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.