Gurus and Followers: I just want to be me.

By Dr. Deepak Chopra, MD

(Courtesy of Dr. Deepak Chopra and Intentblog.com)

I am frequently labeled a “New Age Guru” by the press, much to my chagrin. I have done much to defile this image with no success. I think some day I may do something so totally outrageous that I may eventually succeed!

On the other hand I don’t want to do something that doesn’t come naturally to me either. Rumi says "I want to sing like birds sing; not worrying who listens or what they think." I think that’s the place we all want to be in. Shekhar in his post referred to the Buddhist saying, "If you meet your Guru kill him!" Vaclav Havel in his inaugural speech as the founding President of the new Czechoslovakia said something similar “Seek the company of those who are looking for the truth and run away from those who have found it!”

A woman I know in her seventies once told me, “I think you have great things to say, but I would never give up my individuality to anyone.” She applied this maxim to cults, religions, and anyone who followed a teacher, guru, master, or any form of authority. I hadn't asked her, or anyone, to follow me, so we weren't arguing.

On the other hand spiritual traditions in India frequently tell us that there is little hope of evolving spiritually without a teacher. (I too have had my share of Gurus)

Although this point may seem self-evident to those steeped in Indian spiritual traditions, people who wouldn't hesitate to go to a music or art teacher feel very squeamish about "following" a master. (The word "follow" in our society is code for "obey mindlessly")


Krishnamurti was famous for saying, "Never follow me. Never follow any guru." He could hardly have stated the matter more bluntly. But of course, if you do as he says, you are in essence following him. He's the teacher you follow who doesn't want followers.

We all follow someone. Those who openly pick a teacher - or a religion for that matter-- have fewer qualms about being followers or disciples. The rest of us may not be so honest, because without an external teacher we think we are independent of authority. In fact our authority is living inside, in the form of all that we've learned and internalized.

An inner authority is just as rigid and binding as an external one. In both cases, one is liable to blindly adhere to opinions and beliefs that are nothing more than hearsay. The second-hand wisdom of a great master loses its truth when it is turned into rules and dictates. I am fond of the saying, "God handed down the truth, and the Devil said, 'Let me organize it and we will call it religion!" I am not encouraged by strict adherence to any system, and yet it's very hard to show people how their beloved master's truth has become fossilized as an inner code of conduct, speech, and thought.

If you have your own way of thinking, your own way of doing things, your own version of the truth, then like it or not, you are just as enthralled by authority as anyone else. But your authority, being at the level of ego, feels like part of yourself, and therefore you trust it.

This trust is insidious, unfortunately. What the ego is hiding is its suspicion and hatred of wisdom. Wisdom isn't a set of opinions, judgments, or preferences. The ego is nothing but these things. As a guide to truth your ego is poor because it cares about its own agenda.

Something feels true to your ego if it answers the following questions:

Will this give me more power?

Will it make me feel more important?

Will it make me right and someone else wrong?

Can I use this to win?

Does this help me survive?

Does it feel good or help me to avoid pain?

Look at any obvious untruth held by people at the ego level. A statement like, "Women are more irrational than men," for example. Whose ego is pleased to hear this, is made more important and powerful?

The answer is the ego of the typical sexist male. Thus it is important to challenge yourself whenever a tempting morsel of opinion tastes too good. If you ignore the homeless by telling yourself, "It's their own fault. Anybody can find a job." Look at the beam of self-satisfaction you re basking in. Consider how right you feel and how wrong those homeless bums look by comparison.

My older lady friend who wanted to just “be herself” might have fallen into a common ego trap. "I want to be me" is generally synonymous with "I want to be my ego" or 'I want to be my self-image." Turning away from a spiritual teacher by saying "I don't need that. I just want to be me" is contradictory, because spirituality is all about finding yourself.

But when "me" is ego-centered, the prospect of real change feels incredibly threatening. Whenever I meet someone who has been seriously on the path for twenty years, and I ask; "Is your ego still getting in the way?" The reply is always yes.

But it's an enlightened yes, since spiritual growth does, bit by bit, exchange the limited, bounded, selfish "I" of the ego-personality for another "I" that is open, universal, and unselfish. Until you reach unity consciousness, there is always a mixture of the two. We all have to use common terms in order to understand one another, but I often wish we could forget words like jiva, Atman, higher self, soul, and so on. I'd much prefer to take a behavioral approach and simply check in on how the ego is doing, for we all know our egos better than we know anything else.

A good spiritual teacher knows even more. Gurus, Tibetan lamas, Native American shamans and similar guides have devoted followings because of their superb diagnostic skills. They have a keen eye for the subtle symptoms of ego. I am not speaking now of what teachers advise as a cure for the ego. That can vary enormously. But if you feel uneasy around a teacher, it's a good sign. "Stumbling but never falling" has been a reliable guide for disciples a long, long time.

Yet there has to be the other side, too. A good spiritual teacher can't challenge your ego all the time. He or she must nurture the "I" that lies beyond. Again, this can be done in many ways. I have come away filled with the presence of Being just by sitting next to a master--the classic Indian darshan. I've been equally filled by reading a great spiritual book, attending a lecture, or totally at random, when the higher self simply wants to shed a little light.

A perfect master, as I would define it, is someone who can tell, moment by moment, precisely how to challenge my hidden ego and how, moment by moment, to show me my higher self, which can be hiding, too. To date, no such perfect master has appeared. Therefore I am not satisfied to remain constantly in the presence of even the greatest lights among spiritual teachers. Their light is second-hand, and as wonderful as it is to see myself in their glowing reflection, firsthand experience is different and better.

Twenty years ago I saw a used book titled, "How to Become Your Own Guru," and I remember thinking; this book must have blank pages. Because in the ongoing relationship of the self and the Self, it is impossible to speak of a guru who isn't you.

The greatest progress on the spiritual path begins, I am convinced, once the self trusts the Self. At that point most seekers walk away from their teacher. It's a kind of graduation, though it would be a mistake to call it a separation. For the longest time the teacher must serve like training wheels on a child's bicycle. The teacher fills your voids, answers your doubts, balances your emotions, and so on. At this stage it can easily seem that the teacher is you. I consider this a healthy feeling, but if you are honest with yourself, once you walk away from the teacher, those voids and uncertainties and imbalances return. They are yours to work on, you and your inner teacher.

The day will come when the same thought takes on new significance. "My teacher really is me." The second time around, however, you will have a very different notion of who this "me" is, and a very different meaning in mind when you say, "I just want to be me."

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher. 


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Time Magazine heralded Deepak Chopra as one of the 100 heroes and icons of the century, and credited him as "the poet-prophet of alternative medicine." Entertainment Weekly described Deepak Chopra as "Hollywood’s man of the moment, one of publishings best-selling and most prolific self-help authors." He is the author of more than 40 books and more than 100 audio, video and CD-Rom titles. He has been published on every continent, and in dozens of languages and his worldwide book sales exceed twenty million copies. Over a dozen of his books have landed on the New York Times Best-seller list. Toastmaster International recognized him as one of the top five outstanding speakers in the world. Through his over two decades of work since leaving his medical practice, Deepak continues to revolutionize common wisdom about the crucial connection between body, mind, spirit, and healing. His mission of "bridging the technological miracles of the west with the wisdom of the east" remains his thrust and provides the basis for his recognition as one of India�s historically greatest ambassadors to the west. Chopra has been a keynote speaker at several academic institutions including Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, Harvard Divinity School, Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Business School and Wharton.


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