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From Issue Fourteen, September 2011 « Previous Article

The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher

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Ed. Note: There are three generally recognized means by which a person can achieve a transformation in consciousness: gradually, through a spiritual practice or some routine of intended change; suddenly, through what is often a traumatic experience or the occasional grace of an aha! moment; and one more unique to Eastern traditions, direct transmission from a recognized guru. Caplan, a professor and psychotherapist who has written extensively and passionately on the topic, strongly advocates for the latter—but not for everyone. Her latest book, excerpted below, carefully maps this particular rabbit hole. For those who remain skeptical, Diana Alstad's and Joel Kramer’s The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Frog Books, 1993) is a provocative exposé of institutional and personal abuse that is still considered a benchmark text about control and exploitation. More recently there is Charles Eisenstein's "Why the Age of the Guru is Over."

Many people who argue against hierarchy in the world of spiritu­ality contend that the concept of the spiritual master as imported from Eastern traditions is old-fashioned or cannot be adapted to Western culture. They say that we in the West have evolved beyond such a dated system of authoritarian rule. Within spiri­tual circles in the United States, the argument can be summed up as follows: the gurus came West in the sixties; we believed in them; we gave them our money, lives, and souls, and they betrayed us with scandals involving money, sex, and power. We have passed through that immature phase and are now ready for the new: the great return to rugged spiritual individualism.

But isn’t this a classic example of American thought? We burned through thousands of years of tradition as quickly as we are burning through all the rest of the world’s natural resources. While we may be surpassing prior technological advances in human history, we hardly outshine our predecessors in terms of spiritual wisdom.

We in the West have been attempting the mass importation of foreign ideals into a culture that is not prepared to support them, and many think such ideals won’t work here. Transplanting spiritual traditions and practices from one culture to another is likely a job of several generations—a labor of love and patience in which we each fulfill the small part we are called upon to play. While we naturally evaluate the process as we go along, it is unwise to jump to quick conclusions about any aspect of it. The traditions we are trying to import require appreciation of their perennial wisdom and careful study of how the knowledge and wisdom they embody can best be integrated into a radically different land. In order to effectively transport Eastern traditions onto Western soil, we are each called upon to fulfill the function of “gnostic inter­mediaries”: individuals who, according to Carl Jung, “personally incorporate the wisdom of a tradition and can then speak directly from their own experience and understanding into the language and concepts of the culture to which they wish to communicate.”1

The Guru versus the Guru Function

Westerners, who are educated to be individualists, have difficulty in grasping the concept that the guru is not so much a person as a function. Of course, the guru function depends for its performance on a human being, and therefore it always occurs in the context of a particular personality. This is what is the most confusing to Western students, who tend to get caught up in externals. —Georg Feuerstein

For the Western mind, making a distinction between the guru or teacher and what he or she represents is one of the most fer­tile grounds for misunderstanding. In The Nine Stages of Spiritual Apprenticeship, Greg Bogart writes: “In the Indian yogic tradi­tions . . . the guru-principle is identified with the power to bestow grace. Thus, the guru is one through whom the con­cealed power and splendor of Shiva, the Supreme Light, is revealed and unfolded within a human being.”2

Yet the external teacher is a person, replete with all of the physi­cal, mental, and psychic functioning that is inherent in human nature. He or she has a personality—largely conditioned—which we may or may not like. It is wonderful if we happen to appreciate, or even adore, the person who is the teacher, for it is liable to make our experience of spiritual practice—our sadhana—much more enjoy­able. But it is not a requirement that our personality resonate with the teacher’s. What we need to look at is whether or not the teach­er’s personality impedes the work of dismantling the stronghold of our ego and empowering our Self—the teacher’s true function.

The individual who assumes a guru function will not neces­sarily be a flawless role model and is unlikely to fulfill the role of good parent, psychologist, personal confidant, or friend. If these functions should arise, they are simply icing on the cake—icing that can become a significant impediment to the student when its appealing flavor causes her to forget she came for the cake!

The situation contains a paradox: although the guru func­tion is entirely distinct from the person and personality of the guru, it is at the same time intricately related to it. The func­tion always exists, but it manifests in connection with the guru’s physical person. Because it takes the form of a human being, it will not only include that person’s personality but will, under optimal circumstances, utilize that very personality—with all its quirks, eccentricities, and even psychological conditioning—as the vehicle for transmitting its teaching. Because of this, there will be times when it requires sharp discernment to distinguish between when the guru function is making use of the teacher’s quirks, eccentricities, and psychological conditioning, and when the teacher is just having a very human moment that has nothing to do with his or her teaching function.

Ken Wilber refers to the “three eyes”—the eye of the flesh, the eye of the mind, and the eye of the spirit—to describe the various levels or channels of perception through which it is possible to perceive any given experience. Both the guru and the guru function can be intellectually addressed through observable experience (the eye of the flesh) and the intellect (the eye of the mind) but can only be understood through the eye of the spirit.

The guru function is, in essence, impersonal. It is not about the personality of the student or the teacher. This is a particularly dif­ficult reality for the student to wrap his or her mind around when the felt experience of the relationship between student and teacher is the most deeply personal bond of love and reverence he or she has ever known. Yet the impersonal nature of this bond is precisely why it produces a quality of feeling and a possibility of exchange rarely found elsewhere in the human experience. It is nothing other than God loving God, Truth loving Truth. In the words of Daniel Moran, “Absolute intimacy is absolutely impersonal.”

When one appreciates the true nature of the guru function, commonly heard statements such as “The guru model is outdated” or “I don’t believe in gurus” become patently absurd. The guru as the guru function cannot be falsified or outdated. It simply is. It is a function existing within the universe that is at times embodied by a particular human being, known as the teacher or the guru. The Guru Gita says,

The guru-principle moves and moves not. It is far as well as near. It is inside everything as well as outside everything.3

The timeless function of transmission—which is what we should really be considering when we talk about the teacher—cannot be outdated. Instead of denouncing the concept and dismissing the possibility of its functioning in our lives, we can focus our atten­tion on embodying our discipleship in such a way that it elicits the true guru function from even a would-be guru.

The ability to facilitate in another human being the soul’s becoming is the greatest of skills, and the one who carries it out is worthy of humble reverence.

Ego and Annihilation

Lying deep at the bottom of even the most justified and intelli­gent arguments against the spiritual teacher is an all-encompassing terror of ego annihilation. So terrified is the ego of dying to its exclusive identification with who we are, and so clever are its ways, that more often than not, this fear camouflages itself in the guise of a bulletproof dharmic intellect whose classically favored target is the spiritual teacher. For the authentic teacher is ego’s archenemy.

Ego is a function that arises as a condition of incarnation. Its primary purpose is to ensure the survival of the human organism. Its programming begins sometime after conception; within the first years of the child’s life, it forms a set of core belief systems about who it is, what life is like, and what to expect from its incarnation as a body. Ego constructs series upon series of con­ceptual boxes in order to organize and manage the life of its host in an otherwise chaotic world.

Difficulties arise when the ego identifies itself with the body, which is what ego is designed to do, prior to intensive spiritual work. Since its function is survival, it then proceeds to base all activity, thoughts, and actions upon what will ensure the survival of the particular home (body) it inhabits. In so doing, it sepa­rates itself from everyone else and, in a subtle and unconscious way, begins to perceive the world as an adversary best conquered through control, ownership, and manipulation. Ironically, how­ever, its only real adversary is itself.

When what existed prior to ego awakens within an individual, he or she often experiences a tremendous shift in inner percep­tion. Something long dormant begins to yearn to know and be known. Thus begins the spiritual search. Sometimes one is fully conscious of the process; at other times it takes place entirely beneath the surface. In the latter case, people often say, “In retro­spect, I realize I was always searching for God/Truth but didn’t have the language to describe it.”

When all elements are in their rightful place, in accordance with mysterious timing in the Universe, the meeting with the teacher occurs. It is as if the longing of the soul finally prevails over the heaviness of the ego—even if only for a short while. The teacher comes on the scene to respond to the call that has been held in the soul’s throat until now.

However, because the teacher is simultaneously the benefac­tor and nemesis of the ego, the relationship with the teacher will always include elements of push-pull, love-hate. For the teacher does not love the student’s exterior or personality, but the soul itself, which has been crying to be set free since its birth or even earlier. It knows that only a true teacher, and what he or she represents, can free it. Though the would-be student has been starving for the appearance of the teacher, that very presence rep­resents the greatest egoic threat he or she has ever faced. This is the student’s great bind.

The teacher’s job description is to conquer egoic identifica­tion while knowing very well that at the crucial junctures of its defeat, the student will view him or her with scrutiny, doubt, criticism, and mistrust. From the student’s ego’s perspective, the teacher is trying to kill the student. Yet when a crack appears in the protective walls of ego and, through the vehicle of the teacher, something of God or Truth seeps in, the student experiences an unparalleled quality of love. Thus the drama of life with the teacher is one of alternating longing and resistance, love and war, emptiness and fulfillment. It is the only way it can be, a perspec­tive important to maintain during more difficult periods.

The spiritual teacher is not necessary if one does not aspire to fulfill one’s highest human potential in God or Truth. But if this is your goal, I must recommend conscious discipleship in rela­tionship with a deep and sincere openness to spiritual guidance. In the words of the late Robert Ennis, from a personal interview:

The chances of someone awakening without a teacher are like the chances of getting pregnant without a partner. The spiritual teacher is the partner that is necessary for spiritual birth. Not too many immaculate conceptions happen.

Having attempted many years of spiritual life without a teacher and spent many more as a spiritual vagabond, and having received the benefits of working with an authentic teacher, I cannot imag­ine why one would dare to cross the shark-infested waters of the ego without a boatman. Still, if you have not experienced an authentic teacher—or have had encounters with teachers who could not keep the boat afloat or tossed you overboard to fend for yourself—it is wholly understandable that you would be skeptical about finding a trustworthy teacher. But I remain convinced that true disciples in search of an authentic teacher will eventually find their way to the one they seek.

Excerpted from The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher by Mariana Caplan. Reprinted with permission from Sounds True. ©2011, Mariana Caplan.


1. Roger Walsh, “The Search for Synthesis: Transpersonal Psychology and the Meeting of East and West, Psychology and Religion, Personal and Transpersonal,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 32, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 31.

2. Ken Wilber, One Taste (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), p. 43.

3. Ibid., p. 238.

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    HarryShan Sep 07, 2011

    Intriguing article and tough subject. Despite the efforts of the author to change the idea we have of gurus, or the guru function, there is still something that doesn't feel right. Whatever way you put it, granting "humble reverence" to another individual because of its supposed function still remains, to me, an unhealthy mental attitude. The notion of humility suggests an hierarchy in self-worth, believing that some individuals are more elevated than you are. The notion of reverence even suggests a kind of a submission to a higher power. And that is where the core of the Guru Issue in the western world stands. So why say that the guru idea has been misunderstood when a few paragraphs later the author is going back to stating strongly her belief in the very disturbing aspect of guru, that is the submission to another individual? It doesn't feel to me that the whole issue with the western world is about being "outdated" or "not adapted", that would be a rational argument to a subject that is not. In the end it's just a matter of belief systems. Some people believe that some individuals are more worthy than others where people like me believe in the diversity and value of everyone individual's wisdom and experience, that can't be put into a hierarchy because that would be absurd. Who's the wisest? That man who spent years studying yoga and meditation or that one, a farmer, who knows so well the secret strengths of the earth? Noone can say, and noone will truly say, because they are two different experiences, complementary and equally necessary to the expansion of the human mind.

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    HarryShan Sep 07, 2011

    I personnaly went through several years of jungian psychotherapy, and I got very fond of Jung myself. Jung was an interesting man in that he found of extreme importance for a man like him to work the land, to stay connected to the very pragmatic aspects of life and nature. It's just another way for me to say that wisdom doesn't only lie in inner achievements but in very grounded, earthly, explorations as well. Which leads me to the ego conception of the author. The ego is an aspect of the mind that helps us deal with the dayly and basic aspects of life. The author writing gives the uncertain impression that she has a negative view of the ego or at least she fears or doesn't trust it (which would be consistent with the freudian tradition). Maybe she could clarify her view. The ego is not an enemy, it's an ally that is not just about survival but also about pleasure and appreciation of life.
    What is striking in the words of the author is the separation she makes between for example the function of the guru and his personality. or between the spiritual person/life and the non-spiritual life. Everything is connected in the universe, why then try to make separations? And life is a spiritual experience in itself, why create a dichotomy where there is none? We are all spiritual beings from the birth on, and that spirituality is not just about diaphanous thoughts but also about all the very concrete experiences you have in this reality.
    Obviously, it's all a very personal opinion, but that's the point : there isn't one best way to go about life ;)

  • slowlygetnthar Sep 08, 2011

    In response to HarryShan's comment that 'Whatever way you put it, granting "humble reverence" to another individual because of its supposed function still remains, to me, an unhealthy mental attitude.'

    I always think of the greeting, "Namaste!" that is said, in India, with hands in a prayerful position in front of the heart chakra. It is a "Hello!," meaning "I bow to you," or "God/Spirit in me bows to the presence of God/Spirit in you," but it is also an acknowlegement of the being as a soul, "I acknowledge the soul within you." Greeting strangers with this sort of hello naturally makes one more aware of and open to the fact that guru or not, a soul stands before me reflecting universal God/Spirit light. Doesn't that just naturally evoke reverence?

    Spirit is amazing. I don't think humbling myself in the light of someone else's spirit belittles me or provokes an "unhealthy attitude." Instead, my heart beats a little more joyfully, because I am sensing the best in that person, and thus, reflect the same back.

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    HarryShan Sep 08, 2011

    I see what you mean, Slowly, and I like the way you put it. Acknowledging someone's soul, "guru or not", is a nice way to greet each other. The important part of what you say is in that "guru or not". What's troubling me in Caplan's words is that she puts the guru above and apart form other people and grants them this humble reverence because of their function. I want to believe in everyone's worth and I don't believe in making some people feel extra worthy over other people for whatever reason. But like I said it's a matter of beliefs systems, so I respect that Caplan can have a different one, it's her choice.

    I guess what feels troubling is that the overall tone of the text is kind of patronizing and a little judgemental towards the people who would dismiss the guru concept. As you can notice most of the style in the text presented here is impersonal and in a passive form, which gives an authoritative impact to the different statements, as if it's indisputable facts, where again, it sounds to me like a personal worldview, and as such is not an absolute but is most valuable for the person who holds it. This is a symptom of our times, we tend to apply our personal worldview to the rest of the world thinking we have the way for everyone, and that's when conflicts arise. It is not simple to realize this and I admit I'm the first one to struggle with that, as I suspect everyone else does.

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    mbauwens Sep 12, 2011

    Some remarks.

    One, the guru function is to be distinguished from the human carrying it out, is there a specific reason why the guru should be an individual. For example, in masonry, and other esoteric western traditions, there is no guru person, but the 'ritual' is the guru, i.e. grace is transmitted through the ritual. Alternative, one could think of the guru as a collective? (see the article, The Next Buddha is a Collective", via google).

    My second remark is, why can't the guru not be a technical function. The problem with guru's in the West, is that they made extraordinary claims and took extraordinary powers. But one can be a 'teacher' with limited power and controlled by one's peers, in a 'particular' area of life.

    Is 'grace' scarce? Why do we consider that only a guru can transmit grace? Isn't that a scarcity paradigm and is that the only legitimate conception of grace?

    Michel Bauwens,

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    moyshekapoyre Apr 02, 2012

    I do think I will buy this book, based on the review I read here.

    I think that looking for a good guru is kind of like looking for a good psychologist. Well, I guess it's a bit different, since usually psychologists are not total charlatans--they may be not be so great, but they are rarely much worse than nothing, which is the opposite of the situation with gurus (since gurus often find it appropriate to physically and/or emotionally and/or financially abuse their disciples, whereas psychologists will hardly ever really abuse you in ways besides financial).

    Some would say that finding your true Self is a journey only you can navigate, and I think that makes some sense. On the other hand, the same could be said in terms of ending negative self-talk, yet there are good psychologists who can really help you to do that if you are unable to do it by yourself.

    Perhaps it is beneficial for you to find a guru and maybe even become so advanced that you become disillusioned with the guru--and maybe you can even help your guru advance at that point.

    Basically it's all a gamble, like everything in life. The only real advice I have is: due not neglect your intellect. If a guru claims that karma is a universal law of cause and effect, for example, and yet also claims that he can take away your Karma, ask him how that makes any sense. If he cannot explain it in a way that makes sense, just forget him and move on. Also, just because a guru seems to possess magical powers DOES NOT mean he is a perfectly enlightened one. There are U.S. Military remote viewers. That proves that psychic powers can be achieved by anyone, regardless of purity of intent.

    Btw, the gurus I have found most interesting so far are: Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and Franklin Merrill-Wolff (read his Experience and Philosophy), and Richard Moss, the one who is still alive. Actually I don't think any of those people would call themselves gurus. They were all very honest about their own ever-expanding spiritual journeys, and their own deep ignorance relative to what they know can be known.

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    romione Apr 06, 2012

    The article above seems to be saying (to me) that we are either Now Here of No Where. When I give my allegiance to another's direction I am abandoning my Self, unless that allegiance is made from the desire to grow into indepencence and I cannot do that when I lose myself in another's pattern. Some times it is necessary to seek a guru to get new direction but not to lose the direction of my call. I think the role of the guru to make the guru unnecessary? so that the individual might find many such guides in a lifetime of searching.

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