Oct 20, 1997

Why We Love Gurus

They seduce us by telling us what we want to hear: we're wonderful and we'll live forever. What's wrong with that? Plenty.

Newsweek Magazine
October 20, 1997
By Wendy Kaminer

Trance channeler Kevin Ryerson is describing the hierarchy of spiritual guides. I have signed up for a lecture and a workshop with that the Saints are a step below Ascending Masters, who are below angels and Archangels. People listen intently, in the belief, I guess, that they're receiving information. "Where do gurus fit in?" someone asks. Gurus are teachers, Ryerson responds; then he; quotes Oprah Winfrey, who reportedly said that gurus are here "not tot teach us about their divinity but to teach us about our own."
I still haven't sensed any divinity within myself or anyone else, but the pop-guru business is certainly flourishing. And I think Oprah (if she said that) understands the guru's appeal. He, or she, does sometimes demand a show of humility from the acolyte and a stab at purifying confession: the Promise Keepers will reclaim their power after they admit their sins. But gurus—and they hate to be called that—always confirm our essential godliness. They lead by flattery. "Most women I know are priestesses and healers ... We are all of us sisters of a mysterious order," Marianne Williamson writes, inviting readers to identify with her. The most powerful charismatics are those who simultaneously invite identification and idolatry. Then, if they are divine, so are we.
Indeed, the measure of our psychic or spiritual superiority is usually our openness to the guru's teachings. Consumers of the New Age are assured that they represent the spiritual avant-garde who will lead us into the next millennium. By studying "The Celestine Prophecy," you become "part of the evolutionary process," best-selling author James Redfield confirms.
The guru offers us the opportunity to become leaders of our culture by becoming followers of his teachings. They frequently renounce any special authority or desire to lead, but that is merely a matter of form. The American personal-development tradition demands a nod toward egalitarianism. Gurus may welcome us initially as fellow travelers on a path to enlightenment, but we walk several paces behind. They are paid to talk while we pay to listen. In fact, gurus presume a great deal of authoritative, personal knowledge: they unabashedly explain the mysteries of the universe. I've heard "Creation theologist" Matthew Fox expound on the science of angels. They move at the speed of light, like photons, he said. No one questioned his assertions. Most of these teachers are hostile to challenges. I have rarely seen an expert leave much time for questions after a talk. When audience participation is allowed, I've never heard anyone ask a probing critical question. When I've respectfully argued with the experts or, Goddess forbid, corrected them, they have reacted with angry surprise.
The skeptic's resistance to the guru's truth is usually attributed to fear, defensiveness and a reliance on intellect over emotion; we should trust our hearts and not our heads. We're encouraged to trust our dreams and longings for transcendence as well. If you imagine a past life, you've probably lived one. Psychiatrist John Mack suggests that we take stories of UFO abductions seriously if they are "felt to be real" by the self-described abductees.
Gurus often tell us exactly what we want to hear. "There is no death." That is the primary message of spirituality gurus. Better yet, this relief from fear of death is easily obtained. The spiritual peace and enlightenment offered by pop gurus doesn't require a lifetime of discipline. It requires only that you suspend your critical judgment, attend their lectures and workshops and buy their books or tapes.
What's wrong with a phenomenon that brings comfort to so many people? That's a bit like asking what's wrong with a lobotomy, a steady diet of happy pills. The rise of charismatic authority figures is always disconcerting, especially when they malign rationalism and exhort us to abandon critical thinking in order to realize spiritual growth. Pop gurus prey on existential anxieties and thrive when our fear of being alone and mortal in an indifferent universe is stronger than our judgment. No one who seeks worship, however covertly, deserves respect. Argue with them, please.

KAMINER is the author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," among other books, and is a commentator on National Public Radio.