Finding or being drawn to an excellent teacher, no less a true guru, is a great boon and often life-changing. Whether you are following the footprints of a teacher no longer on the earth plane or basking in the physical presence or a living guru, you have likely reached a turning point in your growth and development as a human being, as a yogi, as a soul.
Nevertheless, travelers on the spiritual path, especially relative new-comers, sometimes puzzle over whether they are missing out if they haven’t arrived at the feet of a physically living teacher. Even in my own family, there is disagreement about which is preferable; my sister, an accomplished alternative healer, has consistently sought out an exemplar she can touch and speak to, while I have never seen my guru in the flesh.
Pros and Cons of Living Teachers
Like everything else in the kingdom of maya (our commonly perceived and dualistic world), there are pros and cons to consider. There is a certain logic in the fact that a student of physical phenomena and techniques, such as my sister, would want to witness the physical example provided by a teacher who shares the same three dimensions that she does.
Is there a better way to learn yoga asanas than to have them dynamically demonstrated before one’s eyes? Hard to imagine! Not only are the nuances of positioning—lowered shoulders, expanded rib cage—easily perceived, but there is a natural inclination to generalize from the example of the teacher to oneself. As the old adage goes, seeing is believing and the incontrovertible evidence in front of you leads to the conclusion, “If he can do it, I can do it”.
One frequently experienced negative of following a leader incarnate in a human body is the fact that they can be just as much heir to the ills of the flesh as you are. While they may have reached adepthood in mastery of their own body or have an uncanny ability to convey spiritual principles to their students, development in other areas may lag or at least clash with your ideals. Sexual peccadilloes, a penchant for luxury cars, or a tender ego can be a cold wake-up call and hard to integrate with the benefit you have received.
Following Masters of the Past
In discussing the pros and cons of a guru not currently available in physical form, I suspect I will part company with folks who set reason and the evidence of the senses as their standard of truth. In fact, they also part company with traditional yogic philosophy; in the classic example of a rope mistaken in the gloom for a snake, the Sutras of Patanjali teach us that the senses are unreliable. There is another mode of perception, an inner eye whose light is essential life force and whose object may be a guru not present to the physical eye. To meet one’s teacher in this classroom is in itself a powerful lesson in the scope of reality. With a graciousness that exceeds understanding, a guru whose time on earth will quickly pass leaves breadcrumbs for his future devotees to follow: these may be writings, devotional practices, or disciples who outlive the master and embody his or her teachings.
Unfortunately, it is far easier to over-idealize a teacher who is not standing right in front of you. Imagination is sometimes the enemy of genuine spiritual experience. A true guru is not seeking to be idolized, but emulated, does not desire to see his individualized reflection in others but is fiercely dedicated to liberating his chelas from obsessive attachment to their own ego-image. Most of us have a tendency to put our heroes on a pedestal and there is only room for one up there. This is not following; it is abrogating one’s responsibility to become.
In weighing the pros and cons, we can rest easy in the thought that all great teachers and gurus, “living or dead”, hold one thing in common. Their gift to us is bringing our concentration and consciousness firmly into the present moment: this posture, this breath. All temporal disadvantages of how or who we follow are outweighed by this power to introduce us to the eternal now
Yogasync Me! Move towards the yogis or yogini’s ultimate goal, of resting fully and lovingly in this one and only present moment.