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”

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
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
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
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
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.
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.

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
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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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