The things that are expected of us — and that we expect of ourselves — sometimes lead to the very behavior we’re trying to avoid. Politicians are supposed to live up to higher ethical standards than the rest of us, but how? Do they have special training? Exceptional force of will? Astounding personal power? No; they’re just human — and animal.
We humans love our cleverness and sophistication, but the amygdala still underlies our nervous response. The amygdala’s the deep-brain hub of impulsive reactions; it conditions experience way before rational decision-making has its say. The four Fs — food, fight, flight and fornication — are still right up there as human motivators. Public heroes are routinely undermined by this: Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Khan, Greg Mortenson — with a google or two, this little list soon turns into a bulging database.
“Really, if you never get angry or lustful you need to see a doctor; it’s not natural.”
We half expect this of the rich and famous, but teachers command more trust — particularly spiritual teachers. Failures on their part are stellar, on a par with our expectations of them. That’s in part because they do have training, or at least they should have. Popular definitions of religion or spirituality mention a higher power and a belief structure, but the real meat and potatoes of any spiritual path lies in knowing and working with your own mind. I use a collaborative term — ‘work with’ — rather than ‘control’ because total self-control is an illusion. More to the point, it’s a vanity.
In particular, it’s a vanity too often indulged in by spiritual teachers. It has to do with ego, but the greater motivator is fear — fear of being exposed as merely human. Those who address congregations, meditation groups and yoga classes are urging people on to higher levels of awareness and behavior. Understandably, they feel the need to exemplify it. A diploma, a title and a well-spun bio aren’t enough. Spiritual teachers must model credibility in their physical and mental demeanor.
For some, that means smiling constantly, saying only good things about everybody and accepting every point of view in the name of open-mindedness. They exhibit no anger, jealousy, covetousness or petty-mindedness — or at least, they try not to. Most tragically, they abandon the critical tool of discernment.
To deny your amygdala is to mess with your head in the worst possible way. Really, if you never get angry or lustful you need to see a doctor; it’s not natural. To deny these impulses in the name of a spiritual practice is, to coin a biblical phrase, an abomination. Emotions are a fact of life; you might even say they’re the fact of life. When somebody wrongs you, you get angry not because you should, or because you decide to; you just get angry. The question is, how do you deal with that emotion? Handled honestly, it’s a source of creativity, insight and integrity. However, that doesn’t happen without effort; it takes a true-to-life commitment of mindfulness and reflection.
Those with a weak or inauthentic spiritual practice bottle up inconvenient emotions until they explode in all the wrong ways. Often, they do it in the very name of spiritual practice — smiling benignly, dropping spiritual buzz words and hoping against hope that they’ll magically become better people. That’s when the explosion is both spectacular to everyone else and utterly mysterious to themselves.
To be alive is to be under pressure. There are no excuses for not dealing with it, and there’s no way to escape the natural laws of cause and effect. Untrained minds don’t find peace. Pretending to be in control brings disaster. These may be old, old truths, but the fact is we’re still learning them. Let’s be honest about it and give up the hype.