connecting psychotherapy and spiritual growth for human awakening
“The biggest gift!!! ‘I give you back yourself.’ I am so grateful for you and my freedom. I amazed again and again and eternally grateful for the most yearned-for treasure—my freedom!” – a client
The history of the guru in the West over the last one hundred years is a spiky one. A century ago many were reeling from the horrors of the First World War and suffering a crisis of faith. This opened the doors to esoteric spirituality and created the New Age. A second World War cemented disillusion for many as the complacent post-war years led to the Sixties and the counter-culture.
Overthrowing establishment norms and mores was the business of the day. Beads, eastern garb, and gurus seemed to symbolize disobedience, revolution, and a brave, new way of life. The Seventies might have matured the extremism of the quasi-rebellion, but the Eighties took it all away with a brief era of material plenty. The vacuous Nineties nonetheless fuelled the need and by the turn of the century we began to see thousands flocking to now more gurus than ever, wide-eyed, acquiescent, and looking for all the world like they didn't know what to do unless until the guru spoke.
What went wrong? Has there ever been a time when people looked so desperately for guidance, when their inner sense of referral was so lacking? When their alienation from their inner wisdom was so total?
Flocking to gurus, the look in the eye that says lead me, teach me – could this be a golden era of spiritual freedom, the flowering of the heart of devotion? I am sorry to say I don't think it is. I think this is the fallout of the twentieth century erosion of real inner power, self-referral, and innate wisdom. A hundred years of violence, not only to the physical body, to the planet where man hurts man, but of violence to the soul. Movies, gender aspirations, absurd image-making, the cheapening of the most precious aspects of humankind – sexuality, real love and tenderness, peace and tranquillity, food and diet, eco concerns, the family, marriage commercialization, business, corporations, corruption in politics and the establishment in general, abuses of power on all levels: we have been systematically crushed, intimidated, and insidiously damaged. Suicide figures in the young, mental health statistics, divorce rates, financial debt, alcoholism, drug addiction, rape, domestic violence—we may have numbed to these realities today as they have become commonplace, but isn't it true that our moral fibre—spiritual and inner—has frayed or broken, the very ground that we stand on turned to shifting sand? Fear has displaced courage, uncertainty exchanged for wisdom, conviction and sincerity bartered for the pretense of humility and a false sense of belonging.
People today don't really know and predictably they flock to those who seem to know or say they do or even look like they might do! I believe passionately in the guru-disciple relationship. But it is not the one I see here today. I apologize for being so definite about this and I am sure exceptions exist but helplessness, hysterical dependence, and craving attention are not the signs of the true relationship to Truth through the spiritual teacher.
In 2017, if we care about the spiritual, the sacred, and the Divine at all, we have an obligation to cleanse ourselves of the pollution of the last hundred years. Much of what was taught profoundly and authentically is ignored in favor of sound bites, image-mongering, and quasi-spirituality. In spite of great masters being present, mediocre ones have come to the fore. We have been fed selective information, half-truths, and positive slogans that in no way represent true spiritual teaching.
The last hundred years comprise a concentrated, intense indoctrination of human disempowerment. Virtually everyone is suffering from the illnesses and damage of decades of indoctrination, abuse, superficiality, and manipulation. At the center are the dynamics of the family. Principally the need to be loved, the lack of inner confidence, deferring wisdom, separation from the heart and true feelings and emotions, the isolation of sexuality, personal power, creativity, spontaneity, and damage to our ability to love ourselves. This list is not exhaustive—but it's a start!
I urge you to consider deeply how your spiritual aspirations may merely be psychological states in need of personal attention. How your desire for transcendence may be a need for psychological wholeness and how your attraction to spiritual teachers may simply reflect your desperate need for a loving, consistent, reliable parent figure in your life to hold you, support you, and love you unconditionally.
The guru, the spiritual teacher, does not commandeer your wisdom, does not revel in superiority and mock humility, handing down befuddling pearls of truth to already confused followers. The spiritual teacher gives you back yourself.
““Hear thou even the little child, and from his words accept Thou the Truth that goeth straight to thy heart. But reject all that doth not so go to thy heart—no matter how high the authority—yea, even though the lotus-born creator, Brahm, himself, be the speaker.” – Yogavasishtha
Recently published here and on my social media network, is a piece entitled” I Give You Back Yourself.” The central theme is the disempowerment spiritual seekers seem to indulge in in their relationship to spiritual teachers. I presented this piece to my network as an interactive post inviting feedback. Among the responses this:
“Finally. Truth spoken. So many false gurus. Sadly people want someone else to ‘fix them’ instead of looking within themselves.”
... and this from Lisa Lindenlaub:
'Thank you! This is of great importance. I have been one of these people you describe and it's been a long road of self-discovery and disillusionment that continues to unfold. What you say here resonates with my own experience and at this point in my own growth and healing I am saddened by what's being sold out there and how this innocent desperation so many of us feel is in my view taken total advantage of in the modern day spiritual marketplace. It needs to stop. I feel the more people like yourself who are sharing honestly about themselves and their own experience will lessen the opportunity for disillusionment, false projection and misplaced power. Also the psychological work must be tended to and spiritual teachers can admit their limitations and refer to good psychotherapists and trauma therapists. Just a few thoughts. The more teachers who can come out and start sharing honestly and vulnerably about their own experience and human limitations will be the greatest help of all. And as you say here, we need to really take a deep and honest look at what we're doing in our spiritual pursuits and relationships with teachers/gurus etc., really start questioning our own motives, desires and intentions. Not easy but the only way.'
Lisa offers two ideas. First, that spiritual teachers open up about themselves personally and, second, that seekers do their therapy.
I said I would give some thought to Lisa's observations. Here are my thoughts:
I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater on this spiritual teacher-seeker issue. The spiritual teacher assumes a position of authority based on a higher calling. (S)he is to whatever degree s(h)e is capable, a conduit for Truth. This is a profound obligation and it does not include indulging in airing personal issues. I do not disagree with you Lisa. When called upon to open up or reveal, the spiritual teacher does well to be human and share human experiences. But the mandate for spiritual teachers to share in a vulnerable personal sense habitually and routinely misses the purpose of the calling and it is a sacred calling to fulfill the spiritual teacher role or function.
I have some experience of this. When I was preparing my first book of spiritual teaching for publication my principal influences were the Tao Te Ching and the conversations of Nisargdatta. My editor challenged me, saying, you have to argue your points. Lao Tzu never seemed to do that! Nisargadatta never challenged his guru's dictum, You are That! Of course I capitulated and “argued” my spiritual points in order to get my book published and in the process learned a little about how to write. By the time I got to my second book of psycho-spiritual teachings my new editor was extolling the virtues of self-revelation (mine!) and pronouncing my monastery stories and others exceptionally good. He wanted more.
In order to bring my points home it seemed personal stories were best, so I threw myself into them. I am very aware that people have a hunger for self-revelation, from others and themselves. However, the deeper point about this is that psychology is different to spirituality. In therapy and psychology we work at clearing the impurities of personality and character—the restriction, the contractions, and the limitations—in order to live freely as a personality. In spiritual discipline and practice we work toward liberation from the personality altogether and to residing eternally in and as the Divine.
What follows is that in spite of the present confusion about therapy and spirituality (see my article, also published here, “Lollipops for the Ignorant”) they are both distinct, different, and connected through the heart-stage of authenticity and compassion. Self-revelation is the business of therapy and human psychology; spirituality begins in essence when the need for self-revelation or even self-interest ceases to be a primary driving force.
Insisting on the need for the spiritual teacher to open up about his problems misses the point that the spiritual teacher is not essentially a personality concerned with problems. If (s)he retains a propensity for personal problems then (s)he should cease posing as something (s)he is not.
The spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen is a good case in point. In his early day of teaching he established his sangha in a barn up the road from where I facilitated a weekly therapy group. There was inevitably some cross fertilization with Andrew's followers appearing in my workshops and participants from my workshops attending his darshans. Andrew spoke out forcefully against therapy as an indulgence of the small self that was unnecessary, undesirable, and spiritually irrelevant. Not that long ago he retired from teaching amid accusations of multiple abuses admitting that his personal problems were not resolved.
In my book Your Essential Self I have proposed three stages of awakening that we each of us must go through in order to fulfill our potential, capacity, and destiny as human beings. The first is the business of therapy, human psychology, counseling, and self-exploration. It has not always worked very well (as you have experienced Lisa), but this doesn't mean that the ancient method of psychotherapy cannot be effective in the hands of authentic practitioners. The second is the process of heart-opening, authenticity, and true compassion. The third is the spiritual stage. May I refer you and other readers to that book for more detail and clarification.