Choosing a Spiritual Path
By John Beasley
We live in a world where the western values of the supermarket have seemingly triumphed. Everything one can possibly need in life is available at a price. As consumerism leaves many customers unhappy and unfulfilled, we now have the situation where selling fulfilment has become a growth industry itself, a supermarket of spiritual paths. But let the buyer beware. While the diversity of approaches on offer is healthy, there are issues with quality. And the cost can be incredibly high. That cost is not just financial. Many paths demand devotion, some expect obedience, most assume a rigorous discipline extending over many years, possibly the rest of your life. This may well be the biggest investment you will ever make. Is there anything the seeker can do to prevent exploitation and abuse?
Probably the most fundamental issue is “Does it work?” Promises are cheap, and the track record of most of the well-known paths is far from convincing. We have become used to revelations of Gurus becoming rich while their devotees slave for them, which is one extreme. But even where exploitation is not the issue, there is a real question over the efficacy of most paths on offer. Some challenge the very concept of a path. For example John Wren-Lewis, whose ‘enlightenment’ was both unexpected and unsought, has investigated other cases like his own, and finds them both extremely rare and mostly without any clear link to a spiritual discipline. Krishnamurti spent his life teaching and yet admitted, towards the end, that he was unaware of anyone whose life had been transformed by his teaching. So what credibility can be given to any path on offer?
Someone who has become disillusioned with a life of consumption, or wealth, or fame, may be ready to explore alternative realities. At the same time, they may be extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The recent history of religions, cults and gurus offering ‘enlightenment’, is replete with horror stories of sexual, financial and emotional abuse. This is not confined to the unintelligent or uneducated, as a disproportionate number of the most highly educated people in society have joined groups which can now be seen as exploitative. Are there paths that deal robustly with issues of exploitation?
Unlike most other investments that a person can make, the investment of one’s self in a path of transformation offers unique difficulties. If I set out to buy a car, I can check the advertised benefits of the model that interests me in motoring magazines, or through consumer organisations. I have a clear idea of cost at the outset. But entering a life-transforming path is rather different. My fantasy of ‘enlightenment’ is usually just that – a fantasy. While I may indeed find joy and fulfilment, I might instead find at the end of a decade that I walk away saddened and disillusioned. How do the paths on offer deal with the fantasies that bring people to them, and to what extent can they communicate some realistic expectation of what they offer?
The old saying “horses for courses” suggests that not every path suits every individual. In the spiritual supermarket, paths can be grouped into those which emphasise the head, where understanding and clarity are keys; the heart, where devotion and love are emphasised; and the belly, where will and endurance are stressed. It may also be true that there are a number of relatively separate personality types, as the enneagram suggests. Are there approaches to spiritual development that can deal with the whole spectrum of human types, or must I seek out a path that somehow meshes with my personality and background?
Intelligibility While most paths are experiential rather than intellectual, they vary greatly in their intelligibility, the degree to which they can be explained and ‘understood’, particularly by those who have yet to begin the process. Some seem to demand that learners ‘park their brains at the door’, and trust that the process will be right for them. Others have developed highly worked out understandings of what the path involves. There are now major theorists of personal and spiritual development such as Ken Wilber. To what extent can you expect to make intellectual sense of a process that operates predominantly at levels that are not intellectual?
Most people are attracted to a spiritual path for what are ultimately rather unspiritual reasons. They want to be ‘enlightened’, assuming this will be a state of considerable joy, which will also make them attractive to others and well respected. This is spiritual materialism, where the goodies to be obtained are spiritual rather than material, and most spiritual teachers warn that it is just this egoic grasping for goodies that is the issue, the problem that needs resolution. How can a path take account of the reality of the motivations that bring a person to it, yet enable those motivations themselves to be transformed and transcended?
John Beasley has worked as a teacher at primary, secondary and TAFE levels, and with individual apprentices. He has experience within a diversity of cultures, including Aboriginal and ethnic Australian communities. He has trained and operated as a counsellor, Gestalt therapist, and mediator. He worked as a sculptor for 14 years, has an ongoing involvment in environmental groups and issues, and has written three books on plant identification in north Queensland. He was introduced to ‘spiritual’ issues through reading Krishnamurti, and has read widely in the field, with a special interest in the writings of Ken Wilber and Robert M Pirsig, and for some years contributed to the Metaphysics of Quality internet discussion group. He has been a student of the Diamond Approach of A.H. Almaas for over ten years, and finds Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ the most intelligible and accessible of introductory books on spirituality.