Real Gurus Inspire Change

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Fire ceremony lead by Robert Thurman at a retreat in Molokai. Photo by Jen

“Watch yourself. If you see yourself changing, growing, it means you have found the right [Guru]. He may be beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, flattering you or scolding; nothing matters except the one crucial fact of inward growth. If you don’t [grow], well, he may be your friend, but not your Guru.”  —  Nisargadatta Maharaj in I am that : talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Since the Guru is largely considered a dangerous, taboo or excessively esoteric subject, it is rarely talked about openly or positively, in terms of what the relationship could be at its best.  How then, can practitioners who want to take practice more seriously begin to discriminate between a good teacher and a bad one?

I personally feel that it’s important to read an abundance of opinions and see how they resonate with me.  I am drawn to this quote because a teacher might indeed have to be unpleasant and scolding at times in order for us to see our inner process reflected more clearly.  The teacher should not reward conditioned behaviors that keep us feeling smaller than we truly are!

Coming to the practice with very little idea of what it is for and wanting mostly just to feel better somehow, we tend to want flattery more than anything else.  We believe that if the teacher invites us to have dinner, that must mean we are excelling on the path, when in fact we are likely just playing the same ego games we have our whole lives, seeking approval from others and giving up our own sense of inquiry and responsibility.

I am not suggesting that a teacher cannot be a profound kind of friend or implying that teachers have full license to be mean just for the sake of it!  This quote leaves it up to us to decide whether we are changing or not, and if so whether it’s for better or worse.  When we feel a teacher is having a poisonous effect without overriding redeeming value, there is no virtue in sticking around and torturing ourselves, which in the end is another way of making ourselves small.

It can be very confusing to tell whether a teacher is worthy of our trust or not, but in my case, my guts are usually shouting loudly, and it actually takes a lot of my energy for me to ignore or act against them.  We ultimately know whether what the teacher says makes sense for us or not and can learn to take what is valuable and leave what is harmful.  Certain authoritarians might argue that this is self-indulgence or taking it easy, but I feel this is a starting place for developing discriminating awareness (the goal of yoga practices in the Ashtanga tradition).

We know whether we feel ashamed because we’ve been found out (and agree that we have stumbled upon something that want to work on) or whether we are simply being abused.  (With time and practice, I feel a little less shame and can have a bit more sense of humor when I get caught identifying strongly with whatever ridiculous ego clinging pattern!)  If we have teachers whom we do trust, we might ponder our interactions with them deeply to examine what they may have been pointing towards and consider how we intend to investigate that further.

Unfortunately, we hear language that requires us to either obey unconditionally or rebel continuously, when in fact, it would be a rare case where either of those solutions would be expedient.  Teachers are usually not 100% perfect, and we can still benefit from associating with them as long as we accept this and practice becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable space of not knowing how any given scenario will play out.  In fact, as in any relationship, every moment changes.  We need to stay alert and pay attention to what is happening now in order to experience that being in front of us fully.  A real teacher will always be prodding us gently to stay on our toes in just this way.



It seems the Standards for Yoga Teachers used to be somewhat higher!


IMG_2764“[The teacher] is one who is endowed with the power of furnishing arguments pro and con, of understanding questions and remembering them, who possesses tranquility, self-control, compassion and a desire to help others, who is versed in the scriptures and unattached to enjoyments both seen and unseen, who has renounced the means to all kinds of actions, is a knower of Brahman and established in It, is never a transgressor of the rules of conduct, and who is devoid of shortcomings such as ostentation, pride, deceit, cunning, jugglery, jealousy, falsehood, egotism and attachment. He has the sole aim of helping others and a desire to impart the knowledge of Brahman only” (Śankarāchārya in Upadesa Sahasri).

Our Search for Meaning

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Jen in a tree near Mt. Fuji. Photo by Tzing

“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will then satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are ‘nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.’ But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my ‘defense mechanisms,’ nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my ‘reaction formations.’ Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values.” — Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

How many of us are on that path that can be ours alone versus following what has been laid out by others with very different backgrounds?  Do we feel a queasy sense of hypocrisy and dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lives, or can we be confident that we are giving it our best shot this time around?

Deep down, we know why we are here.  If we are confused about that, there are no doubt layers of conditioning to work through, but we have to be honest with ourselves about the messages we get from our body-mind-spirits and feedback from the environment, which is not “random,” nor so wholly apart from us.

Sometimes we are so debilitated that it is hard to hear any voice of inspiration or imagine what meaning could possibly exist.  In my own life, I have gone through excruciatingly long periods of apparent stagnation and difficulty, but when I came to have faith that I do have a purpose and that nobody else can do my job, and that furthermore, following my heart will benefit all beings immeasurably, even my worst suffering started to seem like more of a teacher and less of a punishment.

We could play the role of the skeptic and say that such talk is verging on a delusion of grandeur, but when we consider that, as compassionate humans, we cannot be happy unless everybody else is happy, we should see our absolute obligation to at least make the most of our own existence!  It is frightening take on this responsibility, and there is no telling where it might lead.  I’m getting better at trusting that it’s worth the risk.

Trauma, Relationship, Guru

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Richard assisting me in laghu vajrasana in 2011. Photo by Chris Croft

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” — Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery 

The importance of the therapeutic relationship in psychotherapy has long been recognized.  It has been purported to be the single biggest factor (or even the only necessary and sufficient factor) contributing to positive treatment outcomes for a variety of problems and disorders.  How many of us feel a bit disempowered and disconnected from others?  This is often why we turn to therapy or to yoga.  We could all benefit from profound and selfless relationship, which is not so easy to come by in this world.

Such relationships seem to be growing more and more scarce in the yoga world as it becomes less and less “cool” to accept a guru or make any commitment to study with somebody who is truly qualified to teach.  In its popularized form yoga is seen as yet another fitness and fashion craze, and its ultimate goal (Self-realization and rediscovery of interconnectedness, the very opposite of disempowerment and disconnection) is forgotten.  Considerable disillusionment comes from having watched so many apparently advanced teachers succumb to the basest scandals.  However, instead of jumping on board and behaving abhorrently or losing faith altogether, teachers and students might deeply ponder the gravity of the role and do their best to uphold the highest standards.

It is well-established that memories are stored somatically, so when we work with the body in yoga, we have the potential, to a greater or lesser extent, to re-awaken traumatic experiences and relive them to some degree.  Even if we consider ourselves to be in the fortunate minority of people who have experienced no dramatic or excruciating trauma, we still carry with us whatever we have encountered throughout our development during at least one lifetime!  The choice of who will share this very intimate practice space with us while we undergo these processes is quite a sacred one.

When you fold into that hip-opener and associations with your X or difficult family members bubble up (explicitly or not), it would be ideal if the teacher would not reenact those old pathological scenarios and behavior patterns, reinforcing them in your system!  How terrible (and re-traumatizing) is it to feel unsafe, abandoned or subject to compounded injury and negativity in times of vulnerability…?!  How incredible would it be to share with somebody who supports you and sees your highest potential and reminds you of it in that moment?  A present being can often help us to face difficult feelings with more mindfulness than we can alone.  What a gift, to progressively work out ticks and misconceptions that we have adopted strategically in order to survive, but which build up those very barriers that alienate us from what we truly desire!  Sharing even one instant in true relationship with a genuinely compassionate being can reconfigure how we respond in analogous cases (or overall) for the rest of our lives (and perhaps beyond)!  Then, we learn how to be there for ourselves and others in that same nurturing way.

The necessity and therapeutic-transformative potential of the student-teacher relationship is stressed again and again in the shastras.  Through relationship we either drive ourselves further back into our shells or melt away resistances to states of fullness that we generally feel are too nice and therefore not possible for us.  I would like to beseech everybody to reconsider what is possible in relationship, whether in the shala or on the street (and hopefully here on this blog)!  We can practice this all the time…