Monday, July 15, 2013

The Trouble with Gurus

From Wikipedia (first paragraph of the entry): "Guru (Devanagari गुरु) is a Sanskrit term for "teacher" or "master", especially in Indian religions. The Hindu guru-shishya tradition is the oral tradition or religious doctrine or experiential wisdom transmitted from teacher to student. In the United States, the meaning of "guru" has been used to cover anyone who acquires followers, especially by exploiting their naiveté, due to the inflationary use of the term in new religious movements."
Hint: This is not how you learn The Craft.
 When I speak of gurus, I am not speaking of the traditions that they actually come from (such as forms of Hinduism or Sikhism). Since I have not experienced those teaching systems or those cultures in any prolonged period, I cannot speak to that. What I am speaking of here of New Age and Pagan-esque teachers who fashion themselves to be a guru of sorts.

You probably can name a few of these BNPs (Big Name Pagans) and New Age gurus. They sell books, go on the lecture circuit, run workshops, and take money and publicity for it all. I have several problems with this phenomenon, besides the capitalist incursion into spirituality (which I will also address).

My three big issues with the gurus are: 1. Lack of accountability, 2. Capitalism disguised as spirituality/religion, 3. Ego and individuality.

Sorry, it had to be done.
1. Lack of accountability: Unlike religions that have employed a guru system for years, there is no system of accountability (other than the free market, which as we all know, provides no accountability at all) with the "new gurus". They stitch together this and that, using irresponsible spiritual eclecticism to create something not only stolen from other systems, but repurposed and refashioned *just enough* to sound fairly modern or fresh- and completely unchallenging to the "practitioner". And unlike the systems' spiritual origins, most of these "new" systems do not require the sacrifice that older systems require for "enlightenment". To paraphrase a friend of mine who is in Lukumi, "would these "seekers" voluntarily give up human touch for an entire year and only wear white to symbolize their separateness? Very doubtful." And that is exactly why these gurus get so many followers. They offer feel-good platitudes that don't really trouble the spiritual waters. They make seekers feel as if they are doing something profound, yet don't really change much (other than the seeker's bottom line, that is).

Because there are no cultural systems in place that hold these leaders accountable, you often see:
  • Rituals that host gods from myriad cultures smooshed together with no real understanding of context and history (I have seen Hellenic Greek goddesses paired with Orisha ones- because "they have the same vibe". I have seen people calling upon a being to "aid in our work" when that being does not have a established relationship with anyone in the room.
  • You get workshops on "self work" that pull from 3 or more spiritual traditions, when the teacher is a master in none of them. And no- time spent dabbling does not make one a "master". Masters spend YEARS learning from those who have come before.
  • You see teachers broadcasting themselves as leaders and experts as much as possible (mostly all over the web) and changing their focus to the flavor du jour (to attract new followers): "I am a warlock!" "I am all about conjure!- meet me at the crossroads!"*
  • You see students and seekers harming themselves or their relationships with no ramifications for the teacher. 
  • You see teachers taking as many students as possible (there is money to be made, after all) and justifying the numbers by saying things like "I let the gods sort it out. Students will drop out if this path isn't for them." (All the while taking their money and not giving any one student enough time and attention to actually develop spiritually.)

2. Capitalism disguised as religion and/or spirituality: Want to really know if your teacher cares about your spiritual growth? Tell him/her that there will be no more money forthcoming. See what happens. Real spiritual teachers mentor individuals or small groups- actual apprentices who learn skills and get one-to-one attention from a mentor/teacher.

Several decades ago, I did a pastry apprenticeship. I was determined to become a pastry chef and jumped through lots of hoops to get a coveted spot at one of the luxury hotels in San Francisco. (That's another thing- not everyone is cut out for this work, and not everyone should be accepted as an apprentice. In my winnowing process, I was with hundreds of candidates who went through a written test, then a group interview (you do not know intimidation until you sit in a single chair across from a table of six chefs looking down their nose at you!), then ranked. The top 10 people were dispatched to individual interviews at hotels that had spots. I had two interviews and actually managed to get the spot at one of them. This process was nerve wracking.

Contrast this with my education in Witchcraft. I bounced from workshop to workshop, book to book, coven to group, to circle. I started this path in 1989. All groups admitted me with no prejudice. I learned a little, but did not grow spiritually- because frankly all involved were novices- even those calling themselves "High Priestess" or similar titles. Fast forward to 2006. When I discovered (and was hit on the head by) the tradition that I ultimately was initiated into, I sought the first teacher that I knew of. Seekers just starting out will only know of the BNPs and those attending Cons, of course. S/he was a BNP and did lots of workshops and had a book. I was required to wait til a class formed later that year and fill out a questionnaire. Then I was accepted and paid quite a bit of money to learn. I was in a class of over 30 people that met quarterly. We did not talk to or meet with our teacher very often in between. Indeed, many were intimidated to approach hir outside of "class".

To be fair, I grew spiritually from that experience with that teacher. I was required to form spiritual discipline- and so the work I was asked to do on my own- a daily sitting practice and other tools of alchemy opened me up to what would follow. And this class opened me to meeting others who would ultimately lead me to a teacher who taught The Craft in the way that it is meant to be taught.

Back to the Pastry Chef analogy: Once I was accepted into an apprentice position, I went to work *as a full time job* and learned from three others in the pastry kitchen. Was I paying for my learning, as they expect you to do at culinary school? Hell no. Being a culinary or pastry apprentice (or a Witch's apprentice) does not mean you pay them. I made $6 per hour (a pittance in the SF Bay Area, even back then), got one meal per shift, full medical and dental benefits, and again, was taught how to be a pastry chef in one of SF's top hotels. I worked very hard- getting up before dawn and dragging my tired butt home in the afternoon. In exchange, my masters were required to teach me everything listed in the apprenticeship guidelines.  My teachers were brutal at times (you do not know hell until you have served under a French pastry chef who was himself hazed as an apprentice.)- but they did teach me the skills. Was I also asked to PAY for these lessons? Hell No.

Is it any wonder that in the capitalist system we live under that most people have shifted from an apprentice model to a classroom model? People in the US go to "culinary school" instead of learning in the kitchen as they do in Europe and elsewhere. People go to workshops and study in "classes" to learn their spiritual "lessons". It is a tragedy. In terms of The Craft, not only does it mean poor quality of teaching, less time spent with each individual seeker, and paying out the nose for some students, it means poor candidates being initiated and brought into the fold for the tradition. It is a lose-lose.

That is not to say that I didn't "pay" my teacher/initiator. Even as a poor peron, when I was an Craft apprentice, I would bring my teacher gifts or offer gifts of service from time-to time. Nothing extravagant, just things I thought that she would appreciate. It was an offering from my heart. Nothing like the money that I was expected to pay monthly in my relationships with previous teachers- that was an obligation and duty.

In my tradition, a master (yes, I used that word instead of teacher, despite the fact that Americans in particular have baggage around it.) takes an apprentice to teach them a specific job- that of a Witch. Witchcraft is a job description, not an identity. There will be work that a student/apprentice needs to do in order to advance in their skills and be an effective Witch.

True spiritual teachers want to see you frequently, know about your life and personal progress, and will ask you to work actively towards that goal. Contrast that with Lifestyle gurus and these new-fangled, self-styled spiritual gurus in neo-paganism, Neo-Wicca, and even within legitimate traditions**.

I recently discovered this website, (and this one, retch) aimed at the gurus themselves. It ticks me off. It feeds the guru cycle by congratulating teachers in this genre and patting them on the back. It is an echo chamber reinforcing their exploitation.

*My tradition, before it split into two was a flavor du jour for a while there. It brought a lot of dilution to the actual practice and some n'er do wells to our door. Ultimately, the trad broke into two- and the ones who are the most visible are in the fork that does a lot of the things I outline here as reckless. But it is not the only trad that is affected by unscrupulous guru-ism, to be sure. Wicca (which is also an initiatory tradition from the lines of Gardner and Sanders, mostly) has been diluted to a shadow of its self by neo-Wicca and too many fluffy books by authors and leaders with names like "Golden Crowdog" or "Misty Willow Moon" and such.

** Although if you ask around enough (and know who to ask), you will find that these "gurus" do NOT have the respect or blessings for what they are doing of the majority of people within their own tradition.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! It really needed to be said, and I will be directing my apprentices to read it too.


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