Monday, March 17, 2008

Have We Moved Beyond the Age of Gurus? (Ken Wilber transcript)

The following is a transcript of a selection from Kosmic Consciousness, an interview with Ken Wilber conducted by Tami Simon.

Tami Simon: What about the idea that the ages of the gurus are over, and that as meditations come into the Western culture – a democratic culture – that, yes we need meditation mentors, but we don't need these hierarchical gurus that we don't question.

Ken Wilber: Yeah. Well I think…there's a basic ripeness about that, that the time of the gurus is gone in certain ways; but…that doesn't mean that everything about a guru is therefore unnecessary. Most of these great traditions that we're talking about – whether they're Sufis or Christian Contemplative or Zen or Buddhist Tibetan – really came about during the agrarian era, which is really two major technological epochs ago; and the very typical sort of political structure at that time was almost feudalistic. And so, in Tibet for example, a guru wasn't just what we would call the pastor at the local church, or your local rabbi or priest – the guru was often the political leader, the educator, the priest, the rabbi, everything rolled into one, and if the guru said “jump,” you would sort of say, “how high?” I mean, it was just sort of a very, very complex office that a guru was serving. It was entirely appropriate that under those circumstances you would basically offer every aspect of yourself to the guru, and that was part of a very, very complex training that also had a cultural background that supported it – and…under those cultural conditions it wasn't harmful in a way that we today would think of as harmful.

Nowadays, though, in democratic industrial and postindustrial egalitarian societies, that is a fish out of water to put it mildly; and a lot of the turmoil in the first couple of decades that the eastern traditions came into this country is that the gurus and teachers were coming out of these cultures and traditions where the guru was sort of everything – and then you come over here and that doesn't play in America. It's like, “are you kidding me?” We've got this incredibly individualistic, egalitarian culture. At the same time there are parts of it that, there's just no going back. There's a kind of democratic, egalitarian attitude that is going to mark this and most future forms of governance. So what you have to do is sort of scale the guru down, so to speak, in an appropriate way.

What you don't want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. And the problem, in this otherwise very necessary scaling down of the guru, is that we've shrunk the guru to really a miniature version of what it's supposed to be. And we want to do that because a real guru or a real teacher threatens our ego; that's basically the whole essence here. And we're not talking about, [at] this point, the guru as some sort of domineering figure that tells you everything you're supposed to do. At some point any form of profound spiritual practice is a real transcendence of self, if you want to find some form of higher kosmic consciousness other than your mere egoic identity; and under those circumstances, the ego does not go gracefully or willingly. And so if you're just sort of hanging out and you're your own spiritual teacher, you're probably not going to go as far as you can on the path – because you just won't endure the torment, the difficulty, the embarrassment, the profound pain of dying to your own separate self and your own separate identity. And under those circumstances, then you want a – by whatever name – spiritual teacher that's going to walk you though that. At some point there is a profound surrendering that goes on – again, it's not a dominating or domineering situation, but it's a profound letting go of your own absolute desire to be in charge, or be in control. That can happen in a spiritual teacher-student relationship in a very profound way.

Obviously there has to be checks and balances about it – there are certain things that you really can't do in those circumstances and they are very similar to the things that you cannot do if you are a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist. It's the same kind of relationship in a sense, and that has to be in place – you're not allowed to have sex with students, you're not allowed to take money in certain ways, you're not allowed to in any way make career choices for them, etc. etc. etc. But there comes a point where there has to be a profound surrendering of the separate self to that greater awareness and greater consciousness; and if a spiritual teacher is living that to you and transmitting that to you in an authentic way, then that's a very important component. That's not just a bunch of spiritual friends walking the path together holding hands! That's somebody who is enlightened and is fundamentally transmitting that enlightenment to you, as a demand, that you yourself awaken to that estate.

So my concern is that in necessarily and appropriately scaling down a guru, that we've scaled him out of existence; and we've replaced him with a kind of feel-good spirituality that lets us all rest in our own egoic self and nobody challenges us. So we have no rankings, no degrees of better or worse, higher or lower, no more enlightened or less enlightened – and then we're all equally unenlightened in a certain sense. Nobody's challenged, nobody's threatened – and nobody's awakened. And so that's the sort of downside of what I call Boomeritis, which is kind of a “mush egalitarianism” that really prevents any form of growth or transcendence or depth of development.
- Kosmic Consciousness, Disk Eight, track 4

This transcript was prepared by Arthur Gillard, and is posted here under fair use guidelines. I highly recommend the Kosmic Consciousness CD set as an entertaining and comprehensive introduction to the work of Ken Wilber.

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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1 comment:

Jondavi said...

Insofar as what "scaling down the guru" has done to the traditions whose center of gravity depend solely on the guru, one critical issue that begs to be addressed is the delegation of the guru's authority. Some of these traditions that have made their way to the West and have established themselves into the mainstream culture have managed to distribute the spiritual teacher's authority to "mid-level" managers. These middle managers are presumably following the teacher's directives and sometimes those directives are interpreted by the mid-manager to mean one thing when the teacher may have other intentions entirely. So what can someone who is new to the tradition do to know that the demands made by middle-management are the same demands that the teacher truly wants?

Indeed, the implication here is that the organization is so large that the teacher cannot be everywhere and the student may not be in close proximity to the teacher for reasons pertaining to any number of factors; i.e., time, place, circumstance disallowing the possiblity to be in the physical presence of the teacher 24/7. That is, in the past, when these traditions were set up for teaching an oral tradition where the teacher would be with the students, or at least within proximity of those students, the student knew what the teacher wanted because the request came directly from the teacher. Nowadays, the directive might come from someone whose authority is delegated, and that authority might be two-times, three-times, or even more times removed from the original source. This leaves much to be desired, especially when details of translation and interpretation are in question.

Should the student accept the demands of the authorized representive without question? Does the authorized representative even care about the complexities of individual spiritual matters when a general directive is given as a uniform construct to be obeyed by all regardless the UL issues that a teacher would know if the student were in his or her presence? This is where the sangat can be in danger of expecting the students to fly at the same altitude when some of those students are either flying higher or lower than the consensus.