To the dismay of many, the American government-along with its spiritual leaders-is becoming increasingly centralized, with power being removed from individuals at an alarming rate. Why is this happening? Because individuals willingly hand over their power to outside authority figures and institutions. Many spiritual seekers claim they're not after power, yet the truth is that everyone wants to feel empowered. To achieve empowerment, people align themselves with political or spiritual leaders and movements. Ironically, this alignment is actually disempowering, because it places power in the hands of politicians, corporations, and corrupt spiritual leaders.
Although we are all seekers of power, we rarely achieve genuine power through the centralization of our faculties and energies via asceticism and sense-introversion. That's because it is far easier to avoid this inner spiritual challenge by directing energy toward institutions of centralized conservatism (from this wider perspective, even so-called liberal institutions represent conservatism) such as organized religions, patriarchy, institutions of higher learning, governments, health-care paradigms driven by greedy drug companies, the mainstream and alternative media, and spiritual leaders lacking universal knowledge.
It's important to recognize that in your quest for self-empowerment, you may have handed over your power to centralized authority figures or institutions who are now abusing it. Ultimately, there is no difference between giving power to government and handing it over to gurus, priests, lamas, rabbis, popes, and sanctified books. Either way, it results in embracing empty knowledge and false promises of lasting fulfillment. Political parties are inherently cultic, and religions are inherently political entities. To one we give our loyalty, money, and mind and to the other we give our loyalty, money, and mind. We only have different nomenclature for the two.
But you can take your power back. The most effective way to remove power from the hands of corrupt leaders is to begin centralizing it within yourself. This can be achieved through asceticism and sense-introversion-basically, developing a practice of looking within for knowledge rather than seeking answers from outside authority. Self-empowerment is directly proportional to self-knowledge, because inner knowledge leads to an expansive sense of self that will naturally be reflected outwardly as an unwillingness to give power to centralized institutions. Spirituality is meant to provide this knowledge, as distinguished from relative information, but instead often comes in the form of superficial ideas spiced with meaningless exotica and tainted with bias and dogma. So-called spiritual knowledge is then mystified, allowing adherents to elevate themselves as the keepers of this knowledge-thus enabling a narrow sense of identity, which is the very root of disempowerment.
Today's political and religious climate discourages self-knowledge. Political parties formed long ago in an effort to centralize power along party lines by increasing loyalty to an unwavering ideology-resulting in widespread unwillingness to weigh ideas reasonably and judge political leaders on their own merits. Similarly, today's plethora of spirituality books promise to get readers in touch with an uncommon power while ignoring asceticism, which is the only practice capable of centralizing power in individuals rather than institutions. Political, religious, and economic leaders are all in the same boat when it comes to intrinsic social power: they have none. The enormous power they wield is merely the borrowed personal power distanced by millions of individuals, who are thereby limited in self-knowledge. Their centralized power results from a game of societal make-believe that millions willingly decide to play. Practicing asceticism on a social level, reflecting greater self-knowledge and inner centralization of power, means deciding to stop playing the game of distancing your power-or at least remembering it is just a game.
Much like people who vote along party lines without thinking for themselves, self-mystifying spiritual seekers divinize the spiritual "teachers" who disseminate ersatz knowledge. Strongly identifying with those teachers, they divinize themselves in the process. Yet just as politicians do not have any inherent social power, these spiritual leaders do not have any power other than the power we have given them. They appear to embody the power of our thoughts, energies, wealth, and attention, but in fact it is we who project mythic images of centralized power onto them. For example, the Dalai Lama and the Pope represent to many the height of spirituality, yet they are merely human beings with centralized power. Similarly, George W. Bush is a man while President Bush is a mythic image created in the minds of millions who give him their power. In wielding the power we lend them, these leaders appear to have great knowledge. The result is not self-empowerment, but the opposite: personality worship that leaves the self vulnerable to all manner of deception and disempowerment.
Spiritual seekers might well object to the comparison of spirituality and politics, but in fact the sociopsychological patterns of centralization are the same in both arenas. Politicians promise security, prosperity, and social happiness, while spiritual leaders promise enlightenment, success, and personal happiness. Politicians spread fear of enemies, economic collapse, and opposing parties. Spiritual leaders spread fear of spiritual ignorance, being left out of the elite group of the enlightened, and different paths. In both cases, those of us who became vulnerable as a result of the prevailing cultural and socioeconomic instability remain easy targets of such propaganda.
Because we've distanced our power by giving it away and denying that we've done so, we now have an administration that can literally get away with torture and murder as it relies on party loyalty. Denial stemming from a narrow sense of self, as opposed to the expansive sense of self that can be gained through asceticism, provides a similar defense in spiritual organizations whenever a challenge to doctrine or dogma is presented. A spiritual leader can get away with sexual exploitation, theft, and psychological slavery, and still be glorified by his true believing followers.
Spirituality worldwide has been co-opted by the very systems that seek centralization in all facets of our lives and has therefore been rendered practically toothless. Lest they challenge us too much, the truths from books of the past have been rendered all bark and no bite by a process we ironically call "spiritual interpretation." We distinguish between the spiritual world and the world of the social, political, and economic ("maya") to keep not materialism but spirituality at bay, thereby actually conflating a false spirituality with our true materialistic nature. No wonder we make this nonexistent distinction so often. What other indication of our deep sense of guilt and responsibility for the sorry state the world is in do we need?
Like organized religions, all spiritual paths cannot be right. Indeed, like organized religions with their cultural baggage and Dark Age informers, today's spiritual movements are competing in an arena of error. Spiritual seekers jump from one lesser path to another, avoiding the only true spiritual path: centralizing power inside ourselves through asceticism and looking within. Without doing this, we can no longer be honestly shocked when religious fanatics demolish the wall between church and state-the so-called spiritual and material worlds-with the unintentional help of spiritual seekers. In the end, it hardly matters which world we're aligned with since our spirituality is longer an avenue to knowledge and power. Spirituality now vies with organized religion as a market ripe for exploitation by centralized powers. It has become a lucrative industry accepting contracts from power players who might otherwise look to organized religion, the old standby, to pervert humanity's fears and hopes. In that regard, spirituality is not irrelevant. We can all feel spiritual in being apolitical, marching and protesting, or through "civil disobedience." Just as long as we keep paying our taxes.
Jesus said to give Caesar what is Caesar's, but one day, a bona fide spiritual teacher will rise and-amid the criticism of the bought Pharisees of spiritual leaders, religious sycophants, and limp "meditation masters"-reveal just how little is due the man. Until then, we will probably continue wasting our power in avenues to knowledge that can only amount to relative information at best and blind alleyways to the narrow self at worst. We will repeatedly prefer to accept the lesser of two evils instead of embracing the widespread self-sacrifice necessary to replace our institutions from the ground up.
The truth is we do not like to question ourselves or sacrifice our identities. If we identify with a teacher, politician, or belief then we will be less likely to question them, a process that entails self-examination. We don't question the sense of identity because it always wants to feel powerful and in control. The result is a nation that, like the United States, faces challenges that are largely spiritual in nature yet lacks sufficient spiritual backbone to deal with them. Having spiritual backbone means taking personal responsibility for our world and facing the tough questions that will penetrate us and cut the avenues through which we distance our power and feed centralization. Asceticism will then be reflected in both personal and social spheres, affording us the ability to deny institutions of centralized conservatism the power they need to maintain themselves.
As the year draws to a close (according to one calendar at least), consider taking a moment to reflect on the world we will be leaving our children. As children we started playing make-believe, and perhaps never stopped. If we're going to continue playing and teach our children how we play, we might as well positively make and believe in a world in which we acknowledge that God is a metaphor for knowledge and power, and as such is not limited to the sphere of religion. We can take responsibility for a world in which God is whatever we want God to be: that to which we turn our attention, and that which empowers us. A world in which God is whatever the sense of self identifies with and glorifies. A world in which our religion is whatever we bind ourselves to - that to which we give our power. A world in which we each commit ourselves to a regimen that centralizes power within us. And a world in which we do not offer power to any centralized authority, identity, or institution.