by Michael Maciel
Those who have never fallen are not afraid of heights. They have a kind of reckless courage when it comes to failure, not because they are brave, but because they have never failed. This is especially true in the world of spiritual development.
Amongst spiritual teachers, you will find many who have made terrible mistakes. They have hurt people and damaged the reputation of their tradition. Those who have made such mistakes and have come back from them are usually the wiser for it. But those who have avoided mistakes because they haven’t had time yet to make them (or worse yet, those who simply deny that any mistakes were made) can be blissfully unaware of the Razor’s Edge they walk upon. As in politics and any other area of public life, the old adage holds true: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
There are some spiritual teachers who believe that they are so special, so gifted and talented—so “enlightened”—that they can do no wrong. When they make a mistake, it’s the students’ fault, never their own. Their students were either too undeveloped to understand, or they had slipped over to the dark side, had become possessed by evil spirits, or were simply unwilling or too weak to complete their training. But never is it the teacher’s fault. Why? Because the teacher, in his own mind, is God.
This way of thinking is not restricted to the world of spiritual development. It shows up everywhere. If an organization or institution cleaves to a particular doctrine, that doctrine, for all intents and purposes, is God. Anyone who feels exceptionally aligned with that doctrine will naturally elevate themselves above everyone else in their group.
“God,” in this case, is the over-arching principle, regardless of what that is. For some, the over-arching principle is nationalism; for others, it’s family; still others place their religion above everything else, or science, or certain political ideologies. No matter what it is, all such “Gods” represent the highest reality to those who worship them, and whoever among them who feels that they have been to the mountaintop will see themselves as the embodiment of that God.
(I am intentionally capitalizing the word “God” here, because for the kind of person I’m talking about, these things are not “gods,” as in idols, but “God,” as in supreme being. As far as they are concerned, these are the highest principles to which anyone can aspire. Human beings tend to deify their highest conception of reality, regardless of how limited it is.)
What I’m talking about here is not a spiritual experience, but rather an elevation of the ego. It begins with a spiritual experience, but it ends with an inappropriate self-identification with the experience. The “self,” in this case, is nothing more than the ego.
None are more susceptible to this kind of self-deification than those who have highly developed intellects. When everyone around them appears less intelligent than they are, they quite naturally feel superior to them. In their own eyes, they are the light-givers, the saviors, the Good Shepherds. Everyone else is a sheep. Theologians are especially prone to this. Scientists, too.
For these people, “initiation” equates with deep insight into their particular intellectual milieu. Revelation is comprised of their “aha” moments. But in reality, initiation has nothing to do with intellectual insight. Initiation is experiential and can happen to anyone, regardless of how educated they are.
This cultural bias towards education-based knowledge is the primary driver of the worldwide discrimination against women. Why? Because women easily get bored with tables of endless facts, whereas men usually find them intriguing. The mistaken notion amongst men is that the more facts you have, the wiser you are. Women seem to instinctively know that this is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong. Facts tend to empower the individual, whereas wisdom empowers the community. And women are hands-down more interested in the wellbeing of the community, not in the exaltation of an individual.
A few months ago, I had lunch at the outdoor restaurant in Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Above the seating area is a large statue of Prometheus the Fire Thief. Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity, similar to the way Adam stole the knowledge of good and evil from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. Both stories depict the temptation of the intellect to make itself equal to God. They were written as a warning by spiritual teachers who lived in the ancient world, the ones who knew and understood human nature.
There is a saying amongst spiritual teachers: the ego is the first thing to be attracted to the spiritual path but the last thing to let go. While you yourself are probably not interested in wielding power over your fellow human beings, there are plenty of people for whom this is the primary reason for “finding God.” So when someone gets up on a soapbox and proclaims, “I am God,” consider the source. Is it God speaking through this person, or is it the person speaking through “God”?