Finding (and Avoiding) Gurus

John Daley (Ernest Anemone) in Anything It Takes (2017) © 8 Productions LLC

Like any professional, I’m subscribed to a variety of industry-related newsletters (whether I want them or not). As an actor, a lot of them are motivational or informative in nature but a good deal more are commercial — offering some new “extraordinary opportunity” to book more work. One day I received an email from a person in New York advertising “a community for actors unlike any other.” She called herself a “shark” (a la Shark Tank) and she marketed herself and her community with promises of “direct access” to industry professionals followed by a series of not-so-humble personal success stories. Although it reeked of a marketing gimmick for yet another pay-to-play scheme, she succeeded in piquing my curiosity and I followed the trail for a bit.

Since I resumed my career as an actor, I have been introduced to a variety of self-proclaimed gurus. In fact, there is probably no labor market more ripe for this type of exploitation than actors. After all, the entire enterprise is riddled with constant rejection, self-doubt, and a need to constantly reassess and reposition yourself emotionally and financially. In many ways, it is a great parable for life itself — there is never any certainty or security in how things will turn out and you have to learn to live with the ambiguity. Enter the false guru. These are the people who claim the incredible ability to rationalize your losses into something meaningful for you and profitable to them. They build “communities” (which are really for-profit businesses) based on the idea that, with their help, the uncontrollable can somehow be controlled. In most cases, this involves a series of paid steps, investments, networking opportunities, aromatherapy sessions, etc. Believing in their own virtue, these “gurus” often tout the charitable nature of their business — stressing how nobody else cares for students the way they do, nobody else goes to the lengths that they do for their students, how earning their trust leads to career success. However, unlike genuine gurus, students aren’t led away from their anxieties but ever toward them — they are constantly reminded of what they are missing out by not participating… with their wallets, of course.

In popular imagination, the term guru conjures up anything from motivational speakers to business consultants. However, thinking of gurus as simply charismatic people with comforting, ready-made solutions to our anxieties ignores the much richer meaning of the word and makes us vulnerable to hucksters like this. For this reason, the genuine guru should not be so easily dismissed.

Guru is a Sanskrit term dating back to the first millennium B.C.E. It’s a combination of Gu (ignorance or darkness) and ru (dispeller or light-bearer). Beyond what we call a teacher today, gurus were responsible for not only training students in particular skills (yoga, singing, dancing) but also fostering the spiritual evolution of their students through those very skills. In every culture and every religion, there has been some form of guru — a person who reached a previously unimaginable level of prowess in some particular skill. Whether it be playing a musical instrument or loving one’s enemy, the guru was a beacon for students looking to shed the generally-accepted limitations of mind, body, and soul. For the novice who demanded concrete answers to life’s questions, gurus have always been tricksters of sorts — using allegories, parables, and other roundabout ways of teaching. However, contrary to the type of con artistry mentioned above, the goal of the genuine guru’s ‘trick’ was not to deceive the student or encourage reliance on the guru but rather the exact opposite. The ‘trick’ was meant to reveal life’s ambiguity not as a challenge to be overcome but rather a joy to be experienced. So, if any tests, exercises, or puzzles were required, they were designed to be increasing in absurdity or paradoxical in nature, all so the student might finally see that the dilemma itself did not make any sense.

As a general principle, life is pretty absurd. We do not choose to be born and when we are born, we have little control over anything. In adolescence, we finally gain some control, but only to find ourselves on a lifelong journey to give meaning to a cruelly indifferent world. In response to this situation, we rebel; we take risks; we do anything that we can to prove to others (but mostly ourselves) that we have more control than we actually do. To make matters worse, we remain stubbornly unable to accept ourselves as we are and to be patient with our own situations. This gives rise to the existential anxiety that we don’t actually deserve any of the things that we want — love, forgiveness, professional success, to name a few. Using this anxiety, the charlatan can easily make us think that we have to earn our happiness through them or some other external means but this is never the case. We are good enough the way we are. Skills take practice, but the practice is its own reward — it is never something outside of ourselves. And, while the struggle to recognize this is difficult for anybody, it is particularly difficult in Western society where we see ourselves as born into this world rather than born out of it. However, if you are able to find a guru — whether it be a person, a book, a song, or even a place — that can show you why this difference matters; that you’re not a stranger in this world but an interconnected and indivisible part of the greater whole, then you have found a good guru. Anybody or anything that increases your anxiety and makes you feel like you’re missing out or that your individual journey needs to be measured in some way is probably not acting in your best interest — and if they’re doing it for profit, then they’re definitely not.