Here it goes, I hope you are sitting down: I have been wrong about the whole guru thing.
As some of you are aware, I have been listening to a lot of Ram Dass programs lately. His path is devotional spirituality of bhakti yoga, and his guru is Neem Karoli Baba, who left the body in 1973. I can identify with Ram Dass' experience of going to India and being taken to see this guru at a time when he was very skeptical about the whole guru devotion thing. The night before he was to meet Mahara-ji, Ram Dass was staying in a place with an outhouse. Jeffrey Montoya would tell you that Ram Dass and I have the same taste in accommodations, but he would exaggerating ever so slightly. When he went to use the outhouse he noticed the beautiful, starry night sky. He thought of his mother, who had died relatively recently from spleen cancer. He went about his business and went back to sleep. When he met Mahara-ji,
If you, like me, are a little cynical about things like this, you might write it all off as pious stories that spring up around holy men and women and help create their mystique. Jesus walks on water, Neem Karoli Baba reads minds, Ramana Maharshi and Padre Pio bilocate - it's all good, right? We can keep ourselves at a safe distance and imagine it's all just so much devout nonsense. Why should we bother to visit a teacher, anyway? Who needs pious nonsense, anyway? We are rational people! If we stay far enough away, it will be fine.
And so I need to tell you in light of this that at a Tibetan Buddhist empowerment I attended about a year ago something happened. When we went up to the teacher one by one to have her check that we had actually received the empowerment, she told me that I had a lot of anger and it was getting in the way of my spiritual path. I thought, "Well, I used to have anger, but I have done a lot of work on it and really am not very angry at all compared to what I once was." I was so surprised I thought I didn't hear her correctly and asked her to repeat it, which she did. I went back to me seat genuinely confused, especially since she had told my friend something about his life in the past that was spot on, something she couldn't possibly have known because she had never met him before.
So, off I went thinking about this a bit but for the most part putting it away. From time to time over the last year I have been having an increasingly strong, nagging feeling about working more closely with this teacher. I started to wonder if it was what I call the "call from God process" that any healthy ordained minister knows well. We start to feel we should investigate ministry, and we shove it down and put it away, but it keeps poking its head up into our consciousness. We may change jobs, move to a new city, take up new hobbies, change churches, get divorced, and do countless other things to avoid the call, but it keeps coming up. A friend compares it to stomach flu - we try to keep it down, deep breathing even after the saliva begins to pool in our mouths and throats to lubricate the exodus, but no matter how hard we try to keep it down it will eventually burst forth. If this is God calling me to work with this person, then that's what I need to do, but I wondered if it really was.
For five years I have been hovering on the periphery of this teacher, refusing to draw close. I go to the occasional teaching, listen to other teachings on CD or DVD, and then put it away. I say to myself and others that I don't like sadhanas (Tibetan spiritual practices) because they are in my judgment filled with the same sort of magical thinking that some Christian fundamentalist prayers are are filled with, looking for outside intervention to save us from our own crap. If that's true, what about the efficacy of my fifteen year mantra practice? I tell myself to shut up and not think about it, and buy myself a couple more months to procrastinate. Have I mentioned my PhD in Procrastination?
|Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass|
The next day Ram Dass missed the bus to the ashram. It was a thirty minute bus ride but an eight mile, three hour walk on footpaths through the small towns on the mountain to the ashram. As he approached the ashram three hours later through the brush, he could see everyone eating and laughing. He was sure they were laughing about him and that there wouldn't be any food left. As he approached, someone had saved him a plate of food and gave it to him. Furious, he threw the plate of food and screamed, "I hate you! I hate all of you!"
He heard his guru's voice, "Ram Dass, is something bothering you?" Apparently Ram Dass' subtle outburst hadn't gone unnoticed.
He walked over to the guru and shouted, "You told me to love everybody and tell the truth, but I can't do it. I hate all of these people!"
"Do you hate me?" came the reply from his guru.
"I fucking hate you!" Ram Dass said.
"Ram Dass, you are angry," was Baba's response.
"Oh shit," I thought, that's way too close to my own experience with the guru for comfort. As I listened to the longer version of the story it became clear that Mahara-ji saw right through Ram
|Ram Dass today|
Am I angry? I started to examine the evidence. If you don't know my history, I was sexually abused by my father when I was three or four and, in a separate incident, a friend's father in third or fourth grade while we were on vacation in northern Wisconsin. I was also profoundly verbally and emotionally abused throughout my childhood until I left home, being constantly berated by my intoxicated mother for things like being a "goddamn adolescent," and other conditions pretty much beyond my control. If she wasn't berating my brother or me, she was after my father, who sat by passively as he was emasculated night after night in his own drunken stupor. The result was that by the time I graduated high school I was a hot mess who had no use for white males. In truth, males of color have never bothered me, but throughout my twenties and thirties, even into my early forties, I brooked no shit from a white male, and all the therapy in the world didn't really change that.
I started mantra practice and informally studying Buddhism when I was thirty-nine. Gradually, over a period of years, I noticed changes in myself. Christianity was my still my primary spirituality, but I was using Buddhism to work with my mind - and finding plenty there to work with. I had two orthopedic surgeries in 2006 that provided ample time and opportunity to contemplate my failing and aging body. Ongoing back problems that I had for twenty years became more acute over the next year, feeding more practice and more mantra. I became much calmer, much less angry, to the point where my family noticed and commented on it. I thought I was doing really well. I could even take a moderate amount of shit from other white males without feeling compelled to neuter them, either verbally or physically. How could I possibly have anger issues? Look at how well I was doing!
|Timothy Leary (R) with Richard Alpert/Ram Dass|
That's a pretty short trust list. Sure, there are other people I trust to a certain extent, and there are a few people I know would be there for me if I needed them, as I would for them. Do I have really close friendships except for my wife? Not really, I keep everyone at a safe distance. To be fair, the limited physical mobility I experience at times doesn't do much to help that situation, but I still will own my very large part in my short friendship list. Before we had to put our dog down last summer, there were times when his stubbornness and insistence on getting his lead tangled in the bushes so I had to go outside to extract him really made me see red. On the day last summer he finally couldn't stand up and it was clear we had to take him to the vet to be put down, I lay on the floor with him in tears as I begged his forgiveness for being so angry with him over the years.
I guess I am angry. Granted, I have come a long way, but I really cannot deny that there is a long way to go. What's more, as my guru suggested, it gets in the way of my spiritual practice. Some of you may be thinking, "go back in therapy," but I don't really believe the current therapeutic model is the answer because I believe I
have a spiritual problem. Surrender? Not on your life. As more than one of my friends has pointed out, "Craig has a problem with authority." My usual response, only half tongue in cheek, is, "I only have a problem with authority when it's stupid." How in the world can I reasonably be expected to surrender when the only person or institution in my life who hasn't screwed me (literally or metaphorically) when I surrendered to them has been Erin? Surrender to God? Right, sure, because the self-appointed and self-anointed representatives of the Church have certainly proven themselves trustworthy both in our direct relationships and in the news. What I have found is that I can surrender to processes, to my suffering, viewed from the Buddhist perspective. To another male? Maybe not so much, which means a male guru would be problematic and female teachers in the Midwest are not exactly waiting on every street corner. Well, I suppose female teachers of a certain sort are, but that's not what I am looking for!
Tomorrow I have an appointment with the Guru and I intend to surrender. I cannot make the next leg of my spiritual journey without someone who sees me as I am calling me on my shit. This particular community has been nothing but supportive of me and patient with me as I have done my dance around the periphery. I will do the sadhanas I have been so critical of - probably because on some level because my ego recognized