Spirituality has, at its first step, morality: spirituality presupposes morality. In the ancient mystery schools, one was not given access to the spiritual teacher until and unless the initiate showed evidence of moral maturity. As far as I know, this is standard in the spiritual traditions. But what does this mean?
First, it means taking stock of oneself, examining one’s “baggage,” seeing where one needs to “work on oneself.” The well-known Buddhist insight is that our sense of separate ego leads to desires, which in themselves are harmless enough until we become attached to them and expect them to be fulfilled. Philosopher Ken Keyes wrote: “We automatically trigger feelings of unhappiness when the people and circumstances around us do not meet our expectations.” Expectations lead often to disappointment, then frustration and anger, and finally violence, whether mental or emotional or physical. Second, kindness: spiritual people must develop the virtue of kindness. The Dalai Lama says it quite succinctly: “My religion is kindness.” Third, it is important to attempt to develop agape, unconditional love. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research into near-death experience led her to conclude, from the experiences of those who had died and been resuscitated, that loving unconditionally and finding a way to be of service to others are, in large measure, what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. Fourth, the person on the spiritual path should strive to see the Divine (or Christ, Buddha-nature) in everyone. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” Jesus supposedly said (Matt. 25:40).
The next step beyond developing a moral nature is to develop an intellectual understanding of the spiritual worldview or worldviews. This places moral action within a context larger than the ordinary conception of life.
And finally, I would say, to develop spiritually is to develop spiritual disciplines and techniques, among them prayer and meditation. It is one thing to intellectually understand the nature of the spiritual, and it is quite another to experience the spiritual “realities” for oneself. Ultimately, knowing, in so far as it is possible, must be done oneself, wherein one becomes one’s own authority, grounded in the authenticity of one’s own spiritual experience.
Thus, quite simply, there are three steps to the spiritual: moral, intellectual, and inward “spiritual” discipline yielding experiences of the “higher order” or spiritual realities.
I should add that it is important, if not essential, for a spiritual aspirant to become a member of a community. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of the sangha or community, and the same seems to be true of other spiritual traditions. You know, from your own experience, the importance of the Masonic tradition in your own spirituality. The same is true for those for whom Theosophy or the Rosicrucians offer similar communities of believers.
You highlighted the importance of developing moral maturity. How does one go about doing so, and what are some signs that it is being attained? You also spoke of developing intellectual understanding of spiritual worldviews. Which specific philosophers, theorists, or authorities have you found to be especially helpful in your work with students, regardless of the particular traditions they may adhere to? Could you also share a little about what makes each so valuable? Finally, how does one differentiate between genuine experience of the “higher order,” or spiritual realities, and delusions?
First, regarding developing moral maturity, I would say that it is important to develop what are called “virtues”: respect, kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love, empathy, patience, and the like. The more one develops these, the more loving one becomes; and this I take to be a sign of moral maturity.
You ask about developing an intellectual understanding of the spiritual world. What convinced me immediately to the “truth” of the spiritual (metaphysical) world view was the fact that I could fit my the conclusions (knowledge) of many years of reading and studding into that world view. If there are different levels of experienced Reality (physical level, emotional or astral level, mental levels, and spiritual levels), then I could fit the imagery of Homer’s Odyssey, which I so deeply respect, into those levels. The journey of Odysseus is a journey through these levels and the lessons that each teaches. But it would lead us astray if I were to go into detail. The empiricists, like materialists, were describing the physical world; the ethics of the Stoics, the astral world; Aristotle and empiricists like Hume and Hobbes the visible world; Plato and Hegel and Leibniz, among others, the spiritual world or conception of reality. But that’s too much of an oversimplification.
My introduction to the metaphysical world view was through Theosophy; but later I studied the Oriental traditions and taught them. What are some major spiritual works? The Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, for the Hindu tradition; the Tao Te Ching; the general Buddhist tradition; Goethe’s Faust, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Homer’s Odyssey, for the literary tradition. Of course, for Christians, the New Testament, particularly the Gospels of Matthew and John are central as illustrations of ways of loving (Matthew) and Christian metaphysics (John). But the literature must be interpreted spiritually, so one needs a spiritual (metaphysical) framework in which to understand the great literature of the world. I have taught all these works, in one course or another, and students who are spiritually awakened respond to them all.
Yoga, or union with God, is best discussed in the Yoga-Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The understanding of how ego, with its fearful and desiring nature, leads to violence is beautifully detailed in the Buddhist tradition: ego leads to desire, desire to expectation, expectation to disappointment, disappointment to frustration, frustration to anger, and anger to violence. The 25th chapter of Matthew illustrates how to be loving and ultimately to see the divine in each person, and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is central to Christian spiritual teachings. Sophocles’ Oedipus story, of one who kills his father (God) and marries his mother (Matter) tells the story of us all: we “kill” the divine nature in us in order to serve our material interests (rule our lives in our own manner). For philosophy, I naturally gravitate toward Plato and particularly his metaphors and allegories: the allegory of the Cave (Republic VII), the myth of the soldier Er who dies and goes into the underworld, only to return to tell us what happens (Republic X), among others.
Which did I find most important? The Bhagavad Gita, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex understood as explained above, and the Gospel of Matthew (chapters cited). And for philosophical works, the Republic of Plato and (and this is one you love, too) his Symposium, the delightful and informatively insightful dialog on love.
You ask, finally, how one differentiates between genuine and perhaps spurious (delusional) spiritual experiences of a “higher order.” My own personal experience is that there is a “noetic” (knowledge-inspired) quality to genuine experiences. When the experiences break into one’s normal consciousness, or in a meditative state, there would seem to be a self-authenticating quality about them. I am wary of experiences induced by, or produced by, emotional states; but I recognize that there are ecstatic states of bliss and joy, peace and love, that arise in a spiritual context (such as Sufi dancing). One might also say, “By their fruits they are known.” So the effect in the lives of those who have had a genuine experience may be a sign.
Yes, I’m thankful you introduced me to Plato and his dialogues on love, such as the Symposium. It’s interesting that the fruits of spiritual and mystical experience bring us spiraling back to more naturally express the virtues and moral maturity of a more fully loving soul.
John, thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness. We could easily go on and on, and so perhaps we’ll do something like this again. In closing, is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
About you, Chuck: in my forty-five years of college and university teaching, I have been privileged to befriend a number of intelligent and caring students who have become successful and wonderful people, but none more loving, more intelligent, more dedicated to spirituality or serving others than you. It has been a privilege and honor to have been a part of your life since you and Susan were students of mine so many years ago. To your readers: you are truly in the presence of a man whose dedication to truth and whose love for humanity mark him as genuinely wise.
Those words are more than kind, John. Thank you. The next time we meet, dinner and drinks are on me! To our readers, I confess to a bit of an inner struggle over whether to include them or not, but obviously I chose to do so. It’s John’s answer to my question, and I hope it illustrates to you the very gracious person he is. If you would like to correspond with John, please tell me and I will connect you with him.