Pitfalls on the Spiritual Path

Pitfalls on the Spiritual Path July 31, 2018

Self-centeredness—not on the everlasting Self, but the temporary self—is the main pitfall when practicing most forms of spirituality. Humility is the antidote and must be maintained as one evolves on the path. As soon as someone claims to be a master or guru, that same someone has lost his/her humility and has stopped progressing. The words master or guru should only be used by students when applicable since there can be no masters or gurus if there are no humble students.

The following is a partial list of other things to look out for on the spiritual path.

The Darth Vader Syndrome

Biology teaches that the more complex an organism becomes, the more things can go wrong. A single-celled organism cannot get cancer but a more complex organism like a dog can get cancer. The same goes for engineering or computing. The more complex the structure, the more things can go wrong.

Ken Wilber coined a term for this in relation to spiritual practice. He calls it the Darth Vader Syndrome (referencing the Star Wars movies by George Lucas). The more a human being advances spiritually, the more things can go wrong. The spiritual aspirant must therefore always remain aware on the spiritual path. Smugness, arrogance, greed, sexual attraction, and a variety of other similar traps can creep up on the aspirant at any point in his practice if he lets down his guard.

And remember, even though a person can be highly advanced in one area of life, for example in her spiritual practice, that same person can be severely unhinged in another, for example in her sexual conduct.


Many people have used spiritual practices as an escape route from other areas of life. They flee their family, stop paying bills, and stop being useful citizens in the name of spirituality. This is escapism. The true spiritual aspirant should prosper in all areas of life, including the material, physical, emotional, and mental areas.


This tendency can be explained by the words “I am not enough”. We have all been guilty of acting in a co-dependent way at one time or another in our lives. But the spiritual aspirant must not allow co-dependency to control thoughts and actions.

Co-dependent individuals view other people as the source of happiness and unhappiness and cannot be happy unless other people are happy. They fluctuate uncontrollably with their surroundings and cannot be their own masters.

Co-dependency either shows itself through the extremes of submission or an incessant need to control. The co-dependent individual believes that he or she will feel better if other people will change. But happiness cannot be found in the world. The only real source of happiness is within. Our environment is constantly changing. It can affect our levels of happiness but it is not the source.


Contradictions on the spiritual path are wonderful. Everything is relative. One of my favorite contradictions is related to the practice of Hatha Yoga. Spiritual practice reminds us that the body will eventually die and that we should attach our identity to the part of us that doesn’t die, and yet, we are told to spend time every day on maintaining the body. The danger with excessive Hatha Yoga practice is that the yoga practitioner may start to believe that the body can become immortal or may start to focus more on appearance than spiritual progress.

The only way to steer clear of vanity is to remember that the goal of life, according to most introverted spiritual paths, is to identify with our pure essence. We are drops in the cosmic ocean. The spirit is everlasting but the body will die. We should remember to use the body, our current vehicle, for spiritual practice and service and not be bound or attached to the things that will eventually change or transform.

External Norms

We can’t please everyone. A big part of becoming free from co-dependency and external norms is coming to terms with the following realization:

  • We will not like everyone, not everyone will like us and that is OK.

Sri Chinmoy once said in a television interview that man should be like a leaf. Instead of trying to please the other leaves on the tree, the leaf focuses inwards and gets all its energy from the branch, the trunk, the roots and the Earth, thusly experiencing the interconnectedness of all the leaves.

The spiritual quest is probably the most arduous journey that man can embark upon. But the spiritual journey can be more profitable than any other endeavor. If you become preoccupied with everyday troubles or allow yourself to be drawn into the rat race without reflection or contentment, you will be led astray.

That is why it is so important to associate with spiritually inclined people and attend retreats and seminars that focus on spiritual growth. We cannot wholly escape the influence of our surroundings, which is why it is important to choose a constructive environment if possible.

Ethical Deterioration

We can tame our animal instincts by cultivating ethical thoughts and behaviors. If left unchecked, animal instincts will appear as greed, lust, anger, jealousy, selfishness and struggle for power. If people engage in antisocial behavior, such as stealing, lying, greediness, and violence, they strengthen the veils that cover their spirit and attach themselves to the unavoidable suffering in the world. People who lack an ethical foundation have trouble trusting others because they don’t trust themselves. Ethical guidelines have been cultivated across all wisdom traditions for these reasons.

Lack of Patience And Persistence

Stamina! By charting a course and then taking deliberate steps every day towards your goal, you will reach it in the end. You must be ready to travel over peaks and through valleys. Spiritual growth has often been likened to taking three steps forward and then two steps backward. Cultivate patience. Trust that you will attain your goal and don’t give up when you meet resistance. Progress is inevitable if you keep up your practice. Stumbling is also inevitable. We are human after all.

A strong character does not develop in a person that never makes any mistakes. It develops in a person that keeps on trying despite her mistakes and learns from them. Lack of patience and persistence can surface in all our lives. In order to keep ourselves from coming to a complete halt, we must develop an intense desire for enlightenment and completely understand why we have chosen the spiritual path in the first place.

Gudjon Bergmann
Interfaith Minister and Author
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative

This column was curated from the book Know Thyself (2011) © Gudjon Bergmann

Picture: CC0 License

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