Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Guru Papers (Part 2)

The Guru Papers, written by Yoga teachers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in 1993, analyzes authoritarian systems, particularly in the "spiritual" subculture. For background on the book and my thoughts on it, please see my blog on The Guru Papers (Part 1). I've procrastinated almost a year before writing this "Part 2" to that post. Now that I'm unemployed, I've got time to tie up such loose ends.

People who follow gurus (as I did for many years) may become focused on them as the source of positive new experiences and understandings. When we reject that view, as Kramer and Alstad did in this book, we can fall to the other side, over-emphasizing the guru as the source of unhealthy dependence. In either case, we may gloss over the fundamental importance of how we keep our own minds.

In "The Assault on Reason" chapter (pg 73 of Guru Papers), K&A write:

It is commonly assumed that the nature of spirituality is not only fundamentally different from ordinary experience, but that this difference is vastly superior. ... This age-old separation of the spiritual from the worldly is deeply embedded in all of civilization. We view this split as tragic, and at the core of the fragmentation prevalent in the contemporary human psyche.

The authors' use of passive voice ("It is commonly assumed") is a red flag. Who is assuming this? Each individual who holds ideas about "spirituality" as superior to ordinary life can examine and question those beliefs. Yet over and over, K&A write as if the fundamental source of the problem is a "system" or "civilization." As if we as individuals are victims, helpless to avoid the assumptions imposed on us from outside.

In fact, each of us can look into the matter for ourselves. Examining our own minds, we can discover that the disconnect of spiritual/worldly is made by our thinking. Maybe this strategy is profoundly more efficient than trying to change "society" or "the system" or "common assumptions."

When I heard the authors speak last year, Alstad in particular sounded like a doctrinaire socialist. She spoke of us living in a "class system," meaning that the external circumstances of our birth determine our life situation. This perspective leads to political views that minimize the importance of individual freedom and choice. In the spiritual realm, it's a mindset that focuses on the evils of authoritarian religious organizations, while missing the great power of our personal choices.

The book is permeated with this perspective. From the chapter "Healing Crippled Self-Trust," p. 154:

The most extreme form of mental control occurs when the authority is trusted completely and becomes the center of one's identity. Sadly, society and parents insidiously put out messages from childhood on that others know what's best. Many people are deeply conditioned to expect and hope some outside agency power, or person will solve their problems. Letting go of expecting or even wanting this is difficult, partially because of what one is left with is oneself, and all of one's limitations.

In our earliest years, of course parents encourage our trust and tell us they know what's best. The adults generally do know what's needed for survival, far moreso than the toddler. It's not hard to see why natural selection favors the tendency of children to blindly follow the authority of parents (I've discussed this evolutionary perspective elsewhere). And of course it's difficult to move beyond this child-like view; if mentally maturing were easy, then everyone would do it.

In the fullness of time, some of us do choose to stop being followers, and gradually practice seeing things for ourselves. In this process, is it really helpful to blame our dependency on "insidious" society and parents? Do we really need to depend on our parents or gurus or society to allow us to be free-thinkers? Or do we claim this freedom for ourselves?

This issue arose in February on Rituals of DisEnchantment, a blog that has at times examined abuses in the "Siddha Yoga" organization founded by Swami Muktananda and later led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. An anonymous commenter on Feb 28 1:17 PM wrote:

It seems that over the years many people only put up with or accepted the steady stream of Siddha Yoga BS because of the intensity of their mystical experiences, and or no other reason.

There's a critical point that's missing in this comment. It's not simply that the followers' intense experiences inevitably led to their acceptance of BS from the guru and ashram leaders. There are several distinct steps in the process. Many of us indeed got amazing experiences. Then the guru and ashram authorities told us that these special meditation experiences were "mystical," and encouraged us to view them as vastly superior to ordinary life. We failed to question what we were told, and consequently believed in this categorization. Our own belief that our experiences were "mystical" and dependent on the guru resulted in our acceptance of all sorts of abuses, deceptions, and BS.

Our own beliefs are the key link in the chain, the link that's most powerful, and most under our control. If we want to escape the BS, we don't need to change the gurus' authoritarian system. We just need to question our own belief in it.

Just as children sometimes need blind faith in their parents, maybe there are millions of people who sometimes want and need an authority to follow. It's not my job to change the system that serves these people. If I encounter someone who's ready to question their dependence on authority, I can try to encourage free-thinking. But ultimately, each individual makes the choice for himself.

I can make my best effort to believe in my own experience, to avoid being a blind follower of others, and communicate these personal efforts as honestly as I can. Beyond that, I can let the "system" take care of itself.


Doug said...


I do enjoy your commentary on Guruism. I also followed a link from your blog a while ago to Marta Szabo's The Guru Looked Good. Fascinating stuff.

Experience and observation tell me that externalizing spiritual problems is a seductive path. The human condition entails feelings of angst, anger, insecurity, etc. It's oh-so-easy to lay the blame for these feelings on outside factors. Much easier to do that than to look inwards.

One of your themes in this blog is the importance of questioning as a spiritual means. I know you're well aware that it's not quite as simple as just asking questions. The value of the introspection lies in the uprooting of cherished ideas and beliefs that lie at the root of the suffering. But that implies accepting impermanence and change, which is scary.

So the temptation is to grasp at the external world instead. Do-gooderism is one manifestation, always assuming the root of unhappiness lies somewhere else. Blind faith in a guru is another, assuming that path out of that unhappiness also lies somewhere else.

Re-reading what I've written, it occurs to me that I'm just restating the Buddha's four noble truths. Suffering, in it's manifold forms, is part of the human condition. The roots of suffering lie in your own karma, your own attachments, ideas, etc. If the suffering is your own doing, then it's logical that you can also undo it. Which implies changing ones own ideas, attachments, etc. by your own effort. Which is easier said than done. :-p


- Doug

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your perspectives on things, Stuart, even when I don't agree. In this case I think you make very good points, but something you seem to gloss over, to use your phrase, is people's conditioning. Certainly mature minds are capable of making their own decisions, but I think first they must recognize that their past decisions have been conditioned by their past experiences. First they have to see.

When the authors of the Guru Papers say it is "commonly assumed" that spirituality is superior to mundane life, what I hear is just a pointing to the fact that most people--I'd guess the vast majority of people--are still conditioned to believe there is a difference between mundane and spiritual, with the corollary belief that spiritual is better.

Your statement that each individual "can examine and question those beliefs" is certainly true, but it doesn't address the power of past conditioning. I know the Zen approach is often blunt and uncompromising, but when a student arrives for Zen teaching, it is likely he or she is ready to hear it, that the student has already seen through some of the old conditioning. Until then, there may be compassionate ways of encouraging people to look into their own minds for the source of their suffering that also acknowledge the power of prior conditioning.

I think the second passage you quote from Kramer and Alstad is simply making this point, that it is difficult for people to overcome their conditioning. I don't see their comments as blaming parents and society, even with the use of the word "insidious", which I read in this case to mean gradual and unrecognized, not deliberately harmful. They are simply describing what happens--children are conditioned to trust authorities rather than themselves, and that is hard to overcome. I can certainly vouch for it being hard to overcome in my own case.

Thanks for the provocative blog, Stuart.


Stuart said...

Big thanks to Doug and Allie for your contribution.

Doug wrote: The human condition entails feelings of angst, anger, insecurity, etc. It's oh-so-easy to lay the blame for these feelings on outside factors. Much easier to do that than to look inwards.

I suppose that I write about the importance of introspection is because I see the effort it takes in my own life. For a very simple example: if I'm riding my bike and I have a scary near-miss to colliding with a car, I have this automatic reaction to blame the other guy. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that maybe getting angry at the other guy isn't always helpful. Maybe, God forbid, I could even consider increasing my own attentiveness when I ride.

Allie wrote: I don't see their comments as blaming parents and society, even with the use of the word "insidious", which I read in this case to mean gradual and unrecognized, not deliberately harmful.

This is fascinating, because I read "insidious" as saying that parents and society are to be blamed and faulted, and hadn't considered any other meaning.

If I can manage to live without blaming anyone, I don't think anything is lost. However, if it's too difficult to give up blame entirely, I think there's something to be said for blaming myself. I find blaming myself to be unpleasant, so it motivates me to drop the whole blame game and return to "what can I do right now?" The problem with blaming other people is that it's much more fun than blaming myself, so once I start faulting others, it can go on and on!