Integral Evolutionary Spirituality, Spiritual Teachers, Cultism, and Critics — My Response to the Integrales Forum Position Paper
This is my passionate response to a request for comments from Germany’s Integrales Forum, in response to their position paper, “Integral Spirituality and Spiritual Teachers.”
The Integrales Forum “Position Paper” on validating spiritual teachers offers philosophically rich leadership, and is much appreciated. I have articulated similar principles and actively apply them to myself. I work transparently, and entirely non-coercively. But the principles articulated in the paper can be applied well or poorly, with potentially great good or bad consequences. Remember, it takes a nearly superhuman force to break free of the gravity of the ego and common worldly human society and to achieve “escape velocity” to go into the orbit of sustainable higher spiritual realization of transpersonal states and stages of consciousness. “Hard” schools of intense challenge arise for good reasons and should not be legislated out of existence or unduly constrained by the limited understanding of the unenlightened. Experiments at the leading edge can’t be consensually validated by those a half-step behind. We can establish criteria for evaluating spiritual teachers, yes, but let’s hold them humbly. In the process it is no less valid to evaluate the critics, and even students. This discussion is part of how we can birth the kind of sangha that can become the next Buddha, so this is great and honorable work. But let’s proceed humbly, recognizing the tentativeness of our hypotheses. Let the culture of integral evolutionary spirituality be rich and open, fed by some streams of wisdom that run through watersheds fed by thunder, floods and lightning, and not only ones watered by healing rain.
First Excerpt: The Gravity of the Ego and the Big Invisible Cult of the World
Remember, most human beings alive today are not only not-yet-enlightened, they are neurotic and selfish, and in denial of it. Most are also integrally illiterate. And most also have complicating resentments and prejudices, unexamined shadow projections, and seriously limiting structures of meaning-making. Only members of a “community of the adequate” can realistically be expected to be capable of competently performing the consensual validation of a spiritual teacher. But neither your documents nor mine has tackled the sticky problem of defining the “adequacy” of those doing the validating (or of students, which is a whole other matter.) If we did, I suspect our “elitism” would offend some readers — but if our standards were not extremely high, our process of validation would tend to reduce a very profound consideration to something superficial and potentially hurtful to the evolution of consciousness and culture.
This points out that we all come to this discussion out a worldly unenlightened culture, which is distorted by widely-held oversimplified or inaccurate beliefs and unexamined attitudes rooted in (and amplifying) fear, resentment, craving, and unprocessed grief. It’s been called “the consensus trance” with good reason. To word it more vividly (if perhaps also in a more inflammatory way) the common context of modern and postmodern popular culture is itself a great “cult” of unconscious unenlightened defenses, anxiety, greed, and consoling illusions that fiercely and viciously defends its epistemic closure. Any attempt to create an inspired subculture of transformative practice must defy the consensus of that larger consensus cultism, and in the process, it will tend to seem very much like what is derisively called a “cult” in our current popular conversation. It is true that pathological “cultic” brainwashing can be extremely dangerous and is worth guarding against, but we must remember, it is not the only cultism in play today, and the popular cultural alternative (the likely default for those who don’t attempt to create a spiritual culture) is itself so unhealthy that has created a species-wide moral, economic, environmental and political crisis.
Second Excerpt: Gratitude for Enlightened Wildness
I spent fifteen years as a student of Adi Da Samraj, a truly great spiritual teacher who is often publicly denounced as an abuser. My view of him is complex, full of nuances and paradoxes, and impossible to adequately summarize in this short space. One telling phrase I have written about him is that he was “one part Jesus Christ, one part Picasso, one part Nagarjuna, one part Marlon Brando, and one part Genghis Khan. And more…” I am inexpressibly grateful for the incomparable education I received during my time with him. My devotional love affair with him transformed me and set the course of my life. At the same time, I was always a critical student, a practitioner of “defiant devotion.” I was a devotee who objected to his choices and behaviors, criticized him, disobeyed some of his commands, and even ended my membership in his ashram altogether over twenty years ago. It was the nature of my (truly blessed) relationship with him to struggle with him intensely and tenaciously even after I left, for a total of thirty-five years — all in the context of a profound and transcendent spiritual relationship.
This sounds strange, if not utterly incomprehensible, to most people, and I know it’s not realistic to expect my paradoxical experience to be deeply understood very widely in contemporary culture. But I received transformative blessings not just from the aspects of Adi Da that people would regard as legitimate and praiseworthy. I got tremendous value from aspects of my experience that others would regard as preposterous, “abusive” and/or unreasonable. Some of my most profound learnings came after I left; they were printed, as it were, “on the inside of the label” (and visible only upon tearing it apart.) I don’t endorse or excuse all his behaviors. Again, I’ve been a fierce critic (and, viewed conventionally, also a victim, or survivor, of “abuse” — who suffered real injuries and processed a great deal of rage over them) but grew tremendously in the process. And now I hold all of it with gratitude, even though I remain not only devotional but also critical.
Third Excerpt: Both Thunder and Rain
My own teaching work is located firmly in a culture of mutuality. In my opinion, that’s where the creative action is right now — the emergence of a truly relevant evolutionary spiritual culture. If “the next Buddha will be a Sangha” this is how we can work today to participate in serving that important evolutionary emergent. Esoteric “hard” schools of intense challenge should be the rare exception, not the rule. And of course, I would never condone truly criminal or dangerously negligent behavior on the part of a teacher toward his or her students. But I want the culture of integral evolutionary spirituality to be fed by some streams of wisdom that run through watersheds fed by thunder, floods and lightning, and not only ones watered by healing rain.
When I attune myself to a positive evolutionary future, I find that I (and the vast majority of my colleagues) can best serve modestly, by sincerely honoring the dignity, vulnerability, and autonomy of aspirants. But I was transformed in part through a tantric alchemical process that violated my boundaries ruthlessly, and from which I emerged somewhat wounded and much more profoundly and enduringly transformed. Let’s make room for the whole elephant, not just the contours we have been able to grasp so far in a process that is still young, not yet entirely illuminated in all its nooks and crannies, and, thank God, dynamically alive.
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