In 12-Step we say there are no gurus. It may be true in groups like AA, NA, OA, CA, SA, GA and the other A’s. But in spiritual traditions the teacher is often called ‘guru’, which is actually Sanskrit for teacher. In recovery we’re all kind of each other’s guru, though we try to keep the ego in check by claiming to be, ‘just another drunk’ among many. Since narcissism is at the root of our troubles, the practice makes sense. But it’s often more fallacy than reality. Some meetings have what we call ’bleeding deacons’ who secretly run the show behind the scenes. Anyone in 12-Step knows that sponsors can be very controlling and even codependent (see my recent article Codependent Once More). In fact, I’ve heard hundreds of stories over the years of 12-Steppers over 12-Stepping their bounds in violation of the boundaries of others. We tend to over inflate our self-importance to the point of offering advice outside our areas of expertise. Lines between authority roles and friendship are often quite blurry. That tendency may not be how it’s supposed to be but is still quite common, even if it’s not discussed openly. In contrast, the ethics of a therapeutic relationship between counselor and client prevent fraternizing outside of therapy sessions. But the relationship in therapy is not spiritual. When it comes to spiritual matters, the rules and roles can be very confusing depending on the context. The situation in 12-Step communities is no exception.
In 12-Step we do try however to keep some humility because the addict ego is said to be the cause of most of our anxieties. But we can overcompensate for this required ‘egoic’ regulation by shutting ourselves off from developing beneficial qualities, such as the ability to teach. My view is to keep my sharing of experience, strength and hope in 12-Step meetings and leave the teaching, lecturing, advising to other venues like my yoga classes, retreats and meditation groups. But this role switching may be confusing to some people. I’m a Gemini with a moon, rising and 7 planets in the House of Gemini. For me it’s fun and normal to wear many hats and have many moods. But for other recovery folk, if they see someone at a meeting sharing about their problems one day and on the meditation seat teaching Dharma the next they might not understand. This diverse application of principles and membership in different groups can leave some people feeling a lack of trust. They might say things like, “Who does this guy think he is?”, “He thinks he’s better than us, “Hey, that guy’s trying to make money off of 12-Stepping,” “I’m not going to yoga, he’s trying to start a cult,” and so on. This makes my situation somewhat complicated. While historically there have been many cults in the history of yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and even in 12-Step, there is no Kool-Aid being served here. I’ve never asked anyone to follow me anywhere, except maybe to a meeting.
I’m a yogi on a spiritual path and I’m in recovery – also a spiritual path. Yogis in recovery need meetings too. To me, yoga and other Dharma practices are all part of this spiritual road. I work on integrating these practices into my life. It’s like working with common spiritual threads that weave into a garment that can be worn anywhere-no matter what kind of group I find myself in. I wrap myself in these teachings to take refuge from suffering. This is what I bring to my work, be it a chakra healing workshop, a Reiki energy healing session or a 12-Step Yoga class.
But the role of a spiritual teacher can be difficult to understand. The term ‘teacher’ means different things to different people at divergent times and contexts. In a classroom, we accept our teacher as having authority on some level. But something changes when it comes to spiritual teaching. It’s on a much higher level of authority and adheres to a stricter code. Our History professor isn’t expected to solve life’s ancient mysteries. Our yoga teacher may or may not be spiritually inspiring.
In yoga sometimes the lines are blurred. There we may see our teacher as a guide who calls out cues to get us into poses. But traditionally the yoga teacher has been seen as a spiritual guru. The disciples were expected to be extremely devoted. Today in the West the context changes radically if we’re in a yoga class at the local gym or a retreat at a distant ashram. The gym teacher may help us improve our physical fitness. But spiritual fitness requires coming to terms with challenging questions such as morality and mortality. In that case the teacher has a greater responsibility. Not many gym teachers will place themselves in that role, nor should they.
In Buddhism, it’s different. The topic is seen by many from the beginning as religious. I don’t agree that Buddhism should be religious. But some traditions have made it that way to preserve the teachings and for other reasons. I see it more as a spiritual than a dogmatic practice. Depending on the tradition, the teacher role varies a lot. In Zen, one of the lesser religious Buddhist traditions, some teachers have been seen as Masters to be followed without question. In the West that’s led to difficulties in some communities. Other teachers are less formal. But there is usually some air of mystique surrounding the one who ‘gets it’ enough to assume the role of instructing others. In the popular vipassana meditation communities founded by S. N. Goenka, there is no guru per se, but the more experienced practitioners serve as guides. Sometimes in the evenings they listen to a recorded teaching or mantras by Goenka. But that’s about the extent of the teacher-disciple relationship in my understanding.
In Theravadin Buddhist traditions the monastics are often seen as the authorities on scripture and practice. To my knowledge they don’t try to solve problems for people except to steer them to the applicable teaching of the Buddha, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some counseling going on from time to time. But to be a teacher in this Sutra level of Buddhism (for more on the types of Buddhism see the 12-Step Buddhist) outside a monastic environment, one need do no more than read and meditate to begin instructing others. You can’t throw a stone in places like Portland without hitting a teacher like this. Are they guides, charlatans or real gurus with legitimate offerings? Who’s to say.
In Tibetan Vajrayana traditions the Vajra Master must be seen as Buddha in order for the disciple to attain enlightenment. We are to focus on the Buddha aspect with our pure vision and ignore any bad behavior. In this sense the teacher is called ‘guru’. This practice was originally from Indian Tantra traditions. Tantra is a deep topic but in essence it’s a path where practitioners transform poison into nectar-impure karmic vision into pure Buddha vision. This is a non-dual practice but is different from other non-duality practices in the Sutra traditions as well as non-Buddhist Tantra. Consult books like the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies for more on this vast topic. Caution: these readings can be dense and difficult. It may be helpful to find a real guru to clarify these.
To make things more confusing, hatha yoga was derived from yoga tantra. The role of the teacher was thus much more like a guru than a teacher at Core Power Yoga, though I love my CPY teachers. In fact, yoga changes energy and has an effect on many people that they don’t understand. I’ll have more to say on this soon. The point is that a tantric teacher can be many things based on which tradition they’re in. Sometimes we engage in tantric practices which should have a teacher who serves as a personal spiritual guide. But in the West, these things have been diffused to such an extent that most people aren’t aware of the differences or similarities. In fact, it’s not so easy for scholars either from what I’ve read. The lay person therefore, should be careful who they listen to and how they follow teachings.
Given these varying ways to view a teacher it’s easy to see how someone in recovery who teaches Buddhism and Yoga could be controversial. Just what is the role of a 12-Step Buddhist or 12-Step Yogi teacher, if teacher is even the correct word?
Let me explain what my role is as I teach meditation for example. People come to the 12-Step Buddhist Meditation Dialogs for various reasons. Some are looking for an alternative to traditional 12-Step work. I don’t offer one. Some are looking for a guru, although I doubt most have a secure idea of what that can mean. I’m not a guru. Some are curious about meditation, or Buddhism, or both. On those topics I have some experience to share. I’ve been a seeker all of my life and probably for many previous. My mind works a certain way. One thing it does is explain things. I can explain well anything that I understand well. That’s my gift. But when it comes to applying the teachings that I explain, it’s as hard for me as anyone else. A real Master lives the teachings and is able to demonstrate with his behavior how Buddha explained the cause and the result. I am not a Master. I’m an addict and a practitioner. I do my best. But it’s not so easy.
Therefore, when people come to me looking for a ‘Teacher’ I tell them that I’ll be happy to help them find one. I explain Dharma, read from books, lead yoga classes, voice dialogs and meditations and try to work a recovery program. My role is more facilitator than teacher, though I suppose in a sense that some teaching does happen. But I don’t take the role of counselor, guru, sponsor or parent with people who come to me. I don’t refer to them as my students, except in yoga class, where I’m really more of a guide than anything else. I don’t try to solve people’s problems for them and I don’t make myself available to work the 12 Steps in a traditional way. I don’t insist that anyone do anything. And I don’t follow up with people (any more) to see if they’ve followed my advice. That said, if I’m asked the same thing by the same person more than once I will ask them if they did what I suggested the first time.
Some people take their teacher roles pretty seriously. They offer programs to become certified in whatever their deal is so that people can propagate whatever their shpeel is. Some of these cost in the thousands of dollars. I’ve even been approached by some of these knuckleheads in an effort to sell me on their programs-for a hefty price I might add. But I see through all of that BS. This can be uncomfortable to some. I’m real sorry about that. But I don’t follow chumps, punks, fake-ass gurus, or the latest brand of feel good non-dual present moment hype-sters. I follow Masters. Many people are overwhelmed when they try to follow real Masters. I’m not. I just dig into it because I understand the teachings and try to apply them. One service that I offer is to ‘translate’ the teachings from Masters to people who don’t have the capacity to follow at that level but have their BS detector on BLAST. We have to keep it real when representing spiritual teachings and transferring that knowledge to anyone, especially addicts – for many reasons. It takes a certain kind of personality to do pull it off, in my opinion.
My personality and approach make some people uncomfortable. Some like it a lot. A visiting teacher told me recently, “Darren, you’re very direct!” when I straightened him out on some incorrect assumptions. But it’s true, I’m direct and to the point and I plan to stay this way. Not everyone is ready for that. People in 12-Step can talk, criticize, even ostracize. It’s based on fear and a lack of understanding of these different roles and styles. If that makes me a focus of demonization in 12-Step or whatever other system, fine. People with decades of sobriety continue to suffer, relapse and even suicide as in a recent case from Santa Cruz. To me, that’s evidence that we need to keep deepening and expanding our recovery tools. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because the results speak for themselves. If someone’s interested, I’ll try to help. But I’m not trying to collect followers. If you need someone to worship, there are plenty of people who love to be followed-in and out of 12-Step, yoga and Buddhism. Some are worth listening to. Many aren’t.
People are free to follow whomever they want, say what they want and proclaim whatever they feel is truth. I do what I do the way that I do it because it keeps a drink, and a gun, out of my mouth. Sometimes I make mistakes and it causes a raucous. But for every hater, there are a hundred people saying about how this work has helped them. Some fans go so far as to mention my name in pretty good company. But I don’t take that stuff too seriously. I’m just happy to have some skills that benefit others. People appreciate it. Meanwhile, I’ve somehow wound up nearly fifteen years sober-a pretty good deal.
My hope is that this essay clears up some strange thinking on what a spiritual teacher is and the way I see my own role in these communities. I receive teachings anywhere that there are useful tools. Sometimes I share those tools with whomever is interested. Maybe this is a relatively new role in Dharma, that of facilitator rather than guru. Less toes get stepped on, but some won’t be happy. You can’t please everybody all of the time. Right?
It’s a good thing there’s a ‘teacher’ on every corner or a ‘wrench to fit every nut’ as we say in 12-Step. May we all find our path out of suffering real soon.