“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” ~on gurus and growth

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. 

When gurus get it horribly wrong

This story may have been in the news where you are and two separate people forwarded it to me. It is a dramatic and intense example of how easy it is to fall under the spell of a guru and how easy it is for people with charisma to make horrendous mistakes and abuse their power. If you know anything about sweat lodges, a certain amount of discomfort is normal but no sane leader would push particpants beyond this. A tragedy all the same; and people paid $9,000 dollars for it.


Dreams, visions and Dead Sea Fruits

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats

You may be familiar with the poem above by W BYeats; it’s a personal favourite and not just for the lyrical magical language and sentiments. The tragedy of the reality behind it gets to me too; the woman did not tread softly.

To dismiss or criticise someone’s dreams and hopes and ambitions is a terrible thing, and I’d be willing to bet than most people here have had it happen to them. I’d also be willing to bet that whether you admit it to yourself, you will probably have done it, probably unintentionally, to someone dear to you. From personal experience, it hurts disproportionately to have it done to you. So I’m treading very softly here and I would ask that you read what I say carefully because I know I will be treading a very fine path between clarifying my own thoughts and seeming to criticise others, indirectly. I am aiming at promoting self examination, not self mutilation.

I have dipped from time to time into the blog of writer Paulo Coelho. You are probably familiar with his most famous book, The Alchemist, which is a story that is often quoted as being about someone following their dream. I did rather enjoy the book, which is written in a naive and slightly fairytale manner. I don’t read the blog for Coelho’s words, but rather for the responses of the readers, and it has begun to disturb me enormously.

I’m rather hazy about exactly why it all disturbs me so much. I have a dislike of gurus, especially living ones, and find it hard to nail my colours so firmly to a mast as so many of Coelho’s fans have done, and become incapable of accepting that their guru has faults and failings, and does not hold all wisdom. Every little snippet of pseudo-wisdom is snapped up and devoured eagerly. The one that is most eagerly devoured is the concept of following your dream.

It is consuming many people and it terrifies me, because of the effects this will have. I believe that many people are actually destroying thir own lives because of a misunderstanding.

When I was a kid, one of my dreams was to become an astronaut. A little later it was to become a doctor and find a cure for cancer. You might smile, but these were very important to me then. But they changed. I began to realise not only would it be nigh-on impossible to become an astonaut, but also that it was something I didn’t actually want to do. I’d read immense amounts of science fiction, and was in love with the idea of strange new worlds to explore, of discovering the hero in myself and of a happy ending and a ticker-tape parade when I got back. This was not reality, nor was it anything I really wanted. I still read science fiction but I now explore the wonders of the Otherworld.  The dream of becoming a doctor went the same way; I realised it was not MY dream at all. In some measure I had picked up subconsciously on what I felt my father would particularly approve of, and had woven that into my dream fabric. The reality would have been utterly wrong for the person I am. I’d make a good doctor now, maybe, with a great deal more humliity than I had then, and a world of compassion.

The truth is, these were not my dreams. Not the true dreams of the heart. They were fantasies. I fear that a great deal of what people believe to be their dreams are such as this, and have not changed since the person was a child. My faith is a different animal from what it was then, why not then my dreams? So many people never examine their inmost thoughts and deepest feelings, and see if they are what they once thought them to be.

So, you must know your truest, deepest dreams and then you throw everything after them, sacrifice family friends and everything to get them?

Again, no. If this is how you proceed, then it is not a true dream but an obsession. Yes, to make a dream reality you have to work at it and you have to make sacrifices. But you only have the right to sacrifice what is your own, not that of your spouse or children or parents or lovers. They too have their dreams. In chasing yours, are you destroying theirs?

And then there is natural wastage. For every success, a dozen or more failures. For every star, hundreds of wannabes who never make it. For every diva, a chorus line of hopefuls. Some of us won’t make it to our dream.  But perhaps we may realise that the destination was not the dream at all but the journey was.

Finally there are those who achieve the dream and find it is dust in their mouths, like the Dead Sea Fruit that promises so much and delivers so little. They may have cast adrift everything on the way and if you ask them was it worth it, what can they say at that point but yes? To say no is admitting the failure of a dream to achieve the fulfillment we have been led to believe comes of it.

You see, what can you do when you finally achieve your dream? When there is nothing more to do than polish the trophies and savour the memories and hoard the gold? Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer.

We are born in a state of perpetual motion, of striving and seeking. To stop means decay.

There are always more worlds to conquer. Don’t limit yourself to a single dream and chase it to the exclusion fo all else. Spend time with yourself and find what are your truest dreams and work towards them. Don’t expect things to magically fall into place  and worry if they do. I used to envy JKRowling, author of the Harry Potter books because she had achieved the success I crave ( we are the same age more or less!); now I feel nothing but the deepest sympathy for her because what can she ever do that will match in the eyes of most people what she has already done. There are no more Everests of that ilk for her to climb.