“Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”
Hindu scripture says enlightenment is nearly impossible without the help of a guru. I have always disagreed because my own inner guide has helped me succeed in life rather than a mentor who would take the credit for my hard work. Though I had heard the impressive tales of amazing people such as Neem Karoli Baba, the guru of Jai Uttal and others in the Western Bhakti movement, I had never experienced that kind of transcendence myself. Gurus are part of a sacred tradition for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, but doubt and suspicion have also long clouded my mind because of the numerous stories involving fraudsters, perverts and fakes especially in the West.
Today I have a new perspective as we commemorate Guru Purnima, the Indian holiday in honor of teachers who awaken our spirituality and provide us with tools to reach enlightenment. It is a day of gratitude on the birthday of Sri Veda Vyasa, a great sage responsible for most of the major Hindu scriptures – he edited the four Vedas and he wrote the Puranas and the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad-Gita. Vyasa also taught Dattatreya, who is considered to be the incarnation of the Trimurti combined – Brahma, Vishnu and Siva – and who was the first Guru.
In Sanskrit, Gu means darkness and Ru means light, so one who removes our ignorance is a Guru. Many travel to India and spend months or even years in ashrams to gain enlightenment only to return home disillusioned and disappointed. This happens primarily to those who carry along expectations from a Western mindset during a time of great pain. Not everyone is Elizabeth Gilbert. You don’t need to have immense disposable income or time to gain the benefits of this tradition.
As a woman with Eastern values and Western ideals, I believe there is a middle ground that can be achieved. A guru need not be a saint who dazzles with miracles, but a revered teacher who helps us bring out the best in ourselves and find our inner wisdom.
Here are some guiding principles for adapting the guru custom to Western life.
- Identify your needs: While your requirements can and should evolve over time, where you are now creates the pathway of the journey.
- Identify your expectations: Be honest with yourself about what you expect because this is your journey to travel. True teachers throughout the world can provide you with much leadership, but you must do the work. Gurus in India often spend little time with disciples, who are given menial labor and repetitive tasks such as meditation without a lot of guidance. Respected mentors in the West won’t actually tell you what to do either even if they give you ideas to ponder.
- Finding a guru: Ads offering sages and guides fill spiritual magazines. Organizations such as ISKON have lists of gurus as well. But your mentor need not be a jivamukti, someone who has reached enlightenment and remains in this life to aid others. In fact, some of the best gurus might not even be comfortable with such a label nor have followers. Dattatreya provides a list in Hindu scripture of 24 gurus: earth, air, sky or ether, water, fire, sun, moon, python, pigeons, sea, moth, bee, bull elephant, bear, deer, fish, osprey, a child, a maiden, a courtesan, a blacksmith, serpent, spider, and wasp. Therefore, anyone and anything can be the conduit for wisdom.
- Check references: In the Indian tradition, a teacher was typically vetted for 12 years! As with any important investment, qualify the person by asking other students what s/he is like past the initial phase. The Western mindset typically calls for a personal relationship and ample one-on-one time, so find out if this is what will be provided.
- Question, Question, Question: The Dalai Lama teaches that one should not have blind faith nor blind criticism: “The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.”
What is it that you are looking for? Do you feel stuck in a particular area of your life and seek a wise person’s guidance to live your best life? Do you crave a radical change by giving up your old life? Do you want someone to tell you what to do?
Mother or father figures are beautiful gifts, but they would do you a terrible disservice by taking control of your life even if they were able to do so. If you expect someone to solve all your problems or get rid of your worries for you, you’re headed for disappointment. Our teachers are there to help us expand our own abilities.
Before seeking someone in the yellow pages, look first to your existing relationships. Is there someone you turn to for advice all the time? Do you have a respected teacher whose guidance you feel could grow into other aspects of your life? Is your therapist, counselor or sponsor someone you respect and trust already? Have you come across someone in your faith who has impressed you with their inner light? There is no law that says one person must be everything you need. Build a collective guru by taking mentorship from several admirable people.
The personal attributes of the guru are more important than the person’s pedigree, i.e. where they studied and lineage. Have they walked the walk? Are they ethical, honorable, respectful, reasonable, insightful? Do they charge a reasonable fee and are they open to some other arrangement in consideration of your ability to pay? Be aware that depending on what services you might be able to provide, some gurus may not feel it’s in your best interest to barter.
If your guru says or does something that doesn’t seem right, examine your feelings. Are you fighting a truth because you don’t wish to see or to do the work? Or is the golden teacher tarnishing upon reflection? True character and motivation can only be seen over time and through the feelings s/he invokes in you.
It is important to keep up a steady stream of awareness of yourself and the mentor. Recognize that neither of you are perfect and human mistakes can not only lead to unbelievable growth, but also a more intimate connection. Questioning could lead to the realization that the relationship is not a healthy one or that it has reached its inevitable expiry point. Once you have learned all you can from a teacher, it may be time to move onto the next.
Part of my own healing path has been to understand that we are not meant to walk upon this Earth alone. While it is our journey to undertake and we are responsible for our lives and actions, we can learn from others if we listen with open minds and hearts. Our spiritual guides act as our parents, helping us to crawl through understanding until we are able to walk the path ourselves. The goal of the guru relationship is to become a guru yourself, a trusted link in the lineage chain able to teach the next person the gifts of insight that have been handed down to you.
Check out the Mantra of the Month: Guru Stotram