How to pick a guru

Posted on: February 26th, 2012 by Ben 1 Comment

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” – Master Linji

I was at an event recently that, frankly, horrified me. The session was being led by someone who was absolutely convinced that he had reached full enlightenment. The version of enlightenment he found is irrelevant. The important point is his absolute certainty of it. As a result, the session became all about him. The opening included a long biography, filled with name dropping and a list of unrelated personal accomplishments. The workshop included some questions for discussion that were promptly answered by the facilitator and the sorts of unstructured “do what feels good” kind of exercises usually offered by people who describe themsevles as “highly intuitive” (read vague and unfocused).

As an observer, what surprised me wasn’t so much the narcissism of the facilitator – that’s pretty common – it was watching the reactions of the participants. People were eating it up.

The overwhelming desire people have for finding certainty constantly amazes me. As H. L. Mencken says, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” But that’s the answer that people want to buy. It’s as true in personal development as business. Business people seek the simple recipe for success, ignoring the obvious reality that if there was a full-proof simple secret to success, every business would be successful. Likewise, if enlightenment was as easy as some people make it sound, the glare of auras would light the night.

So, since it seems like I’m never going to convince people to stop looking for gurus, I thought I would offer a few simple guidelines for picking a good one.

1. Trust those who seek the Truth. Suspect those who have found it.

Phil Tetlock, a professor at UC-Berkeley who has studied the accuracy of “Talking Head” predictions, found that certainty in that ‘one big idea’ was the biggest factor in bad predictions. The most accurate predictions came from people who were “self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability.” Interestingly, he has also found that relatively well-read nonexperts were just as accurate as the “experts.” In fact, “the more famous the expert, the less accurate his or her predictions tended to be.” You can read a great summary of the research here. Substitute “advice” for “predication” and you have a guide for selecting a better guru.

2. The big secret is there’s no secret.

For the last 10,000 or so years, every human being has wondered: what’s this all about? Why am I here? How can I be happy, safe, successful and loved? A lot of them spent a LOT of time thinking about these questions. And as soon as anyone has something that feels like an answer – even a partial answer – they share it with everyone they can. You can’t stop them. I’ve tried! The problem isn’t that people are keeping the “real” answer a secret, it’s that we don’t like the answer. When you stop looking for the magic solution, you realize that the tools you need for happiness and success have been sitting right there in front of you the whole time, revealed again and again in the common themes of all great religions, philosophical traditions, and guides to living. Unfortunately, it turns out you have to do the work.

3. Does it resonate with my best experiences or my worst fears?

This is the most important one. We all have competing voices in our heads – some inspiring us to strive for more and some stuck on all our inadequacies and fears. There’s nothing pathological about the voices. As David Eagleman explains in his book Incognito, that’s how our brains are structured and for good reason. The pathology happens when we let some of those voices have too much say. So, when some motivational speaker tells you that anything is possible – that you can be rich and famous and save the world – they are manipulating you by encouraging your deepest fear that you are inadequate as you are and that you need to be special, heroic, different – just to be loved and happy. As Umair Haque recommends in his blog: you have to put what, who and why you love in front of anything else.

So, when you are out there shopping around for a guru, kill the Buddha if you see him. Start where you are – start with what you love and what you already have. Use your own experience as a guide and remind yourself of what already feels right and true to you. Then look for a guru who will join you in the search for truth, not give you all the answers.


One Response

  1. Roz says:

    Love this article!

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