Avoiding Fundamentalism in Spiritual Practice

When we’re in community with others who are enthusiastic about a particular approach to life, it’s possible to fall into a kind of fundamentalism in which we limit ourselves to viewing life through the lens of that approach. I experienced this myself when I was learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC). In this article, I describe my experience of fundamentalism, I explore how fundamentalism can follow from the stories we hold about our spiritual practices, and I suggest how we can translate these stories so we can maintain our open-mindedness, awareness, and flexibility as we participate in spiritual community.

My Experience of Fundamentalism

I started learning NVC in 2000. My experience of fundamentalism began in 2002 after I made a decision to adopt NVC as a spiritual practice. Here’s what happened in the years that followed:

When I adopted NVC as a spiritual practice, I also adopted a certain system as a guiding principle for my life: the system of beliefs, values, thought patterns, and language patterns that I’d been absorbing from the NVC community. After years of practice, I had developed new habits; I was using this system to guide my thoughts, speech, and actions. This was an achievement I’d been working toward for a long time—but it had some unintended consequences. In subtle ways, I was becoming dependent on this system for making sense of the world, for communicating with others, and for making choices in life. It was getting harder for me to think outside the box of the beliefs and values I’d adopted. And a subtle rigidity had crept into my speech and writing.

When conflicts arose, I fell into certain habits. Internally, I started doing certain processes—this helped me stay focused, but it also limited my capacity for being with others. I started viewing situations through the lens of certain models—this helped me stay centered, but it also limited my capacity to perceive all aspects of situations clearly. And I started filtering my speech through certain language patterns—this helped me avoid saying things I might regret, but it also limited my spontaneity and transparency. For instance, in conflict situations I felt comfortable telling others about my feelings but I rarely revealed my thoughts and perspectives.

My intimate partners were the first to point out my rigidity. Sometimes when I got frustrated, I would drop the system entirely and respond to them more transparently and spontaneously. What I said at these times was often more provocative—but to my surprise, they often appreciated my aliveness, transparency, and openness.

Occasionally the system would break down in the middle of a conflict. Sometimes I would get too angry to stay focused on my internal process, and sometimes the person I was in conflict with would interrupt my process by asking me to stop doing it. At these times, I felt as if a rug had been pulled out from under me.

What was going on? I had a problem: I was trying to use a single system to make sense of all the subtleties of life. I had become attached to that system, believing it could solve all my problems. And I had identified with it, viewing it as a part of me.

—from my book Tricksters in the Desert

This attachment and identification had formed over a period of years, and it took years of intentional work for me to undo them. At this point, I still have all the helpful skills I learned through my years of practicing NVC, but I experience more freedom to choose from a range of perspectives and approaches to life. Was my experience with fundamentalism an inevitable stage on my spiritual path? Perhaps—but perhaps not.

Fundamentalism and Our Stories

Fundamentalism can follow from the stories we hold about our spiritual practices. To show how this works, I’ll use NVC as an example—but keep in mind that these issues are not specific to NVC; I believe the same dynamics apply to any spiritual practice, in any spiritual community.

As I was learning NVC, I often heard various versions of the following story:

By living NVC in each moment and trusting the NVC process, we can embody NVC consciousness, model this consciousness for others, and facilitate social change—creating a more compassionate world.

This story offered a vision of transformation and social change that I found very appealing, and NVC was based on humanistic values that I appreciated. This contributed to my willingness—and in fact eagerness—to adopt NVC as the overarching approach to my life for a number of years.

What I know now (that I didn’t know then) is that a key understanding is missing from the above story: the understanding that every approach has its strengths, limitations, and blind spots. Like all approaches to spiritual practice, NVC is based on a model—that is, a simplified description of certain aspects of life. No model can reflect all the subtleties of life. Viewing life exclusively through the lens of one model limits our perception, because that model inevitably shines a light on certain aspects of life and casts a shadow on others.

For instance, from personal experience, I know that evaluating life based on the NVC model can reveal insights that can be transformative; I’ve also experienced how evaluating life based on other models can reveal different insights that can be equally helpful. Evaluating life based on a different model sometimes leads me in a different direction than NVC would lead me. That doesn’t mean that either model is invalid; it just means every model presents a partial view of life.

To help us avoid fundamentalism and perceive life more clearly, I believe it’s helpful to cultivate a diversity of complementary approaches to life and to spiritual practice (rather than focus exclusively on any one approach). In my experience, many progressive spiritual communities already hold strong values of diversity and acceptance of differences among people; I’m suggesting we go one step further and actively cultivate a diversity of approaches within our own spiritual life.

Translating Our Stories

Making space for other approaches may require us to translate the stories that we receive in our spiritual communities. For instance, consider the difference between the story above and this revised version:

By integrating NVC into our lives and trusting ourselves to discern how and when to apply it, we can embody a more compassionate consciousness, model this consciousness for others, and facilitate social change—creating a more compassionate world.

16th Place - After a Spring Storm in the Great Basin, by Larry Crist / USFWS

What has changed in this version? “Living NVC” has become “integrating NVC into our lives”, “trusting the NVC process” has become “trusting ourselves”, “NVC consciousness” has become “a more compassionate consciousness”, and “living NVC in each moment” has become “trusting ourselves to discern how and when to apply it”. I appreciate how this revised story more clearly affirms our autonomy and creates more space in our lives for other approaches. I believe a similar translation process can be applied to stories we receive in any spiritual community.

Doing this work by yourself requires effort, and at times it may feel like swimming upstream—but by developing your ability to translate spiritual stories internally and independently, you will be better equipped to enter any spiritual community and receive the gifts it has to offer without falling into fundamentalism.

Next Steps

If the ideas in this article have resonated for you, here are some possible next steps.

  • To test your own level of fundamentalism in relation to your favorite approaches to life, try asking yourself what the strengths, limitations, and blind spots of each approach might be. In what types of situations is each approach more effective? In what types of situations does each approach break down? If you feel disinterested, irritated, or uneasy about asking yourself these questions, you may have an opportunity to do some inner work to support open-mindedness, awareness, and flexibility. Asking yourself these questions can be an effective approach to doing this work.
  • For my views on how fundamentalism can arise in groups, and for more suggestions about what we can do to address it, see the epilogue of my book Tricksters in the Desert.


Disclaimer: This article expresses my personal perspective; it does not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a process created by Marshall B. Rosenberg. This article is not intended as NVC training, and I am not currently certified by the Center for Nonviolent Communication as a NVC trainer. For more information about NVC—and to find local NVC trainers and organizations—visit www.cnvc.org.

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© 2013 Jacob Gotwals

About Jacob Gotwals

Co-author of the Pathways to Liberation Matrix More about Jacob
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