Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reframing the Spiritual Life and The Certain Failure of the Guru Tradition

From Guru to Teacher
Reframing a Spiritual Life

I'm honored and delighted when I get a message or email from folks who ask my opinion, maybe even are asking for some insight. So thank you for that. I'm going to paste in the note I received this morning with just enough edits to protect privacy and make this more germane to us. So here we go.

As an individual who learned the yoga first in a guru do I reckon my desire to surrender fully to the presence of the outer form, the Guru as reflection of my inner self/self, master.
Like Shiva shares with Parvati in the Guru Gita?
Does one ever come to fully embrace ones own reflection as the guru? I am having difficulty "surrendering myself". I have been for years. But the current climate both political, social, my very personal life all reflects the dissonance of the outer.
I look back on my days of being fully in love with the was so much easier.
How do I surrender to a higher power?
What does this surrender mean?
How do you surrender, lay your burdens down?
How do I recognize the presence?
I am in tangles over such a basic question...

dbrk replies:

When first I went to India I too went looking for someone in whom I could entrust my heart, surrender to learning, and regard as the _perfect_ example. I had only limited exposure, the Upanishads and other written sources, and then the very limited resources of the Tantra as it was represented in English. (I particularly loved Sir John Woodruff.) When in Wisconsin studying Tamil in May 1977 I found Swami Muktananda's "Siddha Meditation," a book that I helped edit many years later in the retitled form "Nothing Exists that Is Not Siva." (I'm pretty sure that's the new title.) In this little page-turner Muktananda offers short commentaries on works of interest to him from Kashmir Shaivism and elsewhere, including the Gurugita. I read it 10,000 times that summer.  Oh how I wanted to believe.

I wanted to find _that_ Guru, the paradigm of perfection who was wise, loving, _complete_. It never occurred to me to go looking for Muktananda but I was also just young enough to have had a lot of exposure to gurus, including Maharajji, the Maharishi, a book about Ramana Maharishi, and, of course, plenty of Hari Krsna. I was dead set against that scene.  It looked like a scam because it is a scam.  But I had also worked up this notion of a more serous kind of textual and personal study, I had heard about how brahmin tradition had created gurukula, studying in someone's house with a small group of likeminded, serious students. You would learn not just texts and languages, you would learn the practices the only way you really can: first hand from someone with virtuosity, erudition, and seriousness. So I confess that I was never a candidate for the ashram scene. But I was a desperate seeker. And I mean desperate.

I could write more about what happened to me and why I think I was so very desperate to find help, to find a teacher. I believed with all my heart when I arrived in India that there had been such gurus, people whose character and probity matched their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual achievements. My first months were deeply sobering. To quote a quote, "who knew that this guru business could be so complicated?"

I was depressed, lonely, and more desperate than I had been before I left. Everyone I met who was a candidate was more disappointing than the next. My Jersey instincts were keen not to be conned, and to this day, I realize how I wanted that, I wanted to be conned, I wanted to _believe_ and then experience _that_ person. Then I got lucky. Really, that's the only explanation.

Fast forward because most of you know the kernel of this story. When I met Appa, he was forty-one years old, a father of three, the principal provider for his entire extended family, and already professor of Sanskrit at Madurai University. He dressed in western clothes at the University and was so soft-spoken and demurring that you had to lean forward to hear him--- or at least I did. Many of you know the story from here but suffice it to say, that dream, so vaguely and romantically envisioned came to pass. I lived as a member of Appa's family for many years. Our days started before sunrise with practices and meditations and ended when formal studies concluded about 8:30 every night. We studied, talked, worked all day ---in Sanskrit, Tamil, and English. Some other students came and went but I was the one who stayed. The work never got easier, but it did go faster.

Appa knew quite well that I was looking to him to be that guru. But for only the briefest time did he let me offer that kind of surrender, that complete feeling of being held and guided and allowed to be the disciple. He knew exactly what he was doing, as I look back on it. Little by little, again and again he dismantled the guru ideal as it was historically and culturally constructed. And in our lives together he brought me closer to him to reveal more of his humanity, not more guru perfection.  This was his plan all along.

Being a part of those worlds entirely, Appa saw the beauty and the beast of this concept and he was _wholly committed_ to a _radical_ revision. The heart of the matter was the charlatanism, the _impossibility_ of the ideal, and the failure to embrace a serious humanity and humanism. It took me quite a while to catch on. In the end, it was about creating a different model, which I'll say more about below.

It's important to say that Appa, for all of his blistering criticism and disavowal of the guru, was not actually anti-guru. He believed that we need to see ourselves in forms, in examples, and that good teachers say over and over again that the "real" guru is one's own truest self reflection. But he railed against the concept of "perfection" and thought every last traditionalist definition of liberation and/or enlightenment was a misleading fantasy and a scam. He did this with such gentle, unassuming clarity that you hardly fathomed how determined and adamant he was. But he also embraced the idea that other people have their own ideas and their own needs. Appa's liberality and tolerance were as essential to his character as was his own unambiguous opinions. He could say in the same breath, some people need and want a guru tradition and yet that will NOT do for me and neither would he agree to allow me to treat him as such a person.

So what is the alternative model. The critical phrase is this: Deference but never surrender. Respect but never an abdication of critical self-awareness or relinquishment of the personal responsibility we have for thinking. Appa taught conversation, contrariety, and the methods of critical analysis that rely on evidence, reason, and shared argument. We learn trust and care, character and love from a deeper appreciation of our humanity, with all of its flaws, foibles, weaknesses, and failures. The best teachers reveal theirs and show us how to allow these shadows to become part of our greater narrative, a human story where there's no need to be perfect and we gather a story that lets us _live_ with _all_ of our person. We never stop learning, we still err, and we find out what is _really_ possible rather than wishing for a world and a life that doesn't actually exist. Appa wanted us to be peers, conversation partners, and the kinds of friends who would create _deep acceptance_ of our humanity, compassion for our individuality, and collective effort for community.

Each of us has talents, expertise, and experience that makes us a gift to others. We defer to each other to learn but surrender no power. We let mutually conferred authority become the seat of the teacher and require accountability in the simplest human terms for _all_. No one gets a pass, no one gets a privilege unearned or prerogative that is not offered freely, and every one gets a break. It's important to honor people's achievements and, at the same time, retain our power to determine our own lives as we see fit. It's critical to accept people for their gifts, liabilities, and personal character features ---we all hope to be growing and learning more and from mistakes.

Appa sought a humanism that guru traditions often _say_ they endorse but then utterly fail to represent.  This is because the guru is somehow more than human.   Appa had no such aspirations.  We need not be more than human.  Indian spiritualities rooted in liberation traditions are looking for immunity, invulnerability, and a person whose authority ---morally, personally, intellectually is more than decent, honorable, and ethical, but is _perfect_. That guru only exists as kind of chimera of wishful thinking. Don't we all want mommy or daddy, god or guru, to keep us safe, know everything, never make a mistake, redeem us, enlighten us, and have nothing to do but make the world wonderful? Right, I thought so.

So what about all of these guru traits that don't pan out, aren't true, what about that kind of exaggeration and hyperbole? What about the kinds of spiritual longing that envisions such a character or generates such a need?

First, we need to be weaned from that ideal and those kinds of needs. We need to learn how to embrace the mortal and conditional with cool, steady realism ---even when that entails a very disturbing and sobering set of facts. Life is harder than we wish it were, more conditional and unpredictable and painful than we are likely to imagine it can be. Life requires more trust, conversation, acceptance, and seriousness than we are prepared to have, but still must have. We'll fail at these things but that does not mean we failed. We'll be in deficit and make all kinds of mistakes but that doesn't mean we aren't doing what we can. The people we count on will also fail and fail us, because that happens too. But this doesn't diminish their greatness, and that's the next crucial piece.

India is a culture in which things great, mahā, is part of a way of understanding, a tool for imagining, a method for dealing, and a claim to be understood with paradox, contradiction, and hyperbole as critical features. I've written about this at some length, but "great" is fundamentally a way of saying: we must learn to do what we must, we must accept and deal with everything as best we can, whatever that means. We must not reconcile or dismiss the contradictions or incongruities, but give them a place in a life of radical affirmation. This is what Appa called the Rajanaka way.

A few more things in reply to the question.
*There is no higher power to which we must surrender but to the facts of a mortal, human life. Surrender to nothing, defer and accept instead what is and innovate to address what is next.
*How do we lay down our burdens? With each other, day by day, little by little, again and again. No take backs, no do-overs, but plenty of room for regret and wistful hopes, fantasies, simple pleasures, and plenty of coping, dealing, and carrying on. We need each other and conversation, we need to be committed to learning and to accepting our shadows as part of our stories. Then we can decide what to do.
*What should we do? We need a comprehensive plan: physical, emotional, intellectual, practical, all for the sake of a comprehensive self (from somatic to autobiographical).
*The presence you seek is in every little thing you are experiencing. Sure, there are big moments and important events but once we stop looking for what isn't there, we can start loving what is possible. Hope is the art of the possible.
*Never deny yourself a simple love of life and that means your desires, hopes, dreams, wishes, and plenty of fantasies. To have those work for you, well, you're going to need to keep things practical, patient, forbearing, and use all of your resources to do what you need to do. To flourish we must first do what it takes to survive and live with the consequences of being human.
*Last (for now), if these questions and issues don't tangle you up, you're likely not trying hard enough or thinking deeply. So you are and being confused, finding complications, knowing there is more you don't know and much you will always struggle with, well, that's normal, that's human. We don't need to be _more_ than human ---and this is why the guru concept has to go.
*We need to be more aware of what this being human will bring us--- comfort and discomfort, clarity and despair, hope and hypocrisy, the all of life is all we need recognize. That's no small effort and certainly is going to be incomplete. Imperfection isn't perfection and when we think it is, we're not being quite honest enough about our irresolvable self. We're going to need to learn how to live in the spaces of incongruity, in the ordinary crisis, and with the incomplete business of a moral existence. Now let us care for ourselves and each other.