We have hinted at this frequently in this section of the website: being a seeker is fraught with pitfalls and temptations, and the further removed we are from appropriate checks and balances, the more likely we are to fall unwittingly into traps of our own creation.
The only responsible way to seek is in humility, openness, tentativeness and graciousness. The greatest hazard for the seeker is self-centredness in all its forms. Who among us does not suffer from blind spots? But pride is probably the greatest of our weaknesses as seekers: thinking we can go it alone; thinking that we are the arbiter of all things; thinking we are right and choosing not to listen to those who call us back from what they see as the brink… Of course this is our journey! And of course we are responsible for our decisions along its path! But who says we ought not to listen to those who might see the dangers we risk better than we can?
Many seekers are looking for that deep experience of the Transcendence, that “high” of experience. Sometimes – though rarely – it is granted. But then comes the temptation: they seek that ecstasy again and again, as if it were the real objective. And they seek it without effort. Most mystics know the sober truth: the path to a deeper relationship with the Transcendent, the path to deeper self-understanding, often descends into “the Dark Night of the Soul,” that long, difficult time when all seems hopeless and futile. After all, the objective is not the experience of ecstasy: it is union with the Ultimate. And the most important learning is that our life is not about us.
Many seeker become afflicted with the disease of “spiritual materialism.” They pursue “enlightenment” seminars and workshops as if they were consuming some form of sophisticated spiritual entertainment. Their focus is often on some form of self-improvement: better control over emotions; less stress; attaining “higher levels of consciousness.” None of these are bad things in themselves, but they are not the end seekers seek: the big hole within us doesn’t get filled with more spiritual techniques, or with just this one additional workshop. The end of all spiritual quest is a deeper relationship with the Mystery, the Other, the Transcendent. The journey is really not about making ourselves better, but about losing ourselves into the Other.
Perhaps the gravest danger facing seekers – all the more so that it is also the most freeing from the doctrinal constraints against which the seeker is reacting! – is “syncretism” or “cherry-picking.” This is the process by which we piece together a world-view, a theology, a faith, by borrowing or adapting bits and pieces that have come to mean something to us from a range of different faith traditions and spiritual practices. For instance, the Christian who decides that reincarnation makes more sense than resurrection, and combines that with a Zen practice alongside a belief in the power of crystals. The problem with syncretism is that we end up piecing together bits and pieces from various traditions on the sole criteria that they “work” for us, and we refuse to work through the intellectual task of ensuring coherence and consistency in our world-view. In the end, it is as if our personal satisfaction and comfort become the sole arbiters of the truth. If mystics have taught us anything it’s that the true spiritual journey is one of self-emptying, of “dying to self” – from the Boddhisatva to Jesus to Islam (submission).