Gurus Without a Clue

Three anecdotes showing teachers of meditation in a sorry light:

Anecdote One:

A successful guru and meditation teacher was hired by the US Army to train its special forces operators to relax and think clearly, even while under the most extreme stresses. The trainees were a bit in awe of the guru, perhaps remembering stories of yogis sleeping on beds of nails, or walking naked across hundred-mile long glaciers. So they listened carefully and attempted to follow the instructions they were given, in hopes of achieving a higher state of consciousness that would be useful on life or death missions.

Things seemed to go well until one day as the instructor was entering the classroom he slipped on the well-waxed floor, and fell. Immediately three students leaped to help the instructor — but the guru shrank back from the soldiers, unintentionally revealing in that involuntary gesture both his fear and his disgust.

Suddenly the special forces trainees were enlightened. Not in the way the army intended, and certainly not in the way the “guru” may have intended when he accepted the contract. The green berets suddenly saw the meditation instructor for what he was, a poser. In their often crude and gritty way, they were already far more honest and closely grounded to reality than the guru would ever be. He lost their respect, which meant that he was done.

Anecdote Two:

A famous teacher of meditation who was also an Ivy League university professor was holding a weeks-long meditation retreat for busy professionals and businesspersons. Among the students was a successful east coast neurosurgeon who wanted to learn to relax better outside of work.

After a week of good progress in learning meditation, the neurosurgeon came to the instructor and told him that he was going to quit the training.

“But why? You are doing so well!” the instructor exclaimed.

The neurosurgeon explained that in the operating room, he performed flawlessly and instinctively. He performed the procedures perfectly, just as he rehearsed them. And when things went wrong — as they inevitably do in real life from time to time — he knew exactly what to do without even thinking about it.

The problem with meditation, he explained, was that it brought his inner discord close to the surface, where the surgeon could see it more plainly for himself. This inner mess was not the way this skilled surgeon wanted to see his life. And so he decided to stop meditating.

The meditation instructor was at a loss for the right words. He reluctantly watched the neurosurgeon walk away from what might have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to retool his life.

Anecdote Three:

A young man from an upper-middle class NYC family, had just returned from five years living in India as first a meditation student, then as a humble mendicant monk with a rice bowl.

Soon after returning to New York from India, he made an appointment to meet his new sister-in-law in the city. As it happened, she was taking a half day spa retreat at an exclusive midtown resort for upscale housewives and power women, so our humble monk arranged to meet her at the midtown resort. He was just back in the US, and had not taken the trouble to get any western clothes yet. Wearing his robes and carrying his rice bowl, he found the exclusive in-city resort, told the receptionist who he was meeting, and arranged himself and his robes to wait in the second floor inner waiting room.

Of course, with nothing else to do but wait, he positioned himself and immediately began meditating silently, quickly drifting off to a more enlightened place. Sometime after perhaps an hour or so, he drifted back to the quiet waiting room, which was not so quiet anymore. A group of snickering upper middleclass women, in hair curlers and draped in towels — and with some sort of avocado cream slathered over their faces — stood watching him meditating in his robes. They were tittering among themselves, “Is he for real?”

Writing about this experience many years later, the now prosperous and respectable guru, author, and psychologist remembers how his young monk self wanted to laugh in the women’s faces and exclaim, “Are they for real?”

What do these three stories tell?

The lesson of the first story is clear. If you are making a claim to higher consciousness that is greater than your inner self can support, sooner or later reality will find you out. One of the first goals of meditative enlightenment is to escape the pretense. The case of “the pretender guru” is too ludicrous for words.

The second story illustrates what happens when meditation teachers forget that meditation is not just a part of life. It is life. When the neurosurgeon was operating, he was meditating in perfect harmonious action, to the effect of saving lives. Sure, neurosurgery is encapsulated in rite, ritual, jargon, and procedure. So are most professions, skills, and crafts. That encapsulation can prevent us from seeing more deeply into the hidden meanings of perfection-of-craft.

The neurosurgeon certainly needed to peer more deeply and honestly into himself, but he needed to do so in a way that he could assimilate. He probably needed a different form of meditation entirely — perhaps an “action meditation” that used body movements to recruit some of the deeper parts of his mind that he was unaccustomed to using. Experts, especially, do not want to start at the beginning again, particularly when doing so points out some uncomplimentary realities about his self and his life. But there are paths of learning that are more compatible for some than for others.

The meditation guru was caught flat-footed because he was trapped in his own encapsulated way of looking at meditation and enlightenment. He could not see outside of his own box in order to find something that might assist a person that he himself was not competent to help. The guru was wrapped in his own conceptually limiting chains.

The third story reveals the unconcealable pride that resides in the heart of even the humblest monk, when cast out of his habitual element. Confronted with an attack on his monk’s self-esteem, the immediate instinct — even after five years of intensive training from India’s best gurus — was to lash out at the oblivious and ridiculous appearing housewives.

What these stories reveal is that all of these concepts: meditation, guru, enlightenment, higher consciousness, deep reality, and so on, are just words. It is the substance beneath the words that counts.

Some background behind the first anecdote: The story was told in a book written by a master of Aikido who was invited to teach green berets under the same US Army program (Trojan Warrior Project) that had earlier invited the meditation guru described above. The special forces soldiers described to the Aikido master how they had lost respect for the meditation guru, and how that same loss of respect carried over to their attitude toward him and his Aikido.

Inevitably, the Aikido instructor was challenged by one of the most belligerent green berets, and was forced to not only “talk the talk,” but also to “walk the walk.” After some full contact sparring, the Aikido master put the green beret in a chokehold and kept him there until he tapped out, just before he passed out. From that point on, the Aikido master had the full attention of the class.

The basic intellectual concepts of enlightenment are so simple and brief as to fit in a short paragraph, understandable by young children. But the hard substance of enlightenment practice goes so strongly against the grain of both our genetic disposition and our social programming, that regardless of the promised bliss and brain-preserving neuroplasticity, it will likely remain confined to very small circles for the foreseeable future. Particularly when you disregard all the posers, encapsulators, opportunists, and intellectualizers of enlightenment.

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