34. Faith In The Guru

Q: I have been suffering terribly because my daughter has gotten into trouble with drugs and men, and I am afraid that she will never have a decent life. I have been a Christian all my life, Robert, and have tried to pass on the teachings of Jesus to my daughter, but she does not believe.

A few years ago I discovered [my guru], and attend her satsangs whenever possible. I have been fortunate enough to have three private meetings with her, and she told me to stop worrying about my daughter. She said that when I attain enlightenment, everything will be different. Until then she told me to take refuge in my faith and in her, my guru. You seem to be an enlightened person. Please tell me what I should do to speed up this process of attaining enlightenment, as I am weary of suffering.

A: Your belief in this woman and in her assurances of your imminent enlightenment may seem comforting, but taking refuge in promises about the future only impedes embracing one’s present natural condition as a human being, which is the only reality I know. The rest is fantasy.

What you are calling “faith” is just another word—a better-sounding one — for credulity , which means accepting an idea simply because one religion or another asserts it, or because an authority figure assures you that it is “Truth.” But how can a book or another person be an authority on your experience? If you believe her teaching, then it is upon your own authority and discernment that you have found her words worthy of credence, which has nothing necessarily to do with her at all, nor the facticity of her assertions, but very likely is a projection of your own needs and pre-existing beliefs onto the image she presents.

There are people who see the mega-church preachers as authorities on spiritual experience. They honestly imagine that Benny Hinn or Creflo Dollar can tell them what “God” wants and doesn’t want and what they must do next— usually send money—in order to be “saved.” Absurd, isn’t it? But why is the unlimited trust you feel for your guru any different? For all you know, she might be dishonest, deluded, or just mistaken.

I dislike the word “enlightenment.” It carries too much baggage. I don’t know what that word means, and if you did, you would not be asking me about how to attain it. Spiritual seekers conjure up fantasies and visions of an extraordinary state, completely different from ordinary life with its fear, pain, uncertainty, and suffering. When finally I am enlightened, this fantasy goes, I will be as I am now, except I will understand everything, the ordinary problems of living will disappear, and I will be happy everlastingly.

That idealistic vision is quite like a child’s belief in the myth of Heaven, which may help to explain why otherwise intelligent people often seem childish in their assessments of famous gurus. Like the image of mommy or daddy in the mind of a toddler, the “enlightened master” knows everything and can do no wrong. With that approach, what is being sought is not understanding at all, but just false security and an end to suffering, such as the religious indoctrination of their childhood promised would reward true believers (while the others burned in hell, of course).

I do not like the way I feel now, so I imagine a state sometime in the future when I have “attained enlightenment.” When that happens, this fairytale goes, I will be special. I will be different from ordinary people. I will not suffer as they do, and as I do now. I will know the answers to my questions. I will know “God.” Perhaps I will have magical powers.

But that is only a fantasy—a daydream of future happiness, future power—and the future never arrives. When tomorrow comes, it comes as the present. It comes not as a fantasy of perfection and salvation from pain, but as the facts and feelings of that very moment—a moment that presently cannot be imagined at all, no matter what your guru promises. So fantasies of future enlightenment and eventual liberation are a denial of the present—a rejection of what actually exists. Such denial is the refuge of a fearful mind that has become addicted to escapism.

Many of us are caught up in a drama we call “My Life.” In that living movie, “I” has the starring role, always right at the center of every scene. Bewitched by the details of that story, everything I think about, everything I do, everything I say, aims at establishing and maintaining the character called “myself” as safe, separate, and distinct from the rest of the world.

My character—the one I call “I” or “myself”—has a body that can become ill and die. “I” knows this because “I” has seen others become ill and die. But the notion that my character, the star of the movie, who has struggled for so long just to establish herself and survive, will die—will cease to exist at all—feels intolerable, so I cling to belief in an afterlife, or many afterlives one after another. I engage in discussions with others about karma, transcendence, enlightenment, and all the rest. And it’s one hundred percent magical thinking, nothing but castles in the air built upon other people’s fantasies about knowing the unknowable.

There will never be a shortage of supposedly “enlightened masters” or “self-realized beings” ready to profit materially, socially, or both by offering to bring about your “enlightenment” too. That is nonsense. The very idea of a separate person—a “someone” who could become enlightened—is already a misconception, a kind of dumbing down or contraction of this aliveness we are.

When I say “contraction” I mean the way a hand is contracted into a fist. Although the hand is still there, it cannot be seen as a hand while the fist is clenched. Upon relaxation, the fist disappears, and the hand appears again “by itself.” The hand was always there, but its contraction into a fist prevented experience of the hand as a hand.

The same is true of aliveness. You do not have to believe anything in order to be alive. Like the stars in the sky, this aliveness is present whether noticed or not, and when the contraction called “myself” relaxes sufficiently, the aliveness feels obvious and indisputable. That relaxation of the clenched “myself” feels like having been roused from a dream to find oneself alive and aware.

No one can do awakening. The very idea of a separate someone doing awakening just clenches “myself” all the more. That’s what the contraction is, after all: fixation upon the idea of a separate person who does things, makes choices, hasa guru, becomes enlightened.

When one sees that the apparently separate character called “myself” will never attain liberation by any means at all—not by practice, not by belief, not by faith, and not by purification—the drama of becoming ends. What is, simply is, and cannot become anything. Each moment feels fresh, different from any other, and entirely unspeakable. The future never arrives. Enlightenment is a non-issue—not worth thinking about. One simply experiences what living human beings experience from moment to moment, and that’s it. And that is sufficient.

Q: Hearing that puts me into a state of panic. Without my faith in Jesus and my guru I would be totally alone trying to cope with my pain.

A: You are alone now, just as we all are, regardless of how many friends, lovers, and family one may enjoy. You were born alone, and will die alone. But clinging to second-hand ideas and beliefs—whether they come from a guru, a scripture, or anywhere else—does nothing to change that aloneness.

No doubt turning one’s back on cherished beliefs can feel daunting and scary, but one finds no real relief in a superstitious embrace of spirituality either. The mind of superstition is a haunted house filled with the ghosts of other people’s religion, other people’s pain, and other people’s fears.

If you had found relief in religion and faith in the guru, you would not have written to me for advice. You have been a reader of my website, so you knew before you asked that I would not mince words or soft-pedal my reply, and yet it was my reply you wanted.

Before signing off, I want to say that I understand your suffering—you have been through a lot by now—but I advise you to stop trying to find refuge in gurus and their teachings. Stop trying to find safety and support in the opinions of others, no matter how enlightened you imagine they are. Just be yourself as best you can moment-by-moment, and then see where you are. That’s as real as it gets.