Say It Ain't So, Ken
I rarely find myself in disagreement with Ken Wilber, but his essay in the Fall/Winter 2000 issue ["Integral Transformative Practice: In This World or Out of It?"] contains a passage that does not rise to his usual high standards of clarity and penetrating insight.
He states, ". . . when you awaken to the absolute truth, that does nothing much to help the relative vehicle." I understand Wilber's intent in making a strong distinction between integrative technologies that develop aspects of the individual self and those which aim at direct experience of the nondual Self. I have known hundreds of serious seekers, myself included, who mistakenly believed that transcendence would not only bring about enlightenment, but also a radical transformation of the mind, body, and emotions, the better to carry us through life in the so-called real world. For the most part, it turned out to be wishful thinking. But Wilber's statement, and the subsequent declaration that "One Taste simply bypasses all of those relative vehicles and leaves them much as it finds them," seems too extreme, too dismissive, too (no pun intended) absolute.
The sacred literature seems clearly to indicate that transcendence can indeed "help the relative vehicles," and that it does not, in fact, simply leave them "much as it finds them." Have we not all read of luminaries who not only achieved the heights of spiritual attainment but also, as a direct result, underwent major personality shifts, living their subsequent lives in a radically different manner? And on our own minor-league level, haven't many of us found that even fleeting glimpses of absolute, nondual Truth have altered the way we think, feel, and act in the world—perhaps not the total overhaul of the "relative vehicle" we hoped for, but surely some repair, adjustment, or upgrade?
Wilber writes, "You can perfectly awaken to radical Spirit and pure Self, but that will not allow you to perform graceful athletics with your body." True enough. But that's such an extreme example as to be virtually meaningless. It seems reasonable, and consistent with experience, to expect that some measure of physical grace would result from bliss-producing Grace. Better health for one thing. Everything we've learned about mind-body medicine implies that breakthroughs in awareness can have physiological consequences.
And Wilber says that neither will awakening to the Self "allow you to understand quantum mechanics with your mind." No, but to the extent that even a glimmer of realization quiets the mind and enhances the ability to concentrate and think clearly, it just might make it easier to grasp the complexities of existence—and certainly we can imply from the literature and our own experience that it can open the door to greater intuitive insight as we make our way through the relative realm.
And no, realization will certainly not "turn your personality from a nerd into a sophisticate" or "get you a new job." But, it no doubt has a salutary effect on desirable qualities such as compassion, empathy, and the ability to love and a reductive effect on negative traits such as fear, worry, regret, and anger. Of course, we all know long-term spiritual practitioners—and even purportedly enlightened masters—who can't be trusted, whose egos are gargantuan, whose personalities are so off-putting as to ruin any dinner party, and who might even do harm to others. But what about those who had their hearts opened by awakenings large and small? Did the saints and bodhisattvas
leave such powerful marks on the earth solely as a result of their particular version of psychological training and behavior modification? Or was it also the result of a transformation that flowed directly from realization of the Ultimate?
It seems one-sided and incomplete to say that integral transformative practices can "polish the relative vehicle, lighten its density, make it more transparent to the Divine" and not also acknowledge some degree of reciprocity. Surely, the membrane is permeable from both sides. Surely, direct experience of the Divine can, in turn, contribute to the growth and development of the relative vehicle. It may not do so to the extent promulgated by various teachings, but that it can and does at all should be acknowledged, not blithely dismissed. At the very least it should be considered an open question, one worthy of serious debate and objective research.
I have the feeling that Wilber would agree with me. His use of qualifying terms such as "does nothing much to help the relative vehicle" and "leaves them much as it finds them" indicates something less than an absolutist stance. But I fear that his statements might be construed in unequivocal terms, i.e., that working on the mind, body, and emotions can grease the wheels of transcendence, but transcendence does nothing whatsoever for the mind, body, and emotions. I somehow doubt that Wilber would go that far, but his choice of words leaves the impression that the relative value of absolute awareness is negligible or inconsequential, maybe even nil. Say it ain't so, Ken.
Los Angeles, California
The Mall or The Cloister
The general tone of your last issue "What Does It Mean to Be in the World But Not of It?" was that the paths of the householder and the renunciate are mutually exclusive. Allow me to make a few points.
The only place where one becomes enlightened is Here and Now. The circumstances of one's enlightenment are irrelevant; the important thing is being
in those circumstances. This is also the key to happiness—being where one is. Unhappiness is wishing one were somewhere else.
Some of your interviewees seemed to suggest that the renunciate path is essential to enlightenment and that the distractions of the world prevent it from occurring. Everywhere is "here and now" whether in the mall or the cloister. Renunciates for ages have done a successful PR job for their way, have belittled other paths, and have tended to ignore those who have been both married and enlightened such as Marpa the Translator and Lahiri Mahasaya. Veda Vyasa fathered children, and many ancient sages were married with children. Marriage is founded on religious vows, not of "Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience" but of Responsibility for maintaining the context in which the search for enlightenment may flourish. Marriage is entirely about the service of others and honoring God fully in his/her creation—we fully accept the gifts that God gives us and employ them in his/her service through his/her creation.
It is not the world that is the obstacle to enlightenment, but our relationship with it. In many cases the celibate is attached to sex as firmly as the philanderer, the ascetic to sensuality as greatly as the glutton. Responsible enjoyment of God-given pleasures is as likely to bring one to God as rejecting them and thus rejecting God who is manifest in all his/her creation. There is no reason why a householder cannot be as nonattached as a renunciate, and the renunciate with worldly/administrative duties is subject to the same distractions as anyone else in the world, the celebrated Spiritual Teacher even more so. The point is to enjoy without attachment, but I suspect that it is more enjoyable to be attached to pleasure than to be attached to nonattachment.
With your Fall/Winter 2000 issue "What Does It Mean to Be in the World But Not of It?" you have once again outdone yourselves. One of the chief attributes of WIE
is your showcasing of interviews with leading figures, both here in the US and abroad, from the entire spiritual movement. This issue was no disappointment, with its variety of spokespeople—from lay teachers to more traditional spiritual representatives of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism—each giving their take on the subject of being in the world but not of it.
Having myself been a monk and knowing from firsthand experience the kind of dedication and commitment it takes to achieve a real and lasting ground in beingness, it was quite natural for me to side with those spiritual luminaries who recommend the rigorous path of formal renunciation as the only true way to attain a lasting state of enlightenment. At some point in an individual's quest for self-knowledge, whether it takes one year or five years out of his life's pursuits, there must be experienced a burning realization of the world's insubstantiality, of its basic emptiness and impermanence, and a renunciation of one's attachment to the things and concepts of this world.
It was heartening to see the undisciplined and sloppy thinking of such personages as Elizabeth Lesser and Jack Kornfield being shown for what it is. In the case of Ms. Lesser, she tied herself up in so many knots in her interview with Craig Hamilton ["At Play in the Fields of the Lord"] that one is amazed that such a display of contradictions in thinking can exist in one place. Her true colors, showing her immaturity of thought, are nowhere better expressed than in her answer to the question: "So the path of self-authority is for people who haven't cultivated that intensity of focus and purpose?" EL: "Absolutely." What she's admitting to here is that it is okay not
to cultivate an intensity of focus and purpose and therefore remain immature in one's thinking even when one comes up against the mighty barriers one needs to tear down in order to grow spiritually. People who think this way, in the words of Penor Rinpoche ["The World Is Unreliable"], who was commenting on those who delude themselves with the idea of following a democratic spiritual path, are "just wasting time."
In the case of Jack Kornfield, his statement that "the sacrifices of family are like those of any demanding monastery, offering exactly the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and generosity" is just plain half-truth. When Cohen asked Penor Rinpoche, referring to this statement, "Could that be true?" His Holiness replied, "It is not true. When you are in a household . . . there is always more attachment."
To expand on this, while it can be rightly stated that there may be the development of patience, steadiness, and generosity in the raising of a family, the two endeavors—raising a family, on the one hand, and undergoing monastic training, on the other—are mutually exclusive in their main aims. In raising a family, one is attempting to acculturate one's progeny to the outside world, to show them how to get along in the world, while in monastic training, the very opposite is happening, or rather should be happening, which involves training the acculturation out
of a person. In other words, one regimen is involved in teaching attachment to the world in the development and implementation of social concepts, while the other is dedicated to teaching release from attachment to the world and those same concepts.
And finally, one stands in awe of the unwavering and one-pointed questioning that your interviewers, to a man and woman, display in the pages of WIE
. It can only be hoped that the acute intelligence and penetration of these individuals is not lost on your readers. We are truly fortunate to have such a talented staff of people working together at the same time and for the same organization, and at such a crucial time in the history of modern man when the resurgence of spirituality is beginning to take hold. Your magazine's uncompromising honesty and truthfulness is indeed the breath of fresh air that we need.
Ian Allans Andrews,
No Room for Comparison
Thanks for the new and all previous WIE
s, every one of them thought-provoking, inspiring, and heartening—particularly, I believe, to many of us who have been in spiritual practices twenty, thirty years, or more, and are sorting out our experiences to see if we actually have anything worth passing on to a newer generation. Anyway, here is some response to the latest issue. There seems to be some discussion stirring over the catch-all phrase "New American Spirituality" that falls into two related areas: 1) the preservation of great traditions vs. newer pared-down or eclectic teachings and 2) the vow-taking life of the discipleship/monasticism/celibacy/dedicated-community-thing vs. the individual layperson/householder life.
Having read the review of Jack Kornfield's After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
and some of the other material in the new issue, I was left with a nagging feeling. For myself, these questions of one or the other being "better" have little or no interest. I've experienced some of both, and both have their advantages and drawbacks. It's a shame that people in these camps waste their energy taking potshots at each other. As Vivekananda said, "Let the sects proliferate until, finally, there is some approach to God suitable to every human being." The repeated questions about whether this or that approach has sufficient challenges; whether this or that life will provide deep enough experience; the comparison of this against that . . . it's all nonsense, really, like ten-year-olds bitterly arguing over whether Chevys or Fords are better cars. Spiritual practice begins and ends only in this living moment of truth. There is no room here
for comparison, controversy, challenge—any of that.
Rochester, New York
The Need for Wise Counsel
I am a hermit living in a monastery on the west coast of Ireland. Just read your magazine for the first time and was very
I would like to comment on "New American Spirituality." There are many positive aspects to it. But "self-authority" concerns me. In my own ancient Celtic tradition, no one would travel the inward path without an enlightened "anam-chara," or "soul-friend"—the equivalent of a spiritual director. It would be like traveling at night without a light. The ego-self is so insidious that even with the guidance of my abbot, Father William McNamara, I have gone over the edge a couple of times. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche also remarked on the need for wise counsel. Without direction there is also the danger of people skipping from one spiritual path to another, skimming the surface and never plumbing the depths.
Sister Nora Tunney,
Holy Hill Hermitage,
County Sligo, Ireland
We Are The World
I was completely taken with Elizabeth Lesser's interview. She has the right way of thinking: We are the world; we're made from the world, our cells are from the world. Taking it to a bigger step, we are the universe; we are all made of the cosmic dust that created the universe. We are all bonded together, and when we all realize that, just perhaps, this will be a better world to live in. Take it from the song that many rock singers gathered around and sang: "We Are the World."
Paul Dale Roberts,
Elk Grove, California
Equal Representation, Please!
Although your articles in the most recent issue were interesting, you forgot something essential. It's called women.
Out of the nine featured articles, only one
was with a woman. That's sad. As primary caregivers, women have such a rich heritage to offer on being in the world. And, in each of the traditions you featured, there are at least several prominent women you could have interviewed. So next time, please
think more about equal representation.
After The Laundry . . .
I would like to thank the person who wrote the most truthful and articulate review of Jack Kornfield's new book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
I agree, he dwells entirely too much on suffering, anger, disappointment, etc. It only more deeply engraves this false or impure perception into his own mind and those whom he comes in contact with at his Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I reside in Marin County, but I have only been to Spirit Rock maybe three times in almost ten years. I never realized quite why, but your review clarified the main reason for me. I also wonder, since so many people are influenced by Jack, especially here in Marin, how much this feeds into the incredible increase of greed, materialism, and aggression in this county.
Zopa Yeshe Sonam Wangmo,
The Essence of Surrender
Issue 18 was in many ways a gem, prompting me to call up an old friend and advise him to read the issue. I think the interviews with Eckhart Tolle ["Ripples on the Surface of Being"] and Joseph Goldstein ["There's No Escape from the World"] are particularly valuable, and I congratulate Cohen for the way in which he conducted these two interviews.
Both Tolle and Goldstein illumine the essence of surrender, which is saying "Yes" to this moment or "not my will, but Thine be done." As difficult as this may sometimes be, when a loved person or animal dies, or when we must transcend our self-centered view to take into account a more karuna
or "divinely" holistic take on the situation, surrender
—and not whether we live in a household or a monastery—is the crucial key, the crux of liberation in nonduality.
I do have a problem with what looks like the occasional confusion or fusion of two different ideas: "transcendence of the world
" and "transcending
attachment to the world." I wish to commend particularly Tolle and Goldstein for avoiding that kind of confusion.