A cliché is “an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating” (Wikipedia). So a spiritual cliché is a teaching that has been repeated so many times that its meaning is weakened, or even distorted.
The more popular a certain spiritual teaching becomes, the greater is the possibility of it being misunderstood or misapplied. In this article, I will explore 12 common clichés, the truth behind them, and their hidden dark side. These clichés are not necessarily false, but they only tell half of the story and are easy to be misread.
My approach to spirituality is pragmatic (rather than metaphysical), non-sectarian (rather than dogmatic), and grounded (rather than idealistic)—so be prepared that the “warning label” that I add to these clichés strongly carries those perspectives.
Once we understand the caveat that comes with each of these clichés, we are in a better position to discern when and how to use it.
- Spiritual Clichés About the Practice
- Spiritual Clichés About Life
- Spiritual Clichés About Living
- An Unspoken Cliché
- Seeing Beneath the Surface
Spiritual Clichés About the Practice
1. “You are perfect as you are”
Most spiritual traditions teach that, in essence, we are “perfect” (or at least “perfect in our imperfections”). Vedanta, for instance, teaches that we “are already the Self here and now”. You will find similar ideas in Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and some Tantric lineages.
Although in some level this idea is true, it overlooks the fact that, from a pragmatic point of view, we are far from being the perfect manifestation of that innate perfection. If everything is already great as it is, there is no room for growth, no scope for a spiritual path, and no fuel for any type of self-transformation.
Everything is perfect and yet everything can improve.
This, “nothing to do, nowhere to go” approach is also prevalent in some meditation circles, where people cringe at the idea of practicing meditation with a specific goal/purpose in mind. They are also against wanting to progress in the practice. (I’ve explored the problem with that approach in depth in my post on neo-advaita.)
The better way to read this teaching is that it refers to the “absolute” or “essential” level of reality, and thus needs to be balanced with the relative and pragmatic level of reality.
Similarly, at the psychological level, we need to balance self-acceptance with self-improvement. Too much of self-acceptance and we become stale, or we become entitled narcissists (“This is how I am!”). Too much of the self-improvement approach we go into a “I’m never good enough” mindset.
Balance is the key.
2. “Be positive!”
There is nothing wrong with the idea of being positive. Positivity is great. Indeed, in my article on the gunas I argued that the whole spiritual path can be defined as a journey towards sattva (purity, goodness, truth, balance).
What is unwholesome about this concept is the underlying idea that negativity is “unspiritual”. When interpreted like that, this concept works like a psychological virus with great potential to create feelings of shame, guilt, remorse, self-loathing, self-denial, spiritual bypassing, and split personality. Now that’s not really positive, is it?
Being positive is not about sugar coating the negatives or pretending that they are not there. It’s about recognizing them, integrating them, and then transforming or releasing them.
The more integral approach is to start from a point of recognition and self-acceptance. You first accept that certain unwholesome thoughts/feelings/intentions are arising within you. Then you work on them, according to your capacity, to transform those energies into something positive, or to express them in a healthier way.
This is a very different approach than refusing to see, or just superficially replacing the negative thought with a positive one, while pushing the negativity underneath the carpet of your subconscious mind. That doesn’t work so well.
I like this idea, explored in the book How to Cook Your Life, that everything you bring into the “kitchen” of spirituality is an ingredient and needs to be prepared properly so it can be consumed. That includes the negative stuff.
3. “Be nice!”
“Be nice” is an expression, in social interactions, of the “be positive” principle. It’s also related to the Christian ideals of “loving everyone unconditionally” and “turning the other cheek”. In the path of Yoga and in Buddhism, this principle is called ahimsa (non-violence).
This teaching is essential, but it needs to be practiced differently by different people, according to where they are in life. Examples:
- For people who are in abusive relationships, the teaching of “be nice” is exactly what they don’t need to hear. They are often “too nice” and caring by nature – and that is partly why they are in trouble.
- A monk may need to apply this teaching in its most literal sense, never using violence even for self-defense.
- For people living in society, some amount of self-assertion is absolutely needed, otherwise that niceness may lead to one experiencing suffering—which will further lead to feelings of self-loathing (self-violence) and anger/remorse (violence). Even in this case, however, one can set boundaries without having the desire to harm; in other words, we hiss but don’t bite. Our niceness should also be applied to ourselves.
In the Bhagavad Gita (the most famous holy book of India), the prophet Krishna insists that the warrior-prince Arjuna needs to go to war. Arjuna’s kingdom was being attacked, and he refused to fight back because of the principle of ahimsa. Krishna basically brought to his attention that if his kingdom is conquered by the enemy, their non-violent way of life would disappear, and all his people would suffer immensely. In that case, fighting was the most spiritual thing Arjuna could choose to do.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. — Edmund Burke
But sometimes being tough is the best thing to do, even from the spiritual point of view—like when Jesus turned the tables in the temple, in anger because people were being disrespectful in a holy place. Sometimes truth and authenticity need to speak louder than kindness and harmlessness.
The balanced approach seems to be: wish no harm, do no harm, but protect yourself from harm by keeping your boundaries. Sometimes you may need violence to stop unjust harm, and that can also be spiritual.
4. “Be here now”
Being present is a great teaching. It’s what most people take as the key point in the teachings of Zen, Taoism, Allan Watts, and Eckhart Tolle. And yet, the idea that spirituality is all about living in the moment is reductionist and naive.
The reason why we are told to live in the present is because 90% of all our suffering and problems are in the “past” (memories) or “future” (imagination, desires, projections). And yet, as Sadhguru explores in this talk, spirituality is not a disability. We should be able to use our mental faculties freely, but not be used by them.
There is nothing unspiritual about thinking about the past or planning for the future. These are important mental faculties. The problem is when the mind is in control of you, rather than you being in control of your mind.
By all means, live in the present. Be connected to your body. Reduce the tendencies to compulsively live in the past or future. But when you need to think about the past or the future, do so with clarity and purpose.
5. “Your mind is a trap”
In some spiritual paths the mind is spoken of as the obstacle. The obstacle to what? To the spiritual goal, however you may define it—realizing the Self, connecting with God, living in harmony with the Tao, etc.
There is a deep truth about that statement. The mind is the house of all our misconceptions, illusions, impurities. And the spiritual ideal is so sublime that it transcends the mind. So in a way, the mind is what needs to be overcome or transcended; and attachment to it as the sole source of knowledge is indeed a trap.
But seeing the mind as “the enemy” is only half of the story. Your mind—just like your body and your heart—is a part of who you are. An integral approach to spirituality is about the whole individual (body, mind, and heart). An integral spiritual practice needs to involve all aspects of your being—so that it can evolve all aspects of your being.
Truth transcends the grasp of the mind. But we won’t realize it unless we work on the mind—polishing, purifying, and mastering it.
Often, to say that “the mind cannot understand it” is to ask you to shut up, to just believe and trust—rather than to take the trouble and develop your power of discernment (Viveka), your wisdom (Prajna). “Be a light unto yourself”, said the Buddha.
The truth is, many things transcend the reach of our intellect; and yet there is a lot of space for the intellect to be of service in the spiritual path. It’s again about finding that balance: use the mind, master the mind, but don’t rely only on the mind. Body, heart, and mind are all vehicles of knowing.
Spiritual Clichés About Life
6. “If you believe it, the universe will make it happen!”
Do your thoughts and beliefs, by themselves, influence the outcome of external events?
This is a highly controversial topic.
- Some spiritual philosophies will say it does.
- Others will say “Sometimes it does, but within the limitations of your karma and some other factors” (that’s what I personally believe in).
- Still others will tell you that it doesn’t.
Regardless of your position about this, the dark side of this cliché is thinking that you can just believe and it will happen. Being realistic about it is seeing that we need to take action. If we believe in something, then let us act on it.
Otherwise, it’s just wishful thinking, daydreaming. Unless, perhaps, if your mind is super-powerful like that of a Yogi in Samadhi (which is not the case with 99.99% of the people applying the Law of Attraction philosophy). Until then, the best approach is to believe and use that as fuel to take positive action in achieving what you are seeking.
7. “There are no coincidences…”
Another controversial one.
If you live by this belief, you are constantly trying to “read the signs” in everything that happens—from a random comment a person says to you, to a flat tire you had in the traffic, to the time it rained this morning and you had to cancel an appointment.
In all my years of studying spiritual philosophy (especially Eastern), I don’t recall coming by any master that says that absolutely everything that happens in your life happens for a reason.
Well, there is definitely a reason behind everything. Every effect has its cause. But are all the millions of events that happen in your life, on a daily basis, orchestrated by God or “the Universe” for the purpose of showing you something? I don’t think so.
There is a lot of randomness in life. Sometimes there is some sense to it—at other times there isn’t. Learn a lesson if you can, but don’t be fanatical about “reading signs” everywhere.
Still, regardless of this cliché being true or not, it seems that the belief that life is happening for me rather than to me is an empowering worldview. It is helpful and useful, as it creates many opportunities for learning. The problem only arises when we are a bit too fanatical about this view.
There are two other clichés that fall in this category:
- “It was all meant to be”
- “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Both of them have the positive effect of giving you the motivation to go on, and the openness to accept things as they are.
The dark side of the first one, however, is that it can create the impression that our actions and decisions don’t matter. Thinking like that weakens our willpower and can lead to us evading responsibility for our actions (and there is nothing spiritual in that). It can also create a mindset where we continuously accept things that we don’t need to passively accept (things that we could change with some effort).
Similarly, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” has the dark side of serving as an excuse for avoidance. It is built on the assumption that God or “the Universe” is putting us through an ordeal, rather than that challenge being the result of our own actions and choices.
Like most of the other spiritual clichés, these ideas do carry some truth in them. They can be deeply empowering and useful. When they are not, however, it’s time to stop and reflect on whether we are reading them properly in the first place.
8. “It’s your karma!”
The teaching of karma is empowering. It says you are in control. It says that your actions matter and the universe is ultimately fair—even though the results of actions may be delayed.
In my own life and spiritual quest, I can see how the idea of karma has helped me immensely. In several circumstances, it prevented me from making bad choices, encouraged me to persevere in what I believed to be right (despite not getting the results as soon as I expected), and removed the tendency to brood over the perceived “injustices of life”.
The teaching of karma is great when we use it to understand our lives, and improve our choices—but not when used as a tool to judge other people.
The problem is when we try to use the idea of karma to judge other people. This leads to the “it serves you well”, and “you get what you deserve” type of attitude—which is the opposite of the ideals of kindness and compassion that spiritual teachings promote.
We may live by the idea of karma—but let us apply that understanding to our own lives, rather than judging others. Otherwise we would just be promoting a culture of victim blaming and indifference.
Life is too complex, and we can never really know the reason behind something happening (if karmic or otherwise). We can never know the true reasons behind the adversities or the boons that others experience in life (if karmic or otherwise).
9. “What you see in others, you have it in yourself.”
Another version of this one is “What you hate/fear in others, you hate/fear in yourself”.
Honestly, if this sentence would disappear from the face of the earth, I wouldn’t miss it.
This idea is promulgated in many circles without being ever fully explained why it is so. A lighter version of this is “Everyone is your mirror.” I like this a bit better, because it leaves it open for you to decide what that means, case by case.
From my understanding, this idea is more of a pop-psychology cliché than a spiritual cliché. And it’s the perfect conversation stopper, also known as a thought-terminating cliché. Many people use it as an alibi when their flaws are pointed out: “Well, if you think I’m arrogant, that only shows that you are arrogant yourself.” (Are you serious?)
The truth portion of this is that we will indeed dislike in others what we dislike in ourselves. We often also love in others what we love in ourselves—even if we have it to a lesser degree. But that’s as far as this saying can go. It’s not applicable to everything.
The idea that the world is a reflection of ourselves is a useful teaching. But does that mean that all the problems that I see outside of me I have in me also?
In order to see something in another person—for example, narcissism—we need to have a mental model of what that thing looks like. There are many ways of having a mental model of what narcissism is. Being narcissistic is certainly one of these ways. But so is having observed that behavior in friends or family members. Or even having studied about it in psychology books.
I can only identify that two people are speaking Chinese if I have an idea of what Chinese sounds like. Does that mean that I, therefore, must know Chinese? Obviously not.
Personally, I can say I dislike seeing arrogance in others, and I’ll agree I also have some of it in me (still); but I also hate laziness, and I’m probably one of the least lazy people you will ever meet.
Overcoming our own weakness is part of the spiritual path; being able to recognize the negative traits of others is just a useful skill for living in this world. Evaluating and discerning does not necessarily mean judging.
Otherwise you end up with the disastreous combo of “goodness + naiveness”, and then trouble will surely come your way.
Conclusion: although sometimes there is a correlation, it’s not right to say that whatever virtue/shortcoming you see in others you also have in yourself.
Spiritual Clichés About Living
10. “Just let it go”
There is no doubt that letting go is one of the essentials skills/qualities we develop in the spiritual path. It’s a natural expression of living in tune with the impermanent nature of reality, and it saves us from much needless suffering.
Yet there two things that we need to watch out for in this.
The first one is knowing that letting go does not necessarily mean giving up. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care. It’s not synonymous with “whatever…”.
We need both skills. We need the ability to persevere in what is meaningful, in what feels right—and at the same time be lighthearted about the outcomes. We need to put our best foot forward, do what needs to be done, and accept with equanimity whatever comes. That’s what the Bhagavad Gita teaches; that is karma yoga.
Letting go is not synonymous with giving up or not caring. It should not be used as an excuse to be irresponsible, lazy, or to live in a shell of fear.
If you are a parent seeing your child going astray into drugs and crime, and you think to yourself, “Whatever. Let it be. It’s not under my control, there is nothing I can do about it.” That is not detachment; it’s not what the masters meant by letting go. Doing everything in your power to fulfill your duties, your dharma, in the best possible way, while understanding the nature of things and accepting 100% the results that come—that is a true detachment. That is balanced.
As a rule of thumb, you can get clarity on these differences by asking yourself: “Is letting go coming from a place of fear and confusion, or is it coming from a place of wisdom and clarity?”
11. “Go with the flow”
The idea of being sensitive to the flow of things, both internally and externally, is wonderful. It can help us move about more smoothly in life, and waste less energy fighting the wrong battles.
On its dark side, however, this idea seems to suggest that we should have no plans, no goals, no will. I can’t think of many spiritual masters who achieved enlightenment with that attitude. Nor can I think of many people who achieved something great in any area of their lives by following that mode of thinking.
Spirituality promotes acceptance, letting go, and contentment here and now. But it is not against having a goal, actively transforming circumstances, or putting in an effort. If spirituality is to be pragmatic and have a worldwide relevance in the 21st century, we must find a way to embrace this paradox.
12. “Money is evil”
Money is not unspiritual—it is something we need to survive in this world. If anything is “unspiritual”, it would be attachment and materiality—being too obsessed with money, or too greedy about it.
When we are really hungry, a big part of our thoughts and energy goes to finding food. We are less available to anything else. Thinking is less clear, and our focus is less stable.
Likewise, when we don’t have a sufficient flow of money in our life, a lot of time and mental energy is wasted on either getting money or doing trivial tasks that could otherwise be solved with money. As a result, we have less space and energy to focus on our spiritual practice.
Having one million dollars in the bank and focusing on how to get the second million is as unhelpful for spiritual development as having no money and constantly worrying about how to make ends meet. The same goes with health—obsessing over being leaner/stronger is a distraction from the spiritual path just as much as being physically weak and sick is.
Ken Wilber has some interesting thoughts on why the money, the body and sex are seen as enemies in spirituality in some traditional teachings. You can read his article on the topic here.
An Unspoken Cliché
My path is better than yours…
I can’t finalize this article without mentioning another widespread idea in spiritual circles that is almost a cliché, although it’s rarely verbalized. It’s the idea that “My path is superior and more direct”; or, in other words, “My guru is better than yours”.
This sort of dogmatism is, unfortunately, common to many spiritual approaches I have studied. And it’s not only in spirituality—you will find it in the realm of politics, health, finances, sports, everywhere. It seems this is how the human mind works: if I am in a group, that must be the best group!
I have been so much exposed to this type of thinking that I became almost numb to it. Everyone has good arguments to say why their technique is more effective, their approach more thorough, or their path superior. They are all partially right, and all partially wrong.
Reality is wider than any sectarianism. There is no superior path; it’s only about finding what path matches your needs at any particular moment in your life. Once you find it, walk in it with the conviction that this is the best path for you. And be ready to move on from it if you feel the calling.
Seeing Beneath the Surface
Every spiritual teaching has the power to become a cliché; and, usually, every cliché has some basis in truth. In this article I’ve dissected 12 common spiritual clichés, reflecting on the truths they contain, and the often overlooked dark sides that come with them.
At the end, when being exposed to any sort of teaching or philosophy, we must exercise our own discernment. Especially when a teaching becomes very popular and widespread, that is a great opportunity to ask oneself: “What is the original meaning of the teaching? Is there a dark side to this idea?” If possible, get clarification from different teachers, or exchange ideas with more experienced practitioners.
Spirituality needs to be pragmatic. It’s about finding the best way to live, and practicing that. It’s about exploring our human potential beyond the clutches of what is currently considered “proven” by mainstream science. And it’s also different things for different people.
May this piece serve as an invitation to think more deeply about what spirituality truly is about.
(For a more comical exploration of spiritual clichés and some laughs, check out the UltraSpiritual channel in YouTube.)
Which of these clichés do you think is the most misunderstood? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.