A writer recently wanted to interview me for a book of truthful stories about the challenges of the spiritual path. He said that he was tired of all the teachings that suggested the journey was easy or pretended that the teacher had achieved some spiritual status and was special.
I agreed to his interview immediately.
This business of false or exaggerated claims is not a new problem. It has always been difficult to find a spiritual approach that does not claim to have all the answers. The great world religions all assert that their way is the best way. That has been, and still is, the source of conflict. It is not much different in shamanic and tribal traditions where there can be stinging arguments, for example, about what element should be placed in the North, South, East or West.
And, of course, as I often like to remind people who get spiritually earnest, there are also the great men’s hair-do debates. If women think they have a problem with their hair, it is nothing compared to some spiritual men for whom their hair is a sacred gateway to the divine. What will it be today, sir? We have several choices. Completely shaven for humility. A tonsure so the soul can escape through the crown chakra. Abundant hair and beard, each strand picking up a spiritual vibration. A top knot so that the spirits can lift you up into heaven.
But religious hats also give me a good chuckle. The bigger the hat, the bigger the spiritual status. Bishop’s mitres. Tibetan Buddhist top hats. Great feathered bonnets. Animals’ heads. Fantastically decorated hoods and crowns
In fact, first year anthropology courses teach that you can recognise religious artefacts, because they are only used by special people on special occasions. So the logic here is that if you get the right hairdo, the right sacred hat and the right special objects, then you will have attained spiritual status. You can see this in spiritual traditions all across the world. Big chief bossy boots always wear the best and loudest outfits.
This is all rather like the Wizard of Oz. He appears to be extremely powerful, lord of thunder and lightning – until Dorothy pulls back the curtain and reveals a small insecure man pulling levers and pressing buttons. It is all show and no substance.
Plus these people pretend that they have all the answers.
Plus people want to believe them.
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This can create a difficult position. I do not want to offend anyone or deflate their spiritual path, but I also don’t want to collude in giving respect to a spiritual teacher or teaching just because they have the clothes and the status, or appear to be confident and certain.
Sometimes people like me – your friendly meditating hack and freelance mystic – are given status because we have books published or write in an enlightened manner. Sometimes status is given just because someone is teaching spirituality or preaching or leading ceremonies.
But inside the status is just another human being, another Wizard of Oz. That’s me. That’s you. Of course, it can be lovely and reassuring to have status, but beware of ever taking it seriously. Power corrupts. The more insecure the individual, the more likely it is that they will believe that their own status and power is spiritually substantial and meaningful. I won’t name names, but I imagine you yourself can think of a few.
This is made worse by the many people who are looking for a perfect mother-father figure who will make them feel safe in a challenging world.
It is also often confusing because many of these insecure or pomped up teachers also bring through a blessing (which will be the subject of a future column).
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What I want is a spirituality that is realistic about the human condition.
I want leaders and teachers of spirituality to be honest and open about their own state, and to stop pretending they are special or perfect. I am tired of the pretence. It is also emotionally exhausting and unhealthy for the teacher.
The traditional justification was that the masses needed the stability and reassurance of an established and authoritative spirituality. This was the way to control the rabble and maintain a stable society. This was, and often still is, the justification for all those robes, hats and hair. In fact, it was a cunning argument used to justify the abuse of power.
We know better.
It is now over 150 years since Sigmund Freud was born and founded contemporary psychology. Its most profound insight, which has coloured the way that all of us today understand the human condition, is that beneath our conscious mind and behaviour are unconscious thoughts, feelings and instincts that are really driving us.
What a powerful revelation! We are not really what we appear to be, what we present to the world or who we think we are. We are highly strung creatures seeking to survive, driven by primal needs and defence patterns, putting on a front. (Of course, we are not only that – but we forget those unconscious realities at our peril.)
Freud is often presented as an atheist, hostile to spirituality, but his major revelations give tremendous support to our spiritual development, mapping how we create our own unreality and how we are conned by our own thoughts and emotions. From one angle, this is the essence of meditation and self-reflection. All of this sees through the delusions and illusions.
I often say that it is artists, not spiritual teachers or psychologists, who really understand the human condition.
Look to Shakespeare or Beethoven for a fuller understanding of all that we encompass – the tragic-comic mask. This is why this month I am recommending a wonderful, compassionate novel about the early days of psychiatry and neuro-science, Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces.
There are no easy answers, but compassionate and insightful enquiry into the human condition is a good start.
All my love,