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The Future of the Student-Teacher Relationship

Definitely NOT Just a Book Review of Mariana Caplan's Do You Need A Guru?
by Elizabeth Debold

How did "guru" become a four-letter word? "Walking into a party and telling someone you have a guru is like saying, 'I'm a heroin addict,'" writes Mariana Caplan in Do You Need a Guru: Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets (London: Thorsons, 2002). And that's no joke. Let's think about it for a minute. What comes to mind when you hear the word "guru"? Do you get misty images from the good old sixties, love-beads and long hair and all? Folks in funky dress swaying together as they sing Hare Krishna in front of a smiling bearded man in long robes? Maybe you half-laugh, "Been there, done that," with the underlying resolve never to do that again. Or maybe you think about your meditation teacher, recognizing how much help you've been given. But she's not a guru—or is she? And you might vaguely recall news stories of a charismatic Indian man with a fleet of Rolls Royces in the desert somewhere. Or perhaps your thoughts turn even more ominous, recalling spiked Kool-Aid and other cult insanity. Funny, while we feel comfortable with business gurus, exercise gurus, financial gurus, when it comes to spiritual gurus—guru gurus—we're often not comfortable at all.

Indeed, isn't it interesting that there are few questions in the contemporary spiritual world more loaded than this one: What is the role of spiritual authority in our search for wisdom and wholeness? It's totally understandable that we're more than a little gun shy, given how much we've been failed by the authorities in our lives. The twentieth century was an age of disillusionment—our faith in the integrity of all authority, from parents to police, from religious leaders to secular ones, has been shattered over and over again. But, even so, the truth is that for literally thousands of years, in many different cultures (including ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization) the teacher-student relationship has been the most venerated and successful vehicle for profound and lasting human transformation. Historians tell us that Christ sought out the teachers of his time, and so did the Buddha—before he discovered the "middle way" that revolutionized spirituality in ancient India. It is rare to find saints or sages, now or in the past, who have realized Ultimate Truth outside some form of relationship with a teacher. And in our everyday lives we have no trouble recognizing that usually the most effective means of learning just about anything is through the one-on-one teacher-student relationship. Even nowadays, our most powerful vehicle for personal growth and change is relationship with a psychotherapist or perhaps with an intimate partner.

In our spiritual lives, however, we find ourselves in a "great dilemma," as Caplan puts it. You see, even though the teacher-student relationship historically has been the primary context in which individuals reach the most profound transformation, so many gurus and spiritual teachers have drastically let us down. And we've been let down at a time when humanity desperately needs spiritual guidance. The future that is staring us in the face—a world of genetic engineering, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental devastation—cries out for new spiritual vision, for a transformation in human consciousness that can cope with the global chaos and complexity that our technological imagination has released. So, is there a way past the dilemma with spiritual authority—a way to revitalize the teacher-student, or dare I say, guru-disciple relationship that actually takes into account both our understandable skepticism and our need for true and trustworthy help to actually transform? In other words, is there a way to re-vision this crucial learning context so that it is not simply a part of our history but serves to create a new future?

Now, obviously, I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't think that there was some way beyond this dilemma. Like Caplan, I have a guru myself, and so I have a more than academic interest in the subject. In her new book, Caplan offers an updated approach to this thorny issue, one that shakes the dust off the guru's robes and takes the whole relationship through a badly needed makeover, giving it relevance to our psychologically savvy, self-authorized lives. At a time when the question of having a spiritual teacher is no question at all—because the answer is no way—Caplan reopens the entire subject by bringing a cutting-edge spiritual perspective to this ancient and august tradition. But let's be clear that, face-lift or not, a relationship with a spiritual teacher is certainly not for everyone. Do You Need a Guru? provides practical guidance for those who are trying to understand the purpose of the relationship with the teacher and what it takes to make it work today. Facing directly into the scandals of the past, Caplan, a psychotherapist and student of spiritual teacher Lee Lozowick, develops a new model for a committed relationship to spiritual authority, which she calls conscious discipleship, outlining the qualities needed by teacher and student for success. She also explores the "hot issues" related to obedience, betrayal, and even outrageous behavior on the part of the guru. Never straying far from either its inherent pitfalls or promises, she gives us an eyes-wide-open, contemporary look at this relationship that has been a crucible for human transformation for millennia.

Yet, the question "Do you need a guru?" is more than a practical one. Opening it up confronts us with some of the most deeply held shibboleths of our postmodern era—those hot button beliefs about who we are, what is humanly possible, and how we should relate to each other. I mean, even the relatively simple question—Why would one choose to have a committed relationship with a spiritual teacher in this day and age?—can have quite a charge. Right below the seemingly placid surface there often float some big assumptions. In fact, most of the time, what "Why would one want to have a teacher?" typically means is something more like: C'mon, haven't we become far too sophisticated and knowledgeable to put ourselves in that kind of dependent relationship? Or to put it less politely: Isn't this whole business of having a teacher simply a way to avoid responsibility and look for the perfect mommy or daddy? And the tricky thing is that both are true—we have become too sophisticated to assume a dependent role in an authoritarian relationship, and too often the desire to find a teacher is all mixed up with other motivations that have more to do with comfort and solace than with real transformation.

Yes, we've become too egalitarian and psychologically astute to have the same relationship to teachers that you'd find in India or Tibet. "Question authority" and "Know thyself" were twin slogans of the sixties, slogans that have now been absorbed into the very atmosphere of postmodern life. The sixties assault on traditional authority—anti-war protests, struggles for civil rights, the battle for equality between the sexes—cracked the hierarchies that created the fixed positions of dominance and dependence that had been in place since medieval times. In our questioning, we found our authorities wanting, and so made ourselves the ultimate authorities in a glorious ideal of equality and freedom for all. For perhaps the first time in human history, an entire generation had the option to step outside the bounds of tradition and expectation to create new plots for our life-stories. Rather than looking to authorities for answers, the question became: How do we authorize ourselves to lead our own lives? And so, increasingly, psychological investigation—the exploration of our own needs, desires, fears, and motivations—became our guide to fulfillment in these new personal narratives. Psychology gave us the knowledge to self-authorize, to author our own lives by looking to ourselves for direction.

It's no wonder, then, that in this democratic climate of self-determination, the relationship between spiritual teacher and aspiring student—which always is and always has been hierarchical—might seem simply out of date or useful only as a safe haven for those not ready, willing, or able to take charge of their own lives. And this dominant cultural view has only been exacerbated by the disastrous mess left in the wake of many of the Eastern gurus coming West. Caplan ironically presents "a simplification of the trendy spiritual perspective," which goes as follows: "The gurus came West in the sixties, we believed in them, gave them our money and lives and souls, and they betrayed us with scandals of money, sex, and power." The dubious conclusion that we drew from this affair, she says, was that "we have passed through that immature phase, and are now ready for the new: the great return to rugged, spiritual individualism." Sharply noting that this stance of independence is "a classic example of American thought" and therefore nothing new at all, Caplan observes that "We burned through thousands of years of tradition as quickly as we are burning through all the rest of the world's natural resources." And what does spiritual individualism entail? Taking the teaching, not the teacher. Reading classic and contemporary teachings on our own, perhaps going to see different spiritual teachers to get a variety of perspectives, engaging in different spiritual practices. And using our psychological knowledge of ourselves to guide us on the path to greater fulfillment.

All of this is well and good—in fact, it's great. When in human history has so much spiritual wisdom been so widely and readily available? Probably never. But in our anti-hierarchical, psychologically aware state, what could be the role of the teacher-student relationship? Clearly, as time-honored as this relationship may be as a means to transformation, it cannot just be airlifted from another culture and dropped into our own. What would it mean to bring all of who we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century, all of our questioning of authority and our psychological perceptiveness, into this preeminently powerful context for change?

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