[ Back to Spirit Index ]

Finding Your Path Without Losing Your Head
Ten Questions for Validating Spiritual Paths, Groups, and Teachers:
Parts I & II

By D. Patrick Miller; Fearless Books
Copyright © 2000/2001 D. Patrick Miller.

SENSE & SPIRITUALITY: Finding Your Path Without Losing Your Head. Ten Questions for Validating Spiritual Paths, Groups, and Teachers is a Fearless Books title currently in development by D. Patrick Miller, intended to help readers achieve and maintain a balance of heart and mind along their spiritual path. These excerpt are the original articles as first published by D. Patrick in his Sense & Spirituality column (currenlty in hiatus) at his http://www.fearlessbooks.com website.

Finding Your Path Without Losing Your Head.

The West's modern "spiritual supermarket" has made the secrets of esoteric spirituality widely available in a culture that is more accustomed to the customs of exoteric religion. Exoteric religion - the kind of weekly church-going and Bible study that many middle-aged Americans grew up with - provides set answers to the mysteries of existence, and gives people religious rules and customs to live by. Esoteric spirituality is primarily concerned with questions, not answers, and requires a seeker's direct confrontations with the mysteries of existence.

Since one of the greatest of those mysteries is the puzzle of consciousness itself, most esoteric paths include a technique or discipline (such as meditation) that leads seekers into a direct confrontation with their own mind. Most exoteric forms of religion will instead advise followers to pray for guidance or intensify their study of sacred texts; exercises of consciousness are seen as irrelevant, self-absorbed, or perhaps even dangerous.

In the realm of morality, exoteric followers are assured that all they need do is follow the Ten Commandments, the Torah, or other sets of traditional rules and customs. By contrast, esoteric paths lead seekers to develop an instinctive morality that surpasses ordinary religious rules and customs. For instance, where an exoteric follower may be told that "Thou shalt not kill" is a rule to be followed without questioning, the esoteric seeker may be encouraged to contemplate death itself - or even enter into deathlike states or trances - in order to deeply experience the nature of mortality and thus arrive at an instinctive morality on the matter of killing. Esoteric experience does not necessarily overturn the wisdom of conventional religious morality, but it does lead the seeker into a deeper understanding of how traditional moral commandments came about - and when, if ever, they should be ignored.

Conventional religion teaches that "Thy will, not my will, be done" (and "Thy will" or God's will, is interpreted by the church on the believer's behalf). Esoteric spirituality leads one toward a state where, as St. Augustine directed, you can "love and do what you will." (This is not to be mistaken with the morality of doing whatever you want, a common temptation of superficial New Age teachings.) Traditional Christianity says that a human being is by nature sinful, and must always subject his or her will to the will of God through the ministrations of the church. Most esoteric paths dispense with the notion of sin and instead talk about "ego surrender" or "ego death," achieved by the seeker's own spiritual discipline.

Finally, for the exoteric Christian believer, the spiritual reward of following the religious path occurs mostly in a heavenly afterlife - although it's understood that you will definitely have a better life on earth if you obey the rules of religion. The rewards of esoteric spirituality are generally understood to occur during life on earth (although that life may not be limited to a single incarnation).

People are attracted to esoteric paths because they seem less regimented and more interesting than the exoteric religions they are familiar with. In fact esoteric spirituality presents significant difficulties and dangers. It's not easy to go around questioning reality all the time, and trying to sort out your own morality can be a very tricky business. That's why the rules and customs of exoteric religion exist, in recognition of the fact that most people need them to live a good life - and most people are just not suited to the challenges of esotericism. It's very easy to "space out" on esoteric ideas, and commit yourself to concepts & cosmologies that you don't really understand or that simply make no sense.

Ironically, from a traditional perspective it is the exoteric discipline of a particular religion that is supposed to make one ready for the inner, traditionally secret teachings of that same path. But in our culture, many people have burned out on their exoteric religious upbringing - or never had much of one at all- before encountering powerful esoteric teachings (from a wide variety of traditions) that they may not be prepared to integrate. In an interview, philosopher Jacob Needleman once gave me a vivid image of what can happen to people who encounter a transformative inner practice when they've never had much of an outer discipline: "If a spiritual practice is too intense, it 'blows your mind'; and becomes overly fascinating, or leads you into fantasy. You could compare the esoteric core of a religion to a very pure, high-octane fuel. Put it into an old Volkswagen, and the car will go like hell for a mile before it blows apart."

One kind of "blowing apart" is self-delusion, in which you believe that you, your guru, or your spiritual group have surrendered ego and are doing God's will when you are doing nothing of the sort. Many of America's most notorious cults - from the People's Temple to the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate - literally blew apart or self-destructed because of such delusions. When you are not hemmed in by religious rules and customs, you are free to find God on your own - or to lose your mind in the process. Modern esoteric paths under the general rubric of the New Age often call themselves "heart-centered" with the unfortunate implication that rational thought and common sense can be dispensed with along the path. In fact, an ongoing and ever more precise balance of heart & mind is essential to the esoteric seeker. All venerable paths suggest that the ultimate spiritual wisdom makes no distinction between heart and mind, compassion and logic, or love and enlightenment.

Ten Questions for Validating Spiritual Paths,
Groups, and Teachers: Part I

This edition presents five questions worth considering when you are new to a spiritual path, group or teacher. The next edition will feature five questions to consider when you have at least several years experience with a chosen way.

1. Are you sure that your conversion experience is a true "moving toward" a new way of life, and not merely an attempt to escape from your former circumstances? The classic religious escape is the so-called "jailhouse conversion" in which an incarcerated criminal professes a new-found love for Jesus, and a redeemed heart, just in time for a parole hearing. The problem with determining the validity of such a transformation is that authentic jailhouse conversions really do occur, along with insincere attempts at manipulation. The key to the difference - which may not be immediately obvious to an outside observer - is the degree of selflessness which marks a conversion experience. If a prisoner continues his or her spiritual development long after a parole hearing, regardless of its outcome, then it's reasonable to assume that the conversion has been authentic.

Most people outside prison have no motive to fake a conversion, but we can sometimes fool ourselves as to the real nature of a new spiritual undertaking. It's entirely possible to escape from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing only to become a fundamentalist New Ager - with one's inner habits of judgmentalism, superiority, and apocalyptic thinking only semantically altered. For instance, many New Agers slipped into apocalyptic thinking about the approach of "Y2K" with the same fervor that Christian evangelists have fomented the idea of the always-imminent but not-quite-here-yet "Rapture."

Likewise, it has been widely observed that people who escape alcoholism or drug abuse through the recovery movement often become addicted to their Twelve Step meetings. In this case, the second addiction is definitely better than the first one. But sooner or later, a real spiritual path should lead you into a confrontation with your own addictive nature - often the first step in transcending what is generally called "the human condition."

At any rate, it's always healthy to reflect periodically on the similarities and differences between one's new spiritual path and the circumstances that immediately preceded it. A new path or teaching should help you surrender the past, not just give it a new paint job.

2.Have you independently researched the history and theological legacy of the path, teacher, or group that has drawn your attention? Every spiritual perspective has some kind of legacy or teaching lineage. Beware the teacher who claims to be an original, or a heaven-sent avatar with a radical new message that humanity has never heard before. The fact is that humanity has already heard all the spiritual messages it needs - we're just still trying to learn how to listen. Good teachers will honor their teachers, or at least the traditions they have drawn from for the synthesis of their own message. Part of your responsibility as a seeker is to check out those traditions and earlier teachers yourself. You don't have to do this in a disrespectful manner, but it does need to be done with an independent and clear-thinking mind. Don't depend on your teacher, or your teacher's loyal lieutenants, to provide all the background for you. If a teacher claims Sufi influences, read some Sufi literature on your own and check out other Sufi teachers. It's always possible that you will find that what really attracts you about a spiritual group or teacher is the tradition they're drawing from - and you might want to drink from the original fount of wisdom yourself. On the other hand, if source teachings confuse you or seem like too much to take on, then your current group or teacher may be offering the right blend of wisdom for you at the present time.

3. Have you talked over your new spiritual interest with a trusted peer, family member, or counselor who's not involved with it? This is the precaution that many people who are drawn into dangerous cults have failed to take - or failed to take seriously enough. Having a screaming fight with one's parents before shipping off to join the Moonies is not the same as calmly and deliberately seeking the counsel of a trusted peer or counselor when one is on the verge of a serious spiritual commitment. If you've come from a Christian background and are about to become a Muslim, then your pastor may have some very serious questions and challenges for you to consider. You should look upon such challenges not as an attack or an affront, but as necessary steps along your new path. If one of those steps stops you dead in your tracks, so be it - you may have been mistaken in your new spiritual choice, or you may not be ready to make such a choice. Beware of a strong desire to defend a new path when you don't really know much about it yet; this means that you are actually defending your independence and your desire for a new way in life. You have to distinguish that independence, and that precious spiritual longing, from the path you are leaning toward. Many an ex-cultist has a sad story to tell about being forced to give up the very independence that brought them toward a new devotion.

4.Can you be reasonably certain that your new group or teacher isn't doing anything funny with the money they're collecting? If ever there were a litmus test for the legitimacy of spiritual groups and gurus, it's how they handle the green stuff. Initiates of spiritual groups are often ripe for swindling because they think - or they are told by the people in power - that it's "unspiritual" to ask or even think about money matters. In fact, the ability to handle money cleanly and clearly, and to be honest and forthcoming about finances, should be regarded as a necessary qualifying standard for any group before you get involved. If the group has nonprofit status, you should be able to request public financial statements; if the group is being run as a business, there should be a certified accountant or treasurer who can answer legitimate inquiries about how money is collected and disbursed.

Danger signals in this realm include:

These are all common-sense signals, but people who become afraid of showing disloyalty to their chosen path or teacher often sacrifice their common sense in the name of devotion.

Similar precautions should be observed with other forms of power that are wont to be corrupted in spiritual groups, especially sexual power. Historically, the devoted lieutenants of powerful gurus have come up with all kinds of creative excuses for their teacher's sexual escapades, so the rank-and-file follower needs to keep his or her BS detector in working order. Disillusionment can be painful, but it is far less painful than enduring or complicitly witnessing sexual or emotional abuse.

5. Does your new path, group, or teacher emphasize the innate equality of students and teachers? The byword of this guideline is "humility" - a quality that often suffers in teachers who gain a significant degree of power or influence. A good teacher should always be accessible, open to questioning, and eager to encourage the independent thinking of students or followers. Further, a good teacher should periodically remind students that they are also helping the teacher continue his or her learning, and that the energetic exchange between them is equal even if the insights and information of a teacher seem more learned or wise (as they should be). The very best kind of teacher will admit that the proof of his or her skill will be shown when the student surpasses the teacher. If, on the other hand, you are constantly reminded of the unapproachable holiness or perfection of your teacher, and told that you could never attain a similar level of spiritual development, watch out. You may have stepped onto a treadmill of religious slavery instead of a genuine spiritual path.

Ten Questions for Validating Spiritual Paths,
Groups, and Teachers: Part II

This edition presents five questions for validating a spiritual path, group, or teacher after you have at least five years experience with a chosen way.

1. Have you become more at peace within yourself and in your relationships since undertaking your spiritual discipline? This is where the rubber meets the road in determining the value of a spiritual path. Once you have "settled in" after five years or so of experience and steady discipline, you really should feel more inner peace - and a greater equanimity should be manifesting in your primary relationships as well. The same standard cannot be applied to the first few years spent on a serious path, when one's prior values and perspective on reality may well be in turmoil. But the spiritual disorientation that a novice feels should not go on forever. Inner peace arrives with a lessening tendency to blame oneself or others for life's inevitable difficulties, as well as a greater compassion for all beings, including oneself. A spiritual path may not quickly bring an end to one's psychological or relationship difficulties, but it should definitely make a positive difference. If inner conflict is unceasing and increasing after five years, or relationship problems are getting worse instead of better, then one's spiritual path is simply not working - or it's perhaps being used as an escape from one's problems instead of a route to self-confrontation.

2. Is the practice of your spiritual path becoming stronger even as your need to identify with it decreases? Religious zealotry is a sure sign of spiritual stagnation. When proclaiming one's religion becomes more important than being a living example of it, then that's a pretty good sign that spiritual growth has actually gone into reverse. It's entirely possible to use a spiritual path, belief, or organization as a means to glorify self-interest and resist the genuine process of self-transformation. As you progress on a spiritual path, your association with it should become more and more invisible, and your need to identify yourself as a Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, or any kind of "true believer" should likewise decrease. This doesn't mean that you have to be a spiritual loner and resist all social or group identification with your chosen way. It does mean that, over time, you will become more interested in serving the world - and serving God, however you define God - while feeling less need to be recognized for doing so. Your respect for other paths and beliefs will also increase as you come to understand how all authentic paths lead to the same destination.

3. Is your social and political conscience more insightful and effective, regardless of how your chosen forms of activism may have changed? One of the most common charges made against esoteric spiritual paths is that they cause people to withdraw from the concerns of the world outside their own consciousness, thus becoming ever more self-absorbed and apolitical. There is some truth to this charge if one is talking about spiritual neophytes, who often need to withdraw from prior social and political involvements as they enter the disorientation of an entirely new perspective on reality. But as one's spiritual life stabilizes after the first few years, there should be a "return to the world" with a greater integrity and effectiveness than before, even if one's activism has changed forms. For instance, if you were an anger-prone peace activist before your entry into a spiritual path, then you may later emerge from your spiritual initiation as a less angry person who no longer feels the need to "agitate" for peace. That means that your activism may consist of setting a peaceful example in all your daily affairs, rather than organizing demonstrations and leading protests as you did before. Someone who has watched you go through these changes might conclude that your spirituality has caused you to "withdraw" from politics, when in fact you are bringing more peace into the world, and causing less conflict, than you did before. Of course it is possible to be spiritually and politically activist in very visible ways. The point of spiritual practice is to bring about a greater integrity in your consciousness, so that your inner beliefs and outer activism are not at odds. Spiritual practice will also lend you much greater insight into the real sources of conflict, and help you to understand the intersection of your individual consciousness with the world consciousness. Without this insight and understanding, we really are doomed to repeat the typical and often violent errors of human history.

4. Do you periodically tap transcendent states of consciousness through the natural means of your own focused awareness? Virtually every major spiritual tradition was founded by a prophet or seer who experienced profoundly altered states of consciousness along the way to achieving great vision. Periodic contact with a transcendent consciousness is likewise important for every kind of seeker. While novices may enter altered states through drugs, the mature seeker should have developed a route to transcendence that depends entirely upon natural disciplines such as meditation, prayer, or fasting, among others. It's also important to understand that one can rarely live in an altered state for a lengthy time. The purpose of such experiences is to reinvigorate one's insight into mystic or divine realms, and thus gradually raise the level of inspiration experienced in daily life. Those who are obsessed with becoming permanently "enlightened" have usually not yet experienced any enlightening moments that would inform them of how to keep a balance of transcendent and ordinary consciousness in their lives. Ancient shamanic practices focus on such a process of "keeping a foot in both worlds" in a way that benefits both seekers and all their fellow beings. When we desire enlightenment too much, it becomes a commodity that must be pursued at all costs. Yet such a desperate search will never be fulfilled. We don't need to be enlightened all the time because even the briefest experience of divine transcendence introduces us to timelessness itself. Such experiences are profoundly healing, and they reduce our attachment to desires of every kind - including the desire to be more spiritual!

5. Is your spiritual practice becoming your "second nature" While we need not replace our ordinary, egocentric consciousness with selfless enlightenment on a permanent basis, it is important to be gradually and consistently raising our consciousness toward a more insightful and altruistic state. This constant consciousness-raising is achieved largely through consistent practice of whatever spiritual discipline we have chosen to follow. The point of practice is not to become a more accomplished practitioner, but to allow one's daily awareness to become increasingly infused with the benefits of spiritual practice. For example, the purpose of doing sitting meditation is not to achieve longer and longer periods of sitting that displace more and more of the time that would otherwise be spent on everyday activities. The point of sitting meditation is to have more clarity, insight, and equanimity seep into one's state of mind when not sitting. Likewise, the point of studying of great spiritual principles is not to increase the fervency of one's belief in those principles, but to gradually activate those principles in daily life. This is how spirituality increasingly becomes one's "second nature" - a reflexive way of responding to life's daily challenges that can gradually displace the seemingly automatic habits of fear, egotism, and hostility that often seem to comprise most of "human nature." When we are transforming human nature within ourselves, we are actually advancing the world's spiritual wisdom.

Copyright © 2000/2001 D. Patrick Miller.