Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment
by Mariana Caplan
Caplan (Untouched) asserts that "the reality of the present condition of contemporary spirituality in the West is one of grave distortion, confusion, fraud, and a fundamental lack of education." She claims that, as positive as the tremendous rise in spirituality is, there is not any context for determining whether any particular teaching, or teacher, is truly enlightening. Caplan compiles interviews with such noted spiritual masters as Joan Halifax, Andrew Cohen, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on the nature of enlightenment. In the first section, Caplan examines the motivations people have for seeking enlightenment and contends that very often they seek this state as a means of gratifying the ego. This "presumption of enlightenment," she says, often afflicts teachers masquerading as spiritual leaders. These teachers sometimes look down on their students and gloat over how far they have come and how far the students have to go. A second section focuses on "The Dangers of Mystical Experience," in which Caplan claims that many seekers mistake the mystical experience itself for enlightenment; she and the teachers she interviews all assert that enlightenment always involves gaining some knowledge about self and others. The third section, "Corruption and Consequence," focuses on the nature of power and corruption; the fourth section, "Navigating the Mine Field: Preventing Dangers on the Path," provides a survey of the ways in which practitioners can avoid the "pitfalls of false enlightenment." A final section, "Disillusionment, Humility and the Beginning of Spiritual Life," concludes that "the Real spiritual life [is] the life of total annihilation and the return to just what is." Caplan's illuminating book calls into question the motives of the spiritual snake handlers of the modern age and urges seekers to pay the price of traveling the hard road to true enlightenment. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
To borrow an idea from the title, it is a sign of the maturity of a movement that it understands limit, and Caplan's thoughtful book should come as a ship to the rescue of practitioners of the broad New Age tradition. It shows how to avoid the dangers of ego inflation, transference, abuse of power, addiction to mystical states, and fraud in the long journey toward enlightenment and fulfillment. Caplan's warnings are substantiated by the witness of many seekers, and her counsel is well grounded. Highly recommended for all collections where New Age titles are popular. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Shaw - Parabola Magazine
"You smile a lot, you're very benevolent--it's the holy man role.... I was going to be nobody special like the big boys," admits Dick Alpert in Halfway up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment. This new study of contemporary spirituality by anthropologist Mariana Caplan explores in detail the dangers of self-deception and ego inflation that may befall seekers today.
Fleet Maull in his foreword calls the book "required reading for anyone taking on the profound responsibility of guiding others." What the book offers is a mirror to hold up to oneself. Most engaging are the frank, firsthand accounts included here from interviews with dedicated long-time practitioners. Reading about their struggles and concerns, we feel we are not alone; we are in a process together; we wish to be free from illusion no matter what; and perhaps, as Caplan says, "everything is a lesson," an inevitable and necessary step toward be-coming "responsible partners in our own awakening." The book's topics include the nature of enlightenment, ego's many disguises, power and corruption, finding one's way among teachers, disillusionment, and the beginning of spiritual life. The pages' wide margins highlight striking quotations from Buddhists, Sufis, Jewish mystics, Catholics, Hindus, psychologists, and writers of spiritual books (with only an occasional muddy pronouncement or dubious source). After reading hundreds of pages describing pitfalls along the path, however, one may feel that the title of the book is a misnomer: Are we halfway up the mountain or just glimpsing the foothills? Caplan points out that ego inflation, the tendency toward "a lopsided and subjective misperception of one's experience and spiritual progress," is a phenomenon "common to most serious spiritual students," and should be considered "always lurking nearby and ready to pounce." The ego easily puffs up to become, in Claudio Naranjo's words, "a professional of spiritual things." A bhakti practitioner reminds us that when one starts "relating to these experiences...as a goal," one loses "the surrender that is sourcing the experience. The background is surrender, the foreground is experience." The workings of ego often remain unseen behind much behavior. To paraphrase Caplan: I remain aloof in a group setting, quietly superior to others' dramas; or, while innocently relating an experience, I begin to feel important with everyone listening to me. Also, when I frequently correct others' statements, it may be more about asserting that I do indeed know a little something. Sometimes I believe I'm doing what's best while unaware that my entire strategy may be a way of remaining in control so as not to lose face or have to come to terms with an old wound. Caplan's litany of ways of "getting stuck" so that pure attentiveness to the moment becomes lost is extensive. Genuine openness to the unknown is difficult when the ego takes spirituality as its own, as an accomplishment, as a possession, or even as one's very identity. To this last scenario Caplan applies the term "bulletproof ego": "When the ego itself is comprised of the experiences and the teaching, nothing save a small miracle is going to be able to penetrate." How to be free of something that is not recognized? Caplan is quick to point out that the problem is not ego but a lack of seeing. In her view, ego is natural, a necessary mechanism, but rather than dominating, it could serve. Even while inflation occurs, she assures us, there is "another aspect of the individual...that is not inflated" and "can be accessed." Letting the ego show itself and "observing...without judgment" is the key, Caplan continues, although "few can catch the process at work in themselves." She quotes John Pentland:
Fortunately, with inflation comes deflation, what Caplan aptly calls "bumping up against reality," difficulties in life that bring suffering, embarrassment, exposure. Such events may lead to a new sense of kinship with others facing their own challenges, or even to a moment of remorse, a powerful reminder to awaken. However, as Caplan points out,
If watchfulness with regard to ourselves is healthy, is wariness about teachers also useful, or not? Caplan includes many views on the subject of spiritual guides. Georg Feuerstein writes that what really matters is whether the person "works the miracle of spiritual transformation in others." Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee asserts that real spiritual authority has "no personal power dynamic" but "carries the stamp of freedom rather than...codependency." Arnaud Desjardins perceives an "essential kindness" in the presence of a master: "You cannot help but feel his love." But what if masters are few? Because of the great demand today, according to Caplan and others, we need guides, and even imperfect ones can transmit wakefulness. Lee Sanella warns, though, that "no amount of mystical fireworks in the synapses of the brain can help overcome the crunch at the heart." Andrew Cohen adds that "the line is drawn where suffering is caused to other people due to selfish actions that stem from ignorance." Jacob Needleman suggests that if one has had a bad experience with either a teacher or one's own inflation, "take responsibility for it and use it as a platform for further inquiry." Caplan agrees that instead of blindly criticizing (or worshipping) teachers, we could explore how the demand for integrity may be lost, what part the student plays in spiritual codependency, and what leads to the presumption of enlightenment, so that we "glean some understanding of how those same dynamics operate within ourselves." And we need not lose heart. In Needleman's words, "frequent inner failures of attention and discrimination are inevitable," but the capacity to feel the humbling, "corrective" power of such events is "crucial to...inner development." Can the fool who persists in his folly become wise? What is the price of awakening? One of the best quotations comes at the very end of the book and addresses this question of payment--paying with attention. Jeanne de Salzmann is quoted at length:
On the subject of seekers who are halfway up the mountain, the blunt old dervish in Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men has the last word: "Let God kill him who himself does not know and yet presumes to show others the way."
Dan R. Dick, www.gbod.org
The spiritual journey is often likened to climbing a mountain. For some, Christianity is one path up the mountain; for some, it is the only path up the mountain. Regardless of one's position on the number of "paths" up the mountain, a critical question remains for us all: "How can we know how well along the journey we are?"
What is required to move us up the mountain? By what criteria do we judge the integrity of our spiritual growth and development? What are the measures of enlightenment? Do we ever arrive at a fully developed, fully actualized mountaintop state? What traps lie in wait for us as we journey up the mountain of spiritual development?
These are the questions raised by Mariana Caplan in her splendid book, Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment. Beginning from the (accurate) thesis that the quest for spiritual enlightenment in contemporary Western culture is a muddle of conflicting, confusing, and contradictory messages, Caplan presents compelling guidance for spiritual seekers. Focusing mostly on Westernized Eastern religions and practices other than Judaism and Christianity, Halfway Up the Mountain is no less relevant or applicable. The greatest danger, according to Caplan, is that Western seekers demand all the benefits of spiritual enlightenment without the commensurate willingness to lead sacrificial, disciplined lives. We want the quick fix. We want our enlightenment handed to us in a palatable pill form. Forthrightly, Caplan reminds readers that there is no short cut to true enlightenment and that the ultimate responsibility for spiritual growth and development lies with the seeker.
This in no way relieves spiritual teachers from their responsibility to their students. A major portion of the book deals with the criteria and preparation for those who would claim to be spiritual leaders. In The United Methodist Church, where spiritual direction and guidance is often treated as a hobby and there is no formal training requirement or certification for such teachers, this material is especially valuable.
Assessing the spiritual qualifications of teachers, students, institutions, and processes is a complex endeavor. Western culture assumes an "anything goes" attitude toward things spiritual. Popular authors such as Gary Zukav and Deepak Chopra gut the core of both mainline and fringe spiritualities and dole out a hodgepodge faith/fad du jour — believe the pieces you like and disregard the hard stuff. The sad result is a mounting disillusionment with all faith approaches. Since the pseudo-spirituality is bereft of any substance, and since much of the mainline Western spiritual institutions are so stuffy and unfocused, many people have come to the belief that all things spiritual are false. By trying to make it easy and pain-free, many religious, church, and pop-spiritual leaders have robbed faith of its foundation.
Our Western society lacks a spiritual-cultural matrix. We have no faith that helps define and identify us. We might like to hold fast to the idea that we are a "Christian nation," but we would be hard pressed to prove the idea — due to the lack of evidence. In The United Methodist Church, as an example, more members avoid church on Sunday morning than attend. Few churches report fifty percent or greater worship attendance on a weekly basis. In a recent gathering of Methodist clergy, sixty-eight percent admitted that they "don't have time" during the week for prayer, meditation, or Scripture study apart from what they prepare for their congregations. Based on sales, it is estimated that the Bible is the most sold, least read, book of all time. An informal Mediamart survey of 90,000 mall shoppers across America in 1999 reported that 71,454 claimed to be Christian, but fewer than 4,000 had read the Bible within the last week. Regular, disciplined prayer, fasting, study, and meditation are rare in our denomination. The power to transform lives from self-focused to Spirit-focused lies in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, both individual and corporate. The role of leaders in today's church is to create environments for spiritual growth and development. We need faithful teachers who can not only share ideas and information, but also model an integrated, disciplined life.
Mariana Caplan calls us to expect — even to demand — more from spiritual leaders. She goes even further to challenge seekers to demand more of themselves. Drawing from the teaching and experience of more than thirty contemporary spiritual teachers/seekers, Caplan creates a marvelous exploration of the current spiritual landscape in Halfway Up the Mountain.
Although this book is not oriented to a predominantly Christian audience, I heartily encourage all spiritual leaders and spiritual seekers (i.e., everyone!) to read Halfway Up the Mountain and discuss its implications for our church and our world. We cannot continue to play at religion. Our spiritual quest must lead us somewhere — somewhere better, somewhere holy. The work of the spirit — the journey toward enlightenment — is demanding and difficult work. It must matter deeply to us, and we must understand the costs involved in the spiritual life. Christian leaders do no one any service by trying to make the life of discipleship simple, easy, or fun. What makes the path of the Christian disciple fulfilling, joyous, and worthwhile is that it leads us to a depth of meaning and purpose much larger than ourselves and into relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Regardless of the cost — the incredible sacrifice of time, energy, and resources — demanded to be a disciple, the benefits are boundless. But we will never get back more than we are willing to put in. Spiritual work is serious work. The time has come to give it the value it deserves. We can be thankful that Mariana Caplan has the courage to call us to account. Halfway up the mountain is no better than no way up the mountain. God expects more.
(originally posted June 22, 2000)