Many years ago, on a sunny Saturday in Santa Cruz, California, I experienced one of the most instructive disappointments of my life.
I signed up for a workshop with a mystical teacher who was hardly known outside a certain circle, but respected enough within it to draw 50 people to a daylong event.
At the time, I was hardly living a spiritual life. I’d burned out early on my so-called investigative reporting career and was working for myself as a graphic artist and occasionally published writer, dreaming of the day I would have enough money saved to write full-time. My work life was halfway satisfying, my love life seemed more or less okay, and I didn’t have the slightest idea of what my purpose on this Earth might be. I’d always had a spiritual side, but the center of my life was unhappily wrapped up with self-preservation and a sardonic suspicion of the world at large.
While I kept telling myself and a few friends that I was going to the workshop purely on a lark, I was privately imagining something far more dramatic. Somehow, I expected the teacher to see through me, to single me out and expose my failings, hypocrisies, and half-heartedness before the world—or at least in front of the workshop participants—and then deliver some kind of spiritual shock that would finally get my life going in the right direction.
I anticipated that the experience would be difficult, perhaps even humiliating, but worth it in the long run. In short, I expected to get all shook up. Something deep within myself was saying it was about time.
From the moment I arrived and approached the workshop registration table, I was already feeling uncomfortable, but not in the way I’d expected. People I’d never met greeted me like a long-lost friend, and I immediately sensed an agenda of drawing people into the teacher’s school. Most of the workshop attendees seemed to know each other already, and thus any newcomers received special attention. We were told enthusiastically of the wonderful experiences that lay just minutes ahead. Already I felt singled out, but only as the recipient of a sales pitch.
Things got steadily worse once the program started. The teacher didn’t even show up for the first couple of hours, while veteran students testified to the group about all the saving graces of the path they’d been following under their teacher’s wise direction. Their marriages were saved, money arrived at just the right time and outright healing miracles occurred—all the stuff one might expect at an evangelical tent revival.
I began to wonder if I’d spent a few years too many as an investigative reporter because I felt more cynical than ever. It seemed that I was surrounded by deluded, unthinking sycophants wearing insincere smiles, and by mid-morning, the day ahead was looking dismally long.
I was decidedly not on the way to a spiritual breakthrough.
When the teacher finally appeared just before lunch, I felt embarrassed for him and increasingly angry about what I was witnessing. Unless my eyes deceived me, the teacher was three sheets to the wind, slurring his words and rambling incoherently about themes from his books that I already knew well enough. He had written about overcoming alcoholism through his spiritual discipline, but it looked pretty clear to me that he was relapsing.
I was disturbed that no one besides me seemed to notice. People were nodding their heads and voicing expressions of amazement at every nonsensical pearl that dropped from the teacher’s mouth. I felt like I was in the middle of an Emperor’s New Clothes parade for the esoteric set.
After the teacher’s initial presentation, I sat alone, morosely chewing through my vegan lunch while refusing several chirpy offers of companionship from the already-initiated (or brainwashed?) members of the school. I considered escaping right then and there, but a morbid curiosity and a determination to wring some value out of the workshop fee kept me there.
To make a long story short, I came to regret this decision. By the time the workshop ended with a cloying, hand-holding, singing-in-a-circle session, I was utterly furious. I pounded on the dashboard for the two-hour drive home, alternately laughing and cursing about what a ludicrous waste of time the whole day had been.
At the time, I failed to notice how disproportionate my anger was. Nor did I think it odd that I remained angry about the workshop for several months afterward, bad-mouthing the experience, the teacher and spiritual seeking in general.
One day when I was reprising the bitter experience in my mind, I had a stunning realization: I was all shook up! The workshop had delivered a tremendous shock to me after all, but only because my expectations for it had been so thoroughly defeated.
Instead of publicly exposing me, the teacher had inadvertently revealed all my worst aspects: an insecure superiority, presumptuousness, and a self-reinforcing alienation.
And now, months later, I finally grasped the spiritual lesson that would redirect my life from that point forward: Do not expect others to do your spiritual work for you.
My bitterness over the whole experience abruptly dissolved into laughter, and I realized that my first step into spiritual exploration had been like a baby’s: a clumsy stumble ending in a pratfall.
As revealing as this experience was, what happened next is even more surprising.
About a year after the Santa Cruz debacle, the same teacher passed through my hometown for another daylong workshop. I signed up again, this time expecting nothing from the teacher but nonetheless feeling a peculiar gratitude for the unexpected lesson I had learned from him.
This time, the workshop proved to be one of the most enjoyable and instructive experiences of my life. The teacher seemed sober, calm and clear-eyed, conveying a number of useful insights throughout a well-planned program. There was no coterie of slavish followers and not a trace of the evident hypocrisy from a year before. I kept wondering: Has the teacher changed or have I?
In retrospect, I believe it was both. Any worthy spiritual teacher is not a static pillar of enlightenment, but someone who keeps changing and being purified by life’s challenges. The student is just somewhat behind the teacher in this regard.
While we might imagine that our progress toward awakening is going to be smooth and progressive, like a college curriculum that advances us toward the reward of a degree, a genuine spiritual path is an entirely different process. Part of it is certainly the experience of disillusionment.
From time to time, we will get all shook up, and this means we never see it coming.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock