In my life I’ve encountered lots of different spiritual practices and philosophies, from New Age and Self-Help to Theravada Buddhism and Kashmir Shaivism. I’ve gained from almost every teaching I’ve read, some more so than others of course. But spiritual teachings have not been the things that I have found most healing in my life – it was my relationships that really helped me grow and feel whole. Specifically it was a long-term, loving and supportive relationship that helped me grow the most.
Sure, the spiritual teachings gave me insights, transcendental experiences and made me feel happier in many ways, but it was through a caring and trusting relationship that I allowed myself to open up, love and forgive myself. I was accepted in the eyes of another, and that allowed me to accept myself, to love and be kind to myself.
I was accepted in the eyes of another, and that allowed me to accept myself, to love and be kind to myself.
Much of our self-image is created through our relationships. Children learn about what is good and bad behaviour from what other people say to them and how other people react to them. They learn if they are beautiful or ugly, too fat or too skinny, clever or stupid, naughty or polite, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all these are learnt through what other people have fed back to them. Relationships create self-esteem – both high and low.
It seems fitting therefore, that if relationships and interactions with people can destroy a sense of self-worth, that relationship can also be beneficial in repairing a negative self-image which in turn can repair all sorts of resultant negative self-isolating coping strategies.
…if relationships and interactions with people can destroy a sense of self-worth…relationship can also be beneficial in repairing a negative self-image
In a spiritual context, I think this is where the Guru-disciple relationship traditionally has been so powerful. For those who don’t know, a Guru is simply the Sanskrit word for a spiritual teacher. Literally the word means ‘heavy’ (heavy with spiritual teaching), but a more creative etymology states that guru means ‘dispeller of darkness’ or ‘bringer of light’.
Whilst I have never had a guru (I consider life to be my guru – how new-age!), I can see how the dissemination of a spiritual teaching tradition in the context of a caring supportive relationship with a Guru could work wonders. I was always reading books in order to understand the spiritual stuff and never had that opportunity to learn at the feet of a guru – and when I did I never really trusted them anyway. In fact being near a guru, especially their feet, was the last thing on my mind in my journey. And the ones who demanded unconditional faith – that set my alarm bells ringing straight away. There have been so many gurus, both East and West, that have used, abused, manipulated and extorted their followers that it’s difficult to keep count of them.
There have been so many gurus, both East and West, that have used, abused, manipulated and extorted their followers that it’s difficult to keep count of them.
But there have been countless examples through the ages of how spiritual seekers, through simply trusting their guru, went on to attain liberation. The example of Nisargadatta Maharaj springs to mind – he trusted his guru’s advice to remain in the ‘I AM’ and after 2 years or so he was apparently self-realised or enlightened.
Traditionally in the Indian subcontinent, a guru may be someone who the family knows quite well. They would usually be male, but not always. In more ancient times the spiritual seeker would often live with the guru, perhaps even for several years before the actual spiritual teaching was taught. Up until that point they would be simply living in the forest with each other: talking, cooking, eating, working the land. They would know each other as brothers would, and in that context there was time for respect, trust and mutual affection to develop. The spiritual aspirant would be able to scrutinise the Guru and see if he truly lived his teaching, or if he only spoke of the Holy but did not embody it.
I feel nostalgic for that kind of ancient exotic guru, someone versed in the highest spiritual and meditative teachings, someone who deeply cared for me and I also cared for, someone I could give myself to and in whose love and spiritual presence I could heal myself.
But that was not, and is not my life. Instead I am thankful for my soulmate and wife, and the healing she has brought me through both the ups and downs of our relationship. Yes, I said earlier that life is my guru, but so is my wife.
Do you have a ‘guru’? Or have you had many ‘gurus’ in your life? Remember, a guru doesn’t have to be a person.