Notes on Spiritual Leadership and Relational Spirituality

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John Heron, May 2008:

The guru phenomenon

The traditional oriental guru represents a form of spiritual leadership in which so-called advanced spiritual states of being are transmitted from guru to disciple. This requires the disciple to be present with the guru, physically or psychically, to project onto the guru the disciple’s latent divine nature, to be obedient and devoted to the guru, and to practise the disciplines he prescribes. There is a hierarchical, charismatic relationship to effect the disciple’s shift from an ordinary to an extraordinary state of being ‘enlightened’. A favourite candidate for ‘enlightenment’ is the so-called nondual state, in which spirit and any kind of form are known to be not two.

There seem to have been four phases of the guru phenomenon in the West.

(1) In the late decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, there was just a small guru-invasion from the East with key players like Vivekananda and the spread of the Vedanta movement in the West.

(2) Then post-war from 1945 with the publication of Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, there started a major guru-invasion from the East including the dramatic spread through the 60s and the 70s of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in the USA and Europe.

(3) In the third phase, over the last thirty years or so, alongside the guru-invasion from the East there has been the growing phenomenon of home-grown Western gurus and spiritual teachers claiming the special status of 'enlightenment'.

(4) The fourth phase is just getting under way. It seems to be distinguished by four features.

(a) The erosion of guru status as a result of a continuous stream of sexual and financial abuse and bullying scandals among both Eastern and home-grown Western gurus and spiritual teachers.

(b) The erosion of 'enlightenment' claims by the proliferation of the number of people, especially in the West, making the claim: the more people who make the claim, the more its narcissistic inflation stands revealed. For the 'enlightenment' claim is also an authority-claim to have followers, a recruiting drive to gather in spiritual projections. The more claims that are made, the stronger the competition among claimants in the market-place for attention.

(c) A growing awareness that spiritual authority is within and that to project it outward onto teacher, tradition or text is an early, adolescent phase of spiritual development in the one projecting, and counter-spiritual manipulative abuse in any guru/teacher who seeks to elicit, to appropriate and to sustain the projection.

(d) The emergence of peer to peer spirituality, which democratizes charismatic, enlightened leadership, and realizes that it is a role which different persons assume at different times, either in the initiation of a peer group or in the continuous unfolding of its process.

The fallacy of nondual individualism

Wilber has given an account of human spirituality in terms of lines and levels of development (Wilber: 2000a, 2000b, 2002). Theses lines and levels become an incoherent tangle because of an untenable status afforded to the nondual and the path of individual meditation. Let me explain.

The lines are relatively independent kinds of human development, and the levels are stages of development through which the lines proceed. So the different lines all go through the same levels. Wilber defines spirituality in five different ways, but two of them are key ones in his system: spirituality as the highest levels of any line, and spirituality as a separate line itself. He thinks these two definitions are mutually compatible components of his integral psychology.

But in the way that he deploys them, they lead to very serious difficulties. Wilber needs spirituality as a separate line, to explain how it is that people can be spiritually lop-sided. The various human lines he mentions include psychosexuality, socio-emotional capacity, communicative competence, creativity – and many more. The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/meditative. Wilber acknowledges that someone can be highly developed on this line, that is, competent at subtle, causal and nondual awareness and still be spiritually undeveloped in other crucial lines of development, including "psychosexual, emotional or interpersonal skills". This imbalance he characterizes as "One Taste sufficiency that leaves schmucks as it finds them" (2000b: 131) (One Taste refers to the nondual state).

Wilber evaluates the nondual state as "the highest estate imaginable" (2000b: 130). Yet at the same he believes it can co-exist with a complete absence of spirituality at the top end of the interpersonal line, and of other lines absolutely central to human development. This admission immediately dethrones the nondual state from the supremacy he claims for it, and makes it appear as dissociated and quasi-pathological. This dethroning also means that the highest estate imaginable is really the integration of all the different facets of human spirituality to be found at the top end of all the relatively independent lines. Furthermore, it cannot be the business of just one of those independent lines to define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top ends. But Wilber tries to promote just that kind of business.

In his system, the separate contemplative line, which can become so dissociated from the development of other lines, is at the same time the sole source for deriving the higher transpersonal levels (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) through which all the other lines must proceed. But how can a contemplative line, which by definition is independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories which prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence? Indeed the relative independence, or dissociation, of the contemplative line calls in question the validity of the levels it claims to establish, and whether indeed the levels are spiritual, when they are the product of such a non-integral, separate line. The claims this line makes improperly and prematurely assume that the nature of the spiritual can finally be determined by the exercise of the skills of separatist contemplation, when the potential for developing spiritual skills on other relatively independent lines has not so far been fully explored by the human race.

Thus Wilber tries to argue that the basic categories for integrating all the lines in higher unfoldment have been uncovered on a single line that has no experience whatsoever of such multi-line integration. The way out of this tangle is gently and radically to propose that the contemplative line is not a spirituality line, that spirituality is not about states, however remarkable and extraordinary, that people get into by a lifetime of individual meditation.

Relational spirituality

A more convincing account of spirituality is that it is about multi-line integral development explored by persons in relation. This is because many basic developmental lines - e.g. those to do with gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, morality, to name but a few - unfold through engagement with other people. A person cannot develop these lines on their own, but through mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the highest development of these lines can only be achieved through relational forms of practice that unveil the spirituality implicit in them (Heron 1998, 2005).

In short, the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a "spiritual" person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of "spiritual" traditions that are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and Trimondi, 2003). If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up, and this calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes.

Certainly there are important individualistic developmental lines that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative development, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-line integration and consummation. I propose one possible model of such collegial applied spirituality with at least eight distinguishing characteristics.

(1) It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major lines of human development; and the holism is both within each line and as between the lines. Prime value is put on relational lines, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, morality, human ecology, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

(2) It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized expression of spirit. Spirituality is found not just at the ‘top end’ of a developmental line, but in the ground, the living root of its embodied form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the transcendent awareness embracing it.

(3) It is epistemologically holistic, embracing many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

(4) It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life, the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our relational, social process in this present situation as the immediate locus of the unfolding integration of immanent and transcendent spirit (Heron, 1998, 2004, 2005).

(5) It is focused on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer relations and participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a radical discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence. More on this later on.

Memes without a relational-spirituality warrant

It is notable that Wilber’s account of levels (also called waves, and, by co-option from the work of Beck and Cowan, "memes") has no clear place for relational forms of spiritual practice. His account of the green meme bypasses the depths of the sacred realm of the Between and superficially reduces the relational self to the worldview of pluralistic relativism (Ferrer, 2002: 223-5). His description of the yellow and turquoise memes is strong on systemic and holistic rhetoric about the interweaving of multiple levels, but is curiously devoid of any sense of interpersonal or political reality (Wilber, 2000a: 52).

Once it is grasped that the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in the spirituality of their relations with other persons, that as such it is a form of participative peer-to-peer inquiry, and that all this is a new religious dawn, without historical precedent, then it is reasonable to suppose that any authentic development of human spirituality in the future can only emerge within the light of this dawn. In other words, if a form of spirituality is not co-created and co-authenticated by those who practise it, it involves some kind of indoctrination, and is therefore, in this day and age, of questionable worth.

On this account, the whole meme system collapses, with its claim to portray an evolutionary logic. The green meme description is superficial, and is itself green in the sense of callow, inexperienced and immature, because it cannot grasp the depths and the challenge of relational spirituality. The yellow and turquoise memes, as described, simply have no warrant or grounding in any kind of relational spirituality, and read like the conceits of self-appointed philosopher-kings. The edifice is doomed to an early demise, which is just as well, since, given its radical omissions and distortions, its use is bound to be counter-productive.

Spiritual leadership within an extended doctrine of rights

I prefer to think of the spiritual development of human culture as rooted in degrees of relational, moral insight and not in an evolutionary logic. Evolution as a concept seems best left to natural processes. Otherwise intellectual bids to know what evolution is up to and what is coming next culturally, rapidly convert into hegemonic arrogance and attempts at social and intellectual control. The developing of the human spirit in cultural forms is a different category and is very close in my view to the way in which our realization of an extended doctrine of rights, in theory and practice, unfolds.

There seem to be at least four degrees of such unfolding:

1. Autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation.

2. Narrow democratic cultures which practise political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry, etc.

3. Wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation.

4. Commons peer-to-peer cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation in decision-making of everyone in every field of  human endeavour, in relation to nature, culture, the subtle and the spiritual.

These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy (deciding for others, deciding with others, deciding by oneself).

1.Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy.

2. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only.

3. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres.

4. The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in (a) the initiation , and (b) the continuous flowering, of autonomy-in-co-operation, of spirit-in-manifestation, in all spheres of human endeavour.

To elaborate this last point: creative leadership initiatives are taken by those who launch and empower co-operative groups of autonomous people. Charismatic empowering leadership of this kind is fundamental. Once the groups are up and running, charisma devolves and rotates: developmental initiatives are taken spontaneously by different peers at different times, and with respect to varying issues, in order further to enhance the flourishing of autonomy and co-operation within the group, within networks of groups, within the parity of spirit (Heron, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2005)." (




Ferrer, J. N. (2002) Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heron, J. (1997) 'A Self-generating Practitioner Community' in R. House and N. Totton (Eds), Implausible Professions: Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J, (2004) ‘A Revisionary Perspective on Human Spirituality’,

Heron, J, (2005) Papers on the Inquiry Group,

Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.

Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003) The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,

Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality, Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2002) ‘An outline of integral psychology’, Shambhala website.