the SUBJECTIVE Facts Straight
Dr. Chris Tong is the founder of The Practical Spirituality Press, and the author of the Practical Spirituality Series, which is aimed at addressing all the core issues of genuine spiritual practice, in a manner that is very easily accessible to readers with no particular background in spirituality or spiritual literature.
The differences in evaluating objective, scientific enterprises and subjective,
An objective commentary on the enterprise of nuclear physics suffices, because nuclear physics, as an enterprise, is purely objective in its aims and claims: it has an objectively stated theory, and is corroborated by empirical experiments that are objectively observable, and objectively replicatable in other laboratories.
contrast, the primary reason why people become members of new religious
movements is inherently subjective:
in almost all cases, they perceive a (potential) subjective
now or in the future
whether they call it happiness, peace of mind, nirvana, heaven,
or Divine Communion that they find very attractive; and they deem
that subjective benefit to be worth the subjective
cost of membership (primarily in the form of a practice). Thus
becoming a member of such a new religious movements is closer to, say,
getting married: where again a perceived subjective benefit (the day-to-day
relationship with one's spouse, in all its forms) is found to be very
attractive; and the person deems that marrying is worth the subjective
cost that comes in the form of inevitable disagreements, clashes of character,
failures of expectation, mis-matched phases of personal growth, etc.
More specifically, the core of most esoteric religious and spiritual traditions is about actual re-ligio, "re-connection" with the Divine (or at least re-connection with the greater-than-material dimensions of Reality). While this certainly doesn't characterize all new religious movements, it does fit enough to be the focus of our attention in this article. We will refer to these movements not as "new religious movements" (the phrase most commonly used by religion sociologists) but more specifically as new spiritual movements.
only people who are in a position to provide these subjective facts are
those who subjectively participate in
the process: the spiritual realizer, spiritual master, mystic, shaman,
or prophet who provides the means, thereby instigating the spiritual movement;
and the spiritual practitioners who apply the means, thereby demonstrating
that the spiritual movement is more than mere philosophy. An outside commentator,
however well-intentioned, can say relatively little about it, as is also
the case with someone who only "window shopped", or "dropped
out" after only a few weeks or months. Those who can speak best on
the virtues of marriage are not the permanent bachelors, nor those who
jump from relationship to relationship, but never truly commit. Rather
it is those married couples who "stay the course" for their
entire life that can and do extol the virtue of marriage. Just so with
practitioners of an esoteric way.
How do we measure the success rate of a spiritual movement? Significant discrimination is required. Let's get at the factors involved through a little thought exercise.
evaluating the subjective success rate of Catholicism solely on the basis
of how many saints it had produced. Currently there are about 1.1
billion Catholics. If we were to try to estimate the total
number of Catholics over the last 2,000 years, we'd have to place the
figure at many billions (let's say 5 billion, for the sake of argument
that's probably an underestimate.) So far as I can determine, the total
number of saints and beati so designated by the Catholic Church
is a little over
10,000 (with the saints comprising over 5,000
of those). So if you are a Catholic, what are your chances of becoming
a saint (or at least being beatified)? The math works out to .0002%,
or 1 in every 500,000 members.
In my own new tradition of Adidam, for example, we are currently several thousand in number; however there are currently only two "saints" (referred to as "the Ruchiradam"). Here's what my spiritual master (and the founder of Adidam), Adi Da Samraj, has to say about that. A little context would be useful: As in Christianity, the way of Adidam is based on recognition of the spiritual master as the human incarnation of the Divine. Also like Christianity, "salvation" (or Spiritual Realization) is a matter of devotion to the Divine, transparently revealed to devotees through the human spiritual master.
Becoming a saint may represent the epitome of what one can realize as a Catholic, but it is not the only possible realization within Catholicism (with everyone else going to "hell"). There is the huge body of Catholics who don't quite make it to "saint" (so as to go pretty much straight to heaven), but who then go to "purgatory", spend an indeterminate amount of time getting "cleaned up" there, and then going to heaven. The popular belief among Catholics seems to be that all Catholics who are "good people" fall into this category.
Not all esoteric traditions are focused on realization in the after-life, or are based on a "big picture" in which one only has only a single lifetime. In my own tradition of Adidam, for example, the focus is on present-time realization, and the "big picture" takes the possibility of reincarnation into account. Traditions such as Adidam perceive a virtue in even having begun (for real) a life oriented around genuine self-transcending spiritual practice, rather then conventional, self-fulfilling materialism, and allow for the possibility of many lifetimes being required to attain the greatest possible realization of that tradition.
What motivates practitioners who hold such a long-term view, though, is not the promise of the longterm view, but the present-time experience of the ultimate realization. In other words, spiritual realization is not a black and white matter, where, until the moment of realization, you are absolutely miserable and then in the next moment you are absolutely happy (or whatever the realization of your esoteric tradition might be). Rather, all along, if the practice is genuine, one is experiencing "tastes" of the ultimate realization, and may even be realizing lesser versions of it, or may be realizing "milestone" realizations that signal progress along the way toward the ultimate realization. It may very well be that the ultimate realization is a sudden affair; but the potentially lifelong (or multi-life) preparation for bringing all the various dimensions of the entire body-mind into sufficient equilibrium that that "sudden" ultimate realization then becomes possible may be anything but sudden. (Those Western consumers enamored with "sudden enlightenment" generally miss or ignore this point about the potentially longterm preparation that is the prerequisite of "sudden enlightement". The fact that the cork suddenly pops off the champagne bottle is completely consistent with the potentially extensive work required to move the cork into a position where it will "suddenly" pop. Of course, anyone who makes the mistake of confusing "suddenness of the final realization" with "suddeness of the overall process", is going to wait a very long time for the cork to suddenly pop all by itself.)
So the kind of reportage one can obtain from practitioners can vary along such a spectrum: from the accounts of beginning practitioners about their "tastes" of realization; to accounts from advanced practitioners of their realization "milestones" already passed on the way to the ultimate realization; to accounts from those who have completed the way (if the way is one which has an ultimate realization to it).
But here's another factor. The notion of the "odds of success" (like "1 in 500,000 for to become a Catholic saint") only makes sense statistically when all other things are equal. (Statisticians refer to this as a "random distribution" based on the "equal probability assumption".) But in virtually all spiritual movements (not to mention all creative endeavors from art to athletics), there is nothing equal about it: what you realize very much depends on the quality and intensity of your participation.
So to use the example of Catholicism again, the saints represent an example of what is potentially realizable by those who are most highly impulsed (and perhaps most capable, as well there are questions of nature vs. nurture here, sometimes mingled in with how "nature" and "nurture" express themselves in the context of reincarnation, for which different religious and spiritual traditions offer different answers).
So to some extent, then, the question falls back on the questioner, to examine his or her own impulse and consider his or her own competence, in traditions whose merit has been proven, even by only a very small percentage of practitioners.
In other words: "Are you up to it?" "Are you sufficiently moved to really do it?" And: "Do you have what it takes?"
"No!" some of us may answer. "What's more, I've found this group on the other side of town that says they can get me the same realization over a weekend. So why should I put up with all this preparation, discipline, etc. that you guys require?!"
Unfortunately, you discover a weekend later (to your dismay) that the car they sold you at the other place doesn't actually take you where you want to go.
How does a spiritual newcomer make sense of the many alternatives, to the point where one can spot an unrealistic claim? This question is the focus of a separate article.
Any group of any significant size will display a full range of participants, from the most impulsed and most capable, to the least impulsed and least capable. Also on display will be a full range of characters and egos.
To use the example of Catholicism again, the saints represent the most exemplary members. But there are also large numbers of more or less nominal practitioners. And then there are "bad guys", the kind of Catholic that Dante, in his Inferno, placed in hell: from corrupt priests, bishops, and popes (we could now add pedophilic priests), to all manner of other "sinners". The fact that there are many "poor", "bad", "nominal", or "lapsed" Catholics does not undercut the reality and demonstration of the saints — even ones in contemporary times such as Padre Pio — or the validity of Catholicism as a spiritual practice capable of attaining its stated realization (of sainthood).
Just so, in the new religious movements of today, one can have just such a full range, from the most advanced practitioners to the "apostates" (disgruntled ex-members) who dropped out or have even sued the movement (a particularly common occurrence in the litigious United States, not only for new religious movements, but for doctors, therapists, and indeed any person or group in which there can be a significant gap between what is expected and what is "delivered"). One can get some sense for the difficulties in using the report of "apostates" to measure a religious movement by asking oneself: what kind of report do we suppose Judas would have given about Jesus and early Christianity? (While the official Christian story has Judas recoiling in horror at his act of betrayal and hanging himself, in light of the behavior of most apostates, this most likely was a "Christian spin" on the actual life story of Judas. More in keeping with what we actually observe would be his remaining adamantly opposed to Jesus and Christianity for the rest of his life.)
On a related note, that a new spiritual movement does not instantly "incarnate" into the kind of ideal it aspires toward, is not a sign that it is unsuccessful, or not capable of "delivering the goods". This kind of situation is not only common, but even to be expected.
The early Catholic Church, for example, did not look like Catholicism as we know it now, a "finished product" with stable organization and relatively static dogma. Rather, the early Catholic Church was in chaos for a couple of centuries, before order was established through Emperor Constantine and the Nicean Council of 325 AD. Even the earliest saints, Peter and Paul, led rival "factions" of Christianity. They fought with each other over such issues as whether all Christians were required to adhere to Jewish law — Peter said yes, while Paul said no (which made sense to Paul, considering all the Greek, Syrian, Turkish, and other non-Jewish people he encountered in his missionary outreach) — see Goulder's St. Paul Versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions. And they fought over whether Christianity was to be gnostic — based on spiritual experience (Paul) — or orthodox — based on fixed dogma (Peter, the first "Pope"). (See Pagel's The Gnostic Paul.) But if the legends are true, both Peter and Paul were, nonetheless, genuine saints. And, perhaps ironically, or perhaps as a humorous confirmation of the Christian creed of "love your enemies", the two now are given the same "Feast Day" (June 29) by the Church.
In general, then, a new religious movement will not look like a "finished product", precisely because it is new. And not only is it new, but it is struggling to survive. Hence the first generation — and most likely the first several generations — of a new religious movement bear the additional burden (not shared by later generations) of having to create the initial infrastructure that will ensure the movement's survival over time. Thus, experiencing life in such new movements, to some degree, will have the feeling of living in a house in which the walls are still going up, and the movers are still tramping through.
Thus, as best as you can, when stopping by for a visit, ignore the drafty, half-finished walls, and the noisy movers. In evaluating a new spiritual movement, don't get too distracted by the signs of the movement's "birth pangs", as though such signs were themselves the movement (the "baby"). Rather, as we recommended above, stay with the heart of the matter: find out what realizations are possible; find out what the practice for realizing them is; and find out who has realized what, and to what degree. Look for that Room in the center of the house that is the source of the movement's re-ligio, its means for "re-connecting" with the Greater Reality, whether that Room takes the form of a human Spiritual Transmission Master, or some other form of Spiritual Agency. Avail yourself of whatever forms of Blessing and Spiritual Transmission are available to newcomers. Then if, on the sound basis of such subjective facts, you decide to join, lend the builders and movers a hand yourself, even while you are engaged in your new spiritual practice. Or, if you love the Room but can't stand the noise, live somewhere nearby, but visit (or connect with) that Room as often as you can.