Collective Spiritual Leadership
* Article: Why the Age of the Guru is Over. Charles Eisenstein. Reality Sandwich, 2011
The Next Guru can only be a Collective
"No human being can hold the guru energy in post-modern society. This is old news - the age of the guru has been over for at least thirty years. In the 1960s and 70s, any number of masters came to America from the East and, absent the cultural structures that traditionally kept them in an insulated realm, succumbed one after another to scandals involving money, sex, and power. The same thing happened as well to many of the gurus who remained in the East, as even their traditional structures crumbled under the onslaught of Western cultural warfare and the money economy. In the past, to even access a guru you had to make a journey and to some extent leave the old normal behind. Now, gurus were interfacing directly with the old normal. No journey was necessary to receive a mantra; soon all that was necessary was money. This interface was perilous to guru and seeker alike.
The gurus that did not fall found ways to maintain their exclusion from a story of the world that would drag them into it. Some, like Neem Karoli Baba (died 1973), took the simple expedient of dying. Others retired or disappeared. After the 1970s, anyone who got into the guru business was quickly corrupted; the wiser ones stayed away, preferring to act as teachers, mentors, spiritual friends. Human consciousness was approaching, on a mass level, the template that had been prepared, in insulated, secret lineages and remote sanctuaries, for thousands of years. Millions were ready for what only a select few were prepared in the past. The gurus through the ages had finally succeeded: they had awoken an energy of a magnitude no single human being could contain. For those who tried, the uncontainable energy inevitably emerged in subterranean ways as shadow and scandal, and their followers learned not only the lessons of their teachings, but also the lessons of their failures.
The difficulty, then, is that we are ready as never before for a guru, yet no single human being is capable of taking on that role. Whence are we to obtain that spiritual midwifery, "someone to illuminate our blind spots, to humble our conceit, to show us the love we didn't know we had within us"? What can bring to the masses what hidden lineages and gurus once brought to a select few? To answer that question, let us follow the trajectory of spiritual teachings after the 1970s.
What followed the demise of the guru was a new age of spiritual independence. Its motto might have been, "All that you need is within you." People trusted their own inner guru, their guidance. The spiritual teachers of this period were just that, teachers not gurus, not accorded a different category of being, but a kind of spiritual friend, a more experienced colleague. It was a time of self-improvement and doing your own spiritual work. The goal was a kind of self-sufficiency. We sought to eradicate negativity from our minds and take full responsibility for our lives. We worked on forgiveness. We sought to "manifest" health, wealth, and romance through the power of positive thinking. We resonated with teachings like, "Change yourself, change your beliefs, and reality will change along with it. All the power is within you; each person is a self-sufficient creator of his or her own reality." We sought to liberate ourselves from victim mentality, the belief that our happiness depends on the choices of others. Sure, we wanted to attract good relationships into our lives, but we didn't need anyone.
Though I am writing in the past tense, I don't mean to denigrate the beliefs I describe, nor even to say they are not true. They were true, and there is truth in them still. They are not the whole truth though, as many people are now starting to realize. For having reached the pinnacle of spiritual independence, they want something more.
A participant at one of my retreats put it like this: "I really do have it all. I run my own wellness center, I live in a beautiful house with a view of the mountains, I have manifested financial abundance, I have a fabulous relationship with my wife, who is my partner on the spiritual path. We've done the most amazing retreats, the most powerful transformational workshops, had deep experiences of altered consciousness, states of samadhi, experiences of kundalini... But this is no longer enough. There is something else, a next step, and I'm not sure what it is. It's not that I'm unhappy - I have a lot of peace, joy, and contentment in my life - but I know there is a next step."
Spiritual self-sufficiency ignores the fundamental truth of our interbeingness. Without each other, we cannot make those peak experiences, those glimpses we have all had of a more vivid way of being, into anything more than glimpses. How can we make them into a new baseline for life? How can we enter into the world that they show us, how can we redeem their promise? How can we bring into living reality the knowledge that we have been shown something true and real? Each time, the old world drags us back. The inertia of our habits and beliefs, the expectations of the people surrounding us, the way we are seen, the media, the pressures of the money system all conspire to hold us where we were. Coming off a peak experience, we may try to insulate ourselves from all these things, to live in a bubble of positivity, but eventually we realize that is impossible. The negative influences find a way to creep back in.
From the understanding of the connected self, this is entirely to be expected. Because you are not separate from me, you cannot be fully healed until I am fully healed. You cannot be enlightened until I am enlightened. This is the import of the Golden Reminder and the Boddhisatva Realization described above. Each one of us is pioneering a different aspect of the connected self in the age of reunion, and each one of us as well carries vestigial habits of the age of separation that are invisible to us or that, if visible, we are helpless to overcome on our own. Quite practically, to inhabit a more enlightened state we must be held there by a community of new habits, new ways of seeing each other, and new beliefs in action that redefine normal.
In other words, in the age of the connected self our guru can be none other than a collective, a community - as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, "The next Buddha will be a sangha." By a community, I don't mean an amorphous "we are all one" mass devoid of structure, but rather a matrix of human beings united in a common story of the people and story of the self. Aligned with these defining stories, this community can hold us in the vision of what we are becoming."
The Emergence of Interdependent Spiritual Collectives
"in the age of the connected self our guru can be none other than a collective, a community - as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, "The next Buddha will be a sangha." By a community, I don't mean an amorphous "we are all one" mass devoid of structure, but rather a matrix of human beings united in a common story of the people and story of the self. Aligned with these defining stories, this community can hold us in the vision of what we are becoming.
Until recently, such a community barely existed. Either we were alone, gasping for breath in an ocean of separation, or we nurtured the new ways in isolated and insulated bubbles that, with rare exceptions, quickly popped. Such bubbles cannot last very long alone; like soap bubbles, their substance evaporates unless replenished and sustained. Today it is different, because these bubbles, Ken Carey's "islands of the future in an ocean of the past," are appearing faster than they can pop, clumping together, strengthening each other, forming a connected matrix. We are reaching critical mass, a point where we can live so much surrounded by nascent institutions of the new world that we can stay there most of the time. No longer will we need to struggle to remember what those special experiences showed us was true.
Health and spiritual well-being are maintained through relationships, not through self-sufficiency. No one is so enlightened that they don't need help. Rather, they are enlightened because they receive the help they need. Enlightenment is a state of dependency. And to the extent that any other being is sick in any way, so is each of us. Every hurting person out there matches a hurting thing in here. It could be as subtle as a grain of sand in your sock: unnoticeable when major wounds are still hemorrhaging blood, but increasingly intolerable as the big wounds heal. As wholeness increases, these little things come into consciousness and become intolerable. We can no longer comfortably abide in our idyllic house with a view, eating health food, and thinking positive thoughts. Our self-sufficiency is no longer sufficient, when we feel the pain of the world echoing inside our selves.
If we try to stay in the bubble of spiritual self-sufficiency, the hurting of the world sneaks in as various of the new diseases, forcing itself upon our consciousness. Consider, for example, two of the most significant of the new diseases, MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities) and electromagnetic sensitivity. Toxic chemicals and EMFs are the physicalization of our negativity, as well as the byproduct of our mindset of separation that sees nature as an indifferent reservoir for our wastes. For the chemically and electromagnetically sensitive, no amount of retreat is enough. Trying to avoid negativity, we have to retreat further and further, until the repeated intrusion of the world upon our serenity makes us realize we have to cleanse the whole world of toxic chemicals and all they represent, not just avoid them.
The yogic teaching, "Don't try to cover the world with leather, just wear shoes," served us well in the age of spiritual self-sufficiency, but it serves no longer, especially if taken to mean, "Heal thyself; the world is not your responsibility." That was true, for a time. It was medicine. It healed us of self-rejection and self-sacrifice. It was a necessary stage toward the next step, when we do seek to heal the world - not as an act of self-sacrifice, not at the cost of our own well-being, but as a necessary step in our own self-healing. Through our relationship to the other we heal ourselves. There is no other way.
This realization often manifests as a desire to find one's true purpose in life, one's service to the world. Such a purpose is never just about the separate egoic self. It is always about service; it is about one's gifts and how to give them. Purpose is about gift and relationship. The emerging state of vitality, joy, and love that humanity is entering is not a place where we can abide for long on our own. We need each other.
It is not only in spiritual life that this is true; the same shift is manifesting in economic life and our ecological relationships. Indeed, because spiritual well-being can only proceed to the next level through our relationships to other people, other beings, and the planet, the very word "spirituality" as distinct from social, economic, and material life is losing its relevance. Built into the concept of spirituality is the idea that some areas of human life are not spiritual. That divide between spirit and matter, between the life of the soul and the life of the flesh, is crumbling. High time, too: look at the results of treating the planet as not sacred. Look at the results of treating part of our own selves as profane. The war against the self and the conquest of nature, each mirroring the other, are coming to an end in our time as the intuitions of the connected self wax stronger.
Interdependency is something of a euphemism for what is really a form of dependency. The latter word is a trigger. Whether it is emotionally, financially, or spiritually, most people seek to avoid dependency. That, I am sorry to say, is a conceit. By our nature as ecological beings, we are helplessly dependent on other beings to survive, to thrive, even to exist. In the heyday of the age of science, we thought it human destiny to become independent of all other beings: we aspired to a wholly artificial world in which even food would be synthesized, the flesh transcended, and death overcome. No longer. We are learning, painfully, our utter dependency on the rest of nature. Interdependency is a sub-category of dependency in that it is mutual and multidirectional, but that doesn't make us any less dependent. And that is OK! To be dependent is to be alive - it is to be enmeshed in the give and take of the world. And when we allow ourselves to enter it, to release the perceived safety of self-sufficiency, we access and can sustain an intensity of being and of love that we could only glimpse before. That is because we are encompassing more of our true connected being. We are being more fully ourselves.
Humanity collectively, and many of us individually, are at a threshold between worlds. The world we are entering is both a new world for us, and a long-forgotten realm. As we step into it, we can be each other's welcoming committee. We can do for each other what a guru does for a disciple: hold each other in the knowing of who we really are, and teach each other how to live there. Each of us, as we experience our own piece of the age of reunion, becomes a guide to a small part of that vast new territory."