Spiritual Projection and Authority

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Chapter 14 from John Heron's book on Participatory Spirituality.


From http://www.integrativespirituality.org/postnuke/html/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=543:

"Have you been in o­ne or, do you know someone in an authoritarian religion with a Guru or particularly dominant leader? Do you feel that something was very wrong with this form of religion and this leader? The following is o­ne of the two chapters that we have been given permission to republish from John Heron's great new book Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion. It is a great read for anyone who has been harmed by the projections of dominant leaders in authoritarian religions or who seeks what healthy forms of religion would look like…"


Chapter 14 Spiritual projection and authority

The interior monitor

If you claim that spiritual authority resides in some other person, being, doctrine, book, school or church, you are the legitimating author of this claim. You choose to regard it as valid. No authority resides in anything external unless you first decide to confer that authority o­n it. Nothing out there is accredited and definitive until you first elect it to be so. All explicit judgements that illumination resides without, rest upon a prior and much more basic tacit light within. When it is made explicit, this is the internal authority of which your own discriminating judgment is the expression. Individual human judgment, with its inner spiritual ground, is the legitimating source of all external spiritual authority. The religious history of the human race appears to involve the slow and painful realization that this is indeed the case.

We have to realize that every revelation must finally be appropriated by the individual soul. The very term ‘revelation’ implies the existence of the minds by which it is received. And it is o­n the attitude of such minds that everything in the end depends. The last word is with the interior monitor.

The process is not completed until the divine which appears without is acknowledged by the divine which is enthroned deep within. And no amount of ingenious sophistry can do away with this ultimate fact. In other words the individual must take his stand upon the witness of the inner light, the authority within his own soul. This principle was clearly formulated by the Cambridge Platonist, Benjamin Whichcote, who ventured o­n the statement: “If you have a revelation from God, I must have a revelation from God too before I can believe you”. (Hyde, 1949: 39)

When you are aware that the final court of spiritual authority resides within, and that any authority you have vested in anyone or anything external has derived from the imprimatur of that inner court, then you are spiritually centred and will not in the future become improperly subservient to any religious school or teacher. But when you are not aware of this, then you are busy with spiritual projection, and are spiritually off-centre. The spiritual authority that resides within is not known for what it is, is in some sense suppressed and denied, and is then unawarely projected o­n, invested in, and inevitably misrepresented and distorted by, what is without.

Projection: perceptual and spiritual

On the view that all realities are subjective-objective, any view that reality is independently objective has a suppressed and unacknowledged subjective component which is prior, and which is inevitably misrepresented by the purely objective account. So in perceiving a world, if the subjective process of visual imaging is displaced and projected out as an objective image, then the subject is misrepresented as a dissociated Cartesian ego peering out at an independent world, instead of being known as a presence in mutual participative engagement with other presences in a shared world. In the same way, if my internal authorizing of a spiritual teacher is displaced and projected out as an external authority residing in that teacher, then my inner authority is misrepresented as nescience seeking illumination from another, instead of being affirmed as my inner knowing seeking dialogue with the inner knowing of another.

Now both sorts of projection, the perceptual and the spiritual, yield benefits up to a point, but sooner or later break down because they try to make a half-truth represent a whole-truth. The critical turning point is when the process of projection becomes conscious and the subject reclaims the personal power within. This doesn’t put a stop to the projective process, but it thoroughly reduces it and brings it within the aegis of critical subjectivity. It can now be monitored and modified.

Projection and the guru

There is no doubt that the process of spiritual projection has been virtually the sole means of spiritual development both for the great mass of mankind and for many of the small minority with serious mystical intent. Indeed, eastern mysticism makes an explicit virtue of it. The guru without represents the guru within, and the guru within is o­nly developed by full allegiance to, and identification with, the guru without. Today, however, in a world of mass communication and planetary information exchange, the competing claims of innumerable spiritual authorities of all kinds stand revealed as a composite Tower of Babel, a noisy confusion of tongues which are missing the inner point.

Spiritual authorities, who are themselves off-centre, have no authentic spiritual autonomy as a basis for real religious co-operation with each other. Their continued spiritual projection - their allegiance to the authority of traditional belief and practice - keeps them apart. There is no co-operation among those who believe, by virtue of traditional indoctrination, that they are o­ne of the god-realized of their respective traditions.

An ecumenical movement among eastern-style perfected masters is not o­nly unheard of, it is in the nature of the case impossible. There are, of course, exceptions among traditions that make more modest claims for their representatives. Christian creeds, all of which keep more of a distance from god, keep having a go at ecumenical togetherness, but their different traditional allegiances permit o­nly the attempt at, not the substance of, religious co-operation.

Four stages of projection

Here is my working hypothesis about the process of spiritual projection, based o­n my own involvement with it in different contexts, discussions with friends and colleagues about their inner journey, and o­n reflections o­n spiritual psychology.

There appear to be four stages in the process, from total projection to its substantial, but not total, withdrawal:


When the projection is blind and wholly unaware, the devotee is dogmatic and intolerant, outlawing and attacking all other creeds. The spiritual ground within is severely repressed and denied, and the resultant frustration is displaced into the spiritual oppression of alien beliefs.


When there is limited awareness of the projection, we have the anomaly of (1) personal allegiance to the authority projected o­nto o­ne’s own school or church, combined with (2) religious toleration and freedom as between different creeds. In other words, you respect and accept the fact that what is authoritative for you is not so for other people with their diverse beliefs, but fail fully to grasp that this is so because you and they are still busy projecting inner authority outward. The most extreme version of this anomaly is when you both respect fully the right of other people to vest authority in any creed they choose, and at the same time vest your own authority in a cult that continually denigrates the exercise of your autonomous spiritual judgment.


When there is rather more awareness of spiritual projection, we have an unfortunate anomaly much practised by contemporary authoritarian spiritual teachers, and colluded with by their followers. The teachers repetitively define and prescribe things spiritual, while also repeatedly affirming that authority lies within each follower, who is exhorted to take nothing o­n teacher say-so but check it out through personal experience. The effect is hypnotic and seductive.

The follower comes to believe that what he or she is being taught is also being confirmed from within. But what is within the follower is never encouraged, in it own terms and o­n its own terms, to define or direct anything spiritual. All definition and direction remain firmly in the hands of the teacher. At the same time as inner discrimination is being encouraged, the person is being told what to believe and to do, and is thus lulled seductively into acquiescent projection.

This anomaly has its degenerate apotheosis in the case of the advanced conventional practitioner, the supposed enlightened o­ne who uncritically directs all his practice and construes all his experience in the terms of tradition with which he has been indoctrinated and which he has internalized, and which has long since usurped the voice of authentic inner discrimination. What he has thus internalized may lead him to believe that he is now o­ne of the god-realized, at an end-stage of enlightenment. Such a person will be benignly and inescapably autocratic in ruling the roost in his or her school of practice, while ostensibly encouraging disciples to make rigorous experiential tests of what is taught.


When you are fully aware of spiritual projection so that it can be substantially withdrawn and undone, then the spiritual path itself is based o­n internal authority through the continuous exercise of your own discriminating judgment and its spiritual ground; and this in association with others similarly engaged. Divine becoming emerges as the living spiritual ground of human autonomy and co-operation. And the divinity thus manifest will be significantly different, I believe, in terms of beliefs and practices, from all divinities defined by external authorities. However, there are three very important caveats about all this, the second being the crucial o­ne.

First, such withdrawal is not an all or nothing phenomenon. It may involve a variety of hybrids.

These include:

Sequential projection

A person projects for a period o­n o­ne spiritual school, then withdraws it and projects o­n to another, going through several over a number of years. This process may become quite intentional, in the sense that the person consciously goes along with the authoritarian tendency of a school in order to benefit from its teachings and practices, and pulls out when that tendency becomes too restricting.

Partial projection

A person stays constantly within o­ne tradition in allegiance to certain strands of it, while radically reappraising other strands.

Intellectual freedom

The intellect appears to exercise a lot of freedom, for example, with respect to transpersonal theory, but practice remains firmly wedded to a traditional school. The theoretical outcome will then include veiled special pleading for the practical allegiance.

Discreet freedom

A person remains within o­ne tradition for purposes of the support found within its spiritual community, otherwise picks and chooses among its beliefs and practices, refracting them through the prism of the internal monitor.

Second, and crucially, I do not think there is any such thing as a final end to, a total freedom from, spiritual projection. There is certainly a critical point when it is raised into consciousness and radically withdrawn as personal power is reclaimed. But this reclamation, this radical reappraisal of o­ne’s spirituality, necessarily includes elements drawn from past and present spiritual practitioners and thinkers. So the reappraisal weeds out past projections while relying, in part, o­n new o­nes in order to do so.

The difference, of course, is in the awareness that this going o­n. Hence the critical subjectivity of a reframing mind, which continually deconstructs presumed internal authority to uncover the projections at work within it. The authority within is never final, always provisional and fallible. I return to this theme in Perspective 17.

Thirdly, the substantial withdrawal of spiritual projection from traditional schools certainly does not mean that o­ne ceases to take account of them and learn anything from them. I have o­n occasion been criticized o­n the grounds that my approach to spiritual inquiry is to eliminate from consideration almost everything which has been written o­n the subject up to now. This is a gross misrepresentation, and quite the opposite of what I believe, which is that the beliefs and practices of the various mystical traditions constitute a huge data-bank, a massive resource which, when treated with due caveats, can be drawn upon, modified and revised in framing the maps which guide the examined life and co-operative spiritual inquiry.

I have learnt a great deal from this legacy. I totally ignore it at my peril, just as I unawarely project o­n to it at my peril. This is an interesting knife-edge. I need to remember that I do not really know for sure what the ancient mystics meant by what they wrote, and that when I read them (often already via a translation) it is how I make sense of them - my inner knowing in dialogue with the text - that is central. If I project this inner knowing out and claim that such and such is what the mystic meant, and claim further that this meaning is a traditional guide to spiritual wisdom, then I am sorely lost in the process of spiritual projection. I am hiding my own light behind the sage’s robe to the rear of which it is displaced. I have lost faith with myself. The whole of the current perennial philosophy business seems to me to be beset by this kind of mauvaise foi.

The distortions of spiritual projection

When the spiritual authority that resides within is projected o­n and invested in some external authority, it inevitably becomes misrepresented and distorted. To disown, deny and be unaware of the inner presence is to damage its formative power and this disfiguration is reflected in the teaching of the outer authority that replaces it. From the other side of the equation, if you want to become a spiritual authority for others, then you need a perverse doctrine that invalidates and undermines their intrinsic inner spirit, and will thus lock in with their disfigured projection of it.

The Christian religion maintained its authority for centuries primarily by the corrupt doctrine of original sin, which proposed that human nature is congenitally tainted and depraved, with a proclivity to sinful conduct. The essence of original sin for Augustine (354-430), the most influential figure in Western Christianity, lay in concupiscence, meaning desire in general and sexual lust in particular. He regarded humanity as “a mass of sin, waited upon by death”. He identified the “great sin” that lay behind such misery with sex and sexual intercourse. This catastrophic assault o­n human eroticism deeply undermined people’s faith in their own inner life.

It is not surprising that the last twenty years of Augustine’s life were dominated by his controversies against the Pelagians, and as a result of his determined opposition, Pelagianism was condemned by the church as a heresy. Pelagius had rejected the idea of original sin as an inherited defect which impaired the freedom of the will.

He believed in a true freedom of the will as the highest human endowment, and held that persons are responsible for and capable of ensuring their own salvation. This optimistic account of human nature, had it spread widely, would have drastically undermined the authority of the early church.

The authority of spiritual schools and lineages in oriental religions rests o­n the denigrating view that human personhood, far from being a spiritual presence within divine being, reduces to a selfhood which is lost in illusory separateness.

At the ordinary, everyday level, the self is nothing but a mass of congealed fear and clinging, all knotted up. At its very highest level, the soul is still nothing but a knot, a contraction, which must die to itself, to become absolute spirit (Wilber, 1997: 47).

The spiritual teacher who has undone the knot and transcended separateness is the o­nly o­ne to judge whether the contracted disciple has attained any measure of enlightenment. The disciple surrenders to the guru and identifies with the guru to attain moksha, spiritual release and liberation from the illusion of selfhood and the bondage of mortal existence. Indeed, the Zen master subjects his students to physical and mental abuse in order to destroy the illusions in which they are imprisoned (Katz, 1978: 44).

So western spiritual authorities invalidate the erotic roots of personal life and eastern spiritual authorities undermine personal consciousness. Both of them are misrepresenting, denying and oppressing, the spiritual potential of personhood which, honoured in fullness, has its flower in personal autonomy and comprehensive connectedness. Between them, they inflict much damage. For spiritual practices based o­n negative views of human nature, by repressing positive potential, will cause a distorted return of the repressed. Thus the practice, by denying potential good and thus turning it into actual bad, appears to confirm the negative view o­n which it is based.

This is the ancient corruption of patriarchal priestcraft. The priests put about beliefs and practices, and organize their hierarchy in ways, which generate the sins they claim the power to redeem. The Christian religion tends toward a modified dualism. It regards the human world as a fallen creation outside god, although he is intimately connected with it. And it regards its priests as appointed by god with authority to mediate in Christ’s name o­n behalf of fallen humanity.

Eastern religions tend toward acosmic monism: the world and the human are illusory save when known to be identical with absolute spirit. And the enlightened who know this have absolute authority with regard to the salvation of the unenlightened, who are too identified with the illusion to effect self-liberation. What we see at work, both west and east, is the classic autocracy of spiritual patriarchy. There is no hint of, no interest in, the sacral reality of womankind: embodiment as a primary source of sacrality .

Authoritarian displacement and narcissism

The authoritarian spiritual teacher is also busy, of course, in suppressing some aspects of his or her own authentic inner light and inner life. The resultant subtle frustrations are displaced, acted out, not o­nly in controlling the spiritual path for other people, but also in more or less frequent episodes of verbal, physical, sexual, power-play, and financial abuse of followers.

The behaviour of teachers, both Oriental and Western, participating in the dramatic spread of Zen and Tibetan institutions in America has often fallen severely short of the ethical ideal. The stories are legion, and likely to be found in all authoritarian spiritual schools, ancient and modern, eastern and western.

They are hushed up for as long as possible, and rationalized by devotees as consciousness-raising tests and challenges. But sooner or later they demand understanding in terms of what they are: evidence of distortions stemming from a neglected spiritual process within the directive teacher. Such distortions exhibit gross and crude forms of spiritual narcissism in the very process whereby the teacher claims he is interrupting it in others."

More Information

To get all of John Heron's great book Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion, Lulu Press, Morrisville, North Carolina, 2006, go to John Heron's web site at http://www.human-inquiry.com/storefront.htm