Archive for July, 2010

Social Action and Finding The Prophet in Us All

July 28, 2010 - 10:46 am 41 Comments

Hearing The Prophetic Call and Affirming The Prophetic Within Us

From the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah: For surely you can know the plans I have for your good, and to rid you of any harm, and how I desire to give you a future and a hope… When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with your whole heart.

In our Western heritage, there are two main streams of thought and action that comprise the spiritual life. These two complementary and supplementary streams are the mystical or prayerful and the prophetic or the ethical. the first, the mystical, concerns itself with what theologians and mystics call sanctification, that is, the process whereby we can become or realize ourselves as being more godlike; the second path or stream within spirituality, the prophetic and the ethical centers on the need to promote justice and compassion, equality and truth within society and within ourselves. The modern mystic, Thomas Merton once described these two approaches to the Holy in these words: “[ Prayer is seeking a union with God through the path of personal transformation; justice is seeking the community of God through the path of social transformation.]”
Thomas Merton made this observation that comes from his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in the chapter Truth and Violence,
page 83:
“Christian social action must liberate [man] from all forms of servitude, whether economical, political, or psychological. These words can be easily said. Anyone can say them, and [many well intentioned preachers over the centuries have!]

And yet, in the sake of liberty [man] is enslaved. He frees himself from one kind of servitude and enters into another. This is because freedom is bought by obligations, and obligations are bonds. We do not sufficiently distinguish the nature of the bonds we take upon ourselves in order to be free.
If I obligate myself spiritually in order to be free economically, then I buy into a lower form of freedom at the price of a higher one, selling my soul for the sake of money, and what money can buy.
Today, as a matter of fact, there is very little real freedom anywhere because everyone is willing to sacrifice [his or her] personal integrity
(spiritual liberty) for the sake of security, or ambition, or pleasure, and just to be left alone in peace.”

Today, I want to reintroduce you to the other side of being a spiritual person, that is, becoming the prophet. Being a prophet is simply defined as being willing to become a living testament to the need for change, and to be a vital witness for justice, peace, compassion and truth in your world, and in your life.
In general, prophets are the part of our Western religious heritage we find to be the most troublesome. They are the risk takers, troublemakers, radicals and conspirators against the status quo..( Hmmm.. come to think of it, they might feel right at home here, after all…) their targets have always been complacency, security, apathy, and ego-driven disobedience. One of the main purposes of the prophet is to reinforce that we are all in this world together- we are so interconnected as to our fate and our future that we can say that there is no personal salvation- there is only all of us or none of us.
We are reminded by them that the Kingdom or Queendom of God is the place for those who love, and for those who serve. The prophets emphasize that we are indeed our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, and that we are also stewards of the Earth, and all its gifts and resources. Prophets remind us that we are everybody else’s caregivers, lovers, and healers and that is as it should be in humanity- that we are all one, all equal, all a part of the family of God.

The way of the prophet is not always a gentle way, but it is always sincere and deeply committed to discovering and proclaiming that which is just and true. The prophetic stands defiantly- he or she makes the commitment to act fiercely as a warrior of the heart- to be uncooperative with oppression and evil, while remaining steadfastly compassionate towards those who have been oppressed, toward the truth of our humanity and the dignity and worth of all life.

Being a prophet, or more accurately, feeling called and then being wrenched out of your complacency and resistance’s to act courageously is not a gift that most people want or seek. It contains very little personal glory, but much heartfelt satisfaction. Usually, there is a large price to pay when one chooses God, and for the willingness to stand up for what one believes. Most often, the mark of a true prophet is found in one who won’t volunteer, who is not eager to serve, but found in someone who is reluctant. looking over the lives of these people, there is a good reason for this. Q: Who, in their right mind wants to put themselves out there in front of family, friends, the media, and then become an easy target for either ridicule or criticism?
And yet… something truly happens to those blessed ones, something inside them that to others seems like madness, and to the ordinary way people look at their strange demands- to follow God more closely, it does seem impractical, if not downright insane! From somewhere deep within them, they hear a call, something awakens them, and urges them to accept a divinely inspired mission. Then they are compelled to write, speak, and lead for righteousness sake- for the sake of humanity, for decency, for equality, for the need to establish justice on earth and among nations, among neighbors, and in our own households.
A prophet is constantly on guard and warns us about following or falling into any of the traps of conformity and comfort, routine or apathy and especially to the belief that we are helpless to create a better reality, a better world through our own actions. They advise us strongly, asking us to rally our convictions and our faith in ourselves and in God to prevention defamation, abuse, exploitation, and conflict. On a personal and a social level, they warn us against indulging in any passions or preoccupation’s, idols or addictions- anything that can act as a substitute or counterfeit spirituality. They implore us to stop any behavior that can take us away from identifying ourselves as connected, ethical, and responsible.
A prophet asks each of us to make choices- choices as if the reality, power and grace of God really mattered to you, and to how the world needs to change to respond to those blessings that truly sustain us. A prophet or prophetess is a man or woman whose mission it is to be very protective of their community, and reverent toward the Council of All Beings on earth. They are willing to be very effective, front-line workers for justice, dignity and equality for us all. They see themselves as protecting the value of maintaining a spiritual identity in a world that discourages any serious regard for it.

Are you a prophet, in waiting??? Let’s see…
The classical description of a prophet is the one we get from the Jewish examples in the Hebrew or Old Testament. It goes like this:
First, there is a call to one’s conscience- a compelling, and a welling up cry to come out and serve your God in the highest way you know how, or in a way that God will reveal to you…
Second, there is an assurance that you will never need to be afraid, for you are becoming a servant of a holy purpose, a channel or an instrument, a current for God’s desire to uplift and reform that which had been downtrodden, abused or enslaved.
Then, you are told what the task ahead is, and you might balk, and then finally see that the world has need of you and so you risk, reach out, and declare, in God’s name, what needs to be said and done.
Hear, now, the prophet’s call… God’s call to you… To each of us… Learn of its wisdom, look at your life, and prepare to heed its message and mission for you, and for the world you want to see…

You! You out there, sitting in those chairs! Come Out! Rise Up ! Be the person of God that you were meant to be !
Don’t be afraid… I will never give you a task or a responsibility that I feel is too big for you, and besides… you believe that with God you can do anything, don’t you? That one on my side, on the side of God is a majority!

I have a job for you… a simple task really… but it is also my special gift to you by which you can bless all your brothers and sisters , all your relations on this planet… I want you to be my voice, my heart, my hands…

Now, I warn you… expect to be misunderstood; you might be maligned, ridiculed, made fun of- but… Hey, it just goes with the territory… Human ego and human culture doesn’t like to be corrected, and both are very resistant to change! Read the Beatitudes again… especially that last part!

Besides, there is a certain kind of enjoyable freedom when people think you are crazy- you can get away with a lot, while still teaching them many things!
Speak earnestly and honestly… Speak from your heart… Offer the people a choice and a hope- ask them to change for the sake of their lives, for our children’s sake, for the planet, so that the Earth has a chance to heal…
Meet any resistance you find with courage- teach them the promise of justice; give them the belief in equality, ask them to work for dignity, and to never neglect the suffering they see.
Tell them to stop; stop cooperating with evil, stop being passive, letting sick and evil people in their lives control them or have it all their way. Stop playing it safe; stop trying to be secure in a sick society or secure in your own family dysfunctions. Stop being afraid of judgments; stop your soul-robbing addictions, and seek out a place for God as alive, strong, loving and free within you.
Know, above all, that you are precious to God and that God has need of you- and that the time for you to answer the Divine call and for making peace and justice come into really is here… And NOW. AMEN

Meditation: The Current
from Anthony De Mello’s Wellspring

I pray to God that the Divine will choose me and use me-creating in me a channel for holy love, justice, and peace.
Yet, two things that most prevent me from being a channel of God’s grace are noise and sin.

So I begin my journey God ward by first seeking the silence- learning to quiet all the chatter of my own mind, and to silence all those haunting thoughts and caustic words about not being good enough, not being worthy, honest enough or true.

Then I seek to cleanse my heart from sin- all those ways I have tried to keep hidden from God or that can pull me away from the love, freedom, and dignity I deserve. To free myself, I willingly surrender my feelings of resentment, anger, greed, and fear… and place them before God. I give over my feelings of apathy, false comfort, ease or security knowing that I am only true and secure and at rest when I am near to God and held close by those everlasting arms that also strengthen me. …

Now, being filled by that sense of release, and supported by God’s presence that rededicates my spiritual renewal, I begin to feel a stream of love, justice, and peace begin moving inside me; filling, flowing and flooding my being and then moving out in gentle ripples to touch everyone I know, everyone who is here with me… As this current grows, so does my heart enlarge itself with the courage to share these gifts with others, even those whom I disliked or had been hurtful toward me.

Finally, I let it flow abundantly, indiscriminately, to support and care for everyone of the living creatures on the Earth. For by this stream of justice and love, we are connected to every living being, all who have a need for dignity and freedom, and from our hearts we know that justice, healing, and love cannot be for just one, it has to be for every and all….. AMEN

A Story about Faith and Service:
“Closer to God? No greater than this…”
There once was a famous old Rabbi, known throughout Europe as a wonderful teacher. For his efforts, he received many accolades, yet he remained humble an unimpressed by them. He wore fine garments and received the admiration of many, yet he would disappear every afternoon for about two hours, and then return to the Temple as if by magic. They knew he was not there, but they never saw him leave, nor did they notice when he had come back.

One time, this great rabbi was given a student who was suspicious of his success. This student wanted to track all his comings and goings. Then, in a self-righteous tone, he proclaimed that he would report this rabbi to the chief rabbi and have him censored for his strange and unusual behavior. When the chief rabbi heard of what the student wanted to do, he said to him, “This is a good man, why do you question his activities? The young zealot replied, “people declare that he is almost perfect, that he occupies the second rung on the ladder of holiness, and that is blasphemy!” The chief rabbi heard this and then he reluctantly give the young student his permission to spy on the old rabbi, and to find out what he does when he is missing from the synagogue.
One day, the young student hid himself in the dim light and shadows of the rabbi’s room. When it came to 2 O’clock, the rabbi quietly went to his closet, opened the door, and took out some old, dirty, tattered and torn clothes, and began to undress from his fine linens and began to put on these old rags.
After he had covered himself with rags, he took some soot from the fireplace, and rubbed it against himself, then picked up an old sack, and walked to the servant’s door, opened it, and walked out into the town…
Curious and amazed, the young student followed him at a distance, careful not to let the old rabbi see him…
Eventually, the rabbi reached an old hovel, a shack on the edge of the forest. It was a place where the sick and the poor live.

Going inside, without a word, he began by sweeping and cleaning the floor. Then he began to build a fire for the night. After that, he started to make soup for those who were there with the food he had purchased and brought with him.
After he had finished, he stopped to say some prayers with the people, especially those who were halt and blind. And then he left, quietly, and returned to the temple, and changed his clothes.
The next day, he did the same thing, and the next, until the student saw that he did this every day and that the reason why people did not see him come and go was his tattered and dirty disguise.
Then the young student rushed over to the chief rabbi and told him everything that he had seen about what the rabbi was doing. Then he asked the chief rabbi , ” Is what people say about him true? that he is an almost perfect rabbi, and that he is on the second rung of the ladder to heaven?” and the chief rabbi said to him, ” O yes, its true, but I would place him even higher.”

Synopsis of Spiritual Paths- East & West

July 14, 2010 - 12:54 pm 33 Comments

“[No one teaching has a monopoly on truth. Knowledge will be expressed in quite varied and sometimes apparently contradictory ways, depending on the needs of the time and place. …

Nonetheless, it is still meaningful to speak of western esoteric traditions, which have very much their own flavor and which may speak to those who find Taoism or Zen Buddhism alien to their needs. Because Eastern mysticism has received so much attention over the last few decades, it may be useful to discuss some of the differences between Eastern and western approaches.

The place of the ego
It has often been said that the West emphasizes the individual whereas the eastern emphasizes the group. The West is the individualist’s culture par excellence.
What this means in terms of spiritual development is that in the west, the conscious ego, the street level self that takes us through our daily lives, is no necessarily regarded as something to be denied or annihilated. Many Asian traditions tend to speak of “extinguishing” the ego– this is the root meaning of nirvana, the Buddhist term for supreme enlightenment– whereas Western traditions tend to see the ego as an essential element in the human character. Although it can rage out of control, it is not inherently bad. Ideally, the ego is a useful servant, firmly under the guidance of the master, the higher Self. …

The personal versus the impersonal
Eastern mystics tend to devalue the ego because they generally consider it to be unreal. Buddhist and Hindu teachings equate the “rea;” with the unchanging; since our egos and our bodies are in a constant state of flux and alteration, they have no ultimate substance. Smartly, God is ultimately not a person, but an Absolute such as the Hindu Atman or the Buddhist shunyata or ‘void.”
Western religions, by contrast, generally teach that God relates to his creation in a radically personal way. From its beginnings, Judaism has had a long tradition of individuals who speak to, pray to, and even argue with God ( Job being the most famous example) while for (traditional) Christians the ultimate relationship between self and other is embodied in the Trinity…

The possibility of a “way” in daily life
Many Eastern traditions are fundamentally monastic. Buddhism, for example, started as a discipline, and its earliest rules presuppose the monastic life….
Monasticism exists in the West, certainly, but many western teachings avoid saying that the life of seclusion is necessary or even preferable to ordinary life for spiritual practice. Some religions, such as Judaism and Paganism are even devoid
Of a monastic tradition. On such paths, daily life is not a second best setting, an indulgence granted to the weak, but it is the ideal place to put spiritual practices into practice. While it might be more difficult to maintain a discipline in the face of the world’s distractions, any gains you make are more stable and less prone to slippage. The monk who comes down from the mountain top, on the other hand, may find that the vexations of worldly life disrupt his practice and overturn his accomplishments.

The role of the teacher
Nearly all esoteric traditions stress the need for a personal contact with the teaching through a teacher or master. But eastern and Western traditions see the teacher’s role differently. …
Devotion to the guru is not a confusion of an ordinary human being with the divine, but rather a recognition that a certain individual embodies divine consciousness to an unusually high degree. Devotion is directed beyond the teacher, to the divine consciousness; the guru is simply a doorway.
In the West, this veneration of the teacher is rarely encouraged. The reason is obvious. Worship is for God alone. Even Eastern Orthodoxy, which cultivates devotion to the saints… Stresses ultimately that God must be worshiped as supreme.
The Western teacher or master provides advice, instruction, and most importantly, a connection to the living current of a tradition. As such, he or she is worthy of honor and affection, but the relationship is more like that between a professor and a student or mentor and protégé. And while any true esoteric teaching requires discipline, Western teachers, at least reputable ones, don’t exact unquestioning obedience from their pupils; that kind of power is regarded as too corrupting to the master. In western paths, the discipline may be stringent, but it tends to be a matter of keeping faith with oneself rather than with an outside authority.

There is one more clear distinction to be made between East and West. …
How can one tell what’s valid and what isn’t? Anyone who has lived through the past twenty five years, with the echoes of names such as Jones town, Waco, the Solar temple, and Heaven’s Gate will know how badly awry the spiritual quest can go.

On the mundane level, it’s easy enough to avoid the most egregious offenders. It is wise, for example, to stay away from groups that charge exorbitant fees, encourage members to cut off relations with outside friends and relatives, urge violence, or exact absolute obedience. But these guidelines only apply to extreme cases; they do not tell us how to identify groups and teachers who may be perfectly harmless but ultimately just do not have much to offer. After all, wasting your time is another hazard to be avoided.
This book will try to refrain from passing judgment on specific organizations, for two reasons. First, there are no objective universally accepted criteria for validating a “successful” esoteric group. If the esoteric work is ultimately internal, then the criteria will have to be internal, too. Second, even a good group can go bad, and this can happen in a relatively short time. Therefore any recommendations made today might not hold to be true tomorrow.
This fact means that the aspirant is responsible for finding his or her own way, and this is as it should be. ….

A Sufi proverb puts it bluntly:” If you can be fooled, you will be!”
… The spiritual path demands a degree of refined discernment. You need to check out credentials and do all the research in the ordinary way, of course, but you must also bring something much subtler into play. … This subtler discernment uses what is called “emotional intelligence” and it is closely connected to the quality that is best described by a somewhat old fashioned word: decency.

Books on spirituality abound with exhortations towards purity of heart and cleanliness of motive… These warning are to be taken seriously.
Nobody comes to the path totally pure. Along with all of our hopes of communion with the Infinite, we bring along our ordinary obsessions with money, sex, and power and our dreams of unearned gain. Much of the spiritual path in fact consists of a subtle purification whereby the dross of these base motives is removed– sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently– so that something purer and finer may emerge.


There is one final demand that the esoteric path places upon beginners: hard work. Esoteric spirituality does offer the hope of attaining exceptional capacities, but you won’t be able to achieve them without making exceptional demands on yourself. … Nearly all traditions speak in terms of “overcoming yourself.” You can only accomplish such a thing by enormous work and struggle. G.I Gurdjieff even went as far as to say that in esoteric work “only super efforts count.”

… While most of the traditions we would be exploring no longer require efforts we would consider to be dangerous or extreme (Sioux warriors, Jesus in the desert, etc.) Demands are still made, but they appear in subtler forms. For most people today, the challenge will probably lie, for a long time at least, not in enduring pain and privation, but in somehow managing to carry out a spiritual practice during the course of a busy life. Such efforts will probably include study and meditation, as well as certain physical, or emotional disciplines. If you are really serious, at the outset you should probably plan to devote thirty minutes a day to some kind of practice, as well as one evening a week to a group meeting …

Discernment, decency and hard work are the basic requirements … Unless you can satisfy these criteria, you probably won’t get far.

Extracted from the Introduction to the book, Hidden Wisdom

Guidelines for Choosing A Spiritual Teacher From Psi Symposium Lecture

July 7, 2010 - 7:10 pm 108 Comments

A Psi Symposium Presentation/Lecture

“What Is Holistic Isn’t Necessarily Holy”
A Personal Assessment And Overview of New Directions
in Culture and Consciousness

” The way is difficult; The reward is slow;
but once attained, grows beyond measure”
Guatama

Good Afternoon . . . I am Peter E. Lanzillotta, and currently I am in the process of beginning a new interfaith counseling and resource center in the Charleston area. When I was first presented this lecture I was active in the U-U parish ministry, and was serving in my former capacity as the National President of the U-U Psi Symposium. This quotation from Guatama the Buddha was first taught to me over 35 years ago as a beginning Martial Arts student. It also sets the tone and the intent of my presentation, as I feel many of these original ideas and observations still remain true and informative today.

Personally, I have been on a spiritual odyssey for many years and have accrued a diverse background in comparative religion, transpersonal psychology, and consciousness studies. These experiences cover a wide range: From Kundalini to Christian Science; From Japanese Buddhism to doctoral training as a “soul friend’, or spiritual director in the Christian tradition; From completing most of the upper level training’s of the Arica Institute to learning the arduous task of applying and reconciling all these accumulated insights and outlooks with my attempts at liberal ministry and an interfaith priesthood to trying to maintain a middle class life!

(Afterward. . . If there is sufficient interest, I will share more of my life’s journey with you. As a spiritual disciple and explorer, some would say as a spiritual warrior and modern mystic, I hope to offer what I have learned as a guide or as a resource in ways that will serve others in THEIR journey.)

This afternoon, I would enjoy having a lively discussion about some controversial issues in the whole arena of spiritual teachers, practices and philosophies.
I will first present my reflections and concerns then I will offer various checklists from discerning authors. Lastly, as time permits, I will invite or engage you in a discussion with you my aware, curious, and informed audience. My topic for today will center on what constitutes spiritual study, and how it compares to the many opportunities for esoteric and holistic information currently available to us.

One of the central goals of the Psi Symposium has been to provide its members with information that could assist personal and spiritual progress; thereby facilitating wise, conscious, and discerning choices.
When we consider our contemporary culture and its possibilities for psychological and spiritual study, there is just no doubt about it. We live in a transpersonal and interdenominational world and can easily shop in a wide variety of metaphysical supermarkets! The variations and possibilities for study seem endless! The streams of teachers, training’s, and tapes are as mind boggling as they might be mind expanding. One could easily resign or retire from contemporary life to try them all, and even IF you studied full time, it would take you at least a couple of lifetimes to plow through them! My central premise is: This expansive access to study and learning is both our opportunity and our peril.

What I mean is this; on the positive side, we are witnessing terrific expansive opportunities to ripen human awareness and spiritually based approaches that encourage personal development and that can foster social progress toward higher levels of consciousness and clearly and courageously applied ethics.
The negative factor is also present; in its less harmful ways, we have seen the formation of a whole subclass called “spiritual junkies” where sincere people, faced with the enormous glut of information, can lead to the development of people who are more confused and alienated, wounded, and worse off than before they began. More commonly though, we have produced a culture full of “spiritual dabblers.” Again, all this access and information is well meaning but remains problematic. IF hungry and thirsty people find themselves continually moving from one teacher to another, working their way through a catalog of techniques, can discover, to their dismay, that the result has been neither to gain full competence nor possess true comprehension. While such spiritual aspiration is admirable, we can easily fall into the trap of horizontal growth- that is, collecting a large trunk full of techniques, and miss the essential task of growing vertically- to grow deeply and transcendentally which will certainly alter your perceptions, values, lifestyle, and quality of your everyday experience.

By staying horizontal, What develops is a savvy, somewhat convincing counterculture chic, and an impressive “New Age” vocabulary; A source of a superficial strategy or source of personal acclaim that is seemingly indispensable at “yuppie’ cocktail parties!
Just as it is important to take serious care in choosing a physician, attorney or therapist, awareness and diligence is needed if one desires to benefit from a teacher or a spiritual path- it requires just as much if not more discernment and responsibility for its outcome.
Over all, these new ways of perception and understanding have had a leavening and enlightening effect on us. However, many of the methods that are marketed today cannot satisfactorily replace a religious or spiritual need for community nor can they ensure a commitment to ideals and issues that are larger than our personal issues, that are global, humane, as well as being personal and intimate. It is those expressed needs for belonging, for connection and for a sustaining sense of brother/sisterhood that often become the principal reasons behind people reaching out and seeking out membership to a church or to a spiritual group.
Many of the new techniques we are exposed to or that can vigorously be recommended to us by the New Age marketing really are only temporary measures or do not qualify as theologies, as life philosophies, or as true spiritual paths. No assortment of learning techniques suffices without a corresponding encounter with a timeless center or a historical check that any of the genuine world religions can offer us. Our growth and depth benefit from a dialogue and from a balance that serves as a grounding for our individual work and for an ethical comparison
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from which it draws and disciplines itself. Whenever we just extract a technique, or take a new idea out of its intended context, we can easily skew its importance or we can risk a serious misapplication of its merits or simply miss out on its lasting value for us.
For example:
Nutritional studies benefit everyone. Yet, the overly zealous advocate for natural foods or an exclusive diet cannot expect their nutritional philosophy to be an end all, be all. It most likely cannot provide them with a
system of ethics, service, morality, theology or a more complete orientation and explanation of life. While it might be true on a biochemical level, that “we are what we eat,” we can not afford to be so preoccupied by it! We also think and feel, which cannot be reduced to either calories or cellular activity. To carry food beliefs too far creates a god or higher reality that can only be found in a pure kitchen and in a balanced meal. We delude ourselves as we create some deity of the digestive tract!
` Another example: In acupuncture, a system of healing and rebalancing energies that I believe contains much efficacy, there can be an attitudinal problem that states that your acupuncturist is all the help you ever need; that is, a good acupuncture practitioner replaces the need for a psychotherapist, a physician, a spiritual counselor, or any other helper. If one lived in rural China maybe, or if you were to fully adopt a classical Taoist way of life with all its studies, it could be possible but to say its true in our complex culture today is highly unlikely.
A third example: the emphasis our culture places on bodily health… can one’s concern for optimal health
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become a religion? Can health become a god? Does health equal spiritual advancement? Does purity equal piety? Body beautiful is not equal to spiritual attainment and might even delay or frustrate it especially when the concern for physical fitness becomes a counterfeit faith. By the way, this attitude is much more common than the previous two; just look at all the aerobic classes and health club memberships… Even the strict or conservative evangelicals Christians are into the health as godly act- There are many devotional aerobic tapes, and my favorite title so far is “Becoming a Firm Believer!”

Since the 1960’s and with the advent of the Easlen movement out of California, our culture has been given three major paradigms to consider or study. Concerning all things holistic and/or holy, the first new perspective came to us through a metaphysical door that opened out to many paths, all pointed due East; The second viewpoint was the development of humanistic psychology and from it, the fourth wave called transpersonal psychology; and the third outlook came to us by way of new dimensions in health care, the holistic health movement, brain and body research and its various corollary theories and practices.
Additionally, since the 1980’S, we have had an explosive reinvestigation into Native American studies and the reawakening of aspects of the New Thought philosophy. Native American studies and the allied field of Shamanism and Creation-based spirituality have become our indigenous theology. The New Thought Movement, first inspired by Emerson and Thoreau as Transcendentalism in the l800’s provides us with another historical link to Nature as teacher, and as healer which, in turn, has spawned
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religions such as Christian Science, Unity, and Science of Mind and what I would generally call, a reconsideration of church as a place for community based healing, teaching, prophecy, and worship.
All these new and sometimes considered bizarre sources of information often accompanied by innovative, yet largely foreign religious practices have deeply troubled Western churches and their orthodoxy. In past years, sociologists and theologians such as such as Peter Berger and Harvey Cox have spoken out about the potentially disturbing and challenging ideas and implications of these cross-cultural ideologies on our society. Now, in full regression and retreat from a more inclusive modernity, and filled with suspicion, insecurity, and taking on a defensive outlook, the Protestant churches are turning evangelical, conservative and doctrinaire. Interestingly enough, it is a paradoxical development for it is true that Eastern religions and lifestyles have been growing in the West, while capitalism and Christianity have been steadily growing in the East.
However, many Western churches remain skeptical or suspicious; The Roman Catholic Church has an official policy of discouraging any practice of Eastern mysticism and has called into censure any theologian or teacher who might have a wider view or encourage different paths or practices. (Silencing of Curran, Kung, and the removal of Matthew Fox begins the list of examples)
Without lingering here, my more urgent concern is that regardless of how remarkable and wondrous this dynamic cross-fertilization of East and West might be, there needs to conduct an honest assessment of all the results of this influence on our culture. We have to be willing and open
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to air the “shadow” side of spirituality and its accompanying negative effects. There are most certainly charlatans, tricksters, con-men/women, psychic vampires, and cult leaders who have readily plied and imposed their lucrative and destructive trade.
Insidiously, these characters are charming, often
fascinating, and can be quite convincing! Unfortunately, their believability stems from a certain level of insight and competence- they might genuinely adept and spiritually developed in a particular or limited way. As “spiritual materialists” they possess style, aplomb, and can accumulate lots of “hype”– all the necessary tools to be attractive to the spiritual ingenue, or to the naive trusting, and yet sincere seeker. We have to be willing to admit to their presence and effects and ask ourselves what constitutes a valid spiritual path? We ask: Does this person truly represent a genuine, unselfish, and true lineage or spiritual and holistic tradition that is worth our care and trust? But more on that, a little later.
Because these ideas, positive and negative, have entered into our culture and subsequently, into our personal awareness, we have set before us the task of being responsible for their effects on society, and ourselves. We are required either by conscience or conviction to sort and sift, decry, or discard any potentially negative approaches, and then be willing to assist each other in benefiting from any new, positive information that is available. By empowering others to identify whatever is valid or legitimate teachings, we can grow spiritually and ethically and our whole society can truly become more elevated or move toward enlightenment.
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We each need to watchful about zealotry or taking on a “purist” attitude. It is usually a sign of a need for certainty and an inability “to live in the questions” of discernment and remain wanting or attracted the safety of an either/or answer. The paradoxes and intricacies we find in self exploration or spiritual expansion ask us to be challenge ourselves to internalize the insights and the wisdom that can be found. It asks us to be patient, and urges us to be vigilant.
One of the most curious, and I would say theologically, one of the most gracious and redeeming phenomena, is the human ability to learn positive things from adverse situations. Remarkably, students can truly benefit from poor or misguided teachers. The great sage, Lao Tsu once commented, “the second best teacher any of us can have is a totally incompetent one”, because it forces us to learn it right, for yourself! Benevolent, yet erroneous ideas, kindly but false teachers can still benefit our growth and advancement, IF we learn to outgrow their effects or learn how best to redeem them. Ironically, there is some abiding truth in the observation that we often find or get the kind of teacher “we need or deserve.” Like water, consciousness seeks its own level. Another way of framing this human ability to find the gracious out of the grotesque is from the writings of Existential Meta psychiatry, and if not there, from good old common sense; it goes like this, “a kick is as good as a boost,” when it comes to learning some of life’s most essential lessons.

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The vital task that confronts each of us today is the necessity to discern the differences between the various systems of belief and practice. The two main categories of current information can be classified as the psychologically based human potential movement and the more theological rediscovery of spiritual direction, esoteric schools, or wisdom paths. These two predominant and preeminent approaches are not mutually exclusive; they can and do overlap in many significant ways, such as sharing in a spiritual vocabulary. But I contend that the further you go into the roots and branches of their study, the more clear the distinctions become.
A spiritual path differs from a human potential method or system in certain specific ways or goals. The caveat here is this: although spiritual consciousness training can employ certain psychological techniques, its ultimate goal is quite different from the person-centered result of psychology. Human potential training’s and methods need no abiding reference to a world faith tradition or system of revelation. They do not need a true and resonant connection or an ongoing correspondence to a time-honored spiritual path as their correlative and corrective standard or measure. Psychology as commonly understood and practiced is not its original word definition- the study of the psyche or soul- and the refinement of spiritual understanding that such study and knowledge implies. Instead, most psychology has, as its goal, the improvement of the personal self which can become ego identification, fulfillment or aggrandizement. In that way, psychology when practiced to only improve one’s control over the world or to strength one’s will and the results of this self assertiveness can be likened to the definition of
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modern sorcery: [“It is the process or the procedures that seek power without any acknowledgment or recognition of grace”] (Sister Mary Doughtery -Shalem)
Ego cravings or ego gratification can only lead to disillusionment and despair. By the way of existential suffering, and its ego reduction, we finally come to admit our need for God and earnestly begin to seek out the Holy.
Spiritual paths, true ones, might start with important self assessment work, but their intent and their goal is not centered on strengthening the ego, but on its transformation, its transmutation, or its transcendence. Its purpose behind its challenges and obstacles is to draw one closer to what is sacred and accelerate one’s progress towards the higher reality called God. Now, the use of the word God… While I am sure that most people know what they mean when they use the word, not everyone understands it or automatically agrees with the definition they use. I remain highly critical and skeptical of any teacher or training that uses “spiritual” buzz words like love, spirit, light etc., without a knowable deep and reverent understanding of a world faith tradition widely defined… from Judaism to Shamanism…

Points to Ponder: Cults and Consciousness

With all the recent notoriety in the mass media and press concerning the phenomena of religious cults in our society, people have been asking about what to do or how we can best identify one teacher or one religious group from another concerning the possibilities of entering a cult. I thought it might be useful to print a recap of my guidelines concerning religious groups, spiritual teachers, and the potentials for cult membership that has been printed in the UU Psi Symposium magazine and that I have used in my consultations with concerned ministers and family members.
“Depending on your degree of allegiance to a particular faith tradition and to what it teaches, each tradition can offer you genuine access to its mystical, deep roots. However, many of these religious institutions, especially in the West, discourage any methods that seem to be inhospitable to their doctrines or that might undermine the dominate or safe outlooks of the church’s leadership, written creeds and codes. Where and when or to what degree you choose to part from those teachings and rules, is a matter of individual choice- but one does choose knowing full well that moving away from the safe and secure, the historical and the respectable can force you to choose to be estranged from one’s family or social group, where you could risk censure or nonsupport.
U-U’S and other inclusive religious liberals fortunately(?) do not have to overcome such restrictions or biases. Yet those who have been raised more loosely or more secular or more nonchalantly have a different set of risks and concerns.
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From what I can glean from studies on cults and fringe practices, it is the unsure, the irreligious, and the goodhearted but secular seeker that has the most difficulty screening out wily negative teachers and experiences. Incidentally, the most likely recruits for cult membership are people who exhibit these personality traits: 1) little or loose moral and religious upbringing, 2) heavy emphasis on materialism in their home, 3) deep or unfulfilled needs for security, acceptance, and love, 4) scant religious or theological knowledge, 5) desire for structure, given by an external authority or parental figure, 6) lack of sufficient self direction, and having a spiritually informed and balanced will.

That is my overview and summary… I have spent most of my adulthood learning about these concerns and graciously trying to redeem my own life experiences and transform those lessons into useful knowledge and heart felt wisdom… And I know, with great humility, that it is still an unfinished lifelong process… . From my life and from my research, I have now compiled a beginning set of useful measures, or guidelines from various sources. I present them to you now, as information you can use to better learn how to avoid spiritual rip-offs and various charlatans. My hope is that these guidelines will serve to empower clear and positive choices. These guidelines or helpful parameters have been taken from the following sources:
The Observing Self by Dr. Arthur Deikman MD
How To Meditate by Lawrence Le Shan Ph.D.
Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass, Ph.D.

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Next, these sources combine with my own personal and professional observations called the “Charlatan’s Checklist.” In general, beware of teachers or training’s that make fantastic claims such as” instant enlightenment” “total realization in a weekend!” These types of leaders are literally going to the bank on people’s despair or on their gluttony for new bigger and better ways. The Sufi master, Indries Shah states,” Greed makes you believe things you would not ordinarily believe.”

Evaluation of Groups Arthur Deikman MD
Before contracting to attend or participate in any training, it would be useful to ask questions such as:

1) Does the group operate to help new members to clarify their own motivations or does it assume that everyone has mature, good judgment? If it is the latter, be wary.

2) Does the group provide its members with a means for seeing and understanding the motivational patterns of ordinary living? If not, be wary.

3) Does the group gratify the wishes for dependency, new experiences, emotional excitement, special status, or vanity? If so, steer clear of it.

4) Does the group employ emotional arousal, repetition, guilt, and the uses of group approval and disapproval? These are the principal components of thought reform known as brainwashing and/or coercive conversion.

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Major Traps In Human Potential Movement
by Lawrence Le Shan Ph.D.
1) Confusion between the scientific and the mythic; in language, and in application. Metaphors and symbols become “actual and factual.” Science cannot prove, the commonly held concepts of “energy’, Vibes, Chakras etc.”
2) Because, on the large scale everything is related, does not mean that specific parts can be connected reliably. Most conclusions are subject to cultural relativity and can be arbitrarily decided or defined.. Gems, colors etc.
3) Withdrawal or Retreat from the world: Any approach that recommends separation from family, the world, life as a prerequisite for belonging is potentially cultic.
4) Fantastic visions are illusions or can act as deterrents to [genuine] spiritual growth. Many spiritual teachers maintain that we are to remain unimpressed by images and visions etc. To stay focussed on the tasks and core teachings serves us best. Exciting phenomena is to be avoided or at least not pursued. (Levitation, ESP powers, seeing ghosts spirits et al.
5) There are no perfect systems or perfect teachers, but you can evaluate teachers by the quality of their human relationships. a good teacher is not just an adept technician, they are a caring human being.
6) There really is no secret knowledge. All true knowledge should aid the human race. To completely or blindly trust that the way taught to you is the Only way, might be dangerous to your growth. Learn deeply your chosen way, learn it well, then seek to understand what other ways can teach you.

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The Charlatan’s Checklist
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta M.Div. M.Ed. Ph.D.
(Please add to this list, from your experience)

1) Considers him or herself to be a “modern saint” A revealed One, avatar, guru etc. yet have the seeds and glaring evidence of turmoil and unethical behavior all around them.

2) Demands strict obedience or adherence to their tightly prescribed ways of language, thought or behavior. Their word is law, the absolute, final authority. They create manuals and rule books for all behaviors and social interactions. May use or threaten to use violence or social shunning to achieve their aims and goals.
They will prefer to enclose or limit their followers contacts with the outside world. Prefers to build or own their compound, ranch, farm that is remote- away from media and mainstream. Some leaders today might appeal to an excessive patriotism or might be accompanied by a virulent racism take a severe anti-governmental stand.

3) Dwells inordinately on money themes: Seems intent on amassing wealth; devises moneymaking schemes for their followers. Charges large sums for consultations, training’s, or membership. As it stands, the cost of legitimate and professional medical and psychological care is vastly inflated- Here the problem lies not in insurance debacle, but in competence, and the making of unrealistic and empty promises that can rack up heavy costs and charge the naive, trusting, and willing student incredible sums for the privilege of studying their techniques or getting the “full experience” of their required training’s.

4) Teaches widely on prosperity, personal power, and/or sexual fulfillment. May also hype their own products, books, tapes or make them mandatory reading etc. to inflate their importance, etc..

5) Inordinate allowance or material indulgence given to their followers to create a “personality cult’ Special praises, awards, gifts, such as cars and jewels, etc., that allow the leader to live a lavish lifestyle. The creation of shrines, pedestals, mansions etc.

6) Promises their followers a “better life”, an existence free of worries, fears, and worldly cares. Proclaims a New Age, and the end of the old one eminent, Promises his or her followers that they are the “chosen ones” who will succeed or survive. Survivalist mentality or Millennial theology and preoccupation’s with being a martyr or a messenger of the end times.