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'Asshole-Guru Syndrome'...a response to Craig Hamilton.

In his article on Integral Alignment (E–mer–gence, Feb. 2010) Craig Hamilton explores the question raised by Ken Wilber...

                     ‘Why are the most spiritual people such assholes?’

He comes to two conclusions. Firstly, that most people designated ‘spiritual teachers’ are not ‘truly God-realised human beings’ and secondly, the reason for this lack of attainment is that ‘pre-modern spiritual practices and traditions are not sufficient to address the complexity of the post-modern world or the post-modern psyche.’ He believes this is because ‘we have a kind of complex, layered interiority and individuation that never existed before.’

He then concludes with a lengthy description of ‘new spiritual Teachings’ that ‘address the complex relational sensitivity and individuation of the postmodern psyche’ in order to ‘usher in a new era of authentic spiritual enlightenment’.

Like many philosophers and mystics before him Craig Hamilton employs many words and a number of readings of his presentation are required to find one’s way to those that really count.

I believe  there are fundamental flaws in Craig Hamilton’s perspective; flaws that serve to perpetuate the existence of ‘Asshole-Guru Syndrome’ rather than countering it as he intends. There are two key areas that he fails to consider that contribute to this weakness. These are...

- The lack of any analysis as to how and why spiritual ‘luminaries’ come to be defined as such and accorded socio-spiritual status. 

-The lack of any adequate socio-cultural positioning of ‘spiritual knowledge’, particularly within a gendered context.

By exploring these points in the light of my own experience as both an academic and psychic I hope to illustrate my own belief that...

- ‘Guru-ism’ is a specific socio-spiritual construct that reflects the mores of masculine-dominated cultures, both East and West.

- Spirituality and Enlightenment are our natural birthright and we require neither intermediaries nor experts to access them.

- Centuries’ worth of epistemological elitism have spiritually disempowered ordinary individuals via an ideology of expert intermediary as the only path to the Divine.

Why gurus?

It tells us much about gurus, saints and sages if we pause to consider them as the Schrodinger’s cats of the spiritual world, ie, are they still gurus, saints and sages if no-one can see them? This sounds like a flippant question but it does, in fact, tell us much both about the true nature of the spiritual individual and also about the ways in which they come to be defined as such. Let me explain this by example.

In many African countries there are currently large numbers of older women, some in their eighties, who are the sole working supporters of their grandchildren who have been orphaned by AIDS. It is not unusual for them to have lost a number of their own adult children to the disease, leaving them to both support and care for as many as fifteen grandchildren singlehandedly, often via subsistence farming...

Many of them are alone, having lost partners to either death or desertion, and  many cite their only source of personal support as prayer. No-one knows exactly how many of them there are, no-one knows their names, no-one reveres their selflessness or spirituality, no-one pays to receive their wisdom because what they are doing is not considered to be in any way out of the ordinary. They are doing the work of the world in a simple, uncomplicated way. Love and dedication are required and they give it. It is no big mystery and no convoluted theories or practices will be built upon it.

No doctrines or courses are required to achieve this state...all that is required is death and a shovel and the courage and love to shoulder the responsibility of necessity. In socio-consensual terms these women are neither gurus, saints nor sages (except perhaps to the children they are supporting). This then begs the question as to who defines guru-worthiness and why?

Let me give another example which brings us a little closer to the answer.

Some years ago when I was having a particularly difficult day caring for my severely disabled son a leaflet appeared in the post inviting me to undertake a course in meditation at Dzogchen Beara. This course was to be headed by a very eminent Master and some of his words were included on the leaflet. They told me about the long and arduous path to Enlightenment, the hours of dedication and the many meditations required. They also told me that this was the only way to achieve this state where one may rise above suffering. There were many tributes paid to him by students and testimonials to the rightness of this approach.

I have never forgotten that day. At the time I had already spent nearly ten years of my life providing the full-time care that my son needed. Like the African grandmothers there was for me, as a single parent, only the path of necessity. At that point in time my son’s condition was so severe and his needs so great I did not have time to pick up a pen, never mind meditate. But I looked at the picture of this Master and felt nothing but pity for him...and I vowed that one day I would write about the reason why.

You see this man was not only part of ‘guru-creation syndrome he was deeply and profoundly wrong. Was I to be eternally debarred from Enlightenment because I could not devote the requisite amount of time required to meditative practice? Was my son equally debarred because he could not even say the words, never mind understand their meaning? No, of course not, the Universe had sent us our own free course in love and enlightenment...all we had to do was live it to find an abundance of both. Like the African grandmothers what we know is that life is a meditation.

So exactly who defines exalted status and why?

The answer to this lies in the power to define and the answer to this is not very pc because, for as long as written history has existed, this power has always been held by men. Once we acknowledge this fact we cannot avoid a consideration of the dynamics of gender as an integral part of an analysis of the socio-cultural construction of spirituality.

Let me give another example to explain this. A fundamental component of Buddhism is the concept of the seed of mental intent or thought manifesting in life and action. Both this principle, what is known about the life of the Buddha and the subsequent construction of Buddhism as a hierarchical practice reflect the underlying power dynamics of gender.

Put simply, and to quote the African grandmothers again, across all times and cultures women have been where the buck stops. Then, as now, sitting under a fig tree for days is a luxury that cannot be afforded when the young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable need nitty-gritty, hands-on care.

To the best of historians’ knowledge there was, in fact, a Mrs. Buddha and a Buddha junior. Would it be acceptable for the African grandmothers (or me for that matter) to desert their familial responsibilities to sit under trees and meditate? No, of course not, but the whole history of the masculine paradigm is one of gendered entitlement, of hierarchy and of the idealisation of both mental process and intellectual complexity as markers of superiority and justifications of status.

It is important here to point out that the ‘masculine paradigm’ is not intrinsically synonymous with biological maleness any more than the ‘feminine paradigm’ is intrinsically female. What is referred to here is a socially gendered ideology or mindset, a blueprint for being a socially acceptable male in a world that has been male-dominated for at least as long as the evidence of written history allows us to trace its origins.

And this dominance is nowhere more apparent than in the realms of the spiritual and philosophical.

It is no surprise then to find that guru-ism, historically, is overwhelmingly male-dominated...lady gurus being conspicuously thin on the ground. And the case of the Buddha illustrates why.

The fact that the Buddha was free to walk away from whatever responsibilities he had, that he believed that he experienced Enlightenment through thinking rather than doing and that these ‘seeds’ then developed into a hierarchical philosophy are all manifestations of the masculine paradigm writ large across a spiritual doctrine, as is evident in all major religions.

Has anyone, across the whole of recorded history, ever thought to ask women about the experiences of spirituality and enlightenment that may come to them through the daily living meditations of the necessity of life’s essential care and work? I think the answers would be both humbling and surprising...but those answers have never seen the light of day because the possibility of their existence has never been considered.

What we have instead are  two and a half thousand years or so of spiritual knowledge construction based on a masculine perspective that allots status in direct relation to core principles of hierarchy and the idealisation of intellectual detachment and complexity.

The apparent seed of the Buddha’s actions was the seeking of Enlightenment but the deeper, core seed was actually detachment from, and abnegation of, personal responsibility.... which begins to sound worryingly like both a template for, and an explanation of, ‘Asshole Guru Syndrome’.

Cultures both East and West have been historically male-dominated and all their socio-cultural constructs, including spirituality, are inevitably reflections of masculinised perspectives. Gurus are created because these perspectives are hierarchical and hierarchies need figure-heads, symbolic ‘leaders’ that embody their core ideologies. The spiritual guru embodies the apparent attainment of Enlightenment free from any absolute obligation to enact it in a grounded, daily basis thus enjoying the transcendence of rationality over responsibility. The guru is free to talk the talk without being obliged to actually walk it. The guru is the bi-polar opposite to the African grandmother. Talk is easy, action is so many gurus find when they try...and fail.

But, in any case Enlightenment is not the prerogative of the authorised guru...

I had my own ‘Enlightenment’ experience in my mid-thirties. I didn’t work to achieve it, I didn’t meditate, I didn’t follow any doctrine or ‘ism’...I just made one simple decision, to open myself to whatever the Universe wished to teach me. No guru, no middle-man, just me and  life.

I’ll describe it in a moment but first I want to explain the greatest insight it gave me...that everything is so incredibly, magnificently simple.

The second insight it gave me was that there exists an overwhelming, cosmic quantity of hyper-inflated, aggrandised blah surrounding spirituality, both historical and aggrandisement that reflects the aforementioned valorisation of apparent complexity.

I’ll illustrate this by grounded example. I am, and always have been, a writer, so words and the understanding of them are my forte, they're my thing. I have a First Class Honors Degree of which Philosophy was a component. When I first started to study the subject I was overwhelmed by the verbiage, the sheer quantity of redundant words...every page I read, from Plato to Sartre, could easily have been reduced to a paragraph...and it would have been the better for it.

When one of my daughters later went on to study the subject she thought she must be stupid because she could find virtually no meaning in page after page of ‘Classics of Western Philosophy’. Her IQ classifies her as gifted.

It’s not us, it’s the faux-complex way that knowledge has been validated and constructed for the last couple of thousand years and the canon of spirituality is no exception.

But before we look at that let me describe my own ‘Enlightenment’ experience.

I have been psychic since childhood, specifically I am clairaudient, clairsentient and life is littered with detailed, provable evidence of this. I don’t know why I am this way, I just am.

As a child it was terrifying and my attempts to explain this to adults fell on deaf ears, so I stopped trying and did my best to block it all out. This didn’t work and the blocking of the energy that flowed through me turned me into a walking disaster who regularly ruined electrical equipment by touching it, stopped clocks, cars and computers when upset and turned jewellery to jelly.

I wanted to be normal and it took me thirty-five years to accept that I wasn’t. At this age I made a conscious decision to stop blocking this energy and work with it. I had no idea how to and so I simply threw this open to the Universe, saying ‘teach me’.

A few days later I had a vivid, symbolic dream in which I was caught in an arc of Divine light. In my dream I was deeply afraid of this light as it approached me but once caught in it I experienced a state of being that there are no human words adequate to express...’bliss’ or ‘ecstasy’ are the only ones that come near to it but even those are not enough.

In this moment of capture I ‘understood’ the nature of all this Divine energy was the source of all ‘things’, how, like Universal Playdough, it can manifest into anything at all. I also ‘understood’ the extreme simplicity of everything, how apparent complexity is really just a multiplicity of simplicity. I ‘understood’ that there is only the simplicity of ‘Be-ing’, nothing else is required, no human constructs, no metaphors, no symbols, no Gods, no rituals, no doctrines or theories, just this willingness to be in authentic openness. I woke up and this feeling and its realisations continued for some five minutes or so before gently fading away.

What does this have to do with the socio-cultural construction of spirituality? Everything.

As a sociologist I would make the assertion that the recorded history of the construction of spiritual ‘knowledge’ shows it to be founded on masculine principles which are themselves products of male-dominated cultures. The resulting characteristics of this process are the pre-eminencing of hierarchy and status and the valorisation of intellectual complexity (traditionally deemed to be masculine) coupled with the denigration of emotion and simplicity (traditionally defined as feminine.). This template is writ large through all major religions and all academic disciplines from the time of Ancient Greek thinking onwards, an era on which our contemporary thought structures are founded. The history of spirituality is the history of a masculine concept of spirituality. Not only has female experience of spirituality remained largely unheard for the whole of that time but it has often been actively eliminated, as witnessed in the early demotion of women within the burgeoning Christian church and the horrors of the burning times.

The female experience, however, has always, like my own and like the African grandmothers, been deeply grounded in both simplicity and in the actualities and necessities of ‘Be-ing’.This is in direct contrast to century upon century of masculine abstraction, of complex theorisation and of the creation of a status-ridden hierarchy of expertness presented as the only medium by which the uninitiated may access the Divine...

It is no wonder that female spiritual experience has so often been viewed as so subversive and threatening that it has to be subdued and exposes elitism as a lie, it busts the gates of Divinity wide open and lets everyone in for free.

Despite his best intentions Craig Hamilton is perpetuating a centuries-old tradition and the arrogance of his neo-centricity is stunning. Let us look at his words again.

‘Those of us postmoderns who are engaging in spiritual practice today are at a completely different level than any of the great traditions knew about. We have a kind of complex, layered interiority and individuation that never existed before...What I think will usher in a new era of authentic spiritual enlightenment – and, in my opinion, the only thing that will do it, is the emergence of new post-postmodern spiritual forms that are fundamentally Godcentric and Kosmoscentric. These new spiritual Teachings will address the complex relational sensitivity and individuation of the postmodern psyche but from an authenticated Dharmic context.’

Do African grandmothers have complex interiorities or postmodern psyches? I doubt it and I don’t think I have either.

He concludes this exposition of complexity with an invitation to undertake these Teachings by telecourse with Integral a cost of nearly three hundred dollars.

I think that the African grandmothers  and I will stick with what we know, that all we need to learn is that we do not need to learn, simply to be in an authentic openness to life, an openness that brings us into perfect alignment with the energy and power of Ultimate Simplicity........the ultimate perfection and  the ultimate evolution.
                                                                                               Gaia Charis, March, 2010