Notes From The Spiritual Underground
Undercover within my own spiritual community
I’m undercover within my own spiritual community. For the past few months I’ve been participating in a series of training sessions sponsored by my spiritual group, the purpose of which is to prepare members who have reached a certain level of experience for leadership positions. I’ve been a member of this group decades, yet have been largely estranged from it and inactive for years. Still, I’m a card-carrying member and qualified to participate in these sessions, and I’ve taken advantage of that despite the fact that I feel I don’t fit in.
The organization that I once knew was a vibrant spiritual path
The organization that I once knew was a vibrant spiritual path. We thought of ourselves as members of a spiritual vanguard, an elite group of souls brought together by a higher power to blaze a trail for spiritual seekers everywhere. Our path was the universal path, the golden thread that ran through all religions from the dawn of civilization to the present day. Roughly twenty years after I joined, the organization began to change. It was reconfigured as a hierarchical religion, and the energy and vitality that it once possessed began to wane. The best and brightest members—the independent-minded, the critical thinkers—all left, leaving only those whose loyalty stemmed from habit, blind faith, adherence to rules and structures, hero worship, or obedience to authority.
My rationale for going undercover
“Why,” you may ask, “would I remain a member of a group that I feel is moribund? Why would I sign up for a series of leadership training sessions when I have no intention of taking a leadership role in the group at all?” I admit that my motives are murky. Nostalgia for the past, isolation, and hope for future reform all played a part. But the main reason was simply that I couldn’t resist the lure of assuming the role of spiritual detective. I wanted to make sense out of the phenomenon of spiritual growth, corruption, and decay that I had witnessed over the years in which I had participated in the group and later observed it from a distance. To do that, I had to get up close to it again.
The most disturbing thing I’ve seen
As I’ve attended these sessions, the most disturbing thing I’ve seen is that while the sessions are supposed to train members for leadership, in fact they do the opposite—they train them to be followers, to conform utterly, to adopt the ideology and culture of this little cult (for that is what it has become), and to in no way question anything that comes down to them from on high. Moreover, I’ve noticed that there is a disturbing parallel to what has happened within this spiritual group and the anti-democratic trends that are affecting the political structures in our society as a whole.
The problem of nomenclature or semantics
The process of corruption starts from the very beginning, when we give names to things. A name becomes a brand and a brand becomes an identity. For instance, the Islamic credo is “There is no god but Allah,” yet Allah means God. So does this mean that there is no god but God, which would simply be a reiteration of the basic principle of monotheism? Or does it mean that there is no God but Allah, which would imply that a God by any other name is not the true God? This is the basic problem of all religions, in which the universal becomes particularized. This, in turn leads to sectarianism, which leads to conflict. This happened in our group, as well. The name of the group was originally meant to represent something universal, but gradually it lost this meaning as the culture of the group became more and more inward-looking.
The notion of the spiritual path as an individual path
The whole notion of the spiritual path as an individual path is one of the biggest traps of nomenclature and semantics. People in the spiritual group to which I belong are fond of saying that it’s an individual path, but what do they really mean by this? In most cases, what they mean is that everyone has their own way, their own style, or their own method of doing things or of relating to Spirit. It’s like saying, “Well, everyone’s different,” thus displaying a degree of tolerance for difference within the group. In reality, however, there is very little tolerance for difference because everyone is taught the same language, the same terminology, the same style of communication. Tolerance is, in fact, hardly ever tested, because the conformity within the group is self-regulating.
The pathless path
For me, the notion of the spiritual path as an individual path is quite different. I take it to mean that the true path is independent of any organization, any creed, or any philosophy. Krishnamurti spoke of this as the “pathless path.” No organization can contain the reality of the true path. A particular individual or group may serve as a primary conduit for it for a while, but eventually it will pass on to another individual and another group. Organizations are inherently corruptible. They all will calcify or atrophy eventually. Spiritual groups are like schools. They give us instruction up to a certain point, but eventually each of us has to graduate from school, to go out into the world and to practice our own spirituality, and that means walking that path alone, finding our own credo to live by, forging our own identity, and creating our own rules to live by.
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