When I was in college, 700 years ago, I decided to take a meditation class. I got instantly hooked on the form of meditation being taught and sought out the teacher of my teacher. That led me to study with a man who was teaching an Americanized form of Tantric Buddhism, which was quite a ride.
A few years later, after I had moved on, I heard of this teacher’s death by suicide. He had downed a bunch of tranquilizers with some alcohol and walked into the ocean.
To say this was shocking was an understatement. How could one with such spiritual ability and wisdom take his life like that? What hope was there for me when I was deep in depression? How could such a spiritual luminary fall so low?
An All-Too-Common Fall From Grace
History—even very recently—is littered with cases of gurus of all persuasions falling from grace.
In 2017, an arrest warrant was issued for Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the popular hot yoga studios. He is accused of sexual and financial impropriety. Combing news stories, there’s no shortage of yogis and spiritual teachers running afoul of the law. Sexual abuse of students seems common.
A trendy modern Tibetan Buddhist teacher essentially drank himself to death some years ago.
What’s going on here? Are these so-called enlightened individuals faking it? Maybe, in some cases. But I don’t believe we have the whole picture.
States vs. Stages
In his writings, philosopher Ken Wilbur talks about the difference between waking up and growing up. Waking up is about achieving states of consciousness and spiritual realization. States are temporary things. Think about being drunk, or elated, or entering into a meditative state. They usually do not last.
Some masters reportedly are able to maintain states for prolonged periods, even permanently. My thought, however, is that there are fluctuations in consciousness, even for the enlightened.
The spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, writes about reaching the enlightened state, but not being able to stay there, or even reach it again immediately. It’s a common frustration for spiritual seekers.
Stages, on the other hand, are much more permanent and relate to ethics. All humans and human cultures pass through the various stages.
The first stage is egocentrism. Think of the toddler. It’s all about meeting that individual’s needs. Think also of the sociopath, who manipulates others to get what he or she wants. There is little or no regard for the welfare of others at this stage.
People then pass through stages of ethnocentrism. The people of importance and deserving of human kindness being to my group. This group might be family, or a nationality, or race. Others are seen as not as worthy.
Next, we come for global-centrism. This is a stage where we see every person as equally deserving of compassion.
And finally, there is cosmo-centrism. This is where we see every living and sentient being as equals. We extend our compassion beyond our species.
Most people display some combination of these stages. Indeed, our current political leadership is stable on egocentrism and ethnocentrism. The anti-immigrant sentiments that have been popularized are prime examples. Tribalism, racism, nationalism – all synonyms for this.
Spiritual awakening does not equal moral growth.
As a species, we are generally attracted to charismatic people with spiritual secrets to share. We love a good guru. We can just hand our spiritual development over to a master.
There is no guarantee, however, that this woke bloke has also grown up. An ethically infantile yet powerful and charismatic leader is a dangerous thing indeed.
One of the reasons I believe sexual abuse is so rampant in spiritual circles is that celibacy is an unnatural state—mainly when those who are celibate are not taught methods of control. Praying away “impure thoughts” has never worked.
Many yogic practices, in particular, can arouse sexual desire. Merely increasing blood flow can do that. Tantric practices take advantage of that.
Swami Muktananda, the guru who popularized Siddha Yoga in the West, preached celibacy to his followers and claimed to be celibate himself. It’s reported that he was having sex with numerous woman and young girls in his ashrams. It was also said that he would deliver beatings to some devotees, and even to peasants caught stealing coconuts from his ashram.
If these reports are accurate, we apparently have an individual stuck in egocentric behavior. Does that make his teachings invalid? Not necessarily.
Again, there is a difference between awakening and maturing. It’s possible that awakening without growth is a dangerous thing. It’s like handing a live electrical wire to a toddler.
Compassion and empathy are essential components on your spiritual path. I also think that working on one’s shadow material is crucial.
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