Hiking On The Path Of Life: The Role Of A Guru
This article was published on The Huffington Post, here.
The Solitary Trek
The trek up the mountain was fantastic. Clearly a less travelled path, it was nearly taken over by spring blossoms, shoulder-high grasses and bushes. Beneath the growth, the path was barely visible, a narrow dirt trail with loose rocks, winding its way up through the aspens and into the high ridge pine forest.
It was gorgeous. Spectacular. But too quiet. I have spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains. In fact, prior to coming to India and being blessed with an experience of the Divine on the banks of the Ganga, I used to think God only lived in the mountains. My free time in college and graduate school was spent lying in pine-needle covered dirt beneath the towering redwoods of California’s coastal forests. So overgrown paths are not new to me nor are hikes through the mountains. However, the heavily trodden areas of Muir woods, Big Basin redwoods and Yosemite had a comfort to them…. Every four or five minutes one was sure to meet another hiker on the trail. Just yesterday I had done the hike to the waterfalls — a deliciously gruelling straight uphill trek. That path, too, was full of people, not crowded but comfortably occupied.
“[T]he simple addition of my hiking buddy turned my own Little Shop of Horrors into a nice, harmless hike in the woods.”
This trail was desolate. As I began the hike nothing but the aspens stretched out in front of me as the ridges of the Rocky Mountains towered above. It was too quiet. The signs at the trail head cautioning about hiking in bear and mountain lion country preoccupied my thoughts. I was armed only with a half-litre bottle of water and bag of trail mix. If I shouted, no one would hear. As the exuberance of the first few hundred yards turned to fear I realised I should turn back. This was not a hike to do alone. Five minutes later I was back at the base and decided instead to walk the safe, paved, asphalt street winding its way through million-dollar mountain mansions. That street hit a dead-end within about 300 feet, the metaphor of which was not lost on me.
Yet I could not muster the courage to embark on the trail again. I have been an avid animal rights activist almost my entire life. A vegetarian (or vegetarrorist as my friends used to say) since the age of 15 I have been an ardent and outspoken advocate of animal rights. Anti-leather, anti-fur, anti-silk, an OCD ingredient-reader on products to ensure nothing came from an animal or was tested on an animal, a vegan except when the milk comes from our ashram cows, I am passionately committed to nonviolence toward animals. However, I have no interest in meeting them in their natural habitat. In fact, I am almost equally passionate in my preference not to meet them in their natural habitat.
A Buddy for the Journey
As I head back down from the literal and metaphoric dead-end of the “road more frequently travelled” I spot a gentleman up ahead looking at the trail map and seemingly about to embark on a trek. “Are you heading up the mountain?” I ask. He nods. “Oh great, I’ll join you,” I tell him and I scramble back up the rocks to the trailhead. “The mountain seemed too desolate to hike alone,” I share. We head off together and the mountain is suddenly no longer scary. Like the rope that looks like a snake or the jacket on a hanger that looks like a monster in the dark, which miraculously return to their innocuous state as the light is turned on, the simple addition of my hiking buddy turned my own Little Shop of Horrors into a nice, harmless hike in the woods.
“Imagine that instead of just having a clueless new friend, we had a true guide.”
He doesn’t get around to telling me his name but that he is a year away from retirement from his job teaching business at a university in Florida. He has just arrived here and has not yet had time to acclimate. So, my new buddy is past middle aged, grey haired, unacclimated… surely not the Rambo who is going to save me from lions and bears.
Yet, strangely, that doesn’t matter. Even though logically I realise that he would not be any more equipped than I to fight off a mama bear, his simple presence has made this hike doable. I am no longer afraid. At all. In fact, he is in much better shape than I and walks significantly faster. I find that I am able to hiker faster than I thought I could, just by keeping pace with him. We share a bit about our backgrounds and a hiking friendship is formed.
It is important to note here that I am not a social butterfly. In fact I am perhaps one of the least likely to engage strangers in conversation. As so much of my life is spent with people — giving lectures, doing question-answer sessions, teaching or in meetings for our humanitarian projects, when I am not in one of these situations, I really prefer to be alone. I never seek out company of any sort, actually, and tend to avoid it. I have learned, through the work I do, and the life I live to be comfortable with large crowds of people, but I am an introvert by nature. So seeking out this gentleman, latching onto him as a hiking partner and engaging in conversation is much more a product of necessity than of personality or choice.
We trek together a few miles, just over an hour or so. There are forks in the path at places where we are not exactly sure where to go. I have no concern though. If we’re lost at least we’ll be lost together. I realise, of course, that being lost with a retired professor from out of state, who is no more familiar with the trail than I, is not an objectively comforting notion.
Psychologists might call it magical thinking. Fantasy. Unresolved father issues. None of this matters though because physiologically and emotionally I am perfectly content and safe. His presence has removed every ounce of concern about the journey.
A simple, unknown man. A man equally unprepared. Yet his presence on my path made me able to walk it.
I realise as I walk that simply having someone on the path with me, not being alone to face the forks in the road, or the prospect of wild animals, is enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.
The Guru – a Guide on the Path of Our Lives
Imagine, then, if we had someone who actually knew the way, who had not only walked it himself/herself but could see the full path – where it began, where it ended, what twists and turns there might be, where a bear or lion might be lurking. Imagine that we were accompanied on our journey by someone who held our hand as we scrambled over the rocks to ensure we didn’t lose our footing, someone who knew which berries would nourish us and which would harm us, which water was safe to drink, which was full of bacteria, a guide who knew whether the insect on our hand was harmless or a tick waiting to burrow into our skin. Imagine that instead of just having a clueless new friend, we had a true guide. Imagine also that this guide was so familiar with the path, had walked it so many times that his only concern was guiding you.
This is what a Guru is.
Many people ask why we need a guru. In a society which emphasizes and even deifies individuality and personal power, having a guru is seen as weak, as though one has capitulated and given up one’s freedom and power. “Why not just live my life and figure it out? Sure I’ll make mistakes but I’ll learn from them. I don’t want someone telling me what to do,” is a frequent comment.
“In a society which emphasizes and even deifies individuality and personal power, having a guru is seen as weak, as though one has capitulated and given up one’s freedom and power.”
Sure. There is nothing wrong at all with not having a Guru, with forging your own way. It all depends upon one’s goal. In my hike, if my goal were simply to have the experience of the mountain then it wouldn’t really matter if I got lost, got stranded in the wilderness, or even got eaten by a bear. The universe has no objective standards of good or bad. The universe does not say “Making it to the waterfall at the end is good; getting eaten by a bear along the way is bad.”The universe does not say, “Finding the right path is good. Getting lost is bad.” The universe has none of these subjective judgements. It all depends on what our goal is.
Similarly, if our only goal in life is to see what comes, to wander wherever our feet, or car or plane, or desire or impulse, may take us and to experience that, then one certainly doesn’t need a guru. The universe is overflowing with experience. Left, right, straight ahead, behind, below and above. It doesn’t matter which path we take. We will have an experience anywhere.
However, if we have a goal, if we want to reach somewhere — and specifically if we would like to reach in this lifetime — then it certainly helps to have a guru who shows the way. This does not mean that our legs don’t have to walk. We still have to put one foot in front of the other and climb the metaphoric mountain. Having a Guru does not mean going to sleep in a backpack on someone’s back and opening your eyes to discover you’ve arrived. We still have to walk. But when we come to forks in the road, the Guru is there to show the way. He is there to ward off the bears and lions. He is there to say, “Fill your bottle from this stream. It will nourish you on the uphill part just ahead.” Or “I know you are thirsty but do not yield and drink from this stream. You will only develop diarrhea which will further dehydrate you.”
The path to our own awakening, our own unfoldment, our own “enlightenment” is one with a lot of forks in the road, a path overgrown by the vines of our own ignorance, our own ego, our false identities. These vines of illusion obscure the path from our view. The path is fraught with rivers which seduce us with a promise to quench our thirst but which only fill us with virulent, multiplying microbes. It is unusual for one to find the way through on one’s own.
“Having a Guru does not mean going to sleep in a backpack on someone’s back and opening your eyes to discover you’ve arrived.”
After a couple of miles on this mountain trek I cannot push my body further. My friend has gone ahead and doesn’t realise I’ve stopped. It is time, I realise, for me to head back down the mountain, as clouds are gathering overhead and the forecast warned of rain this afternoon. Reaching the end of the trail is not a goal important to me, not one worth the risk of exhaustion or physical pain or getting caught in a rain storm. Thus, I head off back down the mountain alone. I have become separated from my hiking friend and will have to find my own way back down the mountain.
However, while the end of the trek was not important and therefore I did not need to stay latched onto my hiking buddy any further, in my life I want to reach the goal. I do not want to get lost on the way. My belief in reincarnation is not so strong that I am prepared to be casual in this life and put off awakening until the next one. I want to reach there. In this life. Since reaching the goal is my priority, I do not want to take the wrong path at a fork in the road. I certainly do not want to get eaten by a bear or lion.
I was able to let go of my hiking buddy, but as my foot touched the asphalt again, I shed tears of gratitude for my Guru.