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Transforming
Spirituality

Moving Beyond the Patriarchal Temptation

Mushin J. Schilling

In a dream I speak with an enlightened spiritual teacher. He sits opposite from me. I see him darkly against the back light of a panorama window opening to a harbour – on the shining horizon the ocean is melting blue into the sky.

He stands for what I call vertical spirituality: the development from the lowest to the highest, from egotism to the transcendent finally opening out into the realization of awakening, enlightenment or merging with the divine. A way expressed in many traditional and most modern orientations, a way making the mystic and spiritual richness accessible over the centuries and millennia, probably even co-creating them.

Me, I’m a bit out of balance because for the first time I can’t close my eyes anymore to the suffering caused by this vertical teaching; a teaching I have been following consistently for decades – with a bit of a distance these last two years. Maybe that’s why my eyes now open to its discrepancies… and then, vertical spirituality is all to easily seduced by the authoritarian temptation.

Because we see each others hearts he can feel my troubles.

Vertical Spirituality and the Suffering it Causes

Let’s start with two examples for the suffering recently caused by vertical spirituality:

Ken Wilber is an intelligent theoretician of spirituality and also an enlightened practitioner living what he speaks and writes about. If you’ve read his diary-like book „One Taste”[1] you know that he claims to have realized the level of consciousness that he describes in his books as the highest.

All right then: June 8, 2006 Ken Wilber throws up a appalling rant against his critics on his weblog.[2] He hardly engages the arguments of these critics but rather attacks their character, personality and even names a few names. Well, you could say, as I did at first, „Not very elegant to spread this out in public on the internet, using such degrading language, but maybe even the enlightened have to blow their top once in a while. It’s all very human.”

But a few days later a second post of Wilber appears in his blog[3] in which he doesn't offer any conciliatory explanation but declares his public rant to be a test case, also totally overreacting to the generally moderate responses to his outburst that now appear all over the internet („You hate us…, you hate Wilber…."). In his post he uses some of the classical arguments that play an important and generally accepted role in vertical spirituality:

  • You cannot understand where what I’m saying or doing comes from because you are on a lower level of consciousness (this is often also called ‘egoic’; in Wilber’s case it is mostly called “mean green” or 1st tier)[4]
  • You project your shadows on me; what you criticise in me is actually an aspect of your self, and that’s what you should look at.
  • Everything I do happens from pure love (Wilber calls it "not idiot compassion") and is done to help you on your spiritual way.

The first argument is really impossible to beat. Can we really understand where these – in this case Wilber’s hard – words are coming from? No, not if we assume that enlightened or awakened beings are higher developed than we are. What’s more, we don’t have a right to judge them, because only those who have reached the enlightened level can really understand and appreciate what the awakened ones do and why. But those who still attach to an ego – even if only very lightly – would act presumptuously. So those who criticise enlightened beings actually show just how caught up and entangled they still are.[5]

The second argument is also impossible to counter as long as the first one is considered to be true. To illustrate I will give an example.

Let’s imagine that I am a close disciple of the enlightened teacher and founder of „What’s Enlightenment?” magazine Andrew Cohen.[6] He sends me to one of his students, X., whom – for reasons that I can’t understand, of course – I am to slap hard in the face. (This seems to be common practise in his communities; it has not been repudiated, on the contrary it is being defended fervently using the first argument I mention above.)[7] So, being a good disciple and trusting my master I give X. a good whacking. And because X. now looks angrily at me I say, „You’re being angry with me only goes to shows how big your shadow still is, and that you project it onto me instead of looking at it and working with it – you still have a long way to go, for sure.”

And it is true: The pain, the humiliation and the anger are a part of X’s consciousness, they are part of his shadow. As long as he doesn’t attend to it but rather projects it onto me he didn’t learn one of the basic lessons of vertical spirituality. But if instead he accepts my interpretation of his plight he will feel that his double humiliation is part of overcoming his ego, and he will perceive his immense feeling of powerlessness as surrender.

This is exactly the argument Wilber uses when he declares his public abuse to be a test.

And Wilber also states the third argument quite clearly:

„So this and the previous blog were meant, in part, to make this [our shadow projecting] obvious, so that it could at least start to be worked with, by individuals who are sincere about their own healing and growth.” [Bold type by Wilber]

So his verbal injuries are there to help us, he says, out of compassion – not idiot compassion, of course! Or to put it another way: Now we know how serious we are about our healing and growth, because if we aren’t we will object against his rant…

Ken Wilber is not naive, he knows what all this is about. I have chosen the above example for ‘shadow projection’ because Wilber says in his introduction to Andrew Cohen’s book „Living Enlightenment”[8]:

„Andrew Cohen is a Rude Boy… Rude Boys … are not here to console but to shatter, not to comfort but to demolish. … They are uncompromising, brutal, laser-like… They deeply offend the ego....He [Cohen] is not here to offer comfort; he is here to tear you into approximately a thousand pieces...so that Infinity can reassemble you, Freedom can replace imprisonment, Fullness can outshine fear.”[9]

In short: If Wilber abuses his critics and his good pal Cohen „uncompromising, brutal, laser-like” beats or has his disciples whacked by others, than that is only for the best: out of love, surely not out of idiot-compassion.

Spiritual Violence

Wilber, who is a proponent of what he calls ‘integral spirituality’, teaches us in the same foreword that this rudeness belongs to the basics of spiritual development:

„Every deeply enlightened teacher I have known has been a Rude Boy or Nasty Girl. The original Rude Boys were, of course, the great Zen masters, who, when faced with yet another ego claiming to want Enlightenment, would get a huge stick and whack the aspirant right between the eyes. And that was just the beginning, that was the easy part; things got nastier fast—but at the other end of that brutality lay ever-present Realization, a shocking jolting death of the self and the radiant resurrection of infinite Spirit as your very own true nature.”

I don’t know how many Zen-aspirants got a „whack … right between the eyes”, legitimized by the teaching, of course. It must have been quite a lot in the more than 1500 years of Zen-Buddhism. „I once asked Katagiri Roshi, with whom I had my first break-through” tells Ken Wilber in his book „One Taste”, „how many truly great Ch’an and Zen masters there have historically been. Without hesitating, he said, „Maybe one thousand altogether.” I asked another Zen master how many truly enlightened – deeply enlightened – Japanese Zen masters there were alive today, and he said, „Not more than a dozen”

Somehow it must have eluded Wilber that where for several hundred thousands „things got nastier fast” just very, very few found or stumbled upon „ever-present Realization”. Does the enlightened goal sanctify these rude, even violent means in the view of this „most brilliant thinker of modern times”? Apparently yes. And he is not alone in this regard because every teaching that abases the ego, the I, the person to elevate the transpersonal, selfless or absolute does exactly this, even if often not with so much violence. This teaching model is fundamental to vertical spirituality: The highest – and therefore the one that has realized it – is above and beyond all and the unenlightened person is below and beneath it.

In human social life this cannot but lead to feudalistic, patriarchal, authoritarian structures unless strong and conscious action is undertaken to counteract this massive drift. Steering free of this tendency seems to be necessary for another reason: in the modern media world in which „the highest happiness” or „the highest self-realisation” have to court for attention and market shares this drift goes in the direction of narcissism and even megalomania[10] especially if the person concerned is believed to be enlightened, egoless and/or divine.

I know that he regards himself as being one with the absolute, the non-dual, the highest; as someone who as an egoless being cannot be narcissistic. He is truly a man of integrity, and I am sure that he wants the best for his students and mankind as a whole. And I feel his wonderful charisma, his clear, light and loving aura.

But what he sees in my heart touches him. It looks as if he could see that next to the pure, radiating, transcendent being – the One – there is the Manifold and diversity, the becoming and the unfolding. He sees that if he just identifies with the one turning it into the highest he is withdrawing from the manifold and abases it – in himself and in others.

Almost all vertical spiritualities East and West have something in common, and that is not what they regard as being the highest. What is highest and who has actually realized it and in what measure is not agreed upon at all. One has to read one’s sources very selectively if one is, for instance, to assert that Zen-Buddhist Kensho and the union with the divine that Meister Eckhardt is speaking about is one and the same state.

These teachings rather have something else in common: body, world and person or I are regarded as a hindrance and an illusion , and women, of course, are leading one astray and away from the lofty goal. But even if the enmity against body, world and women is somewhat out in the West, the conception of the I and its mind as obstacle and illusion is cherished far and wide. This idea in combination with the teaching of an egoless enlightenment or awakening as the highest human possibility has a dire consequence: the human being as a person, an individual I is not sacrosanct – indefeasible – anymore. The individual and his or her unique ego (Latin for “I”) are not entitled to be regarded as a real and living other anymore. Both the other and the I are now labelled to be an obstructive illusion, and thus in practise they are denied and nullified. Thus, in the name of spirituality the person is robbed of what makes it resilient, creative, determined and autonomous, unique, changeable, revolutionary, compassionate with individuals, caring, self responsible in word and deed.

And just what the vertical spirituality is seeking to undermine and eliminate is what we need so hard in present times, it seems to me.

Vertical spirituality and its patriarchal teachings stem from feudalistic times in which its enmity towards the body, the world and women is rooted as well. People realizing what we call enlightenment in former times or having experiences in which the source of being revealed itself interpreted these according to the social order of those days, and just as the king, emperor or Caesar was enthroned over the world so the highest, absolute transcendent was enthroned over all matter and non-matter. Vertical spirituality expounded an ascending way reaching from the animal-human, worldly, lower realms towards the divine or non-dual highest state or level. This way was not only a hierarchy of values but also one of spiritual position and power. The „transcendent self”, the „enlightened one”, the „divine” is enthroned at the top of a chain of command and causation – sometimes called ‘the great chain of being’ – far above and beyond the body, the world, the person and the I, and always also way beyond the feminine. If one follows this kind of teaching today than one does, surely with the best of intentions, reproduce a feudalistic patriarchal structure in which mind, ego, corporality etc. in many ways are veiled, suppressed, reduced to illusions, meditated away or nullified.

The idea that one could see their dignity or that you can dignify mind, ego, world, body etc. doesn’t appear at all.

Cooperative Spirituality

To overcome vertical spirituality – which is a necessity in my eyes – we have to do just that: recognize the dignity of people, states and phenomena exactly how they appear. This is an essential element of the necessary renewal of spirituality that I am proposing here, and that I am actually experimenting with in my life, seminars and the community I live in.

Vertical spirituality proposes that only the man who has realized the highest stages sees everything as it really is; everyone else sees filtered, illusionary and distorted realities – illusions. This point of view is neither true nor is it helpful. Our spiritual forefathers didn’t know what has been shown by modern physics time and again: the observer and what is being observed are inseparably connected. Modern psychology moreover shows that our upbringing and culture have an irreducible influence on how we see things. What we see and recognize is always also a co-production between the observer/participant, his or her state of consciousness and what he meets. There is no spiritual reality separate from us somewhere inside us or out there.

Vertical spirituality doesn't only teach that the Transcendent is above and beyond all but also that there is the Immanent, inherent in everyone and all. But in practice and life only transcendence is being activated: one goes for the highest and the lower has to fade and die. But if not only in teaching but in practise the immanent would be taken serious the highest in all and everyone would be recognized, respected and even revered. Nobody would be beyond or above anyone else no matter what conscious or developmental level he or she inhabits.

Everything that appears comes into being in a meeting, the immanent being its womb. Reality as it appears to us is always a creation of all participants who partake in it, and this is so regardless of how we position its levels.

We look at one another. He has widened his view and taken me in with the manifold I bring. Yes, he can even embrace the rebellious in me that is chipping away at the vertical spirituality so vehemently. He sees now that this didn’t originate with the conviction that it is false or because I’m against hierarchies and authorities but because I cannot steer clear of the suffering it causes in a social and worldly context anymore.

He now also sees that I actually appreciate vertical spirituality: the experiences of which these teachings speak can still be helpful, healing and a cause of bliss, but its language it uses and the ways it proposes are authoritarian and patriarchal. It is these confining perspectives on spirituality that my rebellion wants to do away with.

Our spiritual emancipation is also about trusting again our own eyes, heart and belly and to honour them by lending them our voice – to faithfully render what we experience, feel, think and believe.

We need teachings that allow us to meet our selves and our experiences – just as they come into being – openly and with respect. Because whatever we regard as the highest has lent its authority from us. In cooperative spirituality this knowledge helps us to cherish an intelligent and loving exchange of these experiences and voices between people on the manifold levels of spiritual recognition.

Therefore genuine meetings are another essential element of this spirituality; meetings in which we open to the other and his or her experience without bias and without reducing him or her to some position on the ladder of spiritual development. Because however much anyone has developed their talents and consciousness, their spirit, head, heart and belly, exchanging what’s essential is always a factual possibility – What did you experience? How did the experience come about? How do you value it, and which role does it play in your life? Etc. This can then be further looked at cooperatively and intersubjectively in conversation and practise. This form of spirituality cherishes communication in which one can at long last be vulnerable as one’s counterpart doesn’t put him or herself above or below us. A meeting and communication in which one can, unprotected by preconceived teachings, explore countless dimensions of one’s spirituality. Cooperative spirituality is of the whole body, it is autonomous, collaborative and communicative.

All this I have found to be just so in my practise so far. I have discovered in my work as spiritual facilitator that it is not necessary to use the old model of vertical spirituality so that fulfilling, healing and wholesome experiences and understandings are possible and likely: this goes – so far – from deep insights, ‚telepathic intuitions’ and mystical visions to divine rapture, from perceiving energies, presences and disembodied beings, one’s own body in totally new ways, to the transparent sense of being one with all. My experiments with cooperative spirituality show it to open a gate to spiritual richness, it contributes to the wholeness of the individual and it shows creative ways to tackle questions that concern all of humanity in this day and age.

So after saying good bye to the vertical perspective a new spirituality is unfolding that I would, for the time being, characterise thus

  • It is a cooperative spirituality that is not fixed on some individual or collective endpoint but rather shows the possibility of continual development in which we are participating as co-creators.
  • It is a deeply humane spirituality that is open for all beings and states, even the most divine experiences and the godhead in self and other – open, sensitive and without preconceived order (although there is an order, surely).
  • It is an emancipated spirituality that has rediscovered its own authority, power, love and intelligence and fosters this in the other.
  • It is a dignifying spirituality that respects the manifold and endless diversity of life as well as the unity of being, and respects the many poles of our humanity.
  • It is a modern spirituality that accepts our spiritual, scientific and material inheritance and commits itself to powerfully and passionately increase and enhance our heritage for those who come after us.

In my dream I rise. In our presence the omnipresent meets, and we know that the ocean doesn’t only unite with the sky at the horizon but in all our hearts as well.

Notes

[1] Ken Wilber: One Taste, Shambhala Publications, 1999

[2] http://www.kenwilber.com/blog/show/46

[3] http://www.kenwilber.com/blog/show/48

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiral_Dynamics

[5] I’m sure we will get to hear this argument to disqualify my views.

[6] „Through the magazine and his writings, Cohen is creating a new context for understanding enlightenment as a human evolutionary imperative. Together with a growing network of integral visionaries, including Ken Wilber and Don Beck, he is helping to define a culture of thought that places spiritual transformation at the center of any vision of transforming the world.” (http://www.wie.org/bios/andrew-cohen.asp)

[7] One source among many: http://essentialwhatenlightenment.blogspot.com/2005/06/shame-guilt-and-gurus-blood.html

[8] Andrew Cohen: Living Enlightenment, What Is Enlighenment? Press (June 2002)

[9] http://www.livingenlightenment.com/foreword.asp

[10] Just a few examples from a short surf along some addresses:

Mother Meera „for the first time in history makes the transforming light … available;“ Eckhart Tolle is „is emerging as one of the most original and inspiring spiritual teachers of our time;“ Samarpan „everything from the point of view of absolute truth;“ and Adi Da says: „The Whole of Humanity is embraced by Me.“




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