05/17/2011 08:39 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

The Muddy Road to Enlightenment

When I was 21, as a student at the University of Michigan, I went for a semester with a group of students to live in the woods of Maine to "learn to live deliberately," as we followed in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the activities we engaged in periodically throughout our semester was called "marsh mucking." We put on thigh-high rubber boots and walked directly into the marshes -- literally hanging out neck deep in the swamps for hours at a time -- as we closely examined the diverse life forms of fungi, mold, thick grasses and all the microscopic organisms that together comprise mud.

Little did I know that my professional life would follow directly in these footsteps, only now the subject of my study would not be the literal marshes, but the internal muck comprising the all-too-human path of psycho-spiritual transformation. The complex mold comprised of our karma, psychological conditioning and trauma. The often mucky, muddy territory where spiritual longing, realization, blindness, psychological unconsciousness, spiritual bypassing, politics, and power meet. And that says nothing about the marsh and oftentimes wastelands of interpersonal relationships!

The strangest part of all is that I like doing this. I guess that is why I landed the job of writing books on such complex topics as "The Guru Question", or premature claims to enlightenment, or discernment. It is not that I find the psycho-spiritual marsh appealing -- I'd take the landscape of the Hawaiian islands any day. However, for better and for worse, as a practitioner on the endless path that marks spiritual life, I recognize that on the path to truth, the process of discovering what is untrue is one of the most effective and efficient means to increasing clarity, and therefore greater capacity to serve life in an integrated way. Vivekakhyatih aviplava hanopayah, it is written in Patanajali's Yoga Sutras (2:26). One must continually separate truth from untruth.

As a young writer on the path, I imagined that I would write about these murky topics for a number of years and then finally get onto the real work. Now that I'm (at least partially) grown up on the path, I have come to believe that this is the real work. Due to the nature of the kinds of things I write about, my psychotherapy practice has become almost exclusively focused on working with the emotional and relational challenges of long-term spiritual practitioners and teachers -- their relationship failures, nervous breakdowns, depressions, anxieties and the psychological complexities we encounter in spiritual communities as teachers and students.

It becomes clear that most of the problems we face are not because the spiritual paths and practices are not effective: they are. Spiritual communities do not fall apart, nor do students become disillusioned with their teachers because the teacher's spiritual practice is weak or lacking. If we practice intelligently, consistently, and over time, our spiritual perception and insight will deepen. The challenges instead fall into the domain of our psychological and relational wounding, how it is held in our bodies, and how it repeats itself once again in the context of our spiritual lives.

I once listened to His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa address a group of 5,000 monks and nuns in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha received his enlightenment. He began, "The greatest challenge you will experience in your lives of monks and nuns..." My ears perked up as I awaited to hear the esoteric secret of the great breakthrough that awaited these monks and nuns who had dedicated their lives to a life of monastic practice. He continued, "Is the task of facing and dealing with your human emotions."

This is where we live. All of us. Beginning practitioner and idealized spiritual teacher alike. We must engage the utterly human, humbling task of facing all that we are. "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light," said Carl Jung, "but by making the darkness conscious. The later procedure, is disagreeable, and therefore unpopular." By revealing that which is untrue, the radiance of deeper truth emerges from within.

Now we are taking on "The Guru Question," one of the most complex questions that we face as sincere practitioners on the spiritual path (and by practitioners I mean all of us, including teachers). As the possibility of a worldwide spirituality emerges, and the world itself evolves and changes at an unprecedented speed, the question of the teacher remains as critical and timely as ever. It involves increasing webs of complexity as we engage these questions from the possibilities and challenges proposed by the integral framework, as well as the wounds and trauma present in the Western psyche.

To take full responsibility as a practitioner and servitor of the spiritual path, we are called to educate ourselves on the question of the spiritual teacher, whether or not we have or wish to have a teacher, have been burnt or disillusioned by a teacher or teachers, and perhaps most importantly, if we ourselves are assuming a teaching function.

May our discernment ever grow, and may we refine our capacity to live into the questions such that our lives as students, teachers, and servitors of the path are ever radiant, effective, integrated and joyous.

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My new book will be released by Sounds True in June, blessed by the potent insight of Robert Thurman in the foreword, as well as personal stories from his own life in relationship to his teachers, as well as an appendix with in-depth interviews on this subject with luminaries like Ram Dass, Georg Feuerstein, John Welwood, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Lama Palden Drolma, Arnaud Desjardins, Charles Tart, Jai Uttal, and many others.