Reminding me of myself when I was less than half of my current pushing 60, today disgustingly young Adam sent me an email about his take on Sant Mat.
I replied, and got his permission to share his thoughts. Below is Adam's message, followed by my reply. I like how Adam differentiates between "liberalism" and "fundamentalism."
The question in my mind (and Sam Harris') is how distinct these approaches to spirituality really are. Adam thinks that it's possible to separate out the crazily dogmatic aspects of an organized religion, while still remaining true to the group's core principles.
In my own experience, that way led to contradictions and stresses that eventually caused me to break away from the dogma and the organization.
And as I say in my reply to Adam, if the leader of a religious organization doesn't support the craziness and the dogma, how is it possible for that fundamentalism to continue? That's why I find it difficult to follow the leader while denying what is done under the auspices of the leader.
Here's today's email exchange (F.Y.I, Gurinder Singh is the current guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, the Sant Mat branch to which Adam belongs, and I used to be an active part of):
Dear Brian, I am a younger (27) recent initiate into Sant Mat. It has been interesting to read your blog, and also the posts of your regulars. I am pulled to share my perspective with you...don't know why exactly, probably because you're out there, listening, thinking about this stuff.
I still don't know exactly where you stand in regard to Sant Mat. It's clear to me that you have little or no faith in it anymore, but I also sense an undercurrent of love for your master, Charan Singh, and an open-minded curiosity about the universe that seems would fit quite well into the version of Sant Mat in my head. Maybe I'm wrong.
OK, my perspective. I have been involved in an ongoing email dialogue with a good long-time friend of mine from high school who also happens to be Muslim. We basically connected in high school because we could have metaphysical conversations with each other in an environment that didn't really encourage such discussions.
I have my meditation practice, he has his prayer rituals, but we differ on one point that has recently come up for us. I, like you, am very critical of religion. I have read Sam Harris' "End of Faith," as well as Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," and haven't yet made it through the Christopher Hitchens literature, but want to.
I find all of this lit to be not completely in sync with how I feel, but insightful, and engaged in perhaps the most important cultural war of our time. In my discussions with my friend, we have (very simply and for the sake of argument) divided the Western world up into two large groups of people: those who have some sort of religious leaning, and those who have a more liberalist background.
Those with a religious background focus more on things like morality, right and wrong, ritual, holy books, "faith" (which often means lack of reason), and controlling one's actions, while a liberalist tends to focus more on scientific understanding, plurality of opinion, and democracy. Under a liberalist system, religion can exist, but liberalists often feel judged and controlled when they encounter religious systems.
This is the argument I have posited to my friend. This is because I feel the neocons in our country are basically the most dangerous group of people I have witnessed in my short life, and they couldn't exist without their connection to a (doubtless corrupted) version of Christianity.
This is all to say that both types of people can be found in Sant Mat. There are those who wish to treat it as a religion, are ritualistically oriented, etc., and then there are those more like you, who were at one time very drawn to Sant Mat, probably because it seemed like the greatest experiment in consciousness you could embark upon. Maybe I don't understand you, and I could be wrong. I am certainly in the second category.
And I get frequently turned off by religious attitudes, whether in Sant Mat or anywhere else. For me, though, this is not so much of a problem in my own relationship to Sant Mat. This is because I keep Sant Mat very simple in my mind. There are the four vows, three of which are meant to facilitate meditation and keep our karmas to a minimum, and then there is the meditation and the master. And that's it.
Yes, there's satsang [spiritual talks] and seva [service], the bhandaras [large gatherings] and the weekly meetings, and all that stuff. But Charan Singh has made it perfectly clear that no one has to do these things if they don't want to. Sometimes I go to satsang, and if I don't want to, I just don't go. Sometimes I do seva, and if I don't want to, I just don't do it.
And regarding the master, I don't get too hung up on the Guru, Sat Purush, God-in-human-form thing. I don't get it, but I also don't think it's so important for me to get. What is important for me is that I really want to meditate. The chakras seem real to me because I can feel them in my body. I like the feeling of concentration, and the notion of concentrating all of my energy at the eye center makes intuitive, visceral sense to me, and, having been around Gurinder Singh, I believe that at the very least, he is practiced in this exercise.
That's enough for me. When it starts to feel too Sant Mat'y, I just do my own thing. And the masters (at least Gurinder) have often said that the master-disciple relationship is very high -- and that it's ok to think of him like a teacher, a friend, a guide, or whatever word doesn't feel so far out as "master."
I wonder if your frustration is with your guru and the meditation, or is it more with the organization? For me, the guru and meditation is Sant Mat, and everything else is just the scaffolding. But you can't fault the teacher for the craziness of the students. You are a scientist, right? You don't believe in science less just because you have had to subsist alongside grant-hungry, egotistical, money-crazed peers, right?
All the best,
Here's my reply…
Adam, yes, I still do have fondness for Charan Singh. As a teacher who, by and large, made pretty good sense. I just don't view him as God in human form anymore, if I ever did. I say that, because looking back I'm not sure how much I believed, and how much I believed in believing, if you get what I mean (which I'm sure you do).
Your analysis of the two sorts of spirituality, liberalist and fundamentalist, rings generally true. Sam Harris, however, would say that the liberalists support the fundamentalists, because both sides support faith-based religiosity. I'm not as extreme as Harris, but I understand his position and agree with it by and large.
For example, the Sant Mat vows have to be taken on faith. Meditation is a consciousness experiment, but the other vows are basically moral in nature. I had sex with my first wife before we got married, and before we got initiated (both in 1971, the really old days). I know lots of satsangis who ignore the "no sex before marriage" thing. It just doesn't make any sense, except as a rule to be followed because it is a rule set down by the guru. Which gets back to believing in believing.
That said, I admire and respect your approach to Sant Mat. It meshes with mine back when I was a devoted satsangi. All I can say, and this is just my own experience, is that when that approach is taken consistently with the RSSB organization, I learned that the powers-that-be are much more fundamentalist than liberalist. And since they take their marching orders from the guru, it's hard to come to any other conclusion than that Gurinder Singh, for all his liberalist talk, supports the "straight and narrow" approach organizationally.
I eventually found that I couldn't reconcile my liberalist attitude with the fundamentalist actions that were expected of me if I was going to continue to be active in the organization. That conflict led me to make a break with RSSB, though I still go to coffee with my old satsangi friends most Sundays.
I'm not a scientist, by the way. I did spend two years working on a Ph.D. in Systems Science, but that's more a science of sciences than a discipline itself. I've just read a heck of a lot of science books and subscribe to several science magazines.