Sample text for A rare and precious thing : the possibilities and pitfalls of working with a spiritual teacher / John Kain.

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Chapter 1


You have noticed that everything an Indian does_ is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the_ World always works in circles, and everything tries_ to be round.1 —Black Elk
There are an infinite number of reasons for wanting a spiritual teacher, some as clear as an alpine stream, others as blurred and haunting as an inscription on an ancient tombstone. We might come to our desire through suffering—the piercing loss of a loved one, or the all-too-pervasive sense of numbing isolation in the modern world, for instance. Perhaps, though, we’ve experienced ecstatic and fleeting moments of insight, where in a quick flash we see it, the extraordinary beauty of the world, the absolute miracle in the most daily occurrence—Haze breaking over fir and bamboo, / Clears and concentrates / The mind and spirit, said the Chinese poet Chien Chang.2 In the first circumstance we want a teacher to show us the way out, in the second the way back in. Underlying both is a yearning for the clarification of who we really are and the palpable ache for connection, for contact, for merging. We, in our secular consumer society (having divorced ourselves from wildness), have lost touch with the ancient but living tissue that connects us to the mystery of creation.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James surmised, by way of his examination of a multiplex of experiences (the first study of its kind, published in 1902, and still a classic), “that the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; that union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; that prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit ‘God’ or ‘law’—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.”3 James’s statements, though a tad starched for modern ears, are still valid, not so much for what they say—you can find the same themes in any number of popular magazines—but for the emphasis of his study. The true radicalism of James (at least to the Western world of the day) was his recognition of personal spiritual awakening as the nadir of religiosity—beyond ritual, beyond tradition, beyond race or standing or “expertise.” We didn’t need an intermediary, James proclaimed.
His assertion was nothing new: the mystics had been saying such things for thousands of years, be they from East or West or from the luminous circles of indigenous tribes. Yet James was offering a broader invitation to the Western public. It was the beginning of the paradigm shift that melded the external with the internal, science with religion. Solitude, and by this I do not mean being alone but that primary place in each of us where we meet spirit, was for James the truest state. The spiritual teacher-student relationship is of this realm, a primary connection nourished in intimacy, which is at once most private and most universal.
This relationship, however, presents its own set of problems. If the visible world is indeed a part of a more spiritual universe, then we are all, in every second of existence, swimming in spirit. Unfortunately (and this is the devil’s bargain), we’ve entered a truncated dreamscape of division and separation, believing, more often than not, that God, spirit, presence, or whatever you want to call it, is over there and we are over here. Spiritual teachers and many non-teachers alike have simply seen through, or at least glimpsed, this dream loop and do not take it at collective face value. How, then, do you teach a person to swim when that person is already swimming? Animals know what to do; a loon sings its loon song. How do you teach a human how to be human?
In simple terms, no one can teach us these things. It’s impossible, and all of the “teachers” in this book add a disclaimer to that title. But “keepers,” “guides,” “whistleblowers,” “friends,” as they call themselves, can model for us a saner and more connected way to be. Each teacher in these pages believes in the direct connection with spirit: they feel it; they carry forward (and back) the mystical path. “Authority” and “obedience” are not simply external abstractions, but palpable connections and a balance between inside and out. The Hasidic master Rabbi Zusya told his disciples that had gathered around his deathbed, “When I get to the world to come, they will not ask me ‘Why were you not Moses?,’ they will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ”4 Yet Zusya’s cry is not for more isolation or self-centeredness—the elevation of the “I.”
The cry—through all of the teachers and students herein—is for communion, intimacy, service, and faithfulness. The individual is necessary to spiritual growth, but individualism is not. Each of these teachers helps us, through their call and to reinhabit a realm that has its anchor in nature, in wildness with all its complexity, not in the enervating sham of materialism and ego-centered motives. Nothing exists in a vacuum and neither does spirituality—it is always relational. In this sense, spiritual practice is revolutionary. But this path is not tidy. We continually wish life to be controllable and sanitary, but it’s not. The world, even in its present debilitated state, is essentially wild, and much of what lies beneath our skin responds to that essence. We are sensitive to the weight and pull of other forces—the energy behind wind, the magnetism of the moon, or someone’s warm breath upon our neck.
Accordingly, life is painful, and it’s hard to find a stable purchase or peace of mind in our perennial yearnings—spiritual or otherwise. Celestial orphans, all. Quite naturally we look for someone, something, or some system to help us navigate through our tangled interior (at present such inner disarray is catastrophically reflected in the “external” world), a territory where our busy minds no longer speak the local language. “We’ve become marvelous at self-delusion,”5 said Thomas Merton, that most eloquent and literary Cistercian monk.
As we moved from the mysterious and sacred to the scientific scaffolding of secular humanism, psychology (and by extension social science) rushed in to pick up the slack. It gave us a new map to our interior, and for many made religion obsolete. Yet psychology (and likewise Western science) lives, for the most part, in the realm of the knowable and can never subsume the mystery of spirit, which incidentally includes the nonhuman world.
This does not by any means suggest that psychology and science (i.e., ecology, systems theory, neurobiology, and so on) cannot complement religion or vice versa. Happily, much has been done in the last few decades to bring the jilted lovers closer together, and each has been enriched by the other’s embrace. If we are to evolve, both spiritually and materially (or for that matter if we are to survive), we must come to recognize the interdependence of all sentient and nonsentient beings—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, rocks and trees. Mitakuye Oyasin, say the members of the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Nation, “all our relations.”
The unfortunate return to fundamentalism (and here I refer to its most recent incarnation of ethnic and/or ideological extremism) is ironically a violent reaction against this untamable complexity, this infinite spirit. Fundamentalism, it would seem, reduces God to definable and ego-centered concepts, based in fear and the desire to control. “Conceptual idolatry” is what Robert Thurman (Tibetan Buddhist scholar, author, and cofounder of Tibet House in New York) calls these fundamentalist tendencies—a rabid attachment to ideas that become “etched in stone,” immovable, unquestionable. “Holy” wars are fought, global consumerism is unleashed, fascist doctrine is pounded down citizens’ throats, patriarchy held as the standard of Godhood—all based on malformed concepts of human nature and our proper place in the landscape. Each of us has some portion of fundamentalism within us—stale ideas, ingrained patterns—and spiritual teachers can help us discover their contours.
Still there always exists the resurgent spirit pulsing in the ligaments of our lives. As Gary Synder, the poet, Buddhist, and eco-activist points out, “The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than ‘you’ can keep track of—thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas.”6 When we turn to a spiritual teacher we look for a guide, not one who is familiar with well-worn paths, but one who knows, as Snyder puts it, the “etiquette of freedom.”
Yet in wanting a teacher to illuminate the lush and tangled undergrowth of our interior, we inevitably step into a paradox. As the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (gifted Tibetan teacher, author, and founder of the Shambhala organization, who introduced thousands of Westerners to Tibetan practice, said, “When you hear of someone that possesses remarkable qualities, you regard them as significant beings and yourself as insignificant.”7 In other words, our perceived inadequacy—that feeling which often got us looking for a teacher in the first place—is reinforced when we look upon someone or something as “more advanced,” “wiser,” “more enlightened,” and so forth. We want what we think they “have.” I’ve been studying Zen for more than twenty years and have been a student of Zen master John Daido Loori for seven years and continue to struggle with the teacher-student paradigm—thus the impetus for writing this book.
“Is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable? . . . I answer ‘No’ emphatically. . . . No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions,”8 wrote James. We are genuinely lucky in the West to have so many choices, but then an endless supply of options can lead to inaction, to a dysfunctional stupor or an attitude of “shopping” frenzy in which desire trumps truth. We have to find the heart of our own sincerity—not the prepackaged kind found in greeting cards—to give the spiritual journey meaning. Intimacy is essential and inherently risky.
The feeling of inadequacy is not all bad: it is good that we want to change our often shrunken and self-absorbed view of the world and become more compassionate. Yet we must stop wanting to fix ourselves. In the spiritual world, continually wanting to “get somewhere” gets us nowhere. Because it’s the ego that’s never satisfied, that’s always thinking there is something right around the corner and therefore keeps us from just “being,” keeps us feeling separate.
It is the spiritual teacher’s job to offer new ways of seeing. But this process entails a delicate surgery that places both the student and the teacher in a vulnerable position. The exchanges of power in these situations can do considerable damage if not held in balance. Recent history—from Jonestown to the Branch Davidians to 9/11 and untold religious scandals—is filled with this traumatic and bloody power play. If teachers think that they have personal power, that the “I” is teaching, then they are just transmitting more self-centered and diseased ways of being. “I cured with the power that came through me. Of course, it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds. If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish,” said Black Elk.9 Much foolishness has been wrought in the name of spirituality, both here in the West and around the world. I touch on some of these missteps in chapter 10, which deals with teacher abuses.
There is not just one type of teacher-student relationship. As we find in this book, the permutations are endless. Students can (and do) view their teacher as a parent, as a lover (both figuratively and literally), as a friend, as an enemy, as god, and as a demon—perhaps all within an hour’s time. The psychological pitfalls of the relationship are complex and varied. Transference and projection run rampant, and there’s plenty more where that came from, as they say. Alexander Berzin, in his book about Tibetan Buddhist practice, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship, describes six different attributes of the teacher-student relationship:
(1) Almost all spiritual seekers progress through stages along the spiritual path. (2) Most practitioners study with several teachers during their lifetimes and build up different relationships with each. (3) Not every spiritual teacher has reached the same level of accomplishment. (4) The type of relationship appropriate between a specific seeker and a specific teacher depends upon the spiritual level of each. (5) People usually relate to their teachers in progressively deeper manners as they advance along the spiritual path. (6) Because the same teacher may play different roles in the spiritual life of each seeker, the most appropriate relationship each seeker has with that teacher may be different.10
This list is filled with sober insights and common sense. Yet for some mysterious reason students often check their practicality at the door, like an overcoat at a fancy restaurant, when entering spiritual practice. The best thing teachers can do for their students is to convince them that common sense is a valuable attribute. If a teacher is sleeping with a student, nine times out of ten it’s a bad idea. If a teacher is an alcoholic, that teacher is an alcoholic. Some things are exactly as they appear. In the book How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery, an early work on spiritual practice (published in 1974), the author, Lawrence LeShan, gave some practical and sage advice about choosing a spiritual teacher: “Watch how they treat their spouse.” At the same time, teachers do make mistakes, all of them, and if we think otherwise we’re on the wrong track.
There’s a razor-fine line between taming the ego—and thus unearthing compassion—and taming the person. I mentioned the difference between the individual and individualism above, but it bears repeating. A sense of self as an entity intricately connected to the web of the universe—a selfless self—is a healthy thing. A sense of self as the center of the universe around which everything revolves—me, me, me, me—is, other than being ridiculous, unhealthy for everyone concerned. It’s a touchy process, then, negotiating the building up of one and the softening of the other. Every teacher and student I interviewed for this book has struggled with the tension between the two.
Thomas Merton writes:
“Religion,” in the sense of something emanating from man’s nature and tending to God, does not really change man or save him, but brings him into a false relationship with God: for a religion that starts in man is nothing but man’s wish for himself. Man “wishes himself” (magically) to become godly, holy, gentle, pure, etc. His wish terminates not in God but in himself. This is no more than the religion of those who wish themselves to be in a certain state in which they can live with themselves, approve of themselves, God is at peace with them. How many Christians seriously believe that Christianity itself consists of nothing more than this? Yet it is anathema to true Christianity.11

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Interpersonal relations -- Religious aspects.
Teacher-student relationships -- Religious aspects.
Spiritual life.