Discover potential pitfalls for the spiritual seeker based on two decades of research.
Spiritual seekers tend to be empathic, introverted, and creative. Most of us approach the world with sensitivity, and some of us are on the other side of addiction. Perhaps we had a dramatic accident, like a near-death experience, that tuned us to a world beyond this one. Or perhaps our awakening is harder to trace: an accumulation of curiosities, observations, losses, or striking events that opened the door. When I was 25, I had a crisis, the kind of dark night of the soul that Joseph Campbell boyishly labels a Call to Adventure in his first of 17 steps of The Hero’s Journey. In my case, the adventure could not have felt less heroic. A full-body panic spun me like a ball on a roulette wheel, the wheel being a street corner in midtown Manhattan. I sat and cried and nearly vomited as a vision appeared. Blurred faces from home, work, and love, congealing like a bad jelly, with this message: Nothing is as distinct as it appears. Everything will dissolve no matter how tightly you cling. If you don’t wake up, you will have missed the point.
I had to admit what I had been ignoring. A deep need, like a thirst, had underscored every work meeting, night out, and moment alone. A high-pressure job, an apartment in the city, a live-in boyfriend—these were crushing, rather than lifting, my soul. Nothing I had acquired was going to build what I needed, according to this sidewalk vision, which seemed to have risen from the underworld and, within seconds, begun to drag me back down with it. A solution, moments later, struck me like a cold, sobering splash: Get to know your own mind.
As I wrote in my book Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider, I found more than personal wisdom in the ceremonies, spiritual gatherings, and intentional communities I visited. Perhaps the most surprising discovery was that spiritual life, while rewarding, could be treacherous. There are rules for a reason; without a trustworthy teacher or guide, you can get lost.
I won’t pretend to know more than what 20 years of searching has taught me. But as a writer and reader, I have noticed very little written about the risks that come with spiritual life. Focusing on the love and light aspect makes sense. Who doesn’t want to live in love and light? But in truth, having a spiritual practice is complicated, and glossing over the complications isn’t wise.
1. A Spiritual Journey Takes Time
Not a few months, or even a year; not that kind of time. I’m talking about interior time, the minutes of your mind. Contrary to popular belief, the journey doesn’t require travel to Spain or India. Even a short weekend retreat isn’t necessary. Internal travel to a sacred landscape becomes possible once you turn your sight inward.
How do you find this landscape? Participate in practice. Any practice will do: Read spiritual texts; listen to the wisdom of teachers; attend a lecture, class, or ceremony. At 25, no matter what kind of practice I attended—Wiccan ceremonies, shamanic healings—a mental shift always sparked, like a lightbulb flickering in the darkness. Each time, I made an agreement with myself to spend time here, in this place of quiet action, to grow a deeper awareness.
2. Ritual Exists for a Reason
Through the lens of everyday reality, rituals can appear silly, confusing, or hollow: robes, incense, hand gestures, archaic behaviors and utterances—for what? The performative nature of rituals, over time, can seem profoundly unreal to the outsider.
But ritual serves as a gateway, a doorway, an entrance and exit from the mundane world to the spiritual realm. Every spiritual tradition uses ritual: touching holy water when entering a church, kissing your fingers after grazing a mezuzah, removing shoes when entering a mosque. Shamanism uses the drum to shift the mind. Vodou starts with offerings at an ancestral altar.
I’ve witnessed the fallout when rituals aren’t taken seriously. I once brought an insensitive camera crew into a Vodou priestess’s home and in horror watched how the cameraman kicked a sacred gourd out of his way in effort to get a good angle. The gourd, a piece of the altar, meant nothing to him, as he did not value the sacredness of the space. The priestess assessed his ignorance and gave the interview anyway.
When the segment never aired, I wasn’t surprised. The vibe was off in the room, the meaning of the tradition wasn’t conveyed, and the lackluster footage proved it. Once I committed to my own practices, I understood rituals are a mental cue. The ritual pauses ordinary life, automatically shifting your lens. If you don’t do the ritual, the spiritual experience feels watered down and the transformation doesn’t quite happen. Think of watching a film in the theater with the lights on. You never sink into the experience, and the story falls through the cracks. More importantly, living in a spiritual space all the time, with no rituals to mark entrance or exit, can distort your behavior and decisions in daily life. Do the ritual!
3. It’s Possible to Go Overboard
A spiritual practice expands your way of showing up in the world, but monitoring your body, mind, and spirit are still necessary. Physical injuries during an advanced yoga practice or mental challenges like anxiety attacks during a long meditation are just the tip of the iceberg. The pitfalls of going too far can cut deep. So many practitioners have shared with me their self-delusions around extreme spiritual needs—for personal space, a special diet—to the point of family or professional neglect.
I know of one practitioner who went so deep into New Thought that he lost his job, renounced his wife and children, and took his belief in individual divinity to a life of isolated self-worship. While it’s common to assume overboard mishaps are due to mental health and not spiritual practice, the line between the two is famously thin. Most people are positively transformed by their spiritual interests; better mental health is a widely reported benefit. But negative consequences slide in when you least expect, and misused spiritual language can obscure any injury to the mind. I’ve learned, after many years and much harm done, to listen with alert ears to my body, my loved ones, and a higher self for signals of going overboard. The key is to notice and pull back before real damage is done. If you accidentally cause harm, practice self-forgiveness.
4. Your Shadow Will Emerge
The dark areas of ourselves, what Carl Jung calls the shadow, emerge for many when they start to look inward. Spiritual life is a practice in honesty, so behavior and impulses that have been suppressed into the unconscious rise up. More of the mind has room to breath.
Sometimes, though, if we have labeled the shadow material as forbidden—such as desire, anger, or shame—its appearance can upset our balance. I’ve found the advice from Clarisa Pinkola Estes to ring true, to use this shadow material to “perceive from the soul” instead of through the ego, and to forgive yourself. You might even create a shadow notebook, a place where your darkest thoughts can live freely so they don’t invade your life.
5. You Will Become Sensitive to the Extraordinary
Most traditions acknowledge the arrival of extraordinary abilities after years of dedicated spiritual devotion and advise that they be used for a higher purpose. I admit I once laughed at stories like this. But studies at monasteries have shown that the more time one spends in a liminal mental state, the more likely it is that sensitivity to the otherworldly will grow. For my podcast, I have collected hundreds of stories about telepathic coincidences, seeing spirits of the deceased, or dreaming of the future death of a loved one. I know one thing for certain: Sensitivity to the extraordinary is real.
The insights I’ve gained through prayer, meditation, ritual, or any other spiritual process have seeped in, somehow, in the 20 years since I was spun around on a street corner. Sympathy replaces judgment, perspective replaces fear, clarity replaces false beliefs. I have forgiven more people than I ever expected. Most surprising is how much I’ve forgiven myself.
Somewhere along the line, it became easier to remember that most people are hanging on by a thread; everyone suffers losses; everyone makes mistakes; everyone wishes they had done certain things differently. Grace comes, deserved or not.