Over the past 40 years, the West has been met with a massive influx of spiritual information, currently crowding the pages of popular newspapers, television programmes, and the glossiest mainstream magazines. Meditation classes are offered at the United Nations, Hillary Clinton uses visualisations and relaxation techniques, yoga is taught in many of the world’s largest corporations, and the spiritual lives of celebrities such as Richard Gere, John Travolta and Tom Cruise are the frequent subject of public questioning and curiosity. Not only has mainstream spirituality gained popularity, it has also become big business. The New Age is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and some of the most popular contemporary spiritual teachers and gurus are among the wealthiest men and women in the USA.
Contemporary seekers tend to fall prey to a myriad of mirages on their spiritual quest – mirages that need to be named and come to terms with. Although a confrontation with our illusions about the spiritual path can be unnerving, if not outright depressing, it can open the door to spiritual possibilities and choices previously unavailable to us.
Motivations for seeking enlightenment
Many people have an incorrect view of their own motivation for entering the spiritual path. Only rarely does a seeker genuinely wish to ‘realise God’, ‘be free’, or ‘serve humanity’. Most people don’t know what spiritual life is, let alone why they want it. In fact, when a student asked Zen master Suzuki Roshi what enlightenment was, he responded: ‘What do you want to know for? You may not like it.’
It often takes many years for spiritual seekers to realise that they have given themselves to spiritual life for reasons entirely unknown to them – reasons far less noble and selfless than their romantic imagination had led them to believe. When one initially uncovers the falsity of one’s motivations, it can be both disheartening and unpleasant, which is why most people hide their real motivations in their unconscious. They happily go about believing that they want only to be ‘free’, ‘liberated’, and ‘at one with all of life’. Yet this unveiling of false motivations is a valuable and necessary step on the spiritual path. Common reasons for turning to a spiritual life include:
Relief from suffering
Most people engage in spiritual life because they want to be free from suffering. ‘One of the greatest misunderstandings that people have is regarding the spiritual journey as a vacation trip,’ declared the Tibetan master, Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche. People imagine that the spiritual path will provide them with peace of mind, transcendence of their problems, freedom from their psychological aberrations, and everlasting life. They mistakenly imagine that if they meditate enough, do enough yoga postures, or study enough spiritual books, eternal bliss will be theirs.
‘All too often neophytes suffer from the delusion that spiritual practice is supposed to be fulfilling,’ says scholar and yoga master Georg Feuerstein. ‘They expect to be made happy and to be relieved of their basic existential sense of dilemma, either by their own efforts or by their teacher.’ Feuerstein is pointing out a viewpoint that has its roots in the individual’s basic misunderstanding and denial of the human condition – a viewpoint that is supported by the morass of New Age and pseudo-spiritual literature that floods the market and confirms the fantasies of its readers. Whereas it is true that there are truckloads of available metaphysical techniques that boost the ego and create temporary states of bliss and ecstasy, these states never last, and in the end have little or nothing to do with what spiritual life is really about.
Spiritual ambition: the search for power and control
Who would think that the imagined spiritual life – devoted to meditation and prayer, lost in the bliss of God, humbled in the face of truth – could be yet another cloak for dreams of power and success, or a disguise for feelings of personal failure? Yet for many it is just that. The fact is that the search for enlightenment is often a disguise for the search for power, fame, prestige, or some other form of worldly success.
If an individual’s modus operandi in life is to seek to be a ‘somebody’, to be important (the managing director, the star athlete, the female corporate executive, the movie star), and that person becomes involved in spiritual life, it is more than likely that the search for enlightenment will become linked with the search to gain power and fame in the spiritual domain. This is how ambition functions. An ambitious individual is not ambitious only in one arena but in all of life, including spiritual life.
Human beings will do almost anything to avoid facing their own human weaknesses – anything, that is, except face themselves. The individual imagines ‘enlightenment’ to be an omnipotent state in which they will not only be able to dominate others but also control all of their own human weaknesses and failings. What the ancient texts describe as the state of ‘perfect knowledge’ gets interpreted to mean that the person will become their projection of what perfect is, and in doing so rise above human frailty.
Enlightenment can unquestionably provide illusory, or limited, power and control, but spiritual development goes far beyond worldly power and control. Genuine spiritual teachers and those of profound realisation rarely, if ever, view their lives from the perspective of being in control of themselves or controlling others. They know that life is full of wild cards and that although they may have influence in the lives of many people, even that influence is not really their own. They also recognise that the responsibility they have because of that influence is so enormous that any semblance of personal power or control they experience is diminished in the face of their responsibility.
Fear of death
People seek enlightenment because they don’t want to die. The translations of spiritual scripts speak of enlightenment as synonymous with ‘immortality’, transcendence’, and the ‘deathless state’ – very appealing notions to a human being who fears death – but if one understands the context in which these scriptures were written, it is clear that they are not referring to the immortality of the ego or of the physical body. But human beings, desperate to find a way to avoid the imagined suffering of death, selectively gravitate towards some aspects of the teachings while avoiding others. They come to believe that enlightenment is the path to the eternal life of the ego, which they identify as ‘themselves’, and not of consciousness itself, which is always, already, deathless.
Therefore, while enlightenment may indeed be the deathless state, if we by chance become ‘enlightened’, we will have already died to our own ego, and thus the individual ego that initially sought enlightenment to avoid death will have already ceased to exist!
Although it can be difficult to realise one’s false and unconscious motivations for engaging in a spiritual life, it doesn’t mean that one’s efforts will go unheeded. The great gift of any true spiritual path is that in spite of one’s motivations, the path itself, assisted by the guidance of a reliable teacher, will transform the individual sooner or later. God, or Reality, is always stronger than the ego, and in the long run – though it may be a very long run – it will win out. The path and the teacher use the individual’s weaknesses and ambitions to create lessons that eventually undermine those very weaknesses and ambitions, exposing them for what they are and slowly revealing the purity that lies beneath them.
Spiritual experience or enlightenment?
Another common fallacy that seekers encounter on the spiritual path is mistaking mystical experiences for enlightenment. As people begin to engage in the spiritual path they are likely to have certain experiences – ecstasy, bliss, peace, visions, or feelings of oneness with all life. One of the most common errors that aspirants make is to believe that these experiences are the goal of the path. In fact, there are many sincere but false teachers running around teaching on the basis of one or more of these experiences.
When we study the various esoteric and occult traditions, the absurdity of such claims becomes obvious, for we quickly come to understand that with the proper techniques – fasting, visualisation, mind-control and so on – such experiences are quite easily induced. Although they are uplifting, inspiring, and may even serve as the catalyst that brings us to the spiritual path, these experiences are clearly not what spirituality is about.
To those who know what genuine spirituality is, even walking on water is unimpressive. They understand that to be fascinated by these seductions is to turn away from the genuine spiritual path. Although psychic experiences, bliss, ecstasy, and feelings of oneness are not bad or harmful, and can even be helpful on occasion, they must be scrutinised with great care. One must constantly question the conclusions one is tempted to draw about oneself as a result of such experiences. It is too easy to think that one is extraordinary or important simply because such experiences have arisen.
The inner guru and other spiritual truisms
The concept of the inner guru is one of the most deceptive of all the popular truisms. Though the term ‘inner guru’ refers to something ultimately real, of the many who believe themselves to be following their inner guru only a rare few are actually doing so effectively. A high degree of human and spiritual maturity is required in order to consistently and clearly hear and follow the demanding guidance of the inner guru, a maturity that is earned through years of spiritual practice and not from reading a spiritual book or from hearing a New Age freedom fighter proclaim the message.
The main reason that people turn to the inner guru is because they are lazy and essentially uninterested in genuine transformation. The outer guru – the genuine spiritual master – will undermine one’s ego and confront one’s falsity in a way that the inner guru never will. The inner life of the human being consists of a grand multitude of voices – many of them highly neurotic – and the ego is only too happy to give one of those voices monk’s robes and a soothing tone and call it the inner guru. Such inner gurus, also known as the ‘inner self’, the ‘wise elder within’, or the ‘deep self’, have been known to guide people to do whatever it is their ego desires (extravagant vacations for example, a new Ferrari, manipulating others for a ‘higher good’ etc.), always in the name of spiritual life. It is much easier to excuse our mistakes if we have been ‘guided’, thus dismissing personal responsibility for the outcome. If positive results come from the guidance, we become a hero for hearing and following the voice; if things don’t work out, we are simply a victim of the inner voice’s desires. Either way, we do not consider ourselves to be accountable.
A close relative to the inner voice is the notion of following one’s heart. It is true that one must ultimately follow one’s heart, and that the true heart doesn’t lie, but how does one know when one is hearing this heart? Most individuals have no idea what their heart is, and have neither felt it nor heard it speak. The majority of messages they attribute to their heart are, in fact, coming from their mind, though it may well speak lovingly, tenderly, and even ‘heartfully’.
When people are unaware of the quantity of ‘inner voices’ that exist within them (including the voice of one’s ‘heart’), and are uneducated regarding the ego’s tendency to corrupt any aspect of the personality it can in order to sabotage spiritual growth, they easily fall prey to the seductions of the inner guru. Ultimately, they cheat themselves out of the growth and transformation they once came to this life looking for.
Still another of the dangerous truisms rampant among contemporary aspirants is the catch-phrase, ‘It’s all an illusion’, and all of its derivatives. From the logic of the mind rooted in duality, if everything is an illusion, it doesn’t matter if we harm others or if we destroy our bodies with drugs and alcohol because our bodies aren’t real anyway. If life is but a dream, why not take everything we can get regardless of how many toes we step on to get it and how many others will have less because of our selfishness? If all is one, there is no good and evil, right and wrong, so why not cheat, lie, and steal?
Those who indiscriminately use these ideas taken from the ‘absolute reality’ fail to understand that the absolute reality in no way negates the relative reality. Nonduality does not cancel out duality. Those who truly understand (as opposed to having had profound but fleeting insight into) the esoteric principles of ‘the inner guru’, ‘all is one’, and ‘the teacher is everywhere’, never boast such truths in reaction to any challenge to their psyche or psychology. They are instead humbled by the majesty of the reality they have glimpsed, to the extent that it propels them toward greater service to, and participation in, the very real world that we all live in. As another Zen master said: ‘You can’t live in God’s world for very long; there’s no restaurants and no toilets.’
False teachers and false students
Lastly we come to the subject of teachers and their disciples. Whether we call them gurus, masters, guides, or spiritual friends, two seemingly opposing things can be said about teachers for certain. Firstly, in order to reach the highest possibility that spiritual life offers, a teacher is necessary, and secondly, for each genuine teacher, there are literally thousands of fakes. If we assume that everybody who can spout elegant spiritual truths or who claims to be a Tibetan tulku or who promises us enlightenment in a weekend is the real thing, we will not only be orchestrating our own disillusionment, but it is likely we will come to discredit all spiritual teachers, when it is in fact our own weakness as students that has made us unable to distinguish between the two.
The late Indian saint Swami Muktananda said that the market for false teachers is growing because the market for false students is growing. Arnaud Desjardins, French spiritual master and former filmmaker, urges spiritual aspirants to question not whether their teacher is real, but to ask instead: ‘Am I a disciple?’ Disillusioned spiritual students make a lifetime obsession of pointing their finger at false teachers and discounting the necessity for a real-life, external teacher, when it is they themselves who failed to be the kind of student necessary to attract a genuine teacher.
The point is to be ruthlessly self-honest about why we are seeking the help of a teacher and about what we expect to get from one. If we are engaging in spiritual life because we want to find a sexy new partner, we might not need a teacher at all. If we practise meditation because we want to have more self-confidence and personal power, just about any charismatic teacher will do. But if we are on the spiritual path because we are seeking the fulfilment of our highest possibility, we will need a real teacher, and to find that teacher we must become real disciples.
Sometimes the process of learning discernment and discrimination on the spiritual path involves engaging a series of false teachers so that one learns to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Ultimately, we must take personal responsibility for getting mixed up with false teachers, assuming that it is something in ourselves that did not allow us to see more clearly. We can then proceed along the spiritual path with more clarity.
A muddy road
The bright lights of mystical experiences and ecstasy often mark the entrance to the spiritual path, and the end of the road promises something equally satisfying, but in between is a muddy road. It is a muddy road because nothing about the spiritual path is certain. At one point, mystical vision may be an essential inspiration for our progress, and at another point that same vision may be our excuse to prematurely claim our own enlightenment. Our inner voice may give us necessary guidance, or it may feed us lies. We may have difficulties with our teacher because he or she is a charlatan, or it may simply be that the teacher is challenging our ego in a way we are unwilling to face; thus we call them false when it is really our own falsity that is in question.
The spiritual path is a process of gradual disillusionment in which all of our ideas about who we are, what life is, what God is, what Truth is, and what the spiritual path itself is, will be broken down and stripped away. It is also an exhilarating path because this stripping away will eventually leave us with the naked Truth, which is the only thing that can ultimately satisfy us.
The spiritual path is alive. It can and will change before our eyes. Since we cannot be sure of anything involving our own spiritual progress and attainment, our task is to engage ourselves wholly and uncompromisingly with the challenges unfolding before us. If we are serious, not only about our own spiritual development but also about contributing to the development of a genuine spiritual culture in the West, we cannot afford to be satisfied with a counterfeit, New Age spirituality – comforting as it may seem – while the real spiritual life is waiting for us.