The guru-disciple relationship is not indigenous to our culture; it has been transplanted, sometimes awkwardly, in the past few decades.
In the generation born here in the West beginning shortly after the Second World War, the thirst for liberation has been extraordinarily intense. When this generation began coming of age in the late sixties, it called forth many teachers from Eastern traditions. The most famous of these included Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Yogi Bhajan, A.C. Bhaktivedanta, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Guru Maharaji. There were also countless other less conspicuous Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu teachers who established followings in the West. The sixties and early seventies were a time when the promise of awakening and the scent of the Divine (not to speak of marijuana and patchouli oil!) wafted in the air.
By the mid-seventies, what had begun as a wild and spontaneous infusion of mysticism into Western culture became more institutionalized. Around many of these teachers there developed an inner circle, a hierarchy, accompanied by a massive acquisition of real estate and the solicitation of large donations of money from devotees. This phenomenon involved scores of spiritual groups, millions of seekers, and billions of dollars in assets. Each organization claimed to be the catalyst for a transition to a new age of spirituality. In the name of their own particular mission to save humanity, followers sometimes found themselves behaving in ways that on later reflection appeared to be in violation of their personal integrity.
During the 1980s, a number of these organizations began to experience serious internal political conflicts and media exposés. Of course, the Western press added an unnecessary dose of cynicism and had difficulty understanding the original motive and purpose of such groups. Nevertheless, the downfall of these organizations as the result of alleged corruption, sexual misconduct, and misuse of funds was widespread.
By the early 1990s, a shift had taken place among the children of the sixties in their relationship to gurus, spiritual organizations, and “Truth.” Many who had been most ardent in their devotion became disillusioned and bitter. Others, while grateful for the doorways that had been opened and the gifts that had been received, left their interest in organized spirituality and returned to the world of business or established society. Many became confused about how the sweet nectar of divinity could have been sipped from a cup that later turned out to be chipped and cracked. Yoga Journal covered these issues in depth, as did Common Boundary magazine, which published interviews with a number of ex-devotees from different groups who had undergone a process of recovery.
Today we are faced with a new challenge. Among many, the passion for awakening to truth, love, and the dissolution of the old is stronger than ever. At the same time, those who have passed through the maturation of the past few decades have developed a resistance to hierarchical spiritual organizations. Now we are called upon to find the same Grace, silence, and mystery we felt at the feet of charismatic teachers in our own presence and in the meeting of friends.
This is an excerpt from my book Relaxing into Clear Seeing: Interactive Tools in the Service of Self-Awakening