Navigating the Spiritual Jungle

Every human being has psychological blindspots, and to expect spiritual teachers not to have them, even if they are claiming enlightenment, is a set up for deep disillusionment down the road
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When I was asked to write a book on "premature claims to enlightenment" for a small book publisher in 1998, I could never have imagined that I would eventually find myself as the psychotherapist, confidant and "go to" person" for spiritual teachers and students, as well as disillusioned former students and ex-wives and partners of these teachers, who are struggling with spiritual scandals throughout the world. Four books and a PhD on the subject later, as well as a psychotherapy practice that specializes in helping people on the spiritual path make psychological discernments, I find myself navigating through new "spiritual pathologies" on a weekly basis.

When I was invited to New York City by teachers in the Diamond Mountain lineage to do a series of talks in May, it was unbeknownst to all of us that the crisis of Ian Thorson's death would arise in the weeks prior to my arrival, marking the newest scandal on the spiritual scene. Since that time, I have had dozens of confidential meetings with individuals who have been impacted by the crisis. I have been touched by the lives and stories of many people involved in this community.

If I have learned nothing else from my years of work in this area, it is the capacity to "tolerate complexity" with respect to these issues. This community is not alone in its struggles -- many, many spiritual communities, as well as religious organizations, experience crises at some point, and many who haven't experienced crises yet will encounter it in the future. To tolerate contradicting emotions, perspectives, and even "facts" about what has happened, and the context in which it has arisen, is a mark of our human maturity and emotional intelligence.

Every human being has psychological blindspots, and to expect spiritual teachers not to have them, even if they are claiming enlightenment, is a set up for deep disillusionment down the road. We can hold a teacher fully accountable for his or her actions, as well as the exponential impact that their errors and human weaknesses might have on students, without destroying the teacher's life and maintaining humility in our perspective.

Here are some key points of discernment to keep in mind when considering not only the Diamond Mountain crisis, but the many other spiritual scandals that have and will continue to arise:

1.Deep spiritual insight and even the mastery of spiritual discipline, often does not touch the psychological level of our experience, and does not integrate our past traumas and shadow aspects of the psyche. Just because someone is a spiritual teacher, or has practiced decades in a tradition, does not mean that they are psychologically balanced.

2.The technologies created in Eastern cultures were never designed for, and never could have conceived of, the challenges of modern Western culture, where many of us wrestle with human relationships, broken families, complex family systems, as well as trauma, anxiety and depression. Theses traditions, even as they are timeless in some aspects of their wisdom, still need to be updated and translated into the Western world with respect to the knowledge and wisdom that exists in the newer Western "spiritual tradition" of psychology.

3.Almost all of the great traditions and texts that come from the East were written, articulated, and passed down by men, but the majority of people who practice them in the West are women. They still need to be further transliterated to address women's wisdom, women's bodies and rhythms of the female psyche.

4.Part of our spiritual immaturity in Western culture is our projection onto spirituality and spiritual practices, including myths like: "yoga makes us peaceful," "meditation makes our mind quiet," or "great spiritual leaders do not experience anxiety, depression, anger, or divorce and breakdown." Oftentimes the spiritual teachers themselves, as well as adoring students, perpetuate these myths rather than address the complex co-arising of spiritual wisdom and psychological neurosis and pathology.

Without these distinctions and discernments, we are quick to voice undiscerning opinions, often based on our own undigested emotional reactivity, that can have lifelong consequences for the individuals involved. I have done depth psychotherapy work with a number of teachers who had fallen from grace in their communities. Even when they had erred significantly, they still revealed themselves to be beautiful and loving people who were struggling to share their great gifts while engaging a shocking encounter with their own unconscious shadow material. Of course there are other teachers who do not use these crises to face their own unconsciousness.

So what are we on the sidelines, or perhaps scorched by the fire, or heartbroken through pouring through these stories, to do? In addition to being discerning regarding what we are reading, hearing, thinking, and feeling -- paying extra attention to seeds of our own emotional trauma and wounds that are activated by these stories -- we need to be compassionate in our viewpoint. We can hold teachers fully accountable for their actions and point out blindspots in spiritual communities, and make intelligent choices who we choose to study with, while diligently tolerating the complexity of these situations. I believe we need to "humanize" our spirituality and keep it as close to the ground as possible so that we can endeavor to cultivate a collective spiritual intelligence in Western culture.

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