Essay #3: The Pursuit of Wisdom, the Spiritual Path, and Religion

My teenage years spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s, which means that two readily available paths presented themselves as soon as I felt the call to more seriously explore deeper meaning and purpose.  One was through so-called mind-expanding drugs, which I quickly discovered not to be the right path for me.  The other was by embarking on the spiritual path, and this one I pursued.  The late 1960s and the entire 1970s were the heyday of Eastern-oriented gurus who peddled enlightenment to Westerners.  Most of the names mentioned at the end of the last essay—certainly Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Bhaktivedanta, Yogi Bhajan, Swami Rama, Yogi Amrit Desai, Swami Satchidananada, Swami Muktananda, Chogyam Trunpa, Ram Dass, and Swami Kriyananda—were in the prime of their popularity during all or part of this time.

After investigating philosophy and then being drawn to spirituality by the early books of Carlos Castaneda, I eventually settled on an Eastern spiritual path.  For 24 years I meditated three to four hours every day, with longer weekly meditations, and practiced other techniques of spiritual development pretty much all of my waking hours.  For part of these 24 years I was a celibate monk, for two periods of time I lived in a spiritual community, and for some of these years I lived largely in solitude.  I devoted the most vigorous years of my life, with total dedication and self-discipline, to following a spiritual path that promised enlightenment.  I left this path after 24 years because I realized that whatever enlightenment is, I had not attained it.  I also began to understand that enlightenment may be a misleading goal and that prescribed guru paths toward attaining enlightenment may be detrimental in significant ways.

This brings us back to the last paragraph of the previous essay regarding scandalous behavior.  After many years of accusations from different sources, the main living teacher of my spiritual path was convicted of fraud and sexual harassment in the 1990s.  During the 1980s and 1990s, scandals also erupted for most of the other well-known Eastern-oriented spiritual teachers in America.  Two excellent resources depicting this scandalous behavior are Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment by Geoffrey D. Falk and The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions by Andrew Rawlinson.  A third book offers penetrating insight into why such scandals are almost certain to occur: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer.

It seems self-evident from the vantage point of not being in a guru group that when one person assumes power over obedient followers, the potential for unhealthy behavior becomes almost unlimited.  Subtle, perhaps unintentional, manipulation is guaranteed, and blatant abuse of power is likely, no matter how sweetly the guru smiles or how innocently blissful the guru appears.  Of course, none of the perhaps millions of seekers who embarked on a spiritual path in the 20th century thought that abuse of power would occur on the part of their own teacher because virtually all gurus give the appearance of supreme benevolence.  But with few exceptions the evidence provided in the above-mentioned books proves this to be a lie and shows that no matter how well intentioned a guru may start out, abusive dynamics are almost certain to develop.

Beyond the pitfalls of the guru-disciple arrangement itself, the very teachings of these spiritual paths may be detrimental in significant ways as well.  To understand this let’s look at the origin of virtually all of these teachings, the philosophy that was formulated in India by the 6th century BCE called Samkhya, along with its companion Yoga philosophy that emerged slightly later.

The philosophies of Samkhya and Yoga rest on the foundation that something is very wrong in our human lives, namely that our spiritual essence is somehow trapped in a material world that causes endless suffering.  It’s unclear why things should be this way, but the culprit to blame for our suffering is the ego.  Therefore, the pursuit of wisdom entails the arduous process of destroying or transcending our ego and its desires so that we can be freed from karma.  When this process is complete, we attain moksha, meaning freedom or liberation, and we are then released forever from the suffering of the material world and from future reincarnations.  (Moksha would later become the concept of enlightenment.)  Essentially, the spiritual path that was peddled in 20th century America had this bottom line: We are here to get out of here as quickly and efficiently as possible, and the adversary in this struggle is our very own ego.

When reduced to these stark terms, it becomes obvious that this is not a healthy bottom line.  First, the word ego is misleading because it means different things in different contexts, and precisely what it’s intended to mean is crucial to this bottom line.  In popular usage we might say something like, “My ego got in the way,” meaning that our sense of self-importance got the best of us.  This is not what Samkhya and Yoga philosophy meant by the word ego, and it’s also not what the 20th century gurus meant.  In more formal usage in the realms of philosophy, spirituality, and much of psychology, the word ego usually means our conscious mind, as opposed to the typically unconscious aspects of our mind.  Our conscious mind is what gives us self-identity and enables us to function in daily life as a separate being; it is our very self.  In fact, the word ego is Latin for “I.”  This is also not what Samkhya and Yoga philosophy meant by the word ego, but unfortunately it appears to be exactly what most of the 20th century gurus meant when they used the word ego.  According to these teachings, we must dissolve or transcend our ordinary “false” self (ego) in order to merge into a supposed higher Self.

However, in ancient Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, ego (ahamkara) referred to only one of four aspects of our conscious mind along with consciousness (manas), memories (chitta), and intellect (buddhi).  In this conceptualization, ego is a delusional state of mind that identifies only with the physical body and its instinctual desires.  The gurus who popularized these teachings in 20th century America almost never made this important distinction regarding ego, and without this distinction the notion that we in contemporary Western culture need to destroy or transcend our ego is actually asking our conscious self to destroy or transcend itself.  Aside from the fact that this is no more possible than “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” the suggestion that we are to do battle with our own self invites all manner of psychologically unhealthy tendencies.  Yes, pursuing wisdom definitely includes the inner work of redirecting energies away from selfish and harmful tendencies toward our highest potential—this is in fact the original intention of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy—but this inner work is done largely with our conscious mind, our ego itself.  And this inner work is made possible by befriending the totality of our consciousness instead of raising a battle ax to an imaginary foe called ego that in contemporary Western culture is almost impossible to distinguish from our conscious self itself.

Nor does the bottom line above—that life is endless suffering and we need to get out of here as quickly as possible—reflect an accurate experience of life for most of us in the modern era.  Perhaps in the first millennium BCE when Samkhya and Yoga were developed, life for the average person in India was so hard that an escape plan was needed.  Or perhaps as human society developed finer existential awareness, as indeed occurred in Ancient India, it was overwhelming to face the utter fragility of human existence.  And just maybe as India entered the Middle Ages and began the modern era, life was still hard enough or the existential angst still sharp enough for enough people to keep the essential teachings of Samkhya and Yoga alive and well.  Those teachings have now outlived their relevance.

Please realize that I am only critiquing the foundational philosophy of Samkhya and Yoga as presented by popular 20th century gurus, not the contemporary practice of yoga postures or the many life-affirming ideas that often accompany the current teaching of yoga, including principles of holistic health, positive mindedness, emotional balance, and spiritual well-being.  I am critiquing the spiritual path that tells us we must destroy or transcend our very own self and escape physical existence in order to become okay.

Certainly there will always be a few people who find life’s normal suffering too hard or who are too sensitively aware of existential angst, and therefore the spiritual path rooted in Samkhya and Yoga philosophies will probably always get a few takers.  But why would so many comfortable 20th century Americans have been attracted to this as the way to pursue wisdom?  Perhaps for three reasons: 1) The promise of no more suffering forever is pretty tempting even if we are only experiencing the normal human allotment, 2) This promise was couched in the seductive terms that enlightenment means attaining the Self-realization of oneness with God or achieving perfect bliss or merging into universal love, and 3) Those charismatic gurus and their exotic teachings were awfully charming.

The pursuit of wisdom in the 21st century has outgrown this outdated model, thanks partly to those like myself who learned the hard way that this approach is flawed.  Then should we all just join a safe religion of our choosing in order to pursue wisdom?  There’s no question that all religions, like all spiritual paths, offer valuable guidelines for living well; however, all religions also contain human error, misunderstanding, and outdated historical context.  For painful examples, consider the endless sectarian violence that still occurs in the name of religion, the thousands of women killed for being “witches” by the Christian Church in the Dark Ages, the contemporary terrorists in the name of Islam, or the intolerance from some contemporary fundamentalists in virtually all religions toward those with a different sexual orientation.

More importantly, each one of us is in some ways unique, and by necessity religion offers a one-size-fits-all approach in its teachings.  The rigid structure of religion does not often allow for application to the specific and unique needs of an individual, nor does it often allow for innovation to keep pace with contemporary realities of being human, and it almost never allows for individuals to do their own free thinking about the big questions of life.  Religion can be quite valuable as a way for us to nourish the human need for belonging and as a way to inspire us toward the pursuit of wisdom.  However, many of us will feel the need for something more to nourish our longing for deeper meaning and purpose beyond the ready-made answers of religion.

The following essays explore what a healthy pursuit of wisdom might look like in the 21st century.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill