for www.elephantjournal.com on Feb. 16, 2012
Beware of gurus that go bump in the night...
My teenage brother has been getting boxes in the mail. He orders online and a few days later they drop through the door…
It’s a thin packet with the word ‘Graze’ on the top. Nothing suspect — it’s a snack company that delivers specially customized mixes. The website lists hundreds of different options and invites consumers to browse through, testing and trying to see which they like the most.
I notice that everywhere these days: everything is about customization and the endless search for satisfaction. Personalize your cellphone contract, coffee, Kindle cover, cupcake icing — there seems to be no end to trying to get things exactly as we want them. Nothing wrong with that — it’s important to be discerning and to know what inspires us to live life with the most enthusiasm. The Sanskrit word vivek means just that, and is a valued quality on the yogic path. A seeker must explore, taste different flowers, make personal choices about what strikes the right chord within.
But sometimes the act of searching loses its shine. Recently a friend came to me, utterly confused after spending the last few years reading, hearing, traveling, and processing the ideas of a myriad of spiritual traditions. She couldn’t understand why, with such a sincere intent, she wasn’t able to harmonize everything she’d heard into a neat philosophy for life. Or better yet, spot the arms of truth waving eagerly over the chattering crowd of all the rest.
Sachinandana Swami, a bhakti teacher of great depth, described this phenomenon to be like drilling for water in twenty places. If you only dig the ground so deep, the water flowing below the surface will remain elusive. Others describe a bee sitting on the outside of a corked honey jar, licking the glass. To get inside we need get past the transparent obstacle.
Metaphors aside, this is where being a true seeker takes on a different definition. In the Bhagavad Gita, a picture is outlined of the ideal student — one who both seeks the truth, but has found a place to dig. The qualities of this kind of student are pranipat, a feeling of “I can’t do this alone, my search is tiring and confusing and I need guidance;” pariprasna, a desire to understand the truth with full attention and humble questioning; and sevaya, willingness to serve that higher knowledge, not an expectation that it should serve me.
If it all sounds a bit Karate Kid, no worries. If I hadn’t grown up in a community where the word ‘guru’ was part of everyday breakfast chit chat, it would feel pretty foreign too. It’s so easy to become cynical and suspicious of the concept of a great, benevolent teacher, when we probably all have so many experiences of the opposite. But whatever your chosen path in life, it’s hard to get away from the fact that a guide is required.
I saw an ad for a popular brand of yoga pants that said ‘Be Your Own Guru’. It struck me deeply, because the thought was so foreign to me. Yes, we all have the capacity to learn and grow, to be our own catalysts for creating a meaningful life. But there is a glass ceiling on the upward progress, and we all hit it sooner or later. Whilst the word guru has suffered bad press in the past, life coaching becomes more and more popular — same concept, different name.
So how to find one? When you barely have time to do the laundry and cook dinner after work, ‘find a guru’ is probably pretty low on the to-do list. The three qualities mentioned above are relevant both during the search and after finding a teacher. To begin, most spiritual traditions agree that acknowledging our limitations is a must. Humility is the catalyst for all kinds of transformation. Catholic monk and spiritualist, Thomas Merton, wrote, “Humility, therefore, is absolutely necessary if man is to avoid acting like a baby all his life.” Facing facts is the first step on a journey of maturity — I am a traveler with a limited view of the road ahead. A map, or better yet a guide with a flashlight is what I need.
A beautiful prayer from the Vedas describes the gratitude of the student: “I was born into darkness, but with the lamp of knowledge, my teacher has illuminated my life beyond my capacity.” Who is that teacher? How do you know one when you meet one?
It would be so much easier if there were guru conventions, and all prospective guides could make themselves available for a chat. Kind of like spiritual speed dating.
If only it were so simple.
There are signs to look for though. The word ‘guru’ means heavy with knowledge, like a thunder cloud filled with rain. You could have a guru of cooking, who knows everything there is to know about their chosen cuisine. A spiritual guru, is one who truthfully represents a system of thought and conduct and is only concerned with transforming his own life and the lives of others to align with the supreme Truth.
The Vedas describe that the guru should be someone that expresses this inner knowledge not just in words, but in every action — he or she is a living example. He must represent the link in a chain, passing ancient knowledge down as a ripe fruit is handed down from the top of a tree. This chain is called parampara — an unbroken succession that facilitates the preservation and dissemination of wisdom.
Most importantly (arguably), the guru should see himself as a humble student of his own guru. Any fame or success he finds in teaching others is just an offering to his own teacher. That guru is like a pair of glasses – with his guidance, we can see and understand the teachings much more clearly.
I didn’t tell my friend she needed to find a guru. That is for each of us to decide. But I did suggest, as well as reminding myself, that it’s easy to be an inspiration junkie.
Fridge magnets and Rumi day calendars and self help courses and Buddhist retreats — there are endless sources. But the search for knowledge can be a frustrating endeavor, until we become serious students and start to dive deep beneath the surface, where a world of limitless wisdom and rich beauty exists.
I was born into a family of Krishna devotees in London, and grew up in the mansion/temple in the countryside that was given to the Hare Krishna community by George Harrison, still known as "The Manor." Days were filled with devotional music and long hours playing with the cows after school! I was fortunate to have a deep exposure to the philosophy of bhakti yoga – the path to God that emphasises love, service, and kirtan, which is the call and response singing of sacred names. Initially, this was the soundtrack to my life, but as I grew older, I listened to all sorts and collected music I loved. Aged 12, I buried my nose in jazz and blues and got in trouble for making up my own versions of my violin pieces. A dusty freebie cassette from an Indian grocery introduced me to South Indian violin, and it wasn’t long before I switched to learning this style. One BA in Linguistics later, I was touring the world with sacred music group As Kindred Spirits. From Johannesburg to Mumbai, we tried to translate the stories, music, and dance of Vedic India into something fresh and relevant. I now work between New York and London, and try to see all my art as an offering, hoping that it will inspire, nourish and uplift.