Things We Don’t Talk About Part 1: Spiritual Smugness

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By HeatherAsh Amara

“Do you have a vegan option?” She asked the flight attendant. There was an underlying thread of iron in her voice, pulled taut across her vocal cords.

We were on a flight from Nashville to Austin, and the woman sitting by the window was somewhat agitated. The flight attendant cheerfully said, “I can give you a roll and jam, and would you like sugar with your tea?”

“NOoo sugar!” she replied, hair-standing-on-end-head-shaking offense seeping through her words like rust.

I passed her my extra bread and sent a smile her way, then went back to my book.

It was when we landed that things got really interesting.

I reached up to get my suitcase from the bin above me, and struggled with the weight. When the gentleman standing in the aisle walked past without helping, I felt fury rising behind me like smoke. “I cannot believe that!” my window companion said, thick angry poison flowing with her words, “He is so rude! I can’t believe he didn’t help you. What is wrong with people?”

As she fumed another man helped me and I was on my way, sending a blessings back towards my riled up vegan friend that she might find peace.

I had two thoughts as I exited the plane: First: Perhaps she didn’t quite understand the message of the book she was reading, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Patience. Awareness. Fixing the little things as they arise with calm presence. If you haven’t read the book, it’s a classic.)

And second: spiritual smugness causes so much suffering.

One thing we rarely talk about is how even when we are “spiritual” or “evolved” or even “right” it does not give us license to lash out at other people, regardless of their behavior, beliefs, or unconsciousness.

We are all unconscious at times. We all make mistakes. We all have a right to our beliefs and our actions. Respecting other people’s choices, even when we don’t like them, goes much further than any other position.

I used to be seriously spiritually smug. When I was in college and a political activist I saw anyone who was not fighting for change as unconscious, part of the problem, and uneducated. I was fighting the good fight, and if you weren’t with us you were against us. I then transferred that self-important attitude to my spiritual path – secretly believing that my spiritual friends and I were “better” than people that weren’t on a path of awakening/bettering themselves/healing.

Sometimes I still fall into that trap. But the second I catch myself I dig out of the quicksand of spiritual smugness as quickly as I can. Because that type of thinking leads to separation, and anger, and judgment, and a false sense of superiority that is like sugar: it may give you a boost in the short run, but it is detrimental in the long run.

Being spiritually smug makes us feel “right” for a time, which is a potent cocktail of false power. But the price is too high: our happiness. Our humility. Our humanness. When we believe ourselves to be better than others, or we hang on to our right to be angry or bitter or demeaning, regardless of other’s behavior, we are eating anger, drinking bitterness, digesting distain. And we are usually doing exactly what we are accusing others of doing, in some form.

My airplane neighbor was rudely accusing someone else of being rude. The man she was spewing her anger at was just making a choice to not help, for whatever reason. Perhaps he didn’t notice my struggle. Or he was late for a flight connection. Or he had a bad back. Or he was unconscious. Or he doesn’t like women. Or ….. the reason doesn’t matter, really. He chose not to. And I could be offended, or hurt, or angry at his choice. Or I could honor his choice and move on with my day without tripping over my own fantasy of what life should look like.

I've looked at the world through the glasses I was given. Now I've taken them off. It'surprising how distorting the wrong pair of glasses can be.I’m not saying this is easy. Just today I had to do some serious deep breathing to not rant at a friend who was being super negative. There is no magic pill or simple meditation or holy place where you suddenly never react to anyone’s actions. It takes practice, and patience, and turning your attention away from other people’s choices to hold a mirror up to see where you being righteous or reactionary or resistant. Sometimes the reflection is painful. And what I’ve found is that it is always deeply healing to own our shadows and stop projecting them outwards with our spiritual smugness or righteous rage or bountiful blame.

Be gentle with yourself, and others.

Let’s be the people who when we are squeezed by life ooze love rather than hatred or frustration or smug superiority.

And please please go see the movie “Who to Invade Next” by Michael Moore. It is a shining star of a movie to show us where we can loosen our grip on an illusion to learn from other’s examples.