For every job in the world, you will find competent and less competent people doing it. Spiritual teachers are no exception. What I particularly have in mind here are spiritual teachers who imitate the Freudians of previous generations by reducing the human psyche to a struggle of the ego that fanatically keeps building mechanisms to defend itself.
Our common state, so their story goes, is one of suffering and absentmindedness. We live in pain and distraction, detached from our true nature, and whenever we do not feel that way, it is because our ego is blinding us to that truth.
Even when we feel energized, happy, and vividly awake—”in actuality,” we remain in a dull, unconscious trance, driven by our ego’s desires. While we get after it at work, exert ourselves during sports, make love to our partner, or simply listen to music, we are always running away from our true selves, filling up holes in our souls, distracting our minds from the menacing silence that we allegedly cannot endure.
The message is typically packaged in a story where some ordinary person makes a negative experience, starts to doubt herself, and then “awakens to the realization” that she has always been feeling anxious, insecure, and unworthy, and that all the positivity she used to feel was a mere sham of the ego, masking the covert shadows that were lurking in the depths of her soul.
I call such teachings catastrophizing because, like depressed people incapable of imagining how life could ever be enjoyable catastrophize their situation, so do incompetent spiritual teachers, who are reluctant to understand feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and unworthiness as transient emotional states, catastrophize the situation of others.
My key point here is that states of the mind and emotions change. When you feel down, it is not because your suffering has always been there, waiting to emerge from beneath the surface of your ego’s façade, but simply because something has caused you to feel down.1
You probably would not say that a moment of presence and blissful joy makes you an enlightened Buddha. So how could a moment of self-doubt and despair prove that you are a psychologically broken, spiritually stunted mess of ego defenses?
A negative experience does not reveal how bad you truly feel about yourself; it only makes you feel bad. Mindfulness practice may help, of course, but does your soul’s well-being now require you to embark on a large-scale spiritual journey towards killing your ego and finding your true self? Was your experience really that catastrophic?
Catastrophizing spiritual teachings tell you that your whole life is a lie and that, in order to live “truly and fully,” you must radically change your ways when, in reality, it might well suffice that you enjoy a nice cup of tea, go for a walk in the woods, or prepare your mind for a good night’s sleep.