Anyone who tells you he has some way of leading you to spiritual enlightenment is like somebody who picks your pocket and sells you your own watch. ~ Alan Watts Click To Tweet
Since the beginning of time human societies have frequently had someone in charge. From tribal chiefs to kings to democratic presidents, there has almost always been a ‘boss‘. Although comforting to some, there have also always been free thinkers — anarchists who swim against the current and desire to have the power to make decisions on their own. Indeed, the ‘guru fix’ seems almost hard-wired in us.
Yet as our human communities get larger and more diverse, laws, religious doctrines, and cultural conventions have started to unravel and become difficult to make sense of and apply to our lives. Although society often tells us that we should conform to something that fits within our governed mold, another option is embracing our uniqueness and using it as motivation to figure out what we really want, and what we really think is right for us.
“My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that forging your own path is the only way to be true to yourself and lead a happy life. He believed that if you make yourself into a clone of what society wants from you, not only does your life become “glittering and unsteady” but you also lose the ability to contribute anything to society. Society benefits from originality and innovation because people with those characteristics contribute new ideas and solutions to the world’s problems.
Emerson believed that although people might mock nonconformists for being ‘strange’ or out of the ordinary, hence writing “not for a spectacle,” nonconformists question society and end up changing it for the better. People like Plato, Einstein, and Mohammad Ali never fit into society — they break the mold instead. And by doing so, by being true to what they believe and refusing to conform, they inspire others to do the same.
Emerson also believed that accepting truths unquestioningly from the government or church is dangerous because every person is different and has a different “truth” that they must find for themselves. In Self Reliance, he says:
“No government or church can explain a man’s heart to him & so each individual must resist institutional authority.”
In order to grow as a person and be as great as we possibly can, we must take institutional ideas for granted and look inside for guidance.
There are a few different problems with religious leadership. There are the obvious, newsworthy examples of prayer circles that turn into violent cults, religious leaders who use their power to exploit their followers, and churches and organizations that collect exorbitant amounts of money and fees for the promise of forgiveness or redemption.
However, there are also less striking reasons people should consider. Spirituality should be deeply honest and individual. If someone else is telling you ‘how to be spiritual’ or how to ‘connect with your higher power’, chances are they’re just telling you what worked for them. Because we’re all different people with different experiences, expectations, and definitions of spirituality, we need different, uniquely individual ways of being spiritual.
Thomas Moore is a former monk, author on spirituality, and psychotherapist. He believes that although many people think they can become spiritual by traveling to the right places, reading the right books, or joining the right church, in fact all of those things can leave them empty and no closer to their “truth.” He encourages instead individual prayer and meditation aimed at getting to know one’s own soul and personal ethics, saying:
“Some people spend a lifetime of travel and reading, experiment and exploration to find a worthy purpose and way of life. By going down into the depths of the soul we find the raw material for a grounded spiritual life, and we discover a different quality of vision, deep forms of prayer and meditation, and a highly individual call to ethics.” ~ Thomas Moore, The Soul’s Religion
Joe Navarro, a veteran of the FBI, compiled a list of characteristics frequently associated with cult leaders. He wrote:
“What stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic… They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features.”
Although Navarro had religious cult leaders in mind when he wrote this, it also applies to certain political leaders, particularly dictators. Some of the most violent dictators today are pathologically narcissistic, masterful liars, and terribly exploitative. Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez are all on the spectrum of malignant narcissism, with al-Gaddafi and Lukashenko on the violent, psychopathic side.
In “The Leaderless Doctrine,” David Brooks wrote that, presently, people trust each other less than ever. For example, only 19 percent of millennials say they trust people. This means it’s a more dangerous time than ever for politicians. If politicians can’t find a way to get voters hooked, and even in some cases make us perceive our need for dependence on them (ex. Donald Trump’s philosophy that he’s the “only one” who can save America), they will cease to matter.
“The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.” ~ David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine
This tale, an urban legend pieced together across decades to become the amusing and telling anecdote you find here, has its origins in certain experiments conducted in the early 1900’s by Wolfgang Köhler, a German psychologist who was pivotal in the development of Gestalt theory.