Skip to content

Monthly Archives: January 2018

Searching for the Guru

Neem Karoli Baba reading Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’ve come back from India after an interesting three weeks. I went there with the vague intention to find a guru and take my spiritual practice to the next level. I say ‘vague’ because I wasn’t quite sure how one went about finding a guru.

I was inspired by the story of Ram Dass, or Richard Alpert as he was known when he was a psychology professor at Harvard. After he was thrown out of Harvard for giving psychedelic drugs to his students, Alpert went to India in 1967. He’d been taking vast amounts of LSD and psilocybin, and would reach these states of bliss and ego-transcendence. But he always came down. How to stay up there?

While travelling in India, he met an Indian holy man,  Neem Karoli Baba, and eventually became his disciple, taking the name Ram Dass.  Of all the Eastern gurus one could have followed in the 60s and 70s, Neem Karoli Baba seems to have been a pretty good one.

His followers took him to be an enlightened being, even the avatar of Hanuman, possessed of incredible spiritual powers like clairvoyance and translocation, and with an unrivalled capacity for unconditional love. But that’s what most devotees think of their gurus. Unlike most gurus, Neem Karoli Baba didn’t turn out to be utterly corrupted by money, power or sex – at least, not as far as I can tell, although there are some stories of him fondling his female followers.

Ram Dass came back to the US, and wrote a book called Be Here Now, which came out in 1971. It was a massive success, and was a sort of DIY book of Western and Eastern spiritual techniques for the hippy movement. It did a lot to introduce the idea of the guru to Western spirituality.

He wrote:

At certain stages in the spiritual journey, there is a quickening of the spirit which is brought about through the grace of the guru. When you are at one of the stages where you need this catalyst, it will be forthcoming… If you go looking for a guru and are not ready to find one, you will not find what you are looking for….All you can do is purify yourself in body and mind. Everyone already has a guru. However you may or may not meet your guru on the physical plane in this lifetime. 

The stories of Ram Dass and other westerners interacting with Neem Karoli Baba were so far out, so full of wonder and magic and love, that naturally everyone who read Be Here Now thought, I gotta get me a guru!

So the idea was introduced into Western culture of teachers who were in fact enlightened beings, omniscient and infallible, whom one should treat as God. As another great Indian sage of the early 20th century, Ramana Maharshi, taught: ‘God, the guru and the Self are the same’.

The same idea was introduced into western culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s by Buddhist teachers like Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche (pictured on the left). One should utterly surrender to the guru, even if they behave weirdly or abusively –  that’s just what Chogram Rinpoche called ‘crazy wisdom‘. Their erratic behaviour will break down your ego-defences and lead you to the divine spark within you – just as Tilopa brought Naropa to enlightenment by hitting him in the face with his sandal. 

The idea of the divine guru was something new in Western spirituality. Yes, Catholicism has the idea of Papal infallibility, and Roman emperors had been worshipped as gods, but in both cases this was more about political authority over countries than mystical authority over individuals. There were always charismatic Christian preachers who inspired great devotion among their followers – some good, some bad. But they never claimed to be mouthpieces of the divine (rarely, anyway, although this occurs more often in Pentecostalism, where it often lead to spiritual abuse).

In general, Christians believe that only Christ is divine, and to suggest you or your teacher is also perfect is idolatrous. And it’s setting yourself up for a fall – all humans in this realm are imperfect and flawed, even Christ’s closest followers are shown to be imperfect creatures, again and again. Jesus is the only Guru – you surrender to Christ. 

I wonder, has the idea of the guru done more harm than good in western spirituality over the last 50 years? Of the various people who have either proclaimed themselves as gurus, or who have been followed as gurus – including Ram Dass – how many of them turned out to be genuinely enlightened, and how many turned out to be bad ‘uns? I’d say about 95% turned out to be corrupt in some way – you can read the long sad litany in this book ‘Stripping the Gurus’. [Edit – I think I’ve probably way over-estimated this figure. And for a critique of that book, see Don’s comment below]. 

If you surrender to a guru and they turn out to be corrupt and abusive, that must be utterly crushing. And what bad karma for the teachers! ‘Their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs’, wrote the Dalai Lama. 

So many Eastern celebrity teachers turned out to be frauds, sex abusers, alcoholics, violent, or greedy. And the Eastern idea of the guru also inspired many western charlatans to declare themselves divine avatars in the last few decades, almost always with disastrous consequences.

Being highly articulate and insightful does not mean you’re enlightened. Being incredibly charismatic and able to provoke ecstasy in your devotees does not mean you’re enlightened. Being able to perform wonders does not mean you’re enlightened. But the craze for guru-worship has led people to take all these things as surefire signs.

It’s even got Ram Dass in trouble. Although he’s always been pretty honest about his failings, it’s failed to put off devotees who still sometimes worship him as God.  And he himself was bamboozled by a New Jersey housewife who claimed to be an enlightened being, and who successfully demanded sex, money, and complete surrender from Ram Dass and her other followers.

Anyway, I wanted to find a guru, or at least, a teacher who could help me progress. I went to a Zen retreat in the south, where I thought I’d start off my journey. It has a nice old teacher who is admirably un-guru-like – his favourite phrase is ‘I don’t know!’ But I had to move on after a few days, because all the places at the retreat had been taken by Germans. Typical.

So I flew to Varanasi, one of the most sacred sites in India. I watched the candles float out onto the foggy Ganges at dusk. I observed the bodies being burnt on the ghats – being cremated in Varanasi supposedly grants you instant liberation. I saw people dipping themselves into the incredibly polluted river in the belief it will wash away their sins.

It’s an impressive place, but I didn’t find my guru (I didn’t look very hard to be honest). Instead, I took a bus to Sarnath, about half an hour outside Varanasi.

This was where the Buddha first taught the dharma. He became enlightened at Bodhgaya, then walked around for a bit, before turning up 250km away in Sarnath, where he met some of his old ascetic chums. He taught them the essence of Buddhism in about 30 minutes: all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can overcome attachment, by following the eight-fold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Simple! 

The deer-park at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the dharma

And it’s interesting, the Buddha didn’t mention anything about the importance of gurus. On the contrary, he seemed to insist that we have to take responsibility for our enlightenment. We can’t expect the the guru, or the Ganges, or God, to do the work for us.

It’s quite a stark message.

The Dalai Lama has written, clearly in response to the teachings of Chogram Rinpoche and other Buddhist rock-stars:

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action of the guru is seen as perfect.” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.”..The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…It is an extremely dangerous teaching, especially for beginners.The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines.

Today, as old certainties and institutions break down, we’re once again seeing a rise in charismatic authority. There are so many confusing complex issues to work out, people want to find someone who can do all their thinking for them. YouTube has made this basic human tendency even easier – we can just watch talk after talk by Ram Dass, or Jordan Peterson, or Russell Brand, or Christopher Hitchens, or Zakir Naik, or whoever. Just hand over our minds to the Perfect One.

Well, I didn’t find my guru, and I started to miss my friends and family, so I came back to the UK early. Evidently, I have not purified myself sufficiently. But I still hope to find teachers who can help me go forward. They don’t have to be perfect omniscient beings, just more advanced than me.

The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

It began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. 

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on.’ That’s how our culture thinks of flow states, because we’re so hung up on performance and productivity. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction: ‘As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.’

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. But still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity.