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Why Authentic Spirituality Must Transform our Humanity

by | Apr 22, 2014 | 0 comments

(Adapted from a talk given at the 2009 Integral Theory in Action Conference)

I need to confess that, although this is a scholarly gathering, I’m more of a mystic than a scholar, and as a result my primary interest is in helping people transform at the deepest level of their being. So the thoughts I’ll be presenting here today are not based on a nuanced scholarly dissection of some aspect of Integral Theory, but on a mystic’s reading of the theory and my broad impressions of how certain elements of it are shaping the transformational culture of the integral community. So, if I get some nuances wrong, I’ll leave plenty of time at the end for the scholars among you to correct me.

To begin my reflection, I’d like to ask you to think about a spiritual figure whom you revere and look to for inspiration; perhaps a saint of the distant past, like Jesus or the Buddha or Saint Theresa or Rumi; perhaps a sage of recent history, like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Anandamayi Ma or Suzuki Roshi; or even a saint or sage of the present, like Amma or the Dalai Lama or Thomas Keating.

What is it about this figure that you most admire? What is it that causes you to look to them as a source of spiritual inspiration?

Is it how you imagine their interiors to be? In other words, do you imagine that they feel very spiritual and peaceful and blissful and expanded on the inside, and that’s what makes you look up to them? Is the source of your respect and admiration based on your belief that they have access to glorious inner states of consciousness?

Or is it something about who they are? About how they show up in the world? About the wisdom and generosity conveyed in their actions? About the strength and singularity of their character? Their unwavering stand for the holiness they’ve discovered. About the divinity that seems to infuse their personality and shine through in their every expression?

I’m guessing that unless you are even more of an altered state junkie than I used to be, your answer is somewhere in the domain of the latter. I think it’s safe to say that when we conclude that someone is a sage or saint or even a deeply spiritual person, what most of us mean by that is that their humanity has undergone a transformation, that on some fundamental level, their values have changed, their identity or sense of self has shifted in a way that deeply alters who they are and the way they behave.

I don’t think there is anything groundbreaking about the point I’m making here. I think this is what we might call spiritual common sense. It rings with our most basic spiritual intuitions and sensibilities.

But, in the contemporary spiritual marketplace—including the world of Integral Theory and Practice—there is actually a lot of confusion on this point. In the contemporary spiritual arena at large, we find prominent spiritual figures suggesting that enlightenment has nothing to do with behavior, that it is a purely inner realization that does not affect the personality at all. Or that if it does affect our behavior, it would simply make us a bit calmer and more equanimous (perhaps like a time-released lifelong dose of Prozac). But that it certainly has nothing to do with morality. And these are just a few examples of the many popular spiritual ideas that run counter to what I’m calling spiritual common sense.

For the purposes of my talk here, though, I’ll leave aside these broader currents of confusion, and focus on those that specifically arise from Integral Theory.

As I’m sure you all know well, one of the core tenets of Integral Theory is the notion of Lines of Development. The basic idea is that human evolution or development is not one thing. You can’t ask: what stage of development is Craig at and hope to get a general answer that means anything, because we are each more developed in some areas than others. I might be a great abstract thinker but have poorly developed social skills. Or I might be a world-class athlete who can’t even read or write.

Like most of the basic tenets of Integral Theory, this also has a ring of common sense to it. In fact, at first glance, it actually seems so obvious and undeniable that one might even wonder how it made it into one of the world’s leading-edge theoretical models at all. Is it really saying anything other than what our grandmothers all knew—that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, everyone has a pound of virtue, etc? It is even in synch with many of our basic cultural stereotypes—like the dumb jock, or the genius professor who can’t tie his tie, or the hyperintellectual male who is completely cut off from his feelings. We all take for granted skewed development, which is why, when we meet someone who seems to be good at everything, it’s always a bit awe-inspiring—or irritating.

Given that it is nothing new or particularly insightful, there must be something about this theory that has garnered it so much attention—even compelled integral theorists to catalogue several dozen distinct lines of development.

So, why is this seemingly obvious notion of Lines of Development such a compelling and integral part of Integral Theory?

I think what has given this theory so much traction is that it seems to make sense of one of the more troubling aspects of our experience in relation to the whole question of higher human development.

To illustrate, I want to take a poll: How many of us have felt the sting and confusion of learning that a great musician or artist whose music or art seems to convey something almost transcendent was abusive in their personal relationships or a desperate junkie?

And, more to the point of this talk, how many of us have been deeply confused, angry, or even disillusioned to discover that a great, seemingly enlightened spiritual Master we looked up to was either abusive, financially corrupt, or a sexual deviant who lied openly to cover up the fact that they were sleeping with a harem of attractive disciples behind their wife’s back (or while proclaiming to be celibate—take your pick)? (And by the way, that statement was not a dig at anybody specific—it’s a story that’s been told so many times, we could come up with dozens of examples).

You see, what I think has made the Lines of Development theory so compelling to us sophisticated spiritually seeking postmoderns is that it seems to answer a question that has plagued us at the core of our being, and threatened to undermine our faith in the possibility of genuine higher development. That question, as my beloved friend Ken Wilber likes to put it, is “why are most spiritual teachers such assholes?”

Indeed, much of the spiritual metanarrative of the past forty years of Western spirituality reads like a tragic soap opera. We’ve watched as one after another of our most promising spiritual teachers publicly fell from grace, committing serious moral transgressions, collapsing into corruption and scandal. And this has been an extremely challenging reality for millions of contemporary spiritual seekers. Many have been wondering whether enlightenment is really all it’s cracked up to be. Or if authentic spiritual attainment is even possible. To compound the problem, many half-baked spiritual teachers have capitalized on this doubt, making light of their “human imperfections” as a demonstration of their humility and “spiritual maturity.” And in so doing, they have only continued to erode our sense of what is actually possible.

So, into this sea of confusion walks this notion of Lines of Development—a clean, simple, commonsense theory that seems to elegantly explain the whole problem. It tells us that the reason that these great Masters acted inappropriately was not due to any deficit in their spiritual attainment. They were still Great Masters. They were just undeveloped in some other Lines. For instance, if a Great spiritual master acts in ways that are abusive, we should see this not as a spiritual deficit but as a deficit in their moral line of development, or their interpersonal line of development, or perhaps in their emotional line of development. If a spiritual teacher can’t seem to keep their pants on, this is probably due to some lack of psychosexual development and is not necessarily indicative of any limitation in their spiritual attainment.

At first blush, this seems like the day has been saved, right? We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater after all. The possibility of Great Enlightenment still exists. We just have to understand that it is one line among many. We can still believe in and aspire toward higher spiritual development. We just have to realize that no matter how spiritually evolved we become, it’s not necessarily going to make us a better human being.

Now, I need to be honest. For all of its elegance and simplicity, this theory never quite worked for me. And not just because it lets all the gurus off the hook. Pardon my brief aside, but I mean, what a relief, right? We no longer have to strive to appear superhuman in order to meet our disciples’ expectations. And, more importantly, we don’t have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct. Aaaahhh. If we get caught with our pants down or our hand in the cookie jar, we can simply acknowledge our lack of development in some of the non-spiritual lines—like morality—and we’re out of hot water! And you know what that means, guys: more of those fringe benefits!

But seriously, spiritual teachers aside, the deeper reason why this Lines of Development theory never worked for me in the spiritual domain is this: If all of our spiritual practice and striving isn’t going to make us a more conscious, sensitive, decent, caring, wise, respectful, and moral human being whose behavior in the world shines as a beacon of enlightened consciousness—then A) what good is it? And B) if our definition of spirituality doesn’t include any of those things, what exactly do we mean by spirituality at this point anyway? If we’re going to separate out all of these other lines, it seems that the only thing that’s really left is our ability to access altered states of consciousness. And, for me, that is a definition too small for the domain it attempts to define.

To explain why, I want to bring us all back to where I started my talk. To that spiritual luminary—dead or living—whom you revere and look to for inspiration. What is it about them that inspires your admiration and respect? Is it their ability to access higher states? Or is it something else? And if something else, what is that something else?

If I were to put a word on it, I might call it “enlightened humanity.” I think that if we step outside of all the talk about different developmental lines, we can acknowledge that there is something called our humanity which has to do with the depth of our interiors, our moral sense, our character, our values, our wisdom, our decency, our compassion, our willingness to risk for a greater good. And I think we all have a basic commonsense intuition that spirituality is about the enlightenment and transformation of our humanity on a fundamental level. What makes a truly spiritual person so extraordinary and unusual is that all of the best human qualities and virtues seem to naturally shine forth from that person, while all of the worst human qualities and vices seem to have subsided. And the more enlightened a person is, the more this should be the case. And I think that deep down we all know this, even if our theories have managed to confuse us on the surface.

You see, I think this notion of Lines of Development as applied to spirituality is a great example of an elegant theory talking us out of our common sense. I think the reason it has been so successful at doing so lies in a series of fundamental confusions in contemporary spirituality. And while there is not time here to discuss them all, there is one that’s important to address, as it’s one which some Integral Theorists have helped to propagate.

It is a confusion about what nonduality—and nondual realization—really means. The vast majority of contemporary “nondual” teachings and teachers—including some influential Integral theorists—have propagated the idea that nondual realization is when you discover that only the Absolute or Unmanifest is ultimately Real, and the entire manifest domain is either unreal, an illusion, a cosmic joke or divine play with no ultimate significance. We’ve all by now heard the notion that satori is the realization that everything leading up to satori—including any notion of evolution—is meaningless. And that, after enlightenment, we might still play in the world, but we wouldn’t take it seriously.

So, with this as our idea about where our path is taking us, it’s easy to understand how someone with a high or even ultimate level of spiritual development might not be very highly developed in their humanity. Because that version of enlightenment really has nothing to do with the “relative” world of time, space, and action. So, in this view of ultimate spiritual attainment, the notion that spirituality is a single line divorced from all of the others I’ve been speaking about makes perfect sense.

There’s only one problem. That is not what nonduality really means. That is not what enlightenment really is.

Remember, the ultimate statement of nonduality is that form and emptiness, nirvana and samsara are one. Which means it is all REAL.

This is why the authentic realization of enlightenment is simultaneously blissful and painful. Because one sees, in a way one has never seen before, that the unmanifest ground of everything is a limitless perfection, but that the manifest world is a bloody mess. And they’re both equally real.

And in the face of this beautiful and terrible reality, there is a further recognition—IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. So much of the mess of the human condition lies in a fundamental ignorance of the way things are. So much of the horror show of the world is an outgrowth of our collective, unevolved consciousness. And it can all change.

Which is why, when someone truly realizes this, they usually become a fanatic. They have only one choice left. To give their every breath to awakening and evolving the world.

Now, it’s possible to experience all kinds of higher states and insights and not get to this genuinely nondual realization. Which is why most spiritual teachers and teachings are as confusing as they are helpful. Because, frankly, it is very rare that someone touches, let alone surrenders to this ultimate realization. Most spiritual teachers truthfully haven’t gotten anywhere near it. So, generally we get a cocktail of dharma mixed in with a bunch of erroneous conclusions. Like enlightenment is simply about being here now, or loving what is, realizing there is nowhere to go, nothing to become, nothing that needs to change. And various other half-truths that are absolutely deadening to the spiritual impulse.

Now, to summarize where we are at this point, I’ve said that saying that spiritual development is a separate line that excludes moral, social, emotional, and psychological development is problematic because it reduces spirituality to the ability to access altered states. I’ve also said that this way of defining spirituality flies in the face of our basic commonsense intuition that spirituality is about the enlightenment and transformation of our humanity. And then I said that the reason so many of us have been so easily talked out of our common sense lies in a bundle of confusing ideas being taught in the contemporary spiritual scene, and specifically the notion that nondual realization means we see the world as unreal or at best a cosmic joke.

By my count, there are two more questions I need to answer to bring this home.

1) If spirituality is not just a single line of development, then what is it?

2) If this Lines of Development theory does not explain the moral and social transgressions of so many Great Gurus, then what does account for it?

In answer to the first of these, there are many ways to speak about what spiritual awakening is, but one very good way that I think will shed some light here is to see it as the discovery of the Dharma. When one truly wakes up, one begins to see with the Dharma eye, or the eye of wisdom. Now, the word dharma is thrown around a lot these days, but if we look back at its roots, we find three meanings that tend to be associated with it. Dharma as Truth. Dharma as Law. And Dharma as Path. Simply put, one sees the Truth, which reveals the Law which guides the Path. And, when things are working properly, this is a discovery that engages every aspect of one’s humanity. One sees, suddenly with unimaginable subtlety, the delicate web of interrelatedness that binds us together. One sees the significance of every move we make, and how it impacts the whole through a complex chain of causation. One awakens to the Law of karma, the law of right action which reveals an inherent ordering principle in the Kosmos, and a Kosmic command to align with that order. In the theistic traditions, this Law was referred to as the Will of God, as in, “Not my will, but Thy Will be done.” Finally, one discovers the Path, the actions one must take to stay aligned with the Law, revealing themselves anew through clear seeing in every moment. And, in the face of this knowledge, one experiences the awakening of what Andrew Cohen calls the “Spiritual Conscience,” or what the Sufis called, simply, “the Heart.” That faculty within the awakening psyche which compels us to act in accord with the Law, and which feels a kind of Kosmic pain when we violate it.

What is the impact on an individual who realizes this kind of depth? It’s earth-shattering. The result is a complete revolution at the very core of one’s being, which then radiates outward, bringing about an integral transformation of every aspect of one’s humanity.

On a values level, it brings about a radical reorientation in one’s priorities, worldview and values. We begin to care about the evolution of the whole, and the evolution of consciousness itself more than we care about anything personal. We become a Kosmoscentric or even Godcentric individual.

On a moral level, it brings one into profound alignment with the moral order of the Kosmos, compelling one to always sacrifice self-interest for the good of the whole.

On an interpersonal level, it leads to a profound attunement to the evolutionary needs of others, and an unbearable sensitivity to the impact our actions have on others. Freed from the confines of self-concern, we find ourselves able to see deeply into others souls and respond to them with a precision, warmth and kindness unimaginable within ordinary egoic relationship.

On a cognitive level, it liberates our mind from rigidity and opens us to ever higher levels of spiritual cognition in which authentic intuition and reason are clarified and united in a higher embrace.

On an emotional level, it awakens a depth of feeling that would have been too much for us to bear in our previous ego-identified state. We become choicelessly present to our own emotional life, and that emotional life expands to begin to literally feel for the evolving whole. When we see ourselves or someone else acting selfishly and out of alignment with the Law, it causes us emotional pain, and that pain deepens our evolutionary response to life.

In essence, what I’m asserting is that spiritual attainment is integral at the deepest level of the psyche. It integrates our whole being from the top-down. Enlightenment really is all it’s cracked up to be. It is just exceedingly rare.

Which leaves me with the final question: If authentic spiritual attainment really does make us a better person, why, then, have so many spiritual teachers been less than exemplary human beings?

If you’ve followed me so far, you can probably guess my answer: Most spiritual teachers today have not attained the depth of realization I’m speaking about here. They may have had profound experiences. They may even have attained a kind of ongoing yogic access to expanded states of consciousness. They may even be able to transmit those higher states to others. But that does not mean they have surrendered their will before the throne of the Ultimate. It does not make them truly God-realized human beings.

Why are we in this predicament? Why, after all these years of Western seeking and practice, don’t we have more to show for it?

That’s another big subject, and more than I can do justice to here. But in broad strokes, here is my take.

Truthfully, I think it’s quite simple. I think that pre-modern spiritual practices and traditions are not sufficient to address the complexity of the postmodern world or the postmodern psyche. Those of us postmoderns who are engaging in spiritual practice today are at a completely different developmental level than any of the great traditions knew anything about. We have a kind of complex, layered interiority and individuation that never existed before. Our complex interiors are deeply related to and engaged with the interiors of others in ways that the great sages of yore never could have imagined. The great wisdom traditions are indeed great. And their highest wisdom is universal and timeless. But they really don’t sufficiently address us.

In recent years, many have recognized the limitations of pre-modern spirituality, and have offered various hybrids of Western psychotherapy and traditional contemplative practice. But from my observation, this has mostly just contributed to making the context for spiritual practice smaller, by anchoring it to the healing, recovery, and fulfillment of the traumatized personal self. Out of this marriage, there have also been a variety of what we might call postmodern spiritual practices born, but again, they all seem to be focused on healing and fulfilling the self, and have little or nothing to do with anchoring us into a context infinitely greater than ourselves. Spirituality has always been about bringing us into alignment with and submission to an Absolute principle, in the face of which our personal wounds, fears, and desires are revealed to be irrelevant. In the absence of this ultimate context, we have to ask: are we really practicing spirituality at all?

What I think will usher in a new era of authentic spiritual enlightenment—and, in my opinion, the only thing that will do it—is the emergence of new post-postmodern spiritual forms that are fundamentally Godcentric and Kosmoscentric. These new spiritual Teachings will address the complex relational sensitivity and individuation of the postmodern psyche, but from an authentically enlightened Dharmic context. This means that they will be derived from the Dharma itself—from a clear seeing of the Way with a capital “w”, and from there an engagement with the complexities of the postmodern psyche. New transformative practices will be born that harness our newfound interiority in the dismantling of its own egoic structures. And the path will become increasingly collective, in the recognition that consciousness is relational, and that a profound engagement with the evolution of our collective interiors is needed to support authentic development of our individual interiors.

There are a few such Teachings already emerging. I was part of one such experiment for nearly a decade and a half and the results were extraordinary. And now, with the launch of Integral Enlightenment.com, we’re putting forward another approach to this great adventure of pioneering a new, authentic, evolutionary spiritual path. We invite you to join us.


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