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Do You Need a Guru?

Do You Need a Guru?

Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets

by Mariana Caplan, PhD

  • Reviewed by Stephen Dinan on March 1, 2004

    On the spiritual path, there is no issue more fraught with peril than the “Guru Question.” Sometimes it leads to heated debate, other times to uncomfortable silence. One side judges the foot-kissing devotee as regressive, and the other judges the aloof, independent seeker as unwilling to brave the fire surrounding an authentic master. Most seekers have a strong opinion on the One Right Answer. Rarely is there room for a more multifaceted and nuanced assessment.

    Mariana Caplan penetrates this obfuscating haze in her book, leaving only the warm sunlight of authenticity and wisdom. She shares intimate moments she has had with her guru Lee Lozowick, her many misfires with spiritual teacher wannabes, and tales of breathtaking vulnerability and ego-dissolving humor. Every pratfall produces new insight, and Caplan has become a connoisseur, unabashedly using her misadventures with itinerant hippies, lecherous shamans, and “I’m-not-a-guru” gurus to illustrate her insights into power, awakening, and the unique complexities of the student-teacher relationship. She wields her psychological savvy like a warrior, daring to say truths that most avoid, and ultimately opens the reader to the fresh breeze of possibility where there once was only defense.

    Caplan advocates a stance called “conscious discipleship” in which our discrimination, doubt, and resistance are welcomed into the crucible of transformation that occurs in an authentic and sacred teacher-student relationship. To become a conscious disciple, we are asked to become a mature seeker, one who is responsible, surrendered, intelligent, and psychologically savvy. This type of seeker does not attract or create the fraudulent, abusive, regressive behavior that has often given guru-disciple relationships a bad name. As we mature, so do our teachers. In this refreshing stance, she breaks the psychological gridlock of focusing purely on what is right or wrong about the way a particular spiritual teacher behaves, and puts the responsibility back on ourselves for our own growth. Part of this responsibility for our own growth, however, is putting ourselves in the fire of as much truth, love, and transmission as our systems can handle. Caplan makes the case that it is very hard for us to turn up the heat as high as it can go without a powerful teacher to facilitate the process. The process of surrender (and even obedience) to a teacher can be seen as part of our own responsibility to turn up that inner heat until all of our resistances, defenses, and veils can be incinerated.

    Though her case is compelling, Caplan is sometimes prey to a universalizing tendency. Rather than seeing a singular guru relationship as best for a particular individual at a particular time in their development, she often argues that it is generally the best structure for spiritual development, and that it is a lifelong thing. My personal observation is that having a strong spiritual authority with whom to work can be best for some years or decades, perhaps followed by a time of independence, then perhaps a time of working with multiple teachers. A second small critique of Caplan’s work is her hilarious but slightly heartless tendency to box up most teachers, seekers, and relationships as inauthentic, New Age or false, thus elevating her own stance and her own favored teachers, many of whom nonetheless do give compelling interviews, which are found at the end of every chapter. There may be objective truth in these stances, but occasionally the New-Age-bashing smells of cliquishness rather than compassion.

    Regardless of these minor critiques, this book is powerful medicine—an antidote to laziness around the guru question. Caplan fearlessly tackles such tough topics as crazy wisdom, sexual transmission, guru games, projection dynamics, and obedience, and exposes the transformative logic that may underpin even morally questionable activities. She is provocative, so much so that I found myself challenging and even changing some of my long-held beliefs in the course of the book. I also opened to a deep hunger to work in a more committed, long-term way with a spiritual master.

    The intimacy of Caplan’s tales makes this into something of a love story—an adventure into the sacred nectar at the core of existence through the twists and turns of a committed teacher-student relationship. Though her logical arguments are powerful, what is most compelling is the realness of her love, the poignancy and intensity of her journey, and her willingness to lay it all on the line. For that, I bow down in gratitude to Caplan, and recommend that we heed her call for all of us to step into divine adulthood through the honoring of authentic spiritual mastery and the blessings it can bestow.

    Review published in Shift magazine

guru, student, teacher
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