By Heidi Sokka

  • Has modern-day spirituality become a feel-good business, a marketplace with unlimited options for mixing the desirable combo individually to satisfy our current taste buds?
  • Has the essence been watered down and lost while packaging the thousands of years of traditions into more easily understandable products, selling partial understanding often through lenses of business, and targeting the ‘needs’ of the modern-day people, ending up touching the surface only?
  • Or is there something valuable and beneficial people from traditional approaches could learn from the ‘playing field of spirituality’ it has turned into?

Countless Options – Lack of Direction?

We live in times of unlimited opportunities and possibilities like never before. What once was never heard of, is now everyday reality for the majority of people on the globe. The freedom of choice regarding every aspect of our lives, the individualistic and independent culture many of us (Western spiritual seekers) are brought up in, and the globalization opening doors to every corner of the world – suddenly we’re not tied to the traditions, culture and religion we were born with, but the options are easily available thanks to the internet, social media and easy travel. And yes, they are endless.

With this freedom and influence from the modern society and culture of capitalism, much of the thousands of years old universal spiritual values – the driving force for humanity once – has been replaced by more material values and beliefs. Where has it lead us? Depression being the ‘national disease’ in many countries, people have again started searching for answers from the spiritual sources, maybe more than ever before.

Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, saw that in casting away the religious ideas, the major problem for people was facing the existential dilemmas of human life without the help of the structure and dogma of spiritual tradition. Many people nowadays are rejective of organised religions or institutions as they’ve either had bad experiences themselves or have heard or seen less favourable things happening in name of religions. Or the culture and set of rules the religions seem to represent just don’t appeal to the minds used to their individual freedom and choices. Naturally one becomes ‘choosy’ on their path, and the modern options with less boundaries, structure and rules seems more appealing and easily approachable.

The ancient spiritual scriptures, Bhagavata Purana, explains the four different ages, Yugas, that we go through in this cosmic cycle, and right now we live in the age of darkness, quarrel and hypocrisy called the KaliYuga. Thousands of years ago the scriptures explained how the humanity will be in this situation we’re now in, in the age of short-term attraction and sense gratification, blinding & binding people instead of pursuing long-term goals with Higher purpose, with a real sense of responsibility. Age of more freedom with less understanding on how to use it, leading to suffering and unfavourable outcomes. This reflects to the religious institutions as well, even though the essence and the heart of the tradition might be pure and kept intact, in the hands of people of the modern times, driven by mode of ignorance; what once was good and desirable by all turns into an example of the times we live in, encouraging people to find answers from outside, from the modern-day spiritual shopping malls.

Pick and Choose Spirituality

One of the basic human needs is the need for variety, as it challenges us spiritually, emotionally and physically. This can be fulfilled in healthy ways; expanding our horizons, learning new skills, meeting new people in fruitful activities, travelling and learning about different cultures. But often today people end up fulfilling this need in unhealthy ways; changing partners, cheating the loved ones, using intoxicants, ending up in bad company and just diving deeper into the world of sense enjoyment. As we’re used to having that variety in our daily lives with the food choices, clothing, friends, places – everything – naturally we get attracted to many different things in the field of spirituality too. And when we’re in the middle of endless options to choose from, everything packaged so beautifully and inspirationally, giving answers to our existential questions from different angles, why not pick and choose like in a salad bar? You can choose as many as you’d like, just pay a little extra? After all it’s salad, it’s healthy anyways right?

Source of Real Substance?

The ancient spiritual scriptures of the Vedic tradition never encouraged this kind of DIY Spirituality due to lack of Parampara, disciplic succession. A tradition becomes authorised and acknowledged when there is a lineage, an unbreakable chain of realised teachers and disciples keeping the message intact, a chain which can be traced all the way back to the ultimate source of that spiritual knowledge – The Divine. Most of the offerings in the field of modern-day spirituality are lacking this ‘back up’. People become teachers from short courses without taking time to become serious and humble students first – foundation of all traditions. And it is said a teacher can only take the students as far as s/he’s reached on the spirituality ladder; if one has only scratched the surface in their own studies and practice, where’s the long-term substance in the offerings? Without a proper tradition and guidance from one’s own teacher, everything the modern-day teachers teach gets mixed with partial understanding, own interpretations and lack of knowledge missing its roots in one’s own committed spiritual practice, sadhana, which is what with consistency and long-term efforts cultivates that knowledge into wisdom, actually transmittable to others. Without Parampara, the modern-day spirituality offers us unlimited knowledge from numerous sources, but without the guidance from seniors, without the application and sadhana, we either don’t know what to do with the knowledge, we never learn to filter, understand or embody it, or we become spiritual intellectuals, boosting our egos and minds with the dry and irrelevant parts from here and there.

But is it a problem if most people are searching on the surface as well? The modern yoga studios are well decorated, focusing on wellness and relaxation – aren’t they like heavenly oasis in the middle of hectic modern life to escape to, mostly to the world of physicality and some momentary mental peace? Instead of establishing the root principles of all spiritual traditions, such as cultivating discipline and commitment with the practice, many teachers focus on making people feel good right now, giving immediate results and comfort, catering to people’s short-term wants. To some extent it can give relief from the suffering cycles of this material existence, but a competent teacher would gradually introduce the deeper, spiritual dimensions of the ancient practices and guide the students from the outer, external layers of questions to the internal world of answers. But for many teachers and students, practicing spirituality has become a status symbol, business-driven profession or even a fashion statement without real substance and the lineage to lean on, so the offerings will reflect that as well.

Pitfalls of DIY Spirituality

For those who are seeking more seriously but get confused or carried away with options on the spiritual marketplace, the dangers in this pick and choose -spirituality, in this all-you-can-eat buffet are that we end up catering our temporary desires, we avoid what we don’t want to face, we cultivate no discipline or consistency, we are too easy on ourselves when we need a good ol’ kick in the butt and too hard where we need to slow down and learn forgiveness or compassion. Without the proper guidance we might become self-delusional with our abilities and level of advancement, mix the pieces of knowledge from here and there without proper understanding of the possible problematics of it, or end up living in a self-created bubble while rejecting the unwanted, picking the raisins from the bun only. We might end up using spirituality as a tool to gain something personally, instead as explained in those spiritual scriptures the purpose of having a teacher, humble student approach and consistent, committed spiritual practice is to cleanse our heart, mind and vision, to see things from a Higher spiritual perspective and use whatever learned or cultivated for the service of the Divine and everything around us – shifting gears from receivers to givers. Without thorough understanding, the DIY-spiritualists who become teachers can only transmit their own so-far-process with its limitations and flaws, instead of representing something with roots thousands of years back in wisdom, proven through examples and transmitted through generations of realised practitioners and teachers before us. This might lead to numerous ethical and moral dilemmas as well.

Creating Genuine Connections

But instead of rejecting the current reality, trying to learn from it sounds more adapting and inclusive, isn’t it? Real spiritual vision is all about inclusivity, not division. People are confused and searching for answers, even overwhelmed in the middle of these endless opportunities and different teachers. Many of the modern approaches are successful in creating more appealing and loving spaces, where people truly feel welcomed, understood and heard. The language and presentation used speaks to their reality and gives the answers they are searching for right now, not maybe later on. People find acceptance and sense of belonging and many of their emotional and human needs are met with wider understanding of psychology and humanity than sometimes in the more traditional spiritual circles. From a Higher spiritual perspective it might be like giving a bandage to a child who constantly keeps hurting his knee to stop the bleeding for now, but what’s more important long-term is to give the proper tools to grow in such ways, that the bandages won’t be needed in the future anymore.

Yet meeting people where they’re at is the only way to connect and create a sense of mutual understanding. We need to give the bandage at first. Many of the modern teachers truly have good intentions and pure heart to work from, helping people to feel better on different levels of our being. Without balancing our basics and fulfilling the human needs we can’t really aim towards the Higher spiritual goals either, this is what the founder acharya in our Bhakti tradition, Srila Prabhupada, also always emphasized. So we need different approaches to cater different people on different stages of their journey. But what is important from the scriptures’ point of view, is to eventually start focusing in one tradition under the guidance of a spiritual teacher; to systematically start drilling one deep hole with the help of a compass and a map, in our efforts of finding the treasure deep down, instead of drilling several small holes here and there, aimlessly moving around without direction. The latter will only give us small glimpses of what’s beneath, but we’ll never get to experience the depths of it all and find the treasure waiting.

Towards the Treasure of Self Realization

The more genuine our approach, the more genuine the outcome. As stated in the scriptures, one who is seeking with humility, sincerity and patience will surely find a competent teacher to guide along on this Journey of Life, through all the stages with compassion and understanding, and ultimately towards the final goal of it – The Treasure of Self Realization.

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