Overcoming Spiritual Codependency.
As I sit in my office listening to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, to the swelling crescendo of violins as they generate waves of orgasmic pleasure so intense it’s painful, I think I understand faith.
Not the mindless kind of faith we exercise when we want something really, really, bad, but the kind that inspires transcendent art, that kicks us several rungs up the evolutionary ladder, that translates to a deep and primal way of perceiving which surpasses ordinary reality and goes straight into the glowing territory of inspiration.
The definition of inspiration is divine guidance.
For me, divine guidance is always attended by its bedmate: Beauty.
And beauty, at least the way I experience it, generally contains something of the maniacal.
You see, to feel beauty this deeply, so that it cuts you to your very core and you come away with the bloody slash-marks as morbid proof, you need to be at least a little bit maniacal. At least slightly addicted.
I have had my addictions in the past, but not of the garden variety. Not drugs, alcohol, sex, or the affection of someone who is clearly not good for me.
Instead, I opted for that pounding oceanic sensation I still feel whenever I play Rachmaninoff at full blast. Or when I was singing kirtans and ecstatic-dancing my way into blissful oblivion alongside other yogis in altered states of consciousness.
My addiction was nothing short of sublimation of my small self into the egoless primordial blob of oneness offered by so many spiritual communities (because that’s what you do, right?), or by teachers who’d apparently mastered the art of living in a body — either via transcending or learning to gracefully integrate pain, awkwardness, loneliness, suffering into one compact chi ball.
Or by clairvoyants with the uncanny ability to stare straight into my soul and assure me that all that bad shit could be turned around with a little faith and a simple energetic exchange in the form of money.
I’ll admit it: I was seduced, because I wanted to be. Flailing as I was, I wanted to believe there were people who actually had all the answers. And they truly seemed to. The corona of enlightenment appeared to be shining around their heads like the halos in a Renaissance painting.
But predictably, the more soul retrieval workshops, Tantric awakening weekends, and New Age bliss-fests I found myself attending, the emptier I felt.
Not that I wouldn’t fill up on the energy and the communal love sufficiently enough to keep me afloat in my day-to-day for a little while. And not that I imbibed nothing of value but shallow platitudes and false formulas. All the same, I was a hungry ghost. A bottomless well of spiritual starvation. No matter the nutrients I seemed to take in, I wasn’t absorbing them at all.
At some point, after thousands of dollars spent, dozens of spiritual disciplines traversed, and many new communities with whom I danced that lover’s tango through intoxication and ultimate disappointment, I had to come to terms with my form of addiction: spiritual codependency.
It is not unlike spiritual materialism, which entails grasping at a sense of accomplishment within one’s spiritual pursuits. But beyond spiritual materialism (which also encompasses fun stuff like grazing at the goddess buffet of cultural appropriation), I felt this aching sense that I would not be complete unless I could merge with something outside me, beyond me, and better than me.
Granted, the religious impulse is one that implies union with something beyond yourself. But, to me, divine guidance is that ineffable force that calls us home to ourselves, that lets us reclaim our own place in the vast mystery of existence. I feel this most strongly in art and music, perhaps because they do not seek to define that mystery on the basis of spiritual truths. Truth itself is undefinable in this place.
It has no real tolerance for a dualism spiritual codependents impose upon themselves: “Poor old me” versus “Something way bigger and cooler.”
The disappointment and pain that continually arise from spiritual codependency (and believe me, no matter how idealistic we are, they always come at some point) are there because we have it all wrong. We deny our own largeness, as reflections of that great cosmic mystery. We project an imagined power onto some doctrine or teaching or guru we believe will bring us to the threshold of the divine.
In order to experience union with the divine, we must locate the mystery deep within ourselves.
Certainly, we are not islands, but when we are dependent on something outside ourselves to infuse our lives with meaning and beauty — and we feel lost in the absence of that — this takes us further and further away from our true selves. We are divine beings disguised as humans. And our humanity — not some cloistered version of spirituality — is where the key to our divinity can be found.
A spirituality grounded in self-acceptance teaches us to stand on our own two feet, to offer our own gifts and wisdom to the world, and to find strength and empowerment within ourselves. This self-acceptance is the antidote to spiritual codependency, and there are some wonderful avenues toward it.
Discern between charlatans and the real deal.
As skeptical as I am of self-professed gurus, I love teachers. Especially the ones who don’t even think of themselves as being teachers. These are the ones who help me see my life as an unfolding masterpiece that I have every part in creating (or, at the very least, co-creating). They help to unmoor me from dogma, and to dislodge me from being so set in my ways.
They enable me to relax, to not take this spectacle of being in a body quite so seriously. Their wisdom flows from the kind of source that honors the same wisdom in others. There is no crazy power play. There is no ego trip. There is no need to get something from you — whether it’s money, devotion, sex, or something else.
Then, there are the charlatans who give the good teachers a bad name. This distinction is tricky, and I firmly believe that it is different for everyone. I’ve gotten quite a lot of value from organizations that other people would rightfully label cults. On the other hand, many an innocuous love-and-light workshop has bored the hell out of me and raised my hackles with its recycled platitudes.
So, don’t intellectualize this one too much. Simplify. Pay attention to how you feel. What are your criteria when it comes to taking other people on as trusted teachers? Are they offering little more than fairy dust and glitter? Or is there actual substance — the kind that will bring you closer to your true essence rather than some arbitrary standard for what it means to be a spiritual person? Talk to other people about this.
Not all charlatans have cults, but it’s certainly helpful to read about cults and educate yourself on the techniques they use to draw in susceptible, spiritually voracious people. Then, make an educated decision on how involved you want to be.
Tend your own garden, and embrace your personal power.
One psychic I used to consult regularly had the habit of constantly berating me — a strange form of emotional abuse that had the effect of making me doubt myself. In another community I belonged to, the leader called the shots and upheld the virtues of hierarchy and devoted surrender.
I call bullshit on both these tactics. Smooshing someone underfoot and demanding their obedience is not the best way to snap someone out of their egoic illusions (assuming that’s what these people were trying to do). Calling someone’s personal connection to the divine into question, and insisting that you, and only you, have God/dess on speed dial, is just plain abusive.
I’m not proud of it, but I gave away my power, many times over. In my spiritually codependent state, I believed that this was a courageous testament to my faith — a show of proof that I was ready, willing, and able to subdue my ego and the identity I’d attached myself to, in order to undergo some kind of magical transmutation.
A genuine teacher isn’t going to demand that you give up everything you know to be true in your bones, even if you’re… well, kind of misguided. A genuine teacher is going to work with you in the context of who you are and what you know.
Sure, a violent shaking-up of the status quo is sometimes necessary, but it is equally necessary to be cautious about who, or what, your catalyst is — and whether they actually have your best interests at heart.
When we find a spiritual path that seems to fit our needs (a problematic criterion for a spiritual path in the first place, but that’s a different story!), it’s easy to get carried away. So, how much time are you devoting to everything else in your life that matters to you? There’s nothing wrong with an all-consuming passion, but how all-consuming are we talking?
Does it take you away from your other friends and interests? Is it the only thing you ever find yourself prattling on about?
Where is the balance? Is your life going to be purely about living someone else’s new philosophy? Newsflash: We call that ‘dogma’. No grounded spiritual practice forces you to devote your entire life to it.
A false spirituality seeks to separate you from other aspects of your life: relationships, family, friendships, and people outside your immediate circle. Spirituality that narrows your life such that you are only interacting with a particular group of people, picking your words out of a very specific vocabulary, and thinking only certain thoughts, divorces you from the vital spectrum of life. It robs you of your power.
So if it feels like the lines of where you end and other people begin, especially in the context of spiritual community, are kind of blurry, take some time to reconnect with yourself. Maintain your right to boundaries. Be the one who makes the major decisions in your life; this is far more difficult than following someone else’s mandates, and the divine is holding you to it.
Contrary to what a lot of so-called spiritual teachers might tell you, personal power is not an affront. It is a pathway to connecting with the sacred in a way that feels good to us. Self-acceptance of all facets of ourselves — including the parts of us that tend to ask a lot of questions, resist authority, and form tons of annoying opinions — are not the enemy.
Yes, they can sometimes get in the way of seeing what’s right in front of us, and there is totally such a thing as getting carried away on our own spiritual ego trip. However, the purpose of spirituality isn’t to stamp out the parts of ourselves that we or others find unacceptable.
It’s about holding ourselves with compassion, which is an antidote to codependency — and hence, a way to get closer to the divine that always lives within you.
It’s not what you learn; it’s what you integrate.
Some of us need to keep taking course after course, seminar after seminar, if only to feel the glorious contact high of coming into personal contact with that which we innately know to be true; but if we don’t put any of it into action, it’s pointless to keep filling up on more.
The real work is not in beholding the awe-inspiring spiritual nature of all things or patting ourselves on the back over some fleeting epiphany. The evidence of our knowledge can only be found in what we choose to do with it.
When we hop from one ideology or commune or teacher to the next, we are engaging in spiritual promiscuity (you can shove cultural appropriation into this category too, while you’re at it). This is a defense mechanism. By choosing to wade in the shallow waters (even when we think we’re going at it with all the vigor of an extreme sports enthusiast), we don’t challenge ourselves to commit to lasting change.
We are doing whatever it is we are doing precisely so we can engage with the surface-level beliefs about what spirituality is. In fact, taking a voyage into the more complex territory of our lives requires a degree of emotional honesty that many of us don’t feel capable of. So it’s no wonder we end up feeling betrayed and disappointed when the illusion we’ve been propping up eventually crumbles around us.
We were too busy chasing the high to digest the nutrients we were getting.
So don’t make your spirituality a drug of choice, treat it like homeopathy instead. In order to keep the flow of goodness coming, pace yourself.
Incorporate the mundane.
What are the magical, epic moments of your life?
I can name some of mine: The first exhilarating ‘Oh, shit’ moments of falling in love. Walking on a beach at midnight in perfect silence. Laughing so hard with friends that my sides ached for days. The vibrancy and color of a rose in first bloom. Holding a friend’s hand and gazing into her eyes as she bravely lived through the final days of her chemotherapy treatment. The one tango that, as it turned out, would change the course of my life. The fullness in my heart as I watched my two-month-old kitten playfully scour her new environment.
I don’t think that the content of our memories determines their awesomeness, it is our capacity to let ourselves feel and absorb the moment that does this. While these moments may not necessarily be unusual, they are rare in that they demand our full attention and easily evoke unfettered emotion.
The mundane comprises moments that are essentially free from dogma. Dogma is when we think the spiritual experience, the spiritual life, should look a certain way. It’s the thing that keeps us from experiencing fulfillment and allowing ourselves to be bowled over by delightful surprises — which, I staunchly believe, are part of what it means to come into direct contact with the divine.
When you accept that the microcosm is the macrocosm, and that the minutiae and seemingly small moments can add up to a lifetime of wonder, you realize you don’t have to go searching for spirituality in books, doctrines, and communities of people who are just as lost as you are.
These small moments are legion, and they are free.
When it comes down to it, we hold the simple moments closest to our hearts: the kindness of strangers, extended eye contact with a lover who sets our soul ablaze, routine (but nevertheless, otherworldly) displays of natural beauty, easeful conversations with friends.
These moments are not rare, but they seem to be, because they inspire a dissolution of the boundaries between Now and Infinity. They are endlessly mysterious, and seldom do they adhere to predetermined labels.
Today, that simple moment exists in the swell of aliveness I feel every time I listen to Rachmaninoff — which, thankfully, I don’t have to wait until I’m enlightened to thoroughly enjoy. It is a glorious reminder of what I am already capable of knowing, feeling, experiencing, and sensing. There is no better guidebook than the one I already have.
Nirmala Nataraj is an author, poet, and personal mythmaker who spends her time communing with wild spirits in both ordinary and non-ordinary reality, and corralling inspiration from beyond the veils. You can find her at Nirmala Nataraj, Winged Serpent Tarot, and Sacred Fire Coaching.