The summer 2011 newsletter of the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy (ASP) explores the question: Do spiritual aspirants need a teacher or can you achieve self-realization on your own? Here's my take.
Spiritual masters say that the guru -- the true teacher -- and divinity are within each of us. Taken at face value that means that you are already realized and have a factory-installed foundation of wisdom. If that's the case then why would you need a teacher or guide for spiritual development?
Simply because there's a catch. While wisdom and realization may be fundamental to your being they are obfuscated by a lifelong process starting at birth that leads us away from the realized state and inner guru. From the outset, personal experiences and conditioning manifest a personal ego that we firmly believe is our sole identity. That conclusion commits us to a lifelong process of seeking self-realization by strengthening, expanding and defending the little me/self/ego in a desperate struggle for survival. And most of our psychological theories and traditional societal teachings keep us on that dead-end path, since they too cannot see any foundation for existence other than the ego level of consciousness.
Transcendence and realization within this framework become the quest for an omnipotent me/self/ego -- a goal that cannot be achieved. Then somewhere along this faulty journey you might -- if you're lucky -- get the inkling that there's something greater and more genuine than ego. With that insight the spiritual journey back to the realized self can begin.
That's the good news. The bad news, though, is that the ego will not willingly loosen its ferocious grip on existence. Since the ego has been your sole co-pilot in life for seeking a secure sense of self, you will not abandon it for the smoke and mirrors of another foundation that you sense but are not sure is real. The ensuing internal struggle to free yourself from the grip of the ego will submerge you in many self-deceptions in which you will firmly believe you are progressing toward the spiritual mountain top; but many of your practices and behavior on close examination will reveal the ego in disguise and control.
The ego, like the quick hand of a three-card Monte dealer, can be creatively deceptive -- now you see it, now you don't. The ego deceptions masquerading as spirituality are legion. I call them the near enemies of spirituality. Far enemies, like the seven deadly sins, are so clearly antithetical to spirituality, you won't have trouble spotting them in yourself and others: anger, greed, jealousy, insatiable lust, hatred, violence, restlessness, apathy, laziness, and so forth. But near enemies appear so much like genuine spirituality that the ego lurking behind the mask continues to run the show -- the tail wags the dog.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield popularized the term near enemy in citing the frequent perversion of compassion. In the near enemy version, compassion is not sincere when it is an expression of pity for the other person. Pity reflects separation rather than unity -- "your suffering and misfortune." Buddhist compassion is a sense of oneness with all sentient beings -- "your suffering is my suffering."
It's not only compassion, but all spiritual practices and expressions can be near enemy distortions. Love is another powerful example. While love is at the core of all religions and spiritual traditions, its near enemy version abounds. "I love you" are three little words that are easy to say but much more difficult to genuinely mean or live. Hidden behind affirmations of love can be self-serving egoism, attachment and dependency. Love that is truly spiritual is unconditional and selfless. But in practice, how often does it mean "I will love you only if you return love"? All too frequently we hear about "love" that quickly morphed into hate and even violence when it was not reciprocated.
In my book, "Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free," I identify fifteen of the most common near enemy versions of spiritual practices and behavior: compassion, love, detachment, self-sacrifice, the now, labels, antidotes, conceptual enemies, the spiritual bank account, spiritual posturing, vegetarianism, the right practice, the right teacher, spiritual seeking, and turning to God -- all have near enemy counterparts.
So back to the question do you need a teacher or can you just as well go it alone on the spiritual path? Yes, you can be your own guru. But beware of the near enemies. Few can avoid entrapment. If you think you can, that may be another near enemy. Lots of luck!