falling off the pedestal

The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?- Part 2

'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series

This is second part in a three-part series.  In the previous posting, we explored what the traditional relationship of guru and disciple was like.  In this postings, we'll examine how this relationship may not apply to this day-and-age.  In our final posting, I posit some ideas of what I think might replace it.  

Guru Projections

We in the West have an awkward relationship with this sort of authority.  We tend to think of the guru-shishya relationship as one of projection.  The shishya abdicates power to the guru by projecting all things parental onto him.  I saw this, and even experienced it, first hand when I studied at Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam throughout the 90s. Guruji could play the face of our good father quite well.  He could also be the fierce father, the tender father, the wise grandpa, and many, many more.  Much of the relationship we shared with our guru depended on our unfinished business.  In a lot of ways, many of us were working out our daddy stuff with him, whether we wanted to admit it or not.

Today, I have little doubt that most of the projection I had with him had almost nothing to do with who he actually was, but being a great teacher, he willingly took on the various fatherly roles and allowed us to act them out with him in order to move through some of the leftover childhood stuff.  While a lot of us got great benefit from this form of relating, I saw some of my fellow guru bhai (disciple brothers and sisters) leave the practice altogether because they could never separate the projection from the man that he was.  And some left because when they did, they were sorely disappointed.

Guru or Snake Oil Salesman?

But unlike an authentic guru, who is regarded with great respect in his culture, our teachers in the West are looked upon with a degree of skepticism. We do not have the same opinion of the spiritual dimension that Asian cultures do.  In the audio CD, The Roots of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield describes the experience of being a monk in Thailand and accepting alms from people who could barely feed themselves. The work of the monks was so important and valued, that the lay community would starve to feed them.

We, in the West tend to hold people of spiritual authority, with doubt and distrust.  Fundamentally we resist being conned.  It is not uncommon to see leaders of spiritual movements initially elevated by their followers and eventually disgraced by those same people.  Just look at the recent John Friend-Anusara Yoga and Diamond Mountain University scandals.  I don’t know the inside scoop, but what’s clear is that students revere their teachers as if they were gods and then they, somehow, fall off the pedestal.  They're human.

But we as a society tend to hold people who run or lead spiritual movements to a higher standard than we hold even our politicians.  Because they’re leading us into spiritual practice, they have to be unblemished by any one of the seven deadly sins; in fact, in some way or another they need to be perfect.


However, when you look closely at the lives of some of the great teachers from the East, the so-called illuminated gurus, what we’ll find is nothing but humans, people steeped in tradition and teaching and, at the same time, riddled with human foibles.  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan spiritual leader that founded Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, had the reputation of drinking beer all day long and had quite an appetite for young women.  Osho, also known as Bhagawan Shree Rajneesh, the founder of Osho Ashram and Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, was addicted to nitrous oxide and also was known for his affairs with his female disciples.  Amrit Desai, the yoga master who founded Kripalu Institute, had to resign as director after his multiple extramarital affairs were exposed.

Does that make these men any less spiritually advanced?  We in the West would like to think so.  It’s quite possible that we want to believe that our spiritual leaders represent the perfect parent, the one we didn’t grow up with.  The truth of the matter is that we all make mistakes, sometimes even very big ones, ones that hurt others badly.  I am thinking, at this moment, of the priests who mistreat(ed) children.  Without a doubt, this behavior is inexcusable; however, it demonstrates that we can no longer afford to completely relinquish our power to the charismatic individuals that lead our spiritual movements.

God is Dead

These people are human, just like you and me.  Perhaps there was a time when there were gurus who were truly unblemished, but we’re living in a very different period, historically speaking.  When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” what he meant was that we can no longer rely on the church, the mosque, the monastery, the lama, the guru, or even a philosophy for our salvation.  For him, these forms of authority had become completely discredited.  As a result, it was up to each of us to find our way.

I am not suggesting that we do it alone.  We need others to support our growth and development, but when we are always looking for the wisdom, the compassion, and the answers outside of ourselves, we forget that we're just projecting.  It can help immensely to love and revere our teachers while simultaneously never forgetting that that which we love and revere is The Self.  Essentially, what I am arguing is that when we take the projections back, when we take responsibility for our own transformation, we stop the game of elevating teachers or the spiritual lineages we come from in a way that does not serve us.  Likewise, we also stop being disappointed when our gurus turn out to be human, just like you and me.

In the next post, I will offer an alternative to this traditional guru-disciple relationship.  Be sure to check in early next week.  You can also subscribing to our blog on the upper left corner of this page or returning to our site in the next few days.