Where ‘da Guru?

“Did you find a Guru over there?”. It was said tongue in cheek; a little tease of a question. I had just come back from India, the “land of the Guru’s”. It got me thinking about the idea of a Guru, and what it means to a western yogi.

The word Guru is said to be teacher, a master, a dispeller of darkness or giver of light. It alsohas the meaning of being weighty, as in “heavy with knowledge” or “heavy with spiritual wisdom”.

As a student of eastern philosophy for over 30 years, I have to say I don’t believe in Guru’s; at least not with a capital “G”. I don’t think I could ever trust anyone enough to turn over every decision to someone else, or even allow someone to make the major decisions of my life. And it seems there are a lot of so called “false Guru’s” around; people who will take on the mantle of Guru to exploit others for power, wealth or sex.

I do believe in guru with a small “g”. To me this is someone who can facilitate my learning, creating access to those “Ah Ha” moments. These guru’s are all around us, teachers, friends, books; they don’t have to call themselves a guru to be a “light giver”. I like to say that the Redwoods are my guru, because when I spend time with these ancient trees, I usually get fresh new insight into life.

The proper relationship between guru and student is one of deferment, not one of submission. I defer to my math professor because she knows more than I do about math. I choose what part of my understanding to give over to her greater knowledge and experience. But even within this narrow area, I don’t submit; if something does not seem right, I will do some independent study or find another expert.

Life can be hard, and there seems to be something within human nature that wants to hand over responsibility for our life to another. That way, it’s not our fault if something goes wrong. The avoidance of our responsibility is not a healthy engagement, and the unscrupulous can exploit our avoidance to their own ends. Defer wisely, but never submit. Responsibility for your life is yours alone.

When I teach yoga, I often think about my role as a teacher. I want to maintain a strong leadership position, with clear instructions and direct language. They call this the seat of the teacher. It allows for a student to surrender into their experience and not have to think about what to do. I’ll take on the role of the yoga guru, but I never want to be the authority. The suffix “ity” means “condition, or quality of being”; so authority is the condition or quality of being an author. Authority in an asana class belongs to the student and the student alone; I can be a knowledgeable facilitator, but I cannot fully know a students experience. As a teacher I want to point to and work with the authority within each student so each of them can author their own experience optimally. The alternative is to point to myself as the authority, which would not feel good at all, and would be a disservice to the student.

This suggests one of the main ways to tell a true guru from a false guru. The job of a false guru is to grow more students or followers; The job of a true guru is to grow more guru’s. The only way to do that is share the belief that “what I have done, you can do also.” If someone points to themselves as the ultimate authority, run the other way as fast as you can. We can grow faster if we defer wisely to a guru than if we try to do things on our own, but the guru doesn’t own the light, he or she simply helps us to access it. The authorship of one’s life is up to each of us individually. The real Guru is within you.

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