When Gotama, the historical Buddha, set off on his quest for enlightenment, one of his first stops was in Vaishali. There he studied with two master yogis, Alara Kalama and Uddalaka Ramaputta, who were both impressed with Gotama’s ability to quickly enter trance-like states. They assured him this would help liberate purusha from prakriti.
Samkhya, a philosophically intensive proto-yoga, states that to be free of suffering you must liberate your consciousness from the illusions of matter. Gotama didn’t click with the presentation of this teaching. He knew that the trance-like state he was achieving in meditation was temporary; that when he returned he still desired, clinging to illusions. He had to free himself from himself by himself, not thanks to these yoga teachers.
Not to disparage teachers of any sort — if anything, we do too much of that already. Gotama actually built upon the teachings of yoga. He simply recognized that no human has the power to liberate another. One has to put in the work and figure out their path through personal experiences. Buddha was not alone in thinking this, yet peek into modern spiritual practices and you’re hard-pressed to find evidence of it.
Today the field of spiritual teachers is dominated by marketing. If you can’t sell your spiritual wares, magazine covers and TEDx talks are nowhere in your future. To be successful as a teacher, you have to be successful as a salesman. In an overcrowded field, lesson plans and detailed instruction will not do. The hustle happens outside of the yoga studio, beyond the church, or whatever other platform you choose to stand on.
And so that age-old ambition, hoping people buy your brand of spirituality, dons a new wardrobe. In the yoga community, that means amassing hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. In churches, it’s ensuring the younger generation understands that you’re hip; you "get" who people are now. God takes a backseat to being in a like-minded community (except when you want something, of course). In the suburbs, this means mega-churches with malls; in cities, ecstatic Sunday rituals with live bands and telecasts.
What underlies disparate practices such as Catholicism and yoga is a tribal desire to convince others you’re selling the best dope, to borrow a phrase from Alan Watts. Then they too become peddlers. Pyramid schemes don’t only apply to vitamins and investments.
One of the main problems is that the training is often inefficient, even dangerous at times. Broken people conceal their brokenness with inspirational quotes and self-righteous conclusions. Gotama spent numerous years on his quest before developing his noble path. Today, two weeks on a beach and you’re thrown back into the world to teach this "ancient" yoga.
And one of the biggest issues permeating spiritual practices is the notion of brokenness. Catholics know guilt well, but it exists in other insidious forms. You’ll find it every time a life coach markets the idea that "you are enough!" and "I’m being my authentic self" — as if the other selves inhabiting us aren’t part of us. Instead they become demons we must rid ourselves of.
Making someone believe that they’re broken is the quickest way into their hearts, and wallets. Much spiritual doublespeak relies on this tactic. You have been wronged; society has shamed you; men are devils; women are evil; this race did this; he broke your heart; she cheated on you; lose 20 pounds in a week; and so on and on and on. My social media feeds are filled with promises of fixing you, but in order to accomplish this, you must break something along the way.
Pressures are tremendous these days — this is not to deny the intensity of living in a slowly eroding culture. It will take America some time to implode, but the fate of all previous superpowers is becoming ours. Along the way down, a mad dash for power pervades every niche and subculture imaginable. In response, an entirely new crop of spiritual leaders is emerging to ensure you that everything is going to be OK. Oh, and here’s a link to my new book promising you just that.
Only everything is not going to be OK. That’s not the point of a spiritual practice. We’re all going to die; we’re rapidly destroying the environment; we live in one of the most financially segregated cultures in history — one day everything you see around you will be gone. Gotama contemplated the mechanisms for dealing with reality under the bo tree on that long night. He didn’t pretend to create a false one.
And while I understand the need to make yourself employable, the desire to make people feel like you’ve got the keys to their spiritual well-being is disturbing. Yoga teachers post pictures of themselves daily in hopes of emulation and admiration; pastors guarantee you a better world through faith (and donations) even if this world isn’t working out so well at the moment.
There’s always something just around the bend; it’s almost here. Practice and all is coming. Don’t worry about the setbacks; obstacles ensure you really want what you want out of life. The universe is testing you.
This moment? A stepping-stone to a much greater world. A chance to fix your brokenness. My book will show you how.
Image: Matyas Rehak / shutterstock.com