It's hard to achieve peace of mind with the invasion of Iraq on our screens day after day. Marching in the streets will bolster the forces of harmony and ease stress. And in times like this we may also seek to expand our ability to spread serenity by exploring some new spiritual terrain.
When you set off on this path, keep in mind that sweet words don't always bespeak holy deeds. How can you ensure when you throw yourself at the feet of a newly discovered guru that you aren't violating something in yourself? After all, some religious teachers are more greedy than grace-filled, more power-hungry than potent. Spiritual charisma can disguise a sexual, financial or emotional abuser. Check into the whole package before offering your loyalty. Talk to people who've left as well as people who've stayed.
Realize that true spiritual mentorship is impossible if you're one of thousands; you need a fairly close relationship before your personal pitfalls to enlightenment can be identified. Then you have to ask yourself whether your new leap into the sublime is bumming out everyone around you. Common side effects in newby converts include self-righteousness and the fear-driven compulsion to "save" everyone who doesn't see the world as you do -- an observation culled directly from my Baptist upbringing.
If you think you might fit this description, ask a friend. Another tell-tale clue that you're mired in holier-than-thou attitudes is if other people who are that way really bug you.
Never do anything that goes against your own deep sense of what's right, and be suspicious of anyone who looks to be setting you against friends and family. In the world of spirituality, the real deal gets you strong enough to be ever more inclusive, not the other way round.WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"The power and charisma of individuals with spiritual authority can lead people to become starry-eyed and result in abuses of power. I've met leaders who are astoundingly insightful and loving, but I have not met anyone who is perfect. Don't ignore obvious conflicts between what a teacher preaches and practises. True spirituality can withstand exposure to an open society. Ask if (your path) is opening you up to contribute to the broader world or closing you down into your own narrow world. There are periods of retreat, but in the long run that's not what's it about."
RICHARD FAULDS, senior teacher, Kripalu Center, Lenox, Massachusetts
"There's a fair bit of intimacy in the spiritual teacher/student relationship. To tell when lines are crossed, it helps if you know what the lines are; different cultural traditions have different ideas. A significant number of people are looking for emotional security and acceptance that are the equivalent of a family, especially younger people. There are those who exploit that. Any time you've got somebody telling you to give up your friends and family or all your money, to do anything you think is illegal or immoral or who's putting you through exhaustion and starvation to soften you up, bail out."
DAN MERKUR, psychotherapist, PhD in comparative religion
"What makes life worthwhile are being, belonging, believing, benevolence. (Sometimes in a group) these "four Bs' are gained at the expense of personal freedom or compromising the self. If you're in that experience, it's very hard to convince you otherwise. (The experience) has to be played out; it's transitional and to some extent transformational. A lot of people come out saying, "Thank god (I'm out) but I got a lot out of it.'"
SAUL LEVINE, chair of the department of psychiatry, Children's Hospital of San Diego, author, Radical Departures
"(In the classical yogic tradition) you would only have been accepted as a disciple if you had reached a certain level of psychological and social integration. In our society that's not the case. Anybody can walk into a yoga class, pay and take it. Many people are coming for wholeness and peace of mind and not from that place of integration. There's a lot of development we need to have, especially as women, of our own power and ego before we can think of letting go of it. From the standpoint of the classical framework, most of us are not ready. We need to develop a teaching appropriate to people in our culture."
ESTHER MYERS, founder, Esther Myers' Yoga Studio, author, Yoga & You
"One can be psychologically mature and unawakened, or vice versa. We don't evolve in a linear fashion. We have one great ally -- our own deeper self. A skilful teacher is someone who can help us connect with that. One way of getting in touch with inner wisdom is through making mistakes. Often people realize that on some level they had picked up that something was amiss. That's how we learn to trust that inner voice that knows."
BRENT MITTON, transpersonal pschotherapist, co-founder, Transpersonal Therapy Centre