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Runaway Spirituality

by David Truman

Dropping out of the world isn't a bad idea

How we drop out matters

What is runaway spirituality?

Sages in cage clothing

Why they do it: what makes Johnny run

Walk, don't run

True spirituality is built on attraction, not reaction

How it feels to run away vs. walk away

What spiritual runaways do

The wanna-be-free way

Form follows function

Different insulation material, same purpose

A refuge from ego, or a refuge for ego?

There's a new trend in the world: runaway spirituality. It's WAY different than TRUE spirituality, and it's spreading fast. For the sake of this world and everyone in it, including ourselves, we all need to understand and correct the dangerous pitfalls of runaway spirituality.

Dropping Out and Beaming Up

Dropping out of the world isn't a bad idea

Beam me up, let me out of here! -- that's the cry of many spiritual seekers. And there's nothing essentially wrong with the desire to get away from the mundane world. Only the spiritually blind could fail to see the horrors of worldly life as it is lived, ordinarily, on this planet. Surely, that everyday nightmare of confusions and illusions, selfishness and alienation is far from what God's children could call home. It's more like being in hell.

So, it's rejuvenating to withdraw from the world now and then, and take a break from hellish ego-centered patterns within and without. Clearly, the dimensions of Spirit accessed in meditation and God communion are more agreeable to our souls -- more heavenly, if you will.

Besides, God communion and mystic retreat certainly have an essential place in every spiritual life. To stay healthy and strong, every intimate relationship -- including the relationship with God -- needs its moments of "quality time." There's also a need for occasional longer retreats, for taking time to completely detach from habitual grooves of thought and action.

And what if the challenges of life seem overwhelming? At such times, it may become necessary to temporarily pull out of that excessively challenging context to heal, reassess, regroup. Step back from the everyday world, and turn to God for comfort and healing.

Taken together, these points validate that withdrawal from the world can be healthy. But . . .

How we drop out matters

The way people make their break with the world -- why they do it, how it feels, and what they do in their alternative lifestyle -- matters. And it matters far more than most people seem to realize. In the case of this trend I'm calling runaway spirituality, the way it's being done spawns many hidden but serious problems.

What is runaway spirituality?

Runaway spirituality is people running away from life, and calling that "spiritual." Especially running away from the personal -- and yes, spiritual -- challenges of every day living, every day loving. Many "spiritual astronauts," dismissing those challenges as "low," are deserting ordinary life with no intention to ever return.

Their idea is to move up, to beam up: Up, up, up! But which way is really up? That, unfortunately, is rarely understood, and often terribly misunderstood.

The thing is, we are here -- here and now. We can't find our Selves "elsewhere." Heaven itself is also here and now, not there and then. And so, therefore, is spiritual enlightenment.

To "other" our Selves, God, and Heaven by running from here to "find" them elsewhere is useless. It simply piles illusion on illusion. And to feel superior compared to those we think we're leaving in our dust -- that's completely deluded. What can come of such delusion, other than terrible frustration, misdirected lives, wasted energy? Nothing. Less than nothing, actually: spiritual/emotional backsliding. All in the good name of upward progress.

Tragic, to think that runaway spirituality is all the rage these days. And you can bet that the worse things get, the more popular runaway spirituality will get. In times of trouble, humans run, and humans avoid. Mostly to their own detriment. That's what we're talking about.

Sages in cage clothing

Now, before going on, let me make one thing clear: Throughout this article, I will say things about runaway spirituality that are truly alarming. And there's cause for alarm . . .

• The runaways think they're free while they're running scared.

• They're deepening their illusions while believing they are "ascending," "awakened," and spiritually sophisticated.

• They are reducing their human functionality through disdain and disuse, and cutting off many God-given means of maintaining spiritual health.

It sounds terrible, and it is. But despite that . . .

The truth is, we're always free. We are, in reality, sages in cage clothing. Meaning, we may think we are bound, but we are not. The choice to "be" (or rather, feel) bound is itself a free choice -- one of many possible choices. You can feel found instead of bound if you so choose. You know. So . . .

All this stuff I'm warning you about, and making you feel is so terribly dangerous for you, about to snuff you out, about to trap you -- that stuff can't really trap you. It can't really snuff you out. It can't do anything of the kind. So don't worry too much about that.

It can only make you feel that you are trapped, snuffed out, etc. But that's bad enough, don't you think? It's hell, quite literally. And that's why we're addressing it.

Still, through it all, remember that you are free. Remember, too, that the highest expression of your freedom is that you're free to be who you are. And remember that who you are -- who you really are -- is good. You are not ego at all, even though you are free to behave egotistically. But since it's you that you really want to be, your real satisfaction comes from living as your true and good Self -- and not from living as an ego-imitation of yourself, an ego-imitation of Spirit.

So, although you are free, you won't fully enjoy your true freedom as long as you're playing the part of a spiritual runaway. And that could be a very long time.

The Why, How, and What of Runaway Spirituality

Why they do it: what makes Johnny run

Among the causes of our lives, our motivations count most. As you know, it's not what we do, but how we do it that determines our results. And how we do it comes from why we do it (really why, that is -- not just convenient rationalizations). Depending on its proportion in the overall mix, each of our motives directly impacts both the way our lives feel, and the results we get.

Mixed motives. The spiritual runaway's usual reasons -- that is, stated reasons -- for renunciation sound much like traditional ones: the search for enlightenment; the realization that the conventional world is lost and deluded; etc. Even the most notorious spiritual runaway, who bolts from the slightest practical or social difficulty, has genuine spiritual aspiration. And the usual desire for Divine comfort and consolation. That, too, is natural; it is fine.

But as you know, human beings are complicated creatures. When it comes to motivation, mixed motives -- positive and negative -- are the rule. And generally people have unstated, underlying motives, in addition to claimed motives. Now, in the case of runaway spirituality, some of the hidden motivations are far less than noble: personal incompetence, failure, excessive reactivity, laziness, irresponsibility, and cowardice. Overall, runaway spirituality is actually more a reaction to the pain of living in a world of egos, as an ego, than it is a genuinely bright spiritual aspiration.

Two different motivations, two different retreats. You wouldn't throw in a rotten apple when baking a delicious pie. But so often in life, people throw rotten reasons into outwardly good activities. And as you can imagine, hidden negative motivations can completely sour an otherwise potentially constructive action.

Take, for example, an apparently appropriate time to withdraw from a challenge: when you find yourself stuck in a destructive pattern you can't seem to change. Sure, it's honorable as hell to "keep trying" -- but not if each effort sets you back another step! We're here to learn from our experience, but too many shocks, too many negative reactions, too many failures, too many mistakes don't help. At such times, it may be best to remove yourself from the troublesome context for a time. Get some space. Go into abeyance.

Sounds good. Or is it? Depends on the motivation.

Walk, don't run

When the going gets rough, it is better
to WALK away than to RUN away.

A person can walk away from unmanageable challenges with the intention of getting his or her head straight, so as to return later and participate better. And if that were one's clear and predominant motive, one might well succeed.

But all too often, spiritual runaways flee the world in fear and loathing, dead certain that the world -- or personal love, or ordinary responsibility -- is out to ruin them! That, friends, is neurotic and destructive.

Furthermore, why would a person even want to go back to a place they fled in terror? Without a positive desire and intention, there's no way they would -- and they may as well not. If they don't uplevel their orientation to the challenge that defeated them, they'll never win. Neurotic spinsters, nuns, and hermits are made that way.

You can see the problem with the runaway style. Can anyone build a real spiritual life on running away from challenges? Doubtful. It would be easier for a career thief to go into vocational rehabilitation and become the Pope. But of course, those vocations are more similar. True spirituality and runaway spirituality are as different as can be.

True spirituality is built on attraction, not reaction

The very heart of spirituality -- the true heart -- is attraction to the exquisite beauty of God and God's creations. We're not talking about the beauty of so-called "heavenly realms" of pie-in-the-sky nature, but the Heaven that is here and now. A truly spiritual person is a person in love, wherever they are, no matter what they're doing. And that, indeed, is Heaven. Being love is heavenly.

And speaking of beauty: true spirituality is accepting your own real Self, the beautiful one God made. True spirituality is knowing and being that True Self. It is being absolutely genuine in that very specific sense.

Identification with your True Self includes the "uncovery" and exercise of your true high motives: to love, to give, to be a healer, a contributing member of society on that higher level. The result? A life so beautifully lived that it brings fulfillment in every aspect of your being.

How can your True Self -- the person you essentially are, and want to be -- live happily forever in a cave of spiritual retreat, emotionally and psychically withdrawn from the world around you? In withdrawal, where is the free attention, the giving, the love? Higher motives extend far beyond running from error in terror. They include all that is good and beautiful.

The following testimony applies:

When I went to pray the other day, I was upset. I'd been trying to live right, but I felt like nothing had worked. God told me,

"You've accepted some self-discipline, but you have let go of higher expressions of your Self. If you want things to work, you can't just discipline yourself as an ego. You must live as a true child of God. THEN things will work better."

God didn't intend us to bolt from the world like terrified horses fleeing a burning barn. Nor did God intend us to accept illusory personal limitations forever -- fear of intimacy, unwillingness to commit, etc. -- and then live in exile from a world where those limitations wait to devour us if ever we return.

God intended for us to know ourselves as strong and unlimited by ego illusions, in ourselves and others. God intended for us to be fulfilled as the spiritual beings we are, recognizing ourselves as a higher Self, empowered to participate fully and competently, even Divinely, in life.

How it feels to run away vs. walk away

Walking away from the world feels different than running away. Just like going on vacation feels different than going into hiding. Different feeling, different effects. When retreat from the world becomes a fearful (and more or less permanent) disappearance from ordinary functional life, it crosses the line from healthy space to unhealthy aversion.

When we go take a nap or a retreat, what exactly are we doing? Are we

• running away from an evil, or running to a good?

• running away from a cold, cruel world, or just taking needed and appropriate rest in the arms of Divinity?

If the primary motivation for retreat is negative, it will negatively influence both the tone of the retreat itself, and the tone of re-engagement (if it happens).

We can well apply this same analysis to any form or length of spiritual ascendance, be it a single meditation experience, or a permanent ascent to heavenly etheric realms. In every instance we could ask, "With what attitude, what motivation, do we embrace this Great Beyond?"

Our true relationship with all that lives is, in fact, permanent kinship. And needless to say, the appropriate attitude toward one's kin is not, "To hell with these devils; I'm out of here forever." And neither, with respect to oneself, is it, "I myself, in my total personhood, am a wretched creature. My entire personality is deluded and illusory. I need to dissolve myself in God and disappear." Neither the world nor the one leaving it is despicable. We need retreat, but in the long run, one can never leave that life that is Oneself.

We can run to God everywhere, if it really is God we want. And God will revitalize, rejuvenate, and fill us up, whether we contact God in a cave or a crowd. God will.

Then, with our consciousness upleveled by transcendent awareness, we can more effectively discover, and subsequently interact as, who we are. As who we are, we can speak to them as who they are. And in all our engagements, we can maintain a stronger connection to Divinity.

What spiritual runaways do

So you see, not all ways of "renouncing the world" are created anywhere near equal. Some ways support growth and functionality much better than others. The way spiritual runaways tend to do it is bad for their spiritual growth. The proof is in the pudding.

Monasteries make some decent "pudding." Traditionally, they were the place for people who wished to pursue spiritual life very seriously: monasteries, ashrams, "renunciate orders." Those places were not vacation spots. Monks and nuns didn't get out of anything. They worked hard. They lived in a highly structured and disciplined setting, a close-knit social community. All carefully supervised. Obedience was the rule of the order. In a place like that, ego had little room for expression. The result? High functioning! Increased strength. And usually, real spiritual progress.

But with runaway spirituality, we see a new twist on the renunciate theme: renunciate DISorders -- unhealthy, disorderly ways of living that can weaken the people who follow them. Here's the trouble: when dropping out, people let go of functions that are crucial to well-being. For example, spiritual runaways

• rarely maintain close intimacies.

• rarely hold steady jobs. (Either they "can't," or they refuse to do so, considering themselves too sensitive, too principled, too "spiritually advanced" to work in the world.)

• avoid commitments, preferring to "let go and let God" (not realizing that what they call letting go is simply waiting for "inner guidance" to ratify their whims).

Paradoxically, the life of the spiritual runaway is much like the ordinary life of worldly people: a life of preference and tendency. Actually more so, much more so: at least the ordinary person has a job, and some relationships to which to be accountable. By reducing or eliminating external accountability in their "renunciation" mode, spiritual runaways double the worldly woes of selfishness and indiscipline in their self-created lifestyle.

In the following comparison chart, you can see how the (unstructured) renunciate disorders of spiritual runaways differ from the (structured) renunciate orders of traditional spiritual seekers.

Traditional Renunciate Orders vs. Renunciate Disorders

This is not to suggest that traditional spirituality is -- or ever was -- perfect; every path has pitfalls. Residents of traditional renunciate orders have a tendency toward dogma and ritual; the potential for mediocrity within passive obedience to externally-imposed discipline; the opportunity for spiritual pride and feelings of exclusivity; the danger of becoming as dry and humorless as crackers. Nonetheless, the strict structure of their lives offered traditional renunciates some real advantages.

By cutting down on whimsy, structure serves the essential spiritual purpose of ego-transcendence. Indeed, almost any kind of structure tends to strengthen people. Kids come back from summer camp much more happy and wholesome because of the structure they "endured." Military service and team sports have similar effects. Traditional renunciates thrive on the surrender, obedience, and ego-transcending discipline built into the monastic lifestyle. They renounce, for good reason, exactly what many spiritual runaways fight for: self-directed, undisciplined, whimsical lives.

The wanna-be-free way

Not surprisingly, spiritual giants of crazy-wisdom often become heroes of the whimsical, wanna-be-free crowd. Why not? Freedom appeals to both spirit and ego. Actually God loves freedom as much as anyone -- true freedom, though, which is, in reality, the opposite of ego-styled whimsy.

Spiritual runaways conveniently forget one thing: All those crazy-wisdom role models submitted to rigorous spiritual discipline earlier in life. If you want to be the living embodiment of Divine Impulse, you must free yourself from ego first.

We may all be already free, by God -- but when it comes to the REALIZATION of freedom, and the EXERCISE of it, there ARE prerequisites.

Form follows function

It's no coincidence that the renunciate disorder takes such a different form than the renunciate order. The different FORM reflects a different PURPOSE. True spirituality requires ego-transcendence, first and foremost. No way around it. But, spiritual aspirations aside, the runaway's life is still predominantly ruled by ego -- consciously or otherwise. The randomness of the lifestyle dramatically demonstrates that. Keep an eye on it; you'll see.

If spiritual runaways were really into getting over ego, their lives would have a different structure. Ego would be disciplined in many more ways, not given a carte blanche -- which is usually the case.

Different insulation material, same purpose

The good news is, even the most committed runner sees what's wrong with ego. The bad news is, they don't see it very deeply -- or personally. So instead of seeing their own ego illusions and living beyond them, they rush to insulate themselves, with a heavy layer of spiritual concepts and activities, from the pain of their own ego-styled patterns. Spirituality, in that case, is little more than distraction, consolation, fascination, and avoidance. How different is that from what worldly people do? An ego-driven atheist might console himself by playing the stock market; an ego-driven religionist might console himself studying scriptures. No real difference there; the insulating material is different, but the purpose of insulation is the same: Avoidance. Denial.

A refuge from ego, or a refuge for ego?

Ego always wants to create a safe haven where it can live as it prefers. In the case of the spiritual runaway, the spiritual appearance of the lifestyle gives ego an advantage: it provides an additional layer of camouflage. Who would question it? And yet, anyone who really looks can see the ego in angel's clothing. For starters, just listen to the runaways' aspirations:

"I want to be beamed up."

"I want to be saved."

"I want to be empowered."

"What's important for me is my enlightenment, my relief from suffering."

Do you see it? "My this, my that . . ." "Me, me, me . . ." Just like the average man or woman living the "worldly" life.

Friends, we're all free to "follow our own bliss"; but living a self-oriented life is blissful only to ego. Now, what about you?


by David Truman

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