My friend Marianne recently wrote and asked if I was going to Varanasi...actually, she asked if I was going to Benares, which is the old name of Varanasi. I said "Yes", and wondered why she asked.
She said, "The city has always caught my imagination as being the mystical center of that spiritual universe."
Well, everything about that sentence hits me like a gentle punch in the gut and makes me want to yell, "YES, YES, YES. Me too. That's the way I see it too..."
Long before the Beatles went to meet Ravi Shanker India has drawn spiritual seekers like bees to honey. People don't call India "Mother" for nuthin'. She's the bosom, heart, soul for billions of folk. After all, she birthed two of the oldest religions we've got: Hinduism and Buddhism.
I have been wooed at different times in my life by Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as, Sufism, Catholicism, Judaism, Quaker-ism.....
The problem, not really a problem, more like a conundrum, really, with all those "isms" is that I'm not particularly down with the idea of gurus, wether they are called "guru", "sensei", "Pope", 'Rinpoche', "Rabbi."
On the other hand, call someone a "Teacher" and my hesitation goes away. I love teachers. I've had some fantastic teachers...both in school and out. I see teachers everywhere. I try to value each being I encounter as both a teacher and a student, each relationship, no matter how brief or how long, as an opportunity to learn, to grow. This is a huge daily practice for me, as I like to do things my own way.
But when a teacher is elevated, or elevates themselves, to the realm of "Guru" I get squeamish, especially when they purport to have the only lesson plan for my personal enlightenment.
It's not the knowledge and wisdom that Spiritual leaders impart that I object to. I'm just not big on the idea of putting the picture of some famous guy or gal like the Pope or the Dalai Lama on my wall or alter and praying or meditating or self-flaggelating myself "to" or "for" or "in the name of" these other mortal humans who have, lets face it, been coddled and cocooned and isolated from many of the kinds of relationships and interractions (marriage, parenthood, knocking up their girlfriend when they were teenagers, living openly as a homosexual.....) that try us ordinary mortals.
I know, I know...they study their whole lives (or over several lives in the case of the Dalai Lama), they dedicate themselves to the betterment of humanity. I get it. I do. I admire that immensely, deep down into my boots, I admire that, I do. I think the Dalai Lama is an incredible human being, like Ammachi, the Karmapa, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle.....
I've been blessed to be in the same room with Ammachi and Pema Chodron, though not at the same time. (Wouldn't that be something?) Each time there were hundreds of other people in the room, most of them between me and each of these Bodhisattvas, but their calm, their grace, their infinite emotional space and open hearts were astounding, humbling, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Each of these tiny women filled every nook of the cavernous auditoriums that they sat in with love and, even from so far away, I felt washed clean by their powerful light and energy.
Each of these teachers/gurus/women have their own distinct style. Ammachi, a Hindu who is also known as The Hugging Saint, makes you feel warm and safe, the way a small child feels cradled in the arms of their mother and, like a mother would, she feels the pain and heartache and frailty of all of her children and she loves you anyway. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, loves without attachment and holds within her emotional embrace the secrets that might help each of us release our own attachments to things that bring us pain and, as it turns out, from things that bring us joy.
I would like to know what each of these women know. No doubt about it. But I cannot imagine asking one of them to be my guru or, more likely, one of their disciples to be my guru. I cannot see putting their picture on my wall as if they were a member of my family...how presumptuous that would feel to me. I could, actually, go to Ammachi's ashram when I am in India. It's possible. I will be right up the road. I have looked into it, thought about it, wondered if I'm so resistant to the idea of a guru because I really really need one to evolve spiritually. It could be argued, I'm sure.
But my gut has always said, "no." "YES," to India. "No" to gurus and ashrams. Though I think I would like ashram life, that's the funny thing. I'd love to live for a few weeks or months chanting with hundreds or thousands of other people, meditating our way into our higher minds. I love the idea of everyone chipping in, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors, making food. I would welcome the idea of living for a while in community like that. And I think the discipline of that kind of devotional practice would be good for me. But when I ponder further, it also makes me feel a little bit like I'd be drinking the kool-aid.
An intuitive woman once told me that, unlike many people who walk a path that was cleared long ago by someone else, I would always feel like I am chopping my way through uncleared jungle with a scythe creating my roadmap one step at a time. As I am writing this post and "listening" to myself talk about gurus and teachers, I wonder if the method of exploration and discovery that I've chosen is made unnecessarily difficult by my refusal to humble myself in some important way to a guru who has already cleared a path that I could follow.
I have always yearned for a spiritual home, a place that I could hang my hat and settle in. As I get closer and closer to setting down in India for a few months, I wonder if that home might be in the place, India itself....if "that spiritual universe" populated with galaxies of gurus will hold enough power taken on its own to help me clear my path and get closer to my personal "mystical center", even if I don't choose to cross the threshold of an ashram. Can I learn how to stop working so hard and settle into the core of myself while reaching out in genuine connection with the divine without explicit guidance from one clear voiced human guide?
Or, might I discover that all my hesitation about elevating one teacher over all the others, about taking a guru, as it were, melts in the heat of India? Might something about the culture of India crack through my resistance and show me that there is a path already marked out for me and that walking beside me, or slightly ahead is someone far wiser than me into whose hands I can completely and willingly put my spiritual education?
I am trying to hold these questions lovingly, giving myself permission to change my mind as my heart opens and India teaches me, well, whatever it is I'm meant to learn from her. It would seem, it occurs to me just now, that maybe, just maybe, India is all the guru I will need. At least for now.