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May 28, 2023

Spiritual Competence by Thomas Hübl

“It is indeed possible to use vertical development models to make specific statements about competences, but unpredictability cannot be put into a box. If it could, this would rob Awakening of the radicality it needs to remind us time and time again of the One.”

By Thomas Hübl

The discussion launched by the position paper from the Integral Forum is a good and important initiative. It reveals the confusion that exists in the area of spiritual competence. However, such a discussion stands on thin ice if we only look at it in a purely intellectual way without taking spiritual competence itself into account. True mystics – those who experience divine or absolute reality – are “consciousness freaks”. They do not just understand the inner order of reality intellectually but they experience it in a truly profound way.

Only an Awakened Consciousness Knows What an Awakened Consciousness Is

A comparison might help to make things clear as we discuss the issue of spiritual competence. Grade school pupils do not usually approach university mathematics professors and start a discussion with them about differential calculus. Yet many people from many different spiritual traditions set about describing the spiritual dimensions of human nature although they do not have the competence necessary for this task in terms of their own spiritual development. In many cases their cognitive development far exceeds their spiritual development, which means they often seek to explain spiritual competence in a cognitive way. This mixes up different lines of development. Intellectual discussion is then regarded to be a ‘spiritual discussion’; but that is not what it is – it is a philosophical discussion about spiritual values.

The danger of Integral Theory is that individuals having a high intellectual capability and a cognitive-philosophical understanding of Ken Wilber’s models of consciousness could possibly apply the overall explanatory model in a distorted way if they haven’t integrated the higher levels of consciousness themselves. In contrast to this, Ken Wilber himself has a profound inner practice and a high intellectual as well as transcendental capability. A distorted application of the integral theory reveals a shadow within the integral movement. Yet another shadow is the fact that transmission cannot take place during an intellectual discussion about higher levels of consciousness (as compared to directly speaking from these levels). Here, the term ‘transmission’ is used to imply the energetic resonance that occurs when the higher vibrational energy of a more highly realized person stimulates the energy of a less realized person to resonate at a higher level. “Consciousness freaks”, whether they be spiritual teachers, highly realized people or awakened students, are able to perceive this transmission in other highly realized individuals. In this way, and because of this, they can determine the spiritual competence of teachers.

This phenomenon of transmission can also be illustrated using the example of a mathematics professor: she has a true understanding of advanced mathematics herself and is able to pass on this knowledge in such a way that she becomes a ladder for students that enables them to climb to higher levels of knowledge themselves. If she didn’t possess this inner capacity, then her teaching attempts would just trigger confusion. The students would believe they are studying with a knowledgeable professor, but they would become quite confused because they couldn’t understand what she’s talking about. The same can be applied to spirituality. If someone is talking about non-duality but is not in a state of non-duality, then the words are just empty words. A transmission cannot take place. The words might, for example, provide an intellectual motivation to take up a spiritual practice but fail to impart a taste of non-duality.

Students who aren’t quite as awakened need aids to help them access the abilities of their teacher with respect to his vertical and horizontal realization. These aids generally help them do this cognitively. For example, the student can gain some sense of the teacher’s development by looking at how he relates to other students, how the students relate to each other, what type of people gather around the teacher, and what kind of active contribution is being made towards the evolution of consciousness. Students can also observe how well other students relate to the One (God, Tao, the Essence) and how brightly the fire of awakening burns within.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of trust in the teacher-student relationship remains a prerequisite. This applies to other disciplines as well such as mathematics. If you want to solve complex equations, you have to take the path of learning how to achieve this. If you’ve never done integral calculus then you might be capable of reading the question, but you will only be able to find the solution if you have really understood it. Until then, you have to practice and trust those who know how to solve the problem. Transferring this back to spirituality, we note that mysticism goes beyond “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe in God”. Mysticism is about devoting ourselves to a practice that takes hold of us so strongly that it effects our own reality and cannot be denied. In order for this quality of deeper connection to develop, most people need an authentic and radical teacher.

Only an Unpredictable Teacher is a Good Teacher

First and foremost, a teacher is not a friend. If we really want to awaken, we do not need friendship but rather more unpredictability. A teacher already has within himself the higher potential of a student and can mirror this. In this way, the teacher reflects the future potential of what the student can become. So it is not the duty of the teacher to be comforting but rather authentic. This means being authentic with respect to the levels that correspond to the student’s development up to a certain point but also to higher levels where the student no longer knows what the world looks like. Our rational minds are conditioned to expect predictability, but a spiritual teacher speaks out of Emptiness without conditioning. This can lead to the spontaneous emergence that meets the student exactly where his development is taking place. Observed from a lower level of consciousness, this might appear somewhat confronting and sometimes without empathy. Or in other cases it might appear to be over-sensitive. But it can look quite different from a higher level of consciousness. A confrontation can be appropriate and supportive. It is important for the student to be able to recognize that this unpredictability on the part of their teacher is always suited to the individual person and to the individual moment when it happens.

Leading an awakened life means orienting ourselves to our inner light, the evolutionary impulse, so that it becomes stronger than the habits of our personality and all those automatisms that we’ve grown so fond of. New potential wants to unfold. If we are too trapped in the habits of our Self, we won’t respond to this call and then pressure builds up – i.e. evolutionary pressure. Any forecasts about what might happen are simply invalid when this evolutionary drive crashes into the habits and structures of our consciousness. That can be very frightening. So people try to assuage their fears with predictability. The ego will always seek something to hold on to in order to maintain the illusion of security. However, the danger of this approach is that it risks castrating the radical power of an awakened state with the tools of rationality (in the form of classification). It simply is not possible to throw wisdom into one box as we see fit. Humans are addicted to feeling good, but the process of awakening isn’t always easy. It requires the radicality and unpredictability of an authentic teacher.

This is where we see problems with the demands for measurable criteria and verification that are expressed in the Integral Forum’s position paper. It is indeed possible to use vertical development models to make specific statements about competences, but we cannot categorize the radicality of unpredictability. This would rob the awakening process the radicality needed that keeps drawing us to the One. Nonetheless, there are some competences which can be said to be important for spiritual teachers such as the ones that follow below:

Updates of Spiritual Traditions

Without awakened individuals taking integral perspectives, a significant update for spiritual traditions cannot occur. If the perspective of a student’s ego leads them to avoid the uncomfortable aspects of growing up and waking up – such as confrontations with a spiritual teacher or a deeply challenging spiritual practice – then they react with arguments such as, “That is too traditional”, “We need something easier”, or “Time has moved on – that is out of date”. However, indulging these arguments means watering down the heart of mysticism. True spiritual tradition is nothing more than passing on the radicality of inner power. And nothing other than the radicality of an updated spiritual tradition can continue to support the process of conscious awakening.

A Competent Teacher Can Guide us Through the Higher Dimensions of Consciousness

Whenever we come into higher dimensions of consciousness, we recognize a reality that is larger than the one we had previously experienced. We can grasp a larger context. Only when we have entered higher subtle or causal states ourselves are we able to share this with others. Not before. If we talk about mysticism, then we are talking about committing ourselves to a practice and conducting an experiment in consciousness. And this experiment will result in experiences. However, we have to break through into the Absolute in order to take a look at the Relative from the level of the Absolute. A competent teacher can perceive the student’s level of consciousness and is able to discern the right moment and intervention necessary to help him achieve this breakthrough. Without this help, the student might get stuck in his developmental dynamics – forming the relative – and forget the context within which this development is taking place – namely within an awakened consciousness. An experienced teacher can advise students of the appropriate time in their development when it is more important to place the Absolute higher than the Relative, since non-duality can mostly be achieved only after the breakthrough into the Absolute has taken place. This process is all part of waking up and it would be a cardinal error to insist upon the equality of the relative and the absolute and refuse to give one priority over the other. In most cases, this obstructs the breakthrough into the Absolute itself and a realization of non-duality therefore can often not occur.

A Competent Teacher is Aware of the Student’s Shadows and Developmental Stages

Teachers and students encounter each other at different stages of development, comparable to the development from childhood to adulthood and as an awakened adult. Teachers must be aware of this and students as well as far as they are able. Encounters between the teacher and student will time and time again contain regressive elements coming from the student. The teacher must be aware of this. If the teacher’s contact with the student is characterized by any lack of clarity concerning the student’s stage of development, this can result in the entanglements so often seen in spiritual circles. Truly competent spiritual teachers have consciously integrated different stages of growth within their own development. A teacher must be at home on all levels and be aware of his own strengths and weaknesses if he is to be a mirror for his students. A spiritual teacher is basically nothing more than a conscious authentic reflection of various aspects of the student’s life.

Spiritual teachers need to have knowledge of relationship patterns and projections of their students, otherwise the effects of these can overshadow the mystical aspect. Idolization cannot be taken personally by teachers. These energies mostly come from non-integrated aspects or because of the overwhelming nature of transpersonal love. An encounter between teacher and student does not primarily take place on a personal level. There is a higher level of consciousness that is very clear and this is only reflected on the personal level. This higher level of consciousness always resonates even if the student is not aware of it. It is often perceived as an overwhelming love or a strong feeling of attraction. This is why it is important to know that these levels can intermingle, i.e. very high levels of consciousness intermingle with very personal levels. These fine nuances here are often not even perceived. And the less integrated a student is, the stronger the resulting overlap and confusion become. It is important that student be aware of his learned patterns in relationships and his projections so that he can also assume responsibility for them. It is his obligation to deal with this – either with the help of a teacher, a spiritual friend or an in-depth self examination.

Idolization is often followed by knocking the idol off of the throne – an act comparable with rebelling against your parents during puberty. Similar rebellious attitudes against the teacher are frequently a part of the student’s development. Teachers should not take this personally. They have to consciously hold the space that can contain this rebellion. Neither should teachers take other aspects of the student’’ developmental dynamics personally. Especially in the topic of sexuality a teacher has to be very aware and conscious of what’s happening.

Ideally, teachers and students relate to each other in an adult manner, but in our society many individuals have not yet completed their inner development into rational and emotional adulthood. Like children and teenagers, they need an outward expression of their inner guidance. When spiritual teachers can see the individual developments of different intelligences then they are able to paint the full picture. For example, if a student criticizes the teacher from a regressive position, then he projects his own energies onto the teacher. The teacher needs to able to completely recognize this. As long as it is not possible to enter the relationship at the adult level, the teacher and student should at least know from which level their relationship in taking place. In most cases, this means that the teacher tells the student what he perceives with respect to the level of communication.

This makes it obvious that teachers need a very high level of competence not only with respect to spirituality but at the ‘marketplace’ of interpersonal interactions. If they don’t have these, then they risk triggering ambiguity, lack of clarity, conflict and re-traumatization. The main responsibility lies with the teacher because he has the wider radius of consciousness. However, this should not be understood as relieving the student of their share of the responsibility.

Awakened Teachers are Not Perfect – Students are Responsible for Themselves

Being awakened does not mean being perfect in all regards, but awakened people are capable of recognizing the perfection of the Whole. They know that there is nothing that is not connected to everything else. But this does not mean that those who know this are themselves perfect: we have to drop this notion. If a student has a higher level of integration than the teacher in certain areas of development, then the student will notice this and even see shadow aspects of the teacher.

Just recognizing the unformed primordial ground alone does not automatically provide a ticket to the integration of all of the worldly levels. It is an insight that raises a highly realized individual out of the relativity of life as the sole epistemology, yet it does not make him a universal genius. Neither is it realistic to believe the paradisiacal aspiration that some day a human can reach a state of ultimate tranquility, relaxation and beauty. Of course, an inner peace arises in those who awaken. This is a peace with that which is. A ‘yes’ to that which is. However, this does not mean there is no longer any pain. Most teachers have personality aspects that are still active even after a fundamental awakening experience has occurred. And here it requires a high level of integrity, a high degree of openness as well as the knowledge that the process of development is never really fully accomplished. Teachers need to know this. And students need to know this about their teachers.

If humans give God – or the essence, or timeless wisdom – the space he/she or it deserves, then this is a space beyond thought and comprehension. A spiritual teacher knows and has experienced this. This means that an intervention from the teacher that comes from this place of authentic connection cannot be compared to that which most people know or are familiar with. However, exactly this issue requires students who are alert and perceptive as it can lead to misunderstandings and nonsense. It could be that incompetent teachers who do not act from this place of authentic connection nonetheless try to sell their inappropriate behavior as competence.

It really starts to get messy when the teacher himself mixes his teaching status with his own personal needs and professes to be totally clear and transparent when that is simply not the case. It can lead to entanglements and traumatization when this happens. Abuse arises at that point of interaction where the structure of the student meets the unconscious issues of the teacher. It is at that point where the teacher no longer provides the larger space of consciousness even though he claims that to be doing so. Of course, this is simply not open and honest.

However, it is not a case of abuse when the bruised ego of the student feels hurt, then that will happen quite often. Sometimes students will leave a teacher in anger after a confrontation, but this is just the unconscious attempt of a learner to hold on to his own ego structure.

A Competent Teacher has an Increasingly Transcendent Personality Structure

An awakened teacher can basically be regarded as a hole in the matrix. In other words, the personality structure of the teacher becomes more and more transcendent and the energy increases as it flows through him. The emptier a teacher becomes, the more light they radiate into the matrix. In this way, the teacher becomes a vehicle for the student to use and dock onto the pure light and recognize Emptiness within themselves.

A teacher is someone who can navigate freely through reality and make important contributions using this higher connection. He can enter into empty territories and into non-knowing without hanging on to conditioning to which he is accustomed. And yet he knows that the goal is not Emptiness alone. Misinterpretations abound in the spiritual scene in this regard. Deep immersion in the unformed Ground of Being is indeed beneficial for spiritual practice for a while, but separating Emptiness from the worldly loudness of Form itself creates duality. What we are seeking is a non-dual insight. In other words: Emptiness includes Form and Form includes Emptiness. We are Form and Emptiness as not two or non-dual. Once we realize that, then we will know that having profound experiences alone is not enough. Neither is just being adept at the technical issues of development enough. We need both.

The ultimate step of Awakening is that the insight of the Absolute returns to the world of the Relative. This deeply anchors life in reality via the body-mind (our physical sensations, emotions and thoughts). One is totally immersed in this world but has the transcendental knowledge at the same time of not being of this world. That is transmission. Light transforms material into higher and higher planes. It is like a lamp burning within life itself and not just a finger pointing towards the Absolute.

A Competent Teacher Seeks Exchange with Other Teachers

The question of competence is actually quite easy to answer: you just need to ask the opinion of someone who is competent, one who has achieved this connection and competence for themselves. It would be even better to bring a whole group of such individuals together who could mutually mirror the shadows that they still have in themselves. In this way a field arises (we are not talking about individual personalities here) that can make a clear statement about the development of others. This inner science gives us the chance to see others where we are developed ourselves. It is important that teachers, who can speak from this higher connection or are at the same level of spiritual development, be able to mirror one another – be it amongst themselves or within a whole circle of teachers. Then it is possible to find out in more detail whether any particular action of a teacher in relation to a student was a shadow aspect of the teacher himself or if a higher level of intervention was involved. Only someone who has developed these higher levels within themselves will be capable of knowing this.

This continual reflection amongst teachers or between teachers and highly developed students is also very valuable for entire communities that are gathered around the teachers, since the shadow of the teacher multiplies in their sangha (community). Where the teacher has a shadow, the whole sangha will have a shadow. And of course, if students are transparent with one another and have an established culture of giving feedback, this may even allow the shadow to be revealed. However, the position of the student is obviously not the same as a group of teachers meeting together.

For teachers working with many students, it is very important to have such a meeting place for teachers where it is possible to share, mutually enrich one another and give feedback for the purpose of clarity. This is the place where setting standards for spiritual teachers should be discussed. As with scientific disciplines, where only worldwide leading figures are really able to assess each other’s abilities, so could a group of worldwide leading spiritual teachers offer the only appropriate place to determine standards for spiritual teachers.

Devotion to and Trust in the Teacher

The quality of a teacher can only be recognized to a certain extent by a student, and this only intuitively, since the teacher is actually the future of the student – a future, larger version of the student’s current reality. The student is able to recognize a certain degree of integrity, organizational openness or a responsible dealing with others, for example, because these characteristics concern levels where the student probably already has developed himself. However, if the teacher has reached a significantly more advanced level of consciousness than the student, then a teachers behavior and actions can quickly distort the whole picture. These actions arise from a different space and when seen from a lower level of consciousness they may appear to be somehow strange or might contradict what the student knows. So devotion to and trust in the teacher is required; the student needs to surrender to the unknown. The aspect of “not-knowing” enters the game.

So what does this mean – to let oneself in for the unknown? Awakening has something to do with people waking up from the view of reality that they know into a new way of being aware of the world. They cannot determine this in advance by means of their previous understanding of the world. This is an important point in spiritual practice. If spiritual practitioners acknowledge this, they will also be able to see and accept the competence of the not-knowing in a spiritual teacher. In our world that is characterized by rationality, we demand more and more knowledge and predictability, but this has both a positive and a shadow side.

We often exclude non-linear, multi-dimensional development. We could compare this to trying to avoid the holes in the cheese. We want to get rid of the not-knowing element because it doesn’t look very economical. However, this affirmation of the unknown is the important thing, since the conditioning of “wanting to know” is very strong. In spiritual practice it is the holes that interest us the most because they are the entry to super-conscious intelligence in a system that consciously recognizes itself as a Self.

Surrender to a teacher is trust based on love and therefore can take us to spaces beyond that which we know.

Postmodern individuals are fond of saying: “What do I need a teacher for? I’m on my own path.” That is all very well and good if they indeed know where they are going. However, it is easier to expand within a level of development that we already know but it is much more difficult to develop vertically. Most people who try to develop without a teacher often don’t notice that they are running into a wall since they can’t see the doorway to the next stage. A spiritual teacher is someone who can reveal this doorway because the light and higher intelligence flow through them so strongly.

Most people need a teacher because their passion for the Divine – for Awakening – blazes up repeatedly but then dies down again. And this is not enough to transcend old habits. Teachers keep reminding students of their burning passion until it no longer dies down on its own. They become companions on the path that is being created through them. We call this ‘non-linear learning’. We don’t learn by exploring the path we already know. Instead, we take the path that only reveals itself through each step as we take it. That is devotion to God.

The Tao Te Ching tells us to “bring things in order before they exist”. We are before we are. We are before we become the forms which we know ourselves to be. We are nothing before the world appears and we are the world we know ourselves to be. We are the evolutionary impulse that appears and expresses itself through us.

Thomas Hübl, as a response to the Position Paper published by the IF

Berlin, April 2011

Thomas Hübl is a contemporary spiritual teacher of uncompromising clarity, which brings the enlightened potential of a new “Culture of WE” into the light. His workshops and trainings invite people to experience a deeper dimension of self-awareness and individual responsibility. Radical transcendence of ego opens the door to deeply authentic expression, service to the world and stable relationship with the absolute. Experiencing a driving inspiration to evolve, people give their gifts to the world in concrete ways.

We live in a context where many of us have outgrown traditional forms of religion. This means that pre-modern, ethnocentric versions of our world’s traditions no longer have the capacity to meet our modern and postmodern needs. The integrative space of a World Spirituality allows our great religious traditions to evolve from ethnocentric to world-centric, and even to kosmocentric consciousness. World Spirituality allows us all to move forward together, beyond the limitations of traditional religion, while still embracing all of the valuable insights and gifts of the past.

That’s why we are delighted to invite you to World Spirituality Annual Practice Retreat of Love and Activism – Evolutionary Integral Relationships with Dr. Marc Gafni, Sally Kempton, Warren Farrell, Terry Patten, Mariana Caplan, Decker Cunov, Dustin DiPerna, & Marcy Baruch, July 17th – 24th in Berkeley, California.

Our annual practice retreat of love and activism is itself an example of World Spirituality practice: it is designed to engage you cognitively, inter-personally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We will employ a balance of theoretical and experiential, as well as individual and group, learning sessions—all woven together into a vital, comprehensive, and balanced awareness.

We will also focus on helping you develop and strengthen your own World Spirituality practice. Each day will consist of deep engagement in dharma (spiritual teachings), practice, and experiential and relational exercises, including:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer Reloaded
  • Chant & Kirtan
  • Yoga, Psyche, & Movement
  • Sacred Text Study: An Integral Approach
  • Practice of Enacting a “Higher We”

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  1. charles dudas says:

    Thanks Thomas. You and Terry Patten are, in my opinion, probably the most highly sensitized to the pitfalls of “the consensus (feel good) trance”, that always used to lurk in the background, but today has somehow become nigh a standard of validation. Mindfulness, my friend, and more of it. Tschuss, charles dudas

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