We, in the spiritual crowd, have a unique desire to appear spiritual. We want the world to see us in a positive light. I know, because I have been guilty as charged of wanting to appear better than I am, of wanting to appear to others as a spiritual person, as one who is at least partially enlightened.
Let me explain this tendency with a combination of self-deprecating and general examples.
Posing as a Yoga Master
When I gave my first yoga workshop, only a few days after graduating as a fledgling yoga teacher back in 1998, I dressed all in white, shaved my head, and wore mala beads (the equivalent to Catholic prayer beads) around my neck. Furthermore, I did all the things that I thought a ‘proper yogi’ would do, from walking slowly to talking in a holier-than-thou tone. Obviously, I was pretending. My goal was to look the part.
Think that was bad?
Let me tell you about the time when I presented my first lecture as a yoga teacher. Again, dressed in white, I decided to sit cross-legged on a stage in front of approximately one hundred people. I committed myself to sitting like that for just over an hour. I had never sat that long with my legs crossed before. I am sure I looked the part, but after the room cleared, it took me about fifteen minutes to get up. Oh, the pain of a thousand needles in my legs is still vivid.
After several instances like this, I realized that I couldn’t play the part of a holy person. I needed to be more like myself, however faulty.
Yet, even after making that discovery, I was frequently tempted to appear better than I was. In subtle ways, I continued to keep up appearances for years by the way I dressed, what I allowed people to see me eat (which was radically different from what I really ate), and how I behaved.
Clothes, Jewelry, and Sanskrit Names
My only comfort is that I am not alone. In certain circles, this external drive to appear spiritual dictates a lot of behavior. People wear clothes and jewelry—both of which are supposed to make them look more spiritual (like the all-white attire plus mala beads that I started wearing as a newly graduated yoga teacher)—and speak in what they perceive as spiritual language (slow, holier-than-thou, flowery, poetic speech).
The newest trend in American yoga circles is taking up a Sanskrit name to appear more spiritual. Originally, this practice was reserved for the spiritual aspirant who assumed a new name when he severed all ties with the outside world, including relationships with family members and friends, and dedicated his life completely to spirituality. The aspirant burned his belongings in a symbolic funeral pyre, saying goodbye to his old life and old name, taking up a new spiritual name. Perversely, many today receive spiritual names without giving up anything and use the names as part of their marketing—fully engaged in the appearance while totally missing the point of the practice.
Trying to Appear Emotionally Flat
Still, the clothing, names, and jewelry are only external aspects. To really look the part, people also try to project internal states, such as trying to appear emotionally flat (because they have been told that is what spiritual masters do) or trying to be happy all the time (which is impossible). Those of us who have done this are setting ourselves up for failure by trying to live up to fantasy images of spirituality. These internal aspirations are subtler than the outward appearances, yet just as pretentious. They often create inner battles and irrational behavior.
To give you another personal example, one time I was selling a beat-up old Toyota Corolla that I owned and I lost my temper because the person buying it was trying to swindle me. At that point, the person turned around and said, “I thought you yoga teachers didn’t behave that way.” Instead of staying the course and getting my way, I immediately backed down so that I wouldn’t tarnish my image. I allowed the person to swindle me to maintain my spiritual appearance.
In my mind, I was taking the high road.
In reality, I was losing money.
The bottom line is that spirituality is never attained through outward appearances. Walking this fine line of allowing the positive results of spiritual practices to shine through when they are real, and not pretending they are when absent, is a balancing act that is hard to master, but worth every effort.
Author & Interfaith Minister
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