The Guru as Artist
My first writing mentor, Luciano, quoted Yeats to me one day. I think I was seventeen.
“You can perfect the art, or the life, but not both.”
The sentence echoed in my heart for years. Now it’s finally shedding some light for me on the mystery of the spiritual guru, and why he, in his many forms, has wounded me so deeply. It’s showing me that I’ve suffered from a life-long confusion between skills and virtues. Leaving aside the yearning for paternal contact, order, and acceptance that has emotionally driven my guru-attractions of the past, this more structural confusion is bizarrely simple: I have assumed that if a person is good at something that I want to become better at, they must also be a better person than I. They must have insights into how I should live, or even who I am. Yeats was telling me that this is misguided. He was saying that the artist cannot show you how to live. At the very most, the artist can only reveal a hidden texture of his or her own life as you stand in the shadow of their work.
The wisdom an artist has to offer will be eccentric, if not catabolic. The Romantics assumed that as the skill of a person’s artistry rises, so does his level of social or intrapersonal derangement. They claimed that artistry depends on social liminality, cognitive anarchy, developmental regression or hyper-evolution: signs of sacrificial disfunctionality. When the artist turns to heroin or barbiturates or drinks themselves sick or commits suicide, we nod grimly, grateful for his exquisite blend of bravery, weakness, and solitude. We don’t want to follow him, for the most part. We’re grateful that he left his books and records and canvases behind, so that we don’t have to follow, so that we can gradually incorporate their insights into our common lives, bit by bit, without the traumas and revelations. And for those of us who really want to chase what Jeff Buckley found or Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton, or Richard Brautigan, or Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, or whoever you’ve got: we know we’d be stepping off a cliff, and that those who have fallen before us cannot catch us.
If spiritual seekers generated this same attitude towards spiritual teachers, things might just get a lot clearer in Yoga-and-Buddhism-land. If we came to understand that charismatic skill is not the outward sign of an inner grace, but the sparks thrown off by an internal friction that is essentially artistic, we wouldn’t give our power to it in the same way. If we recognized that what we are attracted to in the guru is the war they are waging on their own pain, we would just watch them with whatever degree of empathy we could scrounge, see what their rage drove them to see, wonder at the ways in which their language bends the typical arc of the mind, and feel their terror expand our hearts into a greater tolerance for uncertainty. But we would not do what they told us to do. Because we would know that they were on their path, and we were on our own. Because we would know that the directions they really really want to give us are meant primarily to fulfill their own needs.
Luciano was the first of several mentors who didn’t fool me – and wouldn’t try – into believing that they had special purchase on the truth. Transparency with regard to his vulnerabilities was the currency of his integrity. He didn’t hide anything. He was a mentor, but he couldn’t give a shit about making a good impression. Then there was our friend Saro, a brilliant poet and novelist who I spent years sitting with in the café on Friday afternoons. We talked Homer, Cicero, Jung, Llorca, St. Paul. He gave me a mixed tape that introduced me to Son House and Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, and Fred Neil singing “I’ve got a Secret”. I gave him my first poems and he read them, smoking. His eyes were moist. He was as transparent about his depression as he was about his skill. He looked up from my poems and said You’re starting to feel things under the skin. I wonder were it will take you. He was thirty years older than me, and he held forth no presumptions around what I should do or how I should be. A year later, he took a bottle of pills and died. But not before leaving twenty-seven messages on Luciano’s answering machine.
Fred Neil still sings to me: I’ve got a secret I shouldn’t tell. I’m gonna go to heaven in split-pea shell.
Then there was Roman (not his real name): loquacious, scathing, and suave. He published a book of verse every year. He ordered espresso with an improvised deep image. I couldn’t believe how prolific he was. The language seemed to serve him. But he was an asshole. We loved his poems, and rolled our eyes when he held court at the café. We did what we always did around talent, narcissism, and pain: we shrugged and said: fuckin guy. An epithet expressing equal measures of solidarity, irony, and disdain. My question now is: what if everyone surrounding Adi Da (who at least by the end of his life recognized himself as an artist — that’s him in the picture above), Chogyam Trungpa, Amrit Desai, Swami Muktananda, Michael Roach, John Friend and whoever else you can name had just shrugged and rolled their eyes as soon as they started holding court and flirting with the waitress, and just mumbled fuckin guy?
It wouldn’t have stopped them, necessarily. A key sociopathic skill is to recognize when one will be held to the democracy of the fuckin guy standard (FGS), to get out of dodge as quickly as possible, and to go find the teenagers. A guru becomes a guru in part by not hanging around in the café, where everyone is paying the same for their coffee, everyone knows the score, and the waitress isn’t having any of it. We squint to peer through each other’s bullshit – which we assume is par for the course – and say Show me your work, show me what you’ve learned to do. You fuckin guy.
Every week, we opened up the canvas and leather shoulder bags. Those who were writing pass around typescripts. Those who were too depressed to write pass around the books they found in the Harbord Street dollar bins that week. Do you know Réné Char? Do you know Anna Akhmatova? I like this line here. I really like this line. Where did you find this? You fuckin guy. The books and the typescripts equalized us.
I can tell you there’s nothing more awkward than a guru in a café. I remember meeting with one particularly puffed-up teacher of mine to talk about working together on some writing project (I seemed to meet one guru-type after another who wanted me to ghost-write books for them). It was the morning after he’d finished up a week-long seminar that I and about fifty other students had attended. The café was empty in the early morning, and he looked lost with his audience of one. He spoke louder than he needed to, angling away from me towards some invisible camera. He couldn’t meet my eyes for more than a few moments. He talked about himself and his travels and meetings with famous gurus and his precious but ornery relationship with his root teacher and his austerities and accomplishments, all with a kind of nostalgic braggadocio. He didn’t talk about his work. He didn’t show his work, what he was toiling over. He spoke as though the work of his life was done. Why wouldn’t he be uncomfortable with someone who could see that his work was definitely not done? I thought: here’s someone who has practiced yoga and vidya for thirty years, and he’s one of the most self-doubting and socially awkward people I’ve met. I was making it hard for him, because I wasn’t a teenager.
I remember a similar encounter with Michael Roach, years after I ditched him. He was swinging through Chicago on a teaching tour and his handlers invited me to meet with him at a restaurant. He was surrounded by his entourage of mostly middle-aged teenagers, waiting on him hand and foot. It struck me that he was incapable of having a normal life, a normal conversation. He stared past my left ear and talked about how many scriptures he translated in the last week, and how many people had come to his talk that night, how many nouveau-riche gangsters loved him in Russia, how great it was that an American Tibetan monk was able to make headway in teaching get-rich magic to businessmen in Beijing, how the whole Tibetan occupation was just a big misunderstanding and that the Chinese and Tibetans share a lost religious kinship that he was helping to revive, and how much money was pouring into the fund to buy the Diamond Mountain property where Ian would starve to death in a cave just a few years later. (Ian sat beside me at the table, slowly crunching a carrot stick, his eyes rolled back into his head, lost in the contemplation of Michael’s bullshit.)
I remembered when I first met Michael. He’d looked me in the eye then, briefly. He somehow captured me. I was in a very low place in my life. I asked him to be my teacher. I remember crying in our first meeting, telling him I wanted to be free, I wanted to stop suffering, I wanted to learn what he knew. I was pretty much a teenager then. I remember him saying to me, sardonically, but also with a strange kindness that betrayed a rare self awareness: “The honeymoon will be short.”
In Chicago those years later I saw that I and everyone around him was invisible to him. He didn’t ask a single question about my life or family or studies or practice. I wasn’t able get a word in edgewise, and before long I didn’t want to. I pushed away my unfinished pad thai and asked for the cheque. One of the sycophants beamed at me and said he’d pick up the tab. I let him accumulate the good karma of paying for the food of someone who had grown to loathe his guru. I left feeling a little sick, but lighter.
My first reaction to the Yeats adage was melancholy, that living a virtuous life and artistry should exclude each other. But it didn’t take long to see how the writers and musicians I knew would use this cancel-out equation to justify their cruel or avoidant or depressive behaviour. I became angry after Saro killed himself. He had such a tender and gifted view of the world. Why couldn’t he lift himself up? What was this frailty? Why couldn’t he see that I needed him? Was I just some other kid with a moleskine? Didn’t it matter that I loved him? And I got angry at Roman. Why did he push everyone away? How could he write so painfully about love and be so venal? I couldn’t accept the tension of Yeats’ dichotomy. I couldn’t accept the gift of the flawed adept who had nothing to offer accept the brilliance of his own failure. I couldn’t accept the mentor as an equal. I wasn’t ready for my own adulthood. So I went looking for someone to show me they had an answer. I went looking for someone to lie to me.
Perhaps the quest for a spiritual teacher is a wish to extend adolescence indefinitely. The anxious seeker is far enough away from his parents and their generation to see their weaknesses clearly, but not far enough away from the power constellations of early childhood to be able to want or even envision relationships of equality. He rejects the adults he knows – especially his parents – and is somehow driven to believe there are better adults somewhere, people who wouldn’t have disappointed him or outright fucked him up. He looks for the parent of his early childhood, whose skill in providing for him was inextricable from love. He has not recognized that he has aged and changed, and that he will not find someone who combines those qualities without performing them. He also hasn’t recognized that he doesn’t actually need this impossible perfection: his own imperfection is becoming sufficient to him in a way that he can’t quite see. He is becoming independent without knowing it, but the lingering wish for dependency is still very strong. Into the spotlight of his wish steps someone who parasitizes the vitality of this adolescence. This is the guru, hungry to bear the transference. The flash is charisma, like camphor.
Artists are charismatic of course, but the difference between the charisma of the artist and that of the guru is that the guru makes you feel like you’re the reason the charisma exists. And you are, because his charisma is not self-generated. It flares in a feedback loop that recalls early parental attunement. The baby gazes into the father’s eyes and learns wordlessly about faces, eyes, the appearance of being human, how to mirror, how to feel like a self, and how to navigate amongst selves. The father gazes into the baby’s eyes and watches it all happen. If the father’s sorrow or pain is deep enough, he begins to live his life through baby’s dependency. He fills up on his missing meaning by watching baby learn to create meaning, making himself the center of the process. He vampirizes baby’s experience to heal himself from his own. These are the seeds of becoming a guru.
The guru thrives on your unconscious feeling that you are relating to him as a child. Further, he thrives on the boundary confusion created by the feeling that your learning and transference can distract him from his own pain, while validating his terrorized confidence. But the artistic mentor sits in the café and just watches you. He may remember his own learning as the backdrop, but he knows that the world of artistry has infinite pathways, and he’s more curious than invested in seeing what you make of your condition. His successes and failures are in plain view, and he expects yours to be as well. There’s a part of him that is ambivalent to your suffering, because he knows it is unavoidable. Part of him smiles kindly as you struggle. Another part of him smiles with a sense of justice, and schadenfreude.
It’s not enough to say: “It’s the teachings, not the teacher”, as the apologists for religious bureaucracy will say. Their argument is that people are one thing and scripture is another, and we’re fools to confuse the two. Well, that works in post-structuralism – the “death of the author” and all that – precisely because we have learned to not look to the writer’s life for the intentionality of the text, let alone moral or heart-guidance. But in the sphere of spirituality, there are no teachings without teachers, because it is precisely the presumed virtue of the teacher’s life that makes the content coherent. Spirituality claims to build an evidence-based literature.
Ironically, if the teachings and the teacher are useful at all, it’s in the same way that art and its performance is useful: on the page or in the flesh, they challenge conventions, patterns, stuck self-perceptions. They expand what is possible on conceptual and behavioural levels. They engender novelty to foster the breakthrough. Beauty is a breakthrough of novelty. Novelty is improvised. The spiritual teacher must improvise from the script of teachings to generate the novelties of beauty and evolution. This is essentially an artistic act. We should stop being surprised by gurus who behave like artists, creating chimerical visions out of wounds. We should understand that evolving the self and stabilizing the self are usually contradictory activities, and that the artist or guru whose art consists of evolving the self will embody a kind of chaos that bankrupts any advice they could possibly give beyond “Live the mystery of your life fully.”
In reading this over I recognize that my entire mentorship model was based upon a patriarchal framework. My encounters with teachers are encounters with priests, fathers, older brothers, uncles, bullies. My stories of mentorship are as segregated as the boy’s Catholic school I attended from the age of seven, where the few women teachers we had were respected to the extent that they were elderly, celibate, and terrifying. It was a monastic world, a gangland world, a world where women were strangers to be exalted or ignored.
But I longed to make contact with a more integrated world. At sixteen, I reached out to Elsa (not her real name), my English teacher, who was in her late fifties. At twenty, I went to every one of Lynn Crosbie’s readings: she was just making a name for herself with her lacerating poems. By the time I was 24, I’d published an entire novel about a boy who hallucinated spiritual instructions from his sister.
Elsa hosted a high school class in Russian literature in her tiny Victorian rowhouse. She lit the fire in the drawing room and served tea, and the seven of us discussed Gogol and Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as the snow fell. The other five students were girls, pierced, safety-pinned, spectacled and bobbed, and a girl from Montreal who smoked clove cigarettes and never washed her hair. I showed up in my Catholic school blazer and tie. I loosened my collar. They ignored me.
Elsa’s guidance was analytic but elliptical, drawing us gently into an adult world of misery, joy, but above all, responsibility for uncertainty. She did something that I’d never felt another teacher do: she held space.
I wondered about Elsa, if she’d ever been partnered, if she had had children. We never got close enough for me to know. I don’t know if she was close to any of her students. But something in me knew that she was in pain, possibly sick. Something had happened in her life that yellowed the pages of her books, and she didn’t show it directly, but she didn’t hide it either. She taught me, almost silently, that we are hurting, we are in a mystery, we are limited but inspired, we are held by a history of mutual inquiry, we can always learn more about each other, we will fail and succeed, we will love and hate, we should keep our facts straight and our opinions malleable, we should do our work and charitably recognize the uniqueness and integrity of the work of others.
Did I transfer onto Elsa? Of course. I remember feeling that she had something I didn’t have. I even remember fantasizing that her body was cozy to live in, even though she was probably in pain much of the time. I remember watching her smoke and thinking: this is what wisdom looks like; this is how I want to feel and live my life. I thought of her alone with her books: the peace and poignancy.
Did she accept my transference? She did what every good therapist should do: she didn’t push it away, but she didn’t feed it. She let me look at her and fantasize what I needed, but she didn’t turn that fantasy into her own food. I imagine the fantasy filled her with a kind of sad joy.
Luciano killed my transference by showing me overtly that his intellectual freedom was the mirror of an emotional constriction. As soon as I began to idolize him, I would see pain that I wanted to avoid: he had insomnia, he gambled, he had panic attacks. His mentorship was priceless to me but I knew I had to keep my distance. He was tough on my poems. He said You’re not surprising yourself. Which means I’m not surprised. You know what’s coming. You’re not letting the poem take over. You have an agenda, and you think poetry is a good vehicle for it. It will be flat if you use it. The language has to use you. And I can see in this one that you’re parroting Roman. Fuck him, that fuckin guy. You have your own heart. Surprise yourself with it. He put me in charge. He shredded the veils of authority and influence. And in the process of mentorship, he didn’t allow me to give him power. He showed me that if I did, he would trash it, squander it.
Pity the guru! If he has accepted the transference of the seeker without seeing it, if he believes in the idolatry and is filled by it, if he sees the student as a vehicle for his agenda, he is acting from a world of pain. He is loveless and abandoned, and can’t be alone with it. His fear is so deep that the answers he wishes for himself cannot be real unless he forces them upon others. His shame is so intolerable that he must crucify himself, with a phony smile, on the scaffolds of virtue. He has missed the primary lesson of empathy: that people love each other because they share vulnerability, not despite of it. The artist is someone who at least attempts to be transparent with her vulnerability, and to not be ashamed to fold it back into her content and relationships.
Long ago I lost that mixed tape that Saro made for me before he died. But I remember the very last song on it: “Waiting for Everyman” by Jackson Browne, 1973.
Everybody’s just waiting to hear from the one
Who can give them the answers,
And lead them back to that place in the warmth of the sun
Where sweet childhood still dances.
Who’ll come along
And hold out that strong and gentle father’s hand?
Long ago I heard someone say something ’bout everyman.
Saro never got to know what I would go on to chase. But he left me with a song that said Stop looking for the saint. Look to everyone around you. Look to what we share. You’re an adult now, even if you don’t want to be. There’s nothing to pursue, no one above you, and no one watching. Stand firm, do your work, and have patience as we learn to lead ourselves.
Saro couldn’t wait, and I can understand that now. It’s a hard life for those who don’t presume, as gurus do, that their art is changing the world.
Special thanks to my partner Alix Bemrose for helping me develop these thoughts, which she’s been cooking in her own sauce since her twenties. We had several conversations about the illusion of the moral artist, and one conversation in particular opened a floodgate for me. She noted that few complain about Picasso’s debauchery, but most are rightly concerned about Heidegger’s fascism. This is because nobody asked Picasso to tell them how to live. Asking Heidegger to tell us how to live is a misunderstanding of the chaotic nature of his creativity. He’s the one, after all, whose entire philosophy rests on words that he made up.