The Power of
by G. Scott Sparrow, Ed.D.
I met my first
spiritual mentor, Hugh Lynn Cayce, in a dream. He walked up to me,
looking very much like
the person I eventually came to know, and asked me if I would
join him in a passion play. Not knowing much about such things, I
agreed, nonetheless. Before I could think twice about his offer, I was laying on the ground
on top of a cross, and men were preparing to drive real nails through
my hands. Needless to say, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
Months later, I
met him at a camp where he often spoke. Sitting alone on the edge
of the porch
that first afternoon, I watched a man strolling casually through the
meadow, heading in my general direction. He walked up to the porch,
looked me in the eye, and lifted his hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Hugh
Lynn Cayce,” he said. As if I didn’t know.
A few months
later, I had the occasion to return to Virginia where he lived.
So I called ahead to make an
appointment with Hugh Lynn. When I entered his office for the
first time, I was surprised to see him sitting beside an open window.
It was winter, after all; but soon I learned that he often sat by that
open window when visiting with friends. I can’t remember everything we
talked about, but most of it revolved around our experiences with
As we talked,
we seemed to enter a timeless realm where we’d known each other
forever, and had always loved and served the Master. Somewhere in the
middle of our conversation, my heart opened, and Jesus entered. I
didn’t see him, mind you, but I felt his presence just as though he
were sitting there with us. For three days afterward, he was with me in
every waking moment. While I had experienced his presence previously,
this experience of communion was the true beginning of my own path of
Looking back, I
realize that Hugh Lynn served as a catalyst, or mediator, for me. In
the Hindu tradition, he might have been considered my shaktipat guru,
that is, a teacher capable of catalyzing no less than the “descent of
the Spirit,” which the word shaktipat
means. The force of his presence and the depth of his devotion
Christ effectively kindled my own capacity to know the Master, and my
own inner radiance, more directly.
accept the influence of such a teacher, we enter into what might be
called a “progressive triangle.” Yearning for the experience of God,
but unable to chart our own course, we turn to someone who can assist
us in drawing near to the Beloved, either by wisely guiding our
efforts, or -- more directly -- by precipitating a dramatic awakening
Triangles in the Christian Tradition
came, the Old Testament God was so removed from the human realm that the most we could
hope for was to enter into a covenant through which he would bless us
in exchange for our service. We were fundamentally different and set
apart from God, and no one stood in the space between. Prophets
delivered God’s pronouncements, but they were only the messenger, not
the Being itself. However, by living and dying such an
unparalleled life of love and service, Jesus became a “third” force
that heretofore had never existed in our consciousness. In the Gnostic Gospel
of Thomas, he says, “When the one becomes two, what will you do?” With
an economy of words, Jesus prompts us to consider the possibility that
he can resolve the problem of our perceived estrangement. Describing
himself in the traditional Gospels as “the way, the truth and the
life,” and asserting that “no man comes to the father except through
me,” he did an unprecedented thing: He invited us into a triangular
relationship in which he serves as the mediating force between
ourselves and God.
life and his teachings, Jesus shattered once and for all the idea that
we had to settle for a long-distance relationship with God. Serving as
the first mediator of God’s grace in our tradition, he pointed to the
radical possibility of a direct, intimate relationship with the Father
-- something previously unheard of. But he did not want us to cling to Him.
When he knew that he would soon be leaving us, he referred us to
another who would serve in his place.
comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my
name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your
remembrance, whatsoever I said unto you.”(John 14:26)
One mediator was lost to us, but
another was given. From thereafter, the mediator was a spirit, not a
single individual. Indeed, by declaring the Comforter a “ghost” of his
own essence, Jesus freed us to find his mediating spirit again and
again, in all times and all places, in various forms.
Of course, we
know that it didn’t take the early Christians long to elevate Jesus to
the status of God himself, thus removing the Son of Man from the role
of principal mediator. The space that Jesus intended to fill for
us was made less available to us by his elevation by the early
Church to unreachable heights. The Holy Spirit was supposed to be his
stand-in, but the impersonality of that concept left us yearning for a
more personal touch. Not suprisingly, Mary the mother of Jesus entered
the picture. Extrapolating from the exchange between the adult
Jesus and his mother at the wedding at Cana, the early Church fashioned
a role for Mary that answered to our need for a mediator of God’s
grace. Mary, by convincing Jesus to turn water into wine, demonstrated
a unique and intimate knowledge of her son, and revealed her
sensitivity to our needs. Soon, she became known as the Mediatrix,
because of her unique capacity to know the will of her Son, and to
plead for his clemency and grace on our behalf. Out of this emerged a
new triangle between ourselves, the Holy Mother, and Jesus Christ --
who had become as distant as God himself.
about Jesus' ultimate nature, the Early Church fathers finally settled
on the notion that he was God himself. But how could God be born of a
woman, afflicted with original sin? The problem was resolved by
elevating Mary, too. According to Church doctrine, Christ removed the
blight of sin from His Mother, leaving her uniquely pure among us. This
elevation in status by association with her son paved the way
for conferring upon Mary an even greater role than Mediatrix: Indeed,
the Church eventually came to regard her as no less
than Co-redeemer. With the twin doctrines of the Immaculate Conception
-- declaring Mary free of original sin -- and the Bodily Assumption of
Mary into Heaven, the Catholic Church virtually deified the woman who
had once simply said “yes” to a very ambiguous request. Suffering the
same fate as her son at the hands of the theologians, Mary, too, has
drifted farther and farther from the human condition, making it that
much harder to turn to as the mediator between heaven and earth. But as
one priest once said, “People don’t want theology, they want love.”
Fortunately, the heart has a way of putting doctrine aside, and finding
a human bridge to span the great divide.
for a progressive triangle eventually arises in the course of one’s
spiritual development, regardless of the tradition. Few, if any of us,
can “bootstrap our way to God,” no matter how hard we may try.
Eventually, we turn to someone who can help us find our way.
instance the story of the great Tibetan guru Milarepa. The young
spiritual prodigy went to study under Marpa the Translator only after
using his psychic powers to kill his aunt and uncle in revenge for
stealing his family’s wealth. We can imagine that in Marpa’s wisdom, he
immediately recognized Milarepa as his successor, but that he also knew
about Milarepa’s misuse of power. So, it is not surprising that the
story has Marpa setting about to frustrate his disciple, by making him
do things, and undo things, that made no sense to the young aspirant.
Marpa would appear drunk or deranged, and was constantly changing his
mind, and contradicting things that he’d told Milarepa to do.
Meanwhile, Marpa refused to admit his student into his inner circle.
Indeed, he would dismiss him harshly -- even to the point of beating
him -- whenever Milarepa tried to attend the initiation ceremonies.
Unknown to Milarepa, his teacher would return to his quarters and weep
over the role that he had to play.
In a state of
suicidal despondency, Milarepa turned to Marpa’s wife for help and
solace, who then pleaded with her husband -- as Mary had pleaded with
Jesus at the wedding at Cana -- on Milarepa’s behalf. Even though
Marpa was initially unrelenting, his wife’s compassion for the young
disciple provided the support Milarepa desperately needed to persist in
his efforts to win his master’s approval. Finally, Marpa knew
that Milarepa’s refinement was complete. Exhibiting an apparent
sudden change of heart, he bestowed upon his disciple the full measure
of his love and his teachings.
When Progressive Triangles Become
Once we find
someone to assist us in our spiritual journey, we depend on him
or her to lead us closer to the goal, without becoming a substitute for
that which we seek. However, a progressive triangle can turn stagnant,
either because the seeker becomes too dependent on the teacher, or the
teacher begins to usurp the position of the true goal. It has been
said, “When the master points at the moon, the fool looks at his
finger.” This pithy saying conveys the classic error of the disciple,
who fails to look beyond the teacher toward his own fulfillment.
Indeed, it is commonplace for spiritual seekers to begin to consider
the teacher as a unique embodiment of God, rather than an example of
what we, too, can become. True spiritual teachers will always frustrate
their followers’ inclinations to worship them instead of the Being who
dwells in every one of us. Even Jesus admonished his disciples by
saying, “Do not call me good,” knowing that they were already beginning
to miss the point. Similarly, the founder of Siddha Yoga, Swami
Muktananda was once asked a trivial question by one of his more
dependent devotees. He responded, “Do I have to peel your banana and
eat it, too?”
teachers can resist the temptation to foster their followers’
dependency. A spiritual teacher can fail in his mission by expecting
the disciple to accept his finger as a sufficient substitute for the
moon! Indeed, a progressive triangle can turn stagnant if either party
loses sight of the true goal.
impulse to “triangulate” may spring from a deep appreciation of how
such relationships can lead us closer to our goal, some triangular
relationships are regressive from the moment of conception. Instead of
serving as a way to get closer to God or to one’s loved ones through
the agency of a third person, a regressive or “dysfunctional” triangle
leads in the opposite direction, lessening the chances that honest
communication will ever take place.
The concept of
dysfunctional triangles originally grew out of studies of families. One
of the early pioneers in family therapy, Murray Bowen, is credited with
discovering that family members under stress will, instead of
communicating directly with each other, confide in another person. A
husband, who cannot find the courage to express his feelings to his
wife, may take his eldest child into his confidence, thus burdening his
child and leaving his wife out of the loop. A man who is afraid
committing himself to a new relationship may suddenly have a need to
contact his old girlfriend to “get some closure,” effectively
sabotaging his new relationship. A “good wife and mother” may abruptly
develop an attraction for a coworker, after having suppressed her needs
for so many years. Or well-meaning adults may engage in gossip, as if
talking disparagingly about a mutual friend can ever make things
better. All of these triangular relationships arise from a single
impulse -- fear of what will happen if we express ourselves honestly,
and expose ourselves more fully to the ones we love.
geometric shape for which they are named, regressive or “dysfunctional”
triangles are rigid and resistant to change: They provide comfort at
the expense of honesty and real growth. But dysfunctional
triangles can be resolved, in part, by a progressive triangle in which
a therapist or mentor serves as the mediator. For instance, in my work
as a therapist, I frequently have the privilege of serving in this
capacity with couples and families. Faced with their inability to
communicate directly and honestly with each other, they will enlist me
as their coach and translator until they have learned to communicate
more directly and honestly with each other. My singular goal is
to restore the relationships, not to bolster the individuals at the
expense of the greater goal. Once my clients discover that their
relationships can withstand honesty and directness, the trust and the
intimacy generated by their disclosures is usually enough to carry them
forward without my further assistance.
Dysfunctional Triangles in
We are all
susceptible to the destructive effects of dysfunctional triangles, even
if we uphold the highest spiritual ideals. Spiritual seekers have
their own characteristic ways of justifying them. Operating from
the”spiritual” assumption that honesty is hurtful, and that hurting
people is unspiritual, we may hide our feelings and complain, instead,
to our friends and confidants. Or, we may conclude that our differences
with certain “unenlightened” people are so great that there is no use
in trying to initiate a dialogue. Laboring under these untested
assumptions, we may even go so far as to form subgroups, in which a few
members of our community may join together in order to share similar
negative views. By nursing our grievances in private, we participate in
an activity that can, in time, destroy our community. And we may
wonder, looking back, what happened to the Work and to the friends that
we once cherished.
Of course, it
is always important to consider the impact of “de-triangulating.”
Having become accustomed to our silence, or subversion, the people who
have been kept in the dark may feel shocked and betrayed upon learning
of our true feelings. To guard against causing unnecessary pain, we
might ask ourselves, Is it timely, does it serve the greater good, and
is it necessary? If it meets these criteria, then we can be virtually
assured that our disclosures will eventually bear fruit, even if the
initial effects on others might indicate otherwise. When in doubt, it
is always a good idea to consult an objective mediator, whose
commitment to your growth will keep the process headed in the right
relationship can be beneficial or destructive. We need people, and we
will naturally turn to others for solace and support when we feel
estranged from God, or from our loved ones. If we wish to avoid
intimacy and growth, a regressive triangle can serve as a substitute
for the real work we need to do. But with the right mediator and
the right intentions, a triangular relationship can lead to deeper
communion with God, our greater selves, and with those whom we love.
Indeed, a progressive triangle can become the bow that finally sends
the arrow to its mark.
Avoiding Triangulation with Friends and
It is natural for friends or family members to support each other when
they have conflicts with other people, but it can easily away from
honesty and growth. If you become the “sounding board” for someone,
it’s a good to know what you can do to avoid participating in a
It’s easy to
see it coming. Any time that someone begins to talk to you about
someone with whom he or she has a problem, then you are being
The thing to
avoid at all costs is taking sides. If, instead, you can advocate for
the relationship, you will have done your friend a great service. This
involves supporting your friend in communicating his or her needs
directly with the other party. By assuming a nonjudgmental
stance, you can effectively convert a potentially dysfunctional
triangle into a progressive, or therapeutic one.
Of course, it
may take your friend some time to muster the courage to speak the
truth, but short of that, the process should focus on what he or she
needs to do, not the other person’s response to them.
healthy stance may involve some or all of the following:
1) reframing (that is, using words to signify the
positive aspect of the problem) the conflict as an opportunity for your
friend to “find his voice,” and “speak his truth,” as never before.
2) reframing the other party as a “teacher” or
“taskmaster” who is well suited for the job of providing an important
opportunity for growth.
3) focusing on what your friend has not done, and
can do, to make things better.
4) encouraging direct, personal communication with
the other person.
5) role playing such communications in order to
prepare your friend to enact them in real life.
as a mediator can be helpful, it is important to stay involved only so
long as the triangle continues to be move forward in a healthy way.
Hugh Lynn once said that he was always willing to listen to a person’s
complaints --- but only once. I think this is good policy for all of
us. If you find yourself repeatedly serving as a “dumping ground,” you
will need to refer your friend to someone who will be able to confront
him or her without fear of losing a friendship in the process -- such
as a therapist or mentor. While you might be afraid of hurting your
friend’s feelings, your honesty will protect your friendship from
becoming a casualty of triangulation.