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Beware the Guru


Beware the GuruNote: This article was written in February 2013, shortly after the Vatican’s announcement that Pope Benedict would be stepping down. A highly edited version of it was published on The Huffington Post in May of last year. We are re-posting it now, as a UN panel investigating torture questions a vatican envoy on the church’s response to reports of sexual abuse.

“I’ll tell you”, said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your heart and soul to the smiter”. ―Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”

Equating true love with blind devotion did not work out very well for Miss Havisham, nor does it tend to end well for the rest of us. When you believe against yourself, in favor of the object of your devotion, as Havashim did, you’re likely already doomed. Yet, there is something about many of us that seeks something perfect, whether it’s a lover, a guru, or a celebrity. We cling to this idea that, somewhere in nature, is an all-good, perfectly benevolent being.

Ultimately, though, we find that this fantasy being does not exist, as did the subjects of HBO’s new documentary: Maxima Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It chronicles, in horrifying detail, and from the point of view of the victims, what can happen when we tell ourselves that some people are beyond reproach.

With most spiritual practices, there are those who inhabit roles of authority. They are there to teach by example and to show us how to live. We exalt those who fill the roles, in part, because endorsing them validates us. And, since they will presumably satisfy our desire to understand the workings of the universe and our places in it, we sometimes entrust our paths to them, and that is where the trouble often starts. History is rife with examples of the misery that ensues when we blindly surrender our spiritual paths to other people.

Within the culture that allowed men to molest children with impunity, priests were held in such high regard that questioning their godliness was rejected as un-Catholic. Anything else would demolish the hierarchical worldview of congregant to clergy to God. One striking scene in the documentary shows a victim arguing with a defender of his molester. The victim implores her to understand why the former priest must go to jail, as the defender insists that it is anti-Catholic to suggest such a thing. To her, whatever happened couldn’t have been rape, because a man of the cloth did it.

The need to believe in the benevolence of clergy can be so consuming that even the victims sometimes struggle to keep their victimizers in high regard. One of them said that he, as a child, felt special because the pastor had chosen him, out of all the many boys, as the object of his molestations. Even in the boy’s eyes, priests couldn’t be cruel.

A less well-known example of blindness to the guru is that of Pattabhi Jois, the Indian yoga teacher who introduced Ashtanga Yoga, a popular and athletic form of practice, for several decades before his death in 2009. He was, by many accounts, a brilliant teacher, lauded as a pioneer whose teachings have improved countless lives, including my own. Yet, it is equally true that his libido hadn’t been supplanted with chastity. This was often publicly displayed, as in a widely circulated photograph of him giving a hands-on adjustment that is unnecessary at best. In it, he has each of his middle fingers firmly and simultaneously planted upon the most private parts of two women. I’ve done the same pose a thousand times, and I have taught it for years. There is no good reason to touch there.

When I saw that picture, I posted it on my Facebook page, asking if it was really him, my teacher’s teacher. It was. Right away, several of my colleagues demanded that I remove it, saying that it was disrespectful of me to publish such a thing. I was disappointed that the perverse placement of his hands was ignored, while sharing the picture was considered heretical. But it got worse.

In response to the post, a long-time student of Jois did something similar to the defenders of the molesting clergy. She conjectured that the accusations of his inappropriateness came mostly from women with histories of abuse. She wrote, “I think it’s unfair to post a picture when you don’t really know” And, “Ever meet a women who was raped or molested as a child? I was not. When Guruji (Jois) adjusted me, I experienced it as from a clean place. I met women who experienced it differently and who had a previous experience – which gave them an entirely different spin on being touched.” With that, she not only redefines an imprisonable offense as a misperception by those who feel unclean, she also preserves her own constructed reality about the goodness of the finger-banging guru. I am neither a woman nor a victim of sexual abuse, yet I find it disgusting.

How does perception of another person become so skewed that we are incapable of seeing their shortfalls? Yoga philosophy provides a handy vocabulary that puts it in context. The framework is made up of five kleshas, or pains from disease. Viewed through this lens, our tendency to assign super-human qualities to mortal beings begins, along with a whole slew of other painful experiences, when we lose faith in our own personal access to the divine. In the system of yoga, this ignorance of the true self, called avidya, or not seeing, is considered to be the root of all human suffering.

When we disconnect from the infinite, we forget who we are and then have to fill the vacuum that is left where the self once was. So, we replace it with a manufactured ego-self, called asmita– or, the I-maker. Asmita replaces your vast, timeless inner being with a finite version of you, made of thoughts, relationships, and things. Because this new self is made up of constituents of the manifest world, it is highly unstable and ultimately unreliable. So, we do everything we can to shore it up.

Once that facade of a self is in place, we become attracted and attached (raga) to those things that support the new self-made identity. Likewise, any perceived threat to the ego-self is repelled; this tendency is called (dvesha). These forces of attraction and repulsion can compel us to insist that our identified master is good, that the priest only molests the special ones, and that identifying the guru’s touch as inappropriate is all a misunderstanding. Otherwise we would have to confront the truth that we’ve put our faith in the wrong place.

Finally, after dividing the world up into those things that support the ego-construct and those that could destroy it, we tenaciously adhere (abhinivesha) to the whole house of cards because we know that the entire thing, built upon an illusion as a response to our loss of access to the true self, cannot exist beyond the duration of the body’s life. So, now, instead of being enlightened, we are tense and scared, or just blissfully ignorant.

In this context, we can see how and why we seek out seemingly unflawed people. And the attempts to rationalize or cover up their harmful actions makes a bit more sense, as efforts to protect the ego-self. Deep down we all know that, if we condemn the priest or spiritual teacher, the middleman that represents our conduit to eternity, we are eternally screwed. So, we make up anything to keep the priest holy and to keep the guru enlightened. The worst damage is done when we shift our worldview to an inaccurate, binary viewpoint of godlike beings and the rest of us slackers.

We’d learn more about ourselves if the we seek teachers who are people, just like us, but with a bit more knowledge and experience. That would prevent the pitfalls of guru-worship and it would empower the student to see an achievable path for themselves. And it allows the teacher to make some mistakes without risking dismissal. In that context, we can honor Pattabhi Jois for creating a brilliant method of practice, while agreeing that his own teaching methodology had some weaknesses. With a figure like Lance Armstrong, humanizing him might let us reject his cheating with cycling, but continue to honor his cheating of cancer, for which he did raise half a billion dollars. And Pope Benedict, who has had access to more information about allegations of priest-abuse than any other person in the church’s history, can still teach us something.

By abdicating his papacy, Pope Benedict may have done something truly revolutionary: he said he was a tired old man. Although many believe he is closer than any of us to God, he behaved as a human being Monday and recognized that he is too old and feeble to do his job well. In a way, he professionalized and modernized the office of the pope by leaving it. His decision to hand over the reins invites respect for a man, rather than the more traditional worship of a pope as superhuman. Yet, when lightning struck Saint Peter’s on the same day, a photo of it went viral,
presumably as a sign of God’s fury at the pope’s act of humanness.

The best teachers are the ones who don’t pretend to be anything but human. And the spiritual guides who are most worthy of respect are the ones that show us how to find the infinite from within a finite, human existence. If they take advantage of their role, and of our tendency to look away when they falter, by indulging their potential to harm, they have a long way to go before they deserve to lead. If, as yoga philosophy would have it, all human suffering is based on blindness to reality, we move further away from liberation when we exalt any human as anything other than human, as Havisham did, because it is simply not accurate. We do ourselves a favor when we, with open eyes, separate the teacher from the teaching, and when we remember that we have the same potential for liberation, and for bondage, that any other person has. Only then can the steps that we take on our own path, while they may follow the lead of another, take us toward knowing the true and perfect inner self that is wrapped up inside a messy and beautiful human shell.