Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


A Call to Mediocrity

by Susan Bridle

book review

What Is Enlightenment? editor Susan Bridle takes off the gloves and exposes the fallacy behind what she calls the new "plateau spirituality" most clearly defined by the two new spiritual bestsellers After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.
There is a creeping spiritual malaise that is befogging contemporary spiritual culture, a seemingly undetectable virus that is sweeping meditation halls and yoga studios, bookstores, and seminar centers, and beyond, to boardrooms, Hollywood film sets, PTA meetings, and advice columns. It is a pervasive spiritual tepidity that one could call "plateau spirituality." Or "cake-and-eat-it-too spirituality." Or "inclusive, postmodern, relativistic, stretch-the-definition-until-it-means-everything-and-nothing spirituality." It's the sensitive and multiple-perspective embracing insight that "I have my truth and you have your truth." That all meaning is personally conferred. That nothing is inherently more "spiritual" than anything else. That "following your bliss" (whatever that may be) defines as sound a spiritual path as any. But that any vision of the spiritual life that calls us to rise to the heights of human possibility, that aspires to the transcendent, is repressive, linear, hierarchical—and even, the very cause of the planet's every ailment.

Tricycle magazine editor and Zen practitioner Helen Tworkov speaks to this in her insightful analysis of the erosion of enlightenment in Western Zen Buddhism at the conclusion of her book Zen in America. She explains that "Enlightenment—oddly enough—has become all but a dirty word. . . . The quest for enlightenment has been derided of late as the romantic and mythic aspiration of antiquated patriarchal monasticism." She observes that the pursuit of the pinnacle of the spiritual quest "is now often regarded as an obstacle" by contemporary interpretations of the spiritual path that emphasize "everyday Zen" and "mindful attention in the midst of ordinary life."

Historically, Buddhism and other enlightenment traditions have held that a radical leap beyond the known, resulting in a profound and permanent transformation of the human being, is the single abiding goal that defines the spiritual path. But times have changed. In the translation of these traditions to the West, not only have our eyes lowered from the lofty goal of reaching the spiritual summit, but the goal itself has been radically redefined. Indeed, the spiritual quest—once a heroic journey in search of a rare prize—is now no longer truly a "quest" but a "process," a process that can most aptly be described as the universal application of the principle "I'm OK, you're OK." Now our mantras and koans do not inspire us to stretch beyond ourselves—for that would imply a dreaded "judgment" that we are not in fact already Buddhas and might actually have a little further to go. Instead, our modern mantras and koans are self-affirmations intended to calm and soothe, or a kind of fairy-dust we can sprinkle over our most mundane activities to transform them, in our own minds at least, into profound spiritual rituals.

The disease of plateau spirituality is being transmitted by carriers as diverse as health and wellness magazines and esteemed religious studies professors. And two of this year's most influential spiritual bestsellers, Stephen Cope's Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam Books) and Jack Kornfield's After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Bantam Books), distinctly communicate the virus, each in its own way. Lauded in the popular spiritual press as the most comprehensive and sophisticated presentations of the spiritual path to date, these two books are the most prominent new additions to the swelling ranks of East-meets-West spiritual roadmaps offered by cartographers committed to integrating traditional enlightenment teachings with the insights of contemporary psychology and the complexities of our busy modern lifestyles. Their hallmarks are a sensitivity to what they have deemed are the unique psychological needs of contemporary Western spiritual seekers and a debunking of what they assert are the dangerously naive spiritual ideals of antiquated Eastern enlightenment traditions.

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
is Jack Kornfield's eighth book, and is the clearest expression yet of his conclusions about the nature of enlightenment and the spiritual path. A synthesis of traditional teaching parables, myths, personal anecdotes, and excerpts from interviews he conducted with numerous longtime practitioners and spiritual guides, the book is his manifesto of a "mature" spirituality for our times. One of the fathers of American Buddhism, Kornfield cofounded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—the institutions most influential in introducing Theravada Buddhism and its practice of vipassana meditation to America. Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is Stephen Cope's first literary effort, born of his ten years in residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. He offers an intimate account of his long and winding personal journey—from psychotherapist battling his own depression and midlife crisis after the breakup of a love affair, to up-and-coming yoga scholar and spiritual teacher on the new age lecture circuit. The book is a sort of novelization of his autobiography, with composite characters and scenes created as platforms for his philosophical musings. Both Kornfield and Cope are practicing psychologists with private therapy practices, and both are convinced that the role of psychotherapy is paramount in the transplantation of Eastern spirituality to the West. Kornfield has been at the forefront of the movement to "marry Freud and the Buddha" for two decades. With this book Cope establishes himself as a champion for the marriage of Freud and Patanjali, the Hindu sage and father of the yogic path.

Kornfield's particular strain of the plateau malaise is his vision of "mature" spirituality—a spirituality disabused of unrealistic ideals and expectations. Indeed, it is the title of his book itself—After the Ecstasy, the Laundry—that most concisely conveys the essence of his message. He relentlessly asserts, over and over and over again, that although we may have glimpses of spiritual awakening, the main event of the spiritual path is entrenching ourselves for the long haul in the "laundry room of our sustained [spiritual] practice." And for Kornfield, "spiritual practice" can include just about anything. His personal preference, however, seems to be perpetual meditation upon and endurance of our shadows, limitations, angers, fears, anxieties, and "unmet needs." His advice to the spiritual seeker involves about one percent ecstasy and ninety-nine percent laundry. Section titles include: "Ideals Are Not Realities," "The Messengers of Suffering," "Crash and Burn," "The Gate of Sorrow," "Humility and the Dark Night," "Honoring the Fall," and, of course, "The Dirty Laundry." He insists that "we need to acknowledge both our gifts and our foibles, whoever we are," enjoining us to "combine sanctity and flawed humanity," to have "a more humble approach to our full human nature," to "allow our ideals to embrace our humanness"—and to generally give infinite breeding room for neurosis and negativity. In fact, Kornfield's "mature spirituality" is simply cynicism thinly disguised as humility—a "humility" that Kornfield himself wears writ large on his sleeve. With a style that is more confessional than inspirational, he litters the book with intimate accounts of his various foibles and limitations, presumably intended to uplift us through their honesty and conspicuous modesty. With this book, Kornfield advances himself as a passionate advocate for plateau spirituality's campaign to shun the heights—or even any slight rise in elevation. After making our way through the first third of the book, which explores variations on these themes, we come to a section entitled, "Beyond Satori." It begs the question: Did I miss something?

Stephen Cope's plateau spirituality is conveyed through his equally adamant suspicion of spiritual idealism. In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self he criticizes being "obsessed with the notion of transformation" and the "hyperbolic accounts" of the spiritual attainments of Indian saints and yogis. He challenges our "mistaken Western assumptions about 'enlightenment,' " explaining that "as we Westerners become more experienced with yoga and meditation, we will begin to become more realistic about their outcomes." He encourages, as well as exemplifies throughout his own narrative, vigilant skepticism, deconstructing and psychoanalyzing the delusion, projections, and wishful thinking in every step taken on the spiritual path by himself and those around him. Repeatedly reminding us that "the valleys are as low as the mountains are high," he cautions against the dangers of "intoxicating idealism." Cope's synthesis of psychology and yoga results in a worldview that is—to borrow a phrase from Philip Reiff's classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic—"implacably hostile to the transcendent." In one of the book's defining moments, Cope recounts a talk given by Jungian analyst Marion Woodman at a week-long conference on psychotherapy and yoga held at Kripalu: "As long as we try to transcend ourselves, reach for the sky, pull away from ground and into spirit, we are heroes carved in stone. We stand atop the pillar alone, blind to the pigeon's droppings. Don't try to transform yourself. Move into yourself. Move into your human unsuccess. Perfection rapes the soul."

In their new and improved maps of the spiritual path, Kornfield and Cope both devote a lot of attention to examining the repressive, life-denying aspects of patriarchal religions that they assert have enslaved our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls for millennia. Yet in all this insistence on the pitfalls of the path, they seem to lose sight of the path—and the goal—altogether. Or more accurately, they have so adapted the path to suit our bourgeois American preferences and comforts that it's hard to make out any outlines of the shape or direction of the spiritual path at all. As Helen Tworkov put it, "We want the dharma to accommodate itself to us—we don't want to accommodate ourselves to the dharma. That's the American way." And while Tworkov acknowledges that there is a long tradition in Buddhist literature to challenge students' missing of the mark by becoming attached to enlightenment experiences, she makes clear that this criticism, when it is expressed by masters who have come down from the metaphorical mountaintop, is categorically different from the disparagement of enlightenment by teachers or students who have never truly viewed reality from the mountaintop: "When a great Zen master knocks enlightenment, it is one thing; but the denigration voiced by many Americans has been too often accompanied by an unacknowledged lack of aspiration, an appeal for approval from the dominant Christian culture, an attachment to personal comfort, and an indulgent lifestyle." "The middle way [has become] solidly middle class."

Cope's case for forsaking the mountaintop is rendered with full pathos and poignancy in his final chapter, "The Triumph of the Real." In fact, in his closing argument he proclaims that mature spirituality, real spirituality, is the product of disillusionment. During a meditation retreat throughout which he was besieged by doubt, depression, frustration, and restlessness, he was haunted by a voice that said, "Give up. Just give up." He left the retreat and reflected on his many years on the spiritual path. "As I left the meditation hall that evening, I felt disillusioned, sad, and a little angry. But mostly, I felt tired. I felt a great wave of skepticism about the entire project of spiritual practice. . . . Why does it have to be such a big deal, taking up so much room in my life?
I realized that I was tired of spending all my vacations on retreats, meditating, doing yoga, eating 'clean.' I wanted to have more fun. . . . When all is said and done, most of the stages of spiritual practice are stages of grief work. We have to let go of our deeply cherished dreams and illusions. And there's no way we're going to let them go until we have pretty much worn ourselves out." Cope proceeds to deconstruct the entire spiritual quest: "Instead of our addiction to sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll, we're addicted to the light. Addicted to the dark side, addicted to the light—what's the difference?" At the end of his decade-long quest, Cope concludes that there is "no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow."

According to Kornfield and Cope, if we find ourselves on a plateau, in vast stretches of plains, or even in below-sea-level parched desert climes, we should accept ourselves as we are, make the best of it, settle back and enjoy the view. The mountain is probably a myth anyway. This is Cope's "being real," Kornfield's "more humble approach." But what really is this "humility" that is such a central tenet of plateau spirituality? This being "real" about being "only human"? On the one hand, Kornfield's and Cope's philosophies of modest aspiration present a valid critique of much of what is rigid and repressive about traditional religious belief systems and can provide a welcome relief from the habitually ingrained "shoulds" of our Sunday-school youth. They offer a kinder, gentler spirituality. But on the other, they leave ample room for complacency, delusion, compromise, and cynicism in a world where most of us, given a chance, will too willingly be complacent, deluded, compromised, and cynical. In Andrew Harvey's A Journey in Ladakh, Thuksey Rinpoche casts a penetrating light on the motives so often beneath the guise of humbly accepting our limitations as being "only human": "As long as there is samsara, there will be an evasion of the inner perfection that is man's essence. This is perhaps the saddest of all the tragedies of samsara, and the most painful. . . . Often when men say they are helpless, trapped, imperfect, they are really saying, 'I do not want to endure my own perfection, I do not want to bear my own reality.' Imperfection is more comforting, more human than perfection. Many men want to believe that man is imperfect because it makes it easier to live with their own imperfection, more forgiving towards themselves. And who can blame them? . . . To discover an inner power that is completely good and gentle is frightening; it robs us of every comfort, every safety in resignation or irony. Who can live naked to his own perfection? And yet who, once seeing and acknowledging his own perfection, could bear not to try to realize it in living? To see it is hard; to realize it within life is the hardest thing."


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew