Understanding Your Spirit in an Unconcerned World

Whether you identify as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or you desire a look at spirituality free from religion, "Break the Norms" discusses soul searching in a way that is as deeply impactful as it is honest about the world we live in.

Woman with upraised arms at sunset

From topics as diverse as Tantra and wealth, Bhardwaj reveals how our culture endlessly manipulates our thinking until we accept common views as inescapable norms—that is, until we learn how to break our spirit free.

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There are thousands of books available about how to become spiritual, how to find your spiritual path, how to discover your divine truth. But how many of those authors have written books about how to live spiritually that are endorsed by the Dalai Lama himself? Raised in a family of traditional Indian gurus, Chandresh Bhardwaj has a wealth of experience that he has transformed into thoughtful spiritual teachings. In Break the Norms (Sounds True, January 2016), Bhardwaj presents not only a deep look at religion, material possessions, and the personal meanings of both, but he has begun a societal movement dedicated to what soul searching truly means for every individual who craves spirituality.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Norm 1: To Be Spiritual, We Must Behave In A “Spiritual” Way

In January 2006, I had guests stay over at my tiny apartment in Flushing, New York. After dinner, I took out a popular Bollywood movie to show everyone.

“It’s not an original DVD?” my guest exclaimed, as though she had never seen a bootleg copy of something before.

“No, it’s not original,” I told her. “Here, the original DVD costs nearly $25, while in India it costs only $5. Movie stores here get the DVDs directly from India and make copies. It’s almost impossible to get original DVDs of Indian movies around here.”

“Of course! I know that,” she said. “But I am just surprised that Guru Ji [my father] would allow you to watch a bootleg movie. I mean, is it allowed? You should ask him. It may be a sin for a Guru or his son to watch the pirated version of a movie!”

I smiled, but she was not joking. She had deep concerns that my spiritual path was being tarnished by a bootleg DVD. She wasn’t the first person I’ve met who had such a misconstrued definition of purity in spirituality. The human mind is obsessed with moral codes. We cling to anything that promises to make the world more understandable, more black and white. This is how religion and many leaders have swayed their followers. But the idea that God is judgmental is a man-made concept.

We are infatuated with the idea of adding some purity to our lives. We are told that we are sinners and, thus, we should “un-sin” our acts. A visit to Holy Ganges in India shows a crowd who wants to wash away its sins. A visit to the Pope or any religious leader shows there are many people who depend on such leaders to assure them that God will not punish them on judgment day. Many Gurus and religions attain their power by dividing the world into pure and impure. Their businesses run on promises to make followers more pure than they could become on their own. This practice may sell tickets and bring in funds to run their mission, but does it hold any meaning? We will get to this question and more in upcoming pages.

When I was in business school in New York I ran a Positive thinking column for almost two years. As a spiritual columnist, I started receiving many emails and queries from students (and a few professors) who were seeking a spiritual solution to their problems. The majority of students who came forward to seek help also had many preconceived notions about what spirituality is.

As students in business school, their knowledge of spirituality was based on what they saw online or on various social media platforms. They all expected a philosophy major with a long beard and wrinkles around his eyes to get them enlightenment. But I was an Indian immigrant wearing jeans and hoodies with an iPod tucked in my pocket. Most of my fellow college friends and professors were exposed to a clichéd form of spirituality that emerged from the modern, more commercialized yoga scene. They saw trends like celebrity-endorsed veganism, chakra cleansing, and other elements that were packaged and sold as weekend workshops. They admitted that spirituality looked mystic and “weird” in their minds. Many of them later confessed to me that they were originally hesitant to ask for help because they weren’t sure what I would suggest they do. They feared that I would be ardent about their adopting rules of behavior and conduct.

I struggled a bit in the beginning when I started giving them advice on managing life. This wasn’t a role that I was expecting to take in a business school in New York City. The process became easy when I started connecting with them by sharing my story and encouraging them to break the norms share their tales. Soon it became a seamless process. The more they saw me in person and spoke to me, the more their doubts about a spiritual lifestyle melted away. The openness and warmth of my father helped me immensely in my journey. I knew the same method would work when I needed to connect with my fellow students and professors, too.

This didn’t stop after college. As I moved forward on my journey to become a full-time spiritual advisor, I came across (and still come across) many people who avoid entering a spiritual path because they’re afraid it is too mystic and may demand too rigid a change in their lifestyle.

Assumptions That Keep Us from Starting a Spiritual Path

Assumptions about what spirituality is supposed to look like can get in our way. Some of the most common obstructing beliefs that I hear are:

• I have to give up being ambitious. Making money isn’t spiritual, I know!
• I have to abstain from getting married or having sex.
• I have to be vegan and eat an all-organic diet.
• It’s just not for me! I can’t meditate. I tried, and it just doesn’t work for me!
• I have to identify as something, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian.
• I have to dress up in a certain way. I have to wear conservative clothes or beads.
• If I dress a certain way, or own the right things, that will make me spiritual enough.

The list is endless. Such assumptions arise because of the spiritual circus going on out there. Mistaken beliefs, misinformation, and charlatans abound in the new age circuit. We can get lost in the conflicting dogmas, prescriptions, and techniques. There are websites catering to spiritual clothing. I recently saw a Kundalini Barbie in L.A. and shook my head. Spirituality is an industry now—and quite a nourishing one. The purpose of the spirituality industry was to inspire more connection, and now it is creating a division in an already much-divided world. There are the people who “look spiritual” and there are people who do not. The materialism is just another way to make people feel like they don’t fit in.

The problem with thinking we need to be, look, and behave in certain ways in order to “be spiritual” is that we miss the opportunity to truly live a spiritual life. A spiritual life is a life of simplicity. It is not decorated with any accessories. Whatever I have read about Buddha, Mohammed Prophet, Guru Nanak Dev, Jesus Christ, and such godly giants, they all lived a simple life. There was no drama. I mean, I cannot imagine Jesus sulking over the number of followers that another spiritual teacher in his village had. Or Buddha hugging everyone in his discourses and throwing a fit when he didn’t get his latte on time. Many spiritual Gurus can be seen throwing a tantrum when they are not on stage (and sometimes when they are on stage).

I can vouch that my father is a genuinely simple guy. His humbleness often moves me. The trick is in not trying to be humble. Simply be receptive to higher energy and grace. Spirituality asks you to just be. A spiritual lifestyle is not a status-friendly environment. It is comprised of compassion for others and ourselves — above how anyone may appear. The good news is that it is easy for us to be simple and, thus, become spiritual.

The most important benefit of such a spiritual lifestyle is coming to acknowledge our inherent worth that does not depend on external circumstances. We no longer waste time directionless, blindly seeking status or superficial belonging. We wake up with an intention to live a life of our highest potential. The temptations of materialism no longer distract us. We are guided by love and fearless energy.

Breakthrough: You Don’t Have To Be A Certain Way—Just Be You!

Real spirituality doesn’t involve all of the hype and “shoulds” that surround the fake spirituality. It is not about being “cool” or appearing “holy.” It is simple and effortless. It breakthrough doesn’t need you to be any way other than how you are. When you are being fully yourself, you will start becoming spiritual.

One of the most important invitations of our lives is the call to authenticity. When we tell the truth, both to ourselves and to those around us, it is a direct line to the divine. We are born as honest beings. If you don’t believe me, ask a baby how your face looks. If they scream “potato,” don’t be mad. If they call you a princess, don’t be too flattered. The opinion of babies keeps changing as they speak in the moment. Whatever they feel to be true at that moment, they say. We have inherited this authenticity in our souls. When we start to be authentic, we start to get back in touch with our source, the universe, God, or the divine self.

I’m not saying that lifestyle suggestions are not helpful—they have their place. But if the prescriptions become the aim instead of the means, we will be caught in a trap that distracts us from what we are really longing for. All suggestions should be just that—suggestions. A quality spiritual teaching does nothing but point us to what we already know deep down. It should help us become more ourselves.

Choosing a Spiritual Path That’s Right for You

Do you like gardening? Do you live around nature, surrounded by forests or lush landscaping? Or do you live in the desert, where the land craves drops of rain? The only reason I am being nosy about your location is because I want you to look around. Look at the giant tree that sprouted from a tiny seed. A seed is a storehouse of massive potential. If it gets the right nurturing and the right environment, it can transform itself into something astoundingly beautiful. You and I are seeds with potential, too. We carry in ourselves possibilities that can lead us to the all-encompassing joy of divine light. And with the right nurturing guidance, we can transform ourselves for the better.

When we discover the right form of spiritual nourishment for our unique souls, we will feel it. We will relax and know that all of our quirks, talents, intentions, and longings are welcome. We will also know that our anger, fear, problematic desires, boredom, and weaknesses are welcome. We won’t feel the need to dabble in the spiritual marketplace anymore. We can go home. And when I say “home,” I mean the seat of our souls within.

Don’t expect your life to magically be free of pain when you embark on a path of awakening. There’s no way out of pain if you are a human. If you are looking for signs of relief to indicate that you are in the right place, you will always be disappointed. In fact, spiritual work often turns up the intensity of life. It brings habits and destructive tendencies to the surface so they can be met and integrated. But a good spiritual teaching will guide you to your strength, resilience, and unconditional wonder at the miracle of life. As a result, we get better equipped to handle pain when it arises.

As you uncover your true nature, it may be authentic for you to leave a relationship, a job, or simply wake up each morning and meditate instead of reading a news app. Because when you are on a true path, those choices will come from a deeper place. They will not come from some list of rules. You will feel moved to improve your life from inside yourself. That’s how you’ll know that what you are doing spiritually is working.

Addressing Misconceptions That Keep Us from Living a Spiritual Life

Let’s address four of the common assumptions I mentioned earlier, which can all function as excuses to avoid a spiritual path.

I have to give up being ambitious.
Making money isn’t spiritual.

When you are spiritual, you are beginning your journey toward becoming a complete and successful being. On this spiritual path, you get closer to having a good balance of financial success and spiritual intelligence. Your financial success will help you to become a better seeker, as you are no more consumed by worries of paying the bills.

I have often struggled with students who relate spirituality to a renounced lifestyle. They look at money as some sort of evil causing hindrance in their journey. Money is not evil. It is how we look at the money. If you are spiritual but are still struggling financially, then there is something wrong. You may be following a spiritual teaching that preaches material renunciation, which doesn’t make sense for modern life. I spend a lot of my time in L.A., New York, Amsterdam, New Delhi, and various other big cities. If everyone in these cities gave up work and chanted mantras all day, they would die of hunger and pain. The modern lifestyle requires a solid balance of spirituality and worldly success.

Likewise, if you are consumed by money, you may need to focus on letting go of your attachment to material things and cultivate a deeper understanding with higher elements of our existence. Money can fulfill our needs, but if we start to revolve our lives around it, then there is no end to pain and misery. The spiritual path can help you make money and help you be happy while you’re making it, too, instead of facing a daily drudge in which you exchange dreary labor and precious time for money. That’s because the spiritual path helps us live our potential — whatever that means for us. It also infuses everything we do with more energy, enthusiasm, and clarity. And it keeps our attention on happiness that is unconditional, regardless of the state of our jobs or the financial fluctuations of our lives.

Of course, there will be stages on a spiritual journey when you may want to renounce everything. That includes relationships, money matters, and other worldly things, but that is not mandatory. It’s your personal call if you wish to do that. But I always say that while it is easy to run to the mountains and claim that you have renounced everything, it takes a bold soul to remain in the world and maintain a balance.

I have to abstain from getting married or having sex.

There are certain sects of monks and spiritual masters who decide not to get married, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get married if you want to become spiritual. My grandfather’s brother (who was my father’s Guru) also stayed unmarried because he felt like it. He did not want to involve himself with family and preferred to focus his undivided attention on spiritual attainment. But his brother (my grandpa) got married and had three children. One of those children became a renowned spiritual healer, got married, and had me.

Certain monks renounce sex because they feel it is their calling. It’s a personal call to get married, to have sex, and to start a family. And you can certainly be married or sexually active and still pursue a sacred path. I come across various sects of spiritual masters who are comfortable leading a married life and yet are highly spiritual. They have a term for it: Grihstha Asharam, which means “my home is my shrine.” One accepts a spouse and children as a source of strength on this journey. A hugely renowned monk, Shree Ramakrishna Paramhansa, was a married man, and he truly tops my list of the revered Gurus that I wish I could meet. He remained married and pursued a family lifestyle while changing the lives of countless seekers. Such spiritual followers renounce sexual misconduct and instead intend their sex lives to be beneficial to others and to their own attainment. I talk about this in depth in the chapter on sexuality.

Certain paths are more supportive of relational life (like Tantra) and other paths are more encouraging of renunciation and simplicity (like Zen Buddhism). The trick is finding the path that nourishes you to become more and more of what’s authentic for you.

I have to be vegan and eat all organic food.

You are what you eat. This is the principal of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. Ayurveda states that you can heal yourself with a balanced diet, herbal treatments, and meditative practices. A significant part of Ayurveda is the belief that the mind heals the body in numerous ways.

The spiritual lifestyle does tend to adopt a similar practice of healing the mind, body, and soul together. When we consume foods that are difficult to digest, like a triple cheeseburger with chili fries, it is more difficult to enter the deeper stages of meditation.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been a vegetarian since birth, but a sage once warned me that the food I was consuming was preventing me from gaining higher spiritual experiences. He was referring to my fondness for fried food and soda.

Veganism and organic food choices are just more ways to have a conscious eating experience. It is good to be vegan because it will help you have a deeper meditation experience. What you take into your body adds to your meditative journey. Some spiritual paths, such as Vaishnav, recommend not using garlic and onion because they add aggressive energy to the body, causing a disruptive meditation. When I eat fried food, my meditation experience is different. In other words, I don’t enjoy it as much as I do after a salad or fruit. Hence, I do suggest you to pay attention to food when you set out on this path.

I was born in India and am therefore a spoiled vegan. There are hundreds of delicious and super-healthy recipes in the Indian vegan system that you might find exotic to your taste buds. The vegan food that I have seen in the Western world is a lot different, and that’s probably why some vegans end up being unhealthy. If you choose to be vegan, stay informed and do your research. In Indian vegetarian cuisine, there are lots of proteins and other ingredients for you to stay mindful and healthy. But treating nonvegans or people who eat mass-produced vegetables like criminals isn’t right. There are monks who still eat meat and eggs and drink milk, because that’s the kind of environment they live in. Being vegan doesn’t guarantee enlightenment. I have never asked any of my clients to become vegan or vegetarian.

With a daily meditation practice, food habits often start to change on their own. Meditation brings you to a realization that all of us are part of this oneness. When we feel—not just believe—this oneness with every living being, we might prefer not to kill any animal just for our taste buds.

I have to be Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or another faith.

Here’s how I always answer this misconception: “You don’t have to be an adherent to traditional religion. You just have to undo.” the key to becoming spiritual is unlearning and dropping all our prior conditioning. Converting to a different religion isn’t the solution. You can settle down into an ashram or even go on a journey to the Himalayas, but it won’t solve your problems. Wherever you go, you take your baggage with you. Until you throw that baggage away, the misery will remain.

The label of religion is so strongly tattooed on our culture that one feels an orphan without having a religion. In many cultures, religion is one of the strongest signatures that a person carries. It is this sense of belonging to a higher power that makes religion so appealing to us. Knowing that someone is there to forgive our sins and take our worries away is a relieving thought. Certain people who crave more structure and ritual can thrive by sticking to a specific tradition. And others who feel stifled or controlled in a tradition will more naturally seek to let go of any religious identification.

I maintain that religion was not created with a wrong intention. I like to believe that religion was created to teach the art of living a contented life, which most of the new age movements promise to do. These religions were also probably the new age movements of their time, too. Over the years, they became organized religious bodies. Coming from the Hindu religion, I can attest that it is a refined religion that helps people to live a happier life. My limited knowledge about Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam conveys the same message to me. The religion is not completely at fault. But it is the caretakers of these religions who decided to go on a power trip, making it a crazy ride for others. So it’s important to always stay aware of why you are showing up to a particular spiritual or religious path — and to notice if you are receiving the help you seek. Is your spiritual activity helping you to be happier, more compassionate, more relaxed and energized? Or is it weighing you down?

There can be great benefit in committing to a lineage, if it helps you to be authentic and self-aware. I come from a respected lineage of Gurus in India. This lineage gave me the courage to leave the glamour of Wall Street and follow a spiritual path instead. I often think my choices could have gone completely wrong if my lineage weren’t a noble one. I could have easily inherited the common beliefs of that industry, like greed, and carried on without any iota of guilt. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I’m so grateful!

Being in the amazing lineage of my Gurus not only exposed me to so many faiths and religions, but also prepared me on a practical level. But this was my personal experience. In my opinion, an authentic lineage or religion remains authentic as long as the leader of the lineage is authentic and physically active. Once the leader doesn’t exist physically, followers will start to interpret the teachings in multiple ways and initiate a mess that’s tough to clean up. That’s what has happened to so many lineages and religions. A religion loses its authenticity the moment a real Guru is gone. Someone has to lead the masses.

I don’t want to give you my answer of which religion you should opt for. Nor do I suggest that you carry on with the same religion as your family. That’s because choosing a religion is not the solution. You can opt for the most peaceful religion in the world and still be a jerk. Or join with a fraudulent spiritual Guru and still remain honest. Instead of focusing on being in a religion or not, choose to follow your inner voice. Breaking the norms of rigid mindset will help you see the divine without the grip of any religion.

Just Be You

Society feeds your ego and makes you do things that only benefit the agendas of society. Our society functions best when some people are made to feel powerful and others are made to feel weak. This power play keeps capitalism profitable. But when you become spiritual, you release yourself from the shackles of this type of conditioning. Once you land on a spiritual path that is right for you, or even while you are exploring what path is best for you, you need to go back to your roots. You need to get in touch with your reality because it’s in your roots that all solutions reside. You don’t need to chase the light anywhere else.

Once your misconceptions about spirituality start to disappear, you are left naked with only the real stuff. There are no tattoos, beads, yoga pants, or bracelets to display you in a spiritual light. You will be without reliance on any accessories and will look at life through a clear lens. You will be your authentic self.

With the right ingredients, the seed of consciousness will help you grow beautifully. There may be complications along the way, but they are all taken care of with time and insight. Being spiritual will attract authentic people and better circumstances in your life. You will get cosmic assistance when your vibrations start to shift to a higher frequency. All of these benefits appear when you are simply being who you are.


Adapted from Break the Norms: Questioning Everything You Think You Know About God and Truth, Life and Death, Love and Sex. Copyright © 2015 Chandresh Bhardwaj. Published in January 2016 by Sounds True.