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Whenever I need a metaphor for the spirit or spirituality I come back to light.
The light I mean is natural light, not the harshness of neon or other fluorescent kinds. For me these all seem harsh or distorting of colours. The kind of light I mean is sunlight.
Light is my favourite metaphor because it captures both truth (clarity, light lets us see clearly) and love or compassion (warmth, sunshine brings warmth).
For me these are the ‘two sides’ of spirituality. Compassion and clarity, truth and love; both are essential. And I think most of us have a preference for one or the other. (As you’ve probably gathered from reading my writings on this blog) I’m a heady person. I find it natural to first sit back, look, examine, question, analyse. I also find it easy to speak without care. My discipline is to remember that when I speak to others I am dealing with people not (just) the topic. The truth part of spirituality seems essential to me, and it can seem ruthless or pitiless. A spirituality that can’t face what is, isn’t worth the name in my view. And what is can be both incredibly awful and truly frightening. The cruelty shown at all levels from petty spite to warfare and the destroying of our planet is horrendous.
Compassion is the other essential for a spirituality that is worth its name. When we see the awful cruelty in our world it is easy to become despairing and intolerant. It is easy to start preaching to others, denouncing the evil persons or empires. Compassion seeks effectiveness, the quickest and easiest remedy: compassion prefers truth:, delusion and illusion don’t help to end the suffering. But more is required than desire and understanding, there is the need to genuinely meet the other person. Cold charity is a million miles from compassion. Connecting with another we can become very focused on their suffering, this is not enough; there also needs to be the focus on their circumstances, what they can do and perhaps what can be done with and for them.
The biggest trap I know of, once we are on a spiritual path, is the guru trap – following one or becoming one. This doesn’t mean we don’t follow a teacher or a tradition. Most of us continue in the tradition (even the secular tradition) that we were born into. And it’s a very rare person who isn’t shaped by the tradition they were bought up in. It seems to me that the best path, usually, is try to come up with some assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our tradition. My tradition is evangelicalChristianity . There are two glaring omissions from this tradition. Firstly the physical body (and this in a tradition founded on god taking on human flesh – even to the extent of dying!). Secondly our physical context – nature, the planet (despite the Scriptures being clear that part of the reason for Israel’s exile was mistreatment of their land and that creation has a longing that is tied to people). The strength is that individuality can have a positive value and their is a place for community. To make this kind of assessment took me years, I don’t think it’s just a quick thing, but something that needs to be done in the depths of who we are. This allows us to be both free from our tradition and loyal to it at the same time.
What’s wrong with the guru role? Nothing so long as it is about teaching. An awful lot once it becomes a kind of cosmic parent, where the student never attains but stays inferior to the guru. Usually those who love the guru role adopt a parental attitude to their followers (it may be ‘nice mummy’ or ‘rule setting daddy’ and is usually a combination of both).
Seeing through the guru role is a good way to get free of the guru. Not becoming one can be harder. Those of us on a spiritual path often care passionately and are sometimes quite isolated. When we find someone who agrees with us, this feels great – and it is certainly a delightful part of life. If this person then tells someone else to come meet me and that I have worthwhile stuff to say then we may be setting out on the guru path. In some ways this is impossible to avoid – even not speaking at all can lead us to being seen as a guru. My analysis of power is that it is delegated by ‘the followers’ – without followers there is no guru role. But this doesn’t deal with why we find the role attractive (if we do). For me it is driven by the desire to connect and to be respected. Occasionally this will become a need for extreme adulation. Both connection and respect I see as entirely legitimate needs. But the guru role doesn’t get these in reality. It separates from others (the guru is always so much better than their followers – that is why they are followed) and so the respect isn’t genuine (it doesn’t include the affection that comes from seeing the person’s vulnerabilities as well as their strengths).
So I’ll conclude by attempting to shine a little of the light of truth and love on the guru trap. Those in the guru trap also deserve our compassion, however clearly we see the trap. The followers also deserve our compassion however clearly we see the trap. And the truth is that the trap fills needs for both the one playing the role of guru and for the one playing the role of the follower. The unfortunate thing is that the guru trap doesn’t lead to seeing clearly or real meeting (it provides just enough satisfaction to be going on with but not the deepest nourishment).
Here are some guidelines that I think are useful on the spiritual path.
If you incline to the truth side, remember;
- It’s about people (or, at the least, it is also about people).
- People have their frames of reference and experiences. If you wish them to see the shortcomings of these then they will need to be convinced first that you understand them. And they will usually be more likely to see clearly if they are free of any anxiety about being judged.
If you incline to the love side, remember;
- Ending the suffering means dealing with what is.
- Ending the suffering may well require action.
If you are someone who cares passionately and wants others to change:
- Remember your own process of change, it may have been a flash of insight (it’s usually a split second that took lots of years of preparation).
- Remember your own weaknesses and faults – depending on how you want to see them. We all of us develop some parts of our lives and not others. Learning something we’re not good at is a goodspiritual discipline.
- Understanding how people change. If people changed because they were told to we’d be in utopia by now. Change is usually achieved by the trying out of new behaviour and this is usually most easily achieved in a supportive environment.
To help avoid the guru trap you can ask:
- What can I learn here?
- Is this person relating to me as an equal?
Finally; well, no, I don’t live up to my spirituality all the time. Perhaps not terribly often at all. However I hope this may help you to take one step on your path.
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