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SPIRITUAL DIRECTION IN THE MODERN WORLD
By Kenneth Leech
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2001 Kenneth Leech
All rights reserved.
Spirituality and the present climate
Can you see any hope for this homicidal, neurologically crippled species other than a mass religious ecstatic convulsion? TIMOTHY LEARY
In 1963 the mere mention of the God concept was good for a laugh. By 1965 it was many people's most serious concern. JEFF NUTTALL
THE 'SPIRITUAL QUEST OF YOUTH'
There is a serious danger at present in some writing and thinking around the area of youth and spirituality that the 'spiritual quest of youth' will be exaggerated and distorted to such an extent that the more widespread phenomenon of extreme conservatism in social attitudes will continue to spread unchecked. To some extent indeed the latter can be seen as a reaction against the former: the revolt of many of the young both against western materialism and against the prevailing political malaise has provoked many adults to a defensive and reactionary posture. But to an even greater extent, the present climate represents the persistence of a tradition which never died out among the young. Most young people never revolted, never protested, and never undertook any spiritual pilgrimage. They remained, like their parents, conventional and conservative.
In an earlier study, I attempted to describe some of the characteristics of the 'youth culture' of the 1960s with specific reference to its search for a spirituality. I was criticized by a number of reviewers for doing what I specifically denied that I was doing: describing the movements of youth in that period in exclusively 'religious' categories, and generalizing on the basis of a small minority of young people in central London. It is essential therefore to recognize the wider context and to define one's limits. I do not believe that the movements associated with the 'counter-culture' and the 'radicalization of youth', which have now been described in a number of studies, have so far affected modern society to more than a marginal extent. The impact on the big cities, with their concentration of journals, meetings and access to the media, can help to promote exaggeration. But the fact is that the cultural trends which I and others have described represent significant minority movements. As one sociologist noted: 'Life in Burslem, Tadcaster and Crewe was not greatly affected.'
At the same time, the movements are more significant and their influence more subtle than is often appreciated. Moreover, the interest of young and not so young in spirituality never was confined, and is not confined today, to the 'counter-culture' even in its widest connotations. It is a phenomenon which still awaits adequate research and documentation. For me, it marked the starting point in my ministry of taking personal spiritual guidance seriously, and led me to re-examine my own inner life and inner resources. I found that the demands made upon me required more than personal planning or sociological skills, and that I was being led to a deeper exploration of the most neglected area of clergy training, ascetical and spiritual theology.
During the 1960s it was frequently being argued that the future of humanity was 'non-religious', that society was secularized, and that the church's mission must be based on that assumption.
We came increasingly to believe that all this was true. Even our religious establishments, our various Vaticans came to believe that it was true. They have been operating, more or less, on this assumption ever since. This assumption is not true: it has been discredited not by theologians but by events. In fact we were entering—not a secularized age, as we thought—we were entering an age of incredible religiosity.
The view that society was increasingly and inevitably 'religionless' was severely criticized by the American sociologist Andrew Greeley. Arguing that 'the basic human religious needs and the basic religious functions have not changed very notably since the late Ice Age', Greeley concluded:
I do not believe that religion is in a state of collapse and none of the empirical data that I have available lead me to believe that it is ... The religious crises of the intellectual community by no means reflect the religious situation of the mass of the people. 'Western man', 'modern man', 'technological man', 'secular man' are to be found, for the most part, only on university campuses, and increasingly only among senior faculty members, as the students engage in witchcraft, astrology and other bizarre cultic practices.
By 1968 it was clear in many sections of modern life that there was a renewed interest in 'spiritual' issues.
It was a confused and bizarre interest which many who worked with young people encountered. There were those who used LSD and other psychedelic drugs and immediately sought guidance, both from other trippers and from those outside the drug cultures altogether, about further explorations of consciousness. The writings of Alan Watts and Ronald Laing became very popular. Both were concerned with the breaking down of the barriers by which the ego, the transitory waking self, prevented the experience of transcendence. For many young people, it seems that LSD initially helped this process, but they wanted to move on from this experience. They described their need in openly spiritual terms, so that even the Interim Report of the Canadian Government's Commission was led to comment on the degree of interest in religion among drug takers. These young searchers looked wherever they felt their need might be met—meditation schools, paperback mysticism, Yoga, even the church. But the church seemed ill-prepared to meet that need.
These young people were not restricted to any one social class or cultural group. Not all among them were drug users, and most of them were not 'hippies'. They were a very mixed group. What they did seem to have in common was a search for meaning in their lives, and by this they meant an inner meaning, a spiritual meaning. Ronald Laing referred to their search as a quest for transcendence of the ego, for 'meta-egoic' experience.
People who explore states of ego-loss, or are precipitated into them willy-nilly, search for references: maps of the worlds within worlds, of meta-egoic space and time. Most people involved in this don't refer to the Christian tradition for their terms of reference. They go not to the Bible but to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the biography of Milarepa, the Tao Te Ching, the Secret of the Golden Flower, to the Buddhists, Zen, Tibetan and other schools, the Taoists, the Sufis, the Hindus. Such texts that seem able to speak to the condition of these meta-egoic ego-loss experiences, over barriers of egoic-time, space and cultural conditions.
It was this quest for transcendence and ego-loss which was very frequently associated with the use of psychedelics, and by 1967 the psychedelic movement had grown into a mass culture, concentrated particularly in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In Britain, London's streets became familiar with the surface features of psychedelia. Beneath the surface, a new spirituality seemed to be emerging.
The place of LSD and other chemicals in this emergence should not be exaggerated, but it was and is of great importance. It was not a question of the simple causal link: psychedelic drugs merely opening up the consciousness and leading directly to spirituality. It was rather a resurgence of spirituality which for a time used the only resources which were available in a technological and materialistic culture—chemicals. In one sense the psychedelic movement was simply the application of the highly respectable 'Better living through chemistry' thesis to the realm of the spirit. Or, as Meher Baba put it in 1968, 'God in a Pill'. Soon after the early work with Leary on psychedelic drugs, his colleague Richard Alpert sought out a guru in India who told him,
LSD is like a Christ coming to America in the Kali Yuga. America is a most materialistic country, and they wanted their Avatar in the form of a material. The young people wanted their Avatar in the form of a material. And so they got LSD. If they had not tasted of such things, how will they know?—how will they know?
Alpert, even though he ceased to use drugs, continues to hold that when used under reasonably conscious conditions, these agents have enabled some people to break out of their limited perceptual vantage points and understand alternative possibilities of reality. Less positively, and perhaps more cynically, Theodore Roszak commented in 1968:
The gadget happy American has always been a figure of fun because of his facile assumption that there exists a technological solution to every human problem. It only took the great psychedelic crusade to perfect the absurdity by proclaiming that personal salvation and the social revolution can be packed into a capsule.
The basic thesis of the psychedelic movement was expressed by Timothy Leary in the early days of his drug experiments. The human brain, he argued, was 'capable of limitless new dimensions of awareness and knowledge', but 'you have to go out of your mind to use your head; that you have to pass beyond everything in order to become acquainted with the new areas of consciousness'. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead noted, 'Acid has changed consciousness entirely. The U.S. has changed in the last few years and it's because that whole first psychedelic thing meant, "Here's this new consciousness, this new freedom, and it's here in yourself."' Michael Hollingshead, the Englishman who first introduced Leary to LSD, has documented in great detail the way in which the drug search assumed spiritual dimensions and a theological language. In his book The Man Who Turned on the World, he claims that
we are seeing a change in the nature of western man due to a shift in emphasis away from a theological revelation to an ontologist mysticism, that is, authority of a Divine Person to the more individually 'free' belief in absolute Nature. In either approach to God, we are reminded that we are summoned to a deeper spiritual awareness, far beyond the level of subject-object.
Many years earlier, Aldous Huxley had written of 'the chemical conditions of transcendental experience', while in the nineteenth century both Benjamin Blood and William James were concerned with the issues of drugs and mysticism. Indeed, the link between drug use and the attainment of spiritual status is extremely ancient.
The pharmacology of LSD and the historical course of the psychedelic movement have been discussed elsewhere, and ought not to detain us here. The important point is that to make the drug the centre of attention is a mistake. The most that any drug can do is to accentuate or suppress functions in behaviour which already exist. Drugs cannot in principle introduce anything new into the mind or into behaviour. So it was soon rediscovered that the entire range of 'drug effects' could be produced without the use of drugs, by traditional methods of consciousness change—meditation, sensory deprivation, fasting, chanting, Yoga, dancing, and so on. Moreover, these 'natural', non-chemical methods might enable the state of enriched consciousness to be continuous and lasting. So out of the psychedelic movement grew an interest in non-chemical approaches, in methods of self-exploration and enriching of consciousness by natural means. Hence we have seen through the late 1960s and 1970s the blossoming of a wide range of spiritual movements and groups whose aim is to raise the level of consciousness.
For it has been a central assumption of this new spiritual quest that the West is suffering from severe spiritual deprivation, what Roszak calls 'a diminished mode of consciousness'. It was this point which Laing made so powerfully in his best-selling work The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise, which first appeared in 1967.
We live in a secular world. To adapt to this world the child abdicates its ecstasy ... Having lost our experience of the Spirit, we are expected to have faith. But this faith comes to be a belief in a reality which is not evident. There is a prophecy in Amos that there will be a time when there will be a famine in the land, not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. That time has now come to pass. It is the present age.
Laing ironically was assuming the mantle of the theologian at precisely the time that many theologians were writing as though they were psychiatrists! Others were to make the same point. 'We are heading into a profoundly religious age', wrote McLuhan in 1968, while the economist E. F. Schumacher strongly attacked the autonomy of economics and urged the recovery of spirituality. 'The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve: but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.'
The particular form of the 'traditional wisdom of mankind' which was being rediscovered and re-experienced in the 1960s was eastern rather than western, Hindu rather than Christian, non-rational rather than rational, occult rather than prophetic, and emotional rather than intellectual. Charles Reich referred to it as 'the new consciousness', and said that 'the extraordinary thing about this new consciousness is that it has emerged out of the wasteland of the corporate state, like flowers pushing up through the concrete pavement'. Monica Furlong saw it as a revival of the ancient theme of spiritual journey.
The return to primitive forms of journey such as witchcraft and astrology; the new found interest in meditation and in contemplative forms of experience; the adoption of eastern forms of religion, particularly Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Vedantism; the attempt to understand something new about the meaning of the group, by group dynamics and new forms of communal living; the turning to drugs, especially LSD and cannabis, in an attempt to learn something new about the self and its meaning; the expression and sharing of some of this ferment of thought in pop music and musicals like Hair; all of these seem to me to be attempts to set out upon, or talk about, an inner journey.
It is significant too that Hermann Hesse's novels became popular in this period, for in Siddhartha Hesse uses the account of one of Buddha's journeys as a way of recounting his own quest for spiritual direction.
In this quest, journey or search, we can identify three central themes which seem to be present in most of the forms which the journey takes, though they are not all present together at the same time. The first is a disenchantment with, or lack of interest in, the conventional, established religions of the West, particularly institutional Christianity. The second is a desire for transcendence, for deeper ways of experiencing reality. The third is a concern for peace, for justice, for human liberation and human fulfilment, combined with a disillusionment with mainstream political solutions. Some of these themes in contemporary spirituality will need more detailed examination.
THE JOURNEY INWARDS
In Hesse's Siddhartha, the young son of a Brahman priest discovers that, while he can make other people happy, he is not himself truly at peace. He has contemplated, meditated, and used the great Om mantra, but in spite of all his efforts, he remains empty, 'his intellect ... not satisfied, his soul ... not at peace, his heart ... not still'. He needs to replace intellectual knowledge by direct experience, to find the reality within his own self. 'One must find the source within one's own self.' So Siddhartha goes off into the forest with his friend and confidant Govinda in search of an authentic spirituality. After some years of ascetical discipline, he still finds that the ego is present, he is still not at peace. So he goes in search of a Buddha, and Govinda becomes the Buddha's disciple. Siddhartha, however, chooses 'to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach the goal alone—or die'. In his search, he 'has discovered the comforting secret that a teacher is unnecessary'. He moves on to a city where a beautiful courtesan Kamala instructs him in the art of love, but he later leaves the city for the forest. He thinks of suicide but is deterred by the distant sound of the Om mantra from his past, and he goes to sleep. He wakes to find Govinda, now a monk. Siddhartha, however, realizes that he has, through his struggles, become free of his ego-self, and he remains by the river, learning from its voices. He has attained Buddhahood.
The whole book, of course, needs to be read. It is hardly surprising that Hesse began to assume the status of a cult figure at the point in the 1960s when many young people found themselves undertaking precisely this journey—a spiritual pilgrimage, without a teacher, free from the forms and structures of the past, a quest for the Self beyond the self. Siddhartha's pilgrimage is in fact Hesse's own. 'All these stories dealt with me, reflected my own path, my own secret dreams and wishes, my own bitter anguish.' They reflected the path, the dreams and the anguish of many.
Leaving drugs behind, many young people came to feel that the journey might best be pursued through meditation. Meditation schools, groups and cults, mainly Hindu in orientation, now flourish in many places, as well as occult movements, and the more traditional disciplines of Zen and Sufi mysticism. Nor has this revival of exploration of the eastern traditions affected only the young, or the ex-drug user. Some of these movements now include many middle-aged and elderly disciples as well as many young people who have never used drugs. The eastern schools which exist in Britain fall into three main groups, according to their origins in Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic traditions. Hinduism assumes many forms. Its scriptures are the Vedas, and its disciples are often linked together in ashrams, or community houses. The most important and best-known of the Hindu sacred texts is the Bhagavad-Gita, and this now sells widely in Britain in the translation by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the Krishna Consciousness movement. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali also come out of the Hindu tradition and are one of the essential texts for practising contemplation through Yoga. Yoga and Vedanta in fact are the two major schools which grew out of the Hindu literature, and movements derived from both schools are popular at the present time. Yoga is widely taught and practised in London and other centres, although the most popular form is a very westernized version of Hatha Yoga, propagated for health purposes, from which most of the contemplative core has been removed. Sometimes there may be a simple form of meditation offered, but the basic appeal is that of physical fitness and agility. But there are schools which go much deeper, and a visit to most large bookstores will introduce the inquirer to the literature of a wide variety of such schools.
Excerpted from SOUL FRIEND by Kenneth Leech. Copyright © 2001 by Kenneth Leech. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury
Notes to the revised edition
Introduction to the revised edition
1 Spirituality and the present climate
2 Spiritual direction in the Christian tradition
3 Direction, counselling and therapy
4 Prayer and the Christian spiritual tradition
5 The practice of the life of prayer
6 Towards a prophetic understanding of spiritual direction
Appendix Spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation