Sunday mornings nearly always find my wife and me sitting on the living room floor reading the
Sunday papers. When we find something that especially offends our sensibilities, we'll read aloud some bit of absurdity. Often it involves politics, sometimes cultural trends.
This morning, the subject matter was James Arthur Ray, the self -proclaimed self-help guru whose Arizona sweatlodge recently killed 3 people, one of whom was a local woman from Minneapolis.
Ray practices something he calls "practical mysticism," and travels about the country giving free self-help lectures hook people into signing up for his paid retreats, which go for a cool $10,000 per week. James Arthur Ray's "credentials," according to the article my wife read aloud, was that he had read voraciously over his lifetime, on subjects including science, psychology, religion. "Huh," my wife said. "You read the same subjects, and I'll bet you know a hell of a lot more than he does. Maybe we should go into business...but wait a minute..you're an honest man, so I suppose that wouldn't work out, really."
All of which got me to thinking about the issue of spiritual guides, and how tricky it is to find somebody who is a legitimate teacher. It's relatively easy to spot the obvious frauds. You'd have be quite stupid not to see that L. Ron Hubbard was bogus, for example. And this James Arthur Ray appears to cut largely from the same mold. These guys are easy, because anytime somebody's primary goal is make money, it's obvious what's really going on. And a few of the legtimate teachers are pretty much beyond reproach. Doing a little reading about Thich Nat Hahn, or the Dalai Lama,for example, and you'll be hard pressed to find anything that dilutes your admiration.
But others a little trickier. The Indian mystic known as Osho, for example, has some legitmately deep writings, but when you look a bit closer, you learn that he was also famous for a fondness for Rolls Royces. The Hindu leader, the Mararishi who instructed the Beatles in the 1970s is another example of spiritualism corrupted by materialism. In modern times, I find myself puzzled by the case of Eckhart Toll, for example. When you listen to his taped lectures, there is most definitely something legitimate and sincere in the message. But the fact that his philosophy has become such an obvious money-making cottage industry means that I remain uneasy believing that he's the real deal. The novels of Paulo Coello are seriously interesting, but he too, seems to be mostly about making money and promoting himself.
Similarly, I don't quite know what to make of people who flock to "the secret" with its law-of- attraction philosophy. I have friends I respect who have been greatly reassured and helped by this movement, but when I listen to and read the material, I have an uncomfortable sensation that it's a variation of magical thinking, in which folks imagine that spirituality is about gimmicks to help you get what you want. True spirituality, it seems to me, has almost nothing to do with getting want you want, but rather about developing acceptance and joy with what you already have in any moment.
So what is the answer? For me, anyway, I suppose it's largely a matter of going back in time and studying some of the original thinkers, for whom history has already established some judgment of their sincerity. You cannot read Meister Eckhart, for example, and not know that this is mysticism of the first order. Even this is not foolproof, though, for upon close examination of one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Chogham Trunpa, I learned that he died from advanced liver disease due to a lifetime of heavy drinking.
Maybe, at the end of the day, the real key is to court inner silence, and listen to no one but the inner voice deep inside us.
I think it's best not to do this in an Arizona sweatlodge, though.