Friday, May 13, 2011

Why We Still Need Gurus

By Jason Kephas

"Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt.”—The Book of the Law

From a strictly Darwinian perspective, the whole of nature is in competition with itself. The survival of the fittest is a competition, a struggle for dominance, and if organisms do not compete, they do not survive. Perhaps the most obvious area of competition, among humans as well as other animals, is the sexual arena. (The other obvious one would be that of territory, and food.) Males compete among one another for sexual dominance and the resulting access to females. (If it’s to a lesser extent that women also compete for the prize men, that may be because it is more “natural” for several women to share one man than vice versa.) If a boy child has male siblings, such rivalry begins early, in competition for the mother’s love. Even if he doesn’t have siblings, there is the Oedipal struggle with the father for the same, and apparently this early tension prepares the organism for the ongoing struggle of existence. The paradox of this arrangement is that father and son, or even child and sibling, are not actually in competition in any real (survival-based) sense, because they are part of a single “tribe” or system in which there is enough to go around for everyone. The struggle is rather a psychological and emotional one. As long as the father and the son are not perceived as equals—and even though both may experience the other as a threat—there is no need for any actual conflict between them. When the son begins to approach manhood, however, the rivalry becomes dynamic, and is even a fundamental ingredient of a coming of age ritual for the child. Defying the father’s authority is a rite of passage which, to some degree at least, is enacted by most young men (though often with a surrogate father figure, if the biological father is no longer present in that role).

Based on my own recent brush with guru worship and cult mentality, the function and appeal (and also trap) of gurus is that they help us to recreate this primary arrangement. Like a child with its parent, the person who follows a guru experiences him or herself as fundamentally inferior to their teacher, at least insofar as they consider him or her to be enlightened, a person of knowledge, an avatar of the divine, a living embodiment of truth, etc. In order to accept another human being as one’s guru, one must believe that they have attained a higher level of being in comparison to oneself—in other words, that they are superior in every conceivable way. This is how a child experiences its parents—and adults in general—as belonging to a different species, a different genus. The child then aspires, on the one hand, to please its parents and earn their favor through good behavior; on the other hand, as it matures, it attempts to match its parents’ behavior as the means to become an adult in its own right. A child grows up then through a combination of obedience and imitation, which is more or less identical to how followers relate to their gurus. This, at least, is the social overlay. At a more primal level, a child’s growth is a biological inevitability, and since any child that grows to be an adult thereby supplants its parents in the evolutionary chain, it grows up not merely to equal but to surpass (become superior to) its parents. This is where the parallels with gurus and followers begin to fall down, because it is almost unheard of for followers to surpass their guru in stature. What tends to happen, rather, is that at some point the guru is “exposed” in his humanness, and as a result loses his following, or a significant part of it.

Part of coming of age for every child entails seeing its parents as flawed, human individuals and thereby rejecting those elements of parental conditioning which do not hold up under scrutiny, that prevent the child becoming an individual rather than facilitate that process. Consciousness evolves through a combination of obstacles and challenges with nurture and support. If life were all obstacles and no support, none of us would survive; but if it were all nurture and no challenges, we would never grow strong enough to leave the nest and make our own way. The sexual drive eventually forces every child out of the nest. Perhaps this is why the sexual drive creates friction even early on—if Freud was correct about the Oedipal dynamic—when the child wishes to replace (slay) the father in order to “have” the mother all to itself? Symbolically, this is what must occur for the generations to continue. In those early years, a child must sublimate its desires in order to adapt to the reality that it is not equal to its father and cannot “have” its mother the way the father does. With adolescence, the boy-child does become equal to the father, having outgrown (ideally, though often in our culture this does not occur) his infantile desire for the mother. He is then ready to start a family of his own and continue the ancestral linage. Where this natural generational growth cycle breaks down, however, is in the absence of a strong, actively engaged father to set an example for the child, while at the same time providing the challenges of male competition and rivalry through which the boy enters into manhood.