I was 10 years old when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a little-known Indian teacher who had founded the Spiritual Rejuvenation Movement back in 1959, gave a retreat in Bangor, Wales. That retreat, with its usual attendees from the metaphysical sub-sub-culture, would have gone completely unnoticed by the rest of the world were it not for the surprising attendance of four very influential people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
The Beatles had already been setting trends in fashion, music, haircuts, and lifestyle since the early 1960s. When they grew their hair longer into the "mop cut," it became the signature of the Beat generation in 1962. When they started to experiment with psychedelics, it took only a few months for many others to do the same, and it spawned the summer of love in 1967.
So when the Beatles went off to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, first in Wales and then in Rishikesh, India, the number of people learning transcendental meditation went from a few hundred to millions within a year. When the Beatles went to India they were joined by Donovan, Mia Farrow, and a handful of other cultural icons. Swami Muktananda set up shop in South Fallsberg, New York, and also drew in a torrent of celebrities. Werner Erhard created est. By the early 1970s, the question on everyone's lips had shifted from "what's a guru?" to "who's your guru?" It seemed like everyone young and hip enough had a spiritual teacher they were following, and there were literally hundreds to choose from.
Many of those teachers were from India, Tibet, Japan, or China, and came from traditions where business and spirituality had no common ground. In the early 1970s, however, many of them developed huge organizations, quite commonly with assets in the millions, and generally with a burgeoning feudal structure, not dissimilar from the very Catholic Church many of them had only recently shunned.
The attraction to having a teacher at that time was extremely clear. Many of us were born in the years following the Second World War. Our parents were obviously confused about many things: gender roles, how to raise children, the purpose of being alive, to name just a few. They were, for the most part, adrift and unhappy. The religious traditions in which we grew up -- Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism -- seemed to offer only the possibility that we could become like the generation that had reared us. So an Indian teacher, promising the giddy heights of enlightenment, appearing to be completely relaxed and confident, with an unambiguous and strong position around sexuality, money, and how to look after your body, often with a strict regimen of practices to follow, made life simple and easy. Back in the 70s, everyone thought their guru was The Way, and that Nirvana and Utopia were just a few years of meditation away.
It didn't take long for the illusion to be shattered for most of us. Some of these Oriental teachers were caught having sex with young women, or even young boys, when they had been teaching celibacy. In some organizations, evidence started to emerge of immense financial corruption. In many cases it was the feudality of the situation: the chosen few at the top living luxurious lives while the majority of the organization was carried by unpaid volunteers, that caused people to feel fed up. All the promises of enlightenment in a short period of time turned out to be very unreliable. To start with, no one seemed to agree on what the word "enlightenment" referred to. Even if you could get that far, it was clear that the promised timeline was very unreasonable.
Almost everyone I know who has been serious in their life about spiritual exploration has at some time been in relationship with a teacher, sometimes with many teachers, and has also felt some degree of betrayal and disappointment.
Today we can see the emergence of a whole new way of going about this. You can be profoundly focused and intent on genuine awakening without having allegiance to any one teacher or organization. Many people nowadays will attend retreats with Eckhart Tolle, Adya Shanti, Byron Katie, or the Dalai Lama. Many people have found they have to integrate more "spiritual" teachings with other methods to take care of their health, their finances, and their relationships. So today, if you walk into the house of a veteran of the spirit, you might find an altar with a handful of pictures on it. You might find their bookshelf populated by divergent points of view.
Others have discovered a way that, with the right disposition, the right openness, the right willingness to feel and to listen, life itself becomes a teacher in all of its multi-faceted appearances. A moment of disappointment or defeat, a feeling of rejection, even a serious illness, can become the "guru" if you allow it to.
Perhaps the most interesting development in this way is the possibility of "co-creative awakening." This means that we recognize that we are, all of us, in one dimension, already completely awake. And we are all also, all of us, just monkeys with no hair and a bunch of dysfunctional habits that don't seem to go away. We are all unavoidably human and unavoidably divine at the same time. And so there is the possibility that we can be teachers to each other, stepping into being the guide when it's called for, but also having the humility and the honesty to be guided, as well.
This is an extremely hot and juicy topic, and it's one about which there are multiple points of view. I've had endless delightful and fruitful conversations with many people about this over many years. Perhaps the most erudite and interesting person who has researched this is Mariana Caplan, the author of books like Halfway Up the Mountain, Do You need a Guru?, and, most recently, Eyes Wide Open, which won five national awards in the book publishing industry.
I had a wonderful dialog with Mariana Caplan about this subject on July 15. You can listen to the free replay here.