By Arlene Harder 

You say you want to live a spiritual life. You may want to do that within an organized religion or go on a journey to spiritual fulfillment by yourself, with occasional guidance from others. But how can you know whether the path you’ve chosen to follow will lead in the direction you thought it would go? When you reach the end of your life, will you be able to say with conviction that you truly were the best you could be?

Unless you join a sect that won’t allow you to think for yourself, you can’t ever be 100% sure, for doubt and questions are part and parcel of being human. But in the long run I suspect you are most likely to lead a spiritual life if the compass you rely on for guidance is set for the direction you want to go. And one of the best ways you can determine that is to make use of what Sam Keen in Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening The Spirit In Everyday Life.


And boy, do we ever need such a detector today. Just look at what is being offered on and off the Internet. Enlightened master swamis, perfect gurus, reincarnated teachers claiming to be the descendant of the One and Only Truth. In a line of religious leaders who stretch credulity to the breaking point, they stand next to fundamentalist preachers who also claim to hold the only keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Recently my assistant came across the following description of a woman who advertised on the Internet as a:

“Cosmic Shaman; Divine Emissary; Creational Intermediary for the Transuniversal, Intergalactic, Multidimensional Coalition of Lightworkers; As Above So Below Alchemist and Light Matrix Coder; Life Spiral Counselor and Soul Friend; Empathetic Intuitive and Telepath; Animal Communicator, Astrologer, Writer Teacher, Walker of the Sacred Spiral Pathways; Flower Essence and Aromatherapy Practitioner.”

Whew! I don’t know about you, but that list of qualifications wouldn’t encourage me to follow her advice, even though I might find her charming were I to meet her personally.

So here are questions you can use to set your compass for a spiritual life, to create your own spiritual “bulls__” detector and avoid surrendering to what Keen describes as “something too small, to false gods, gurus and groups.” And remember the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters.”

How well do you know yourself?

Many totalitarian religions and fuzzy spiritual philosophies can be enticing to those who don’t have a firm understanding of themselves, especially for those who carry a lot of guilt from the past. You don’t have to have therapy, of course, in order to lead a spiritual life. However, it’s been my experience that understanding and accepting yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and dealing with issues from the past makes it easier for the Spirit to come in. When you recognize we all have feet of clay, you are less likely to put a religious leader on a pedestal and believe they are above the foibles of ordinary humans.

Do you trust yourself?

You know in your heart when you are with people who express the qualities you want to express. Keeping an open heart and an open mind can be a fairly good guide to discovering when someone is giving you false advice. Don’t leave your brain on the doorstep of the sanctuary or at the temple of an enlightened guru.

Is the religion and spiritual teaching you follow based on compassion?


Although there are complex factors that lead to the establishment of a religion, a primary characteristic of the founders of great religions is compassion. You will never stray far from the path to fulfillment as long as you keep moving toward greater love for all living things, including yourself.


What qualities do the leaders of your religion express?

The hallmark of a spiritual life can be found in expression of the highest qualities to which we can aspire. If you find an abundance of positive qualities – including forgiveness, acceptance, beauty, gentleness, humility, love, joy, hope, wonder, peace, generosity, and kindness – among those who walk with you or guide you along your path, you will know the path is going in the direction of the sacred. If you find an abundance of negative qualities – including pettiness, hatred, fear, competition, criticism, egotism, scheming, a sense of superiority, blame and arrogance – you can be sure that you’re heading toward a dispirited life and an unsacred world.

Does the religion you follow, or are planning to follow, focus on sin and the need for salvation, on enlightenment and spiritual insights, or on a combination of both?

In any journey there are bound to be ups and downs. In any spiritual life there will be times when we feel we’ve reached a peak of insight, enlightenment, and forgiveness. There will also be times when we’ll struggle to get out of the valley of self-destructive behavior caused by pettiness, depression, competition, shame, etc. A spiritual guide worthy of the name will lessen the pain of the latter and help you get through the rough times. He or she will help you ascend the sacred mountain, and show you how to be prepared when you descend into the dark valley, as surely you will at some time.


Do the leaders of your religion have a sense of humor?

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is often quoted as saying that, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Are you allowed, even encouraged, to poke fun at the beliefs, slogans and dogmas of a spiritual leader? This is what Sam Keen has to say on the subject:

“The absence of humor is an almost certain sign of psychological rigidity, fanaticism and impending spiritual and political tyranny.”

“. . . The deepest spiritual traditions have always recognized that the sacred and the profane, like wisdom and folly, walk arm in arm, and therefore true piety must be seasoned with irreverent laughter.”

” . . . Mirth and merriment save us from taking ourselves too seriously and protect us from the idolatry of assuming that our churches, rituals and formulas are themselves sacred rather than symbols that point beyond themselves to the unknown God.”

“During one of Paul Tillich’s very abstract lectures at Harvard on the nature of God, a woman rose to ask a question: ‘Dr. Tillich,’ she said, ‘it is well known that psychoanalysts have a exceedingly difficult time with patients who know psychoanalytic theory. Do you think God has the same problems with theologians?’ Tillich replied, ‘I am sure He does.’ “

Are your core beliefs internally consistent?

Fundamentalist preachers claim God is love and we are created in the image of God and must love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet today some prominent evangelical Christians are anxious to promote a war in the Middle East because it will bring about Armageddon and the second coming. Attempting to appear open-minded, they refer to America as a Judeo-Christian nation or a nation built on Judeo-Christian principles. However, they don’t believe Jews will go to the heaven to which they are sure they, and only others who agree with them, belong. They do not see inconsistency in demonizing Muslims and killing innocent lives in the name of a “God of love.”


What kind of life do your spiritual teachers express?

We’ve learned a lot from recent corporate scandals. One of the things is that you would do well to know as much as possible about the financial dealings of executives at the top level of a company. Likewise, before you accept a teacher or spiritual guide (whether a pastor or rabbi or cleric associated with an established religion or someone who guides people on their spiritual paths more independently), you would do well to know whether they handle power, sex and money in a responsible way. Of course, it is true that someone can preach a great sermon, one that changes lives, and yet, himself or herself, live a lie. But how much more can be taught by those who understand the struggles, temptations and trials of ordinary mortals and share how they, themselves, have dealt with doubt and confusion.

Jack Kornfield, an excellent author, writes in A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life

In each tradition some teachers are rascals and coyotes who trick and surprise their students; some are harsh task-masters trying to whittle down ego and pride; others teach more through honoring and encouragement, nurturing the best in a student; some teachers lecture like a professor; others can melt us open with their love and compassion. The greatest and simplest power of a teacher is the environment of their own freedom and joy.

The more open a spiritual guide is willing to be, the more likely you can discover early on whether or not you are compatible with the person or persons to whom you are entrusting your spiritual well-being. And remember, if you understand yourself, you are more likely to know whether you would do well with someone who sees himself or herself you as a “spiritual friend” or as a “spiritual teacher,” whether you need to learn how to surrender or to be more skeptical, and what kind of spiritual community will support you best.

Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, gives this warning about accepting spiritual advice (or any advice, for that matter).


A certain man caught a bird in a trap.

The says, “Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep

in your life and you’re still hungry. The little bit

of meat on my bones won’t satisfy you either.

If you let me go, I’ll give you three pieces of wisdom.

One I’ll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.

And one I’ll speak from the limb of that tree.

The man was interested.

He freed the bird and let it stand on his hand.

“Number one: Do not believe in absurdity,

no matter who says it.”

The bird flew and lit on the man’s roof. “Number two:

Do not grieve over what is past; it’s over.

Never regret what has happened.”

“By the way,” the bird continued, “in my body there is a huge

pearl weighing a much as ten copper coins.

It was meant to be an inheritance for you

and your children, but now you’ve lost it.

You could have owned the largest pearl in existence,

but evidently, it was not meant to be.”

The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.

The bird said, “Didn’t I just say ‘Don’t grieve

for what’s in the past’ and also

‘Don’t believe in absurdity?’ My entire body

doesn’t weigh as much as ten copper coins.

How could I have a pearl that heavy inside me?

The man came to his senses. “All right.

Tell me number three.”

“Yes, you’ve made such good use of the first two!”

“Don’t give advice to someone who is groggy and

falling asleep. Don’t throw seeds on the sand.”

Best wishes on designing a spiritual compass that will guide you on your path. May you not believe in absurd spiritual claims. May you learn not to grieve what you have or haven’t done or known in the past. And may you be alert and listen carefully to what others tells you is true, so you can know whether their advice is wise or foolish.

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