Andrew Lawler’s interview with Andrew Harvey [“The Ordinary Decency of the Heart,” May 2008] was fascinating. Like Harvey did with his guru Mother Meera, I used to idolize certain people and believe they were enlightened — until I saw a chink in their armor, and then I would denounce them.
I eventually quit looking to others to tell me how to live, but I am still susceptible to advice from charismatic people. Reading the interview, I started to think: I need to do so much more with my life; yes, I volunteer at a nursing home and an animal shelter, but Andrew Harvey says this is not enough. Then I caught myself. We are constantly giving each other advice about how to live, but in truth we are able to give only one person good advice: ourselves.
Though I agree with many of Andrew Harvey’s views on the state of the world, I don’t find this statement helpful: “Religions keep alive fantasies and dogmas.”
Religions do nothing of the sort. It is people who pervert the tools religions make available. Christianity itself did not create the Inquisition, nor did communism create Stalin. We can point to the failings of many systems, but we are on the wrong track if we think that replacing one system with another will make things right.
When Andrew Lawler asks Andrew Harvey, “Do you trust your passions to guide you?” Harvey replies, “No, the more passionate you are, the more you need to cultivate passion’s opposite: deep inner peace.” Excellent advice. Many people — including Sun editor and publisher Sy Safransky, who feels the need to castigate George W. Bush in every issue of The Sun — rely too much on their passions to guide them. If deep inner peace were every person’s goal, the solutions to all our problems would be within reach.
Having spent twenty-five years in a Western Zen Buddhist order, I was eager to read about Andrew Harvey’s disillusionment with the “guru system.” I wanted to see if his experience had much in common with my own.
For me, it eventually became apparent that something wasn’t right about my practice. Repeatedly I would emerge from “spiritual-counseling” sessions feeling worse about myself. I had not substantially evolved from the way I had come into the practice decades earlier, and the same appeared true for other long-term practitioners.
At first, like Harvey, I more or less blamed the teachers. But eventually I understood that I had been a volunteer: no one had ever forced me to follow the practice. I had swallowed the entire message uncritically because I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t realize that the truth of my life lies within me. In essence, I finally started listening to the teaching, rather than the teachers.
Of course gurus are flawed. They are human. Whose fault is it that we forget this, as I did, squelching our internal guidance and following a bunch of well-intentioned, but slightly misguided, imperfect teachers?
Harvey appears to have ignored his own responsibility for vesting his teacher with supreme powers. People like him — and me — turn to monks, priests, ministers, gurus, sages, prophets, and so on in the hopes that they will provide us with something to banish our fears, self- hatred, and other miseries. Now it seems that Harvey is making pronouncements himself, such as, “If you’re not capable of being gracious and recognizing the pain another person is in, you’re not a spiritual practitioner.” So, does that mean I am to look to Harvey to identify my place in the spiritual hierarchy? If I pass that litmus test, am I OK? The other day, I was sort of callous toward someone and didn’t entirely recognize what she was going through. Am I no longer a spiritual practitioner, or do I get a certain number of tries before I’m stripped of my ranking?
Perhaps Harvey is about to become the nonguru guru, blessed with a unique understanding and ready to spread the word and transform the world with the help of “sacred activists.” Why does this feel so chillingly familiar?
Andrew Harvey responds:
To Maureen Geiger: Thank you for the loving and inspiring work you do. I think, however, that in such an extreme crisis, all of us have to ask ourselves, Is what I am doing enough? Is it radical enough for the danger that we face? I find this question painful myself, but I must reluctantly keep asking it if I am to go on disturbing my life and opening it up to divine grace.
To Mary Jane Wilkie: I believe that any claim by a religion to have the exclusive truth qualifies as both fantasy and dogma. As soon as any religion says it is the only path to salvation or enlightenment, it lays the groundwork for abuse, violence, terror, and cruelty. History has shown this. I am not advocating the replacement of one system with another, since I think all religious systems have failed us. I believe we now need, each in our own unique way, to wake up to our divine identity and act with wisdom and compassion in an endangered world.
To Don Wertheimer: I share your point of view on my responsibility for the Mother Meera debacle, which I analyzed at great length in my book Sun at Midnight and throughout The Return of the Mother. The guru system has fed off human credulity, magical thinking, and the desire to have someone else live out the sacred life for us, and I have been guilty of all of these errors. This does not, however, change the fact that the guru system is itself corrupt and manipulative. I also agree that I overemphasized the point about acknowledging others’ pain; like everyone else, I often fail at this, yet I still believe that I am a spiritual practitioner. Thank you for the correction.
I hope to God I shall never become a “nonguru guru.” I do not in any way believe that I have a unique understanding. On the contrary, I’m kept going in my work because I meet thousands of people who also see the extreme danger the world is in and the necessity of meeting it with action inspired by sacred wisdom and compassion. The principles of sacred activism can be found at the heart of all mystical traditions, and no one can claim to have invented them or to be their unique guru or prophet. But the danger of making unconscious plays for guruhood is always there for anyone possessed, as I am, of an urgent message. I will do everything in my power to avoid this danger, and I am sure I will continue to need intelligent and sensitive critiques like yours.
I am writing in response to Carol Heinz’s letter in the May 2008 Correspondence about Adyashanti’s statement that to be a living organism is to kill. Heinz took offense that Adyashanti did not distinguish between killing sentient organisms and nonsentient ones.
Though the suffering of sentient beings is painful to see, because they are so similar to us, there are many people who also feel the suffering of so-called “nonsentient” beings. I am one of those who have a sense of the suffering of plants, fungi, and so on. I rarely speak up for them, lest people think I’m crazy, but I think they are crazy not to notice that every living thing clings to life and will pass into death more gracefully if it is respected first and has a sense of being useful after death. Only when you include all living creatures in the equation can you realize the degree to which others die so that you may live.
I was delighted to see “Stealing” as the topic of your April 2008 Readers Write. I have been in recovery from addictive-compulsive shoplifting and workplace theft since 1990. The readers’ stories confirm for me that stealing is a common experience. I’ve read that 90 percent of Americans have shoplifted at least once and nearly 75 percent of employees steal from their workplaces.
I’ve been an addictions therapist since 1997, and some of my clients have problems with stealing, which is often a cry for help and a result of feeling “stolen from.” By talking openly about it, we are not condoning the behavior but putting the shame and secrecy behind us, which is the first step toward getting help.
I cannot tell you how moved I was by Sy Safransky’s fundraising letter [“Friend of The Sun”] in the March 2008 issue of The Sun about reprinting an issue to protect a prisoner’s identity. My father has been incarcerated in Texas since 1994, and he, my mother, and I have all had subscriptions to The Sun for years now. It’s one of the few things we can share across the boundaries and distances that divide us.
My family knows all too well what most people in our society think of incarcerated felons. Your willingness to sacrifice so much to stand up for this prisoner’s humanity and safety gives me hope that there are still people who can see beyond the stigma around imprisonment.
I subscribed a few months ago to study the writing in The Sun, thinking it would help me in my own writing pursuits. I’ve read each issue from cover to cover since then and have found mostly stories of suicide, abuse, neglect, and death. I have encountered a few gems from which I learned something, but they are rare, and I am depressed when I close the back cover.
I do not question the writers’ talent, but I do question The Sun’s selection. Few works in your pages “celebrate the glory . . . of being human,” as your brochure advertises. Please choose more works that are positive and show that the human spirit can also be strong and triumphant.
I’m one of many alcoholics unwilling to surrender their precious bottle, more frightened of living than of death. I spend each day searching for a healthy distraction, one that will cleanse me of the desire to drink. The Sun is one distraction I’ve found that keeps me sober. I thank you for the moments of tranquility you’ve provided my family and me.
In our July 2008 issue, we printed an incorrect title for one of David James Duncan’s books in his contributor’s note. The correct title is God Laughs & Plays. We also misattributed a quotation in the August 2008 Sunbeams. It was Khalil Gibran who wrote, “Work is love made visible.”