No Guru. No Method. No Teacher.
“How tragic that we in this dark day have had our seeking done for us by our teachers.”
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” - St. Paul, Philippians 2:12
The week that I decided to forsake my earthly belongings and become a nomadic secular humanist monk1, I kept finding myself chewing on these two particular words. I liked the way they felt in my mouth:
It had a good rhythm to it. I decided I wanted it as a tattoo. When I typed those two words into the ole’ Ask Jeeves image search, what auto-populated into the search bar was even better:
No Guru. No Method. No Teacher.
I loved that. And though I am not normally a spontaneous person, I booked an appointment to get that phrase tattooed on my body that day. I was so excited about the phrase that I didn’t even bother to investigate why it showed up as an already searched for phrase.
In short, I now have the title of a 1986 Van Morrison album tattooed on my wrist.2
But even though I am embarrassed by the source of the phrase, I do not regret my tattoo at all. It is a thesis statement of sorts. A central theme to this whole blog/travel project and a guiding force of my personal life.
No Guru. No Method. No Teacher.
The phrase means a few things to me. The first is that it helps to remind me of what I’m not. As someone who writes about spirituality, there is certainly a temptation to aspire to having a prominent display in the New Age or Self Help section of the bookstore.
I confess that I sometimes fantasize about giving speaking engagements in Sedona while wearing white drapey clothing and being introduced by Wayne Dyer. I like the idea of having loyal adherents. It feels good to have other people think you wise. And as the saying goes, choose the job for the beard you want.
But I am no guru. I have nothing to sell. No path to enlightenment. I’m just a little lamb lost in the woods.
It is important to remember that, because we tend to stop moving once we think we’ve arrived. I want to keep swimming in the ocean of questions. You can keep all of your land locked certainty.
Sometimes I think I’m smart, and it’s important to remember that I’m not. Sometimes other people think I’m smart, and that’s even worse. And sure, I’ve read some books. But c’mon, that’s nothing. Nothing, that is, when compared to the scope of human knowledge. And infinitesimal on the scale of cosmic universal understanding. In that sense, we are all Jon Snow. We all know nothing.
But even on the smaller scale, as an individual with a certain circle of influence and as a person that doles out (frequently unsolicited) advice, it is important to remember that I am myself still a mess. I actually don’t always know what’s best for people. All I have to offer is a flawed and biased perspective, which is hopefully helpful, but should be taken with a grain of salt. I need to remember that all I can hope for is to continue to grow and evolve to a more understanding and wise type dude. But as long as I remain a human, I have to remember that I will never have the full picture of anything.
And thus it would be prudent for me to never be so confident in my position that I stop hearing criticisms and challenges to that view. It would be advisable for me to keep looking for the blind spots in my logic and emotional reasoning. It would be wise for me to actively seek out those with different experiences and stories and learn from and share with them.
We are all teachers and students alike, but I believe the bigger share of that equation should go to being a student. As the Dalai Lama once said, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” I am trying to learn how to listen.
I suggest you do the same, but I’m no guru. Do whatever you want.
Not only am I not a guru, I don't want one either.
I want to tread carefully here, because I do think there is insurmountable value in teachers, pastors, counselors, writers, and the counsel of wise people in general. If you are going out in the wilderness it’s good to have a map drawn by those that went before you.
But I have observed—whether it’s in the church, academia, or a game of “Simon Says”—a tendency to passively receive and follow instruction from someone simply because they are placed in a position of authority.
I have problems with the whole notion of the “sage on the stage.” One wise person (historically an older white man) that stands up on the stage at the front of the room and declares with confidence just how things are, dispensing truth in shiny prepackaged plastic capsules that we are all expected to swallow without question.
I have problems with this model that are purely practical. Studies have shown that we learn better when we are ourselves engaged with the material through discussion, reflection, or whatever else. This model also relies solely on the teacher to somehow know where everyone in the room is in regards to their understanding and does not allow space for questions and certainly no place at all for criticism.
But I also have problems with this model because all teachers, preachers, pundits, and prophets are—wait for it—still human.
The philosopher Eric Reitan says that, “God is imperfectly encountered in experience, filtered through the assumptions and prejudices and conceptual categories that we bring to our experience.” Or in other words, even if a person is drawing their information from some absolutely pure source of truth, when they begin to explain what they know to you it will be filtered through their upbringing, their biases, their emotional baggage, and perceptions of how the world is. Any teaching you receive is going to contain at least some essence of the teacher.
And again, this is not bad in and of itself. It can actually enrich the teaching once you understand how it was colored by culture and worldview.
Especially when you can compare and contrast those colors with others. The main problem with the dude behind the pulpit being typically old and white is that this is only one limited perspective of the world. And we all benefit the more we get to hear different perspectives and diverse stories. It helps the real Truth come more into focus.
But there is also a danger in limiting yourself to one source of information, especially if you consider that source to be the undiluted Truth.
We can think of the obvious and extreme examples of Jonestown and Westboro Baptist Church, but there are far more cases of this happening in smaller and subtler ways. Anyone who has spent time on Facebook knows that the world is full of people just repeating what they heard someone say about politics or religion without having any real knowledge of what they are talking about.
Because here’s the thing: you and you alone are responsible for what you believe.
This is why Paul told the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It is why Zen masters said that if you encounter the Buddha on the road to kill him. Think for yourself. Listen to others, sure, but remember that this is their first time on Earth too. They might have a flashlight where you only have a candle, but we are all still lost in the dark.
There are, of course, other reasons to be wary of those in power. The #metoo campaign has shown time and time again that people placed in positions of power are capable of doing some horrible things to the people under the care.
And let’s not pretend that this is just a problem of Washington, Hollywood, and the rest of the “secular world.” It is just as bad, if not more prominent, in spiritual communities.
I personally know at least half a dozen pastors and youth pastors that have “fallen into sin” with a minor in their church. I also cannot tell you how many times I have heard of a woman going to the church for marital counseling only to find the pastor try to initiate an affair with them. A lot of us followed closely the story of Jules Wooden, who was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor only to find her church more or less sweeping it under the rug and assigning her at least half the blame for the incident. While I read the story, I remembered an ex-girlfriend describing how her youth pastor did the exact same thing to her.
Abuse in spiritual communities is a widespread problem. Some reports have shown that sexual and molestation is just as bad, if not worse, in Protestant churches as it is for the Catholics (the latter only receiving more attention because they committed a more centralized cover up). This is a problem in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and most surely every other faith tradition. Traditional gurus and new age teachers are no more innocent than the rest.
What makes all of this worse is that faith communities are meant to be safe places. They are even literally called “sanctuaries,” sometimes. These are supposed to be places where it is safe to be vulnerable and find healing and comfort. When someone’s trust is violated in such a sacred space, it becomes hard to feel safe anywhere.
A big part of why this continues to go on is because far too often, churches and faith communities are built off of one big and charming personality. There is a firm belief that the person in charge, the sage on the stage, is meant to be where they are. That they are needed. If they are removed, the whole thing falls apart.
My friend was on staff at a church when the senior pastor got caught repeatedly sleeping with and sometimes stalking married women in his church. When confronted, he told the board that he built the church’s attendance up from nothing and if he is fired, the offerings will fall to nearly nothing. The board cowered and helped cover up the sexual indiscretions until his behavior was found out by other means.
And again, this is not to say that we should do away with all institutions. There is certainly a place for pastors and teachers and others to have a degree of authority. I just believe we need to be careful with how much power and veneration we give to our fellow humans. The more equality we have in our faith communities, the less the whole show revolves around one charismatic person, the better chance these communities have of remaining safe and sane and grounded.
Lastly, I want no guru, method, or teacher because I don’t want my Truth second hand.
Back in my former life, one of my favorite passages of scripture to preach on was Exodus 20. This is the chapter where God gives what we now call the 10 commandments and the rest of the law. What’s interesting though is that God initially speaks to the entire nation of Israel directly. All of Exodus 19 is about how the people should purify themselves and then stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai and wait. Then God descends with full power in smoke and cloud and thunder and powerful audible voice.
And the people utterly freaked out.
Verse 19 tells us that they approached Moses and said, “speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us or we will die.”
This story was a travesty to teenage pentecostal me, and it still deeply resonates with thirty-something mystical agnostic me. It’s probably the only thing we still agree on. 3
Somehow it seems incredibly human that an entire group of people with the opportunity to hear and see and feel something divine and beyond them would opt instead to stand back and have a chosen representative tell them what to do. All because they’d rather not face the fear of the unknown and the awareness that they are really quite small when compared to God or the Universe or whatever it is that is out there.
But I choose not to opt out. I am tired of being satisfied with just hearing that the water is fine. I want to dive in for myself. I want to get lost in the mysteries of life just to see what I can find. And sure, it might prove to be nothing but some cleverly firing neurons and thousands of years of imagination. It might be something bigger and brighter than we have words to convey.
But either way, I don’t want to just take someone else’s word for it. I need to experience it all for myself.
And if you want to come exploring with me, I welcome you. I won’t lead, but we can walk together side by side. I’ll supply the Van Morrison.
1. An unnecessary sentence, but such a fun one to write.
2. I absolutely cannot wait until I meet a fan on the street that excitedly recognizes it and wants to talk about it to the point where I am ultimately forced to confess that, while I don’t like to say I hate anything, I kind of hate Van Morrison. In fact, when I imagine Hell, I think of being stuck for eternity in economy airplane aisle seat while Brown Eyed Girl plays on repeat.
3. That, and maybe a love for the O.C. Supertones