Notes on spiritual leadership and relational
John Heron first published on
this website May 2008
NB: This is a revision and integration of
interrelated sets of notes that have appeared in Michel Bauwens’
Pluralities/Integration online newsletter [email@example.com]
The guru phenomenon
The traditional oriental guru represents a form of
spiritual leadership in which so-called advanced spiritual states of being
are transmitted from guru to disciple. This requires the disciple to be
present with the guru, physically or psychically, to project onto the guru
the disciple’s latent divine nature, to be obedient and devoted to the guru,
and to practise the disciplines he prescribes. There is a hierarchical,
charismatic relationship to effect the disciple’s shift from an ordinary to
an extraordinary state of being ‘enlightened’. A favourite candidate for
‘enlightenment’ is the so-called nondual state, in which spirit and any kind
of form are known to be not two.
There seem to have been four phases of the guru
phenomenon in the West.
(1) In the late decades of the nineteenth century
and early decades of the twentieth century, there was just a small
guru-invasion from the East with key players like Vivekananda and the spread
of the Vedanta movement in the West.
(2) Then post-war from 1945 with the publication
of Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, there started a major
guru-invasion from the East including the dramatic spread through the 60s
and the 70s of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in the USA and Europe.
(3) In the third phase, over the last thirty years
or so, alongside the guru-invasion from the East there has been the growing
phenomenon of home-grown Western gurus and spiritual teachers claiming the
special status of 'enlightenment'.
(4) The fourth phase is just getting under way. It
seems to be distinguished by four features.
(a) The erosion of guru status as a result
of a continuous stream of sexual and financial abuse and bullying
scandals among both Eastern and home-grown Western gurus and
(b) The erosion of 'enlightenment' claims
by the proliferation of the number of people, especially in the
West, making the claim: the more people who make the claim, the more
its narcissistic inflation stands revealed. For the 'enlightenment'
claim is also an authority-claim to have followers, a recruiting
drive to gather in spiritual projections. The more claims that are
made, the stronger the competition among claimants in the
market-place for attention.
(c) A growing awareness that spiritual
authority is within and that to project it outward onto teacher,
tradition or text is an early, adolescent phase of spiritual
development in the one projecting, and counter-spiritual
manipulative abuse in any guru/teacher who seeks to elicit, to
appropriate and to sustain the projection.
(d) The emergence of peer to peer
spirituality, which democratizes charismatic, enlightened
leadership, and realizes that it is a role which different persons
assume at different times, either in the initiation of a peer group
or in the continuous unfolding of its process.
The fallacy of nondual individualism
Wilber has given an account of human spirituality
in terms of lines and levels of development (Wilber: 2000a, 2000b, 2002).
Theses lines and levels become an incoherent tangle because of an untenable
status afforded to the nondual and the path of individual meditation. Let me
The lines are relatively independent kinds of
human development, and the levels are stages of development through which
the lines proceed. So the different lines all go through the same levels.
Wilber defines spirituality in five different ways, but two of them are key
ones in his system: spirituality as the highest levels of any line, and
spirituality as a separate line itself. He thinks these two definitions are
mutually compatible components of his integral psychology.
But in the way that he deploys them, they lead to
very serious difficulties. Wilber needs spirituality as a separate line, to
explain how it is that people can be spiritually lop-sided. The various
human lines he mentions include psychosexuality,
socio-emotional capacity, communicative competence, creativity – and many
more. The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/meditative.
Wilber acknowledges that someone can be highly developed on this line, that
is, competent at subtle, causal and nondual awareness and still be
spiritually undeveloped in other crucial lines of development, including
"psychosexual, emotional or interpersonal skills". This imbalance he
characterizes as "One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds
them" (2000b: 131) (One Taste refers to the nondual state).
Wilber evaluates the nondual state as "the highest
estate imaginable" (2000b: 130). Yet at the same he believes it can co-exist
with a complete absence of spirituality at the top end of the interpersonal
line, and of other lines absolutely central to human development. This
admission immediately dethrones the nondual state from the supremacy he
claims for it, and makes it appear as dissociated and quasi-pathological.
This dethroning also means that the highest estate imaginable is really the
integration of all the different facets of human spirituality to be found at
the top end of all the relatively independent lines. Furthermore, it cannot
be the business of just one of those independent lines to
define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top
ends. But Wilber tries to promote just that kind of business.
In his system, the separate contemplative line,
which can become so dissociated from the development of other lines, is at
the same time the sole source for deriving the higher transpersonal levels
(psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) through which all the other lines must
proceed. But how can a contemplative line, which by definition is
independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories which
prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence?
Indeed the relative independence, or dissociation, of the contemplative line
calls in question the validity of the levels it claims to establish, and
whether indeed the levels are spiritual, when they are the product of
such a non-integral, separate line. The claims this line makes improperly
and prematurely assume that the nature of the spiritual can finally be
determined by the exercise of the skills of separatist contemplation,
when the potential for developing spiritual skills on other relatively
independent lines has not so far been fully explored by the human race.
Thus Wilber tries to argue that the basic
categories for integrating all the lines in higher unfoldment have been
uncovered on a single line that has no experience whatsoever of such
multi-line integration. The way out of this tangle is gently and radically
to propose that the contemplative line is not a spirituality line, that
spirituality is not about states, however remarkable and extraordinary, that
people get into by a lifetime of individual meditation.
A more convincing account of spirituality is that
it is about multi-line integral development explored by persons in relation.
This is because many basic developmental lines - e.g. those to do with
gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative
competence, morality, to name but a few - unfold through engagement with
other people. A person cannot develop these lines on their own, but through
mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the highest development
of these lines can only be achieved through relational forms of practice
that unveil the spirituality implicit in them (Heron 1998, 2005).
In short, the spirituality of persons is developed
and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard
spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual meditative attainment,
then you can have the gross anomaly of a "spiritual" person who is an
interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of "spiritual" traditions that
are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and
Trimondi, 2003). If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating
relations between people, then a new era of participative religion
opens up, and this calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of
traditional spiritual maps and routes.
Certainly there are important individualistic
developmental lines that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with
other people, such as contemplative development, and physical fitness. But
these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn
enhanced by co-inquiry with others.
On this overall view, spirituality is located in
the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to
explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through
collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. I
propose one possible model of such collegial applied spirituality
with at least eight distinguishing characteristics.
(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving
diverse major lines of human development; and the holism is both within each
line and as between the lines. Prime value is put on relational lines, such
as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills,
communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported
by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.
(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a
fully embodied and vitalized expression of spirit. Spirituality is found not
just at the ‘top end’ of
a developmental line, but in the ground, the living root of its embodied
form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the
transcendent awareness embracing it.
(3) It is epistemologically holistic, embracing
many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant
form and process, by conceptualizing, by
practising. Such holistic knowing is
intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in
peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic
(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the
manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life,
the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our relational,
social process in this present situation as the immediate locus of the
unfolding integration of immanent and transcendent spirit (Heron, 1998,
(5) It is focussed
on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing
humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of
rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.
(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and
participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen
as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the
(7) It honours
the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association
(8) It affirms the role of both initiating
hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the
peers, in such emergence. More on this later on.
Memes without a relational-spirituality warrant
It is notable that Wilber’s account of levels
(also called waves, and, by co-option from the work of Beck and Cowan,
"memes") has no clear place for relational forms of spiritual practice. His
account of the green meme bypasses the depths of the sacred realm of the
Between and superficially reduces the relational self to the worldview of
pluralistic relativism (Ferrer,
2002: 223-5). His description of the yellow and turquoise memes is strong on
systemic and holistic rhetoric about the interweaving of multiple levels,
but is curiously devoid of any sense of interpersonal or political reality
(Wilber, 2000a: 52).
Once it is grasped that the spirituality of
persons is developed and revealed primarily in the spirituality of their
relations with other persons, that as such it is a form of participative
peer-to-peer inquiry, and that all this is a new religious dawn, without
historical precedent, then it is reasonable to suppose that any authentic
development of human spirituality in the future can only emerge within the
light of this dawn. In other words, if a form of spirituality is not
co-created and co-authenticated by those who practise it, it involves some
kind of indoctrination, and is therefore, in this day and age, of
On this account, the whole meme system collapses,
with its claim to portray an evolutionary logic. The green meme description
is superficial, and is itself green in the sense of callow,
inexperienced and immature, because it cannot grasp the depths and the
challenge of relational spirituality. The yellow and turquoise memes, as
described, simply have no warrant or grounding in any kind of relational
spirituality, and read like the conceits of self-appointed
philosopher-kings. The edifice is doomed to an early demise, which is just
as well, since, given its radical omissions and distortions, its use is
bound to be counter-productive.
Spiritual leadership within an extended doctrine
I prefer to think of the spiritual development of
human culture as rooted in degrees of relational, moral insight and not in
an evolutionary logic. Evolution as a concept seems best left to natural
processes. Otherwise intellectual bids to know what evolution is up to and
what is coming next culturally, rapidly convert into hegemonic arrogance and
attempts at social and intellectual control. The developing of the human
spirit in cultural forms is a different category and is very close in my
view to the way in which our realization of an extended doctrine of rights,
in theory and practice, unfolds.
There seem to be at least four degrees of such
in relation to nature, culture,
the subtle and the spiritual.
- Autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive
way and there are no rights of political participation.
- Narrow democratic cultures which practise political participation
through representation, but have no or very limited participation of
people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research,
religion, education, industry, etc.
- Wider democratic cultures which practice both political
participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation.
- Commons peer-to-peer cultures in a libertarian and
abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of
participation in decision-making of everyone in every field of human
These four degrees could be stated in terms of the
relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy (deciding for others,
deciding with others, deciding by oneself).
(1) Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains
co-operation and autonomy.
- Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the
political sphere only.
- Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the
political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres.
- The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in
(a) the initiation , and (b) the continuous flowering, of
autonomy-in-co-operation, of spirit-in-manifestation, in all spheres of
To elaborate this last point: creative leadership
initiatives are taken by those who launch and empower co-operative groups of
autonomous people. Charismatic empowering leadership of this kind is
fundamental. Once the groups are up and running, charisma devolves and
rotates: developmental initiatives are taken spontaneously by different
peers at different times, and with respect to varying issues, in order
further to enhance the flourishing of autonomy and co-operation within the
group, within networks of groups, within the parity of spirit (Heron, 1997,
1998, 1999, 2005).
Ferrer, J. N. (2002) Revisioning Transpersonal
Psychology: A Participatory Vision of Human
Spirituality, Albany: State University of New
Heron, J. (1997) 'A Self-generating Practitioner
Community' in R. House and N. Totton (Eds), Implausible Professions:
Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in Psychotherapy and
Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred
Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator’s
Handbook, London: Kogan Page.
Heron, J, (2004) ‘A Revisionary Perspective on
Heron, J, (2005) Papers on the Inquiry Group,
Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru
Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.
Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003)
The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality,
Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,
Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology:
Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections
on Integral Spirituality, Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (2002) ‘An outline of integral
psychology’, Shambhala website.