Here's a good question for anyone who's been involved with a spiritual, mystical, or religious group for a long time. Do members of the group change and become better people, or do they get stuck at a certain level?
In my experience – which consisted of thirty-five years of intimate contact with Radha Soami Satsang Beas disciples – I found that "stuck" was much more common than "change."
I didn't expect this. When I got initiated by the organization's guru in 1971 (basically the equivalent of a Christian being born again and accepting Jesus as his savior), I looked upon the senior RSSB members reverentially.
They had decades of meditation under their belt. They'd spent lots of time at the RSSB headquarters in India. They were able to have close regular contact with the guru, who was considered to be God.
So for many years I figured that obviously they were exemplary human beings, having had the opportunity to develop beyond what normal people were capable of.
However, when I began to work more closely with these senior disciples it became clear that they were just as humanly flawed as anybody else. Maybe more so, because they considered themselves as being on a flawless spiritual path.
Some of my eventual disillusionment with Radha Soami Satsang Beas stemmed from this realization that twenty, thirty, or forty years of meditation didn't make someone a better person.
I began to wonder, "If these high-ranking disciples haven't changed, what are my chances?"
Reading Ken Wilber's "Integral Spirituality" has given me some insights into why lots of spiritual practice doesn't necessarily produce lots of personal change.
This diagram is similar to one in the book. It's complicated. But the basic notion is simple. The vertical axis shows the stages (denoted by colors) and the horizontal axis shows several conceptual schemas, which Wilber has integrated.
Basically, the higher stages are more all-encompassing. You identify with more and more of reality, what Wilber likes to call the Kosmos. You become less parochial in your outlook, able to see alternative points of view.
States of consciousness are different. Through meditation or other means, you can enter into "mystical" conscious states no matter what stage of development you're at, as this diagram shows.
For example, someone with a magical way of looking at the world may have a profound mystical experience. Not surprisingly, Wilber says they'll interpret it magically.
The point is that a person can have a profound peak, religious, spiritual, or meditative experience of, say, a subtle light or causal emptiness, but they will interpret that experience with the only equipment they have, namely, the tools of the stage of development they are at.
So if you have a magical or mythic belief that a guru is God, and can produce divine revelations through meditation in accord with his instructions, then whatever meditative experiences you have will be viewed as the guru's grace.
A Zen practitioner may have the same experience, yet interpret it much differently. Wilber's point (if I understand him correctly) is that meditative states may loosen up your consciousness and help you achieve a more evolved stage of development, but this isn't at all guaranteed.
In fact, attachment to a defined religion or spiritual path can work to keep you stuck at a lower stage, because organizations almost always operate on a conventional or conformist level (the amber stage in the diagram above).
You're expected to toe the line, do what you're told, keep the faith, hold to the commandments, respect authority, identify with the group.
Problem is, evolving to a higher stage of consciousness or personal development involves a broader angle of vision. You don't see yourself as a Christian, Buddhist, or satsangi. Your focus isn't on a narrow set of beliefs and moral injunctions.
So moving to a higher stage means leaving behind some of the attitudes that served you well (or at least, served you) at a lower stage.
Concomitantly, Wilber says that you need to integrate aspects of yourself that often get shunted off into a "shadow self." I don't have time to go into this in much detail here, but I saw this happening in RSSB disciples – including myself.
Supposedly negative emotions, RSSB's litany of "lust, anger, greed, attachment, egotism," were seen as products of the Negative Power, a.k.a. the devil. They weren't part of the disciple, but something to be pushed away.
This also keeps people stuck.
The anger, starting as an "I," is now an "it" in my awareness, and I can practice vipassana meditation on that it-anger as long as I want, where I use "bare attention" in my meditation and simply notice that "there is anger arising, there is anger arising, there is anger arising" – but all that will do is refine and heighten my awareness of anger as an it.
…Amidst all the wonderful benefits of meditation and contemplation, it is still hard to miss the fact that even long-time meditators still have considerable shadow elements. And after 20 years of meditation, they still have those shadow elements. Maybe it is, as they claim, that they just haven't meditated enough. Perhaps another 20 years? Maybe it's that meditation just doesn't get at this problem…
Try something different. Open up. Let the sunshine in and dissolve the shadow.