We all know what parroting means in communications. It’s repeating precisely what someone else said without understanding or thinking about the meaning.
In this article, I will explore what parroting looks like in spiritual circles and offer a simple test so you can determine whether or not your spiritual teacher is doing it.
In his 1841 essay titled Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke strongly against parroting.
“Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say “I think” or “I am” but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass, or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are, they exist with God today.”
He went on.
“If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old moldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.”
Emerson made strong points in the essay. Some spiritual teachers are too preoccupied with the past. They quote scripture after scripture and completely dismiss their personal additions and interpretations.
Still, I think his critique was too strong. There is a middle ground. We can be informed by the past yet act and talk firmly from the center of our own experience.
Teachers That Parrot
In my life, I’ve met more spiritual teachers and preachers that parrot teachings than the opposite. Their conviction has been borrowed and based on those who came before them. While it may be true that they were keeping traditions alive, they had cut themselves off from the source of experience.
William James said that this was the inescapable fate of all religions. Originators have experiences and begin preaching. If the group overcomes the stage of persecution, the teachings are transformed into dogma and rituals, thusly abandoning the original inspiration.
Repeating the Recipe
Imagine this. Your grandma gives you the recipe for her legendary chicken soup. Instead of making the soup, you print endless copies of the recipe and recite it at every turn, creating a group of followers who love imagining the recipe but never cook it.
As ridiculous as that example sounds, it is exactly what I have found many spiritual teachers doing. They repeat the recipe. Sure, they may do a bit of metaphorical food prep but rarely do they go all the way and experience it for themselves.
What about metaphysical interpretations? Sadly, they also fall prey to the parroting phenomenon. While many of the people who’ve offered esoteric interpretations over the years were nothing short of brilliant, those who quote them can rarely venture beyond the interpretations.
For a while, this caused quite a dilemma for me. While I could quickly see parroting when it came to scriptures, it took me a while to see this truth about metaphysical interpretations. My disappointment came because I thought the concept of metaphysics was different, not just another way to create dogma.
To be fair, in some ways, it is different. The handling of information determines whether or not someone is parroting, not the information itself.
How Can You Tell?
Ask questions. That is the quickest way to determine whether someone is parroting. If the answers all point to scriptures, teachings, or other people, it is likely parroting. If, however, you stumble upon the rarity of a self-reliant spiritual explorer, references to scriptures will be sprinkled with personal insights and interpretations.
Author and Mindfulness Teacher
Amazon Author Profile
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)
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