Spiritual Extremism: The Enemy Within

In today’s world, there is no shortage of debate around religious extremism. The discussion almost always centres on Islam. We are frequently shocked by new stories of people born into Western comforts who later leave their home country in order to train with ISIS. However, I recently discovered during my travels in Asia that there is another group of Westerners travelling East to be radicalised. Worryingly, nobody feels the need to speak about this group! I am referring to spiritual extremists…

Who are these spiritual extremists?

It may bring discomfort to know that they are often much closer than you think. Remember that man pretending not to mind spending time in a painfully slow queue at the supermarket? Remember how he stood there blissfully feeling his “inner body” or counting his breaths, standing serene whilst those around him grew progressively more impatient? He was almost certainly a spiritual extremist in the making! That woman who gazed lovingly at the child who cycled over her foot? You may just want to keep your eye on her!

Why don’t spiritual extremists stand out more obviously whilst in our midst? The answer is that they look like any other Westerner going about their business. Rick Archer, subversive media-mogul, named his podcast “Buddha at the Gas-Pump”. In his rhetoric, he often boasts that this name refers to the fact that you could be next to one of these people whilst filling up your car. Chilling words. They look like you or I. Until, that is, they go to India to be radicalised. I have recently visited two of the most popular centres for spiritual extremism.

I must stress that they are by no means the only examples of these camps. There will be similar centres all over the world. On first look, they appear to be perfectly innocent destinations. They are as different as two towns in the same country could hope to be. The spiritual extremists to be found in each appear to be from two separate species. Neither, however, is to be underestimated! It is essential that we know our enemy and recognise them as such. Here are my notes from the field.

Spiritual extremist training camp 1, Tiruvanammalai (Tamil Nadu)

Tiruvanammalai had always been of huge importance to spiritual seekers due to its numerous whopping temples and the fact that Shiva apparently resides as Arunachala, the mountain that overlooks the town. However, the town’s importance as a Mecca for Western spiritual extremists is mainly due to one man, Ramana Maharshi.

Arunachala - Spiritual Extremists
Mount Arunachala
Ramana Maharshi Spiritual Extremists
Ramana Maharshi

Maharshi is adored by spiritual extremists. He is the Che Guevara of the spiritual revolution, his face adorning walls and mantelpieces all over the globe. In photos, his eyes shine with a kindness that innocently masks the reality of what his western disciples would later become.

He is most famous for popularising the technique of self-inquiry, the name he gave the ancient method of asking oneself ‘who, or what, am I?’. Truth be told, the atmosphere in his ashram is extremely pleasant. The locals are welcoming to all, the monkeys less so.

There are shrines to the animals that joined him whilst he was alive. Lakshmi the cow gets a particularly flattering memorial. Followers of all religions visit the ashram. Children play in the grounds, chasing peacocks and shrieking at the monkeys. There seems to be no judgement coming from any angle. Any angle except one, the Western spiritual extremists you will find there.

The path of the spiritual extremist (Tiruvanammalai Legion)

Step 1. Renounce Footwear. Shoes are the first thing to go. Granted, you’re not allowed to wear them inside the ashram, or any of the temples, but spiritual extremists take this rule one step further. How better to enjoy the scorchingly hot South-Indian road, with all its loose stones, broken glass and faeces, than bare-footed? By doing away with their shoes. spiritual extremists can ensure they never get lost in thought again! Blisters, cuts and infections are a small price to pay.

Step 2. Renounce Western clothes. Only traditional Indian robes from now on. Spiritual extremists start with white robes, before graduating on to orange.

Step 3. Renounce cutlery. Items of silverware are seen as the tools of the devil. Why, after all, do you think he always carries that big fork?

Step 4. Renounce the handshake, along with the word “hello”. Spiritual extremists drop these foul practices almost as soon as they land. From this point on, they hold their hands in a prayer position and offer the softest “Namaste” they possibly can when greeting someone. (Side note – Spiritual Extremists will great other Westerners only when they’d like to tell them they shouldn’t be doing/wearing something they see as disrespectful. That will be the end of the conversation unless the Westerner in question is an attractive member of the opposite sex. Particular disdain is reserved for anyone of the same gender and of a similar age or younger. Even though spiritual extremists have “chosen” celibacy, they still very much dislike competition)

Step 5. Renounce one’s given birth name. This is a very important step indeed! In order to reach enlightenment, spiritual extremists must cut all ties to any false identity. So they rid themselves of the burden of their rusty old name and adopt a shiny new one, like Dambha (Sanskrit for “hypocrisy”). They cling to this new name with all their might and insist that it is, in fact, who they had been all along.

Occasionally they like to add “Sri” as a prefix, or “Ji” as a suffix. These work a little like “PHD” or “MSc”, though academic recognition is not necessary in order to start using them. Spiritual extremists’ eyes burn with one of two emotions. The first is a saccharine-sweet faux-loving-compassion. It says “I love you because I’m better than you”. The second is a fierce judgement, reserved for other Westerners, and ramped up in intensity according to the amount of skin they see and feel they shouldn’t be seeing.

Ramana Maharshi in his loin cloth. Spiritual Extremists
Ramana Maharshi in his loin cloth

(Another side note – I can’t stress enough how important it is to Western spiritual extremists that they don’t see your shoulders. Indian shoulders are OK, but not yours (including you, Westerners of Indian descent, you are not excused).

Skin gets in the way of concentration when knelt in front of an image of Sri Ramana dressed only in his loincloth (which apparently, he often neglected to wear at all))

Spiritual extremist training camp 2, Arambol (Goa)

Spiritual extremists in Arambol are a very different kettle of fish. They continue to wear Western clothes, though only on the condition that they make them look like they’re part of a circus act. Their names too can remain intact. If they do choose to change their name, it will be changed to something like “Star” or “Destiny”. They don’t tend towards any “Sris” or “Jis”.

The one-step path of the spiritual extremists (Arambol Legion)

Step 1. Love thyself. We are often told that the most important step towards spiritual growth is learning to love oneself. Arambol spiritual extremists have taken this message more than to heart, having decided it is, in fact, the only step.

Extra-curricular activities to practise alongside the one-step path

There are many self-based activities on offer in Arambol, in fact, there are exclusively self-based activities on offer. “Re-Birthing” is particularly popular, as are “Rainbow Healing”, “Angel Healing”, “Energy Healing”, “Tibetan Bowl Healing”, “Chakra Re-Alignment” and every type of hypnosis under the sun. A surprising number of the instructors of such activities are, in fact, experts in quantum mechanics (it says so on their flyers).

Pinboard in Arambol - Spiriutal Extremists
A sample of what’s on offer in Arambol

Meditation in Arambol is only to be practised in public. One popular spot is a cafe hidden away off a back street where the long-stayers go to admire each other, and (most importantly) themselves. More popular still, however, is the beach. Meditation at the beach can happen at any time, but the general preference is sunset. Sunsets in Goa are invariably breathtaking events.

The sky gradually shifts through a glorious spectrum of colours above the glimmering Arabian Sea. The Arambol meditator chooses this as the ideal time to close their eyes. They sit bolt upright, half-human, half lotus. “A posture that embodies pride” is a common instruction. The level of adherence to this instruction is impressive, to say the least.

Hare Kishnas on Arambol Beach - Spiritual Extremists
Hare Kishnas on Arambol Beach. Not the typical Arambol Spiritual Extremists, but there nonetheless

Spiritual extremists in Arambol pride themselves on having created a space where everyone can be exactly who they are, a place where they needn’t fear judgement. It is difficult to find fault with this intention. However, the claim is quickly put to the test when anyone turns up behaving too “mainstream”. They may be allowed to stay, but you will likely hear mumblings of how they “aren’t getting the vibe of the place man”.

Another common source of pride is that many spiritual extremists in Arambol don’t care too much for alcohol. Instead, they prefer more natural substances like juice, raw foods and cocaine.

Non-dual teachings encourage us to drop the belief that we are who we’ve grown up to believe ourselves to be. Instead, we are all that we experience; the people, the wind, the waves, the heat of the sun, the sun itself, the solar system, all the galaxies, black holes, the big bang, the entire universe, God… etc. If this does turn out to be the case, it can only come as a crushing disappointment to Arambol-based spiritual extremists, as it pales so dismally in comparison with their current impression of themselves.

A side mention for Amritapuri

Amritapuri is the home of the world-renowned living sage Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Amma (mother in Malayalam) for short. Her Ashram towers over the surrounding fishing village, a phallic pink Manhattan dropped into the jungle strip between the sea and the Keralan backwaters.

The bridge to Amma's ashram - Spiritual Extremists
The bridge to Amma’s ashram

We didn’t get to meet the hugging mother (the form of spiritual activity she is famous for is giving people a lovely big hug). She was busy embracing the population of Barcelona at the time (ironic as Barcelona is our home when we’re not travelling).

We weren’t there long enough to gather any really useful intelligence on the spiritual extremists that were based there, but I’ll share what I saw in the hope that it’s of some use. You can tell which of the residents at the ashram were relatively new arrivals. They tended to smile and chat with each other. Nothing at all like the veterans… Those who’d spent more time in the ashram value themselves on one criterion alone, their proximity to Amma. Several suggested that if we get the chance to meet her in the future, “make sure you speak to me, I’ll be able to get you close to her”.

This might be useful as by all accounts Darshan days (when she “darshes” out the hugs) are reminiscent of what we see in the Black Friday videos that go viral each November. Elbows and shoulders become arms as people scramble over each other in a vicious clamber towards their leader. We didn’t live that particular experience, though we did queue up for our dinner, which gave a clue of what must go on. People that had supposedly spent all day meditating fiercely barged their way in front of us in the queue, desperate to receive their masala dosa before we received ours.

What can we do to stop spiritual extremism before it gets out of hand?

This is a difficult question. As with any issue of this magnitude, the first step is to recognise that we have a problem. There is no space for pussy-footing around. This is a debate that must be had. We must speak frankly and honestly, free of the fear of shaming from religious apologists. We can (and must) speak out.

However, there is one group above all that we must reach. I am referring to spiritual moderates. Only they will command the authority necessary to capture the attention of the extremists. We must reach out to respected members of the spiritual community and convince them that it is they, and only they, that have the power to act now before it’s too late.

Confessions of an insider

I mentioned before that this breed is closer than you may think. Doesn’t it all seem a bit suspicious that I, the author of this article, had visited these places? Might you have found me recently visiting the monasteries of Kathmandu, hoping to receive pointing-out instructions from one of the sons of the legendary Tulku Urygen Rinpoche?

Yes… The sad truth is this, what I loathe most on the outside is what I fear I may be on the inside. I am at least some way down the path of spiritual extremism myself! I still consider myself a moderate, but it is a slippery slope.

Is this writing a call to arms or a call for help? Maybe it’s both, but there is one thing I know. I must speak now before I start declaring the situation “simply part of the illusion”.

How is my personal spiritual journey developing? At a rough guess, I’d estimate myself to be around 92% enlightened. I’ve just got to work a little bit at my non-judgement of others. I’ll keep you all posted…

Dave Noakes Bio Pic, with Nikki Scott
Dave Noakes

Dave joined the backpacker scene later than most. After living the first 13 years of his adult life in Barcelona, he set off for Asia for the first time at age 34. At this ripe old age, you’re more likely to find him in a half-moon pose than at a full-moon party. Dave is a musician (Chopper Dave) and has a keen interest in urban exploration.

Find Dave: Instagram | Soundcloud | YouTube

3 thoughts on “Spiritual Extremism: The Enemy Within”

  1. Enlightenment

    Chillingly acutely accurate. So tongue in cheek that it’s kechari mudra amrit. Questioning goes a long way, til you go your own way.

  2. If you aren’t familiar with Sam Harris’s app “Waking Up”, my sincerest hope is that you would trust a stranger enough to click on this link. As a paid subscriber, I’m able to give you a free month.
    (Links and email addresses are automatically removed from comments on this site. Please contact us and we will provide the link)
    Any other commentator here may also reach me and I’ll give you a free month. No, I don’t work for Sam Harris. Judging by your brilliant writing, it isn’t hard to believe that you might fall somewhere in the almost-enlightened category, as you’ve said. As someone who was considering visiting these places, I’m extremely glad to have randomly found your article and have the opportunity to change my mind. I now realize that this app and my solitude are all I need for my journey. Thank you.

    1. Hi Athulya,

      I’m a huge Sam Harris fan. The Waking Up book was already a major influence on me at the time of writing this article. Since then, his app has become a regular feature at the beginning and the end of the day. As I’ve mentioned in the edit of your comment, links and email addresses are automatically removed from comments on our site (in fact, you’d been sent straight to the bin, no offence!). However, I’ll pass your email address on to the first people who contact me about it. I’ll probably give the following ones my own free month link so that my illusionary self can enjoy imagining that it’s made it onto Sam’s radar as a “super-fan” ?

      I would suggest though that you should still consider visiting these places as part of your journey if you’re drawn to doing so. You might not find exactly what you’re looking for there, but I’m sure you’d find them to be interesting nevertheless.

      Whatever you do, if you go to Kathmandu hoping to receive pointing out instructions, do not, under any circumstances, drop it when they tell you that “Rinpoche is on retreat”. I fell for that, only to hear Sam and Loch Kelly describing that same line being delivered at the same monastery several years prior. They knew to push past it, I sadly didn’t.

      Enjoy your journey down this fascinating path and thank you very much for your comment here.

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