The spiritual processes around a guru and ashram
A year ago I was watching a video of my friend Shankarananda with two other swamis from the Muktananda tradition, who had run ashrams for a number of years. It was moderated by Andrew Cohen. Mostly the program addressed the personal difficulties the three had encountered running ashrams with a combined experience of over 90 years.
The uniform theme was that it was quite difficult. People in the Sangha always came to the ashram with tons of preconceptions about what spirituality was about, what and who the guru was and should be in terms of who or what he or she was supposed to be, and what he or she was supposed to deliver. These ideas and preconceptions varied widely, and did their own preconceptions about their own obligations to the teacher and the ashram.
One swami discussed his loneliness as he really had no one to talk to “at his level,” which to me sounded rather arrogant at the time. Another talked about daggers coming at him from all directions, as chaotic battles and backstabbing were or could be breaking out at any time. Another talked about how careful he had to be in every statement, every word, every facial expression for fear of causing someone an offence and starting some sort of buried seething or overt angry confrontation.
Most new arrivals did seem to have a similar idea though regarding the ideal guru as Ramana Maharshi or someone similar, benevolent, aloof yet loving, undisturbed by anything in life, a constant smile on his face, exuding shakti power that turned the ashram into a Shangri-La of bliss and ecstasy where everyone felt loved and accepted. Others had no fixed notions, but I remember I did. I had never contemplated a Zen master or guru to be an ordinary mortal being with faults, maybe some insecurities, or having romantic relationships. I figured they had all totally gone beyond, as the “Gone, gone, gone away, gone away to the other shore” of the Heart Sutra predicted.
Then for each newcomer, gradually came the recognition that once again, they were just in a new group of ordinary people with faults and preconceptions, led not by the Son of God, but by a human being with irritating faults, perhaps too aloof, perhaps too personal, perhaps even-handed or not, and perhaps playing favorites. That is, each week that passed, preconceptions were shed, or else the person left in disappointment or disgust.
Very few were entirely happy with the ashram situation. They had expected something different, perhaps an easy road to awakening, held in stasis by the ecstatic presence of a divine guru. Later, that same guru might appear to the newcomer to be a horrible, uncaring, self-centered lout that only cared about himself or the ashram, and not about them as people.
Others thrived in the ashram situation. Personally, I loved them, from the many Zen centers and monasteries I lived in to the three Muktananda ashrams, to the Hari Krishna temples and compounds I visited. There was something different about ashramites. They were not much involved in the world. Instead they were involved in going into themselves, practicing meditation or ecstatic chanting.
Many of these ashrams were remarkably stable, some not. If there was an ashram where people lived together, the Sangha appeared more stable. The people living there had each made some sort of commitment to the ashram just by leaving their former life and living there. One notable example is Leonard Cohen who left his celebrity life behind for long periods and moved to Mt. Baldy Zen Center and became a monk. Leonard found peace there and found a deeper sense of himself.
However, if the Sangha just met for Satsang once or twice a week at someone’s house or at a center of some sort, it tended to be unstable with a rapid turnover. There is something about having made the commitment to live together that stabilizes the Sangha.
I was with Robert for 8 years, about 7 in Los Angeles. Over those 8 years, maybe thousands of people came to sit in Satsang or have lunch with him and thousands more met him on the phone or had letter contact. Robert never had an ashram, we always met at someone else’s house.
Like clockwork, every year the Sangha would be torn apart by some inner conflict and entirely break up. Every year we were forced to meet in a new house of a new student, because of an explosion of rampant jealousies, arguments, perceived slights and humiliations and perceived failures of Robert to be the perfect Ramana-guru; the Sangha would break up and half would leave without ever explaining why and we would start all over again somewhere else.
The central problem in Robert’s Sangha was Robert’s behaviors contrasted to his words in Satsang, and access and/or control over Robert and the direction of the Sangha.
It seemed everyone wanted more access to Robert than they had, and there were many small cliques that wanted to control every aspect of the Sangha, from who was to transcribe Satsangs, who was to compose and edit Robert’s books, who was to tape record, who was to coordinate bringing food and deserts for Satsang and our bi-monthly parties, who was going to be spokesperson, what chants were to be played at Satsang, advertising, writing magazine articles, etc. Everyone wanted to help and everyone had their own ideas of how something should be done. There was not a lot of surrender to the way things were, nor was there much surrender to the totality of the ideal of the greater good of the community or Robert as a person. Everyone just wanted to be closer to Robert, having his Darshan, his remarkable presence of peace, emptiness and utter acceptance, but is the larger sense, they did not want to pay the price of inner work, supporting the guru, and of surrender, which is the crux of the teacher/student relationship---at least for me.
But getting close to Robert was difficult. His time was limited and he had a few close students he met with for lunch every week, which limited access to him except at Satsang. In such situation, cliques almost always form, although his closest students all really got along with him: Mary, Lee, Dana and I.
Unfortunately, many came to Robert, and attempting to get close, would try to “poison” Robert’s mind against one or another of us, or even set up a clique within the Sangha and approach Robert with some project or another in order to gain more access.
People would tell Robert that I was doing this or that, which was ruining Satsang and the Sangha, or that there was a new person who was to be carefully watched because they had a bad “vibe” or some other problem. Mary, lee and I were always targets of being bad-mouthed by each other, or by them telling Robert all about our faults in an attempt to get closer to him by pointing out how faulty we were compared to how “loyal,” “honest,” or loving they were.
Robert’s Sangha was often like the Vatican under the Borgias, with constant intrigue and behind the back bloodletting. Generally, it ended up with many blaming Robert for being who he was and doing what he did. Students never took responsibility for their own actions and emotions, and projected the whole mess onto Robert, or me, or Mary or someone else.
Over the 8 years I was with him, only four stayed with him to the end, Mary, Lee, and Dana. Out of thousands, only 4 stayed. Robert was always looking for the ones who stayed despite all the turmoil in the Sangha.
The same is true of all gurus. Very few students stay long, and the closer you get to the teacher, the less likely you are to stay because others in the Sangha begin “disinformation” campaigns to advance their own agendas by disempowering someone else.
Strangely, I saw much less of this attitude in any Zen center or monastery. With the zen masters, and in the 70s and 80s, we knew who was in charge. The problem arose more with the Robert-led Sanghas of few rules, no shared living quarters and no set responsibilities. Robert was not a disciplinarian, nor did he care much for the direction that the Sangha went. That meant a very lose management style, leaving openings for people to come and go making suggestions or doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
A lot of people become like love-starved little children, looking for recognition, a kind word or approval or from the Sangha itself, and more and more access to the teacher.
You see, often a new person comes with infinitely good intent, filled with a strong desire to know his or her self and truth, filled with devotion, and loyal to the entire process, but their own deep and personal needs got activated. Then instead of using this as a perfect opportunity for self-inquiry, instead they get blown away by the intensity of their own needs as well as by whatever is the guru’s response, whether giving or withholding.
This happens to every student at some point, and usually a multiple number of times, as happened to me with regard to Robert. While a few ask themselves these self-investigative questions, most remain focused on what they didn’t get from Robert or the Sangha. Few went within themselves and ask what it was about Robert that pushed them to expect or demand this or that from the guru. They did not ask, “What is it IN ME that needs to be stripped from ME, so I can feel open and loving toward my guru?”
This is the sort of personal self-inquiry that every student needs to address at moments of a separation crisis. “What is it in me that makes me feel Robert or Ed are failures as teachers? Why is it I do not trust the spiritual unfolding process? What are/were my expectation and are they realistic, or are they childhood remnants that interfere with all my relations now?”
In many cases these are purely psychological questions pertaining to a perceived failure in a student’s relationship with the teacher, but they need to be resolved so that they can become empty enough to get emotionally close enough to the teacher to experience repeated glimpses of the infinite, of complete emptiness, of the divine being.
This is how the bond with the guru is cultivated and nourished. This is the hard work. It is easy to love the guru while we have an idealized image of him or her. But when we get close to the guru, his clay feet are seen, and our many idealized projections of what the guru is, or should be, are shattered, and then the really hard work begins.
This is the crux of the self-inquiry process. The more we strip away our own resistances, the more open and accepting of ourselves and the guru we are. And then the intimacy we so seek with our teacher and ultimately with our own Self is slowly revealed. We can now taste the pure sense of I-AM.
On a parallel thread, there are those who by personality are “doers,” and gain recognition and gratification through doing and controlling, while others want to have nothing to do with this aspect of Satsang. These others just want to work on themselves and have nothing to do with organizing Satsang. They just want to come in peace, sit near the teacher, love the teacher, listen to his or her words, internalize them, feel ecstasy with the chanting and in meditation. It is these quiet people, these more shy and introverted people who really “progress” and work their way towards going free.
I am not saying the doers do not progress, for I was a chief doer with Robert and such activities stood me well over time, but the greatest progress happens after you surrender the doing to God, to Consciousness. After three years with Robert, I stopped initiating anything on my own and just waited for Robert to direct me. When Robert left Los Angeles, I stopped doing altogether and just rested in myself.
It is with some of these non-doing people that a teacher tends to spend more time, because he and they feel rapid changes taking place within them, away from the noise of the group. It is also with them that the teacher can be more of him or herself, in his own emptiness, acceptance and love, all held in silence. When some people discover how much time the teacher spends with these people compared with them, they again feel jealous. This is especially the case for the type A doers who are making Satsang healthy and happening. They feel cheated in a sense, they are doing so much for the teacher and the Sangha, but their teacher is spending more time for whatever reason, with someone else who is doing so little in comparison, in their minds and judgment.
You see, it is not a matter of how much time one spends in spiritual activities, but how much time one spends with the guru and within one’s own self, and you cannot trade activities to support the sangha with closeness to the teacher. The openness of true surrender is felt by the teacher and automatically attracts him or her. True surrender lights a fire of devotion both in the student and the guru.
What I learned subsequently, but did not know at the time, I needed to better contain my relationships with students so that less was known generally about my relationship with each student. However, the students themselves were always talking to each other about their own relationships with me and with others, so there was no real containing or isolation.
Relevant to this container concept, we need to be aware that none of us ever functions in isolation. If I feel anxious or depressed, just my bearing and presence causes those states to be communicated to others who are sensitive to me. This then “contaminates” their own state, which again becomes communicated to others in a ripple down effect.
Some spiritual people are very empathic. They become energy workers or Reikian therapists. Some are almost telepathic. They can feel even well-hidden emotional states in others, and feel the incongruity of the hidden emotional state, such as hatred, as opposed to how a person expresses himself. The more meditation one does on one’s own sense of presence, on the I Am, the more sensitive some people get to these non-expressed emotional states and the energy-presence of others.
I am aggression avoidant. I try to avoid conflict if possible and to smooth over buried conflicts with an attitude of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, in such a situation, it will appear to empaths that their concerns and worries are not being addressed and that me, the blind teacher, is ignoring their very urgent intuition, while I appear to side with the person hiding hatred or ill-intent towards the others. In these situations, the empathic person feels unsafe and unprotected because the teacher has not even acknowledged the truth of what their intuition of danger tells them. In this capacity of ignoring their true intuitions, I failed many, many times.
Thus “reading” the minds and hearts of the Sangha members, above and beyond what they say and do becomes of utmost importance for a teacher, while learning how to deal with these situations becomes increasingly important in an ashram or Satsang setting.
I must admit I have failed many times in my stumbling approach to running a benevolent Sangha, and often have relied on the advice of those I should have ignored. It has been an intense learning experience.
I have since learned more about empathy as this ability has slowly increased in me during the past year. In fact, this talent can be honed and become a Siddhi, a power to be used for good or ill.
When we are really closely attached and bonded, we can even feel the emotional states and energy states of those we love and are close to, over distances even when direct conversations or any communications for that matter, are not taking place. If a loved one is feeling sad, despairing, or radiantly happy, we can feel it. If he or she is in a raging argument with their husband, wife or child, we can feel it, and sometimes feel these emotions as our own and wonder what brought these states on. It can become really confusing for some—the origin or their mental and emotional states.
One can actually “feel” on a deep, intuitive level, which some call the “astral level,” the ebbing and flowing of consciousness itself, as well as how that flow is affecting those we are close to, or the Satsang as a whole. Becoming aware of these energies, flows, and impacts on those we love is really an incredibly interesting and exciting process taking place on the plane of the manifest.
Robert certainly did not deny these levels existed, but only emphasized they should be ignored as irrelevant to one’s own liberation from the manifest world, and all these empathic events are related to the manifest world.
This increased empathy and awareness makes ashram living both easier and more difficult, because life is more subtle and nuanced, and we are more open and influenced by “invisible and unexpressed” affects and flows within consciousness.
The more personal the teacher is, the closer to his or her heart that he allows his students to come, the more intense will be the needs, jealousies and angers, as well as the intensity of love, that these relationships will ignite and sustain.
When the guru is more distant and not so open, all the infighting goes on in the background, if it goes on at all, and few have any sense it is even happening except for a felt sense that a certain situation is odd.
The spiritual process is one of constant deconstructing of one’s ego and belief systems and a progressive surrender to the teacher, once you realize that you and the teacher are not separate from the overall process of consciousness “evolving” in and through you. In fact, spiritual “progress” is surrendering to the process of losing what inhibits your awakening, and this is extremely painful and frightening, for example, to let go of your concept of the perfect guru, or how the spiritual process should look.
Many students want the teacher to create a situation where it is easy to wake up, but in fact, it is up to the student to do the work, to practice self-inquiry on why the feelings of wanting to run away are coming up. “Why do they come to me,” one should ask. Why am I so angry with the teacher? Why do I feel hatred towards X, Y and Z? What is my part in all this? Why do I believe X but not the teacher, or why do I believe the teacher and not X?
The source of the need to run away is in you, why do you run? Can you just stay with the feelings and not run or not create stories to justify the urge to run or strike out?
You see, in our Sangha, like with Robert’s, or Ramana’s, or with Nisargadatta, most people are just passing through. So don’t worry about what is wrong with the teacher or with the Sangha, because Consciousness is directing everything. You, Robert and I are just small cogs in an unlimited, infinite unfolding of consciousness, and all of our “huge” problems are not even pimples to God.
Yet, because of the apparent hugeness of our problems, we do not trust the unfolding process, and when our problems are not solved, we often fixate on the teacher’s failures that has caused us not to progress and go free. It becomes his fault, not ours or that of Consciousness itself; it becomes the Sangha’s fault, not ours or that of Consciousness itself, and the role assigned to us by the grand unfolding. We make up stories that block our own self-inquiry and deepening, then we run away from the cooking we ourselves are creating in association with God and guru.
The chaos and cooking people experienced at Robert’s Sangha had little to do with Robert. He was just the apparent figurehead.
Only four stayed for the entire 8 years with Robert, and Robert was always looking for those who stayed by him, mostly the quiet ones, who spent much time looking into themselves, reading the transcripts, meditating, or wanting to spend time with the teacher, and surrendering to the process of the unfolding of consciousness through him or her, which the mind cannot see, but the heart can directly intuit, minute by minute.