08/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Raising the Bar

For a long time now in the postmodern spiritual marketplace, something very strange has been going on. In this post-conventional, post-traditional arena, where spirituality is, more often than not, made to order for the individual, where it's every man or woman on the path for him- or herself, many of us find ourselves exploring the innermost reaches of our own consciousness in the midst of some truly dubious assumptions.

One really weird assumption that most folks seem to have is that it is reasonable for there to be an enormous gap between, on the one hand, what we experience when Spirit speaks to us as soul-stirring revelation, overwhelming bliss, penetrating clarity, ineffable peace, and beatitude and, on the other, the way we live our so-called personal lives. Like I said, really weird!

The problem is that we're living in a time and a cultural context in which, for the most educated among us, what higher spiritual development is actually supposed to mean and what post-conventional ethical behavior should look like remain vague and undefined. Too often, the notion of being expected to hold oneself to higher standards or spiritual "laws" is held suspect. Some actually consider it to be an inhibitor of spiritual freedom rather than a clear indicator of genuine attainment. And this is understandable because most of us at the leading edge who are pursuing higher development outside of a traditional context are doing so without any maps indicating what it's supposed to look like.

Even before I became a spiritual teacher, it seemed obvious to me that there should be a direct correlation between our deepest philosophical convictions, our highest experiences of insight and revelation, and the reality of the lives that we live in public and in private--"in the world," as they say. As long as this is not the case, then whatever we think we are doing in our spiritual endeavors couldn't really be adding up to anything of enduring significance.

Any serious Christian is expected to act like a Christian, to demonstrate generosity of spirit, a high moral standard, humility, and submission to a power higher than one's own ego. If one is a "good" Jew, it's expected that one's life and the way it is lived will be an expression of God's law, a manifestation of the Torah in action. What that's supposed to look like has been defined in exacting detail by countless learned rabbis for thousands of years. If one is a devout Hindu, it is assumed that one's faith would be demonstrated in and through the very life one is living. Just because one may not be living as a renunciate sannyasin, it doesn't mean that one is not expected to be a full-bodied expression of faith or even have the capacity to become a deeply realized God-man or God-woman. And if one is a committed Buddhist (at least in the East), even if one is not a monk, it is expected that one's faith in one's chosen spiritual path be manifested through generosity, kindness, compassion, and nonattachment. In other words, a religious or spiritually committed individual is supposed to look like something specific!

For those of us who have taken that leap from a traditional religious context to a post-traditional spiritual orientation, why should it make sense for that same expectation not to apply? I might even add that in our own cultural climate of hyper-individualism and autonomy at all costs, it may be more important than ever to make the effort to define what authentic spiritual practice and attainment are supposed to look like.

Maybe the spiritual path is less about personal experience and more about change. Indeed, it might be an appropriate time to expect more results and higher dividends from our own spiritual practice and experience than most of us currently do. Maybe we need to consider what the effect would be if as many of us as possible dramatically lessened the enormous gap that exists between the inner and the outer.

I don't believe that the clarity and liberation of mystical insight is a free ride. I am convinced that the awakening of the spiritual impulse in our own hearts and minds is actually an evolutionary trigger--an urgent whisper from the Self to Itself, God's quiet voice imploring us to relinquish our attachment to our culturally conditioned ignorance, our materialism, and our pathological narcissism. Why are we being called? So we will take responsibility for the evolution of our own consciousness and culture, publicly, in such a way that raises the bar for all of us at the leading edge.