Be Your Own Guru

Here’s an excerpt from my new Arthur column. I’ll replace this post with the entire thing in a couple of weeks, for those of you who can’t get an issue. (Info on where to pick up free issues available at )

Be Your Own Guru

My good friend Jody Radzik – the guy who first introduced me to raves, actually – started up a blog this year. Jody is about the most loving and optimistic person I’ve ever known. That’s why I was surprised that instead of touting a new spiritual or cultural phenomenon, Radzik had decided to bash one. is dedicated to exposing the profoundly manipulative legions of grifters preying on the spiritually hopeful, as well as those teachers who simply go around letting people think they’re God, one guru at a time. It’s is an entertaining website, to be sure (for those of us who enjoy watching false messiahs unmasked) but it’s also important ongoing work. And the more I think about it, the more guru-bashing is starting to look like a form of optimism, in itself.

Where it gets tricky is when we assume that our protector’s expertise in one area makes him or her, somehow, better than us in all in all things. The Outward Bound leader knows how to build a fire and eat nettles – so in the context of the wilderness, he’s certainly got a leg up on you. But does this mean the little life lessons and platitudes he drops on you during difficult moments on the trail are universally valid teachings? They sure seem so in the moment, and they may occasionally be applicable to some other situation. But they’re just the musings of some guy.

Yes, it’s terrific to be able to surrender to the unassailable mastery of your cello teacher. She has stories to tell, techniques to share, and a holistic understanding of her instrument and music that you’d be well to emulate. And focusing on her brilliance, holding her phrases in your head like a mantra while you’re running your scales can make those interminable hours of practice more bearable and even productive.

But nowhere does there exist a genuine Bagger Vance or Horse Whisperer. There are no shrinks like Judd Nelson in Ordinary People or Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Sure, there are great golf pros, horse trainers, and therapists. But they’re just people. The successful therapeutic ending is not surrendering to the loving embrace of a psychologist, however much we may feel the need for a parental substitute or emotional surrender. In the trade, they call this transference, and at best it’s a means, not an ends.


The path of devotion offered by gurus is also a natural fit for those of us who are fed up with the relativistic haze of a world where there are no discernible rules, yet equally disillusioned by institutional religions that appear to have sold out to American consumerism. The guru offers absolutism. Certainty. A point of focus.

As one slick guru, chronicled on Guruphiliac explains on his website: “When you meet a master, you have two choices. Transform or walk away. You cannot be in his presence and remain the same.” Uh, yeah. In other words, conform to his reality or scram.

_The guru is the starting place from which all other decisions are to be made. You start with the guru as the one perfect point in the universe, and from there everything else can fall into place. If the guru has instructed you to eat a certain food or do a certain practice, then – according to the logic of gurudom – everything else you have to do for this to happen is part of the perfection. Slowly but surely, surrender to the guru requires you to reject pretty much everything that doesn’t fit whatever model of the world he’s offering you.

But, honestly, that’s what the devotee was after in the first place. An excuse to do or not do all that other confusing stuff in life like encounter people with different ideas, wrestle with the questions of existence, and accept that nobody really knows what happens when we die.


…as I look around me, I see some members of my own generation claiming to see the weirdest things, to be enlightened, or to be able to offer access to energies from alternate realms. And it makes me sad and just a bit angry. The insights, such as they are, get lost in fiction. Even if a few of us do happen to be carrying some fragment of real wisdom, the object of the game is to get out the way so the wisdom can be shared. I mean, if I really thought I was channeling something or someone, I’d probably do it over the radio, anonymously.

The answer, of course, is for all of us to get over our need for gurus. Remove the demand and the supply should dwindle, too. I mean, most of us have already endured one set of parents. Why go through that again? The stuff they didn’t do right simply cannot be corrected. Mourn what you missed and move on. (Meanwhile, if it’s magic you’re after, go to Vegas and see a show. No one can teach you how to walk on water or be in two places at once. And if you do get awakened someday, whatever that means, you’ll realize this very need to talk to God or see the light is what’s been getting in the way of your clarity the whole time. Besides, is it really magical abilities and transcendent experiences you’re after, or merely escape from the pain of everyday experience?)

The truth about the great spiritual quest of our species is that it just can’t work with followers and leaders. There’s way too much duality built-in to such a scheme. Hierarchies are fun, but they’re a construction. I’ve been around the spiritual block more times than I care to mention, and have read the work of the very best teachers and philosophers I can get a hold of. And as I’ve come to see it, there is no such thing as awakening. It’s a ruse. Think about it: the whole concept of reaching enlightenment is steeped in dualism, expectation, and obsession with self. The word “enlightenment” may sell books and earn devotees, but it doesn’t refer to anything real. It doesn’t exist. The true spiritual path may just be a matter getting over that fact, and in the process, learning to express and enact as much compassion as we can. That’s why I see as an optimistic effort; it assumes we’re ready to let all this go.