Be Your Own Guru: Authoritarianism and the Problem of the Guru in Conscious Evolution

One of the major focal points in terms of processing the idea of spiritual teachers is wondering to what extent they are necessary at all in the development of the individual as a spiritual being. How does one define the spiritual life? How does one define a spiritual teacher? These are questions with answers that would likely be as different as the people asking them.
Whether or not a person feels the need for a spiritual teacher, whether a teacher in the
flesh or via a philosophical text, is also a very individualized process. Whether or not a person is open to the idea of having a spiritual teacher or guru likely has much to do with how they have been conditioned socially. If a person has been conditioned to be more accepting of a guru, then they will have a greater openness than someone who has been conditioned to be more or less open or hostile towards the process (or someone who has had a negative guru experience or been exposed to negative news reports about certain religious sects).
J. Krishnamurti uses the concept of the awareness of social conditioning as the basis for his
philosophy. He advocated a philosophy that, essentially, put forth the idea that there is no guru, there is no teaching, and only the individual can know his or her own consciousness. Only the individual can dig deep enough into his or her own consciousness and explore and, potentially, be free from social conditioning. Again, social conditioning would definitely factor in to whether or not one is open to the guru/disciple relationship. Krishnamurti said
are you aware you are conditioned? That is the first thing to ask yourself, not how to be free of your conditioning. You may never be free of it, and if you say, ‘I must be free of it’, you may fall into another trap of another form of conditioning. So are you aware that you are conditioned? Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say, ‘That is an oak tree’, or ‘that is a banyan tree’, the naming of the tree which is botanical knowledge, has so conditioned your mind that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree? To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it
If the very act of identifying a tree by a certain name is a sign of being conditioned, then
certainly, whether or not one is open to the idea of having a guru or spiritual teacher is also
influenced by conditioning. To put this idea into context, my own spiritual conditioning involved being raised as a Roman Catholic. Being raised Catholic was an integral part of my worldview and remains the foundation of my spiritual conditioning. As I grew, I became aware of other religions and became drawn to the ideas of Taoism and Buddhism. I also became interested in rationalistic points of view espoused by Secular Humanism.



Authoritarian Followers As Symbiotes

While eastern cultures have a greater tradition and support for the guru disciple relationship,
those in western cultures seem to have a greater skepticism towards them. Part of the mythology of America is that of the “rugged individualist” who “goes it alone” if need be while relying on the Christian god for spiritual support. In their popular mainstream forms, neither Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity or Fundamentalist Christianity seem particularly open to a guru/disciple relationship in the eastern sense; whereas, in “eastern” societies such a relationship has been a part of the culture for thousands of years. There is also a greater, and well documented, sense of collectivism in eastern societies versus what many like to think of as individualism in western countries (though I think the idea of individualism is highly debatable, especially in terms of how people in the west are socially conditioned on all sorts of levels).
While such attributes as collectivist versus individualistic may hold true, it is also important to avoid over-generalizing in terms of broad-based cultural attributes at the risk of essentializing a culture. Be that as it may, one thing that does link most modern cultures is some form of authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, authoritarianism in seems to be at work in many ways in terms of how individuals relate to religious and spiritual pursuits. Specifically, I am discussing the authoritarian follower personality. These are people who would be easily described in a general sense as “followers”, often seeming devoid of reason or critical faculties when it comes to their spiritual, religious or political views. While this may not always be the case, or may not even be the case most of the time in terms of religious or spiritual seekers, it is the case often enough to warrant scrutiny.
Indeed, the idea of the authoritarian follower personality is often at work in terms of
defining to which extent individual is open to submitting to the guru/disciple relationship. It is also very much present in most of the world’s major religions where a guru/student relationship is not present. The authoritarian follower personality is not the exclusive property of any particular culture or era. These personality types appear to exist throughout cultures and time periods, both religiously and politically. In The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer explores the idea of the authoritarian personality in great depth. He sees the related concept of dogmatism as a particular threat to free-thinking. Altemeyer says:
Once dogmatism turns out the lights, you might as well close up shop as a civilization and pull up the covers as a sentient life form. You get nowhere with unquestioning certainty. It’s thinking with your mind wide shut. But that would not faze most fundamentalists, because they know that their beliefs will get them exactly where they want to go.
To a further extent, Altemeyer explores the concept of fundamentalism along with its dangers as relates to, in this case, the authoritarian follower personality. It is clear from
Altemeyer’s sociological findings that this authoritarian follower personality is socially driven i.e. it is a socially conditioned aspect of a human being’s life. Altemeyer says of fundamentalist Christians:
That they are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting that everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead of social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.
Analyzing Altemeyer’s reflection, it becomes apparent that if there are not authoritarian
followers, there can be no authoritarian leaders. Both the authoritarian leader and follower must exist in a symbiotic relationship or they cannot exist at all. No authoritarian leaders, no authoritarian followers. The reverse is also true. This has implications for religion and spirituality, but also has implications for the greater idea society. When an authoritarian follower of a cult, religious sect or religion is deprogrammed, the symbiotic connection to the
authoritarian leader is broken, lessening that leader’s power by at least one follower. However, the individual’s authoritarian personality traits are still there in latent form and may find another outlet in the future. I reject the idea of a guru, not only because of my initial Roman Catholic religious conditioning but because at the same time I was rais ed with the opposite approach to dogma: question authority.
While some level of leading and following is necessary for the functioning of modern society, it does not need to be the rule of the authoritarian leader or follower. More consensus driven
societies are likely to have more of everything that authoritarian society’s lack: creativity,
openness, and freedom.

Giving Gurus a Bad Name

Another reason many people resist the guru-disciple relationship is that some deeply disturbed authoritarian leaders have given the term guru a bad name. Enough instances have occurred in recent memory where authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders have come together and havoc has ensued to lead to very understandable questions in the popular press and the popular mind about the nature of the guru/disciple relationship and the very nature of the guru. The “bad” gurus have run the gamut from bizarre and abusive to murderous.
By definition, people are naturally drawn to charismatic personalities. Most, if not all, gurus
whether deemed positive or negative in their impact have some level of charisma to them
whether in personality or vital energy. Like the pop stars of today, however, it is not unusual for these charismatic personalities to go over the edge and fall into the abyss.
Beyond excess, there is also spiritual inconsistency that can bring a guru back down to the all too human level. Non-gurus regularly exhibit inconsistencies in their behaviors. However, followers of gurus expect spiritual teachers to be more than human. The inconsistencies demonstrate that faith in a guru can be shaken or, ultimately, shattered by a guru having them. The question remains as to the nature of who have been considered enlightened considering their excesses and inconsistent behavior.
While authoritarian leaders serve as symbols for the negative aspects of the guru/disciple
relationship, it is the followers who do not get the same “press” as their charismatic spiritual
teachers. Perhaps popular culture would somehow like to simplify the nature of the guru/disciple relationship. Perhaps the general public does not want to acknowledge their own authoritarian tendencies, whether as leaders or followers.
Though the “gurus-gone-wild” have come to be symbols of darkness or excess, over time they continue to crop up again and again. It is unlikely that society will see a complete end to such tragedies as Jonestown or thousands of disillusioned followers, as was the case with Rajneesh, until the authoritarian personality itself is fully explored, understood and, eventually treated. Unfortunately, for many involved with bad gurus, by the time the problem is discovered, it is often too late to stop psychological or physical harm from occurring.

Krishnamurti and Free-Thinking

A great focus of this paper is not on the benefits that many people find in following the eastern guru-centered spiritual traditions, but a critique of the authoritarian follower personality that makes such relationships often dangerous to the psyche or more of the would be follower. While I, personally, reject the idea of having a guru for the many reasons stated in this paper I very much feel that there are likely many spiritual teachers of great merit and many individuals who benefit as the recipients of their teachings. Ultimately, though, I feel that it is far too likely, especially in Western societies, that an individual has a much greater chance of being taken in by an illegitimate guru if they are either naïve of the process and background of the guru or have an unquestioning authoritarian follower personality and, thus, far more likely to do or have damage done to them. When authoritarianism is present thought becomes static, inventiveness and openness are gone. In Total Freedom, Krishnamurti said:
What we call happiness or ecstasy is, to me, creative thinking. And creative thinking is the infinite movement of thought, which is emotion, which is action itself, if unimpeded in its movement, is not compelled or influenced or bound by an idea, and does not proceed from the background of tradition or habit, then that movement is creative. So long as thought– and I won’t repeat each time emotion and action – so long as thought is circumscribed, held by a fixed idea, or merely adjusts itself to a background or condition and, therefore, becomes limited, such a thought is not creative.
To what extent does the guru/disciple relationship circumscribe or limit thought in the
manner that Krishnamurti is discussing? That would seemingly depend on the guru and the guru’s teachings and the personality of the follower. Krishnamurti rejects the idea of attachment to abstract concepts as being forms of conditioning. The mind is never free as long as it is fixated on anything. The very idea of the guru, in Krishnamurti’s terms, could be seen as a socially conditioned idea. If, as Krishnamurti suggested many times, only the individual can know her or his own consciousness, if there is no guru needed, if there is no religious or spiritual organization needed, if there is no path, then the very nature of the guru/teacher and the disciple/student is called into question. Krishnamurti went on to say:
Now this movement of creative thinking does not seek in its expression a result, an achievement; its results and expressions are not its culmination. It has no culmination or goal, for it is eternally in movement. Most minds are seeking a culmination, a goal, an achievement and are molding themselves upon the idea of success, and such thought, such thinking is continually limiting itself, whereas if there is not idea of achievement but only the continual movement of thought as understanding, as intelligence, then that movement of thought is creative.
In terms of Krishnamurti’s “teachings” the individual would not reach this freedom of thought, this creative essence by relying on anyone outside themselves. Certainly, the individual would not reach the essence of this creative thought by relying on a guru. It is, again, in this sense that in Krishnamurti’s rejection of the guru that he reminds individuals of the power they have to look within and discover themselves, most likely, for the first time.

Be Your Own Guru

Does Krishnamurti’s philosophy appeal to me because I am socially conditioned to accept the
idea of “questioning authority” or because it is reflective of my life experiences? Perhaps it is a combination of both. However, I do agree with his well known idea that “truth is a pathless land.” Indeed, to me, I cannot see any other way for the individual to truly have the potential of freeing themselves from social conditioning and realizing the transcendental without going into their own consciousness and exploring its nature. While I will leave the argument in favor of the guru/disciple relationship to others, I will conclude only by saying:

Be Your Own Guru

This article has been selectively republished from the Journal of Conscious Evolution