The challenge of losing your spiritual path

When members of a Tibetan Buddhist group discover that their leader abused people, their reactions tend to fall roughly into the following categories:

  1. Those who deny or ignore the abuse or explain it away according to their belief system (thinking it’s genuine crazy wisdom) and remain committed to their religion and their group;
  2. Those who accept that the abuse happened and know it was wrong, but stay in the religion and the group, believing that the group will genuinely change such that abuse can never happen again;
  3. Those who leave the group but not the religion;
  4. Those who leave Tibetan Buddhism but remain a Buddhist;
  5. Those who leave Buddhism.

Retaining the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual path

In four out of five of those broad categories, the student retains their TB spiritual path. Those in group 2 or 3 will make some adjustments to how they view the religion or the group in order to accommodate what happened; they will convince themselves that the abuse was an aberration, and that they can find other lamas who don’t abuse his or her students. They continue with Tibetan Buddhism either with another group or with getting teachings from a variety of teachers.

They may will find it very hard, if not impossible, to trust a guru fully again, and they may be very suspicious of all gurus. They will feel adrift for a while, until they work out how to move forward with their religious path. Moving forward for them may entail reading books and/or seeking a new guru and will likely entail some strengthening of their trust in their own discernment. They may be reticent to join another group and will be more aware of cult warning signs, but they can continue with (or eventually return to) their religious practice. They can go back to their Ngondro (many lamas use the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro) visualising Guru Rinpoche or the Buddha or even the letter Ah as the guru. This continuity of practice will give them some stability, a sense that they have not lost their spiritual path, that this difficulty is just a challenge they will overcome and continue on. For them, it’s not a matter of finding a new path, it’s a matter of developing a new relationship with the religion.

‘I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don’t think of faith in those terms at all.’

Sharon Salzberg

Retaining a general Buddhist path

Those who give up Tibetan Buddhism but continue with Buddhism can still feel that they’re on some kind of spiritual path – it’s not Tibetan Buddhism anymore; but it’s still Buddhism, and there is a prescribed path. Even so, they struggle with the loss of community, loss of innocence, loss of a set shape to their daily practice and loss of continuity of practice. But if they are willing to retain some Buddhist practice in their life, then they’re not set entirely adrift. After a period of feeling lost, they will eventually find their way back to incorporating some form of Buddhist spiritual practice in their lives.

They may return to basics, study the Theravaden teachings and practice uncontrived meditation only, or study from a variety of sources and focus on compassion practices. There are many options for those who can still engage in some kind of Buddhist practice.

No matter which group you presently fall into, you’ll experience some sense of loss as you adjust to changed circumstances. But those who leave Buddhism entirely, face the most uncertain future. They face the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for genuine freedom of mind.

Adrift

If you’ve lost your spiritual path, you tend to feel adrift, lost, directionless, floating, groundless. You have no idea where you’re going in terms of your spiritual path. This is particularly difficult for those who followed the structure of the Tibetan Buddhist practices in their daily life. Such students were used to being told what to do each day—for example; one hundred and eight one-hundred-syllable mantras; 3 of a certain prayer, and/or a certain number of accumulations of a vajrayana practice. If now they can’t face doing any of those practices, they feel completely adrift.

How do you progress on your spiritual path when you don’t have one anymore? Are you faced with a life time of not fulfilling your spiritual yearning? That’s a scary prospect for those who have been committed to living a ‘spiritual’ life.

Spiritual path or religious path?

The first thing to realise in handling this situation is to differentiate between a religious path and a spiritual path. One’s spiritual path may include following a religion as part of it, but the spiritual path continues before and after, as well as during, one’s involvement with a religion or cult. We may not always be or have been part of a religion, but we’ve always had a spiritual path, even if we didn’t know we had one – don’t we keep growing simply as part of life? And now, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even if we feel at a loss, we are still on a spiritual path. We are on our own spiritual path, and if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s spiritual path, that’s not because it’s wrong or misguided; it’s because we are unique and so is our spiritual path. Even if on the outside our path looks similar to others, it will never be the same path.

‘The spiritual path – is simply the journey of living our lives. Everyone is on a spiritual path; most people just don’t know it.’

Marianne Williamson

What is a spiritual path?

I couldn’t find a definition of spiritual path that didn’t use a religion’s frame of reference, but Wikipedia did provide a modern version of the word ‘spirituality’:  

Modern usages [of the term spirituality] tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”, often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaningreligious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension”.

wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality

Characteristics of spiritual paths are such things as prayer, meditation – the development of mindfulness and awareness – contemplation, ethical values, a belief or awareness that there is more to the world than what we perceive with our physical senses, deep self-investigation and conscious personal growth, a commitment to service to others and to ‘truth’ – whatever we perceive that to be. Engaging in such things gives a spiritual dimension to our lives even if they aren’t ordered into some kind of path with a beginning, middle and end. (Our life provides its own beginning, middle and end.)

Is there an end?

The word ‘path’ gives us a sense that there is an end point, something we will achieve at the end of the path – enlightenment, Christ consciousness, satori, nirvana and so on – but I find that idea problematic because it suggests a static state, free of mental suffering perhaps, but is there any point at which we cease changing and growing? The nature of the universe is that the only constant is that everything changes all the time; was the Buddha exempt from that? How can there be an end point past which there is no more growth?

The wisdom of not seeking

As I see it, the spiritual path is not about getting to an end point; it’s about how you live your life in every moment.  It’s not about seeking some attainment in the future, but about fully being now and trusting that your very desire to live attuned to what is real and true will naturally move you forward.

Something I’ve found transformative is dropping the idea of seeking enlightenment. It’s held up as such a high state that one is only ever likely to fail to achieve it unless you’re some very special rare individual – so most of us, in seeking this rarely defined state, are setting ourselves up for failure. I’m better able to be focused in present awareness without that constant striving for the unachievable.

We turned to Buddhism probably due to some yearning to connect with a ‘spiritual dimension’ in ourselves and our world, but we can do that by simply tuning into our present awareness. And there are many secular tools we can use to assist us to do that – meditation, yoga, gardening, walking in nature, engaging in art and craft, listening to or creating inspiring music, singing, reading something inspiring, or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by.

‘The practice of being on a spiritual path isn’t about being the best meditator or the kindest possible person or the most enlightened. The practice is about surrendering to love as often as possible.’

Gabrielle Bernstein

The role of teachers

Of course we do need spiritual teachers at some point in our lives to give us pointers for how to work with ourselves, but those of us who’ve had decades of Buddhist study and practice should be able to trust our inner guide by now – that is the point of the path, after all.

Teachers that illuminate our inner beings in some way don’t even have to be a ‘spiritual’ teacher. They could be our yoga teacher or our swimming coach or our counsellor or therapist. There are many different layers to our ‘self’ and many different ways we can learn about them.

Different teachers can teach us different things at different stages of our life, and options will appear to us even if we aren’t looking. If we’re toying with the idea of taking teachings from someone, we just have to examine that someone and their community carefully, trust our gut feelings, and not buy into hopes and projections born out of our of our insecurities.

The trick, I think, of relating to teachers and religions is not to fall into the idea of thinking that they’re ‘the one’ and that they’re all you’ll ever need, all the way to the end of your life. That idea just closes one down to opportunities. The idea that we only need one perfect teacher is untrue and could be dangerous.

Sogyal taught us to abhor the spiritual supermarket – picking a bit of teachings from here and there – but perhaps that is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps that is our path for now. Yes, we could get confused, but once we realise we’re confused, we’ll find some way to move on from that confusion. Certainly, there is a lot to pick from from within the Buddhist path itself, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of all those different options.

The greater the loss the greater the opportunity for awakening

Steve Taylor in his book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening talks about the research he did into people who exhibit characteristics of awakening. What is clear from his research is that awakened people, or people who show some degree of awakening, are much more numerous than Buddhism would have us believe. Taylor considers awakening as the inevitable future of the human race, the result of the inexorable march of evolution. And he discovered that the thing that causes awakening most often is some major crisis in one’s life where you experience great loss, some time when the rug is ripped out from under you – such as the death of a loved one, a serious accident or illness, anything that sets you adrift, where your old ways of being simply don’t work for you anymore.  

He discovered that though long term religious practice helps one wake up from the ‘sleep’ state experienced by the majority of people, it’s a slow process and it is most transformative when an extended period of religious practice is followed by some traumatic event that changes everything for you – perhaps like the loss of one’s religion.

Don’t despair

So don’t despair. Trust in the natural process of life as spiritual practice. All we have to do is turn up for it and pay attention to ourselves, others and whatever life presents us with. If we stay open, curious, and aware, we can trust that we’re still progressing on our spiritual path. The very yearning that brought us to Buddhism in the first place, is still there, still directing us towards whatever will help us wake up even more. We just have to be open to it and realise that opportunities for growth might not look a bit like how we expect them to.

Don’t worry if you feel lost, directionless, bereft, rudderless, and so on; those states are full of potential for transformation. Being adrift is also being without reference, and that’s something we aimed for as dzogchen practitioners, so let’s embrace our new state, whatever it is. We don’t need to know where we’re going in order to appreciate the journey. We’re on a pathless path, a journey without an end.

You also might be more awakened than you think you are. When you read the qualities of awakening laid out in the above book, you might be surprised just how many of those qualities you already have. And honestly, does it really matter where you are on the ‘enlightenment scale’? Isn’t the important thing not where we’re heading but how we live each moment?

I went to a yoga class yesterday. The first one since I joined Rigpa. And oh, how I enjoyed it. I’ve also been doing some art and craft, and gardening.

What activities do you find are an outlet for that part of yourself that yearns to connect with the ‘spiritual dimension’? And please share any thoughts you have on walking a pathless path?

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

5 Replies to “The challenge of losing your spiritual path”

  1. I have just watched this very interesting recent interview with Adyashanti that seems pertinent to some of the discussions we’ve had here. It is particularly interesting from about 43:00 onwards. He is mainly talking about spiritual maturity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrDTi1gaGbU If this link doesn’t work, you can see it on YouTube “Waking up from the Dream of Ego” – Adyashanti. It may help anyone who might still be grieving over what they perceive as losing their way on a spiritual path. Thalia wrote “Isn’t the important thing not where we’re heading but how we live each moment?” Yes absolutely because isn’t every single moment of our life extraordinary. The fact that we have consciousness, are alive – amazing! Isn’t this already a kind of enlightenment with all other potential myriad moments of enlightenment just being different facets of the human condition. Perhaps it is when one experiences oneself as being adrift on our spiritual path, that we really find it without all the effort of grasping that we had earlier been preoccupied with?

  2. This is a very good summation. It clearly states the different choices we all face. I particularly like the idea of “opportunity for genuine freedom of mind”. That applies to everyone, stayers, goers or anyone in between. Always thought that was one of the objects of TB.
    The question of – ‘How can there be an end point past which there is no more growth’ ? I totally agree we are all constantly evolving. If we look at co-emergement wisdom and co-emergement ignorance it seems as if there is always the possibility of one or other to emerge at any given moment. So that is not a static process but a constantly changing one. I like to think that the – ‘Path of No More Learning’ – is a path of benefiting beings because all the obscurations have been dissolved and all the teachings integrated. Yet I wonder (not being there yet) do those on that path still grow in skill and ability? I see it as active just in a different way as is being conscious, cognisant and aware.
    ‘Taylor considers awakening as the inevitable future of the human race, the result of the inexorable march of evolution’. I agree with this although given the current global state it seems mired more in ignorance than wisdom. We are not taught to find within but to rely on something outside. So we go looking for help to find ourselves.
    ‘Trust in the natural process of life as spiritual practice. We just have to be open to it and realise that opportunities for growth might not look a bit like how we expect them to’ . This might present problems. Not everyone is able to do that. We think we need help, or have to be taught to do this. If, as children, we were encouraged to explore our minds we might not, as adults, be prone to relying on others too much.
    For me, in a way I was always walking a pathless path. TB was just one part of the process. At one time I might have considered it the ultimate process but not now. Luckily I always had an interest in alternative ways of thinking and being. I am currently exploring a more self determined path in a way. I actually think that all is just an exploration of who and what we really are. Therefore even though the events in R and TB were / are bad they are fuel for further exploration and growth. So the pathless path or more likely the badly read map path continues unabated.

    1. We do need guides at various points in our ‘path’; I’m aware when writing these articles here that I’m speaking to people who have had at least one guide and a comprehensive system of guidance, and many of them have studied it for a considerable number of years.

      Even so, trusting in the natural process may still be enough for those who have never had any guidance in looking at themselves and reality, because their natural process may lead them to a teacher. A chance encounter with someone who read the TBLD brought me to Buddhism, for instance. I never went seeking either the book or Buddhism. I never wanted a religion. I did, however, want to know the depths of myself and reality.

      I think some intention to examine ourself and/or live a truly ‘spiritual life’ (rather than a religious life) is required for us to develop in this area, or at least the desire to live a healthy life or a conscious life. Otherwise that whole realm of experience would remain closed to us. We simply wouldn’t take up any opportunities that arose. We’d ignore the adverts for yoga or meditation classes, for instance.

      In relating this idea to those who commit atrocities, I can only assume that they do not have any intention to live a genuinely spiritual life. They may want to live a religious life, but some versions of some religions sanction terrorist acts and abuse, so living a religious life is not enough. I am, of course, assuming that a genuine spiritual life would include attempting to not harm.

  3. After I left two abusive communities in a row (the last one far worse than the first), I tried to simplify and relax, following a good piece of advice I found in a book by a British pagan writer: “Let go of whatever can be doubted. Whatever’s left takes no effort to maintain.” Since then, I’ve found my way back to Vajrayana, this time with excellent and caring teachers. (From my early 20s, I’ve always known this was my path). I still feel echoes of deep anger at what I and others went through before, but it has been over 20 years now, and time heals many wounds.

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