Satsang: Uses and Abuses
"Spiritual growth is not signaled by unusual experiences but by the increasing fullness and satisfaction in your ongoing life."
by Ken Russell
Too much has been made of the blessing of the guru. Many believe that satsang, (being in the presence of a guru either by yourself or in a group) is sufficient for growth, that just being with a guru will eventually cause enlightenment. Satsang does confer real benefit, but being in the presence of the teacher cannot by itself effect change as if by some miraculous power. This is a myth fabricated out of the hopes of people wishing to avoid the real work of self-transformation, a myth capitalized on by false or deluded teachers. Being accepted as a student and just simply being around a teacher, even when the teacher is fully evolved, is no guarantee of meaningful change. To truly benefit from a real teacher, students must provide the effort necessary to incorporate the teachings into their lives so that the possibilities they have glimpsed become part of their lives. The true teacher points students toward their possibilities, in the deepest sense.
You may have observed that people can study with teachers for years with little change. If I let my students hang around me, we could have satsang one evening a week; we could have a group of people, raise hands and hum and chant, perhaps dance. Something would happen, something dramatic and uplifting. The students would have all kinds of experiences. Then they would discuss the experiences and convince themselves that something spiritual was happening. In fact, such unusual experiences may not be spiritual at all, and they do not change people; they merely entertain them. It becomes an event they look forward to, perhaps as a relief from their unfulfilled lives.
The true blessing of the guru lies in the sense he or she gives you of your own unrealized potential, a sense of what you really are under all the conditioning, and the tools and understandings he or she gives you that you need in order to work on yourself. And, of course, the encouragement to keep at it. The possibilities shown by the teacher of what you can be in your fullness—those possibilities can initiate the process of change. I witnessed this in my own life when I met Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Rinzi Zen master. Before meeting him, I had been working intensely on myself through whatever psychological tools seemed most appropriate—gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, encounter groups, reality therapy, and so on. Yet something was lacking in my life. I felt an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. No matter how much "progress" I made, something was missing.
When I met Sasaki Roshi, I had a profound sense of being with someone who was present in a way I had never encountered before, and I knew this way of living to be of the utmost worth, a way of being fully alive while at deep peace. While I chose not to be his student, the sense that he gave me of my own possibilities radically altered my life. I shifted from psychological exploration to an investigation of the spiritual dimension. His presence has been with me all these years as an inspiration and a prod to my growth. Once I sensed the real possibilities of being, it was hard for me to stop anywhere short of that. This is the true blessing of a real teacher.
A phenomenon that confuses many people is the energetic presence developed by certain individuals, a palpable field of energy around them that can be communicated to others. This energy field is not spiritual. It is just a subtle extension of the ordinary material world. It is about as spiritual as magnetic fields or electricity. It impresses us because it is so out of the ordinary that it appears miraculous. We might be awed by it the same way an aborigine would be awed by seeing a flashlight for the first time. We then mistakenly attribute special qualities to the person who created the field, particularly if the field induced altered states of consciousness in us and we experienced unusual phenomena. (Such energy fields can also be produced by group activities—there is a creation of a larger field in which we are caught up and carried along, also leading to interesting experiences for us. If you have ever been to a sporting event, a political rally, a protest, or an intensive group workshop, you have a sense of this group contagion.) It is interesting, exciting, but in no way spiritual.
Yet we become confused because we believe that the very positive emotional states associated with energy fields are spiritual. It is true that these highly enjoyable states can be byproducts of spiritual growth, but to mistake this enjoyment and pleasure for spirituality is to miss the point. In a highly informative video called Hitler: A Career (Turner Home Video), you can see people going through religious ecstasies in the energetic presence of Adolf Hitler. I highly recommend this video as a sobering experience for anyone who does not understand that energetic or emotional highs have nothing to do with spirituality.
In the mid-seventies, I learned an aspect of what has become transformational psychology. It involved channeling energy to others, generally producing altered states of consciousness. When I incorporated this in my teaching sessions, it allowed students to have very unusual, moving experiences that they relished. But I noticed that the students were not changing as quickly as they had in earlier, seemingly duller sessions. They were becoming addicted to the highs of the experiences, becoming so focused on these things that they neglected the more essential work needed to bring change into their daily lives. I no longer incorporate energy work in my teachings, finding more prosaic approaches to be far more effective in fostering lasting changes. The sessions may not be as exciting for students, but that is more than adequately compensated for by the increased fullness of their lives between sessions. And that is what matters—their lives are the focal point, not the sessions.
While altered states of consciousness can open windows of possibilities for people—such as when a habitually tense and apprehensive person experiences a sense of joy and release from anxiety, thus providing the recognition that a better way of living is possible—if the teacher keeps on repeating such experiences, no matter how pleasurable or appealing they maybe for the student, these experiences hinder rather than help. Students must learn how to touch into these spaces for themselves, by themselves. It is the responsibility of the teacher to show students how to do this, how to create a sense of openness in which the conditioned aspects of the personality fall away and the deeper aspects of being emerge. The false, incompetent, or deluded teacher can hook the student on the pleasurable aspects of the experiences, and the student will then focus on these rather than on the changes needed for growth.
Anyone who has learned to work with energy can create situations that alter the state of consciousness of others. And these approaches are so widely disseminated these days through books, tapes, and workshops that people who may be psychologically unbalanced or simply opportunistic are learning and using them. This energetic phenomenon is not in itself spiritual. It is the use made of this altered state of consciousness that is critical. When it stands out as being the most wonderful thing in your life, something you eagerly await, you may find yourself addicted to it as you might to a drug or power or sex.
You then become distracted from the real work of transformation that—contrary to what appears in popular books—is often mundane and uneventful. Spiritual growth is not signaled by unusual experiences but by the increasing fullness and satisfaction in your ongoing life. It is our conditioned personality that has been raised on TV soap operas and the Hollywood version of life that craves the drama of highs. To settle for these highs, followed by the inevitable lows, is to miss the fullness of our selves. The spiritual is the vastness in which these events, and all others, occur.