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Healthy Spirituality Vs. Toxic Spirituality: What’s the Difference?

Spirituality

It’s a mushy word.

To us at Uplift, spirituality is when we align with our internal moral compass, connect with something beyond ourselves, and attune to our deepest values. It’s about exploring the ultimate mystery of life and following our individual purpose, whatever that may be. It’s a word about subjective experience, a word that can’t be neatly categorized the way a physical object in the world can be.

And yet it’s a word worth embracing precisely because it points to abstract things, to the things that matter most in life: Love, connection, joy, purpose, meaning.

Without spirituality — or at least without spiritual practices such as meditation, being in nature, giving thanks, journaling, singing, connecting deeply with others, etc. — life feels empty. Everything gets reduced to a series of transactions. 

No one wants their kids to live for that. That’s why we believe that despite the inherent mushiness of the word spirituality matters.

But the word is not without problems. For every story about a spiritual experience leading someone to be kinder and more generous, there’s a story where a charismatic individual harms and abuses one of their followers in the name of spirituality. 

The truth is that certain people use spirituality as a ruse to gain power and abuse others. 

How do we help our kids discern the difference between healthy spirituality and toxic spirituality?

Here are a few key things to look for.

Healthy Spirituality Vs. Toxic Spirituality

1. Healthy spirituality is about self and other. Toxic spirituality is only about self. Healthy spirituality knows that we’re all part of one whole. As such, we benefit more by giving than by getting. Toxic spirituality has this exactly backwards — fixating on accumulating power by stepping on others. If you see a self-appointed guru who bristles whenever they’re not the center of attention, chances are high that you’re dealing with toxic spirituality.

2. Healthy spirituality is about trusting your inner voice. Toxic spirituality is about trusting a guru above your inner voice. In 1929, the meditation teacher Krishnamurti was starting to amass an enormous following and could see himself being positioned against his best will as a guru. As a result, he spoke out forcefully against the trend. “I do not want followers, and I mean this,” he wrote. “The moment you follow someone, you cease to follow truth. …I desire those who seek to understand me to be free, not to follow me, not to make out of me a cage.” While it is healthy to learn from people who have developed mastery in a certain area, it’s crucial not to rely so heavily on one person that you don’t listen to your inner voice.

3. Healthy spirituality is ethically consistent. Toxic spirituality is ethically inconsistent. Healthy spirituality is when someone is the same person whether or not they’re in front of others. Toxic spirituality is about hiding, pretending to be one thing in front of certain groups of people. On this same note, healthy spirituality keeps promises even when it’s not convenient; toxic spirituality breaks them the moment the promise becomes inconvenient.

4. Healthy spirituality is humble. Toxic spirituality is certain and arrogant. Healthy spirituality knows that there’s always a possibility of being wrong about a topic. Toxic spirituality, on the other hand, aggressively makes claims about the state of the world and universe regardless of the amount of evidence to support it. 

5. Healthy spirituality embraces rigor and discipline. Toxic spirituality shuns rigor and discipline. When it comes to scientific inquiry, healthy spirituality recognizes that the process often requires a great deal of effort, being willing to test and retest every hypothesis. The same is true of the inner work of transformation, which often requires being willing to observe what’s happening inside the self over long periods of time. By contrast, toxic spirituality tends to sneer at the scientific process when it doesn’t fit with a preconceived narrative about the world and gets bored by rigor whenever it isn’t immediately self-serving.

6. Healthy spirituality loves all people. Toxic spirituality loves the powerful most. Healthy spirituality works on behalf of the poor, sacrificing personal comfort at times for the good of others. In tandem, healthy spirituality speaks to truth to power — calling out the privileged for wrongdoing even while holding hope and love for them, as evident in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Toxic spirituality, by contrast, is too afraid to speak out against the wrongdoing of the powerful and wealthy, knowing that doing so might hurt their chances for gain.

7. Healthy spirituality apologizes when wrong. Toxic spirituality never apologizes. Healthy spirituality recognizes that being wrong is inevitable and that apologies are part of life. Toxic spirituality is all about maintaining the narrative of the ego as being impossibly flawless and therefore will not apologize.

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There’s more at play here, of course, but hopefully this brief writeup gives you some guidance when it comes to helping your kids discern between healthy and toxic spirituality. As your kids learn to trust their inner voice alongside the voices of those who have their best interest at heart, they will develop into the best version of themselves, which is all any of us can hope for.

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