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Separating the Spiritual Wheat from the Chaff

Posted May 27 2008 8:00pm

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post was written by Tom Stine of TomStine.com.

I live in the heart of the American Midwest, the buckle of the bible belt as is often said of my small city. So it is rare for me to do what I did recently: I went to hear a talk on spirituality. We don’t get much of that in “these here parts,” and so I was interested and intrigued.

As it was Memorial Day weekend, the talk was on the naturalness of death and the inevitability of “making our transition.” The speaker was intriguing if not exactly my cup of tea. She exhorted us with lots of “positive thinking” and even advocated sticking your fingers in your ears when people speak negatively. She and others even sang some “joy songs” to lift our spirits.

But guess what? I loved it nonetheless. I had fun. I had a nice meditation during the not-too-slient meditation, I loved the energy of the group (positive energy, mind you), heard some good reminders about the utter inevitability and naturalness of death, and ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a few years (we had a nice chat afterwards). All in all, it was a great experience I would repeat.

Farmer

The Spiritual Wheat

While the talk and gathering wasn’t my preferred brand of spiritual teaching (I lean more toward something like Zen or Advaita Vedanta), given where I live, it was ideal for a little bit of spirituality. Much better than the nearest Baptist Church, the one my mother made me go to for 3 years back when I was a teen (she enjoyed drinking and smoking too much to stick with it for too long, thank God).

Whether you visit a church, or pick-up the latest “hot” spiritual book, or go with some friends to hear “this amazing spiritual teacher who knows the secret to life,” you will be faced with some choices. You will need to answer some questions for yourself. Among these questions might be:

  • Is this teaching any good?
  • Will I benefit from it?
  • Is this potentially harmful to me?

The fancy term for this process is Spiritual Discernment. By answering these questions, and possibly others, you will get a sense for how far to dive into a given teaching or book or spiritual teacher. While I was at the talk I attended, this type of process is exactly what I did, albeit rather quickly and partly subconsciously, in determining that I would go again.

How to Do the Threshing

So let’s a take a look at how you can go about getting a sense of the appropriateness of a given book or teaching by looking first at the questions above. Let’s start with “Is this teaching any good?” Immediately, we’ve hit a land mine. How are you supposed to tell if a teaching or book is any good?

The first thing that many of you might try is to do some searching on the Internet. If you do, you will run across an almost endless list of opinions, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc, most of which claim to be quite accurate and sensible. But be careful: much of it is garbage.

Unfortunately, as we have all experienced, while the Internet is an incredible medium for learning and discovering new thoughts and ideas, it is also filled with the ravings of anyone who can point a mouse. Including me!

I was recently following some links on one of my favorite personal and spiritual growth programs and discovered a site that was categorizing everything that wasn’t basically government approved psychotherapy as the work of the devil. Psychoanalysis or satan, I think that’s a direct quote. :-)

You may not know this, but there are multiple websites that offer guru ratings. Yep, you can look-up your favorite guru and see how many stars he was awarded. Did Jesus get 3 stars? The Buddha got 4 stars? Ramana Maharshi edged out Sai Baba? What?! Who says? Go check out my favorite for a few minutes of laughter. Needless to say, you may not find out whether a teaching or teacher is good by searching the Internet.

The one good use of the Internet for spiritual discernment may be in answering the question, “Is this potentially harmful to me?” At least you can cruise around the websites and forums and read the horror stories left there. And there are plenty. You might find these helpful in your search.

The Wisdom of Frodo Baggins

Ultimately, though, all spiritual discernment boils down to spending a few moments looking within. It is an intuitive process more than anything else. You have to be like Frodo Baggins when deciding whether to trust Strider (Aragorn). Frodo said,

You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would - well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.

That’s really what it boils down to. When watching Oprah and Eckhart Tolle, does Oprah seem fair but feel foul? Or vice versa? I was intrigued by the first woman that asked a question of Oprah during the first webinar. She identified herself as Catholic, fairly devout, but went on to say that she found herself drawn to a New Earth and what she was reading. It resonated for her. She was benefitting and growing from it. And that is what you are after.

Her experience is similar to mine at the talk. While in some respects it “looked foul,” underneath there was a sense of fairness and wholeness that permeated the experience. I felt that I was being supported in my spirituality and felt a sense of rightness. Had I merely listened to my thoughts and made judgments about it, I would have lost out on a great experience that I might have repeated more often.

My encouragement to you and everyone is to experience what the wide world of spirituality has to offer. Get some books that may or may not be “your cup of tea” and see what they have to say. Buy an anthology of spiritual teachings. Go to a drumming gathering, qigong class, talk or meditation given by the latest local guru. You never know what you might find.

In my view, spirituality is a very rich field for exploration. Personally, I consider it to be the best place to find long lasting happiness and personal growth. When I did a 180 degree turn 18 years ago and jumped on the spiritual path, I had no idea of the changes and transformations that would occur. The opportunities are endless. If you will take a moment to separate the spiritual wheat from the chaff, you might discover a powerful process to help you in your spiritual and personal development.

Tom Stine writes Living from Consciousness, his blog on the practical side of spirituality and awakening. Tom is a writer, life coach and teacher. Feel free to contact him at tomstine.com.

Further Discussion

Editor’s Contribution:

Thank you, Tom, for that piece. Tom is an up and rising star in the spiritual blog world, so if you haven’t been to his site, I heartily endorse it.

I’d also like to add my own two cents to this piece, if I may.

An Open Mind

Please approach everything with an open mind. Don’t discard it simply because of who the teacher is, how he or she looks and talks, or what tradition they come from. As Tom said, even mainstream psychology can be a “tradition” in this sense. Some people will not look at anything besides psychology; some people will not have anything to do with it. Our biases creep in tremendously into anything we do, especially when it comes to sometimes controversial topics like spirituality and religion.

Just an example: whenever we hear that something is from a certain tradition, we might automatically discard it, without even giving it a try, simply because of what we’ve heard about it. Sometimes I read the articles other bloggers have written about my site, or in online forum discussions. Many start their posts like this: “I’m not sure if you guys like Buddhism, but I found this article helpful…” or “I’m not a [insert label here], but I loved this article…”

A couple of years ago, if I was reading a post like that my mind would be so closed that I would not have clicked through to the site. I was closed to anything that smacked of spirituality and religion. Little did I know it would change my life and become my biggest passion.

More Biases

On a more extreme scale, I was recently watching a video of a spiritual teacher on YouTube. Some of the comments under the video displayed how a bias can make us disregard something without even looking at what it is.

He is a fraud, a viewer said. Another asked him why. The reply: He uses his hands to talk. A true master would not fidget so. He also pauses to find the right words. If he was speaking the ultimate truth (or from Source, or whatever he called it, I can’t remember), he wouldn’t do that.

There was nothing about the value of the teaching, or what he is saying. He discarded an entire teaching simply because the speaker talks with his hands. This might sound extreme, but biases like this do creep in without us noticing.

So please, keep an open mind.

Be a Scientist

The next thing is to be critical, as Tom is saying. Take everything for experimentation, and don’t just follow everything blindly. When I first started my quest to be happy, everyone was recommending positive thinking. I followed it faithfully for many months, only to find that it does not work for me. It might for others, but in many ways it actually made my anger and sadness deeper.

On the other hand, it is just as important to actually make an earnest effort. Many of my favourite techniques for self-improvement, such as healing and releasing our emotions, and to a lesser extent cognitive behavioural therapy, I initially discarded. I read through it a few times, played with it for a few minutes, and threw them out. After months of searching, I eventually found these techniques to be amongst the best I’ve uncovered, and upon more experimentation, found their benefits immense.

Finally, thank you for all the emails and the patience in waiting for my next post. I’m nearly out of my work and study load so please bear with me a little more!

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