Friday, April 25, 2014

Providence and Utopian Dreams of a Future Past

I was recently speaking with a doctor who was organizing a major spiritual retreat and educational facility in New England.  Given our background together and knowing several people in common, when he asked for help I gladly gave it.  Everyone I spoke to involved with the project was top of the line, many of them well known within their professional disciplines, and recognized as authorities within their particular esoteric and spiritual areas of expertise.  In short, a good group of people who can make things happen.  

As part of my advice to my 'new' old friend, I suggest he contact an organization I was involved with during its start-up days, the New England Holistic Counselors Association, or NEHCA.  NEHCA was based out of Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island.  The organization was started in 1991 and was the brainchild of Dr. Jack Childs, Director of the Holistic Counseling Program at Salve Regina University.  I served on NEHCA's Public Relations Committee for two years writing press releases for events.  The theme of the first annual conference was “Bringing Holism into the Mainstream” and our keynote speaker was Patricia Raskin, M.Ed., Director of Raskin Resources (Cheshire, Ct.). Raskin had recently authored her first book, Success, Your Dream and You – A Guide to Personal Marketing, which emphasized her “5P Formula” of Purpose, Planning, Passion, Persistence, and Patience as the cornerstones to success.  The conference was held April 13th, and according to the press release we sent out, it took three years of planning to get off the ground.  

Our second conference was a little less creative than I would have liked – recycling part of the previous year's theme – and was entitled, “Bringing Holism into the Mainstream: Becoming Bridge Builders”; our keynote speaker was Claudine Schneider, five-time elected Representative to the U.S. Congress from Rhode Island.  Rep. Schneider was asked to present because of her deeply personal interest in alternative therapies, an interest she developed after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in 1973.  As part of her presentation, Rep. Schneider presented her views on the future of holism in not only healthcare, but also politics and business.  The event was held on April 4, 1992, and, once again, at the university campus.   

I mention this because this was the halcyon days of the New Age Movement, when the sun always shone, even in the rain.  In the greater Providence, Rhode Island area alone there were up to six New Age, Neo-Pagan, and herbalist shops with another half-dozen going from the border up to Boston.  Several publications abounded, one of which – The Saggaterisus Sun Times published by Devon LaRue  – I cut my early writing teeth on, and despite the various witchwars, budding internet flamewars, emerging gnostic churches and their competitive lineages, and the explosion of Rosicrucian, Martinist, Templar, and irregular Masonic bodies, there was a general sense of optimism in the air – impending cataclysmic earth changes or UFO invasion aside, that is. 

  We were flush with money even if we didn't know it at the time. In fact, when I look back at events from those times, the price has remained very much the same as it is today. It was nothing to spend $10 to $25 for an evening lecture, or $50 to $150 for day. A weekend was anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more.  My annual dues for the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC), Traditional Martinist Order (TMO), CIRCES, International College of Esoteric Studies  (ICES), and Philosophers of Nature (LPN-PON), was around $700 or $800 a year.  This was done while attending graduate school at night, working in a grocery store during the day, and paying $650 a month for rent – more than our current mortgage twenty years later, but less than our health insurance (courtesy of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act). 

The majority of things in life we cannot change; we can only change our perspective to them. This is something that in pushing 'holism into the mainstream' we have ignored.  When we bring things into the mainstream, we bring them to their lowest common denominator: the idea, feeling, or thing that the greatest number of people can understand and be willing to participate in.  In holism, that means healthcare.  Healthcare is primarily physical health, although it gets extended to mental and emotional well-being as well – hence the idea of holism.  A murky layer of 'spirituality' is layered over it somewhere – but it is really the 'feeling' part taken to a level of multi-cultural or intellectual abstraction such as yoga, meditation, Feng Shui, and other shiny objects tied to string that catch our attention as part of the entire package of 'holistic'.  As long as it is 'explainable' AND safe, then holism is acceptable. When we take the same topic, be it Feng Shui, dream analysis, yoga, or Tibetan Buddhism and move it within its own context – and that is the critical part here – into areas that border on the non-rational, such as ghosts, demons, and the influence of the non-physical on physical life, we have crossed over into the realm of what is called in the West 'paranormal'.  

Now this is key, as within its own mainstream cultural context the idea of a ghost or demon in Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, or Tantric Yoga is normal. In its transplanted culture, it is paranormal, or 'beyond normal'.  This means simply that true holism can never become mainstream until the entire cultural perspective is shifted to accept what it is about as normal. Until then, it is just watered-down, bastardized, wishful thinking. Now, it can still have a positive effect, but it is not what it claims to be – it is outside its domain. The fact that acupuncture is widely accepted in all therapeutic settings – from preventative medicine to treatment for addictions – is a testimony to its effectiveness; but it is not the acupuncture of traditional Taoism.  

But here we are only looking at what we like, and ignoring the rest. We are taking the outermost expression, and ignoring the deeper philosophical and, with it, cultural context, which gave rise to these methods.  In short, we do ourselves and the methods a disservice and grave injustice when we treat holism mechanically rather than contextually.  This is ironic as it reduces what is supposed to be a 'spiritual' or non-physical modality to little more than a series of technical activities that anyone can learn regardless of their background or character.

Now back to the New England Holistic Counselors Association and why it matters.

You see, last year when I went to see how NEHCA was doing, the only information I was able to find was two years old – not completely uncommon for volunteer organizations. A few days ago when I went to see if anything was updated, their website was down, and their listing in Guidestar (the 'go to' website for research on non-profit organizations) stated that they had failed to file an IRS 990 Form for three years in a row, and were considered inactive and no longer in existence. 

As such, an organization I was involved with in its earliest of days after inception, had failed to live more than twenty years.  Why this is I do not know. All I know is that the enthusiasm, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of being an organization that could make big changes in the therapeutic community, the profession, the region, and by extension, the world – didn't happen.  It failed.  Now, the reasons for this are not known to me, and I have tried to find out, but it may be a sore spot.  For myself, though, I saw a warning sign in the very beginning.

It was literally a sign; it was our logo: a green and blue device that looked like a modified Yin-Yang symbol.  Given that our membership was over ninety percent female and modestly academic at that time, it was no surprise that the Elements of Water and Air would be so heavily emphasized.  I voiced my concerns about there not being enough “Earth and Fire” in it, but I am not sure that was even understood.  In the end, the imbalance won out, and, like water and air, the organization simply slipped away with time. In fact, I am sure that if it were not for me mentioning it, none of you would have even heard of NEHCA, despite the very prestigious, even glorious settings of its origins in Newport, Rhode Island.  

The message here is simple: good intentions are not enough.  Even after you back up those intentions with solid action, continued action is required, long after the enthusiasm of 'saving the world' has vanished.  Which leads me to the next few points:  1) enthusiasm, 2) saving the world, 3) organizational life span.

Or in reverse order, the life span of an organization is directly proportional to the degree of enthusiasm brought to the organization's mission.  The degree to which this mission can actually be achieved is irrelevant; what matters is that regular, measurable,  incremental advances be made.  Once the advances stop, the enthusiasm begins to wane, and the life blood of the organization begins to slip away.  

To prevent this from happening in esoteric movements, degrees or grades are widely used.  Here, each degree is said to represent a rung on the ladder of inner advancement, or, more realistically, to symbolically represent one's advancement while acting as a means of delivering a specific set of teachings, with each set of teachings linked to those before and after it like a rung on a ladder.  This works particularly well when it is believed that the 'true secrets' of the group are in the higher degrees.  It also provides a means of keeping members involved and affiliated when very often they may have left the organization years earlier. In AMORC, the Ninth Degree was originally the highest they conferred. Then the Twelfth Degree was added, and, with it, the Tenth and Eleventh.  Originally the Twelfth Degree consisted of about two years' worth of lessons.  It later became about ten years or roughly larger than the entire period of time it took to get to it in the first place.  For those who completed the Twelfth Degree, the Planes were added.  These went on for several more years and were essentially a review of prior material.  Those members who persevered and made tremendous contributions to the organization were also given an honorary Thirteenth Degree (XIII), or the degree reserved for the the organization's leader – the Imperator. 

While it may seem like a pyramid scheme (no pun intended), the main problems facing every organization are the same regardless of whether it is the Boy Scouts or the Illuminati; they are:  getting people in, getting them to participate, getting them to stay, and avoiding problems along the way.

Now, each of these steps is more difficult than the previous one. It is easier to get people in the door than it is to get them to stay, or return.  Getting them to return is easier than getting them to participate; getting participation over the long-term is easier than getting them to do all of that without personalizing problems and getting involved in organizational politics – all in the name of the mission while completely losing sight of it.

What does this have to do with NEHCA?  Simple:  for an organization to fail to file its IRS 990 Form for three years in a row it had to be dead in the water to begin with. That means, that no matter how many breathing people were on its Board of Trustees, there is a good chance they were all that was left of a once-thriving organization, or, the members were not in communication with the leaders. In short, nearly everyone at the top was asleep at the wheel.  This happened to two local non-profits near me, one of which I served on the board of until resigning as a result of it losing its non-profit status and the President, Treasurer, and a sitting board member failing to inform the rest of us.  As you can tell, it is not that simple: the personal and political relationships between the leaders were complex and a clear conflict of interest with their roles as volunteer leaders of the non-profit.  Yet, they were the only ones that showed up, so they got to call the shots, and shut down anyone else who disagreed – despite that what they were doing was blatantly illegal.  Is this the same as NEHCA?  I doubt it. But I am sure that in the end, only the true believers where showing up, and the talent pool got shallow.  In short, you do not forget to file your taxes three years in a row – you simply stop caring.  

As I write this the earth spins in its orbit and a major political crisis gives the appearance of threatening the peace of Eastern Europe.  All of the great idealism of my youth has been spent, and I find myself surrounded by men – many a generation older than myself – who are facing the abyss of cynicism and despair.  We ask ourselves, “What was it all for? What did we accomplish? What will our legacy be?”  

When I examine the nine major organizations that I have been involved with across my lifetime, organizations whose stated goal was the improvement of the human condition by focusing on spiritual principles and awakening, I notice a trend: all are dead or nearly so.  The average lifespan was less than 15 years.  

If your average lifespan is less than a generation, how much impact or substantial change can you really make?  

Yes, seeds can be planted, but they take time to grow, and in human terms the seasons of our lives are measured in generational stages of ideally 25 years each, but, in reality, of about 18 ½ years for those living in the industrialized world.  That is, if each of us can expect to live to about 74 years of age, and the first quarter of that time, or 18-20 years, is spent just learning how to get through the day, and the next quarter, or 18-20 years, is spent making a living and raising a family, how much good can we really do if the organizations and movements that we have cultivated during the most productive and vital years of our lives essentially collapse and rot before us?  What is that telling us about our individual and collective cultural condition?  

Recently a heavily sanitized letter was sent out to over 125 people on a local email list requesting their assistance in supporting local programs that each had benefited from.  I say the letter was sanitized because its initial content was much more forthcoming and direct. It was not couched in the gentle 'Oreo Speak' of contemporary psycho-educational babble, wherein hard and difficult truths are neatly sandwiched between two pieces of 'cookie' to make it more palatable.  However, my wife's cautious nature prevailed, and instead a shorter, kinder, and gentler letter was sent.  I have included it here for your reading pleasure:

Dear Friends, 

Since 2011, we had the opportunity to host speakers on Tibetan Buddhism in NEPA, initially Lama Rinchen and Lama Pema. This expanded to include Lamas from the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center (NY), who represent Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoches. We have recently invited Lama Rangbar, an American-born Lama who has spent twenty years in Nepal.  We encourage all of you to attend this very special event on March 29th.

Over the last three years we sincerely appreciated the opportunity to host these events, with 20 to 30 individuals attending on average.  We would like to continue to play a role in bringing the teachings (dharma) to the area in the future.  However, we need individuals to volunteer their time, treasure, and talent to help make this happen.

Responsibilities include communicating with teachers to schedule events, finding a location, and preparing press releases, arranging pre- and post- event activities and follow-up. It is also necessary to provide food and lodging for teachers and their assistants, and an atmosphere where they can relax prior to and after events. 

With each event costing on average $300 we have started to charge a fee to offset the costs associated with hosting Lama Rangbar, as the donations received during previous events have not provided a reasonable honorarium for the speaker, nor have they been used to cover any of the expenses associated with each event.

The Three Jewels – the Teacher, the Teachings, and the Community of Practitioners – are considered very precious, and without all three, it is impossible for the teachings to continue.  We are so fortunate to have made connections with teachers who are willing to teach us!  At this point, it is necessary to create a more cohesive community (sangha).  It is in this spirit that we are asking for individuals to help carry the responsibility of making the dharma accessible to themselves and others, with these events, and in other ways. These include, but are not limited to:

Assisting with visiting speakers.
Assisting with the establishment and maintenance of an 
organized meditation group.
Financial support and sponsorship.

If you would like to help in the expansion of the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Northeastern Pennsylvania, please contact us by email or phone.

(phone number)

Of the 125 people who received the email, no one replied.

So, at the end of the day, all the talk of light and love, dharma, and bodhichitta is little more than that – talk.  Empty words not backed up by any action whatsoever.  

At the event that the above letter was hoping to support, one of the attendees, a long-time student of Tibetan Buddhism and fellow Vajra Brother, stated to the attending Lama, “It is good to have you here, we don't get many teachers coming through.”  I turned and said,  “Joe, what do mean we don't have teachers coming through?  Andrea and I have been hosting two events a year for the last three and half years.”  To which he replied, “That's not many.”  “Well, help out and sponsor an event,” I said. His face flushed quickly and he said, “Who made it your job?”  “My wife,” I said half-jokingly. 

Well, that is only partly true. My wife asks me to host these events so I do.

If I stopped, public and promoted Tibetan Buddhist events in Northeastern Pennsylvania would disappear.  Yes, there are two other groups that I have heard about, but that is it.  No contact despite emails, promotions, and open invitations from myself to them to visit and participate with us in an open and non-sectarian manner.  Now, back to my wife. Yes, she asks me; but then, so does the Lama, and the Buddha himself.  The community is one of the Three Jewels, and while the community need not be filling stadiums, small groups of people helping each other on their Path is usually better than working completely alone – unless one is a skilled practitioner preparing for the Path of the Hermit.  The Enlightened Mind asks me to host these seminars in that if we find something useful for ourselves and our well-being, it behooves us to help make it available to others, should they desire to try it out for themselves.  So who made this my 'job'?  God, Samantrabhadra, YHVH, Christ, Hermes, Krishna, Solomon, pick one, any will be just as good as the next for now.  

The fact that I should be so challenged, and the willingness of others to help so weak, is an open statement about the local Buddhist community – there is none – just a list of names on an email list, and my family hosting traveling Lamas like folks did in the good old days. 

Thus, we see that the notion of traditions is really a matter of survival of the fittest – those that adapt to their environments survive – those that do not adapt die.  End of story. How that adaptation takes place is wide and varying.  It would be easy to think that the adaptation takes place from the top but that is incorrect and often the last place that demonstrates insight and innovation.  No, we see the establishment of familial lines and traditions, local practices, and individuals picking up the pieces and making something come of it.  For example, I know of one individual who does not consider himself “Buddhist”, but has over two dozen empowerments (initiations), extensive written and oral teachings – including the much-valued Six Yogas of Naropa and Dzogchen.  If, and that is only IF, there were students, but no available teachers, (or easily available because of political or economic instability), he has stated that he would undertake the process of transmission to ensure that the lineage survives.  He has no authority to do so other than the spoken words of the Buddha to support the Teacher, the Teachings, and the Community of Practitioners.  How that is to be done varies with the conditions and circumstances of each practitioner.  I know of several others within Freemasonic, Rosicrucian, and Martinist movements who have stated the same.

Now, while this heroic view of lineage survival is nice, it is essentially like throwing seeds to the wind and hoping something sprouts.  It is far better to have small (12 to 50 members), effective groups, that can work well together as well as independently, rather than a kind of “apocalyptic death-bed transmission”, as is more often the case in these movements than we would like to admit.

While we like to talk about Light, Life, Love, (Liberty and Law); The Law is for All; or Fraternity, Liberty, and Egalitarianism in modern esotericism, the truth is only the strong survive.  Out of the entire population only about 5% are interested in these topics, and they are scattered among the various socio-economic classes, although they appear to be most concentrated in what is called the 'middle class'.  Those in the upper classes are too busy running things, and those in the lower are too busy trying to survive, so it is the increasingly vanishing middle class that offers sufficient wealth and spare time to undertake these studies and practices. 

Now some have taken offence to this number, but Colin Wilson in his various writings, such as his best-seller The Occult, and again in Frankenstein's Castle, illustrates the point.  There may very well be a statistical limit on how many people are actively engaged in esoteric practices – and that means practices of all sorts.  While it is nice to think that we can return to a mythical Golden Age wherein 95% of the people are involved in spiritual practices, we often forget that in those myths the number of humans was exceedingly small...

In the end, we can only save ourselves. We must do this first and foremost if we are to be of genuine service to others.  We must continue to push on, to redouble our efforts in the face of adversity, and yet we must have enough wisdom to know when to not 'throw pearls before swine' and to remove the 'dust from our feet' and move on.   It is a difficult call, and one that we can only make for ourselves.  For myself, I believe that we are about to reach the end of the line of widely open, public, and reliable esoteric teachings.  I believe that we are shifting into a period wherein esoteric practices are moving back into the shadows, back underground, into The Silence.  This is not out of fear or because of persecution, but because few people care.  When things are too easy, they are not valued. This is particularly true when they are too easy to begin with; people leave when they get hard. System jumping – something common in modern spirituality –  is an avoidance of the uncomfortable pressure of success along a particular path, and a way of diffusing the pressure, rather than working through it; it is guaranteed failure under the guise of open-mindedness, or eclecticism.  Only by reinstating the traditional requirements of selectivity in who is taught and significant commitment of time, talent, and resources on the part of the students – even danger, real danger in initiations – will esoteric practices be able to survive in a meaningful state.  Otherwise, they will simply continue to act like Air and Water and disappear when night falls, because there was never enough Fire and Earth to enliven and sustain them.  

Thus, it is up to each of us to examine our esoteric commitments, our organizations, and be honest with ourselves about what we are building for the future and how we are to achieve that goal.  In the end, if we believe in reincarnation, tradition is the gift we leave ourselves in the form of a future generation.  What does your gift look like? What are you leaving for yourself to find again in the future?


  1. I’ve been mulling over these issues since this blog started, and one thing that’s become central to those musings is that this has happened before – in fact, it’s occurred at regular intervals all through the history of American alternative spirituality. Pop spirituality movements in America have a thirty- to forty-year life cycle, and the collapse of organizations is one of the things that tells you that a given movement is nearing the end of that cycle. Some organizations do endure longer, of course, but they do it by transforming themselves from pop-culture phenomena to religious denominations with a narrowly defined clientele; most don’t, won’t, or can’t make that transition, and vanish when fashions change.

    The problem faced by groups trying to make that transformation is exactly the one you’ve sketched out here: very few people are willing to make even the most minimal contribution to keeping the doors open. There are many reasons for that, but to my mind, the most important is that when a given form of spirituality becomes popular, many people join organizations connected to it for social reasons, not spiritual ones, and when that form loses popularity, those people lose interest and drift away.

    What happens then, inevitably, is that the people who value the spiritual dimension burn themselves out in a losing battle to maintain forms that stopped making financial and practical sense once the crowds went somewhere else, and attempts to attract new members mostly draw grifters who are interested solely in what they can get out of the organization without putting anything in. In the waning days of a popular spiritual movement, those who try to keep things going can count on being taken for granted, and very likely taken to the cleaners as well, and it doesn’t take many repetitions of that experience before they won’t have anything more to do with the social end of group work.

    This is why, when this cycle has happened before, the organizations that pick up the pieces and move ahead are those that provide spiritual training and practice without any social dimension at all.

  2. (Cont.)

    The reason that AMORC and a few comparable organizations survived the end of the Theosophical era when so many other groups crashed and burned is that as an AMORC member back in the 1930s, you could pursue your studies for years and never have any interaction with another member more direct than writing and reading letters. After the gargantuan cluster[bleep]s that surrounded the Theosophical Society and similar groups in the late 1920s, that was hugely attractive. While AMORC and its equivalents founded their own lodges, being active in those was never mandatory, and the bulk of the membership pursued the work in the privacy of their own living rooms.

    I’m fairly sure that the same thing will be true this time around, too, because the very few organizations I know of that are doing well just now – the Druid order I head, the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), is one of them – have taken the same approach. The vast majority of AODA’s members are solitary students who pursue our study program on their own, or with their spouses, and some of them have expressed a great deal of gratitude that they can pursue the studies and practices of an initiatory order without having to be social about it, because they’d rather dine daily on live tarantulas than put up with one more meeting full of the bickering, exploitation, and petty politics that feature so largely in the present pop spirituality scene.

    Does this impose hard limits on what kinds of spirituality can be practiced in the decades ahead? You bet. I’m pretty sure that Buddhism, in particular, is going to get clobbered, partly because so much of its current American audience consists of bored middle-aged yuppies, and partly because so much of its practice depends on close personal contact with a teacher and a community. I’m equally sure that the sort of Wicca Lite that plays so large a role in the current alternative scene is going to be clobbered at least as hard, for related reasons. Still, there are proven ways to pass on Western initiatory traditions outside a social context, and my sense is that these point to the most likely way ahead.