Spiritual Growth or Spiritual Behaviorism?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

With the many approaches to personal growth competing for an audience today, it is increasingly difficult to discriminate among what is beneficial, what is detrimental, and what is merely ineffectual. Modern attitudes cloud the issue further by their emphasis on convenience, quick results, and mechanistic solutions, all with as little effort on our part as possible. Our primary concern is with symptoms and behavior rather than their causes: what we would like is a pill, a technique, a device, a chemical — prepackaged, automatic, fast-acting, foolproof — to give us the desired result. This attitude of spiritual behaviorism was brought home to me recently in looking through two catalogs of self-help tapes. Both promised that the hearer would change and progress if he simply listened to the tapes repeatedly; some of the tapes were subliminal, requiring no conscious effort at all. It sounds so good: a painless, effective solution to so many problems and an easy path to personal and spiritual growth — it's hard to resist giving it a try. Yet while this type of approach may deliver "results," its ability to foster meaningful personal development is not so clear.

The religious traditions of mankind have affirmed throughout the ages that human beings are divine as well as psychological and physical beings. Human growth is a long-term proposition; and from the perspective of reincarnation it is a truly vast one. Instant gratification becomes irrelevant against this panorama of human existence. We are evolving from animality and instinct to become the compassionate, self-controlled masters of the psychological characteristics that distinguish us from the animal kingdom. In this evolutionary journey, it is the traveling itself — the efforts, the motives, the attitudes — that counts for much more than achieving any particular goal or possessing specific characteristics and abilities. Real growth lies in the continuing transformation of ourselves, so that accomplishments follow as natural consequences rather than as something grafted on to us. By making outward results a by-product of our inner development rather than an end in themselves, we are more and more able to deal with whatever comes to us in a positive, self-aware way. Contrariwise, when we allow ourselves to be changed without making the effort ourselves, it is easy to become increasingly passive inwardly, less in control and more open to the influences both of others and of the undeveloped aspects of ourself. Passive methods of development, which deal with the symptoms of our inner states rather than the states themselves, undercut the very qualities most needed for us to become complete human beings: self-discipline and self-control, an active spiritual will, and reliance on our own inner strength and wisdom.

This situation suggests an analogy with modern farming. To increase yields, farmers have turned to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, indiscriminate irrigation, and monoculture. While providing short-term profits, these "miracle" practices in time ruin the soil and also cause secondary problems such as environmental pollution and depletion of the water table. Organic processes, on the other hand, allow plants to flourish without damage to the environment and also improve the soil so that high yields can continue. As in organic farming, beneficial development practices depend on careful preparation and on an understanding of and participation in the processes of nature. They are not an instant remedy that can be mass-produced or purchased as a standard package. If we cultivate and control our mind and energies so that our being is prepared to progress, growth will come and continue. Such a program does not depend on dramatic results produced at the expense of the future. Techniques such as hypnosis, self-hypnosis, and subliminal programming produce superficial results while undermining the fundamental factors we need for continued spiritual growth and understanding. Obtaining quick results from various psycho-spiritual practices may leave us depleted and forced to begin again from a point behind our present level of growth.

Again, the main boosters of agricultural chemicals are the very companies who manufacture them and whose profits depend on their sale and increasing use. Company representatives have been the farmers' primary source of information on farming practices and the best use of their company's products. In the human development field, too, the main promoters of a particular technique or viewpoint are often those benefiting financially from its adoption. All the more reason for each person to do his own independent thinking and research and for being cautious about embracing practices that someone else is trying to sell.

From another point of view, the use of mechanistic or passive methods can force development that we are not ready to undertake, so that we more easily become unbalanced inwardly. It is much easier to open ourselves to certain experiences and energies than it is to control or prevent them once they have begun. Great discrimination is required to evaluate the results of various practices. Hatha yoga, for example, is generally presented as a form of physical exercise for fitness and health. It can, however, activate the body's psychic centers, as the Hindu yogis well understood. Like techniques designed to awaken the kundalini and other energies, it can produce dramatic results and disquieting experiences which may be difficult to deal with even with a trustworthy, competent teacher available to assist. Most of us are not yet able to control these phenomena because we have not built the foundation within ourselves which would make them natural to us.

Moreover, using methods for personal change that by-pass our conscious awareness may cause us to lose touch with those areas in ourself that are crying out for our attention. Does a change in behavior, or even in our mental patterns, of itself signify inner growth or simply the suppression of unwanted symptoms? All of us wish at times to escape our imperfections and difficulties, yet what are these but pointers to various areas in ourself that need adjustment? In the same way we might at first imagine that it would be wonderful to eliminate physical pain, but we soon would become very unhealthy without negative feedback from our body. We would not know when we were hurt or needed to react or change our behavior. Leprosy exemplifies the traumatic effects of losing physical sensation as the body becomes injured, infected, and finally deformed because of the sufferer's lack of normal physical perception. Similarly, without salutary — although unwelcome — psychological pain we may become spiritual lepers, increasingly deformed in our spiritual body because of a lack of appropriate feedback about our inner environment.

Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is, why do we wish to "improve" ourselves in the first place? The primary benefit listed for many available techniques is to be successful — personally, financially, mentally, socially, spiritually, and physically. While we generally accept this as a normal, even commendable motive, it reflects an egocentered attitude, not a universalizing one. Rather than directing us toward the spiritual center of our being, this tends to focus our conscious energies on our personality and thus harden the ego's grip upon us. Mahayana Buddhism brings out very clearly the danger of this type of spiritual selfishness. While great spiritual advancement and psychic and spiritual faculties can be attained by the person who seeks self-improvement for his personal success or to escape the pain of human existence, this is basically a "self"-centered path, and therefore limited. In this approach to growth there is always the danger of becoming destructively selfish and retrograding in human development, to the detriment of others as well as ourself. The person whose growth results from an all-encompassing love and a desire to be of greater service to all around him, even when it means the delay or denial of his own personal progress, has set his goal on a universal state beyond personal limitation. With our focus on results, appearances, and the concrete, we are apt to dismiss motive as a metaphysical factor and so as inconsequential. Yet in reality motive is the pivotal factor in human development, indicating the direction in which we travel and the type of being we wish ultimately to become — and what we wish for, we do in time become.

How then can we evaluate the real worth of various development programs? No one can decide what is appropriate for someone else, and it is vital for each person to exercise his powers of discrimination and judgment. Two key elements to consider, however, are selflessness and universality. Insofar as a technique appeals to our desire to get something for ourselves, to be successful, to get something for nothing, by so much is it appealing to the selfish, limited side of us and consolidating our ego rather than dissolving its hold on our awareness. This does not mean that improved methods of learning will not be found as understanding of human consciousness increases — though even here only the experiences built into our deeper self will stay with us as permanent additions to our character, while superficial mental, emotional, and physical habits will dissipate with our physical and psychological bodies after death. But we need to go beyond concentration on results to an evaluation based on motives, attitudes, and the natural functioning of spiritual forces within us. What is really important in human life? In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna advises us to seek wisdom "by doing service, by strong search, by questions, and by humility," stressing action without personal attachment to results. There are no shortcuts to inner growth, and it is an active process, not merely a receptive one. Centering our awareness on divinity and approaching actions from the standpoint of the Supreme rather than of our personality is the timeless path to spiritual growth. By cultivating a detached, less self-concerned attitude and focusing on service to others, we will find that without need for behavioral practices in our spiritual life, we possess the qualities we need and can deal effectively with our problems and imperfections.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)


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