We live in a busy spiritual marketplace, with a plethora of alternative teachers and gurus vying for our attention and loyalty. If we are a spiritual seeker, the amount of information and teachings — much of it contradictory — can be extremely confusing, especially if we are new to the spiritual path.
DO YOU HAVE a strong spiritual impulse or desire but are not sure how best satisfy it? Have you grown tired of conventional religion and wanting to try something a little more alternative? Do you find yourself confused by the diversity and often contradictory nature of the alternative spiritual teachers and teachings available? Rest assured that you are not alone!
Why should the alternative spiritual marketplace be so confusing, busy and diverse? For several reasons:
- There really are many paths to "God" or enlightenment, and this is reflected by the diversity of the spiritual teachers, religions, beliefs & practices available.
- We are in an age of spiritual awakening and so it is natural for a busy spiritual marketplace to spring up at a time of enormous demand, and at a time when, for many, conventional religion is not providing the solution.
- Modern communication systems, especially TV and the internet, are making us aware of many more spiritual possibilities than were ever available to our parents.
- Teachers from different cultures are much freer and more able to take their teachings to other parts of the world. Even the tragic invasion of Tibet by China had a positive impact on the spread of Tibetan Buddhism.
- There is lots of money to be made by peddling spiritual beliefs and practices. Setting yourself up as a guru, starting a new sect or even just writing a few books can be extremely lucrative, and this attracts a diversity of characters presenting themselves as spiritual teachers.
- Those that are insecure or undeveloped in their spiritual wisdom have a fundamentalist outlook, which means that they hold up their beliefs as absolute truth, with all contradictory beliefs, by definition, as false. From this intolerant and insecure position they are driven to emphasis the differences between their faith and another, rather than celebrating the similarities.
- Many on the path have ended up in what is called "spiritual materialism". This creates huge demand by seekers for ever newer and more unusual teachings and courses. Spirituality becomes confused with personal development, and this encourages those who teach personal development to start presenting themselves as spiritual teachers to meet this demand.
- The ego always wants to be special. Those who have not relaxed their ego during their spiritual development end up setting themselves up as special teachers. Or if they don't become a teacher, they are attracted to teachers who possess strong ego or specialness.
In such a busy spiritual marketplace, how do we choose which path and/or teacher is right for us? Ideally, the path we choose must fit with our personality, temperament and belief systems, but ultimately, for most people, it generally comes down to basic attraction psychology and/or simple serendipity. Many of us would be horrified to know the unconscious reasons that we may be following this or that teacher/teaching. (Often, it is to do with the charisma of the teacher and how the teachings stroke our ego.)
If we are to make a choice, therefore, we might as well make it as consciously as possible, and so it is essential that we know the "low down" on different teachers and groupss so that we can eliminate the false prophets and dead-ends. This would save a lot of time — some people get trapped in dead-end paths for years before they realize they are not going anywhere.
For us to make good spiritual choices, and to decide which teachers, practices and beliefs to follow, and which to not, we need a checklist for the ideal teacher, so that we are able to discern whether or not a particular teacher or group comes up to scratch.
Ideal New Age Spiritual Teacher
- Feels right for us on a deep level, as well as satisfying us intellectually. Fits our personality, temperament and belief systems.
- Is able to pass on ideal teachings. (This requires skill, many years experience, humility and wisdom.)
- Puts people before ideology: encourages loving-kindness and acceptance towards all other beings, irrespective of race, sex, culture, nationality, religion, politics or species.
- Holds all human beings to be of equal value: the teaching encourages nonhierarchical but respectful community.
- Respects us personally on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
- Encourages forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Motivated to teach out of the simple desire to help others, and not for money, power or "specialness". (There is nothing wrong making a living in the process — here we concern ourselves with primary motivation.)
- Is able to inspire by presence, actions, words of wisdom and humour. The teacher or group has to embody the teachings and act with integrity and honesty.
- Has genuine humility: teachers present themselves as our brothers or sisters who merely have a little more experience on the spiritual path.
- Takes us gradually and gently away from an ego-centric perspective towards collective caring. (However, still respects and understands the ego's important but non-central role in a healthy human being.)
- Always gives the student the freedom to stay or leave. Never coerces any student into anything — physically, mentally or emotionally.
- Never acts as an intercessory to the divine, but rather encourages students to build up their own direct and intimate relationship.
- Encourages collective behaviour for the benefit of society and the ecology of our precious planet.
- Holds no secret knowlege or techniques that serve only to mark those "in the know" as special.
- Does not encourage us to "become" something or someone other than who and what we already intrinsically are. In other words, the teaching is not a disguised form of personal development. (There is nothing wrong with personal development, it just is not spiritual development.)
By using checklists such as those above (make out your own if you don't like these ones) we can make more discerning choices as to which teachers and groups to follow, rather than leaving our decision-making processes to more unconscious mechanisms, which opens us up to making choices for reasons as shallow as attraction and charisma. (Note that these types of checklist also apply to conventional religious teachers and groups).
The world is full of false prophets who, no matter how loving or caring they ostensibly appear, will only too gladly fleece us of our money, our time and perhaps even our psychological stability. The world is replete with crazy belief systems that may tickle the intellect or even the heart, but will not carry us even a single step down the road of spiritual unfoldment. Even the Buddha encouraged his disciples to judge his teachings, to try them out, for otherwise, how could they know how effective they were?
We need to have discernment, and not be afraid to point out naked emperors. At the moment, however, the only source of criticism towards those who peddle alternative spiritual beliefs seems to either be from those completely outside the spiritual community — usually dogmatic scientists who have nothing better to do than to attack any belief system that contradicts their material worldview — or from religious fundamentalists who decry any spiritual belief that is different from their own. As a result, healthy debate on spiritual ideas and teachers is dangerously lacking.
But what about those of us who are genuinely open-minded and who just want to find the truth? Why should our discerning minds be so quickly dismissed as closed minds or shallow minds? Why is it that valid criticism hardly ever makes it into the "letters pages" of alternative and spiritual magazines? (The Editor has sent letters to several leading New Age and alternative magazines, giving an alternative and open-minded viewpoint to articles, but without anything being published.)
The truth is that there are actually very few genuinely open-minded individuals around. Most people have an axe to grind, even those who like to present themselves as open-minded and free thinking. This is because, at least in the area of spirituality, most of us are unsure of ourselves and therefore reluctant to entertain anything that might stir up doubt or anything that might prompt us to have to modify our ontological foundations. We are just not used to or comfortable living under a question mark, especially not in an area that is so central to who and what we are. And yet, spirituality, our relationship to All-That-Is, is ultimately unknowable: as soon as we think we know how reality works and our relationship to it, something changes… the water slips through our fingers.
We are not seeking to personally attack individuals or their beliefs — if so and so believes that pink space rhinos inhabit Mars, we respect that person's or group's right to state this, and even to teach it. But if that person or group tries to then justify this belief with false science, misquotes from holy books, out and out lies, or psychological manipulation, or if exaggerated claims are made for space rhinos and how they are essential to the process of enlightenment, or that space rhinos are the ONLY way to realization, or if false claims of spiritual authority are made by the teacher or the group to bolster up this theory, then we have a duty to highlight these shortcomings. Otherwise, the modern or New Age spiritual movement will just descend into farce and ignorance, as was so eloquently expressed in 1944 by W. H. Auden in his For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:
One doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences…
Reason will be replaced by Revelation… Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions — feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fever or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces….
Divine honours will be paid to shallow depressions in the earth, domestic pets, ruined windmills, or malignant tumours… The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids… The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy…
Those of us actually "in" New Age or alternative spirituality must be wise and courageous enough to question our peers. We must understand that just because a teacher or a group is "alternative" or challenges conventional religious perspectives does NOT automatically lend them credibility. Otherwise, all criticism is left to those outside our spiritual circles, and this leads to polarisation of debate — us against them — with the alternative spiritual community blindly building itself up on poor foundations… a hotchpotch of vague and contradictory teachers and beliefs that do little to help anyone along the spiritual path.