Sally Kempton: Meditation, Studentship & the Future of Spirituality. {II/III}

Via Kristoffer Nelson
on Jan 25, 2011
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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.

This is the second of a three part interview about her new book, Meditation For The Love Of It.  You can find her book published by Sounds True on

To read SALLY KEMPTON on Meditation, Studentship, and The Future of Spirituality I/III.

Kris:  In the first chapter of your book you talk about having a goal.  In certain terms this seems counter intuitive to the spiritual culture we’ve created in the west the last forty years.  Where do you think the hesitation of having spiritual goals originated?  Why is having a goal so important?

Sally:  Having a goal — that is, a strong intention, a sense of directionality — is crucial to any endeavor, and that is especially true of meditation. As I say in the book, if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going, you’re liable to end up anywhere.  Even to be able to sit to meditate, you need to make it a priority–the pulls of our external life are so strong, so seductive. So you have to know that you want an inner life, you have to have a strong intention to evolve spiritually in order to give meditation a real place in your life.  Of course, goals change and evolve. But when we start with a strong intention, the intention strongly influences the outcome. For instance, if you know that your goal is immersion in pure Awareness,  pure love, the True Self, that goal will orient your practice so that it actually has that result. That doesn’t mean you ignore process. The book emphasises paying attention to process.

Kris:    You have seen about 40 years of spiritual culture in both the east and west.  How has the conversation evolved (or devolved) over the years?  Where do you think we’re heading?

Sally:    I believe we’re headed towards what we might call a world spirituality, or fusion spirituality, in which we are integrating practices that might have come originally from Hinduism or Buddhism or Christianity or Judaism,  and from developmental psychology or other contemporary modalities. Its a natural development, since we’re living in a time when so much spiritual wisdom and so many techniques are available, and practitioners are exposed to the jewels of so many different traditions. But its very necessary that we do that — as teachers and as students — seriously and consciously, because our exposure to all these different practices is both a boon and a danger.

The boon is that we are able to find methods and techniques that specifically address our needs and lacks. Traditionally, you practiced inside your mandala, and you were encouraged not to take teachings from other teachers or traditions. The understanding was that every tradition offered a complete path. And this is true as far as it goes, but when our aim is to live as a fully integrated person, the path of our particular tradition may need some augmentation. Most traditional paths are very strong at certain practices and aspects of the journey, and may not emphasise others.  For instance, the Hindu traditions are fantastic at opening the heart, working with the inner centers, with kundalini, and with devotional practice. Yet they don’t emphasise bodhichitta — practice for the benefit of all beings — or basic emptiness, with the same rigor that the Buddhists do. The non-dual Vedantins can do kickass deconstruction of the mind, really help you get free from story, but like the Buddhists, they aren’t so good at helping your open the heart.

And the developmentalists offer us ways to work with our personal humanness that the traditions don’t address. The power in our time — and its something that as a teacher I’ve been very grateful for — is that we can make use of all these jewels in our practice. I foresee the development of a genuine world spirituality, a fusion spirituality, that will come through teachers and students who have entered deeply into practice from different traditions, and are bringing them together in a genuine way.

The danger, of course, is of spiritual dilettantism, the Chinese menu approach to practice. So its very important now that teachers have a strong sense of priorities, so that practice is held in a context that encourages exploration but also holding strong to the overall goals of spiritual life. We need to be very clear about our goals, and about why we do what we do. And we also need to recognize that any practice we do needs to be engaged seriously. The old analogy about digging wells is still operative! You don’t get water unless you keep drilling in one place. But when you’re very clear about where the water is, you can work with different approaches within an overall structure, always staying in alignment with the water.

Kris:    How is this different from Theosophy that emerged in the early 1900s and New Age (for lack of a better term) that emerged in the late 1960s?  Both of these movements made the same claims, right?

Sally:    Each of these movements made genuine contributions. Both of them brought eastern teachings into the western conversation, and worked with eastern teachings in a context that made these teachings accessible on what is now approaching a mass level. I’d also acknowledge the contribution of Earnest Holmes Religious Science, which brought essentially non-dual, Vedantic and Kashmir Shaiva ideas into a highly practical, pragmatic frame that had a tremendous influence on what we now call New Age teachings. Contemporary world spirituality, or fusion spirituality is simply more deeply integrative and, I’d say, spiritually sophistocated than these early movements. Ideally, in includes the best of the traditional approaches, as well as contemporary psychological insight and the insights of science.

Kris:    There is a lot of focus now in the spiritual world on ego development and you’ve been doing a lot of this work in your workshops – why do you think this is so important?

Sally:    We’re humanoids — the ego is an intrinsic part of our equipment as human beings. So if we don’t complete the developmental tasks in the realm of the psyche, we end up with big imbalances, which reverberate in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. And I think more and more of us have realized that spiritual progress doesn’t just happen on the mat, or in the room with the door shut. Life is also our practice arena, and anything we try to slide around or skip over will turn up smack in the middle of our path a few years down the road.

We need a world of yogis who have also developed the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that can begin to resolve the problems we face as a society.  In other words, if the world is going to rise to the task that confronts us, the people with access to higher states of consciousness need to have developed a lot of maturity in the normal human sense of the world.

Ego development — or what Ken Wilber calls development through structure-stages — is an absolutely necessary part of growing up.  Developmental psychologists talk about how there are developmental tasks of each stage of life. We need to complete those tasks, otherwise we literally can’t feel whole, and our spirituality will always have a bit of fantasy about it. The polarities in the psyche — the different strains of masculine/feminine, work/intimacy, containment/freedom, intellect/emotion — as these are seen, made conscious, and hopefully balanced, as we bring forth more of the fullness of ourselves, the entire psyche expands.

We can contain more, be more present  to others and to the world. Our spiritual realization can be expressed in our actions more skillfully. That’s when we’re able to positively affect the whole field of consciousness — both by what we do and by who we are in action and relationships. That doesn’t happen solely through our inner spiritual work. But what I’ve found is that when we are doing serious spiritual work, it gives us a powerful platform for the work of ego development, while doing the ego development work gives us a platform for our spiritual unfoldment. The two are synergistic with each other, and also with the path of skillful activity in the world.

Kris:    Why do you think this is a fairly new concept in spirituality?

Sally:    Its always been somewhat implicit in the traditions, but until the 20th century we didn’t have the structures and tools for working with the psyche in the way we now have. Western psychological disciplines make a whole new level of spiritual work possible. I’d say that the insights and tools of western psychology have added a deep and necessary level to our understanding of the spiritual path. This has developed exponentially since the 1970s, when psychologically trained westerners began to study and practice in eastern paths as well as in western contemplative paths.  The combination of spiritual insight and psychological insight that we now have access to is literally world changing, not to mention mind-blowing!

Check back in a few days for the third installment of SALLY KEMPTON on Meditation, Studentship, and The Future of Spirituality.


About Kristoffer Nelson

Kris Nelson works to development business, culture, and consciousness. He is a consultant, entrepreneur, and a corporate executive. He is also certified Anusara Teacher and well established meditation teacher. After teaching in Los Angeles for many years, Kris spent several years touring Asian, Europe and the United States teaching Anusara Yoga, meditation, and perspectives on awakening in the modern world. When Kris approached the age of 30 he decided that it was time to get an real job and now assists organizations and businesses in both evolutionary and financial growth. Kris currently resides in Raleigh, NC working his first corporate job in a very long time. You can find Kris on twitter at @toffernelson or on his website


10 Responses to “Sally Kempton: Meditation, Studentship & the Future of Spirituality. {II/III}”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, Kristoffer Nelson and Kristoffer Nelson, Sam Maher. Sam Maher said: RT @toffernelson: Sally Kempton on Meditation, Studentship, + Future of Spirituality II/III #elej #integral #yoga […]

  2. TamingAuthor says:

    There can no doubt be synergy between different spiritual paths, as they are addressing the reality of a spiritual being. The meeting place, it seems, is at the higher end of each discipline, in what some might call the mystical or transcendent realms. All good so far…

    But then when one adds in disciplines that deny the existence of the spiritual being found at the upper ends of the disciplines, it seems one introduces a liability.

    One is paddling away in the lifeboat, the shore may be in sight at any moment.Then one drops a ten ton boulder into the middle of the lifeboat. It will begin taking on water and sink unless one tosses the boulder out of the boat.

    This is an analogy for the introduction of western psychology into the mix. Once one introduces a discipline whose premises are exactly the opposite of Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, Christianity et al… one has added untruth to truth, and one has threatened the stream crossing.

    Thus, I become skeptical about the teachings she advocates. Not all that interested in a lifeboat that is destined to sink before reaching the other shore.

  3. Sally Kempton says:

    The thing about spiritual goals is that they morph. For instance, your goal in the beginning might be something as simple as to be able to witness your thoughts. As you go deeper, you might aim at really sinking in and being the witness, being the seer. My idea of a beneficial goal is one that keeps you turning more and more deeply into your own Being. And along the way, there are subsidiary goals. Meditation is a practice for entering ultimate being, but it can also have very pragmatic benefits, which are not to be sneezed at–so your goal in a particular meditation could be to gain insight into a question or an inner issue, or to open your heart more deeply.

    I would say that there is a difference between goals as 'acheivements' (ie, attain arhat-hood in 3 months) and goals as directions that you give your consciousness in meditation. The first creates expectations that block you. The second allows you to hold clarity in the shifting landscape of meditation. In the language of my Hindu tradition, when you have the ultimate goal of identifying more and more deeply with the Great Heart, the non-dual self of all, the pure Being-Awareness-Bliss that is your true nature, that intention will guide you as you go.

    Of course, practices like metta and Tonglen are deeply awakening for the heart, and I love them myself. What I was referring to–perhaps not specifically enough–was the very powerful energetic practices of Hinduism, which directly address the opening of the spiritual heart, the inner center of consciousness that is the gateway to the Great Heart.

  4. Yogi Mat says:

    I have a suspicion that your understanding of yoga is better than your PR Sally – which is very refreshing – and the correct way to proceed. I would commend your commitment to your work. EJ has its use – it keeps hundreds of pseudo-yogis all tied up in one place and stops them from becoming a menace to society – it is always with regret when I pop back here to find the littany of pain, mistreatment and victimisation of blameless people that EJ regularly inflicts on many of its participants, it is even more disheartening when those victims don't appear to see how they are being victimised by what is essentially just another andocentric conspiracy and blindly take out their frustrations on others in the community.

  5. KashiKali says:

    THANK YOU so much for this article!
    I have been asking the questions lately that Sally is addressing and found her insights increidbly helpful!
    Can you say more about "developmental tasks" that must be completed at each stage in life?
    I read up on Ken Wilber as a result of this article – thank you! what a find!
    Can Sally speak more of the Ken Wilber developmental stages?

  6. Sally Kempton says:

    Hi Duff–Buddhism for sure has skillful means for working with emotions. Sometimes such a practice is appropriate. At other times, a more psychologically oriented practice, such as voice dialogue,parts work, or, yes, gestalt or dream work, can specifically address issues that meditation doesn't. The point in practice,I've found, is to apply the medicine that is appropriate for a particular moment and situation. No practice–either spiritual or psychological–addresses every situation that we as human beings face. A skillful combination of means, carefully applied and practice, is in my experience the most powerful way to move through your life situation.

    Obviously, all practices that use mindfulness have something in common. I haven't done Hakomi practice, so I can't speak to it, but I have noticed that for many people, body scanning Vipassana can often lead to a kind of spiritual bypassing that 'observes' emotions without actually freeing yourself of them. The truth is that every practice can be used skillfully or misused, can take you forward or keep you stuck. It all depends on your willingness to be conscious in whatever your practice happens to be.

    Contemporary world fusion spirituality is only now beginning to be taught, often by teachers who have been deeply trained in a tradition, and who then broaden their teaching to include other modalities. The fact that this kind of teaching is emerging does not in any way deny the power and the effectiveness of the traditions. No one would ever deny the importance of great teachers like the Dalai Lama, or powerful western teachers like Pema Chodren. There are many teachers who give powerful transmissions in their traditions. And it is also true that there are practitioners who no longer 'fit' in a tradition, or who are drawn to teachings that aren't contained in their tradition. As I said in the interview, digging a deep well is very important. Entering fully into your practice is crucial. At the same time, every great practitioner will at times get stuck, and it is what you do when you see an imbalance in your practice that often determines your capacity to break through. We live in a time when it is possible to experiment, and the question is, how do you experiment in a responsible and effective way. That recognition, and the contemplation that it brings up, and the genuine discoveries of contemporary teachers both in and out of the traditions, is part of the process that is taking all of us deeper in our own practice and understanding.

  7. Sally Kempton says:

    Like all modalities, western-style psychology can be practiced with a materialistic perspective or with a non-dual perspective. We are fortunate that an entire generation of spiritual practitioners has chosen to do their work in the world in psychotherapeutic contexts that allow people to work with human blocks, personal karmas, etcetera while ALSO recognizing that the source of suffering is in our basic misunderstanding of our identity. Obviously the psycho-therapist has to have a practice and a deep spirittual understanding in order to benefit a practitioner. My point is that more and more, such psychotherapeutic practitioners exist. They are often the catalyst that opens a client to a deeper understanding of reality, and inspires them to turn to meditation, yoga and self inquiry as help them unpick the tendrils of their suffering. A person living in the world, living in society, working and relating to other human beings will benefit enormously from skillful practices for freeing herself of karmic obstacles, trauma, etc. Not to use these modalities invites a kind of spiritual bypass that ignores many of the subsidiary causes of human suffering. or a spiritual practitioner, psychological work when practiced alongside the awareness that what you are is spirit, consciousness living inside a karmic framework can be an important part of journey to liberation.

  8. […] To read Sally Kempton on Meditation, Studentship & The Future of Spirituality II/III. Kris Nelson likes yoga, writing, and bourbon. He is a certified Anusara Teacher and well established meditation teacher. After teaching in Los Angeles for many years, he spent several years touring Asian, Europe and the United States teaching Anusara Yoga, meditation, and perspectives on awakening in the modern world. When Kris approached the age of 30 he decided that it was time to get an real job and now assists organizations and businesses in both evolutionary and financial growth. Kris currently resides in Raleigh, NC working his first corporate job in a very long time. […]

  9. Ramesh says:

    Non dual Advaita- all starts here and ends here … the rest ie life, search and all the rest is play. No interaction is possible without being apriori identified with an ego. Life and the search cannot exist without the I-am ness being identified with a good 'ego', a bad 'one' or a wonderous 'one', or even an 'enlightened one'. Clearly to reach a state of pure I-am ness necessarily implies that not even a direction is required, not even an intention, as the intention only matters to yet another 'wondrous' ego. All these other techniques truly serves to energize strands of egos that we love and we cannot give up because of their entertainment value. Would it not be so dreadful if non of the things we love such as Art, Great foods and drinks, sex etc.., fame, satisfaction suddenly becomes unimportant? Since I do not have access to what life could be without these egoic needs … the only conclusion I can draw is that the dance will continue. We will wallow in the search just for entertainment purposes. The search really does not have a real goal. But sure, great entertainment value … as long as life the way we know it … remains.

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