The Uses and Abuses of Religion and Spiritual Leadership Today

An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

By Amitai Malone

Netanel Miles-Yepez. Don Murray Photography, 2011

Netanel Miles-Yepez. Don Murray Photography, 2011

(Reposted from Spectrum: Spirituality, Culture, and the Arts)

AMITAI MALONE: Why do people have so many problems with religion?

NETANEL MILES-YEPEZ: I often hear complaints from people for whom ‘religion’ is a dirty word. They point to current conflicts in the mid-east and the Crusades and make sweeping statements like, “Religion is the cause of all wars and hatred between peoples.” Or, looking at historical examples and vestiges of patriarchal dominance in various religions today, they say, “Religions are responsible for subjugating women.” I understand what they are saying and where they are coming from when they say it; but my response is usually to challenge the assumptions underlying these statements. Often I say, “But religions don’t exist; so how can they be responsible for these things?”

AM: Meaning that there is no such ‘thing’ as religion; they’re putting the blame on a ghost, an apparition?

NM-Y: Exactly . . . Look around and show me a religion. It’s an abstraction, an idea; there is no object to receive the blame. There are only people, people who believe they ‘belong to a religion,’ and who believe that they are acting according to ‘its dictates.’ But who is really responsible for the so-called ‘crimes’ of religion? We need only look in a mirror. We have to start taking responsibility for what we do in the name of religion, and what other human beings have done in the past. You’d be on much surer ground to say, “Human beings are the cause of all wars and hatred between peoples,” and “Men have attempted to subjugate women.” Those statements are far less interesting, but at least they’re accurate. It’s just too easy and convenient to make religion a scapegoat for all the things we do to each other.

AM: Essentially, we hide our personal shadow material in a fictional enemy, projecting it onto a paper tiger that we can look good fighting.

NM-Y: Yes . . . And many of the abuses we see in religion come from people who are actually using it to execute other agendas. At a certain point in the mid-east, you were more likely to find impassioned Communists than Muslim extremists among the youth; because it was Communism in those years that seemed to be offering them a path to personal and political liberation. That was the agenda; Communism was the means of achieving it. When religion is used to achieve political agendas, there is a great danger of abuse.

AM: Then, is religion in itself neutral?

NM-Y: Well, I would say, like anything else, it can be used effectively . . . or misused, as it often is.

AM: As it was misused during the Crusades and other religious wars?

NM-Y: One doesn’t need to know a lot about psychology to know that young men will look for nearly any excuse to go to exotic lands and pull out their swords. The same is true of greedy men, except that they tend to ask the young men to do the rough work for them.

But how many wars were fought between Catholic Christian kings of European countries? They certainly weren’t fighting over religion. And even when they seemed to be, as we saw with the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, any historian will tell you it had just as much to do with a long-standing Bourbon-Hapsburg rivalry. And the truth is, we had plenty of wars before the ecclesiastical-political ascendency of Christianity and Islam that had little or nothing to do with religion, and two World Wars since. The Nazis considered it ‘unenlightened’ to persecute someone over religion; it was Semitic peoples they considered inferior. Was that better?

AM: I see, religion is not usually the cause of these conflicts; it is the vehicle. Then maybe we should talk about what religion is in itself and how it should be used. So can you tell me . . . What is religion?

NM-Y: Religion is a sociological construct meant to take us back to the primary experience from which it arose. It enshrines an ideal and provides one with a structured approach to spiritual awakening.

AM: And how should religions be used?

NM-Y: Ideally, according to the definition I have just given. That is to say, with an understanding that the religion is a boat that takes you somewhere, as the Buddha taught. What he actually said was that it is like a raft one uses to cross a river; once you are on the other side, you don’t need to carry the raft around on your back.

You see, religion should be used by us . . . and not the other way around. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, sometimes says: “Good religion puts itself in the service of God; bad religion puts God in the service of religion.” In the same way, good religion should serve the individual trying to get somewhere; it should not try to put the individual in the service of religion. When religious authorities start putting religious adherents in the service of the religion, things begin to go wrong. The focus of religious activity becomes the support of the religious structures and ecclesiastical authorities, and not the fostering of a primary spiritual experience.

“Christ.” by El Greco.

“Christ.” by El Greco.

If we take Christianity as an example, the source experience is Jesus’ profound realization of divine relationship, that he was a ‘son of God’; and by following his path we too might find our own way into the same realization. But if you really want to build Jesus up, to “pedestal-ize” him, as Alan Watts put it, making Jesus the Son of God, not a son of God, his realization becomes something that shouldn’t be sought by such as we. It would be hubris to think anyone else could achieve the same experience, or worse, heresy. So, once we put Jesus on that pedestal, then we don’t actually want anybody to achieve the same thing. And if Christianity is not meant to link us back to that peak primary experience in which we learn we are actually children of God, then what is it?

AM: And in the experience of learning that I am a child of God, I am also led into more universal frames of reference, which is dangerous to religious authority.

NM-Y: Very much so. And a religion that takes the source or peak experience off the table needs to offer a penultimate experience to its adherents. Now, the best one can do is to have some sort of unifying moment with Jesus himself, as opposed to God.

AM: So now experiences are mediated.

NM-Y: Yes, the peak primary experience is then mediated. Unifying experiences are potentially dangerous to the religious power structure, so they will want to offer ‘safer’ primary experiences. At the upper end of safe primary experiences might be confirming visions and auditory experiences of Jesus himself, or of his mother, Mary. On the lower end, an inner testimony of the spirit that allows one to invest more faith in the religious structure—enough to say it works, but not enough to challenge any of its conventions.

AM: How do we bypass the dysfunction and hierarchy of religions to engage in a primary experience of our own?

NM-Y: One doesn’t necessarily have to bypass religion at all. If it is functioning according to its true purpose, under the leadership of those who understand its function, it can serve a person very well. That is to say, if a religion is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to the source experience, or to experiences of depth, then there is no need to bypass anything.

But, whether it is functioning well or not, a person has always to take responsibility for their own spiritual path. Remember, you are relating to a social construct that doesn’t exist except in you! If you know that, then you know that what you do with that religion is most important.

In some ways, a religion is its magisterium, the body of associated teachings, traditions and technologies that have come down to us through the centuries. And each magisterium presents one with tools and structures that may be used to get somewhere. But one has to take responsibility for using the teachings and technologies available in these magisteria to achieve one’s goals. And one’s success will depend largely on one’s own integrity, on one’s own desires and potentials.

The Teacher-Student Relationship

AM: What are the actions one would take responsibility for?

NM-Y: Prayer, ritual, study. We’re the active ingredient in the relationship with that which the magisterium brings down to us.

AM: What is the litmus test for engaging one’s spiritual path with integrity? How do we know if we’re lining up with our own integrity? How do we know if our primary experiences are trustworthy?

NM-Y: Well, often we don’t. Often we’re in the dark in our own lives until some situation causes us to realize that we’re not doing something according to our own integrity. It has to be a realization. If we didn’t fumble around in the dark for a while, we’d never have an appreciation for the clarity that comes from the light. The preliminary ignorance is critical to creating a powerful realization. Even so, we’re not always very reliable about knowing whether we’re acting with integrity. For this reason—because we’re so liable to error, and so capable of fooling ourselves about our own motivations—we often need the guidance of a spiritual mentor.

The spiritual mentor or guide is meant to challenge you, to be objective, experienced, mature and intuitive enough, to be able to note when you are acting with integrity or not, to know when you are not challenging yourself, to notice when your excuses seem all too convenient.

AM: How do we know if a guide is qualified and trustworthy enough to help us maintain our integrity?

NM-Y: In the same way trust and understanding are built in any relationship—over time, and through situations that test the relationship. It’s said that Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, tested his master for twelve years! Apparently Vivekananda had lingering doubts—he was a rational-scientific type—and yet, knew he was getting something good enough to merit staying in Ramakrishna’s orbit through all of those years.

We have to build a kind of inner testimony about the relationship: Do we come away from encounters enhanced or diminished? Are we being helped to integrate our qualities in a way that is more holistic, or are we being divided against ourselves? Are we being encouraged to put the guide on a pedestal, or is the guide working to empower and liberate us from such dependencies? These are questions to ask and things to watch. Once again, we have to take responsibility for our own spiritual paths. If we seem to be ceding responsibility for them to a teacher, or that teacher seems to be taking over that responsibility, there’s a question about the relationship there. It’s not necessarily, “Ah-ha! I see your evil plan now!” But we do have to watch out and be aware of how things are unfolding over time. Sometimes a spiritual guide has to turn a situation on its head to illustrate something, but there are also some pretty clear lines that one should be careful of crossing: there are few, if any, situations when a sexual relationship is appropriate between a teacher and student; and the consequences of giving or receiving extraordinary monetary gifts should be carefully considered.

And these cautions run both ways; it is not just the abuse of power that we have to consider. Sometimes students who are wealthy try to ‘buy’ spirituality and access to a teacher, or try to use their control of the purse strings as a means of avoiding being challenged. Likewise, some students who are attracted to the charisma of teacher mistakenly see sexual partnership as a quick route to having all that they want.

AM: Interesting, the temptation to offer one’s body as a substitute for one’s soul.

NM-Y: Charisma is magnetic and draws people naturally. Unfortunately, some tend to think that they can go right to the center of the magnetism and have it for themselves.

The Problems of Modern Spirituality

AM: What foundations need to be laid for a healthy spirituality in the future?

NM-Y: I really feel like the success-model of marketable spirituality we see everywhere today, where spiritual teachers are marketed like self-help gurus or contemporary celebrities, is antithetical to a deeply holistic and healthy spirituality, both for the teachers, and for those who look to them for guidance. The model—built as it is on Western consumerist notions of convenience, and ideas of extraordinary success—is distinctly unhelpful for doing anything meant to reduce the size of the ego to manageable proportions, or to fit one for service to God. In fact, it tends to have precisely the opposite effect.

Recently, someone sent me a quote from the Dalai Lama questioning these success-oriented values. He said something to this effect, “The world doesn’t need more successful people; it needs more peacemakers, healers and lovers of all kinds.”

“The Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.” Foto di Vita, 1997.

“The Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.” Foto di Vita, 1997.

Likewise, the corporate-organizational model used for spiritual communities in the West is also problematic. It may be a practical necessity to organize as a non-profit, but it seems a mistake to run a spiritual community like one. A spiritual community must be an incubator for spiritual transformation, and must also be based on intimacy and shared experience. It is harder to cultivate these things in the organizational model, where one becomes a member by filling out an application and paying dues.

We don’t need more organization for healthy spirituality; we need more organic connections for doing spiritual work. In so many ways, the traditional structures of communal practice and intimacy offered in Hasidism, Sufism, and the monastic orders of Christianity, are still the best organic models. The challenge is how to use them today.

AM: Are you suggesting we need to go back to the communal practice structures of the past?

NM-Y: No . . . I’m suggesting we explore ways in which they can be adapted to the present.

We don’t need to be contrarian, anti-modernist or anachronistic just because we feel there are problems with modern forms of spirituality. And we certainly can’t afford to avoid everything associated with the success-model and the corporate-organizational models out there either. We can’t afford to say, “They’re using those technologies, so we’re gonna’ avoid them.” We have modern problems to solve, and we need modern answers. They just don’t have to be cut-off from the more organic structures that have served us so well in the past.

There was a time in the early-to-mid 20th-century when every block in Warsaw had its own rebbe, a Hasidic master who led a group of neighborhood Hasidim. I assume there was a similar situation among the Sufis of Istanbul as well. But today, we tend to have group connections with people who live in widely disparate places. So, the question is: How can we keep up the contact and intimacy of the old local group, as it once existed in Warsaw and Istanbul, in our non-local groups of today? After all, our heart-connections are not less profound because we are physically separated from one another. And how can we not be a group knowing the rarity of such affinities of heart. We have to use the available technologies that make this possible—Skype and FaceTime—to maintain and enhance the intimacy between us, and as vehicles for spiritual guidance.

Spiritual Guidance and Community Today

AM: What of the tele-courses and video lectures that are so popular today? Often, the only guidance some spiritual practitioners receive is through recorded media.

NM-Y: Well, part of me wants to say, “It’s better than nothing.” But the other part knows it is inferior to direct, one-on-one spiritual guidance, and being present to one another in real-time. It’s not wrong, but it is clearly a stopgap measure. It’s not easy to make that situation work for deep spiritual transformation. How is the teacher’s mirroring-challenge to a particular student offered in that situation?

Now a person might say, “Every time I hear that lecture I feel challenged.” That’s good, and I know what they were talking about, having experienced it myself. But there are also major limitations and loopholes. The challenge is not alive and demanding a response in the way it would be if it were being directed at you from a teacher working from intuition. The only challenge you feel in the former situation is the one you allow yourself to feel. What about the challenge to those things you can’t see, that you are blind to?

In the end, learning from a video lecture is not much different from trying to learn spirituality from a book; both are wonderful vehicles for information, but much of the real nuance and subtlety is learned in relationship.

AM: In that informational context, one’s conscience is allowed more flexibility than in the direct situation of one-on-one confrontation, where one’s ego may get squeezed a bit.

NM-Y: Yes . . . Two people actually interacting is not a ‘technology’ we can afford to leave behind. It’s too bad that we don’t have porches anymore upon which we could sit in the evenings and interact with our neighbors as we used to. Our intense focus on isolating media is a problem for us. In fact, I tend to think that our increasing isolation is among the biggest dangers facing humanity today.

AM: And yet, we’re more technologically plugged-in and talk more than ever.

NM-Y: That’s the paradox: we talk more and say less than ever . . . on our phones, on Facebook, in Twitter, in Blogs, and in opinion posts. There is a lot of mind-chatter out there . . . reporting of ordinary daily activities and dropping half- and entirely un-considered opinions. The challenge is to use the same technology to facilitate intimacy, to communicate at depth, and to convey more valuable information for a community of spiritual seekers.

AM: Why is it so difficult to find that intimacy in a group setting today?

NM-Y: Akiva Ernst Simon, a professor at the Hebrew University in the 20th-century and student of Martin Buber said, “The people I can talk to, I can’t pray with; and the people I can pray with, I can’t talk to.” It’s difficult to find people with whom you can do both today, at least for some of us.

What we’re looking for is more overlap with people, people who are different, and yet, share enough with us to make us feel safer and more understood. Such communities have always been intimacy communities, as opposed to membership communities. With intimacy, you can be different; there can be love for one another without necessarily liking one another. But community members without an experience of intimacy are just people in a room together.

The Geologist of the Soul

AM: How does this relate to the idea of the Neshamah K’lalit in Hasidism?

NM-Y: Neshamah K’lalit means ‘aggregate’ or ‘general soul.’ We can look at this in two ways: From one perspective, the rebbe, or spiritual master, is a ‘general soul.’ What makes that person a general soul? The fact that they can address the needs of many different souls. It’s as if they are a universal plug—lots of people can come and plug into them and receive what they need. People that can only relate to one type of person are not general souls. Those who cannot find compassion for a broad group of people cannot be spiritual leaders. One can be very smart, a spiritual genius or a great spiritual practitioner, and still not be a Neshamah K’lalit or general soul. So, that’s the Neshamah K’lalit as an individual.

But the Neshamah K’lalit is also understood as an ‘aggregate soul,’ made up of many parts, many people sharing a greater soul. Imagine a crowd of people standing in a circle in a small room, all of them reaching one arm toward the center. The part of each person that is reaching for the center is part of an aggregate soul, reaching for the same thing—the center. Each person remains an individual, but they are all connected by their desire for the ‘center.’

“Barack Obama’s 1st Inauguration.” David Friedman, 2008.

“Barack Obama’s 1st Inauguration.” David Friedman, 2008.

Now, the leader of the group, the ‘general soul,’ is often symbolic of the group itself and its center, but is not actually the center. The leader is only functioning to form connections for the group. Think of it this way . . . During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was going around the country, from city to city, saying—“Yes we can!” And everywhere he went, in every place he got other people to say that with him, he was actually building that We. That is to say, all the people who invested in that idea became that We. Unfortunately, many people forgot the message—“Yes we can!”—while staring at the messenger, and thus were disappointed when he wasn’t able to do it all alone.

He was the symbol and the one who helped to create the connections. That is the function of the spiritual leader; but if we forget that a person in this position is just the symbol and facilitator, we are often disappointed with what has not been achieved.

AM: I know you are very familiar with the metaphor of the ‘Geologist of the Soul’; can you tell me what this means to you?

NM-Y: I have always loved this mashal, this ‘analogy,’ which my teacher, Reb Zalman heard directly from his own rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe.

First of all, when the Rebbe was challenged with the question, “What is a rebbe good for?” He says, “I can’t speak about myself; but I’ll talk about my own rebbe,” Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Then he goes on to tell us that a rebbe can help you locate what is most precious inside you—“gold, and silver, and diamonds.” And in as much as they do that, they are valuable to you. But they are not themselves the focus; they are helping you to find the focus, which is the Divinity within you.

This is really the model and the metaphor for spiritual leadership that we need to use in the emerging paradigm. We need to look at our spiritual teachers from this perspective: in as much as they help me find that inner treasure, that thing that is most precious within me, they are serving their purpose and fulfilling their function; but they are not the focus of the spiritual path. The goal of the spiritual path is not to make an idol out of the spiritual guide, nor is it to become a spiritual leader or guide. That is a vocation and a function. The goal is the inner discovery of Divinity! Not everybody is a general soul in this way, nor do they need to be. It’s a job, and not always a pleasant one. The guide is a mirror.

AM: How does the spiritual guide, the ‘Geologist of the Soul,’ get to know where this ‘gold’ is?

NM-Y: That’s a really important question. The “Geologist of the Soul,” like any good geologist, has to have studied and spent time in the ‘lab,’ and most importantly, done their own ‘field-work.’ The Geologist of the Soul draws upon both knowledge and intuition in the context of experience to say where the ‘gold’ is. The geologist knows because they have been there, because they have actually found some of that precious treasure.

But I also want to say that it’s not good for a spiritual guide to rest on their laurels. It’s easy to get distracted by the vocation and its demands, to get caught up in the role and identifying with the role. That’s why I was so delighted when I first learned Sheikh Shahab ad-Din Suhrawardi’s guidance on being a Sufi sheikh. It says nothing of status; it is all about responsibility. And among the sheikh’s chief responsibilities is to keep up with and maintain his or her own spiritual practice.

It’s very easy to get distracted from those practices when you’re leading others. Often, it’s unavoidable. Leading others does distract you from doing that work, and sometimes you even want to escape so that you can do it. But if it ever becomes an excuse, then you’ve got a problem to deal with. You have to keep trying to cultivate your own spiritual life. That’s the burden our master Suhrawardi lays on us . . . You can’t quit trying; because these are the terms of your empowerment, and that’s very important.

AM: So the ‘Geologist of the Soul’ has to have both deep experience and a continuing commitment to cultivating more experience.

NM-Y: The Geologist of the Soul has to be mature and experienced enough, to be deeply connected enough to be able to witness to how the spiritual path tends to work. They have to have had experiences that they can speak to, that are regular enough that they can be conveyed in principle to another with the words: “Here’s what to look for . . . Here’s how you will trick yourself . . . I’ve been around that corner myself; here’s what you’re likely to find.”

AM: Do degrees of spiritual experience and depth make a difference?

NM-Y: The more mature the practitioner, the more experience they have, the more they can say. The less mature, the less experience, the less they can say. Nevertheless, they still may be able to say something, and that too is helpful. Anybody who has more experience than you, and with whom you have a good connection, can give you some good advice. Every mentor or guide doesn’t have to be a master on the 20th plane. But the connection needs to be good, and there does needs to be a respect for the laws of gravitation, meaning that there is an attraction between the two of you, and just as with gravity, some things have to come down.

AM: You mean there is a necessary element of hierarchy?

NM-Y: It’s just gravity. Let me tell you one of my favorite Hasidic anecdotes . . . It’s about a Hasidic master named Reb Moshe of Kobrin. One day, he’s out for a walk in the woods and runs into one of his old schoolfellows. His old buddy stops him and says, “Oh, Reb Moshe! It’s so good to see you! I heard that you’re a rebbe now?” Reb Moshe shrugs his shoulders. His friend says: “I want to ask you a serious question. At this point in my life, I need to make some changes. My life is not where I would like it to be, and I’ve heard how you help people now. The problem is, I remember what you were like as a kid. I remember the things you did—the things we did together! So what I need to know is this: what do I need to believe about you in order to have the benefit of your guidance?”

As Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor except in their own land.” Because people remember what you were like as a kid—maybe you were not very confident, or maybe you were a bully or a prankster. So this guy knows Reb Moshe’s past and asks a very intelligent question. He is saying: “I have memories of these things, and I’m not going to lose them so easily. When I look at you, I’m going to remember what you used to do. And yet, I also believe that maybe you’ve changed, because people come to you for help and seem helped by you. And now I need some help. So what do I need to believe about you in order to get that help?”

Reb Moshe shakes his head for a moment, thinking. He looks around and sees a tree stump, walks over to it and hops up on it, saying: “This is as much as you need to believe. You don’t need to believe that I’m sitting on top of that tall tree over there, surveying the landscape for miles around. But you do have to believe that I’m at least on top of this tree stump, just a foot or two higher than you; because, from up here, I can see just a little farther. And that’s enough to help.”

AM: From there he can offer just a little more perspective.

NM-Y: I think it’s really a great way to look at spiritual leadership. If we are walking down the street, and I’m walking just ahead of you, and turn a corner before you, I’m in a position to tell you what’s around that corner. It’s as simple as that.

There are all kinds of mentors available to us, and that’s as much as we need to believe about them. We don’t have to make idols out of them. In some ways, making idols out of them renders them useless to us as accessible models. It leads us to believe we can never reach their level. And we tend to give away responsibility to them. After all, they look so high—and we help build them up so high—that we know we can never get there ourselves . . . and we stop trying. We say, “Oh, he’ll do the work for me,” or “she’ll do the work for me.” Or, the other problem is that we want to be on top of the tree and have some sort of status or identity built around that. The tree stump model is much more useful, and most of the time, just truer. . . . Amen.