This full moon in the Indian mystical tradition is known as gurupurnima. It was 21 years ago today that I was given the Sanskrit name Harshada by my guru, so it’s a kind of birthday for me I suppose. As my current class of teacher trainees goes into their final stretch of training this month, I am thinking a lot about the guru and what it means to modern seekers.
The guru is a very important element of Inner Yoga. But it’s also quite misunderstood and there’s also plenty of unwanted baggage associated with gurus. But I’m not talking about gurus. I’m talking about the gurutattva, the guru principle. This principle is an essential element for people who want to make deep progress on the spiritual path, but if it’s going to actually work and not cause more damage, the guru we seek in 2017 needs to be a new kind of guru.
In Sanskrit gu means darkness, ignorance, muck. Ru means light, illumination, revelation. So the guru principle is the principle usually described as the principle of transformation “from darkness to light”. But it’s better described as the principle of metamorphosis. There’s a great verse in the Skanda Purāna, “The meditation of the disciple on the guru is the meditation of the worm on the wasp.” What happens is we simply grow into the greatness that was always within us. But there is a process. And, although it is natural, it’s intense. And, while we don’t want to fall into old patriarchal models of disempowering gurus, the process of metamorphosis on the spiritual path is not meant to be done alone. We need teachers. We need to be (gently, lovingly) pushed. Otherwise we remain in spiritual kindergarten.
This is a major thing that I see happening. As a community of modern yoga students (I mean inner yoga), we have thrown out the guru. There is too much baggage. And it’s well deserved. From molester priests, to holier-than-thou eastern teachers, to the plain-old charlatans and phonies, gurus have let us down and, in many cases, fucked us up. Even if a particular guru is good, there is often a whole weird disempowered scene around them, or some kind of group mentality that is hard for an intelligent person to swallow. So there is a lot of bathwater. “Don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater.” Do you know this old saying?
There’s a lot of bathwater, but there is a baby in there too! We have through out the guru to such an extent that we are now like a bunch of little kids in a school with no teachers, running wild and doing whatever we want. Of course, kids in a situation like that will learn a great deal. But they likely won’t really get what the school is there to give them. The teachers are essential. In the same way, on the path of yoga, we need the guru. It’s not to say that we are children. Or that there’s anything wrong with children or their instincts. It’s just to say that most of us, myself included, come to the path with very limiting ideas and conditioning. We are deeply trained from a young age to play a part in a bound, distracted, unhappy society. What we learn in yoga is the opposite of that. So, in the beginning, even a taste of yoga seems like a massive shift. Self guiding takes us really far. But most people hit a wall. There’s a lot of un-learning that has to happen and it’s hard to do on our own.
Like the kids in the analogy, we can learn all kinds of things guiding ourselves and running wild in the gymnasium of yoga and self-work, but there’s a good chance we will miss out on the actual DEEP PURPOSE of yoga which is the inner freedom, and ability to see with the eyes of God, and the privilege to become ourselves profound vehicles of grace and wisdom for our world. For that, we do need the guru-principle.
We do need the principle of being guided, of being pushed. We need to be shown things we don’t know. And, yes, IT’S ALL INSIDE. Yes, we already have it all inside of us, but experience has shown that without the right kind of support the vast majority of people never really fully realize what they have inside. The truth is the VAST majority of people never even consider their spiritual life or any kind of deep personal evolution. But even among the people who do – and these days there are millions of people doing some kind of yoga or self-work – most of those people don’t get MASSIVE results. They get some. But they don’t get into the depths the way they could if they did have some support.
In this day and age, I think it’s important that we approach the guru-principle in a new way. You could call it a post-patriarchal way. The old patriarchal approach to the guru was about having one master that we serve and sit below so as to receive their grace, their wisdom, their love. (This is what I needed once upon a time, and I can tell that story another time.) If the guru was good and the situation was whole, then eventually the disciple learns to serve life itself and relate to Grace, Truth, and Love in everything. The guru in that old paradigm provided this training. But, there were so many side-effects and, in this era, it’s really hard to make that sort of thing work without disempowering everyone involved.
The Guru is the grace-bestowing power of God
That principle of transformation, of grace in Sanskrit is called anugraha. The Shiva Sutra Vimarshini says: Gururvā pārameshvari anugrahikā shaktihi — “
But they have to get it. We need to be pushed. We need to be challenged. And we need to have access to awakened knowledge. The word for awakened in this sense is chaitanya. Meaning, not just ideas in our mind or concepts, but experiencible knowledge. Only one who is experiencing the inner fruit of yoga can really teach it in this way. If a teacher is embodying the gurutattva, they are steeped in the experience of what they’re teaching. It is in their bones and their experience is contagious. Their words are not just words, they are transmissions.
we will benefit a lot from finding the baby of the gurutattva in the bathwater of the yoga industry
I could easily have enough for a whole book on this topic. Let me just say that we will benefit a lot from finding the baby of the gurutattva in the bathwater of the yoga industry. It’s time to move beyond the two extremes of cult allegiance and giving away our power on one side and remaining perennial self-guided beginners on the other. I believe there is a whole community of yoga-students and yoga-teachers and people who have experienced SOME transformation and SOME evolution to take it to the next level and really start to cultivate mastery.
The gurutattva is working through so many people and so many teachers and so many blogs and courses and is knocking on the door of so many people’s lives. I’m interested to see how we can help this evolution along. To go to the next level, we need guidance and support and challenge (this is the role of the guru) and we need surrender and sincerity and keen willingness to do the work (this is the disciple). We just need to do it in a whole new way.
Stay tuned. I and my awesome new team are working on an incredible new online course and teacher training that is going to raise the bar on all of this. Until then, I hope and pray that your journey is bringing you where you need to go and you have what you need to enjoy the ride.
Much love and many blessings,
David Harshada Wagner