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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Going to the Guru

Those of you who follow me on a regular basis may want to grab a seat before reading this because you may faint and I don't want you to hit your head as you fall. That thought is especially near to me as I just fell in the basement, impaling myself on the door of the dryer and landing in a clothes basket. I was in a narrow stretch of the basement and for a minute could not find anything to grab on to that I might stand back up. Then I started thinking about those lifeline commercials and was laughing too hard to get up. Eventually, however, I did extract myself. By the way, is that a urine puddle under that woman's arm? But I digress...

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,
Mahara-ji told Ram Dass that he had been thinking of his mother the night before, and that she had died of "spleen," saying the word spleen in English. He then asked what "spleen" was. Needless to say, he was taken aback because there was no way that Mahara-ji could have known this, and so he stuck around to learn more. He found himself bathed in unconditional love from Mahara-ji, something I confess I cannot quite understand in this context.

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
Then yesterday I was listening to a Ram Dass tape (okay, it was an MP3, but I still call them tapes) wherein he spoke of his relationship with his guru. He was recounting a time when he had been told by Mahara-ji to love everyone, and tell the truth. He came to the realization that those instructions from Mahara-ji were contradictory, because he didn't love everyone and if he had to tell the truth he was in a real bind. In fact, he realized he pretty much hated everybody, especially the people that were there in India at the time because he had brought them from the States to meet his guru and now they were getting all of Mahara-ji's attention while Ram Dass was ignored!

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
Dass' shit and did things to make him confront it. Ram Dass thought he was special for bringing all of these people to India, something that in truth Mahara-ji could have cared less about, and so Ram Dass got ignored, which made him confront his feelings of being special. Through listening to Ram Dass' lectures quite a bit it is clear that this was an ongoing process.

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
Then I asked myself who I trust, really trust, with my life and safety. I trust my wife. That's it, and for me it's enough. She has stood with me through my episodes of decay, including the very bad idea of two surgeries in 2006 and a spine fusion in 2011 as well as my current inability to work, when I thought that any reasonable human being would have kicked me to the curb. After all, that's what I was taught growing up - that we are valuable only for the physical things we can do for others - whether that was offering my body to be used by rapists or offering my body to do chores around the house and yard, acceptance was an extremely conditional thing completely rooted in my physical self. Now my physical self just ain't what it used to be. I have often joked with Erin that if there was a lemon law for husbands she could have returned me long ago.

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
they would disassemble it - without complaint or hesitation. Besides, who ever heard of a priest who objected to doing what is essentially liturgy? I now understand why people go to the guru for refuge. I will follow the teachings and instructions and see where this takes me because it is long past time. From time to time, I will share my journey with you here. It should be very interesting! Sadly, the vintage 1960s Ram Dass beard will not be forthcoming. There is only so much I can ask of Erin, and that might well be crossing the line! Of course, I am still an Interspiritual priest and bishop, lest anyone get their undies in a bunch. Part of the responsibility that comes with such vows is to engage in continuing education and continuing spiritual growth - so here I go!


  1. Beautifully put - shit and all. Looking forward to seeing you soon. :)

    1. Thank you, same here! I will see you tonight if you are there!

  2. I'm happy you've found and accepted this guru. How can I do the same? Or does it mean I shouldn't find someone-since I WANT this instead of wanting to avoid it?

    1. The important thing is not to throw up.

      But seriously, the old saying is that when the student is ready the teacher appears. The question is, what sort of teacher are you looking for? My case is rather unusual in that I am Interspiritual and a member of the Christian clergy who isn't going to renounce his Christian affiliation or agree to stop practicing as clergy. That narrows the field quite a bit.

      Generally speaking, most responsible voices in eastern spirituality encourage people not to rush into a relationship with a teacher. They say to test out a potential teacher for a while to be sure they are a good fit. Of course, they you have people like Ram Dass who take a trip to an outhouse and find their guru the next day. I'm not so sure the outhouse is the best venue, either, though it does open the door for some pretty fun jokes.

      Perhaps we should talk more about what kind of spirituality you are looking for a teacher in and what kind of a relationship you are looking for. Interspiritual teachers are less likely to use guru language but can certainly offer just as close a relationship in more of a mentoring/spiritual guide format. On the other hand, if you are looking for someone from a Buddhist tradition, it would be good to decide which tradition. I'd be glad to help with that discernment.

  3. i'M LOOKING FOR THE SAME THING YOU LOOKED FOR. I've never 'signed up' for the teachings I've had in the past, as you say-they just happened. Here's what's happened to me. Basically-I met you and I consider you to be my spiritual 'director'. As for a 'teacher or guide' I would like to have a more 1 on 1 relationship. I've never had that but I also don't know how one goes about getting that. I consider myself interspiritual but with a Christian affiliation. I seek a teacher/guide who believes as WE do. You would be my 1st choice of course, if that option is available. If not-then someone who is 'like-minded' . Does this make any sense?

    1. Absolutely, and we can certainly talk about doing that and what it would look like once you get back on your, shoulder...

    2. great!!!! I'm looking forward to it!!