“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” ~on gurus and growth
I’ve been interested in spirituality for a very, very long time. I felt drawn to the sacred from quite an early age, despite ours not being a church going family. My parents had both been both church goers and even Sunday School leaders (my dad had been in the Crusaders) and both have a faith. But for some reason, church going ceased during my childhood. Yet I was always drawn towards religious art (such as the classic pictures of Bible stories you found usually in the King James’ version) and towards religious and spiritual symbols. My older brother poured not just scorn but active contempt on it and I ended up creating a tiny shrine inside my bedside cupboard, where he was less likely to wreck things or poke fun at it. I was about seven or eight at the time.
I’ve no idea why I was like this but that longing for the divine, the mystical and the magical has been with me my whole life. I’ve read a great deal of popular Christian books as well as some ‘proper’ theology and in my twenties I began to explore aspects of other faiths and spirituality that seemed to call to me. By my thirties I’d stepped off a mainstream path and had begun to explore things that many would consider dodgy and dangerous. Looking back, I can’t see why any of my explorings caused such consternation among my peers (some of whom considered aromatherapy to be suspect and potentially devilish.) Having encountered extreme narrow-mindedness that tried to dictate what was and what wasn’t a valid spiritual path for others to take, probably influenced a good deal of the story in Square Peg, but even now, many years later, I still find it both shocking and disappointing that so many people can regard other spiritual paths as evil and dangerous. I suspect this is quite possibly the root of all religious wars.
One of the things though that is common to all spiritual paths are people who are regarded as leaders, gurus and guides. For most of us, our most common brush with them is via their works, whether they write books, produce music, speak at conferences or broadcast via podcasts, TV or film. Oh and possibly blogs and other social media platforms as well now. I’ve often said you can judge what stage a subject is at in its arc of popularity by how many books are devoted to it on the Mind Body Spirit shelf in a big chain bookshop; by the time it has filled the shelf, the subject has already begun to wane in popularity, due to the lag between commissioning a book and seeing it published.
People have favourite authors in the spiritual arena just as much as they do for fiction and these are authors that have become, in essence, gurus. Each new book, each new set of oracle cards are awaited with great eagerness. One of the most famous authors in this area is Paulo Coelho, author of the allegorical novel The Alchemist (and a lot of others since that came out over twenty years ago). I’ve mildly enjoyed his books, but I stopped buying new ones a long while ago. I even spent some time on the discussion forum connected to his website but I stopped when I noticed something disturbing. Huge numbers of his followers, the greater majority, simply seemed to worship the man and his books. The language they used on the forum was sycophantic and pleading, and I found myself so uncomfortable with their attachment to a man they can’t possibly know, that I left and never returned.
There are two other authors I’ve encountered who have produced dozens of books in a largely New Age vein, whose fans are desperate for the next instalment of their wisdom. Both write about angels, archangels, spirit guides, mermaids, dolphins, unicorns and so on. I’ve read a number of their books, over the years, and I’ve found them to be a bit like meringue: sweet, pretty, easy to consume and full of empty calories. My favourite pagan and spiritual shop stocks these books (and set after set of oracle cards) and I’ve asked a few times why the owner sells them when she agrees with me that they’re spirituality-lite at best. It’s because people WANT them. They want more of the same, but a little different so they feel they’re learning something new.
Human beings are drawn by both novelty and familiarity. Something new yet something old and familiar. It’s the same for spirituality as it is for food and anything else. You have to have a kind of progression, something to build on and improve on. My concern about the books I mention above is that there’s little or nothing about the actual growth of the individual reader; there’s a subtle hook to keep you buying the next book (or set of cards). There does come a time when to make progress a leap in the dark is essential. To quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Last is the breath of God: Only in a leap from the lion’s head shall he prove his worth. It’s by taking that leap of faith of proceeding when you don’t have either map or guide, that you realise that the only good guide or guru is one who encourages you to leave them behind and move into unknown territory. A good guru teaches you the skills and the wisdom to manage without them at your side every step of the way.
One of my favourite books of all time is Mister God, This is Anna. I would encourage anyone to read this book and make what you will of it, but one of the most powerful things about it is that it stands alone. Apart from a couple of other books that the author wrote to try and share a few more stories, Mister God stands alone. It’s supposed also to be a true story, and I believe that by and large it is a true story. But the source of the wisdom and words is long, long gone and is beyond the pressures of a publisher demanding a new book every two years, expanding and enhancing the words of the original.
My spiritual journey is unique. I cannot tell anyone what theirs should be. But I can say this: at some point, you have to stop following guides and gurus, and find your path for yourself. If they were good guides, they have given you their best tools to help you. At that point, you have to take that leap from the lion’s mouth and put your best foot forward.
“The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I’ve none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.” Marcus Brodie.