I was ten years old when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a little known Indian teacher who had founded the “Spiritual Rejuvenation Movement” back in 1959, gave a retreat in Bangor, Wales. That retreat, with its usual attendees from the metaphysical sub-sub-culture, would have gone completely unnoticed by the rest of the world were it not for the surprising attendance of four very influential people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

The Beatles had already been setting trends in fashion, music, haircut, and lifestyle since the early 1960’s. When they grew their hair longer into the “mop cut,” it became the signature of the Beat generation in 1962. When they started to experiment with psychedelics, it took only a few months for many others to do the same, and it spawned the summer of love in 1967.

So when the Beatles went off to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, first in Wales and then in Rishikesh, India, the number of people learning transcendental meditation went from a few hundred to millions within a year. When the Beatles went to India they were joined by Donovan, Mia Farrow, and a handful of other cultural icons. The Beatles got disillusioned with Maharishi within a year.  Their song “Sexy Sadie” on The White Album ridicules their ex teacher. George quickly hooked up with Swami Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, and developed a devotion to Krishna which was unbroken until he died. Swami Muktananda set up shop in South Fallsberg, New York, and also drew in a torrent of celebrities. Werner Erhard created EST. By the early 1970’s, the question on everyone’s lips had shifted from “what’s a guru?” to “who’s your guru?” It seemed like everyone young and hip enough had a spiritual teacher they were following, and there were literally hundreds to choose from.

Many of those teachers were from India, Tibet, Japan, or China, and came from traditions where business and spirituality had no common ground. In the early 1970’s, however, many of them developed huge organizations, quite commonly with assets in the millions, and generally with a burgeoning feudal structure, not dissimilar from the very Catholic Church many of them had only recently shunned.

The attraction to having a teacher at that time was extremely clear. Many of us were born in the years following the second world war. Our parents were obviously confused about many things: gender roles, how to raise children, the purpose of being alive, to name just a few. They were, for the most part, adrift and unhappy. The religious traditions in which we grew up: Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, seemed to offer only the possibility that we could become like the generation that had reared us. So an India teacher, promising the giddy heights of enlightenment, appearing to be completely relaxed and confident, with an unambiguous and strong position around sexuality, money, and how to look after your body, often with a strict regimen of practices to follow, made life simple and easy. Back in the 70’s, everyone thought their guru was The Way, and that Nirvana and Utopia were just a few years of meditation away. (more…)

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I’ve spent a good deal of my time in India over the last several decades. There’s a common saying in India that if a teacher charges money for “the dharma” (which loosely translated means “teachings about the truth”) that he or she will go to a special section of hell set aside for spiritual entrepreneurs, an area cornered off and designed to be much nastier than the areas for axe murderers, rapists, and the like.

My primary teacher in India, H.W.L. Poonja, for example, never asked money from anyone for anything. There was no donation basket in the back of the room, even.

At the same time, there is another, equally well-established tradition in India, called “dana.”  You never go to a teacher empty-handed. If you want the blessings of the teacher, you should come equipped with baskets of fruit, cloth, and all other kinds of goodies.

In the last several decades, there have also been some immensely successful teachers making huge contributions to millions of people who have worked from exactly the opposite mentality. A good example is Harry Palmer, the creator of the Avatar training. He is a genuinely deep and awake guy, highly motivated to help people experience freedom.  “People will only actually integrate insights that they have come to regard as valuable”, he stated back in the early ’90’s. “And the way that people create value in Western society is by paying money.”    Consequently, a couple weekends with an Avatar trainer would cost $2,000. The Avatar training was immensely successful for a long time. Other similar examples of huge, culture-charging movements that have charged high fees are EST, Tony Robbins Seminars, The Sedona Method, and many more. (more…)

mountain topWhenever a group of people get together and become more honest with each other, one of the first thing to happen is that they realize how much we all want the same thing.  It happens in marriage guidance counseling, we come to the recognition that we both want love, we both want to be seen and acknowledged.  It happens in any kind of business intervention: we come together as a team and realize we all want and need the business to succeed, we want the workplace to be inspiring and relaxed.  Ultimately it happens politically, when the leaders of nations recognize that they are more likely to get their own needs met when they can also recognize the need of the other.

The greatest area of split and misunderstanding, which I discover among my friends and other writers and teachers is the split between the longing of the spirit and material desire.  To paint the picture in broad strokes, I am aware of two categories of people I know.  On one hand, I’ve spend a lot of my life in “spiritual circles.”  I lived with Poonjaji in India, I’ve lived in community in other parts of my life.  When we make our home in this camp life is about liberation.  We mediate.  We do Yoga.  We chant.  We disassemble the structures in the mind because we have fallen in love with a deep sense of spaciousness and peace.  When you live exclusively in this camp the desire for money becomes a hinderance to be avoided, not a goal to be pursued.  Relationships are okay-ish, as long as they don’t get too co-dependent.  Frequently, our relationship with our parents is something to be “completed” and “resolved” rather than celebrated.  When you live in this camp, wanting to make it in the world is the greatest symptom of ego-entrapment.

But there is also another camp, where I equally enjoy setting up my tent from time to time.  This camp is much better decorated, has better food, and everyone has an i-phone.  In this camp the emphasis is on worldly success of every kind.  Making money is a good thing.  So is having great relationships, great sex, better health and, in fact, having better anything is good.  When you hang out a while in this camp and look back to the other side, the spiritual people look like a bunch of losers. Meditating on their navels and letting go of attachments, you can see from here that they can’t pay the rent, their relationships are often messy, and they often have health problems to boot.

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