Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Guru Papers (Part 1)

A couple weekends ago, Julie offered me her ticket to a talk by Joel Kramer, author (with Diana Alstad) of The Guru Papers. This book, published in 1993, still gets a lot of buzz in the spirituality subculture. Kramer has been an accomplished Yoga teacher for many years, but is just now starting to give talks and workshops after a decade out of the public view in Bolinas.

The Guru Papers is a criticism of "authoritarian systems." Eastern-based spiritual groups, headed by gurus, are used as a prime example of such systems. All power is concentrated at the top, with the guru, the upper levels of his hierarchy, and sacred doctrines and scriptures being considered infallible. The system is "authoritarian" since members cannot question the truths proclaimed by those in power; they must follow without question rather than think for themselves.

Many people in the Yoga/spirituality subculture believe that an enlightened master can attain perfect wisdom and selflessness. Students are below the master's level, so their road to enlightenment requires surrender and devotion to the guru, who knows what's best far better than they do. Kramer and Alstad posit that this state of permanent perfection doesn't exist, so they reject the structures based on the students' renunciation, obedience, surrender, and devotion to the authority. The book is their break from the bedrock beliefs that underlie guru groups, and other social situations like it.

The above is my understanding of Kramer and Alstad's thesis. What follows is my own view. The beauty of Yoga and other meditation traditions is how they point to the power of our own thinking. We often think that our suffering is rooted in our external situation, and try to remove suffering and gain happiness by making the world around us fit our desires, trying to make other people act the way we want them to. In contrast, many meditation traditions state that suffering is rooted in how we keep our own minds, so that the road to greater happiness involves being attentive to our own thinking. The classic scripture of Yoga defines it as the stilling of the thought-waves of the mind; then, when the mind is stilled, the seer rests in its own true nature.

From this viewpoint, if I were to address those stuck in an authoritarian system, I'd recommend that they examine this idea that they must get Truth from an external authority. Why have they decided to believe in the guru, in sacred scriptures and spiritual organizations, rather than in themselves? There are those who think that their own experience isn't enough, that they lack something fundamental, and must get it through dependence on authority. By seeing these thoughts as just thoughts, they can become free of need to follow the authority.

We all get born into this world unable to care for ourselves. So we start off in an authoritarian system; we obey and depend on our parents. This is a necessary part of life. For most of us, we mature, and eventually reach the point where we can believe in ourselves. This doesn't mean we reject our parents, but rather we mature beyond the dependent relationship.

Similarly, in taking up the great questions of life, there's a time for many people when they feel the need to follow an authority. Guru groups (not to mention the Catholic church, etc, etc) exist because of the masses who want to follow an authority. As long as people seek such a relationship, there's no possibility of eliminating authoritarian systems. And there's no need to eliminate them; they'll continue to exist for those who want or need them.

Those of us who are ready to drop dependence on authority will do so. We can offer to others help and encouragement to examine their own thinking, let go of their desire to be followers, and learn to believe in their true self. Perhaps over time humans as a species will evolve into less authoritarian systems. We can't know or control this. Our job is to believe in ourselves, encourage others to do so, and any large-scale changes will take care of themselves, from the bottom up.

I didn't like The Guru Papers because it's focused entirely on criticizing the external systems, detailing at great length (370+ pages) the faults of authoritarian set-ups. All this may be of academic interest, but when it comes to practical value, all that's needed is for the individual to question in his own mind. Once he lets go of his own desire to follow an authority, then the guru and authoritarian systems become irrelevant; it's unnecessary to bother with propping up or knocking down the system itself.

Here's one small example of what I'm talking about. In the chapter on Gurus and Sexual Manipulation, Kramer and Alstad write:

Religions all want everyone's major emotional bond to be with whatever god figure the religion presents. If the most important thing is salvation -- whether of one's sole as in the West, or progressing along the reincarnative chain as in the East -- then anything that detracts from this is looked upon as
How strange to talk as if "religions" could want anything! Relgions aren't conscious beings that plot against us. It's people who want things. The passive-voice style of writing here suggests that the fault lies with "religion," that whatever solution we find must involve somehow changing religions so they won't force us into these unhealthy emotional bonds.

In fact, the root of the problem is the desire to get something from these gods. People suffering from unhealthy bonds to a god figure, or from attachment to ideas of salvation, can look to their own mind and discover how and why they cling to the religion. The Guru Papers extensively analyzes religions, systems, and gurus, but fails to point to the heart of the issue: how each individual keeps his mind moment to moment.

We have far more control over our own thinking, and our own day-to-day actions, than we do over any external system. And it turns out that changing our own thinking and actions is the most powerful route to removing suffering. Attending to our thoughts and beliefs, and our jobs as individuals in each situation, is a far far more efficient strategy than criticizing religions, gurus, authorities, and external situations.

Even to the extent that we do try to change the external world, I find that The Guru Papers misses the boat. I'll discuss this, along with further quotes from the book, and my own meeting with the authors, in follow-up postings in the near future.


musecatcher said...

I am currently reading the Guru Papers and hold similar views. Actually, I am just about halfway through and I've taken a break from it, because it is getting a bit tedious.

I agree with what you've said here regarding the tone of the book. It also could have conveyed the point in a few less chapters. But, I think it is probably very helpful to a lot of people getting out of cult and guru associations.

Stuart said...

Thanks so much for commenting, musecatcher.

I'll readily accept that The Guru Papers could be helpful to someone trying to detach from a guru association. Different sicknesses require different medicines!

A woman trying to recover from a bad relationship may be helped by considering her former lover to be totally worthless. An alcoholic may find help in his abstinence by thinking of beer as intrinsically evil. Any idea may be helpful if used in the right circumstance.

I myself have found it helpful to find out about bad behavior by various gurus. And now I find it even more interesting to look into my own mind-set. How and why I did I remain a follower? How and why do I have trouble believing in myself?

Really, I'm not knocking the good that The Guru Papers does for people seeking freedom from external authority. Beyond that, there's the issue of freedom from internal authority. That means looking into how my own thinking binds me, even when I think it's someone else's fault.

I've still got the copy of The Guru Papers that Julie loaned me. Before returning it, I'll take another stab a commenting on a few of its passages here, and try to be a little more coherent.

Club 108 said...

Not to downplay the reality of abuses perpetuated by so-called “gurus”, but there is an intellectual weakness to writing off the guru-disciple dynamic due to the bad seeds out there.

I can only share my own positive experience, from a couple of recent essays I’ve written.

“Guides, Gurus, and Grounding In Our Spiritual Journey” (Huff Post Religion)

“Gurus And The Cult of Relativity”
(Elephant Journal)

Stuart Resnick said...

Club 108 (in the Huff Post Religion link) wrote...
we need structure in our spiritual life, and we need a path and teachers who can guide us on our walk across the desert of our heart to our spiritual destiny with God.

It's one thing to have structure (e.g. doing regular formal meditation, or keeping a practice commitment with a group). It's one thing to go to a meditation teacher as you would a piano or tennis teacher... taking his words as pointers to explore and test for yourself.

It's another thing to believe in or follow a guru on the blind belief that he's on some sort of higher spiritual level, or to create without evidence ideas about spiritual destiny.