Toxic Spirituality / We don't "Create and Choose Our Own Reality”

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“A division that is carried to the extreme makes man, who is not a machine but many-sided, sick. The opposites should be evened out in the individual.” ~ Jung: Personal Letter to Hans Schmid-Guisan

As a trauma therapist who is also an ordained interfaith minister I tend to work with folks who are seeking psychological and spiritual restoration from the ravages of brutal victimization. Recently a psychotherapy session I facilitated caused me to examine how New Age extremism infiltrates the wounded psyches of people who desperately want to transcend their helplessness.

By convincing themselves that the tragedies they endured were pre-ordained and chosen by their soul, trauma is reframed as something “special’ and is afforded a false locus of control.

Accordingly, if one has the spiritual capacity to orchestrate their victimization, then surely they have the Divine aptitude to transcend it. This delusional fixation on ‘mastery through spiritual transformation’ allots both blame and shame for not measuring up to absurd ideals of omnipotence.

Furthermore, this belief system touts that if your suffering is coupled with physical illness you brought it on yourself. There is little room for humility, or compassionate reality. If you fail to transcend grief, symptoms, flashbacks, despair than you’re just ‘doing it wrong’. The way you are thinking, praying or meditating must be faulty. Otherwise you would be in the throes of Nirvana communing with the Angels and actualizing every desire.

This is cultish. This is mind control. This is cruel. Yet blind infatuation with being God-like is a common narcissistic defense against human fallibility.

With an ‘endorsement from God’ we delude ourselves to believe we can bypass the challenges of being human. Rather than viewing faith as a resource to endure and reframe life’s vicissitudes, the spiritual extremist succumbs to grandiosity.

I am reminded of the myth of Icarus, as it conveys the hubris of unbridled ambition that exceeds realistic limits. Icarus yearned to flee Crete where he and his father Daedalus had been imprisoned in the very Labyrinth Daedalus created.

Hence, Daedalus built wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son. Unfortunately when Icarus flew too close to the Sun his wings melted and he plunged to his death.

Icarus warns us of the danger of reckless egoism, devoid of humility and common sense. Likewise, Spiritual teachings that promote magical thinking, such as reaping bliss and abundance from chanting ad infinitum and ascribing to the dictum that everything but love is an illusion, set the stage for disaster.

While it’s true that there may be more to reality than what we actually see, the excruciating torment and illness resulting from systemic abuse and the hardships of life are not illusions. Nor are they rooted in love. To deny their veracity is just as calamitous as Icarus denying the sun’s power.

Honoring our existence as evolved mammals with innate instinctive proclivities, requires us to relate to the Sacred from a grounded balanced place. Faith and Grace can be catalysts for growth and healing as long as we responsibly self-reflect about our inherent motivations and stay present for a circuitous human journey often fraught with turbulence and pain.

The willingness to accept life and all its polarities requires us to shatter illusions and commit to truth. Aligning with narratives that deny our basic humanity only causes further harm.

That said, to my chagrin, when my desire to dismantle a consciousness steeped in victimhood led to my enrolling in seminary, I was seduced by the lure of denouncing darkness and bypassing hatred.

I was fully immersed in a forgiveness fantasy.

Author Of Trauma & Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman wrote,

“Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. Folk wisdom recognizes that to forgive is divine. And even divine forgiveness, in most religious systems, is not unconditional. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.”

I now know that not all things in life are reparable, nor does our basic humanity afford us the capacity to forgive all things. Yet what I perceived as a spiritual mandate seemed necessary to my ‘salvation’ and my mental health.

Thankfully, convincing myself that seminary would catapult me into the light of forgiveness didn’t last long. In fact, the grandstanding and virtue signaling of the students concomitant to the organic trajectory of my psychological and spiritual practice, threw me into a dark marginalized, enraged place. Ironically it was the darkness that saved me, as it challenged me to assimilate truth.

Confronting a history of abuse and betrayal became my path to encountering all the obstacles Arjuna encountered on his journey to Brahman; delusion, action, will and the mind.

Spiritual practice and teachings released a flood of emotions, revealing where I was deeply wounded. Immersion in this dark place taught me to radically accept inhumanity in order to responsibly protect myself and paradoxically, embrace my own humanity.

Taoist readings in the rainforest of Brazil inspired me to focus on an instinctual, ruthlessly protective, and loving archetypal mother.

The verse from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, “The Tao is great mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds. It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want”, spoke to the need to access this aspect within myself.

Buddhism had me reflecting on the concept of tanha, desire for personal fulfillment alone as a source of suffering. It led me to recognize how clinging to expectations of love and reciprocity from emotional cripples, perpetuated and reinforced resentment and righteous indignation. This pattern locked me into a mindset of non-acceptance of self and others, magical thinking, and irresponsibility.

Analysis of the Ten Commandments contributed to my concretizing and embodying standards and ethics. Enduring with conviction life’s challenges and choosing wisely from a place of principles and instincts was a huge milestone.

Without my faith and the repository of wisdom and inspiration I gleaned from sacred texts, dismantling these deeply rooted stultifying patterns would have crushed me. Every prayer session catalyzed deep sobbing and grief, leaving me feeling fragile and paranoid at times, and remarkably focused and grateful at other times.

It was by humbly beseeching spiritual guidance to lead me towards the deeper raw truths needing to be faced, that intrinsic shifts occurred.

As John Babbs shared in his essay “New Age Fundamentalism” ( Meeting the Shadow, Ed. Zweig & Abrams), “ If the new Age is to begin to offer anything substantial to the reordering of life on earth, we Peter Pans have to land on terra firma and begin the hard work of transformation- first in our own lives, then in the world in front of us here and now, not in some distant past or uncertain future.”

As Babbs suggests, when the sensorial world of the body, the ego self, and the metaphysical world of the spiritual self come together, only then can self-realization and spiritual renewal happen. This requires psychological maturity and the courage and perspective to humbly embrace the reality of our intrinsic nature. That is where our true power lies.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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