As readers of my blog will know, I think that spiritual work occurs in two broad categories. These are work in the "how to be realm", and the "what you are" realm. On the blog I am mostly a "what you are" guy. Today I am going to examine a distinction that crosses both realms.
One of the issues that commonly crops up as a symptom of the disease of being a spiritual seeker is known as the, "Spiritual Bypass." This is where you use your spiritual path, or perceived spiritual accomplishment, to side step uncomfortable issues, or deny your psychological "shadow" material. It's the classic, "holier than thou" stance.
Such spiritual sidesteps of life are not limited to interpersonal, or intrapersonal interactions. To paraphrase Ken Wilber, "Your meditation is going great while the rent is not getting paid, the dirty dishes are piling up in the kitchen sink, and the incense is barely covering up the smell."
Robert Anton Wilson has a principle I love. It's the "Cosmic Schmuck" principle. It goes something like this: the more often you recognize that you are being a schmuck, the more likely you are to catch yourself before you act like a schmuck. I think this points to something important about spiritual work in a very poetic way. Essentially, to one degree or another, I find that all spiritual work shares the characteristic of looking at oneself.
In many spiritual traditions and pathways there exists what the Buddhist call the "Two Truths" doctrine. The idea is that, in some sense we occupy two realms of being. One is the level of Absolute Truth, and the other is the level of Relative Truth. Absolute truths are what we shed the light of awareness on in states of deep meditation, or psychedelic intoxication, or moments of deep insight. Relative truths are what we deal with in the "normal" everyday matters of life. In a sense, the realm of the Self (big "S") is the realm of the Absolute, and the realm of the self (little "s"). In my view these are the realms of "what you are" and "how to be." Both are illuminated by taking the time to turn your attention on you directly.
I talk a lot about what that looks like in the "what you are" realm in my blog, so I will just take that as read.
Let's take a look at the "how to be" endeavor. In matters of that realm, taking the time to self-reflect and self-examine is how we move ourselves forward. Self inquiry is how we evolve and advance. There are many, many, many good systems out there for doing this. Different methods may appeal to a person more than others. Perhaps you prefer "The Work" of Byron Katie more than meditation. In a sense the difference here is mostly one of aesthetics. Which one appeals more? There may be areas of "how to be" that meditation can't access, which The Work can, and vice-versa. That doesn't change the apparent fact that how they work at a core level is in bearing witness on one's self.
Sometimes we use other people to help us out here. For example, in psychotherapy we speak about our situation with a therapist who then will reflect back what we've said, re-frame what we've said, or pull out key components of what we've said for further and deeper examination. In essence, they are helping us to put our attention back on our selves, our actions, and our language.
It seems to be consistent across all spiritual methods I've examined that taking a look at you is a good idea. Doing so can expose those places where you are being less than skillful, less than accurate, or less than attentive. This gives you the opportunity to take corrective measures.
Or, to put it another way: Check yourself before you wreck yourself.