I believe there are many paths to the divine, not just one, ranging from the most simple to the most esoteric, and each is the skillful path for certain people. Just as there is no one medicine that is right for everyone all the time, there is no single path for everyone. I say this despite the claims of so many teachers that theirs is the true and best path and practice. It is said that there are many paths up the mountain, and they all reach the same peak. There is a short YouTube by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Lama Lena, speaking powerfully on this point; to watch it click here.
From time to time, each of us is faced with various challenges along the way, whether it is a dark, depressing time when we face our unhealed wounds, or simply the question of what path and practice is most skillful for us now. When we feel the practice is alive in us, when we draw energy and insight from it, we can be confident in our practice. But what happens when we begin to question it or where it is taking us? Or what about when our practice begins to feel dry, repetitive, boring, rote? These and many other situations will arise for anyone with a serious dedication to their spiritual practice and their intention to awaken and manifest the best within them. These are times of great opportunity, and to take full advantage of them it is helpful to find a spiritual teacher, mentor, or counsellor.
When you are facing a dark time, you may well be in the midst of a spiritual crisis, what some call a Spiritual Emergency. Most of us experience these from time to time. If we have the courage to face into such moments, these can be times of great inner growth, where we can release much of the fear, attachment and ignorance that keeps us from being our true selves. Emma Bragdon's book, The Call of Spiritual Emergency: From Personal Crisis to Personal Transformation, and Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, edited by Stan and Christina Grof, are both excellent explications of these dark nights of the soul, and very helpful for times when life looks especially rough.
In these circumstances it can take courage to reach out to another person as we often try to hide when we feel weak and vulnerable. It may help in this case to consider questions like the follow:
Have I experienced this before or is this a new experience for me?
How long have I been feeling this way? If it has been ongoing for a while, it may well be wise to find someone to work with.
Am I able to be with my experience of this darkness or depression, or is it more than I feel I can face alone? This is important as it is only be facing our experiences fully and without judgment that we can move through them.
Do I have the ability, skill, and patience to work through this by myself, or would I benefit by talking with someone, remembering that we are much better at hiding things from ourselves than from others?
In addition to finding someone to talk with about what you are experiencing, I strongly suggest using the powerful tool of writing to describe your experiences. In fact, this is an excellent time to begin a daily journal if you don’t have one already, even if you write in it only occasionally and only for a short time. I have found writing my experiences is much like talking with myself but in a clearer fashion, and I often gain insights I would have missed otherwise.
Take another, common circumstance, that of feeling that your current practice simply feels flat, and you are trying to decide whether to hang with it or to find a new practice, teacher, or path. Jumping from practice to practice too quickly, of course, can simply be a way to avoid facing a spiritual challenge or crisis. That said, it is also true that a ‘dry spell’ can be a sign that it is time to move on. Just as there is much to be lost from jumping too quickly to another practice, there are times when we have gained what there is to gain from a particular path. Each of us is always changing, and what is skillful today is not necessarily what will be skillful for us tomorrow. As the Buddha is reported to have said, if we build a raft to cross a river, once on the other side we don’t drag that raft along with us as we continue on.
If you find yourself in such a dilemma, questions you might ask yourself include:
How long have I followed this practice? Do I really understand it and have I become adept at it? By the way, just because you are brand new to a practice does not mean you have to stick with it if it doesn’t resonate with you. That said, giving a practice time to unfold is generally wise.
How have I changed since beginning this practice? (You might ask others this question to see if they have noticed a shift in you).
What issue or issues might I be avoiding? I find this a useful question but I always take my answer with a large grain of salt unless I have talked this over with someone who knows me well.
Is there another practice or teacher that I’ve just come across that draws me? What is it about it or them that draws me?
Even as you ask these questions and others, it can be valuable to talk with someone. We are reaching for the wisdom of our heart, our inner teacher, and often another person can see what our inner teacher is advising even when we cannot.
Unfortunately, unless you live in a monastery, or are one of the few fortunate to have a close relationship with a minister or teacher you have confidence in, finding someone to talk with can be hard. Many teachers, wonderful as they may be, are often convinced that their path is the right one for you and everyone. There are, of course, teachers who are open and inclusive, but there are also many teachers who, in effect, teach by the book and not the heart. Over the years, I have found it wise to be sceptical of teachers who say their path is the best of all paths for all people; just because it works for them and others does not mean it is your path, as only you can decide that.
I’ve worked with both the open and open-hearted teachers as well as those who teach by the book. The difference between them is extraordinary. So if you do decide to find someone to talk with, here are some things to consider:
If you want to work with a psychotherapist, you need to be clear that they understand what a spiritual crisis or emergency is, and that that is what you are facing. Too often, however, psychotherapists interpret these dark times as a psychopathology rather than as a spiritual emergency, and treat us as someone with a severe neurosis or even a temporary psychosis, misunderstanding what is truly unfolding. There are, fortunately, those psychotherapists who do understand and can work effectively with a spiritual emergency. So when looking for a psychotherapist, it is important to talk with them at the beginning about their spiritual experiences and how they inform their psychotherapy practice. (I do have several excellent therapists I can recommend, so please click here to contact me if you wish a referral.)
Another route is to work with an open-minded spiritual teacher, one without dogma or a formulaic approach. Most teachers are open to an exploratory session so you can get to know each other. Again, be cautious around teachers who compare their path with other paths, and claim theirs to be the best or most effective for everyone. Just because it works so well for them does not mean it will for you.
Also, does the teacher you have in mind have the time to spend with you and really get to know you? Many of the best teachers have little time to work one-on-one with students, so you need to be clear about their ability to spend more than the occasional short session with you.
When considering a teacher, keep in mind that, with the exception of a few realized masters, all teachers are human beings with egos, fears, and human faults, and it is important to focus on the teachings, not simply the teacher. That said, it is useful to have a sense of how they live their lives, i.e., do they have integrity and do you respect them? How self-aware are they? Do you feel a connection with them, one on which you can build a relationship of mutual respect and trust?
This last question is important as there is still a patriarchal, hierarchical structure to most spiritual groups, whether they be Asian, Western, or even from an indigenous tradition. Too often there is an explicit or implied understanding that the teacher “knows,” and that they can tell us what we need to know. This is fine at the beginning of our practice when we all need a teacher to get us started. In time, however, the goal of practice should not be to climb the hierarchy of a group or even to gain more knowledge, but to finally step out of all hierarchy and teachings. We each have within us Buddha nature or its equivalent, i.e., our inner divine nature, and the goal of any practice is to help us peel away the layers of greed, fear, and ignorance within us that keep us from experiencing and manifesting that nature. Since this is our birthright as humans, all a good teacher can do is point a way forward for us. With a few notable exceptions, though, there is little more they can do, and it is up to us to find our way inside, following our inner wisdom.
The Three Gurus. There is a teaching about the three gurus (teachers) we each have. The first guru is the outer guru, the one before whom you sit who teaches and offers practices that are designed to lead to our own inner awakening. The second guru resides in us, and is that part of our heart and mind that enables us to to receive, to truly hear and take in, the wisdom of the outer guru. Finally, there is the third guru, who is our own secret, inner teacher, the intuitive part of our heart that leads us to the outer guru we need when we need her or him and are ready for them. It is all a mysterious process, but when we pay attention we can see how outer teachers show up when we are ready for them; as some say, it is the student who creates and calls the teacher. This has been my experience.
Now that I’ve reached my 70's, I look back over all the years of practice and the challenges I’ve faced. There have been hard times, when the voice of my inner teacher has been muted or seemingly confused. The support and companionship I’ve had from others at these times has made a profound difference, even though in the end it has been up to me to choose my path. I have come out of these experiences with an ability to talk with a fellow seeker with no agenda other than to help you discern your own wisdom and path, your own next step, regardless of practice or teaching. We will work together to uncover what it is that the wisdom of your heart, your inner secret guru, is pointing to.
If you have questions about this, about your practice, or about how we might work together, please feel free to contact me by clicking here.
To find out more about my own winding path, please click here.