Greetings! I was recently interviewed for the Shift Network on the topic, Is the Guru Dead? Embracing Light and Dark In Our Teachers. This is a fascinating topic and worth talking about. I believe in today’s “abuse-of-power” culture, we have a big misunderstanding about the term “guru” and the role of the spiritual teacher. I went into more depth in the interview which is available on my media page. But I wanted to underscore a few things I said and explain more here.
The word “guru” means teacher. It also literally means the weighty one, or the heavy. It refers to the power of being in your center to such an extent that you become unmovable in your dedication to follow your heart and stay connected to a bigger energy. Like a cast iron cauldron, the guru is someone with the capacity to hold space for the full spectrum of light and dark, life’s joys and challenges, without getting knocked off balance.
In a broader sense, guru, comes from the term “gurutva” or the guru principle. This describes the process of learning that life is our teacher, if you are open to receive the lessons. If the student is ready, the teacher appears. If you are open and receptive, you will receive the lesson life is trying to give you. Guru is synonymous with grace in that the guru is the power of the universe to reveal your true nature, which is the highest joy, bliss, and the most unimaginable experience of the light of the divine. In this sense, guru is the process by which we are led from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, from the limited to the unlimited, mortal to the immortal.
“Gu” means dark. “Ru” means light. The traditional definition of guru is the one who reveals the light and leads you out of darkness. But the guru does not have to be a person or a teacher in the form of a human. All of nature, all of life is our teacher. A friend who is able to really be there for you during your darkest hour is, in fact, a guru for you at that time.
I’ll never forget how my wife, Ann, was a guru for me many times, and still is.
Several years ago I injured my neck. It was a severe herniated disc and the orthopedist recommended surgery. I actually scheduled my surgery date and had to cancel my first Asian Yoga Workshop Tour. I was bummed. I got a second opinion from the teaching hospital outside of Boston during the time leading up to my surgery. The doctors there all conferred that I should cancel my surgery and wait it out using natural means to heal. The picture from the MRI was inconclusive and they thought I might be able to heal. They gave me steroids and vicodon to ease the pain. I hadn’t been able to sleep for weeks; I was in so much pain, especially at night. Before I got the vicodon (which I only took at night for about a week), I would not be able to sleep. I would get up in the middle of the night and pace the house moaning and groaning in pain. One night Ann got up with me. She held my hand softly and walked at my slow pace reassuring me with sweet words of love. She said things to me, like, “You’re going pull through this. You will heal. You are a strong yogi. You are in your heart. All of the angels are surrounding you. You’ve overcome challenges tougher than this before. You can do it again. Grace loves you. There’s love and support here for you. You are strong in your spirit. I love you. Your pain is diminishing.” Feeling her love, I stopped and wept deeply. I hadn’t really slowed down or acknowledged my pain until that moment. I began to calm down. The pain began to ease off enough for me to fall into a deep sleep. When I awoke the next morning, my pain was gone. Even though the pain returned, this was the beginning of my healing. I felt so held, safe, and loved. Ann was my guru in that moment. She was a pillar of support for me and was able to hold space for me in my moment of suffering with a wide-open spacious heart. I’ll never forget the power of her love.
Is the guru dead? Not at all. How could it be? If you define guru as the process of awakening, he/she is here to stay. But guru in the form of a spiritual teacher who abuses his power and his/her students? That’s got to go and I believe it’s on its way out. More and more spiritual teachers are getting called on their patterns of abuse. I believe we are in a time when the students have matured and demand the highest integrity from their teachers. I believe what’s needed is for teachers and gurus to stand strong in their power, which must include the capacity to be vulnerable. The new guru is someone who walks their talk with humility and admits defeat, yet is a role model for having the strength and courage to follow their heart, face their pain, and be willing to take responsibility for their actions.
I feel qualified to speak about this because I personally had two spiritual teachers and communities crash and burn due to the founder abusing the power of the seat. In any authority role, be it a spiritual teacher, schoolteacher, professor, priest, supervisor, boss, parent, older sibling, politician, or friend, abusing your power is abusing your power. This is not an issue about gurus. It’s an issue about decency, morality, and treating others and all of life with respect. It’s about creating and honoring sacred space wherever you go. Anodea Judith says it so eloquently; “We must shift from the love of power to the power of love.”
The guru is the one who is a pillar of support for others in their darkest hour and time of need. They are willing to be the torchbearer of consciousness and put themselves in the way of grace to make a difference in people’s lives, to instill inspiration and hope, and to offer perspectives that challenge our smallness. The only way anyone can authentically be with someone else in their darkness is by doing their own inner work to be with and understand their own darkness. Only to the extent you can be with your own pain, are you able to be with others in theirs. This is why I emphasize in Ashaya Yoga™ the necessity of doing your own deep inner work. You must get to know all parts of yourself: shadow and light. “If you don’t think you have a shadow, then you must not be standing in the light.” (Deepak Chopra). Embracing your shadow does not have to be a gloomy process. But as Brene Brown says in her CD set, “Men Women and Worthiness”, you need to walk through the swamplands of your shame in order to get to know how it operates. Naming your shame is one of the ways to short-circuit your shadow. According to Brown, what feeds shame is secrecy, silence, and judgment. What diminishes shame is naming it, exposing it, and having self-empathy. The yoga of shame is the process of bringing your darkness into the light with full self-acceptance and compassion.
In addition to the guru being the power of the universe to reveal your true nature, it’s also the power that conceals your true nature. When you learn how to stand in your shadow (blind spot, negative pattern, addiction) and face the truth of it and really try to understand what’s driving your behavior, you will learn a lot about yourself. With the proper support, environment, and love, you can often come out of these debilitating, self-sabotaging patterns. Often, you can learn more from your darkness than from your light. Embracing both light and dark is the road to true fulfillment and happiness.
I am very moved and touched by all of the students in my recent courses who’ve had the courage to explore their shadow with me. Like rich, deep, dark soil, the shadow is the fertile ground where seeds of light are planted. It is through the integration of the dark, that your authentic light grows brighter. But be careful of becoming stuck in your shadow. Too much “gu” becomes “gooey”. It will swallow you whole. But also be careful of “ruing” too much, going for the light only. Debbie Ford’s book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers is very revealing.
In the course of my spiritual journey, believe me, I’ve done both gu and ru to the extreme! And through that process, I’ve learned how to source my own inner guru, my own inner light. This light reveals itself when you go to the place in the middle, deep in your heart.
One of the beautiful things to remember about gurus is that their true purpose, and perhaps their only purpose, is to point the way to your own inner guru, known as the sadguru, deep in your heart. After all, that’s what the acronym guru means: Gee (G) You (U) Are (R) You (U)!
When you wake up to “gee you are you” you return home to your heart, where you recognize you are already whole and complete. As professor Douglas Brooks says, “You are perfectly unfinished just as you are.” In other words, you are okay just as you are in all of your imperfections and there is more to be revealed. The spiritual journey is never finished. It is an ever-evolving process of awakening. I am excited to be on this path of awakening together with you. May we support each other to embrace our shadows and bravely grow our light in community, with great love, respect, and humility. I offer you all of my love and support.