Read Time: 7 minutes
The previous time I wrote here, I went into some detail about why I believe a daily meditation practice is important. Today, we will continue along the topic with a brief look at the history of enlightenment traditions. We will examine some of the problems with fitting these traditions into a world of 7 billion people (and counting). Finally, we will look at some potential ways to update them to better fit in that world.
In the west, the word “guru” is often associated only with the worst sorts of fraudulent activity. For decades, cult leaders, scam artists and other predators have frequently styled themselves as gurus.
While these are good reasons to be wary of these creatures, is important to realize that the term originally comes from a very ancient tradition, which could be easiest thought of as directly analogous to the apprenticeship model that developed in Europe in the middle ages.
The idea is that the student submits themselves to the authority of the guru, at which point the guru will begin the transference of their knowledge to the student — much like a master craftsman in ages past. If the fit is good and the guru is a real master (or, for our purposes, is really enlightened), then the student may eventually become as accomplished as the guru. If they are fit for teaching, they will then take on their own students to continue the lineage. Theoretically, anyway.
In practice, there are several problems with this model. We mentioned the problem of scams. If the guru is not genuine, then the student is wasting their time. What’s worse, genuine gurus often subsist on financial aid from their students, so these scam artists demand the same kind of support —while amping it up to extreme degrees. “Give me all your earthly possessions and I will lead you to heaven”, is a common cliche with these kinds of people.
Luckily, many prospective students are smart enough to see through this kind of bullshit. The phenomenon is so well-publicized that most know to run the moment the guru starts making these demands.
Further on is the problem of culture. A guru may be truly enlightened and benevolent, but many modern people — westerners in particular —find the idea of submitting to authority offensive. This undermines the trust required for the guru to do their job effectively.
Finally there is the problem of scale. If we accept that the attainment of enlightenment is a long process (similar to learning a craft well), then we must also accept that not all students will make it. The number of genuine gurus is limited, particularly in the west, so the number of successful students will be very limited indeed.
So what good can we take from the guru model? Perhaps the most valuable concept is that of lineage. While it’s doubtful that all traditions can trace a direct line to their creators, there is still tremendous value in the transference of functioning techniques from one generation to the next. This is, after all, how our cultures developed.
To examine the idea of lineage more closely, we will seek help from a dead man— the French philosopher and esoterist René Guénon, also known as Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyá.
The Dead Masters
On the contrary, imitations of initiation can be detected without fail by the absence of that condition we have just alluded to, and which is nothing other than attachment to a regular, traditional organization. — René Guénon, Perspectives on Initiation
We are in the west at the turn of the 20th century. Scientific literacy has just began to infiltrate the rapidly developing societies of Europe and America. World fairs in Paris, Chicago and many other cities have celebrated the great accomplishments of engineering technique. The Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel and the skyscraper all stand as testament that these advances are real, authentic and useful.
As in most eras of rapid social change, fraudsters and scam artists flourish. Self-styled sages and esoterists, many claiming to come from the mysterious Orient, are found everywhere teaching the most curious of ideas. Mediums exploit obsessions with the afterlife, using parlour tricks and cold reading to convince their audiences they can talk to the dead. Madam Blavatsky is just the tip of the iceberg.
A number of scientific investigators and professional debunkers also emerge, eager to challenge the fraudsters (and, perhaps, profit from some sleight of hand of their own). But there are those who go the other way. Instead of challenging the sages and mediums on their inauthentic methods, they challenge them on their inauthentic origins. René Guénon is one such character.
In 1910, Guénon is initiated into Sufism. This is the beginning of a long career of describing various initiatic (read: enlightenment) traditions to a western audience. In a flurry of writing, Guénon expostulates on the follies of mysticism and ‘psychics’; proselytizes on the value of genuine traditions; describes and critiques a number of traditions in detail.
While his life work is a valuable insert in the ongoing battle between humbug, tradition and science, Guénon asserts that initiation — and thus enlightenment — is strictly for the few. Like his later, darker fellow traveler, the Italian aristocrat Julius Evola, Guénon claims that we are going through the Kali Yuga — a spiritual dark age, when mankind is at its most degenerate and truth and enlightenment are far from reach.
This all sounds quite dramatic, but it has no more obvious basis in reality than, say, the Book of Mormon. Like many other aspects of the ancient traditions, it is simply mythology — unprovable and unfalsifiable. There is probably some truth, however, to the notion that enlightenment practice is not for everyone — just like being a master craftsman is not for everyone.
But this does not mean that access to the techniques should be limited to the few and privileged. Like university, it should be in the hands of the student to succeed and fail — not to the gatekeeper who determines if they fit some more or less arbitrary criteria.
Esoteric traditions suffer from similar limitations as gurus — being restricted to the few, being discredited by scoundrels, lacking recourse to outside validation — and are increasingly in decline in a secularized world. Take for example the membership count for the Freemasons in the US. They are passé, whether they are useful or not.
This is how we come to the present — out of sorts and looking for a way to forward.
New Clothes, Same Nothing
Instead of finding a voice that speaks to the unique contingencies of our own situation, we repeat the clichés and dogmas of other epochs. Instead of creatively participating in a contemporary culture of awakening, we confine ourself to preserving those cultures of a vanishing past. — Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
Over the past century, many people in the west have found themselves in a similar position as René Guénon — that of understanding that the techniques of the old traditions often work, but that in our culture they are regarded with some suspicion. Where does one go from here? There are two obvious paths: that of scientific analysis and that of demonstrative reasoning.
For the first part, scientists are slowly coming around to studying meditation techniques and other enlightenment practices. The principal problem here is that the nature of consciousness is a hard problem — one philosophers and scientists have been banging their heads against for centuries — and enlightenment is fundamentally a phenomenon of consciousness.
Don’t expect immediate answers from this quarter. Good science is supposed to be rigorous, and, while paradigm shifts can be brutally sudden, it takes a lot of work to develop an actual, working scientific theory. Just ask Darwin. It took him 20 years from conceiving his theory of natural selection before he had refined it enough to publish On the Origin of Species— and he had a substantial body of concrete evidence available to him.
For those of us who are not scientists, we have to limit ourselves to a policy of show, don’t tell. We cannot tell people to believe what we cannot prove. It would be dishonest to claim any more prior credibility than other non-scientific disciplines, so we have to demonstrate the value of what we are doing.
This is, however, more straightforward than ever. We live in a time when a single teacher can distribute their message to thousands or even millions of students through the means of the internet. The method proves its usefulness in due course.
In my previous post, I mentioned the Vinay Gupta/Future Thinkers meditation app. My own experiences with the app so far have been positive. While I won’t tell anyone they have to buy anything in order to practice meditation, I do think there are a number of good content and design decisions at work here.
The app focuses on the bare essentials. There is a how-to guide, an explanation of the method and its lineage, some advice for what to do when your practice stalls and a few other goodies, such as a progress tracker. At no point does it overwhelm the user with a barrage of mythology, imputations and instructions. The approach is fundamentally non-intrusive and non-obstructive.
The same principle could be extended to any number of other techniques. By integrating such methods into mobile technology and explaining them in a no-nonsense way, their intended purpose and function can be made clear to a tremendous amount of students. Thus they can take a credible step away from the world of cults, pseudo-religions and mythology and towards the world of scientific inquiry — if purely in a theoretical, experimental capacity.
Thus the guru has his new clothes — the same nothingness he was striving to teach us about all along.