The guru is dead. Long live the guru!
The mountain and the desert are symbols for the two faces of mystery: one shrouded in light, and the other drenched in darkness. Each comes with its own dangers. The light can inflame egos with the certainty of knowing; the dark can transmogrify shapeless fears into signs and dreadful portents. As F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
It was in Peru’s mountainous Sacred Valley where one of my dark nights arrived unannounced, except as an absence. And this absence was deeply troubling. It didn’t hit me all at once, but was a steady creep in the twilight. I couldn’t sleep at night, and couldn’t wake in the morning. Night drifted into day, and day into night without any clear delineation. The boundary between sleep and wakefulness became diffuse, unreal. All my old self-improvement projects in the guise of spirituality just no longer seemed to work. The name of this game had really been mood management: a good day here meant a winning hand; a bad day there meant a sweeping loss. Spiritual practice was hollowed out by the uncomfortable intuition that it was all futile and self-serving.
It had a cumulative effect: the lows were so utterly convincing that in their throes there was no beginning and no end, just a perpetual state of undoing. I had been on the threshold of many symbolic ego deaths before, the chipping away at the personality, but it always felt like a botched job. There are no half deaths.
Part of the problem was the measurement of my experience against the slick inducements to realization not only in the spiritual marketplace, but against the mountain-high experiences of those who have ‘awakened’. I reminded myself of Jesus’ refrain to ‘pray in secret’, and his common request for the recipient of a healing, or witness to a miracle, to keep it to themselves. Visions need time to be assimilated into the body of consciousness. To speak too soon is to diminish the vision itself, to remove it from the inner temple, where it can be co-opted by the spiritual ego. Then we can fall prey to the evangelical zeal of the special and the chosen.
Restoring the inner temple
I want to emphasize that I am not casting doubt on the testimonies of realization and miracle healing. At a bare minimum, they are true for that person and for that moment. But these experiences, often unintentionally, too easily get turned into myth-making. The deeper issue is the internalization of the marketing paradigm of performance, proof and profiteering as representing reality. Once an image has been created, it needs to be sustained and defended.
In our saturated spiritual marketplace, there appears to be a guru for every occasion; a guru for every question; a guru for every existentialist pivot point. Supply and demand is the basis for this economy, so it’s worth asking if we have created a cult of the guru with our compulsion for external reference points to navigate an unchartable terrain? When a guru falls from the pedestal that we made for them, their fallibility is a reminder that we all want an end to suffering as soon as possible, in spite of knowing the grasping only prolongs the agony; in spite of knowing that none of it can be outsourced.
Certainly, it kept me going back for more: more healing, more visionary experiences, more information, more guidance. There’s a time and place for all those things, but we’re always alone at three o’clock in the morning on any given dark night. I found myself in that cycle for a very long time, always resisting the idea that the gates to the inner temple had always been wide open, but required a relinquishment of the search itself. As John of the Cross said: El centro del alma es Dios.
The center of the soul is God.
To sit at the feet of a guru is to suspend temporal reality for a moment and share the view as of all of consciousness gazes upon itself. That has been a valuable experience for many people and a catalyst for awakening. But if God, so to speak, is always new, if consciousness is always revealing itself to itself across never-ending frontiers of awareness, then there is no final point to awakening. It is not a finite experience.
It would be easy to rail against the fetishization of the guru, but that’s not really my point. The time of the guru is coming to a close because consciousness itself is reclaiming the master-student (and master-slave) dynamic and returning it to Source, in readiness for the next big reveal. Why can someone who has been at this awakening game for their entire adult life still be holding out for that transcendent experience of unity, yet it can come unbidden for anyone, anytime? Even atheists, parking inspectors and merchant bankers!
Buddhism speaks of the ‘ripening’ of karma or consciousness. This life is just a ripple in the ever-unfolding fabric of existence. In other words, that person minding their own business was ripe for the experience and all it took was the caress of the breeze to unveil a greater reality. What we don’t see is the very difficult task of integrating that vision into a world suddenly upside-down.
In one sense, it’s not that genuine gurus aren’t necessary any more. It’s just there’s not enough of them to go around. Humanity is ripe for our next collective experience. If we are at the tip of the wave, then most of humanity is now rising — ready or not — as the body of the wave. The separation between the personal and collective experience is only a matter of the view. The effect of that enormous, powerful push from the collective is to send the crest rushing into the great ocean. There really is no choice anymore; the momentum is too strong.
For those at the tip of the wave, this is an amplification and acceleration. Instead of sharing the cosmic view with the guru, the genius of life in quarantine is that it has forced us to discover our own center points as the only reference for reality. The true role of the guru, of course, is to become redundant. We are becoming, en masse, our own gurus.
As strange as it sounds, after leaving Peru, I often find myself missing the peculiar strain of darkness I encountered there, not out of habituation, but because of how closely I was held. Mystics have spoken of the merging of personal will and divine will in the ecstatic fires of union. It is always assumed that the surrender and renunciation are all one-way. When I recall the feminine night’s dark embrace, I am not so sure. This God may temper Her power by choice, give it up, to love us right where we are, in the midst of our suffering with our suffering, so that it is shared.
All my efforts at healing, and specifically treating a resistant strain of depression by creating a life worth living, seemed to turn in on themselves in the dark night. But God is hidden by necessity, at work in the shadowy places of identity and clinging, pushing past the places of all resistance, all unworthiness, all withholding. It was only in my brokenness — and in my failure to live up to those many images of awakening — that I was able to be touched by a love so dauntless and total that it drew to itself all that was ugly, sick and forsaken to heal them from the inside-out.
If there is not one dark night but many, then the darkness symbolizes the underlying mystery of Grace at work in our lives, throughout our lives. How then can this protective darkness be anything other than love, moving us to greater and greater realization of our true nature, our origin and destiny? I learned to see better in the dark than in the light, but that time, too, is coming to a close. Years later, I now understand that the only purpose of this healing was to return love from exile; to discover my own greatness, just as you discover yours. It can’t be otherwise. Ultimately, we all share the same view. The center of the soul is God.