Sally Kempton is my teacher because she’s not my teacher.
While interviewing Sally about her new book Meditation For The Love Of It, I recalled a conversation Sally and I had on a retreat she was teaching years ago. It was a cool fall day in northern California, and Sally and I sat on the porch in a lovely wood glade warmed by the afternoon sun discussing my practice and our relationship. After some conversation about the things we typically enjoyed talking about, like the cultural significance of Kiefer Sutherland’s high-octane loner character Jack Bauer on the series 24 and the fun quirks of our modern spiritual experience, we settled in to discuss a question I had been asking: if she would be my teacher. I’ll never forget what she said to me, “Kris, I’ve given this teacher thing a lot of thought, and I don’t think it’s right. It’s time for you to figure it out. It’s not going to be me or anyone else. It’s time you’ve made it about you. I’m your friend and sometimes your guide, but I’m not your teacher. You’ve walked far enough and now you have to walk the rest of the way. And, I love you.”
In that moment Sally become my teacher, even though she’s not my teacher. She has supported me in countless ways and I am forever grateful for her wisdom, skill, humor, and insight. Whenever I bow, wherever I bow, in my heart I bow to her.
Kris: The enlightenment term is now off the table in most spiritual circles and we seem to be mainly talking about awakening, deeper layers of realization, and continuous ego development. Do you see the idea of enlightenment as something of the past?
Sally: Different paths have always had their own definitions of what enlightenment is, that aren’t necessarily congruent with each other. So the word causes confusion, and also a kind of competitive “my enlightenment is the real one” attitude. But enlightenment is simply one way of describing certain levels of human development. It’s a fine word as long as we don’t think of it as a static, final state that we ‘attain’ and don’t move from, but as way of describing certain evolved stages of the human condition. One thing we’re realizing in post modernity is that human consciousness is continuously evolving, and that we are beings capable of continuous development. For me, spiritual unfoldment is something that we keep experiencing at ever-deepening levels of awareness. At least, I hope so!
Kris: It’s interesting that you bring this up because it’s something I’ve wanted to ask you about – the idea that spiritual unfoldment is something that we keep experiencing ever-deepening levels of awareness. I really feel like I’ve regressed spiritually and developmentally the last five years though, on the developmental side, I’ve supposedly developed. Last time I was tested in Susan Cook-Greuter’s ego development system (about two years ago), Action Logic Stages, I was an emergent late second tier ego (Magician or Teal Meme in Spiral Dynamics) with a whole bunch of spiritual awareness. However, most of the time I feel like an undeveloped immature douche bag (See: Dear Self: Fcuk You). What do you make of this?
Sally: I see it as part of the spiraling process of development, which in my experience usually means moving one step back for every two steps forward. Just as we think we’ve aced it in one area of life, life in her wisdom will point out that, oops, here’s a place where you still have some growing up to do. Its helpful here to look at development as a spiral rather than as a line, because the spiral lets us see how we keep cycling back to where we started, but at a higher level than the last time we were there. And this process happens in every area of our life, as we evolve towards integration. Roughly, we’re always balancing the psychological realm, the interpersonal, relational realm, the realms of creativity, activity and service, with our spiritual life, which will ideally pervade all the other realms. But the process normally works in an asymmetrical way. In other words, when we’re in the process of developing along certain lines, we often neglect or reject others, and then get to go back and re-do them — hopefully sooner rather than later!
So, lets say that you, Kris — like many of us — went through a period of your life when your focus was basically internal. A lot of your attention went into your yoga studies and your spiritual practice, your writing, journeying in various ways — but was less focused on the equally challenging path of making a place in the world. This is a life-pattern that a lot of spiritually-oriented people follow.
Then, at a certain point in our lives, we realize that we can’t live any more with the imbalance of inner and outer. At that point, we will tend to go through a firey initiation at the hands of what is sometimes called the world of mature masculine consciousness. (Here, masculine doesn’t apply only to males, but stands for the rules and disciplines of the world. Women obviously go through this same initiation.) At this point, we can no longer get away with being fully self-directed. Our worldly skills, our social and professional skills are severely tested through our interactions with society and the professional world. We go through a steep learning curve in whatever areas we haven’t fully developed, and as you know, when we’re on that kind of learning curve we usually feel our immaturity most painfully. Its very good for the spiritual ego, I’ve found, to undergo that kind of humbling experience, just as its good for the ego that has developed its worldly skills to be humbled by its immaturity in relationship, or in spiritual development.
Kris: See, Sally, that’s why I love you. Speaking of such love, you’re deeply devoted to your Guru, Swami Muktananda, and you’re also teaching in a post-post-modern world largely void of the guru/disciple relationship and even the teacher/student relationship. What do you feel the future of studentship will be?
Sally: In my own on going work with students, I prefer a model of the teacher as a spiritual friend rather than the traditional guru/disciple or even student/teacher model. But however you term it, some form of studentship is crucial to development, and at some point most of us need to fully open ourselves to it. Being a student means following instructions, doing your homework, and it also means that you trust the teacher enough to accept his or her authority in those moments when everything in you is pushing you in the direction of the old egoic fixations that trap everyone of us.
We usually can’t see our own delusions, because they are the very lens we see through. That’s why we need the clarity of someone who is further along than we are, someone who has stepped free of those fixations. Then, at some point, as you mature, the relationship changes, becomes more of a peer relationship. We may not stay with the same teacher forever, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have more than one teacher in our lives. And we will also learn from people who may not call themselves our teachers. At the same time, its tremendously helpful to have a core teacher, a root teacher, who has time to get to know you, to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and who can guide you without either co-ercing you or undermining your basic spiritual independence.
Kris: You’ve been reluctant in the past to formalize your relationship with people; you don’t see the people that study with you as students. And, I know from my experience with you that you hesitated with the formalization of teacher/student even though I considered you to be my teacher, and you tended to interact with me mostly as a friend and guide (except for the very few times you deservedly pulled the teacher card). As your teaching continues to evolve and shift, what do you think your relationship with students will look like?
Sally: Good question, Kris. I do feel more and more of a responsibility to be present for people who are connected to me, and to offer everything I can to help them move to the next stage in their journey. For the sake of continuity, this does inevitably involve a certain commitment. However, I believe that its up to the student to make that commitment. When the student does that, the teacher is able to interact on a deeper level.
Kris: What are you passionate about right now?
Sally: Love. Freedom. Self-realization, in all its forms.
Kris: That seems pretty consistent with, well, always. What do you do when you’re not busy being a super swami? What are you working on these days?
Sally: I’m writing a new book on the divine feminine, teaching a new teleclass every month, and trying to keep enough space in my life so I can wander around, space out, meditate, read, and just hang out. My favorite moments in life are those times when, in the midst of busyness, spaciousness opens up between one breath and another, and one thought and another.
Kris: What’s the most important thing?
Sally: Love. Love is the only force that can hold all contradictions in its embrace, dissolve obstructions, unlock the roots of our creativity, show us the ecstasy which is the true heart of everything. Love is what makes it all worthwhile.
To learn more about Sally Kempton, visit her website Sally Kempton.com.