Masters, teachers, paths

Should solitaries have or consult masters, teachers, guides, gurus — or anybody?

The question is always relevant to religious-minded solitaries, but opinion is not at all one-sided. After reviewing a little book by Pinions several years ago — a woman who had became an anchoress and consulted closely with a spiritual adviser — a friend of Hermitary (who counted herself a religious person) wrote to dismiss this dependence on spiritual directors as a vestige of authority that misunderstands the motive of the solitary.

And yet there are solitaries who are deeply committed to spiritual masters and who find a place or community (religious or secular) that seems to approximate their needs for depth as well as autonomy. Is the solitude of the solitary ever absolute?

The solitary is already disposed to follow a certain path due to personality or experience, but often needs encouragement and insight, being the object of the negative pressures of the world and of social peers who reject the core of the solitary’s personality and values. The solitary is told to live “fully,” meaning live a life that is externally-driven and interdependent. The solitary understands that a degree of interdependence on others is a fact of life. Only the mountain or forest hermit may be able to sustain thorough-going independence, but even that is nearly non-existent, and perhaps unwise for the average solitary to even consider.

Yet many solitaries will be unwilling to give up this ideal, even if they live in a city or town. The attraction of this ideal is that it sustains, like a beacon, the necessary frame of mind to resist or properly disengage from the world and society. The ideal sustains the deeply-held conviction that the human society is flawed to the point that we need not have an active place in it, that we are “thrown” into it and must make our way alone, even if others surround us and we share their physical needs.

A master or guide is supposed to “jump-start” the process of insight for someone who comes to them seeking to confirm this deep-seated conviction or strong inclination.

But how trustworthy is such a figure, placing themselves in a position of authority? In contrast, how mature is the solitary’s subjective sense of direction and need for input? Is there no other way than a direct master-disciple relationship? What personal or psychological traits do we have that are vulnerabilities susceptible to exploitation by an authority figure? Is the solitary too cynical or simply too experienced to entrust the pearl of self to others?

Some people form a pearl from life’s vicissitudes. Others concentrate on the hard outer shell as protection and never cultivate the pearl. Solitaries differ as much as anyone in the populace, and have the hard task of addressing their own emotional issues before going out in search of an authority figure.

The best master is merely sharing an experience and pointing out a path and the expectations when on that path. In that process the master must function like a teacher or instructor who presents the consensus of the past and the critical tools for thinking and progressing on a path — nothing else. The cultural variations on how these expectations are expressed will vary widely, but they must be marked by the same psychological characteristics in looking at the presumed master — humility, self-effacement, courage, equanimity, patience, a certain ruthless honesty when confronting hypocrisy. These are just a few traits.

Ironically, these are the sorts of characteristics that lead the best masters to abandon the pretensions of being a “master.” Invariably, this is the spiritual parallel of the secular recluse. In ancient China, the best officials who could have served the state were those who, in fact, had reclused themselves, abandoned public office. Their experience would convince them that to be an official in the service of others was the equivalent of trying to be a master. Thus, to be a master required many traits that a student or disciple lacked and could profit from. The best student would be so lacking in some things that they would not chafe under the master-disciple relationship.

A familiar Zen story points to the function of the master and its self-contained goal. A certain master was presenting basic introductory methods to a group of prospective disciples. “On this path,” he concluded, “you may begin to reach understanding in ten years.” One eager student burst out: “But, master, if I increase my hours of study, and meditate twice as long, and work many hours a day, how long would it take then?” The master smiled. “Twenty years, ” he replied.

Skepticism is bound to flow when one’s experience in seeing and hearing authorities constantly falls short. They don’t know this or that, they emphasize the wrong things, or they are compromised by a wealthy patron or by the flattery of rich students, or they get lethargic and repeat formulas of convenience without enthusiasm or dedication. Anyone who has gone through formal schooling will recognize the same pattern.

Nor can masters, teachers, guides, or others who set themselves up as sharers of insight be disengaged from the society and culture in which they live, as already mentioned. Since all societies impart irrelevancies, shortcomings, biases, contrivances, false values, and contradictions, those who observe and escape them are few. As Rudolph Steiner suggested:

A healthy social life is found only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.

In such an ideal, there is no room for master versus disciple, only friends and colleagues on the path. Will such an ideal ever become a reality in the life of a seeker?

From the outside, the community of disciples or students may well reflect the depth of wholeness imparted by the master, but who knows? To join such a group is a wager, as much as Pascal’s, and the solitary will never know. The solitary will probably not dare to risk the “capital” already assembled by his or her own solitude.

Here is a version of an apropo Sufi story:

A man seeking truth and happiness all of his life comes to a village and encounters a man who is clearly a great master — from his bearing, his eyes, perhaps his posture. The man tells the master that he has spent his life seeking truth and may at last found it. The master says nothing but beckons him to come with him. They enter a place where many sit in quiet contemplation. One of those inside looks up and, anticipating the visitor’s question, tells him that they have sought the truth their entire lives and never found it, in the process renouncing all happiness. The master and the seeker move on to another place where people are all laughing and talking, sharing great conviviality. Again, one looks up from his cup at the visitor and anticipates his question. “We have spend our entire lives seeking happiness and have never found it, for we mistook it for truth, and now have neither one.” At this the visitor looks perplexedly at the master, who simply says, “And now you know what to seek on the path is neither truth nor happiness,” and he departs.

We must neither despair nor foster skepticism of the path. A master may point this out, and that should be all we need to get clear. We must explore within ourselves the reservation about finding that assembly of seekers who have in great honesty sought but never found.

Our path must simply be what we are capable of in this short span of life, taking from nature and great minds of the past (whose ways are captured in traditions, practices, and books) what will compliment us, will ripen us, will make us whole. Even if what we come to find we hesitate to call “truth” because we don’t want to presume more than anyone else’s knowledge. Even if what we come to find we hesitate to call “happiness” because we don’t want to presume that the path is finished. Because it isn’t finished, is it?