What is it about the spiritual world and its message of freedom and awakening that so often devolves into the consistent lack of leadership that this selfsame message demands?
While I watch the angst and ego-drama erupt around the unveiling of John Friend, I can’t help but ask myself, “What’s new in this picture?”
Failures of leadership such as the current fiasco with John Friend affect what I do. I am a corporate leadership guy who has migrated the Advaitic path of awakening into my work, so I understand the impact it has when those you would think can hold the space for this message continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
Still, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Early in my seeker’s journey, I was fortunate to spend years as a sannyasin in the world of Osho. Scandal and controversy were no strangers to anyone who lived in that world. But this playing field expands way beyond any one ashram, school or spiritual path. Even a cursory read of the insightful and entertaining book American Veda by Philip Goldberg will immediately alert us to the consistent plague of sex and drug scandals linked to various gurus who have brought us the message of enlightenment and awakening. So what don’t we understand about those who ask us to follow them (or love them) and then can’t deliver leadership at the level of maturity it would seem reasonable to expect? And why do we repeat the agony of identifying with the ego-drama every time one of these spiritual luminaries goes down?
When I used to sit with Ramesh Balsekar, Nisargadatta’s favorite son, he would often make the comment, “Enlightenment and awakening are sudden, but the arrival of maturity takes some time.”
What did he mean by this? He obviously did not hold that a personal awakening, whether permanent or fleeting, automatically creates spiritual leadership. And it is the wisdom of this de-linking that seems to so often be missed. Time and time again, genuine spiritual aspirants, in their hunger for truth, assign the impossible ideal of perfection to the guru-like leaders who capture attention with their sparkling personalities and often-brilliant teachings.
We all know that the basic concept that defines awakening is the passage from the ego- assumption into a felt experience of total unity. As children we are taught that each of our body-minds is a separate entity. We are also taught that this ego-entity controls or authors the outcomes that we experience. Awakening is simply the replacement of our identification with that single entity by a new felt experience that we all are the same consciousness. In essence, our focus on the ego—which typically has grown large enough to cover the entire canvas of awareness—shrinks it to its appropriate size, and our natural state is seen for what it is. But does the experience of this awakening translate into mature leadership?
I often heard from gurus in India that each body mind is designed to produce certain outputs in existence. For example, when the theory of relativity needed to be delivered to humanity, the body-mind called Albert Einstein was the vehicle that was perfectly wired to bring this about. The same could be said for the execution of leadership. When leadership needs to occur, there will indeed appear the perfect body-mind to hold the space for consciousness to guide its leader puppet. It is very important to understand this distinction. For it might very well be that a personality called John Friend was the perfect vehicle to bring Anusara to thirsty seekers—but this does not imply that this same personality will automatically be the choice of consciousness to take on the mantle of leadership. For, you see, the maturity needed to lead from that space of awakening is not immediately conferred.
Those who are familiar with Anusara know that the basic underpinning of its philosophy is Tantra. In simple terms, Tantra is the complete immersion of the body-mind into the experience of the treasures of Existence. Many times it is mistakenly seen as a path of sexuality only. But this is not the case. It is the total melting of the individual into the experience that surrounds her until there is a felt experience of no difference between the experience and the experiencer. Now this seems easy to understand. Unfortunately, there is a double-bladed issue with the Tantric approach: The gobbling up of all experience can lead to either an extremely polished ego or to the complete dropping of ego-identification. If the permanent felt experience of nonseparation does not occur, typically Tantra has the downside of producing the largest egos known to man. So, much like my experience on the Tantric path with Osho, the Anusara movement must now grapple with the egos that it has created for itself.
So, what happened with John Friend? To his credit, he founded a beautiful movement. But it is clear that he assumed that his own moments of spiritual awakening should designate him as the leader of this movement. And as with many others who have stood at the top of the movements they founded, he simply was not up to the task. As I mentioned earlier, we all are conditioned to believe that we are the independent authors of our own journeys. We buy into the separation that we believe exists and then develop our behaviors as though that were the case. To keep everything moving in the direction we think it needs to go, we project the image that we believe others should see in us.
However, in so doing, we deny the aspects of ourselves that we don’t want others to see. We often call those aspects the shadow. If we have listened to Carl Jung, as well as Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Rollo May, and many others, up to current voices such as Debbie Ford, we know what the shadow implies. And that the reclaiming of our shadow pieces is essential on the path to maturity. It is this process that allows us to see ourselves as though we were the experiment in a science lab rather than through the single-focus lens of ego-identification. Once this reclaiming has occurred, the pain related to being found out as a human-with-faults no longer comes into play. It is this pain that, through years of conditioning, causes us to engage in strategies and manipulations we hope will prevent us from being seen in a lurid light.
So, recognizing the fundamental principle that transparent leadership can only occur as a function of spiritual maturity, we can posit that one of two things happened in the case of John Friend. Either he had the awakening experience that he claimed and did not pursue the path of maturation required to become a transparent leader (to himself or anyone else) or he simply had a vision that could translate into something worth sharing, and as an ego had the personality to attract other egos and attach them to his message.
I suppose that one could take the position that the gurus we embrace in worship continue to fall so that we can make the important distinctions we need for our own awakening journey. Of course, that would be personalizing the reason for these events. But if that story works in your journey, why not?
To my mind, what would be most helpful is to see the failure of John Friend, and his manipulative leadership approach, not as an outcome but rather as a doorway inviting us to engage in developing our own maturity. For this engagement makes it possible for our leadership to match the awakening that allows us to experience the unity of consciousness we always have been.
It can be painful to watch so many beautiful and loving people regard their own spiritual world as collapsed or permanently destroyed. I welcome any and all comments regarding this current drama. When you do respond, think about whether you are speaking as yourself or if you are allowing the message of consciousness to pass through you. For it is in the space of conscious responding that you have the opportunity to walk across the bridge from protecting your ego to the awakening experience itself.