, and it shows how toxic spirituality can affect each one of us and distort our relationship to our spiritual experience.
I think of the immense difficulty we sometimes have in accepting ourselves and treating ourselves with tenderness. How quick we are, in the name of spirituality, to repress, to hate, to try to ignore parts of ourselves, emotions, impulses, which we deem inadequate, impure, frightening.
I think of all that we sometimes impose on ourselves in terms of discipline, practices, demands on ourselves. We are not meditating enough, we are not praying enough, we are not committed enough, we are not caring enough, we are not generous enough, we are not doing enough for the planet. We are not awaken enough. We are guilty. We are dissatisfied. We are angry with ourselves.
I think of all the inner talk that we accept without batting an eyelid: this ruthless critic inside our heads who never ceases to judge us and whom we listen with too much complacency.
And to resolve this tension, to feel better, to deserve a little peace ... well just meditate more, pray more, practice more, mortify yourself in all kinds of ways! Until the next assault of the inner critic, until the next moment of frustration and depression.
That’s how spirituality becomes a secret enemy of life and happiness, under the guise of absolute love and the quest for enlightenment. It begins to suffocate you while pretending to release you. It separates you from others and from yourself while pretending to lovingly guide you. It blinds you while pretending to enlighten you.
Let me tell you this: you must put an end to this oppression. You have to open your eyes to the toxic places where violence is still hiding in your spiritual practice, in your relationship with yourself and with others. You deserve it, and it will allow you to discover what you long for but whose toxic spirituality deprives you while claiming to offer it to you: the experience of rest, peace and grace that characterizes all healthy spirituality.
The violence of religions has its source in the violence of humans. It has its source in our difficulty to love us, in our fear of the part of us which escapes our control: our impulses, our wounds, our emotions, our traumas, our terrors. Our shadows! And yet there is an enormous vital energy in it and we need this energy.
It is not by violence that one liberates oneself from violence. It is not through violence that we face the parts of us that arouse our fear, our shame, our hatred. It is not by violence that we open up to more light and life, that we grow and that we become more mature and wiser.
Rest, peace and grace open up a space where we can know that we are welcomed as we are. And from this space it becomes possible for us to make ourselves bigger than what scares us, than shame, than horror. Then we become able to welcome, integrate, embrace our shadows.
It is a path of reconciliation and integration. It is a path of growth and maturity. This path requires courage and determination. It often involves daring to ask for help, and especially competent therapeutic help, from a professional who is deeply aware of these dimensions.
It is a beautiful and exciting human adventure, in fact it is the ultimate human adventure.
This path begins and exists within the space of rest, grace and peace that we find at the heart of our being. It leads us into a spiritual experience that goes beyond anything we can imagine. We learn the tenderness and understanding, wisdom, beauty of our humanity. We embrace our shadows and our lights. We take care of everything that has been hurt and frightened in us. We discover in it a strength and a discipline which have nothing to do with those who arise from fear and violence. We become more and more who we are.
And in this path, an intimacy grows step by step with the Great Mystery, and this intimacy sets us on fire and transforms us.