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Pitfalls to Avoid on the Spiritual Path

by Michael Maciel


The term "red herring" refers to the act of dragging a dead fish across your path of escape, in order to throw the bloodhounds off your track. Akin to this are the "counter-measures" deployed by military aircraft, metal shards or flares designed to 'distract' a missle, causing it to go off course. The red herring, unlike the counter-measures of a warplane, imply that you are guilty, since you are running from the law. Hence, the term is used to describe a deliberate attempt at subterfuge. You've been spotted, and you need an effective way to mislead your opponent and keep him or her from outing you.

The word pride is a red herring.

There are various forms of pride, many of which are good for you. They come under the heading of "healthy self esteem". There's nothing wrong with feeling proud of your accomplishments, if they are well-earned, or feeling proud of someone else's accomplishments, especially those for whom you have had high hopes. In fact, there is nothing wrong with feeling proud at all, unless you hold yourself superior to others. This is where pride gets corrupted and turns into arrogance.

If I talk myself into believing that my superior performance in a given area makes me innately superior to you in all areas, then my pride has gotten corrupted. In order for me to maintain my 'superiority', I will have to go on the offensive and accuse you of pride, even if your pride is legitimate. If I can keep you busy doubting yourself, you won't have time to doubt me, and I can go on believing that I am better than you. And, by doubting yourself, you will be supporting me in my belief. This is a particularly helpful strategy if I am in a position of authority.

There are two reasons why spiritual leaders use this ploy to maintain their authority over their 'less-enlightened' followers. One, it keeps potential rivals at bay, and two, it enables them to continue believing in their own nascent superiority. This has the added benefit of allowing them to harbor feelings of hatred toward others. The very desire to be personally superior is, in a spiritual sense, an act of aggression. Its only purpose is to mask feelings of inferiority and self-hatred by projecting those feelings outward.

It's perfectly all right to strive for superiority in a certain skill, such as baseball or singing, but only if it's borne of the love for an ideal. It's the ideal you love, not an imaginarily enhanced self-image. In other words, you would be just as happy for someone else achieving that goal as you would be attaining it yourself. To paraphrase the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, "God cares not who does the flying, only that that there be flying." God, as the innermost part of our being, rejoices in the attainment of any worthy ideal, regardless of who attains it. When we feel proud in this way, we are actually experiencing the self-love of God.

Arrogance is borne of self-hatred, and it aggressively seeks to accuse others of those things that it cannot tolerate in itself. When we find ourselves blaming other people for the problems of the world, not because of what they're doing, but because of who they are, then we have to take a time-out and reassess which spirit we are embracing. It's that old "hate the sin, not the sinner" admonition that applies here. Whenever a person or group of people start talking in apocolyptic, end-of-the-world terms, holding themselves apart as the "chosen few" and everyone else as the "damned", you can bet that arrogance is running the show.

Arrogance is a pitfall, a trap. Once it has you, it can be very difficult to get out. Only by regular, persistent examination of one's motives can the trap be avoided. If the achievments of others bother you, or if you are only happy when you are putting others down, then your natural, healthy feelings of pride have gotten corrupted, and you have become arrogant.