It's interesting that currently churchless me once was so involved in writing books for a decidedly churchy organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB).
A couple of years ago I blogged about "How writing a book rewrote me." This was the third, and last, major RSSB book project that I was involved with.
The end result was "Return to the One: Plotinus' Guide to God-Realization." But it wasn't published by RSSB, even though the plan all along was that this would be the first in a Mystics of the West series.
I have to give credit to Gurinder Singh Dhillon, the guru who heads up Radha Soami Satsang Beas, for wanting to study the teachings of Western philosophical mystics like Plotinus – even though the effort came to a crashing halt.
Early on in the book project, Gurinder Singh mailed me a list of possible subjects for a Mystics of the West book. I chose Plotinus because I was intrigued by him and resonated with the approach of Greek philosophy – open-minded non-religious, and rational, as noted in my earlier post.
Also to Gurinder Singh's credit, when I was in India in 1998 I asked him, "If I find a conflict between the teachings of Plotinus and of RSSB, what should I do?"
His reply: "Stick with Plotinus."And that's what I did.
Which is one reason why I ended up publishing the book myself. I wasn't willing to compromise my description of Plotinus' marvelous mystic philosophy to fit with how the RSSB Publication Department powers-that-be wanted the book to turn out.
Our disagreements came down to a few areas that might seem fairly inconsequential, but were important to me. I talked about one issue in the other post – whether there is such a thing as a "Western mind." (Since I have one, I'm convinced that there is.)
Also, RSSB wanted to include quotations from a previous RSSB guru, Charan Singh, after each chapter title – to show that West and East were on the same wavelength when it came to spirituality.
I was OK with this, but just for the version of the book that would be published non-commercially by RSSB. I saw no reason, none at all, to mix up RSSB teachings with Plotinus' philosophy in the commercial version that would be sold to the general public.
This related to another disagreement I had with RSSB Publications staff. They wanted me to include a mention of my involvement with Radha Soami Satsang Beas, so that readers would know "where I was coming from."
I even was asked to thank Charan Singh (the guru who initiated me in 1971) in the introduction for making it possible for me to write the book – supposedly, I guess, by infusing my consciousness with enough wisdom to grasp Plotinus' not always easily graspable teachings.
I balked at that too.
I told RSSB that I've always had a better than average ability to understand complex subjects and write about them fairly clearly. That preceded my involvement with RSSB meditation. It's an integral part of my makeup, not a gift from my guru.
And on the "where I'm coming from" front, my position was that if a knowledgeable reader couldn't tell that I'd been a member of an Indian-based mystic/meditation group for thirty years, then there was no need to mention this.
I mean, I sent drafts of the book manuscript to scholars who were experts on Plotinus. I got lots of suggestions and criticisms back, but nobody ever suggested that my interpretation of Plotinus was slanted in a particular fashion.
Yet RSSB wanted me to talk about how my immersion in the organization was related to my "take" on Plotinus. I kept saying that I'd never seen a similar mention of an author's personal philosophy in any of the scholarly books I'd read about Plotinus.
It simply was taken for granted that the author had done his or her best to write about Plotinus teachings, not his own way of looking at the world.
Sure, "Return to the One" includes a lot of Brian Hines along with Plotinus. That's inescapable, because I wrote the book, not a robot. However, I successfully separated the "me" aspects of the book from the "him" (Plotinus) aspects.
At the moment my book is #2 on an Amazon search for "Plotinus," right behind Plotinus' Enneads. That's satisfying. It's the most readable book about an influential Greek philosophy who should be more widely read.
I wish Radha Soami Satsang Beas had been less concerned about infusing the book with a RSSB slant. But this is par for the course with RSSB publications about mystics who aren't in the direct Radha Soami Satsang Beas guru lineage.
There's a decided tendency – and I can't go into this in detail in this already lengthy post – toward slanting a mystic's teachings to more tightly fit with RSSB dogma.
This would be somewhat understandable, though still not acceptable, if an overtly religious organization was doing it. But RSSB bills itself as a "science of the soul," and scientists need to be as objective as possible in their writings and research.
A key tenet of the RSSB philosophy, which is shared by all sorts of mystic teachings, is that words can't encompass ultimate reality. Given this, I always found it difficult to understand why RSSB books were so concerned with saying things the same way, and describing metaphysical principles in consistent language.
Might as well end by quoting myself (from the "Infinity is Ineffable" chapter).
Our whole approach to the One will be thrown off course if we believe we can travel to enlightenment through words or thoughts. It isn't a matter of, say, pondering the Buddhist Dhammapada for my whole life and then realizing that the Christian Bible contains a more correct description of divine reality.
This would be like me believing that God is square and then finding out that God actually is a circle. Since I was looking for some sort of spiritual shape, I wasn't far off the mark and might simply observe, "Oops, I made a slight mistake; now I know better."
But if God is formless and nameless, far removed from any shape or word, then a much more radical change of direction is needed. A person's entire consciousness must be transformed if he or she is to experience God. A way has to be found of experiencing emptiness, of entering into the nothingness that is the threshold to the One.