Why it’s more important than ever to become your own guru
I should have known what was up when I saw the pyramid.
Not one of the pyramids, this was a roughly six-foot-tall outline of a pyramid constructed with what appeared to be copper piping from a hardware store adorned with some sort of glowing light.
Unfortunately, the hollow pyramid plopped in the entryway of a sparsely attended hotel convention area was a fitting metaphor for the event (which shall remain nameless) as a whole. As we proceeded further in, we were subjected to a slew of dubious new age mainstays — crystal salesmen, energy healers and, my favorite, a cocksure guy claiming to be an extraterrestrial.
Speaking of which, within about fifteen minutes of being there, the long-haired, headphone-wearing alien made his presence known. With a cocky stride and a passive-aggressive query, he breached our small, already suspicious social circle — ‘So what’s your deal?’, he asked wearing a wry, highly punchable smirk.
One by one, the five of us gave brief descriptions of who we were. ‘I’m a podcaster and a writer,’ I said, sensing an oncoming flurry of transdimensional bullshit.
My intuition didn’t fail me. The self-proclaimed E.T. answered his own question by saying something along the lines of ‘bro, I’m a manifestation of 7th-dimensional Pleiadian crystal consciousness here to raise the frequency of the planet.’
For some reason, I didn’t believe him. I’m fifty-fifty on whether or not he believed himself.
To be fair, there were plenty of lovely, earnest people at this event. However, there was clearly a thinly veiled hierarchical subtext that permeated the affair. In this crowd, your spiritual maturity was defined by the very things it shouldn’t be — Your outfit, your planetary origin, your ability to wield substanceless platitudes and the size of the crystal around your neck (our E.T. acquaintance wore one roughly the size of a tennis ball).
As extreme, and to be honest, comical as this whole situation was on the surface, it really bummed me out. There were people at this convention with real existential wriggles looking for guidance, inspiration, and community. Instead, they got spiritual materialism, delusion, sales pitches, and probably a dash of mental illness.
Before we go any further, I want to establish where I’m coming from and why I’m being a bit harsh. I am not a hyper-materialist skeptic. I don’t take joy in bashing people or beliefs (usually). In fact, mystery, wonder, and meaning are some of my core fascinations. They’re a primary fuel source for a podcast I’ve created nearly 150 episodes of. Which, I suppose, is how I wound up at the above event in the first place. That said, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to explore the philosophical fringes of existence with at least a reasonable amount of sobriety. Because if I don’t, I know from personal experience where I’ll find myself — mired in nonsense, deception and wishful thinking.
Separating Shit from Shinola
I take a lot of inspiration from the late great bard of psychedelic thought, Terence McKenna here. He too was seen as part of this community, yet he knew that it had the propensity to get lost in an ocean of relativistic, unsubstantiated woo.
‘What is relativism? It’s the idea that there’s no distinction between shit and shinola, that all ideas are operating on equal footing. So one person is a chaos theorist, another is a follower of the revelations of this or that new age guru, someone else is channeling information from the Pleiades, and we have been taught that political correctness demands that we treat all these things with equal weight. Because we have no mathematical ability, no logical ability, we don’t know how to ask the questions that expose some positions as preposterous, trivial, insulting to the intelligence, and unworthy of repetition. We all are very comfortable bashing science, but that isn’t our enemy. Science is capable of undertaking its own reformation and critique… The enemy that will really subvert the enterprise of building a world based on clarity is the belief that we can not point out the pernicious forms of idiocy that flourish in our own community.’
Mckenna let this fabulously ferocious rant rip decades ago, but it’s never been truer. These ‘pernicious forms of idiocy’ are more prevalent now than they’ve ever been. Why is that? Why is it that many of us are so eager to search for gurus or bite on answers from beyond the pale?
I’ve put a lot of thought into these questions. The answers, of course, are multifaceted and open for debate, but here are some conclusions that I’ve come to —
First, we’ve been conditioned from a very young age to believe that knowledge comes from authoritative sources outside of us. We were trained to believe that wisdom comes from adults, teachers and mysterious people who write textbooks. Eventually, though, we evolve. Many of us grow somewhat distrustful of authority (rightfully so in many cases). This implies that we start entertaining alternative information sources and new ways of thinking. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think we absolutely should. In a time like this where we exist at the collision point of all of the data that’s ever existed, we owe it to ourselves to entertain numerous outlooks and philosophies.
The trouble comes when we’re unable to ‘separate shit from shinola’ as McKenna puts it. In other words, we must develop the capacity to create a hierarchy of ideas. We’ve got to recognize the fact that seductive notions and reality can be two different things. We also have to acknowledge that we all want certain things to be true and that those biases can serve as siren songs toward delusion.
For example, most of us (myself included) don’t want to live in a universe of nonsensical chaos, so we’re drawn to philosophies or metaphysical paradigms that hinge upon meaning and consciousness. If we’re not honest with ourselves about such predispositions, it’s highly likely that we’ll eventually wind up in a psychic mishmash of wishful bullshit.
Also, it’s much easier to continue looking outside of ourselves for answers than it is to dive into our own dark corners. It’s unbelievably daunting work to confront our mortality, neuroses, and insecurities. Doing so requires self-reflection, meditation, unpleasant conversations and earnestly asking yourself difficult questions. To really grow, you may need to end relationships, get a good therapist or have some breakthrough experiences. For those reasons and numerous others, it’s far simpler to submit to gurus, fairy tales, platitudes or sexy conspiracy theories.
Speaking of which — Ironically, many people who think they’re taking the ‘red pill’ by believing in such-and-such are actually anesthetizing themselves with the same blue decoction in a different capsule. They’re selecting a new, easy to process paradigm with well-defined lines and obvious bad guys. Think about it, practically every conspiracy features a concentrated, convenient source of evil — Maybe it’s the Illuminati. Maybe it’s shapeshifting lizard people. Maybe it’s people lying about the shape of the planet. Maybe it’s shapeshifting Illuminati lizard people lying about the shape of the planet. Regardless, these sorts of overly simplistic, binary narratives create serious issues. First, they eliminate the gray area by creating a black and white, us-versus-them, narrative. They also keep the focus off of doing the work ourselves by offloading the blame on to some version of a mysterious external enemy.
Actually, this sort of lazy philosophy extends far beyond the realm of conspiracy theories. It’s a trap people fall into on all sides of the socio-political spectrum. Capitalists blame Socialists, Republicans blame Democrats, people of this or that personal identification blame their perceived opposite for pretty much everything. This does nothing but create a logical stalemate. Such binary thinking implies tribal conflict, ensuring the world permanently and irrevocably fucked up because of the god damned fill-in-the-blanks of their choosing.
Really though, when is anything ever so clear cut? As philosopher A.N. Whitehead put it —
‘There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’
For the sake of nuance, of course, some conspiracy theories are true. There are absolutely injustices being perpetrated by sociopaths, greedy assholes and shadowy groups at this very moment. If those evils are within the scope of our influence, we should absolutely speak up or do something. However, the vast majority of the time, these events are taking place far beyond the reach of our agency. Given that, why lose sleep over what some crooked pharmaceutical executive did? Why yell at your cousin over Thanksgiving pie about Brexit? Why berate your uncle about interdimensional child molesters?
So now that I’ve rambled about problematic thinking, let’s shift our focus toward what we can control, our own minds.
We need an inner epiphany
To develop real clarity, must gain fluency in the language of our own minds. We must be cartographers of our own psyches and become active participants in own psychic patterns. This means cultivating mindfulness and developing a practice of asking ourselves the right questions. It means also means we must stop wasting energy on matters beyond our reach and start having epiphanies of our own.
When we adopt this introspective yet action-oriented mindset we, perhaps unwittingly at first, initiate the process of christening ourselves as our own gurus. As ostentatious as that might sound, taking the notion seriously is pretty damn powerful. In fact, it can elicit a full-blown psychic transmutation. It can turn simple exercises into explosively potent, almost sacred, rituals. For example, under self guruhood, goal setting is no longer simply about loosely scrawling down our wishes. It becomes a sort of psychological covenant with our higher selves. A promise to draw closer to our own ideal form.
Many of history’s greatest minds preached the importance of this sort of inner alignment. Though the nomenclature and metaphysical pretenses may differ, yogis, Buddhists, philosophers, and psychologists all seem to agree — Without going inward, we’ll never know our true nature, nor will we attain real clarity or wisdom. Though I agree, I actually want to take that notion even further. I believe we must do more than blindly journey inward via the usual methods (meditation, contemplation, creation, plant medicines, etcetera). We must also change our mindset. Specifically, we should operate as if true knowledge and meaning can only be grasped from the inside out.
As Socrates famously said,
‘I am like the midwife, in that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom… I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me… The many admirable truths which they (Socrates’ students) bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within.’
This is not cherry-picked. It’s indicative of the hemlock-chugging sage’s epistemological outlook as a whole. He called the process of wisdom discovery ‘anamnesis’ or ‘remembering.’ In other words, he believed that true knowledge was remembered, recognized directly through the concentrated use of our own minds. Plato (Socrates’ most famous student) elaborated further, arguing that our senses and emotions are not to be trusted because they can mislead us (a belief that seems to be backed up by modern science). Due to that, he stated, we must use our intellect to purposefully burn away as many erroneous assumptions as possible. Plato called this inner work ‘katharsis’ or ‘cleansing.’ Once our minds are unclouded, argued Plato, then we can begin to recognize true knowledge.
As much as I’d love to dip further down the Platonic rabbit hole (it’s a really fun, trippy one), let’s put it aside for now because there are some takeaways here are actually quite practical and empowering —
If anything, our minds have only gotten more polluted since Plato’s time. There’s more noise and nonsense than ever obscuring our psychic worlds. This doesn’t mean it’s hopeless for us, actually, I think it means the concepts above carry more weight than ever. If we do as Plato suggests — begin behaving as if our minds are actually a sacred space in need of renovation — we can make real progress. We will begin to develop the fluency in the lingua franca of our minds that I alluded to earlier. This means we’ll learn to cut through the noise, leash our egos and navigate our emotions. As this internal progress unfolds, we’ll cultivate clarity. As we cultivate clarity, we’ll inch closer to self-realization. When we become self-realized, our higher self goes from a psychic construct to a palpable reality.
This, of course, begs a practical question — How do we actually do it?
I can’t speak for Plato on this one (or even include a comprehensive answer within the scope of this article), but in my experience, the answer to that question is not as esoteric as you might think. It is opaque though. You can’t see into my head and I can’t see into yours. Luckily, we don’t have to because the bottom line is the same and completely self-evident when it comes in its physical matters. Want to learn martial arts? Show up to the mat over and over again. Want to do a handstand? Get ready for months of graceless crashing. Trying to get in better shape? Go to the gym and work hard. The same is true with matters of the mind, it’s just harder to see. Physical or mental, we are what we sculpt with the blade of our will.
Why we must become self-centered (emphasis on the big ‘S’)
What good is the knowledge in some wise man’s (or woman’s) head doing you? For that matter, what understanding is any wisdom outside of the confines of your qualia providing you?
Although the answers to the questions are obvious, most of us don’t act as if they are. We continue to romanticize gurus, experts and wise men of all stripes because we imagine (or they convince us) that they’ll reveal something to us. We fantasize about being blasted with wisdom, blessed with a breakthrough, or served up a piping hot epiphany. I, for one, would love it if there were a Doctor Strange-esque wizard out there that could send my consciousness careening through the cosmos with nothing more than the tap of a finger.
For all I know, in some remote corner of the Himalayas someone like that exists, but in my experience, this is not how knowledge or progress of any kind manifests. Clarity, context and understanding bloom from the inside out over time. An adept teacher does not bless us with knowledge. The most they can do is help us till our own psychic soil or serve as midwives for our thought-babies, as Socrates highlighted above.
I’m not going to be able to prove that we must contact knowledge directly from within. In fact, philosophers have been quibbling about such questions for millennia. What I will say is that when we operate as if it is, we empower ourselves. We prize our inner guru above all others. We also lower our likelihood of being deceived by charlatans of all stripes. Even super convincing hyper woke aliens at new age conventions.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we don’t need love, guidance, trust or community. It also doesn’t mean that we should become egocentric or self-centered. Rather, I’d say that it means we should become Self-centered (notice the big ‘S’?). That is, we must become chiefly concerned with the gestation of our highest self. The birth of which is the greatest gift we can possibly give the world.
At the end of the day, I admit it, we don’t know anything. The bigger the mystery, the less we understand it. Doctor Strange-level woke folks might be real, conspiracy theories could be true, long-haired dudes at conventions claiming to be aliens might be authentic, but even if they are, so what? They don’t offer a damn thing for your personal evolution, success, understanding or happiness here and now. What is ceaselessly relevant to all of us, however, is us.