The Dark Side of the Spiritual Quest

The egoistic trap of messianic deliverance and the cult of personality

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Sep 15 · 7 min read

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. ~ Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

elf-realization is fueled by the need to know who we are and what we may become. This process lends itself to stripping away illusions so as to unlock the truth and to ultimately explore the questions concerned with larger meaning. Confronting what is most feared for the purpose of healing and growth may reveal it is our greatest pain that contains a deeper purpose.

Through this process, we inevitably come to recognize that psychological growth and spiritual development are not dissimilar, but rather facets that constitute the whole of who we are. Consequentially, from this place, the pursuit of spiritual and metaphysical exploration is often an organic impulse.

Be that as it may, the undertaking of seeking out life-affirming spiritual teachings and mentors can be fraught with many challenges.

In Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 satirical novel “Being There”, the child-like, autistic protagonist Chance Gardiner embodies the archetypal innocent. Exposure to gardening, television, and radio encompasses his world. He is sheltered, unsophisticated, and developmentally stunted. He is also strangely beguiling. When fate eventually thrusts Chance out into the ‘real’ world he becomes a national sensation. His innocence and naiveness are perceived as wisdom, poise, and shrewdness. He is even deemed among influential businessmen as presidential material.

Writer Jerzy Kosinski explains, “The emergence of celebrity in America is not based on depth. It is based on visibility and accessibility, a smile, a figure. It is based on appearing as a person of importance. The question asked is not ‘Is he a good man?’ It’s ‘what circles does he move in?’

This collective longing for prestigious iconic figures of which Kosinski writes promulgates a delusional mindset which deifies celebrity stature and also insidiously expresses itself in the spiritual quest. Our shared psychological need for safety and predictability contributes to believing that those bestowed with fame, power, and charm offer messianic deliverance.

Indeed, years back I fell prey to a narcissistic ‘shaman’ who touted herself a spiritual healer and a pillar of altruism and morality. She used virtue signaling and piety to glean supply. I was blinded by her magnetism and popularity. When I stopped believing that her backstabbing and intermittent barbs and disparagement were meant to ‘help,’ I finally caught a glimpse of the energy vampire that lurked beneath her fallen mask.

Similarly, over two decades ago my spiritual search brought me to the Kabbalah Learning Center. Making Kabbalah accessible to the layperson is no easy task. I give them credit for that. The teachings are profound and moving. However, the center was anything but that. Their mercenary motives were so disturbing and obvious, that anything positive I gleaned from the lectures was obliterated by the avarice of the organization.

The center was cultish and preyed on those steeped in magical thinking and those who desperately needed to belong at any cost. Assuming I fell into one of those categories they tried to dissuade me from taking my vacation in Argentina so that I could instead spend my money at their Kabbalah convention in Palm Springs. Proclaiming that “Argentina is not where the light is” prompted me to make my exit. There were too many other glaring incidents in which milking me for my funds occurred.

Lucky for me, tenuous as they were I had boundaries. What occurred with those who struggled with saying no, especially to those they revered? They succumbed to tall tales of blessed Kabbalah water staving off cancer and a piece of red string altering their life. They paid a high cost, literally and figuratively.

Clearly, the beatific world of spirituality has a dark side.

Many narcissistic con artists market themselves as New Age coaches and charitable leaders in professional development forums. Their humanitarian do-gooder guise coupled with overtures of enlightenment procures worshipping devotees who are eager to please and grovel. A friend of mine is still reeling in the aftermath of having been a primary mark by a lauded teacher in a ‘consciousness-raising’ cult.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash

Spiritual materialism, a term coined by Tibetan meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa, describes the belief that suffering can be magically assuaged by hedonistic pursuit disguised as sanctifying thought systems, rituals and ideologies.

Trungpa wrote that we are often, “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”

Likewise, religious scholar Andrew Harvey has written about how we’ve become neurotically driven and addicted to ‘the light’. Harvey expounds on this premise, conveying that the ego clutches at enlightenment in an effort to fulfill the ego’s need to be ‘special’. He further conveys that the New Age Spiritual Movement capitalizes on this misguided self-absorbed search, by polarizing itself on the spiritual spectrum.

By denouncing ‘darkness’ New Agers maniacally align with an illusory sense of God-like power. They proclaim evil and sin are false constructs and assert that the unrestrained pursuit of ‘abundance’, bliss, ‘enlightenment, light, are the apex of spirituality. If others are harmed by these sacred pursuits it’s simply chalked up to karma, ‘bad energy’, and a low vibration.

Vulnerable to the trap of promised enlightenment we succumb to the seductive lure of Plastic Shamans.

Reaping from a smorgasbord of astrology, psychics, channeling, angels, crystals, and aliens, magical thinking and narcissistic grandiosity is exalted. Hungry for power, these self-aggrandized gurus, cults, workshops televangelists, mystical healers, and spiritual centers capitalize from the mass insatiable yearning to escape the human condition through idolatry and materialism. These charlatan Godheads strategically use mind control techniques to foster the sort of spiritual fetishism necessary to ensure lucrative tithes.

The need to naively worship so as to glean a sense of belonging, safety, and magical salvation is also evidenced in blind allegiance to the church. In spite of the church’s heinous history of aligning with Hitler and Mussolini, implementing the Inquisition and Crusades, the Magdalene laundries, the witch-hunts, pedophilia and the supported democide and slavery in the Americas, Africa, and Australia, the persistence with upholding illusory ideas of spiritual infallibility and idealized notions of virtue trump accountability and objective reality.

Here we see that in spite of concrete evidence that contradicts expressed spiritual and moral views, the reliance on primitive ego defenses such as confirmation bias collectively bolsters the deification of those in power. Confirmation bias only considers that which supports what people want to believe.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Isabella and Louisa Fischer on Unsplash

Spiritual teacher Krishnamurti wrote, “The evil of our time is the loss of consciousness of evil.”

This adage was exemplified in the 1978 Jonestown massacre, in which hundreds of devotees of the People’s Temple run by the psychopathic Reverend Jim Jones, were victims of a mass murder-suicide.

It is hubris to deny or attempt to transcend one’s basic humanity and it is dangerous to imbue a chosen spiritual teacher with Godlike properties. When we ascribe to the belief that we are magically capable of Divine feats, that we are not subject to human fallibility and foibles, we give our psychological shadow-free reign to act out. We become prostrating sheep that stigmatize, blame and scapegoat those who deviate from ‘The Path’.

This alienation from one’s body, emotions and inner depths proliferates the very emptiness and desperation that ironically made one susceptible to blindly deferring to false promises of infinite Cosmic bliss.

An authentic spiritual life is balanced, conscious, and leans towards wholeness. The collaborative relationship between the sensorial world of the body, the ego-self, and the metaphysical world of the spiritual self come together for the essential purpose of actualizing the capacity to love. This requires psychological maturity and the courage and perspective to humbly embrace the truth of our intrinsic nature.

As Gandhi imparted, “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Humility respects our innate humanity and is therefore the trajectory to selfhood and grounded spiritual discovery and truth. We must keep our heart open to fallibility if we are to “admire the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” (Einstein). Only through embodying our paradoxical nature, the light and the dark, can we relinquish fantasies of spiritual rescue and safeguard ourselves from the many duplicitous faces of spirituality that maneuver to deceive and exploit.


How to be your best self.

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

Written by

NYC Therapist & Author. Complex Trauma & Addiction. Dual citizen, traveler, lover of art and nature. I appreciate the absurd.


A community to make yesterday better.

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

Written by

NYC Therapist & Author. Complex Trauma & Addiction. Dual citizen, traveler, lover of art and nature. I appreciate the absurd.


A community to make yesterday better.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store