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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
(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.