How to rid yourself of spiritual toxicity
We are so much more than our body, thoughts, feelings and our senses, and yet we tend to give them a great deal of importance. We look for fulfilment in areas that are comfortable to us rather than productive and supportive. When our focus is limited in this way it’s often accompanied by a preoccupation with things like carving out a career, paying bills, accumulating material goods, socialising and generally getting stuck in the mundane.
It’s not that our careers and social life are not important, but when these things dominate our lives at the expense of our spiritual wellbeing we often begin to feel a spiritual disconnect, to feel “spiritually toxic”. In these moments we forget that we are spiritual beings having a human experience rather than human beings having a spiritual experience.
“You can find some degree of gratification through the senses,” says John Barter, 46, a Buddhist psychologist and meditation teacher, “but it’s not sustainable and your senses don’t last — they are ageing. And what you’re seeking happiness from doesn’t last. It’s conditional and impermanent.
“The senses [become habituated] to that which you’re seeking happiness from. After a while you don’t even notice the nice music or pleasant view. It’s an endless, tireless process — and that’s where people get entrenched in the world. And then they get that toxic feeling of being fed up because they’ve just had too much.”
Feeling spiritually toxic is often coupled with lack of awareness. Kip Dooley, a 54-year-old flight attendant, says, “I didn’t realise I was spiritually disconnected at the time. It was only when I experienced a lot of pain in my personal life that I realised there was something really missing.”
It’s as though we’ve become caught up in a certain way of being and can often remain this way until something big happens to wake us up.
In Buddhism, disconnecting from our spirit is thought to happen when people get caught up in what Barter refers to as the first level of happiness — “happiness motivated by self, for self, ego-based happiness. It’s more a gratification as opposed to fulfilment. We get caught in this idea that if I buy that, go there, eat that, smoke that, drink that, I’ll be happy. If I push away what I don’t want, get more of what I don’t have, then I’m gonna be happy — and much of our society’s marketing is about that.
“It’s great for the market, but people end up feeling anxious, in distress, depressed.”
How does it feel?
In the eyes of children, nothing in the world is dead. Animals, trees, the sun and the moon all are alive and have emotions and feelings, but in the eyes of a stressed person even human beings are like robots or objects.
In spiritually baron times of her life, Glenda Kalyk, 53, felt “lost, empty, lonely and disconnected from the world”. Feeling spiritually toxic is commonly accompanied by feelings of emptiness, barrenness, joylessness, restlessness, purposelessness and a general lack of direction in life; a sense of “What’s the point?” The things that brought you happiness may suddenly occur as mundane and joyless. You don’t notice the beauty or miracles surrounding you and life can feel like a burden rather than a celebration.
How can you reconnect?
While a range of negative feelings come with feeling spiritually toxic, they are, however, just feelings. As long as our arm is part of our body we cannot be disconnected from it. Similarly, we can never be disconnected from our spirit; it is part of us. We are always spiritually connected because we are spirit, but the connection can and does get obscured.
Feeling spiritually connected, we feel well and whole. When we have awareness we are automatically connected. Moving away from this sense of disconnect or spiritual toxicity is not a matter of detoxifying our spirit. Our spirit is ever pure; it’s just a matter of clearing the debris which obscures our connection to our spirit and becoming aware of that connection.
Spiritual detoxification can be achieved through spiritual practices. These practices clear away the debris enough to stop us being so concerned with the day-to-day minutia and awaken us to our spiritual connection and who we really are. They have us feel more spirited, happy, compassionate and loving and include practices like meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, prayer and chanting or singing.
“It’s so easy to get caught in the stress of contemporary life, the busy-ness, feeling overwhelmed,” says Barter. “So that’s where we need to engage some healthy awareness and healthy practices — otherwise we’re going to end up burning out, both psychologically and physically.”
Sahaj Samadhi meditation teacher Chris Dale explains that there are four states of consciousness: waking, sleeping, dreaming and turiya, or the transcendental state.
He says, “In waking there’s awareness but no rest for the mind. In sleep there is rest but no awareness. In dream state there is hazy awareness and not much rest. But in turiya there’s awareness and deep rest, deeper than sleep.”
According to art of living teacher Khurshed Batliwala, people who experience spiritual toxicity have not explored the fourth state of consciousness; they have no idea how to meditate. Meditation is bringing back the mind, which goes all over the place (to the senses and through the senses to the world outside).
The power of sadhana
In order to take care of our body we need to give it proper food, rest and activity, keeping it free from stress and toxicity. But what can we do to take care of our spirit? Sadhana takes care of our spirit. Through sadhana you can preserve a feeling of sacredness and spirit in all you do.
Sadhana, a Sanskrit word which means wealth, is your spiritual practices. When we die we cannot take anything with us expect for the spiritual wealth we have accumulated through our spiritual practices.
The word spirit itself contains a clue as to how we can detoxify. It comes from the Latin spiritus meaning “breath”. Breath is a powerful detoxification tool because it is the link between our body, spirit and mind. Whenever we consciously work with our breath we’re also working with our mind and our spirit and are able to relax very deeply. When we relax we become peaceful and in those moments it’s easy to realise we are spirit.
That’s the purpose of sadhana: all the strains, fears and insecurities drop and we get deep rest. For Kalyk, practising meditation and breathing techniques brings an “incredible sense of peace and calm. I’m a lot more content, happy. I have more confidence in what I want to do and where I want to go. The practices have even made me not as anxious about my kids leaving home.”
“I think people are caught up in everything outside themselves,” says Dooley. “A spiritual path helps us let go and really find some inner peace. Meditation brings you back to yourself again. All of the stuff that’s outside of us falls away in deep meditation. It brings us to this quiet place where we can be centred and appreciate who we are.”
Making it a priority
We tend to give only what little time we have left over to our sadhana. When there are no chores to do, no parties, movies or social events to go to, only then does it become convenient to sit and do our sadhana.
According to Dale, most of it is “just about showing up”; it’s about giving priority to a daily practice. It’s not always going to be blissful and serene. Sometimes we’ll feel peaceful and connected in our practice, sometimes we won’t, but committing to doing it anyway is a spiritually detoxifying commitment that supports us in feeling connected and alive. Then everything starts to flow in life and even if it doesn’t we’re able to remain centred and joyful because we’re connected with ourselves despite it.
To maintain a spiritual connection, Dooley is devoted to his practice. “I do it twice a day: breathing and meditation in the morning; yoga and meditation in the evening.”
Christi Kowalewski, 30, does yoga, meditation or sudarshan kriya breathing daily. “If I don’t carve that time out for me I feel disconnected, which manifests as anxiety and busyness in my mind.”
Seva: serving others
“If you do meditate and are still experiencing spiritual disconnection it’s because you are not doing seva [being of service to others without expectation of reward],” says Batliwala. “They are still thinking only about themselves. Only the right combination of sadhana and seva can make a person deeply spiritual and serene.”
When Kowalewski felt spiritually disconnected it was during a stressful time. “I was caught up in my head, worrying about myself a lot. When I feel connected it becomes less about me — being able to not worry about me and my little life and how people are going to perceive me.”
“A person’s life is spiritually toxic when it’s self-obsessive,” says Bernice Bailey, 37, a volunteer for IAHV (International Association of Human Values). “This toxicity has them caught up in ‘my world, my desires, my fears’ and their small vision of life is not in line with the bigness of life. They’ve forgotten that this is a massive universe, that life is very short and is to be enjoyed and shared.”
According to Sufism, as a person becomes less preoccupied with “self” and more engaged with the deeper levels of his being and with God, “It brings the person to the point of balance between the physical and the spiritual.”
“In Buddhism, a deeper level of happiness comes from being helpful to others, from being generous, kind and supportive to others and going out of your way to be helpful,” says Barter. “It’s a more sustainable happiness that helps to cut down self centeredness, anxiety and depression.”
Yoga initially pulled Bailey out of a spiritually toxic time. However, after her initial romance with yoga she still had a lot of problems with her energy levels and depression: “When a low came my practice would drop off. I tried a 10-day meditation program, which was good while the retreat lasted, but I couldn’t ongoingly sustain the two hours of meditation every day. I had to somehow break the cycle of highs and lows. That’s when a friend told me about the sudarshan kriya breathing. When I learnt it I also learned the importance of doing seva.”
Now Bailey devotes her time to working as a volunteer and teaching sudarshan kriya to prisoners in Melbourne. “It’s a constant joy,” she says, “seeing other people in a short space of time find such relief, peace, self connection and joy: all the things that make life very beautiful and enriching.
“I think we have to do what we love and love what we do and that for each of us what to do becomes apparent when we connect with ourselves. A good starting point is a healthy, sustainable practice that’s easy to do, that brings you that self-connection and deep relaxation in yourself.”
For Michael Stone, 39, director of Holistic Services, working on Wall Street was very exciting for the first year. Then he started questioning.
“There was no inspiration or motivation,” he recalls. “I felt empty and disconnected. There was no connection with anything or anyone.”
After 9/11 Stone became more motivated than ever to do something meaningful with his life — “something I’m really passionate about that would hopefully affect others in a positive way”. He now runs Holistic Services Group (Aust) as a way of inspiring workplaces to make changes so their staff are happier and healthier and as a way of remaining spiritually connected himself.
For Kalyk it’s about “doing good for others and not just thinking about yourself and your family. I think it’s unhealthy to focus on yourself.”
There’s a delicate balance between looking inwards and then sharing with society. “If we only do introspective practices,” explains Bailey, “then the joy that wells up in those practices doesn’t get a chance to fully blossom. And if we just do service [seva] then we can become worn out, as you see in the service industries like nursing, aged care and even teaching now.”
“Seeing love inside you is meditation. Seeing God in the person next to you is serving,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
“If you want to feel more connected spiritual then ask yourself, ‘What can I do for those around me? How can I contribute to society?’ Don’t just be concerned with your own comfort. Look at how you can make those around you more comfortable.”
The power of prayer
Prayer is another way to stimulate the spiritual aspect of our being. When people feel spiritually toxic they may naturally resort to prayer. Prayer is a vital tool. When you feel life’s obstacles are too much to handle, a sincere prayer can work miracles.
True prayer is a call from the depth of your heart. When children cry for their mother they cry with their whole body. When every cell of your body and every corner of your heart needs something, then you cry.
Also, when we do something with all our heart it is called prarthna (prayer). Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “Without meditation and prayer, religion becomes dry. Often, people who take responsibility do not pray and those who pray do not take responsibility.”
For prayer to make a positive difference to how spiritually connected we feel, it needs to be coupled with taking responsibility.
The effect of gratitude
When Jesus said, “Those who have will be given more and those who have not, what little they have, will be taken away from them,” he was referring to gratitude.
When we feel blessed for everything we have rather than focus on what we don’t, grace flows in our lives and when grace flows it’s impossible to feel spiritually toxic. The quickest way to block grace is to grumble and complain. When we’re grumbling there’s a feeling of shrinking or contraction inside and the connection becomes obscured. When we focus on what we have to be grateful for, that’s what grows, and then the quality of our prayer changes from being an appeal to an expression of love and gratitude.
Singing and chanting
Singing is a very important part of uplifting people’s spirit in a variety of traditions and religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity — especially Protestant dominations.
“A number of the songs are repetitive with short lines and are quiet and gentle,” says Trevor Jennings, Minister of the Word, Uniting Church. “Singing is a very important part of our gathering in the Uniting Church because it lifts people’s minds up beyond their daily life and refocuses them.”
A Buddhist chant is a form of musical verse or incantation, in some ways similar to Hindu, Christian or Jewish recitations. In Buddhism, chanting may be a rhythmic vocalisation of prayer or a way of learning, teaching, philosophising or memorising the discourse. Traditionally, chanting in Buddhism is a means of preparing the mind for meditation.
Raja Gopal Jayaraman, 75, vice chairman of the Hindu Council of Australia, takes time off once a day to be with himself in a meditative way by chanting, praying, meditating or practising yoga. Singing devotional songs (bhajans) or spiritually uplifting songs in a group is known as satsang (the company of the truth). Whether you are singing along or just listening to these sacred songs and chants, the sound penetrates into every cell of your being, moulding and purifying our whole system.
“I feel spiritually connected when I’m listening to bhajans,” says beauty therapist Sona Patel, 31. “It brings me an enormous amount of inner stillness and peace and I feel one with God.”
Spirit is everywhere
A spiritual connection can be attained when you realise that spirit is in everything and is everywhere. There is no division between what is spiritual and what is material. The finest aspect of matter is spirit and the grossest aspect of spirit is matter. The whole world is a combination of spirit and matter.
Look around you and be amazed. Look at the cosmos. See how many planets and stars there are. See how amazing and wonderful the universe is and how incredible it is that you are part of it. Billions of years have passed and many more will come. So much of life is a mystery: birth is a mystery, death is a mystery, life itself is certainly a greater mystery. This amazement can expand your consciousness and move you away from a feeling of spiritual toxicity to deep amazement.
If that doesn’t work, then, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar suggests, “When everything feels empty and meaningless, know that you are very fortunate. Do not try to get rid of it. Embrace it! This restlessness of the soul can bring authentic prayer in you. It brings perfection, siddhis [unusual skills] and miracles in life.
“It is so precious to get that innermost longing for the Divine. Satsang and the presence of enlightened ones soothe the restlessness of the soul. Do not look for the Divine somewhere in the sky. See God in every pair of eyes, in the mountains, water, trees and animals.”
Remember that seeing this divinity in everything around you is only possible when you can see God in yourself.