Occupational Hazards of a Spiritual Guide
It is true that some people are more capable than others of entering into relation with this field of ideas and manifesting it through their conscious cerebrality. But this is nothing other than an additional responsibility for them: since they are in possession of this wealth, they are its stewards and must see that it is used for the good of the greatest number.
THE MOTHER (in a talk on ‘Charity’ delivered on 20 May 1912)
A spiritual guide is not a guru, and certainly not a spiritual master. A spiritual guide is a seeker with above-average understanding of matters spiritual. He may use his knowledge and understanding to guide other seekers, and also to help those going through difficult phases of life with minimum pain and maximum spiritual growth. In contrast, a guru need not speak – his example, and even more his silent influence, give the disciple the guidance, the comfort, the protection, and the certitude which the disciple is looking for. This is possible even if the guru has not yet reached the summits of self-realization. What is, however, essential is that the guru should be on the path of spiritual progress, and be charged with an intense, sincere and perseverant aspiration. A spiritual master, on the other hand, is a self-realized soul. He may do for his disciples what the guide or the guru does, but the heights of consciousness that he has touched make him immune to the hazards discussed here. His hallmark is perfect equanimity. His aura radiates peace to others, and also shields him from all temptations, distractions and disturbances. The following lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Village Preacher, describe him beautifully:
To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given,
But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven.
As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
Eternal sunshine settles on its head. (1)
Let us see how a spiritual guide who sets out to guide others may fail to guide himself. The very work that he does has inherent traps in which he may get caught, and the process may end in his consciousness falling to abysmal depths.
The Intellectual Web
The guide has to use far more mental arguments to make a point to his students and clients than is strictly necessary for the spiritual quest. As Sri Ramakrishna has said, even a needle is enough to commit suicide; it is to kill others that one needs big weapons. Therefore, in order to improve his skills, the guide has to keep studying and reflecting, so that he can put across his teachings and advice more effectively. But a clearer understanding of spiritual truths at the mental level is not the same as spiritual progress. Engaging in deeper and more intricate concepts cannot replace sadhana (spirtual practice). Mental gymnastics is not a substitute for spiritual experience. This is a subtle trap, but there are also other more obvious hazards.
It is true that a spiritual guide may know considerably more than those around him, and also be at a level of consciousness higher than them. Even if he does not want to be conscious of this, those around him ensure it. They adore him, admire him, and almost worship him. What the guide has to remind himself of is that the compliments he receives are, in general, grossly exaggerated. Secondly, what should concern him is not how much ahead of those around him he is on the spiritual path, but how far behind he is from the goal of self-realization. This is a very humbling reflection, and is very important to prevent getting consumed by arrogance.
The ‘disciples’ also have a tendency to ask the guide about his spiritual experiences. The general rule that these experiences should not be shared applies also to the guide. However, the Mother has allowed some discretion in this matter. She says, “To him (the Guru), too, to speak of his experiences is not helpful: the dynamic force of progress contained in the experience, if it is put into words, evaporates in a large measure. On the other hand, by explaining to the disciples his experiences he powerfully helps their understanding and therefore their progress. It is for him in his wisdom to know to what extent he can and should sacrifice the one to the other. It goes without saying that no boasting or vainglory should enter into his narration; for the least vanity would make of him not a Guru but an impostor. (2)” (The material in parentheses and emphasis added). In short, if the Guru or the guide is sure that the harm that the narration of the experience will do to his own spiritual progress is outweighed by the good it will do to the progress of the disciple, he should summon as much sincere humility and gratitude to the Divine as he can, and then he may narrate the experience to the extent and in a way that it will help the disciple.
‘Spirituality’ is big business today. It is easy to sell it as a tranquilizer; as a way of knowing about one’s past lives, or knowing what the future holds for us in this life; as a way of achieving worldly success; and as a panacea for disease. The possibility of making money and gaining name and fame by selling what may be passed off as spirituality can fuel the ambitions of the spiritual guide. But harbouring such ambitions will also ensure the spiritual decline of the guide.
Most spiritual guides tend to be men, and those who flock to them for guidance tend to be women. Why this is so can be the subject of another blog, but this fact lays the trap for mutual attraction that may not be entirely asexual. Because of the nature of their relationship, the students and the guide feel free to come closer to each other, and up to a point do not invite social disapproval. The guide’s touch is treated as asexual, and may bring joy to both. But only the one who touches and the one who is touched know best how far it is truly asexual. To avoid any doubts, some guides may decide not to touch, and on some, restrictions on touching, or even talking to a woman, may be imposed by the organization or order to which they belong. But in keeping with the spirit of the times, strict segregation and severe restrictions are disappearing. Under these circumstances, the guide has to bring himself up to a level of consciousness from where he can sincerely say, “Thank you, God, for giving me, a child of Yours, the opportunity to transmit Your love to her, another child of Yours”. Then, whether the love is expressed through an affectionate touch or healing words is immaterial. Since giving as well as receiving love are human needs, and both are also excellent vehicles for spiritual growth, a loving relationship between the guide and his or her followers can be an opportunity for mutual spiritual growth, irrespective of the gender of the parties involved.
The Mother has looked upon some of these hazards as examinations that the seeker has to go through. The seeker is sometimes in the position of the examinee, sometimes the examiner, and sometimes both the examinee and the examiner simultaneously. To pass these tests successfully, the seeker needs a sincere and intense aspiration for the Divine alone, constant vigilance, and trust in the Divine. In this regard, the Mother’s advice that is particularly important for spiritual guides is that they should not imagine that they are qualified to set up exams for others. Such an attitude opens the door to the most ridiculous and harmful kinds of vanity. Who is to be appointed the examiner, when, and for whom, are decisions that only the Divine can take. (3).
From Select English Poems, compiled by A. Parthasarathy. 2nd Edition, 2001, pp. 36-37.
The Mother: Four Austerities and Four Liberations. In: Sri Aurobindo and The Mother On Education. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1956, p. 150.
Collected Works of The Mother. Vol. 14. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1980, pp. 42-43.
Some of the ideas in this blog crystallized during a discussion led by Dr. Alok Pandey.