In today’s world, gurus have a bad rap. Many people go in search of a spiritual teacher, someone who can help them move past their blocks and connect with something greater than themselves. But too many self-proclaimed gurus, who come in all political and religious persuasions, have taken advantage of their followers.
Even when we encounter an authentic teacher, we still tend to shy away from treating them as a guru because, even if we don’t think they mean us harm, we believe that taking on a guru means treating them like a celebrity.
The Reality Behind a Guru
We’re missing the point of a guru. A guru is not a spiritual celebrity. It’s a vehicle for training your mind to see the world differently. Specifically, you are meant to regard the guru as an incarnation of the divine in human form. You relate to him or her as if they were a manifestation of Spirit or God standing before you.
And this is where the misunderstanding comes in: you do not prostrate yourself before this person as if he or she were in fact God. That mistakes the guru as a substitute for God. Instead, you see them as an aspect of the divine made human so that you can understand that there is no separation between human and the divine. By treating the guru this way, you learn to see the divine in everybody.
This is the key distinction between true and false gurus. A true guru knows and understands that he or she is playing this role for the devotee. They know that they are divine but that they are not God. They know that they are teaching you to see the divine in everyone. In fact, the true guru has no personal need to be seen as a guru.
The false gurus come to believe that they should be worshipped as God, and must protect that status at all costs, which is when scandals and abuse ensue.
The True Guru in Practice
When you recognize that the real purpose of a guru is to see everyone as equally divine and equally worthy of all that life has to offer, everyone can be your guru. Every single person can remind you, in one way or another, of where you judge some people to be better than others.
What does that look like in practice?
It doesn’t mean you subjugate yourself to everyone else, satisfying their every whim and sacrificing your own needs. It doesn’t mean you accept abuse and negativity. You don’t simply justify someone’s negativity by saying, well, they’re a divine being and don’t know it. You can tell if someone is mistreating you, and the spiritual path does not call for abuse. What it means is that you stop placing people in a hierarchy of bad and good. It means that, when you ask someone to stop or tell them that their words are hurtful, you don’t judge them or reduce their value as a human being. It means you still regard them as equally divine, and equally worthy of all life has to offer, even as you’re drawing a necessary boundary.
You recognize that they are on their own path toward enlightenment in this school called life. Drawing boundaries does not require judgment.
Anyone Can Be a Guru
All of which leads to an equally important truth: seeing everyone as your guru means taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions. The people who annoy, bother, or upset you – whether strangers in the street, close friends, or anonymous groups of people about whom you have lots of ideas – those emotional reactions are your perceptions of who they are.
That you feel annoyed or upset is your responsibility. No one makes you mad. You become mad in response to an action or word from someone else. Treating everyone as your guru means that you see everyone as a vehicle of self-knowledge. Every interaction becomes an opportunity to ask yourself: What is this person showing me or reflecting back to me? When confronted by the words and actions of another that trigger you, turn inward and ask yourself, honestly: Why does this upset me?
The answer will always point you to some deeper message or belief you hold about yourself, often about your worthiness or being lovable.
Am I always “successful” in seeing the full divinity of every person I encounter? Certainly not. But, paradoxically, the moments of “failure” are not true failures. Each time I’m triggered, someone is showing me how I can be more compassionate, more empathetic, more trusting, or even more loving to myself by showing me where I need to draw stronger boundaries. The moment I “fail” and begin to judge them, to forget their divinity, that is the moment when they have become my guru again.