Why the Age of the Guru is Over


 
For a few decades now, it seems, humanity has been on the verge of a breakthrough in collective consciousness. Perhaps it was the Hippies in the 60s who saw it first. To them, it was crystal clear that the consciousness revolution would sweep all before it, that within a few years’ time such institutions as government, money, marriage, and school would become obsolete. Forty years later, their vision has not come to pass and, superficially at least, the defining institutions of our civilization are more powerful, more encompassing than ever. Nonetheless, to many of us much of the time, and to most of us at least once in a while, the breakthrough in consciousness the Hippies foretold seems imminent still.

Perhaps it seems imminent because, in those peak experiences when we know the true potential of our humanity, the true vastness of our minds, and the love that is the default state of existence, it seems so obvious that we have returned to our birthright and recovered our original estate. It could be a near-death experience that brings us there, a psychedelic experience, a moment in nature, giving birth, making love; it could be a religious experience, or come through a dream, music, or meditation; it can also be awakened through psychological work, a transformational seminar, even a book. Usually, though, the high does not last.

I’ve had many such experiences where I think, “Nothing will ever be the same again,” but after a few days or weeks, I notice that I must struggle to maintain the realized state I’d been in. What was once effortless and self-evident becomes the subject of reminders and practices. The “old normal” encroaches, until I am back where I started, and the state that had felt so true and obvious becomes a mere memory. I can try to repeat the experience, but as with a drug, the second high is a little less intense than the first, and the return to baseline more rapid. Eventually I come to doubt: maybe the experience was a drug, an excursion away from reality and not, as I’d believed, something more real than the world I’ve come to accept. For some people, that voice swells in volume until it becomes a deafening tumult of despair. Before the experience, there was at least hope, but having entered paradise and been ejected, what is there now to live for?

So it was on a cultural level, that after the enlightenment and exuberant expectations of the sixties, much of the counterculture turned to the hedonism and consumption of the Me Decade. What a sense of betrayal we felt, as the psychedelic revolution gave way to the War on Drugs, as the Clean Air Act gave way to Ronald Reagan and James Watt (“Trees pollute more than people do.”)

Happily, whether on a personal or collective level, the despair can never be complete, for the ember of the awakening experience lives on inextinguishable in our hearts. However deep the despair to which we may descend, we carry a first-hand knowledge written into our cells that there is more than Just This. Even if we know not how to return to that more beautiful world, we know it exists. This knowledge lives independently of beliefs, underneath the currents of reason and doubt and impervious to them. We cannot cultivate or practice that knowledge, but it cultivates and practices us. The first thing it does is to prevent us from whole-heartedly participating in the old normal. We can do our best to participate in the program, we can go through the motions, but deep down we know that it isn’t the real thing. The effort to direct life energy at goals unworthy of our knowledge is exhausting. Eventually, our reservoirs of health and luck depleted, we enter a state of crisis. Whether it is health, relationship, money, or work-related, the crisis is a birthing from the old normal. We cannot go back, yet neither do we know how to go forward. This is a special state, the threshold between worlds. Many of us are there right now, individually; the collective human body is approaching it as well.

The purpose of this essay is to describe a paradigm of mutual care that can carry us across the threshold between worlds.

We did glimpse a more beautiful world in the 1960s, but the old normal wasn’t finished yet. The story had not yet been told to its fullness. Therefore, we could not abide in the new reality; the pull of the old was too strong. To be sure, there were many individual exceptions; to this day there are unregenerate hippies living in the interstices of our realm, as invisible to us as the Taoist immortals of legend, holding the template of the next world until such time as we are ready for it. But for the most part, after the sixties people returned to the world they’d left behind, and followed it indeed to new extremes.

Forty years later, that world is falling apart at an accelerating rate. The stories that undergird our civilization are crumbling. Two are primary: the story of the self, and the story of the people. The first is the discrete, separate self, a Cartesian mote of consciousness looking out onto an objective universe of soulless masses and impersonal, deterministic forces. In biology, the separate self manifests as the paradigm of the selfish gene seeking to maximize its reproductive self-interest; in economics, it is homo economicus, who seeks to maximize rational self-interest as measured by money. In psychology, it is the skin-encapsulated ego; in religion, the soul encased in flesh but separate from it.  Such a self is naturally in opposition to all other beings, whose interests are indifferent to or at odds with its own. Spiritual teachings based on this story of self, then, tell us we must try very hard to rise above nature, to conquer our biological and economic drive to maximize self-interest at the expense of other beings.

Externalized, this war against the self manifests as the second defining story of civilization, the story of the people that I call “ascent”, that says that humanity’s destiny is to overcome and transcend nature. It perfectly complements the story of self, elevating the mental over the physical, the ideal over the concrete, and spirit over the body.

In describing these myths, I use the word “story” in a special sense, as an unconscious narrative that makes meaning of the world, that assigns roles to human beings, that explains the nature of life, the world, and the purpose of human existence, and that coordinates human activity. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are approaching the end of ours, of the stories upon which our civilization is built. To the extent those stories are no longer true for you, you do not feel like a full participant in this civilization.

They are becoming untrue for more and more of us, as the world built upon them falls apart. How can we believe in the conquest of nature, when because of our actions the ecological basis of civilization is threatened? How can we believe any more that the final triumph over disease is just around the corner, or an age of leisure, or space vacations, or a perfectly just society, if only we extend the realm of control just a bit further? And how can we believe any longer in the paradise of the separate self, independent of all, beholden to no one, financially secure, when we see first hand the alienation, the despair, the starvation for community that makes that paradise a hell? When depression, addiction, suicide, and family breakdown strike even the winners of the war of all against all?

Whether on a personal or collective level, we are discovering that the stories of separation are untrue. What we do unto the other, inescapably visits ourselves as well in some form. As that becomes increasingly obvious, a new story of self and story of the people becomes accessible to us. I have written of these in other essays, among them Money and the Turning of the Age, Rituals for Lover Earth, Autoimmunity, Obesity, and the Ecology of Health, and in greater depth in The Ascent of Humanity. The new story of self is the connected self, the self of interbeingness. The new story of the people is one of cocreative partnership with Lover Earth. They ring true in our hearts, we see them on the horizon, but we do not yet live yet in these new stories. It is hard to, when the institutions and habits of the old world still surround us.

Poised as we are at the transition between worlds, and traveling, many of us, back and forth between them, we need a way to enter the new one, learn to live in it, and be able to abide there. We need, in other words, a midwife. The birth metaphor is perhaps imperfect, since we are undergoing not a single, final expulsion, but a series of brief experiences of a more radiant world in which we have been unable to stay. How can we stay? How can we fully establish ourselves in a radically different way of thinking, relating, and being? Make no mistake: this revolution goes far beyond the acceptance of an idea. To know and embody as an experiential, lived, enacted reality the truth of interbeingness, to live in the spirit of the gift as appropriate to each relationship, to absolutely trust one’s divinity and that of others, to know in every fiber of one’s being, “I art Thou,” and to navigate this knowledge with appropriate boundaries, constitutes a fundamental revolution in human beingness. Moreover, though we have entered the new territory, we lack models and maps to live in it. We need guidance, we need sacred teachings. But who are to be our teachers, when all is new?

To be sure, we have inherited teachings and models for the new world, both from visionaries who saw through the stories of separation centuries ago, and from tribes who avoided civilization long enough to transmit their knowledge to us. Much of this knowledge has been distorted through the lens of separation, but as the new stories come into focus, we can discern their original intent. For example, the usual formulation of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a moral injunction that we hear as yet another version of the dictum, born of the separation of spirit and matter: “Try hard to be nice.” It is a standard of behavior, something we must overcome our natural selfishness to attain. From the perspective of the connected self, though, the Golden Rule changes form to become not a rule but a reminder: “As you do unto others, so you are doing unto yourself.” The intent of its original articulator is recovered.

Similarly, the Boddhisatva Vow, “I will not enter Nirvana myself until all sentient beings have entered Nirvana,” lands on us as the ultimate self-sacrifice, a heroic and magnanimous vow beyond the reach of ordinary people. For the connected self of “I art Thou,” however, it is merely a distorted articulation of a simple fact that we might call the Boddhisatva Realization: “It is impossible to abide in Nirvana alone. If any sentient being is left out of it, then part of me is left out of it.” Only someone under the delusion that he is a discrete, separate soul would imagine otherwise.

Enlightening as these teachings might be, mere information is not enough. As many spiritual traditions recognize, a living teacher, a guru, is necessary to bring the teachings to life in their unique application to each individual. We need something from beyond our old selves, someone to illuminate our blind spots, to humble our conceit, to show us the love we didn’t know we had within us. This presents a problem today, because the age of the guru is manifestly over.

No human being can hold the guru energy in post-modern society. This is old news – the age of the guru has been over for at least thirty years. In the 1960s and 70s, any number of masters came to America from the East and, absent the cultural structures that traditionally kept them in an insulated realm, succumbed one after another to scandals involving money, sex, and power. The same thing happened as well to many of the gurus who remained in the East, as even their traditional structures crumbled under the onslaught of Western cultural warfare and the money economy. In the past, to even access a guru you had to make a journey and to some extent leave the old normal behind. Now, gurus were interfacing directly with the old normal. No journey was necessary to receive a mantra; soon all that was necessary was money. This interface was perilous to guru and seeker alike.

The gurus that did not fall found ways to maintain their exclusion from a story of the world that would drag them into it. Some, like Neem Karoli Baba (died 1973), took the simple expedient of dying. Others retired or disappeared. After the 1970s, anyone who got into the guru business was quickly corrupted; the wiser ones stayed away, preferring to act as teachers, mentors, spiritual friends. Human consciousness was approaching, on a mass level, the template that had been prepared, in insulated, secret lineages and remote sanctuaries, for thousands of years. Millions were ready for what only a select few were prepared in the past. The gurus through the ages had finally succeeded: they had awoken an energy of a magnitude no single human being could contain.  For those who tried, the uncontainable energy inevitably emerged in subterranean ways as shadow and scandal, and their followers learned not only the lessons of their teachings, but also the lessons of their failures.

The difficulty, then, is that we are ready as never before for a guru, yet no single human being is capable of taking on that role. Whence are we to obtain that spiritual midwifery, “someone to illuminate our blind spots, to humble our conceit, to show us the love we didn’t know we had within us”? What can bring to the masses what hidden lineages and gurus once brought to a select few? To answer that question, let us follow the trajectory of spiritual teachings after the 1970s.

What followed the demise of the guru was a new age of spiritual independence. Its motto might have been, “All that you need is within you.” People trusted their own inner guru, their guidance. The spiritual teachers of this period were just that, teachers not gurus, not accorded a different category of being, but a kind of spiritual friend, a more experienced colleague. It was a time of self-improvement and doing your own spiritual work. The goal was a kind of self-sufficiency. We sought to eradicate negativity from our minds and take full responsibility for our lives. We worked on forgiveness. We sought to “manifest” health, wealth, and romance through the power of positive thinking. We resonated with teachings like, “Change yourself, change your beliefs, and reality will change along with it. All the power is within you; each person is a self-sufficient creator of his or her own reality.” We sought to liberate ourselves from victim mentality, the belief that our happiness depends on the choices of others. Sure, we wanted to attract good relationships into our lives, but we didn’t need anyone.

Though I am writing in the past tense, I don’t mean to denigrate the beliefs I describe, nor even to say they are not true. They were true, and there is truth in them still. They are not the whole truth though, as many people are now starting to realize. For having reached the pinnacle of spiritual independence, they want something more.

A participant at one of my retreats put it like this: “I really do have it all. I run my own wellness center, I live in a beautiful house with a view of the mountains, I have manifested financial abundance, I have a fabulous relationship with my wife, who is my partner on the spiritual path. We’ve done the most amazing retreats, the most powerful transformational workshops, had deep experiences of altered consciousness, states of samadhi, experiences of kundalini… But this is no longer enough. There is something else, a next step, and I’m not sure what it is. It’s not that I’m unhappy – I have a lot of peace, joy, and contentment in my life – but I know there is a next step.”

Spiritual self-sufficiency ignores the fundamental truth of our interbeingness. Without each other, we cannot make those peak experiences, those glimpses we have all had of a more vivid way of being, into anything more than glimpses. How can we make them into a new baseline for life? How can we enter into the world that they show us, how can we redeem their promise? How can we bring into living reality the knowledge that we have been shown something true and real? Each time, the old world drags us back. The inertia of our habits and beliefs, the expectations of the people surrounding us, the way we are seen, the media, the pressures of the money system all conspire to hold us where we were. Coming off a peak experience, we may try to insulate ourselves from all these things, to live in a bubble of positivity, but eventually we realize that is impossible. The negative influences find a way to creep back in.

From the understanding of the connected self, this is entirely to be expected. Because you are not separate from me, you cannot be fully healed until I am fully healed. You cannot be enlightened until I am enlightened. This is the import of the Golden Reminder and the Boddhisatva Realization described above. Each one of us is pioneering a different aspect of the connected self in the age of reunion, and each one of us as well carries vestigial habits of the age of separation that are invisible to us or that, if visible, we are helpless to overcome on our own. Quite practically, to inhabit a more enlightened state we must be held there by a community of new habits, new ways of seeing each other, and new beliefs in action that redefine normal.

In other words, in the age of the connected self our guru can be none other than a collective, a community – as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “The next Buddha will be a sangha.” By a community, I don’t mean an amorphous “we are all one” mass devoid of structure, but rather a matrix of human beings united in a common story of the people and story of the self. Aligned with these defining stories, this community can hold us in the vision of what we are becoming. 

Until recently, such a community barely existed. Either we were alone, gasping for breath in an ocean of separation, or we nurtured the new ways in isolated and insulated bubbles that, with rare exceptions, quickly popped. Such bubbles cannot last very long alone; like soap bubbles, their substance evaporates unless replenished and sustained. Today it is different, because these bubbles, Ken Carey’s “islands of the future in an ocean of the past,” are appearing faster than they can pop, clumping together, strengthening each other, forming a connected matrix. We are reaching critical mass, a point where we can live so much surrounded by nascent institutions of the new world that we can stay there most of the time. No longer will we need to struggle to remember what those special experiences showed us was true.

Health and spiritual well-being are maintained through relationships, not through self-sufficiency. No one is so enlightened that they don’t need help. Rather, they are enlightened because they receive the help they need. Enlightenment is a state of dependency. And to the extent that any other being is sick in any way, so is each of us. Every hurting person out there matches a hurting thing in here. It could be as subtle as a grain of sand in your sock: unnoticeable when major wounds are still hemorrhaging blood, but increasingly intolerable as the big wounds heal. As wholeness increases, these little things come into consciousness and become intolerable. We can no longer comfortably abide in our idyllic house with a view, eating health food, and thinking positive thoughts. Our self-sufficiency is no longer sufficient, when we feel the pain of the world echoing inside our selves.

If we try to stay in the bubble of spiritual self-sufficiency, the hurting of the world sneaks in as various of the new diseases, forcing itself upon our consciousness. Consider, for example, two of the most significant of the new diseases, MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities) and electromagnetic sensitivity.  Toxic chemicals and EMFs are the physicalization of our negativity, as well as the byproduct of our mindset of separation that sees nature as an indifferent reservoir for our wastes. For the chemically and electromagnetically sensitive, no amount of retreat is enough. Trying to avoid negativity, we have to retreat further and further, until the repeated intrusion of the world upon our serenity makes us realize we have to cleanse the whole world of toxic chemicals and all they represent, not just avoid them.

The yogic teaching, “Don’t try to cover the world with leather, just wear shoes,” served us well in the age of spiritual self-sufficiency, but it serves no longer, especially if taken to mean, “Heal thyself; the world is not your responsibility.” That was true, for a time. It was medicine. It healed us of self-rejection and self-sacrifice. It was a necessary stage toward the next step, when we do seek to heal the world – not as an act of self-sacrifice, not at the cost of our own well-being, but as a necessary step in our own self-healing. Through our relationship to the other we heal ourselves. There is no other way.

This realization often manifests as a desire to find one’s true purpose in life, one’s service to the world. Such a purpose is never just about the separate egoic self. It is always about service; it is about one’s gifts and how to give them. Purpose is about gift and relationship. The emerging state of vitality, joy, and love that humanity is entering is not a place where we can abide for long on our own. We need each other.

It is not only in spiritual life that this is true; the same shift is manifesting in economic life and our ecological relationships. Indeed, because spiritual well-being can only proceed to the next level through our relationships to other people, other beings, and the planet, the very word “spirituality” as distinct from social, economic, and material life is losing its relevance. Built into the concept of spirituality is the idea that some areas of human life are not spiritual. That divide between spirit and matter, between the life of the soul and the life of the flesh, is crumbling. High time, too: look at the results of treating the planet as not sacred. Look at the results of treating part of our own selves as profane. The war against the self and the conquest of nature, each mirroring the other, are coming to an end in our time as the intuitions of the connected self wax stronger.

Interdependency is something of a euphemism for what is really a form of dependency. The latter word is a trigger. Whether it is emotionally, financially, or spiritually, most people seek to avoid dependency. That, I am sorry to say, is a conceit. By our nature as ecological beings, we are helplessly dependent on other beings to survive, to thrive, even to exist. In the heyday of the age of science, we thought it human destiny to become independent of all other beings: we aspired to a wholly artificial world in which even food would be synthesized, the flesh transcended, and death overcome. No longer. We are learning, painfully, our utter dependency on the rest of nature. Interdependency is a sub-category of dependency in that it is mutual and multidirectional, but that doesn’t make us any less dependent. And that is OK! To be dependent is to be alive – it is to be enmeshed in the give and take of the world. And when we allow ourselves to enter it, to release the perceived safety of self-sufficiency, we access and can sustain an intensity of being and of love that we could only glimpse before. That is because we are encompassing more of our true connected being. We are being more fully ourselves.

Humanity collectively, and many of us individually, are at a threshold between worlds. The world we are entering is both a new world for us, and a long-forgotten realm. As we step into it, we can be each other’s welcoming committee. We can do for each other what a guru does for a disciple: hold each other in the knowing of who we really are, and teach each other how to live there. Each of us, as we experience our own piece of the age of reunion, becomes a guide to a small part of that vast new territory.

 

Image by treehouse1977, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

 

 

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