For Adults Only

Radical Revisions of the Spiritual Life

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart," Yeats advised. "The holy tree is growing there." Yet many seekers of spiritual growth seem—as another poet, Pamela Sneed, would say—more afraid of freedom than of slavery. We yield our power to glamorous, sometimes unscrupulous authority figures or invest big bucks in the promise of Enlightenment Made Easy or search for a spiritual family to lavish us with the love we desperately crave. Now controversial authors Mariana Caplan, Andrew Harvey, and Alan Clements reveal their own longings and crises of the soul while challenging Americans to wake up and grow up.

Mariana Caplan first lit into the pacifying certainties of new-age America in Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment(Hohm Press, 1999), an angry, unsparing dissection of self-deception among spiritual teachers and explorers. Today the anthropologist, counselor, and self-described escapee from "the middle-class deadness of Rockville, Maryland" admits that she herself has stumbled upon nearly every misstep along the spiritual path, all colorfully related in her new Do You Need a Guru?: Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets.Part memoir, part didactic guide, Do You Need a Guru? displays a warmer, seeker-friendly Caplan tempered by humor often wielded at her own expense. This willful, hardheaded Westerner finally found her perfect guru match in Lee Lozowick—a Jewish New Jerseyite in the company of India's Yogi Ramsuratkumar. With scandals of sexual predation and greed undermining public trust in most religious figures, Caplan now says she aims to make seekers savvier consumers. During an informal talk at Sufi Books, a Tribeca center welcoming speakers from a panoply of mystical traditions, she detailed her strategy for "conscious discipleship."

Fluffy new-age marketeering and superficial rhetoric take seekers only so far, Caplan maintains. "We have a tremendous possibility for the development of a spiritual culture of integrity in the West," she said. "But in this age of fast food and Disney World, spiritual warriors need practicality, deep skepticism, and a willingness to struggle."

The conscious disciple, Caplan asserts, must engage in a grounded spiritual practice and address his or her personal psychological issues with ruthless honesty. The right guru provides an objective eye, a role model, a crucial mooring, and an uncompromising challenge. The "just folks" approach of her book tour appearances may not prepare readers for the density of Do You Need a Guru?, which manages to entertain while proffering a teacherly analysis of spiritual maturation that even people who avoid gurus might find valuable.

While Caplan upholds the guru system, Andrew Harvey rails against it. And with good reason. It nearly cost him his life. In The Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night, the renowned scholar, poet, and author of numerous books on mysticism openly details what his rich, upbeat self-help guide, The Direct Path (2001), only hints at—a personal experience of horror.

After a drawn-out, grueling awakening, Harvey finally severed ties to the guru his ardent writing had made world-famous—Mother Meera, an enigmatic Indian woman headquartered in Germany. Although Meera's community included other gay people, Harvey was certainly the most illustrious. Meera had much invested in his celebrity, but some of her supporters began to squirm and complain about his uncloseted queer pride. In 1993, Meera finally called Harvey into her presence to command him to leave his beloved, Eryk Hanut, publicly renounce homosexuality, and declare that her grace had turned him "normal."

After Harvey's defection, the couple allege, they were barraged with hate mail, death threats and an actual attempt on their lives, legal harassment, and even psychic warfare. Longtime colleagues and friends turned their backs or even actively sided with the guru's enraged devotees. Newly diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, Hanut reeled from the daily insults and deepening stress yet fought his way back to health with a ferocious mix of willpower, cunning, and spiritual faith. Today, Harvey considers the guru-disciple system fundamentally toxic. He advocates that seekers forge their own direct path to the Divine through prayers and practices originating in everything from mystical Christianity to shamanism.

To see Harvey today is to recognize the ravages of that difficult passage—at times, he appears racked by nervous energy—and to marvel at his brave tenderness and generosity. Like Caplan—whom Harvey deems "a subtle apologist for a dreadful, dangerous system"—he readily acknowledges his own mistakes. He admits the folly of falling for Meera, selling her message worldwide, and taking far too long to realize the extent of his error, but he also believes that his suffering was necessary as a cautionary example to others. And besides, in the spirit of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," his already incomparable relationship with Hanut grew, under pressure, diamond-hard and radiant.

What frightens Harvey now is the ascendancy of the Republican agenda since 9-11, and its dire consequences for all humanity and nature. "We are going into a period of the dark night," Harvey proclaimed in a recent talk at Soho's New York Open Center. "We are co-creators, not mere slaves, and we are left free to choose either the world of cruelty or the world of love." Sounding like a provocateur sucked down the secret portal to a Baptist preacher's brain, he'd rear up and pounce on his words in holy fervor. "The future of the planet hangs on two words—mystical activism. Without it we burn out, dry out, disheartened by the onslaught of evil and ignorance." (Let the church say amen!) Religion, he declared, is "bankrupt." The new age? "A narcissistic coma." And gurus? "Nothing less than the mafiosi of the soul."

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