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The Most Common Errors Made by Westerners
On the Spiritual Path

"From beginningless time until now, all beings have mistaken themselves for phenomena and, having lost sight of their original mind, are influenced by phenomena, and end up having the scope of their observations defined by boundaries large and small.
-Surangama Sutra, Gautama Buddha

I thought that this would be a top ten list, but upon secondary consideration, it became clear that the number and kinds of errors that can be made are "as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach". And come to think of it, I've made most of them, so I am an expert in this field!

The main thrust of this essay is that as eastern esoteric dharma has been integrated more and more into the west, many a spirtual teacher has faced obstacles in students that are endemic to the western mindset. Certainly most 'errors', or incorrect views, assumptions, imputations and concepts are universal, spanning the globe. There is a certain 'spin' to the errors that have a ring of familiarity to the west, as well as a brand new style of foolishness.

The main reason for the 'new foolishness' is that the western attitude and orientation has been excessively dominated by a rational mind that is characterized by linear thinking, far reaching conceptualization, introspection and analysis, a black and white mentality, and perhaps the most blaring of all characteristics, the reification of rationality itself. You would think that with our lengthy training in math and science, critical thinking, and the scientific method it would in some way create a happier and more enlightened society, but that is not the case.

In fact, it appears that our western mindset and life of thinking and conceptualization is a runaway train with no brake, and a cause for a great deal of excess complexity, depression and a host of other mental afflications, all leading to profits of pharmaceutical dispensary of Prozac, Zoloft, Valium and other mood altering pharmacopia.

And this excessive mentation does not escape the aspirant on the spiritual path. Indeed, many a teacher has thrown up his or her hands in frustration dealing with western students. Therefore I had an idea of listing and categorizing the most common of errant views that not only are plain wrong, but upon which fixation or clinging to these ideas prevent growth and only help to prolong suffering.

Of course, errors are not only the exclusive domain of beginners, but there are 'lions at the gate' at all points and stages in the spectrum of consciousness. One obvious danger is similar to the reason why second year airline pilots are susceptible to crashes: "a little knowledge (or experience) is dangerous". Based on knowing the ropes, gaining a little insight, one can feel that s/he has completely scaled the wall of human suffering and ignorance, only to find that over time, to one's surprise, there is a lot that has yet to be realized or known.

So here goes, and certainly it's not an exhaustive list, but ones that I know from personal experience and observation.

Beginner Mistakes

Attempting to figure out the truth with the mind

Using the tools that are one's disposal is a natural strategy, and nothing is wrong with that. But to think that one is going to excel in all human endeavours by the same tools and methods that got him or her through Trigonometry class is a huge mistake. What is not seen is that engaging the tendency to figure it all out is the very thing that is preventing innate wisdom from going forward. A large part of early practice is to quiet down this attempt to figure it out through intentional or discursive thought, which is basically a strategy of fear, anyway - figuring things out is a way to keep on top of things, a form of aversion or holding back, not wanting to touch the unpleasantness of existence.

Low spiritual self-esteem: I'm not worthy or it's impossible for me.

Straight from Wayne's World ("We're not worthy!"), this idea is buried deep in the western psyche and is probably a result of the tendency to over-analyze, or based on the assumption that since most of the esoteric traditions are from the "East" it's not geared or possible for the westerner.

It's gonna be real easy

The opposite of low self-esteem, a form of hubris which is probably a compensatory mechanism. Also derives from a lack of understanding about the spiritual process. Of course, it may be easy for some, but the concept surrounding it is simply an obstruction.

Excessive conceptualizing, analyzing and criticizing

Some folks get into self analysis and criticism, hoping that is the key to innate wisdom. As stated in the early paragraphs, this tendency to over-conceptualize and analyze is part of the 'mental knot' or tendency that characterizes the western seeker. It is more often than not simple habitual patterning that has to be eased for any growth to occur. Spirituality is not a glorified talk therapy session.

Avoidance of difficulty

Wanting a sanitized version of spirituality, going the workshop route, touching the water just enough to get a taste but not wanting to really get involved, is just another strategy of fear and avoidance. Difficult things are bound to arise sooner or later for all but a rare few, and building castles of avoidance is just prolonging the inevitable.

Seeking of difficulty, reifying difficulty

Realizing the above, one throws himself or herself into difficult situations strategically to work through it faster or more intently. Or volunteering for rough service assignments as a badge, means to look good, or that somehow noble causes get you spiritual brownie points. Often borne out of a passionate, emotional type who is hooked into the chaos and energy of crisis (read: Bill Clinton).

Belief and hope of an 'end state'

The hope that one will arrive at some end state is one of the major foundations of ignorance and suffering. It is hope itself which is the issue, which only serves to delay or push one's freedom into the future. Because one is suffering, the hope for a state of blissful invulnerability is extremely strong and perhaps inevitable, but a major obstacle. Often it is the hope for an extended womblike experience outside of the mother, which is the opposite of mature spirituality which involves heightened sensitivity and vulnerability, and a deep understanding of how states are supported by causes and conditions.

And the hope for a 'state', and the conception that freedom is some kind of condition is based upon a lack of understanding about the nature of things and what state are supported by.

Seeking of pleasurable states of experience for themselves

One taste of transcendent bliss can keep someone trying to duplicate that experience for the rest of one's life. But a strategy of seeking pleasure is simply branching out of the addictive tendency into the realm of spirit and is another form of the desire for extended 'wombness'.

Reifying energetic experiences

Related to the above strategy of spiritual pleasure seeking, one assumes that blissful energetic experiences are what spirituality is about and if one is not having them, there is 'something wrong', setting up a deeper strategy to re-invent those blissful experiences.

Mistaking subjective analysis for Witnessing or innate wisdom.

Hearing about or reading about Witness Consciousness, non-dual Awareness, or Transcendent Wisdom, one attempts to become wise by making an effort with heavy intent to analyze oneself and offer concepts about how one is or tends to be. While useful to some extent, subjective analysis is still in the realm of the conceptual mind, and this tendency has to be relaxed in order for the innate Witness to become evident.

Excessively relying upon external authorities for wisdom

While I do not want to add any more to the tripe of anti-Guru sentiment, there is a tendency in some to just hand it over to the Guru, and never grow in the relationship, keeping a spiritual daddy in place. Often borne out of the desire to be safe, to be on the 'good side' (thank you Chogyam Trungpa), one never absorbs the wisdom of the Guru into his or her own consciousness, as this would require personal responsibility. The tendency to keep projections in place is a strong one, and they have to be reeled in and owned sooner or later in order for growth to occur. Keeping the Guru in place is tantamount to not seeing the Guru as one's own inherent wisdom. For some it is just a form of laziness, others a form of 'superstar fascination' that never is let go of. Gurupie-dom has to be transcended sooner or later, even if one stays with the same Guru for the entire life.

Comparing and contrasting one's experience and insight with others

Often borne out of low-self esteem, a paranoid fear that one 'does not have it' or 'will never have it', or basic adolescent competitiveness, this tendency is sheer stupidity. But I confess I've done it a lot! Underlying it all is the basic ignorance of the innate wisdom of pure Being.

Wanting to be free but wanting to stay the same

People may want to grow spiritually but like all other humans they fear change and with the mechanism of ego in place, it fears the potential threat that spirituality represents. It's ordinary to want to have it both ways, to 'have your cake and eat it too' but the 'you' who is being clung to and identified with is the very root of one's illusion and problem.

Intermediate Mistakes

Clinging to a particular goal

Westerners in particular, and western men even more so, have been trained from early on to set goals and achieve them. When one takes up spirituality this mindset is transferred into the spiritual dimension, and makes for a neurotic yogi, due to the self-defeating nature of goal orientation in spirituality. This only serves to harden and solidify the self-notion and a subject-object point of view.

Spiritual hubris

Though this can happen at any stage, arrogance really begins to manifest when one begins to think that they've got the answer, or is now on top of it, suffused with new energy, experience and insight. Hubris is often a compensatory mechanism for low spiritual self-esteem.

Hubris for a beginner: arrogance due to clinging to a concept or an idea often picked up in a book or teaching. The speaks to the folly of knowledge based undertanding - one such example is if one reads that "It's all perfect from the start" as in the Dzogchen or Taoist tradition, and assumes that s/he has "got it", and starts preaching to friends.

Hubris for the intermediate: arrogance due to the identification with experience and insight, trying to own wisdom as an ego.

Hubris for the advanced: arrogance due to the identification with a realization that is not complete, but is mistaken to be complete. Wanting to take whatever level of realization that has occurred and cash in in some way for the purposes of ego gratification, monetary gain, etc. Castenada's Don Juan said that one of the obstacle to a man ok knowledge is 'clarity'. Or identification with realization as referred to by "the stink of Zen".

Confusing intellectual understanding that one is aware with wisdom

The mere intellectual knowledge that 'awareness is aware of awareness' only cuts so deep, and clinging to that concept or insight is an obstruction to a real spiritual breakthrough. Knowledge is not the Witness nor is it Rigpa.

Confusing attention with Non-dual Awareness

This is a big one, based on a misunderstanding of what is expressed in many non-dual traditions. While non-dual awareness and ordinary awareness are not different, the functioning of both are worlds apart. Ordinary awareness is bound to the view and misunderstanding of a substantive subject viewing external reality, whereas the arrival of non-dual awareness signals the end of this misunderstanding, spontaneously and effortless abides in itself, as itself even in the midst of objective appearances.

Confusing a quiet mind with Witness Consciousness or Rigpa

This is the classic mistake of assuming shamatha alone will bring about realization and liberation without the radical insight of vipassana. People mistake the goal as being a quiet mind, whereas a mind free of discursive thoughts is only the context from which radical insight can occur within a gradual process. For sudden schools the notion of a quiet mind is bypassed. But nevertheless, goal orientation for a quiet mind is itself more generation of mind, it has to be let go of. Awareness has to become self-knowing and self-aware from the deepest point of being and unbound at source point (the causal body). The "I" must no longer exclusively be assumed to exist as a 'point' or to be locatable; self-imputation has to be uprooted.

Believing wisdom is seated in knowledge

Having gained some experiences and insight through engagement in the spiritual process, there still may lurk an underlying belief that innate wisdom is borne of acquiring knowledge. This is a result of the misunderstanding that wisdom is not inherent but must be sought. Relying upon external source is simply being a parrot of someone else's understanding. The pundit error.

Believing realization is seated in experience

Gaining experience over time, and noticing that those experiences are characterized by joy, bliss or love, one extrapolates that realization is some kind of supreme experience, not understanding that the whole imputation of a separate someone or entity having an experience has to be dismantled.

Attachment to bliss, joy and ascendancy

Life is full of such difficulties and suffering so much of the time, that it can't be helped that when experiences of bliss or joy occur, or other forms of relief from the karmic burden, people will spend enormous amounts of energy trying to get back to that experience from memory and if this is actually accomplished, to try to make it permanent. Insight into the nature of clinging has to be discovered to see that this attachment is solidifying elements of existence that have no fundamental substance.

Another stategy regarding bliss is wanting to get out of here, not taking responsibility for being an adult in an adult world, and embodying the puer aeternus Peter Pan archetype that wants to use the spiritual to fly away from painful or ordinary life experience. This is another kind of throwback into wombness, or a great misunderstanding regarding spirituality: that somehow we must become child-like in all ways, a classic "pre-trans" fallacy as elucidated by Ken Wilber. Summarily this is just another form of avoidance and aversion.

Mistaking analytical mind for non-dual awareness

As one gains insight over time, there still may be an underlying assumption that one's capacity for analysis and deconstruction be either identical to or will lead to non-dual awareness. There is still an extant clinging to mental forms which must be transcended.

Believing that practice will result in enlightenment in a linear cause and effect fashion

When one discovers a teacher, teaching or tradition that seems to bear some fruit, one may throw him or herself into the associated practice hoping that it will eventually produce an enlightened happy self, sort of like a spiritual assembly line. This kind of "formula consciousness" is a kind of orientation that speaks of subtle avoidance. One may hope to get through the hard parts by doing spiritual techniques that will hopefully avoid having to look too closely at oneself or avoid any form of unpleasantness. The reliance upon a formula for realization is at the root a misunderstanding about the spiritual process and realization itself, and another form of subtle avoidance.

Believing that practice cannot result in or, in fact, prevents realization

This is a classic error that is also very popular. After reading about or understanding to some degree that realization cannot be caused, one jumps to the conclusion that any attempts at spiritual practice are utterly useless or harmful since realization is beyond cause and effect. This is a one-sided argument based upon a severe lack of understanding regarding spiritual process. While realization is not caused by any means, there is much practice needed for most people to lay a foundation in order for that realization to take fruit. As someone said, "realization is an accident, meditation makes you accident prone".

This is also a "sudden school" point of view that people latch onto, thinking that they have understood something profound, all the while using their new found philosophy as means for the avoidance of vulnerability and commitment to spiritual growth, as well as avoiding the potential difficulties that may occur in the midst of a life of practice.

Advanced Mistakes

(When I get advanced I'll certainly add more!)

Mistaking the void state for the nature of self, mind, existence

Profound experiences may occur when, by the ripening of the fruit of the spritual process, or just by blind dumb luck. One of these kinds of experiences is when all objective phenomena disappears, and one lands in a void state, de-void of all content, gross or subtle. While this is wonderful, it is only a temporary state of an extreme, and one may confuse various void experiences for the nature of mind. There is at the very least a lack of resolution with objective phenomena which will still be an obstruction from abiding in the nature of all.

I've got it: owning realization

The nature of the spiritual process is that there are degrees and levels of realization, and it appears, in my opinion, that the difference of degree is a function of the level of karmic purification that an individual has undergone. The level or type of realization is often based upon the kinds of transmissions that a person has been subject to in his or her search. And the ego mechanism may not be totally purified when realization occurs; otherwise only Buddhas would be realizers, having undergone complete purification.

So the process of identification, a function of ego may be intact, and forgetting the basic understanding that there is no partcular one whom can be realized, one may identify with the transformation that a realization engenders. This becomes yet another obstruction and will result in a loss of that realization.

I've lost it

When the "I've got it" sets in, in due time the opposite of that will occur, as everything in the phenomenal realm calls in its opposite. Even if some profound realization has occurred, if one is not rooted in a clear understanding and view, the unenlightened view that there is a substantive self that can take ownership will inevitably appear.

Believing that disassocation of conscisousness from objects is full realization

Part of the process of realization is to recognize the inherency of consciousness, and this may occur in stages. At one point, some may become adept at entering great empty spaces with no content or other seemingly profound experiences, and may assume that a profound realization has occured.

Fixating upon the absolute to the exclusion of the relative

When someone has undergone a breakthrough in consciousness and can naturally re-cognize the absolute nature of self and of all existence, a tendency can arise to attempt to identify solely with the absolute to the exclusion of the relative. But despite the most profound realization, someone has to pay the rent and pay the tax man. Relative reality cannot be so easily dismissed except perhaps by the most adept realizers.

Assuming any perception, however subtle (even non-perceptions) are "it"

The Nirvana ("Nibbana" ) Sutra and The S[h]urangama Sutra of Gautama Buddha are, IMO, glorious and superb expositions of mistakes made by more advanced practitioners on the spiritual path regarding subtle perceptions and mistaking extremely profound experiences and realizations for full enlightenment. The Shurangama Sutra lists 50 ways in which such an error can be made.