I’m not a fan of the idea that life is intended to teach “lessons”. Of course we do, or at least we ought to, learn from what happens to us. No one can dispute that. What I dispute is the idea that life is some sort of classroom, in which everything that occurs is part of a cosmic curriculum. I don’t like the notion that we are living in God’s Coursera for many reasons.
It suggests life is inauthentic
The idea suggests that our existence is inauthentic, that it is just some rehearsal for some other, more real, existence. If ever anyone were to put a gun to my head and demand that I that produce just one phrase to describe an unillumined state of mind, the phrase would be “inauthentic cognition”. Most people run about, most of the time, interacting, not with the world, but with their ideas about the world. In their minds, nothing is what it is. Everything is what it represents. Whatever it represents is itself merely a representation of something else, and so on. Actual reality lies somewhere at the end of a long tunnel of mere representation, far beyond the thinker’s perception. Life-as-a-lesson is a part of this chain of misthinking.
It is unnecessary
The idea is also an unnecessary bit of complexity. It doesn’t explain anything that can’t as easily be accounted for by assuming that what we experience is authentically what it is, and not part of a grand intentional scheme. Ideas are most clear when they are pared down to their essentials. If you don’t need the notion of the cosmic classroom in order to explain both observable physical phenomenon and to construct a spiritual metaphysics, doesn’t that mean its just cloudy thinking?
It is used to justify injustice
I also object to the idea that life experiences are lessons because the idea is used to obfuscate evil, and to place blame for injustices onto the shoulders of the victims of injustice, instead of its perpetrators. Something bad happen to you? Well, that’s just a lesson you need to learn. Are you suffering because wealthy sociopaths have crashed the economy and stolen everything not nailed down, or because some imperialist nation state has invaded your homeland (or pressured you or your loved ones to serve as cannon fodder for the invasion)? Don’t complain, don’t protest, don’t act outwardly towards causes you find outside of yourself: instead, learn your spiritual lesson. Are you being abused? Have you been robbed, or raped, or physically injured? If you had learned your spiritual lessons, surely this wouldn’t have happened. Don’t blame the perpetrator who chose to harm others. Blame yourself, who chose to live an ordinary and peaceful life that day, but got nothing of the sort.
Any idea that works to obscure and justify evil is itself evil.
But when you throw out the idea of life as a lesson…
On the other hand what happens if you embrace the idea that what happens is authentically what it is, entirely itself, representing nothing and having no hidden function? Then the sand I just rubbed from my eye, gritty as it rolled down my eyelid, is an authentic life experience. The ridges of my fingertip too was real experience as was the twinge of arthritic pain in my wrist. The strand of hair lying out of place on my forehead as I type this — its real, too, and not a representation of anything, or anything which serves any function except to exist as it is. When I see someone harmed by another, the compassion I feel for those harmed is unsullied by thoughts of how they must have deserved it or needed it, as is the anger I feel towards the perpetrators, and I feel alive in my discomfort and powerful in my responses to it. There are no instances in history of injustice remedied through learning life lessons, but there are countless examples of injustice mitigated, transformed, or ended by people who felt the pain of injustice, correctly placed blame, and who acted outwardly to alter the circumstances. What you get when you assume life is what it is, is an understanding of the imminence of That which Is what It Is, of Being itself.
What you get when you assume life is simply what it is, without meaning or purpose, is life, fully and powerfully lived. There is no comparison with the false comforts of thinking that life is a lesson, standing for something else.Continue Reading...
Yes, I said you “can’t” sell spirituality, not “shouldn’t.” You can’t sell what you don’t have, and if you are selling spirituality, you don’t have any to sell.
You don’t sell love
You can’t sell spirituality because first and foremost spirit is infinite Love, pulsating with the forces of Creation. If you have spiritual insight, you must, to some degree, be a conscious participant in this infinite pulse of Creative Love. If you aren’t, you can’t point anyone towards it except by happenstance, and you are delusional or a fraud. And if you love fiercely, you do not look upon the suffering, confusion, and weariness of your beloved and say “Oh beloved, let me help you — for a price”.
No, what you do is you act out of Love. Your acts are not limited to sitting on a pedestal dispensing advice to others on how they should love. You serve those you love, in every reasonable way, including all the dirty work that fraudulent teachers think is well below them. You feed, you clothe, you comfort the lonely, you put Bandaids on and you take your jacket off and hand it to someone who is cold. You do whatever you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, and what you do is in no way separate from your life. You serve because it is the nature of the lover to serve the beloved.
People who make excuses as to why fraudulent gurus have to be treated as rock stars don’t see what it really means to be enlightened. They imagine that service (if they recognize the value of service at all) is merely a tool to break down ego. Service is for students, the way arithmetic worksheets are for grade schoolers. Status, power, wealth, isolation from those who suffer, even freedom to violate normal rules of ethical conduct, are privileges a guru has earned as a result of their personal spiritual accomplishments.
That’s not right. Enlightenment is a state of transparency to that passionate, creative, and unconfined Love. It is surrender to love in action, which is eternal service. It has no course with status, power, wealth, and certainly not with being set apart physically or morally. It is not the end of the need for humility — it is its utter incorporation. If you understand this, then the frauds are easy to spot.
You ought not sell what you don’t own
Love alone would be reason enough never to sell spirituality. But there’s another argument, an intellectual property argument. Who owns spiritual information? Information we call “spiritual” is either an attribute of Being, and thus not the legal (or moral) property of anyone, or it is something someone made up (i.e., it is either mistaken or fraudulent, if presented as an attribute of Being). No one owns authentic spiritual information. We live in a world which would sell the sky, if it could, and so the position that it is unethical to sell what one cannot ethically own may be an unfamiliar one. But since I can no more claim ownership of what I share than I can claim ownership of the molecules of air I last exhaled, I can sell neither.
Straw men and real women
Someone, somewhere, reading this is probably constructing a straw man argument. “Surely if my guru gave away all his books, he would go bankrupt, and then the teachings would not help anyone!” Love is not a rule for the rule bound, obligating all who love to be irredeemably stupid. Love is the creative principle. It’s not just adaptable and reasonable, it’s Adaptable and Reasonable. Surely one can charge for the paper and the binding without making a fortune and without making a purchase the only way to get the same content. If your guru’s publisher objects to making a book freely downloadable, it’s because your guru chose to sign a for-profit book deal, not because there is no other way to distribute a book in the 21st century.
The same goes for the arguments about light and heat and rent and transportation. While no one charges their beloved the price of their love, I’ve never known anyone to have ethical scruples over nudging their beloved and asking for some loose change at a highway tollbooth.
But all this is a distraction: the fabulous sums of money pulled in by alleged spiritual teachers are not being used to further their teachings. The fabulous sums of money pulled in by the guru industry goes to the guru CEOs for their private material enjoyment. And that is what the gurus of the guru industry do. They indulge their material whims, in fabulous houses and yachts and private jets and automobile collections and fine art and fine food and wine and all the other accoutrements of the wealthy who seek material pleasures to fill the vacancies in their souls.
Again, we’re not talking about straw man arguments that would have gurus dying by the droves on the side of the road of starvation because they are not permitted to accept so much as a bologna sandwich. If the sorts of gurus of which I speak were people who supported themselves modestly through donations and minimal fees, keeping their feet planted in Love and their eyes on their work, I would have nothing to say. That’s not what they are doing. They are living, not the life of those who love, but the lifestyle of those who grasp and want more.
That last point is, on more than one level, the real story behind these dealers in a product they do not have. They sell a simulated spirituality that affirms everything about greed that many millennia of spiritual traditions (and a few millennia of basic mathematics (also here)) have rejected. They sell it to people who have lots of stuff they got by exploiting others and who want to ease their guilt. Or they sell it to people who have a little stuff, want more stuff, and who can be easily sold any snake oil labeled “The Secret of more stuff!“.
But worst of all — and it is these next people who most concern me — they sell their message to desperate people. These faux gurus sell lies to people teetering on the brink of a disaster far worse than even their own fears can imagine, who bankrupt themselves at their guru’s direction.
I know that popular gurus make it amply clear that they believe poor people are poor because they are spiritually inferior. I have seen this, more than once. The bhikku forswears even to touch money, and the West follows a homeless carpenter who died, rejected by most of his friends, at the wrong end of Death Row. But these gurus find shame in poverty, and everything to admire in wealth, power, and privilege. I know that some of these gurus advise their poor followers to put aside prudence, forswear planning, and spend their last dollars as if they had an unlimited supply of cash – preferably on a luxury item or, best of all, on something for or from the guru. Such an act of recklessness is, the gurus say, a poor person’s one real hope of demonstrating prosperity. Spend the rent money, they say, and more will come.
I also recall that the average life expectancy of a homeless woman living on the streets in America is six months. I can find no spiritual fault in such a woman. I can’t say as much for what I find in gurus who lead them to their deaths.
Eckhart Tolle, Illusionist
Eckhart Tolle is not, I agree, as horrible as Rhonda Byrne and others in this regard. It’s why I’ve spent many posts criticizing The Secret, and, until today, exactly one post taking aim at Tolle. He isn’t innocent. He peddles spirituality, recites a lot of words, few of which he understands (mostly the words “a”, “an”, “the”, and “this”, as far as I can tell). He, at times, strongly implies that if poor people would only change their consciousness they’d get more goodies out of life. He insists his followers not judge when judgement is a moral imperative. He makes plainly false claims about himself, his motivations, and his capacities. He is not profound, let alone unique. His presence has no more power than anyone else’s presence. His supposedly clear and simple explanations are a mix of buzzwords and bad philosophy, with just enough pretend mystery to let his followers fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
This is the same process by which people who know each other only from a few hours in a chatroom on the net can convince themselves that they are soulmates. Eckhart Tolle’s profundity is Kumare’s profundity, except that Kumare/Vikram Gandhi was much more honest in his purpose, his teachings, and in the end with his identity. Kumare is also a much cheaper fake guru to follow.
Real spirituality is and remains a heroic inner quest paired with a courageous life of service. The world’s fake gurus, East and West alike, don’t have it. What they sell for a sometimes lethal price is poison. I will continue to engage in that most spiritual act of passing judgement on frauds, in the hope that my words may spare a victim or two from the nightmares these greedy, grasping, people create.Continue Reading...
You’ll need to re-register on this blog. This site was hit hard by the wave of botnet attacks just as I was moving it to a bigger, better vps. I was caught without as much security in place as I’d like, a plugin that had been identified as vulnerable (that very day) was enabled, I found a funny entry in a mail config file, and my intrusion detection was e-mailing me suspicious log entries so often that my email client sounded like it was playing a game of pinball with itself. Oh — and the blog was covered in spam even though I had it set so that no one could comment.
Suffice to say it was time to rip everything down and rebuild it, minus the vulnerabilities.
For security reasons I cannot restore the userlist. As visitors who would be vulnerable to malware planted on this site, I think that you, too, would rather visit a cleaned up, locked down blog . Making everyone register again is the lesser of an assortment of potential evils. If you have commented here before and would like to reclaim your comments, let me know your current username, where your comment(s) appear on this site, and under what nickname you would like your comments to be identified.
I am running a self-signed certificate, which means that when you try to register you will get a security warning from your browser, letting you know that I issued my own SSL certificate (i.e., no proper certificate authority verified that I am indeed myself). This will change when I install a real ssl certificate from Comodo. In the interim, my self-signed certificate is plenty secure enough for blog registration and login, and requiring SSL during login will protect your password from being stolen.Continue Reading...
I’ve been getting hammered by hackers/spammers, and suspect I’ve been rooted (I found a peculiar entry in my postfix config files, which tells me it’s cleanup and lockdown time). Once I get things secure I’ll move back to a self hosted blog.
It is likely I will lose all of my user records, so be prepared to make yourself a new account.Continue Reading...
This is in part a continuation of my reply to the last comment.
I’m not a “guru” in the stereotypical sense of the word. I don’t jet around the world in fancy robes making appearances, and I don’t earn cash for smooth-spoken trash. I couldn’t lay claim to divinity without either giggling, or throwing up. If worshipped, I promise to run away. I have no secret teaching and no special initiation to offer or withhold.
But there’s another, not so off-kilter grandiose, meaning of the word: teacher. That I am, even if I don’t use the word. If I don’t look at that, and think hard on that, my blindness can foster a metamorphosis towards the ugly form of the word.
This is a slippery thing for me to grasp. I don’t feel that I’m all that different from those I mentor. I call them friends, because that’s what they seem to be to me.
But, that word obscures the fact that I am not just a friend to them. I see my friends as they describe themselves to me, as persons who struggle with personal and spiritual issues. They see me as someone who has seen a way beyond some of these same issues, as someone to whom their happiness — and in some ways perhaps even their survival– is bound.
The extent of this power differential is a recent revelation for me. I had understood in a general sense that it existed. I’ve held conversations, for example, about why any sort of romantic involvement was forever off-limits between myself and those I mentor. Still I hadn’t seen the depth of the issue until a few weeks ago I understood that a friend wasn’t really free to speak his mind with me.
This isn’t a problem with the disciple, as I know gurus (pejorative sense) everywhere have argued in similar situations. This “problem” isn’t even really a problem. It’s an inevitable part of the learning process. I never argued calculus or Russian grammar with my teachers, because I knew they knew far more than I did. The circumstances my friends are in (“friend”, defective as it is, is still a good word, expressive of aspiration, if not perfectly of reality) is analogous to the position of a calculus student, but much messier. As a calculus student I never looked to my professor as an authority on existence itself.
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. And just as this isn’t a problem, but a fact, there isn’t a solution, but only a responsibility. I have a responsibility to strive to be aware of my friends’ circumstances, to strive to address the imbalances, to make space for independence, to recommit myself to serve my friends — understanding that, short of abuse, I am not free to walk away unless I am sent away, and that when I am sent away it’s not mine to linger a moment longer.
Perhaps the great failure of the gurus of the dharma religions is that. The student is expected to swear fealty to the teacher and to assume a duty of service to the teacher. In fact it is the teacher who ought be taking the oaths. Unless power is a burden, it is a poison.
Looking at it from another angle: Yes, I’ve known the “Great Aha!”, and it has in some sense irrevocably changed me. But extrapolating from there that I or anyone else could be an infallible enlightened being without the capacity to do wrong is bullshit of the sort that lets escapists indulge in fantasy and sociopaths indulge in excuses. I have a body. My mind can and had been fogged through illness and lack of sleep. I often lack the material knowledge to make the right decision. And try as I might to be aware of them, I’m as neurologically prone to cognitive errors as the next human equipped with a few pounds of wetware between my shoulders. I can, without a doubt, make errors, even devastating errors. The ideas expressed by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, that one who has experienced theosis, while no longer capable of mortal sin (i.e., the rejection of God) remains capable of sins of the flesh (no, not how we use it, colloquially, to mean sex, but rather, that living creatures have physical limits and physical needs which can cause errors in judgment) are, in my opinion, much more accurate than the grandiose claims of the worst of the East.
I don’t want to be haunted by a burden of perfection that I cannot live up to. The only way to escape such a burden is to work diligently to mitigate the power imbalance between myself and those friends I mentor.
Last night a friend (who has an excellent grasp of facial expressions, tone of voice, and other intangibles) wanted to watch and critique an Eckhart Tolle interview. I’ve long seen Tolle as a classic New Age spiritual profiteer, and I knew my friend did not like him either. So I thought the night would involve shared snark. I was wrong.
The first thing my friend and I both noticed was how he was trying to suppress expression of any emotion. You see this often among persons who try to present themselves as spiritual. For some reason they equate lack of emotion with inner peace, or at least they think that by presenting an emotionless front, it will look like inner peace to others. But it doesn’t. It looks like someone trying to be deadpan. What leaks out– the emotions that can’t be fully suppressed –is always very interesting.
The next thing we both noticed was the hollowness of his story. When people recount actual events, their accounts have a solidity to them. Surfaces are hard or soft, smooth or rough. Temperatures are warm or cold, the wind blows, or not. Sounds are loud, or quiet, high or low. Authentic memories have a kind of crisp certainty at the core, even after the passage of years has caused some of the details to be forgotten.
Eckhart Tolle’s account had few of these attributes. Where it did have these attributes, they pointed to something other than what it was presented to be. In particular, what Tolle described of his spiritual transformation sounded to my friend — who grew up with a bipolar parent — instead like someone emerging from a period of depression.
What I found incredible about his account was his dismissive statement about not remembering anything more about what transpired on that evening. I could sooner forget my name than I could forget any part of what transpired in my life 30 years ago. My memories are so powerful that I may as well be experiencing it when I reflect on it, and I cannot keep my voice from trembling when I talk of it in detail.
At some point in the tape not long after his account we were interrupted by a phone call, and I froze the recording. When we came back to it my friend noted about the freeze frame that Tolle’s face, despite his best effort at deadpan, didn’t look calm and wise. It looked, she said, like a man who had just been told his father has cancer. Tolle’s sadness was leaking through.
Watching the leaks, both of us wondered to what extent Tolle believes his own story. We arrived at a consensus that it had started as a knowing deception– an exaggeration, more likely, in his opinion, since he had emerged from depression, and since he does draw extensively from the world’s wisdom literature (even if he often doesn’t understand what he’s borrowing from it). I suspected he was not alone in formulating the deception. In my mind’s eye I imagined him sitting around a kitchen table with other people, people of the same ilk I once knew from the music industry. They alternately flattered his wisdom, dismissed the seriousness of the misrepresentation, and promised to make him a successful self-help author 1. Tolle consented to their plans, never expecting the degree to which their scheme would “succeed”.
We both think that Tolle feels trapped in his situation. We also thought that at times he’s begun to believe some of the fabrications (cognitive dissonance being an awkward thing to live with). But he is not an entirely unwilling participant, nor is he unaware that the whole thing is a scheme. Watch his expressions as he speaks about the money he has made. He is more emotionally expressive, more animated, about this topic than any other topic under discussion. This is the subject that really matters to him. And, you will see, near the end of the discussion of his finances, that he can’t quite manage to suppress a smirk.
We couldn’t entirely ignore the content — what he said — of “the teachings”. What stood out to me was how very poorly he understood some of the concepts he had taken from the world’s wisdom literature. It is true, as he appropriates to himself in his books, that we don’t really have words for spiritual concepts, and that it is important not to get bogged down in conventional interpretations of the necessarily inadequate language used to describe spiritual concepts.
But, as my friend pointed out, if your take on the Biblical snippet “the peace that passeth all understanding” is that you had peace and you didn’t understand it, then there is a hell of a lot more that you well and truly do not understand.2,
He conflates being in the now with not planning. Equating the mystical now with a failure to think ahead or analyze the past is dangerous hogwash. The now of mysticism is not the now of shortsightedness or stupor. The now of mysticism is the now of the aha!, where all things come together in a fully present, wordless, understanding. Like all moments of sudden insight, it is the endpoint of intensive, usually years long, inquiry. Unless you dig deep, into the nature of truth, into how others in the past understood truth, and into one’s own character and motives illumined by the light of past actions, there is no hope that all the pieces will come together in a Great Aha! Compassion, too, is only empty sentiment without intent, and intent is necessarily about the future. Life without planning and without looking back is a blinded and chaotic life, not an insightful and creative one.
It’s very bad advice like this that makes Eckhart Tolle’s teaching harmful, both spiritually and materially. And it is destructive ideas like this which motivate me to blog.
I felt pity for the man. He is lost, sad, and terribly alone. Watching him I am not inspired by his wisdom. But I am, almost, inspired to call Adult Protective Services to report that someone, somewhere, is exploiting the mentally ill.
Unfortunately, it’s here where we had to turn off the video and part. Perhaps in a few days my friend and I will have a chance to finish watching the tape. I don’t want to finish it by myself, because this particular friend is my go-to source for reading another person’s character. I know I don’t spot half of what she easily catches and can point out. I simply couldn’t do it justice alone.
As my friend was leaving I said “It’s a shame I won’t be able to blog about any of this,” thinking that such a critique of the man lacked the discourse about ideas necessary to make it respectable. But later I thought “It’s a blog post, not a formal essay. I can write almost anything I want in a blog post.” And so I have.
Of course evaluating intangibles like this is chockablock with subjective interpretation. And so I invite my readers (including my friend, who I know reads this blog) to look at the video and add their own observations about Eckhart Tolle in the comments.
2 “The peace that passeth all understanding” refers to a peace that cannot be described using language, or comprehended using conventional thought. It nonetheless is a peace that is entirely understood in a Great Aha! moment. Unless you know that kind of understanding, you can’t know that kind of peace. Tolle here by his words demonstrates that he knows neither.Continue Reading...
Amazing things happen when you do everything right. There was, maybe, 20 minutes down time, tops. during the server transfer. Maybe I should make a habit of treating my VPS like a server and not like a crash test dummy.Continue Reading...
My hosting company is going out of the hosting business, which means this website is moving some time before December 1st (the deadline). So if you look, and its not here, look again in a few hours to (worst case scenario) few days. It will be back.Continue Reading...
My hosting company is going out of the hosting business, which means this website is moving some time before December 1st (the deadline). So if you look, and its not here, look again in a few hours to (worst case scenario) few days. It will be back.Continue Reading...