Setting the Table for the (Imaginary) Feast of Knowledge

The Guru Complex

Two months after I left being a monk I found myself in a Brahmin family’s home in Chennai, a night of charity for a tired traveler. I was a stranger to them, but because of a mutual acquaintance, they gave me endless cups of tea, dosas and spiced vegetables. After dinner the elderly matron, a shriveled woman of 90, sat with me on the floor in their humid living room. Her fingers nimbly incanted a pair of mala beads as she stared vacantly into space. Then her eyes locked onto me. I smiled.

“You have the smile of a guru.”

I nodded, discomfort rising like acid from my belly.

“You smile like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The guru, not the sitar master.”

I nodded once more.

“You should live here. You have potency. You would have many—tens of thousands—of followers. You smile like a guru, and you are American. We love Americans like you.”

I had spent the better part of two decades striving to attain enlightenment, and I had finally given up. Not because I had failed, but because I had been declared, recognized, just as this woman was now enacting. After years of fierce dedication, contemplative practice had left me—more often than I’d like to admit—caught in the stupor of an intractable thousand-yard stare. Upon returning to the sensate body my eyes registered the form of another person with a kind of profound recognition, communicating a more substantial insight than was really there. Since I was a child, meditation had molded my personality into a veritable canvas for the idealistic seeker to project fantasies of spiritual perfection upon. And, finally, I had come to realize that that was what it was—a fantasy.

I drank my spiced tea to the dregs, sweating profusely in the cramped musty blue-walled sitting room. I wanted to weep. But I knew it’d be a long time before I was seen for who I was, not what others so desperately wanted to see.

Four weeks later in Vizag, a beautiful woman told me I had the feet of a guru. I was sitting on a swing in a fluorescently lit penthouse at midnight. It was sweltering and I knew that the girl, Jenna, had a guru fetish. My feet were covered in dust. She touched my feet in a swoon. She was an American and I was an exotic man who carried the air, the ‘aura,’ of enlightenment (or at least the reputation).

Three years later, in Los Angeles, I was at a dinner party celebrating my acceptance to a good school in the Northeast—my transition into ‘civilian’ life. A toast was made in my honor, by a dear ‘spiritual’ friend, who proceeded to lecture me, publicly, on the nature of my enlightenment. I was but I didn’t know it. It was not for me to decide, but for others who recognized it. How would I know? Etc. Etc. Etc. There is a certain type of New Ageist who finds it their duty to tell me exactly what I am. For many spiritual seekers I encounter, their belief is at stake in the wake of my disbelief. Their fantasy is vulnerable to my pragmatism.

There were a number of years when I wondered: What kind of life is there for a former monk, a ‘reformed holy man’ (as one commentator called me) who has lost the capacity to romanticize a mythic state of consciousness? My refusal to have my personhood replaced with a fantasy put me in an odd position. And yet, as much as I found myself the victim of spiritual projections, I was also, equally, in continuous conversation with very smart educated people trying my best to persuade them of the value of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Stripped of my idealism, I still saw the validity of contemplative mind-body practices. In fact, I valued them more for having their roots in my biology, not in some dream of another, invisible, world.

My story is from the other side: For the seeker, I am one of the few who had been found, realized, and have thrown away an impossible kingdom of light. For the secular non-believer, I am a former crazy-man who wasted decades chasing a mirage. Of course, there is another faction, who likes to claim that I was never a “real guru,” that I was somehow false at my core, which my current life only confirms. There was a disconnect between these disparate worlds, yet I was trying to create dialogue between them. For me, the thing that was missing was a common language.

The YogaBrain and the Mystic

The language we previously used for non-ordinary states of consciousness is rooted in belief-based traditions. Today, we can trace the origins of numinous experience within the neurobiology of the body. Rather than reducing the richness of human experience to a man-made idea, we can peer into the complex systems that produce the varied manifestations of consciousness. The language we use to talk about mysticism needs a serious update, which requires a philosophical shift.

It is this philosophical gap I’d like to see filled. My own work is an effort to create a psychologically and scientifically informed discussion regarding contemplative mind-body practices. I know firsthand what it is to be addicted to the idea of perfection, but my body, my genitals, my quivering flesh keeps getting in the way. I know what is to have one’s personhood replaced with a fantasy of spiritual perfection, but, again, my humanity keeps getting in the way. I know what it is to have profound experiences with no good explanations. Spirituality devoid of psychological coherence is crazy-making. It is the price one pays for adopting an archaic metaphysics that remains resistant to modernity. I know what it is to prefer a dream of enlightenment over the tenuous, often difficult, reality of being human.

There is one explanation that makes me a failure. Another that paints me formerly enlightened, whatever that means. Yet another positions me as a recovering fantasist. The more revealing narrative is one undergirded by psychological insight, as well as philosophical and scientific coherence. It is one that chips away at my own delusional tendencies while grounding my spiritual practice in a metaphysics that makes sense. It is a philosophy that focuses more on ethics than infinitely regressive questions about spirit and god—what we should do with this life rather than fantasizing about another unseen world. Spirituality, in this regard, should serve as a foundation for social action, which requires that we stay in reality, rather than chasing phantoms.

The dream of enlightenment no longer holds sway for me. I don’t care about being a transcendent sage. I’d much rather be a YogaBrain.

For the YogaBrains among us, I’d like to see the anemic discourse populating the spiritual zeitgeist to receive a few pounds of blood, maybe some iron, and definitely more wine. At the (imaginary) feast of knowledge I’d like us all to sit down and allow tradition to converse with poetry, philosophy, biology, psychoanalysis, existentialism and death. Such a discourse would make us more human; we would finally bury our dreams of spiritual giants—we would finally communicate rather than instruct, see rather than project. As Terence (the second-century Roman playwright) said, “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” That’s all I’m looking for: a chance to be human, with you.

Photo: Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib

8 Responses to “Setting the Table for the (Imaginary) Feast of Knowledge”
  1. julian walker says:

    only the true messiah would deny he was the messiah! ~ monte python’s “life of brian”

    but seriously, shyam – this is a beautiful and potent piece. thank you.

  2. David Picariello says:

    “Spirituality, in this regard, should serve as a foundation for social action, which requires that we stay in reality, rather than chasing phantoms.” Yes! I’m curious to hear you discuss more how spirituality serves as a foundation for social action.

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