What’s the difference between a guru and an educator?
A guru fashions a doctrine and disciples. A guru dictates the questions and answers which are permitted. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Their job is to distribute the doctrine and to allure more disciples. Gurus demand obedience and compliance.
Educators, on the contrary, foster learning and encourage questioning and searching for answers. Students are allowed to engage in independent thought. Unexpected answers or questions are welcomed by educators as part of the process of learning and discovery. Educators stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.1
Gurus seldom, if ever, doubt their doctrines and tend to see themselves as infallible. Educators, on the other hand, are doubtful about many of their beliefs. Educators lack absolute certainty. Gurus are absolutely certain of their doctrine.
It’s important to define words that often have multiple meanings. A popular definition is that a guru fits the East-Asian notion of an enlightened spiritual teacher. Most important, is not the personality or person, but the actions and attitudes that differentiate an educator from a guru.
Below are two examples using different Eastern, Hindu-inspired gurus.
When a visitor named Shyam Basu asked [guru] Ramakrishna: “How can you say that sin is punishable when you say that He is doing everything?”. The [guru] was cheesed off and quipped: “What calculating cunning (sonar bener buddhi)! You asshole (Ore podo), just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?”2 [Read more quotes and a brief biography in my post Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Smoking, Cussing Godman?]
To a dissatisfied student, [the guru] Paramahansa Yogananda said: “Don’t doubt, or God will remove you from the hermitage. So many come here looking for miracles. But masters do not display the powers God has given them unless He commands them to do so. Most men don’t understand that the greatest miracle of all would be the transformation of their lives by humble obedience to His will.”3
The behaviors and attitudes expressed by these two East-Asian, Hindu-inspired god-men is emblematic of gurus. It doesn’t matter whether a person is popularly called a guru or disciple. What matters most is how a person acts and how disciples surrender and obey.
Many more gurus than educators
A guru aims to produce disciples who obey and comply. Disciples are discouraged from independent thought. Independence is discouraged as being egoic, rebellious, and “doing your own thing”—opposing the guru and doctrine. Educators encourage students to question and search for answers. When it no longer serves, doctrine may be discarded. An educator aims to stimulate creativity, skepticism, and intellectual explorations.
In many schools teachers are more like gurus than educators. In politics many citizens act more like disciples. Making distinctions—between guru versus educator—is important. It illustrates and impacts the way we think and act in daily life, in private and public.
Notes Top photo credit, walking buddha and disciples, by AntanO – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39371295.
1 Many of the distinctions of guru versus educator made in this post were gleaned from Russell L. Ackoff’s, Differences That Make a Difference, London: UK, Triarchy Press, 2010.
2 Quote of Ramakrishna Paramahansa from Narasingha P. Sil’s, Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography, Lanham: MD, University Press of America, 1998, p. 163.
3 Quote of Paramahansa Yogananda from Sayings of Paramahansa Yogananda, Los Angeles: CA, Self-Realization Fellowship, 1980.
Studies show a link between obsessive-compulsive behaviors and high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.
Many meditation beliefs and practices contain high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.
Eastern- or yoga-meditation practices hold a variety of beliefs in subtle energies, chakras, spirits, gods, and mystical realms.
Meditators who heighten or intensify these beliefs and practices may increase their likelihood of obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors.
Clinical psychologists, E. Eremsoy and M. Inozu, at the University of Ankara, Turkey, studied1 165 adult participants who had no history of psychiatric conditions.
Participants completed four standard psychological questionnaires: Magical Ideation Scale, Thought Control Questionnaire, Obsessive Compulsive Inventory, and Demographic Information Form.
The results showed a significant link between magical thinking, religiosity, and thought control in determining obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
The researchers concluded that further studies are needed to identify whether heightened magical thinking, religiosity and thought control are direct causes in the development of OC symptoms.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a brain and behavior problem that is characterized by recurring and disabling obsessions (thoughts, images) and compulsions (uncontrollable actions) that won’t go away. The unwanted intrusion of these thoughts and activities may appear suddenly, interrupt the stream of consciousness, and evoke anxiety and distress.2
I do not claim that everyone who meditates has pathological OCD. Neither do I claim that all meditators have obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Yet some may. What I am suggesting is that many Eastern-inspired meditation beliefs and practices encourage a heightened religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking, which recent psychological studies have linked to OC symptoms.
My history of meditation beliefs and practices revealed to me that spiritual teachers implanted a high degree of magical thinking, religiosity, and thought-controls–all foundational concepts in classical and contemporary yoga-meditation. Studies show these kinds of beliefs and practices play a key role in OC symptoms.
OC symptoms: Role of meditation beliefs and practices
To point you to what I see as strong relationships between OC symptoms and meditation beliefs and practices, I’ve quoted the Eremsoy study and provided my comments below:
Magical thinking is one of a number of OCD-related faulty beliefs. It refers to broader cognitive distortions about causality: real-life events are seen as being caused by a person’s thoughts and actions that are physically unconnected to the events.3
New age religions and occult often hold magical beliefs in the “law of attraction”, karma, and “thoughts are things” that bring the thinker either good or evil, prosperity or poverty, enlightenment or delusion. Read my post Gurus on the Financial Plane.
Several empirical studies have found that magical thinking was related to general psychopathology measures, anxiety, dissociative experiences, neuroticism, and schizotypal personality.4
In severe cases, meditation beliefs and practices have reportedly led some to extreme dissociative experiences (depersonalization/derealization)–that is, feelings of being outside one’s body, detachment from self or others, or as if looking from behind a glass. It is easy to see that some people who may be prone to OC behaviors could be attracted to meditation practices, or, that intense meditation beliefs and practices could cause psychopathology.
Read my post on Depersonalization/Derealization.
Magical thinking seems to have two functions: a) it increases sense of threat as an input; and b) it motivates a person to regain the control by showing neutralizing behaviour as an output.5
We may imagine certain thoughts or actions are “out of tune” with divine harmony, bring bad karma, or lead to sin or hell and so on. We then get anxious and fearful, which motivates us to meditate more and to try to neutralize and control our thoughts. We inevitably fail. A vicious cycle keeps us bound to spiritual teachers and religious practices who further instill worry and fear of punishment for our physical, moral, and spiritual failures. Read my post on Duped by Meditation.
Strict religious beliefs and moral codes may motivate highly religious individuals to attach strong personal meaning to the content and occurrence of intrusive thoughts. Some highly religious people may easily conclude that some thoughts can represent a type of moral failure and that may shake their complete faith in God; therefore immoral thoughts should be removed from the stream of consciousness in order to regain a feeling of purity and right standing with God.6
These beliefs about the importance of thoughts might activate deliberative thought-control efforts…. Recent studies have reported that highly religious individuals endorsed significantly more maladaptive beliefs about the importance and control of intrusive thoughts than did low religious individuals. These individuals also may show a higher tendency to believe in the power of their own thoughts.7
People use diverse strategies to control their unwanted thoughts, including distraction, thought replacement, thought stopping, analyzing thought, and suppression. Unfortunately, directing awareness away from unwanted thoughts is not always easy, and failure is inevitable….Individuals with OCD may have a belief that perfect control is possible and inability to achieve it is a sign of increased threat and failed mental control.8
Meditation teachers often falsely lead us to believe it is possible to achieve perfect control, perfect stillness of mind or permanent cessation of suffering–if we surrender our wills and energy to following their teachings. It is these teachers who instilled in us the worry and fear of punishment if we don’t properly follow and believe in their magical claims.
Although every act of magical thinking does not need to rely on supernatural agents (e.g., a spirit, ancestor, god, angel, saint) as seen in the case of prayer, some kinds of magical thinking are dependent on supernatural agents. The basic notion of intercessory prayer is that a specific supernatural agent might cause or prevent an event on the supplicant’s behalf.9
I recall a chant from Self-Realization Fellowship meditations, “Guru, image of Brahma, deliver us from delusion.” Chants, affirmations, prayers, or visualizations–these are often used to supplicate the gods, angels, or miraculous agents to intercede on our behalf. Magical thinking.
Strong devotion to religion may increase the tendency to engage in magical ideation, which in turn increases the need to remove these [unwanted] thoughts from the stream of consciousness through control strategies. However, these intentional thought-control efforts usually increase the frequency and intensity of intrusions.10
If a person with magical thoughts uses certain thought-control strategies, such as worry or punishment, in order to control his or her thoughts, he or she may suffer from OC symptoms, mainly because the effort in controlling the thoughts would further increase the thought itself, which creates a vicious cycle.11
Religious individuals seem to use worry and punishment as thought-control strategies, which then result in increased OC symptoms…. Magical beliefs often manifest themselves as superstitious behaviors, religious sacraments, and personal rituals.12
In summary, recent studies show a significant link between high religiosity, magical thinking, beliefs and needs for control of unwanted thoughts, and obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors. Many meditation beliefs and practices are rooted in various degrees of religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking. When these factors are heightened in meditators it may increase OC-type symptoms.
2 A more detailed definition of OCD can be read at the International OCD Foundation website https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/
3 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 p. 2
Meditation techniques, like religion, offer an illusion of control, a false promise of personal mastery.
Helplessness, insecurity, and uncertainty are part of the human condition. Unable to find permanent freedom from our ailments, we willingly surrender our bodies and minds, our time and resources, to uselessly following the advice of charlatans, of spiritual teachers, gurus, or buddhas.1 Meditation techniques may act as a placebo (sham or fake) treatment to our ailments that give us an illusion of control.
To begin, let’s define “illusion” as a thing that is or that is likely to be wrongly perceived and that probably we have wrong ideas about. Now, let’s proceed with our discussion of the illusion of control offered by meditation techniques.
Helplessness and the human condition
Life largely operates beyond our control. Our birth, death, and much of life’s events unfold mostly outside our power. We crave security and certainty and want to exert our influence over other people. Many people believe that meditation techniques provide them with unlimited access to secret knowledge, to magical cures, and to personal mastery over one’s body, mind, and world.
Meditation philosophy, inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism that will be discussed below, is built upon the false premise that there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within us, which is beyond our awareness and control. (Read my post Duped by Meditation? for further elaboration on false premises underlying many meditation practices).
Charlatans, gurus, and spiritual teachers implant in our minds the need of a cure (from our unawareness, asleepness, or out-of-controlness), and then offer us sham products that offer the illusion of control.
Mind-control disguised as self-control
Meditation teachers are seen by many of their followers as moral authorities who implant in their minds the necessity of self-control. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, in their book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, warn, “All mind control operates under the guise of self-control”.2 Under this psychological, spiritual, and theological pretext, meditation is a fraudulent technique that is sold on the pretense of offering self-control.3 Practitioners often willingly surrender control to teachers who have already implanted in them the need for self-restraint as the right path to ultimate freedom of body, mind, and spirit.
Self-Realization Fellowship, a Hindu-inspired religion that I used to follow, promises that disciples who correctly practice the given meditation techniques every day will eventually, if not in this life then in a future incarnation, attain total self-realization, self-mastery bringing complete awareness of Self or God.
In the Samadhi Padi chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says, “Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications” (“Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ”).4 Mental control or restraint, a core component of yoga, is supposed to eventually lead the practitioner to the penultimate state of Dhyana (meditative trance and total absorption in self-awareness or Samadhi).5
For many people, meditation techniques offer a theological or moral framework that appeals to their unmet needs to control body, mind, and world.
Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self
The more we feel helpless, the more we want to assign control to someone or something else to cure or fix us and our world. We attribute magical agency to spiritual teachers, religions, and meditation techniques.
Kramer and Alstad, point out that in the East the prevailing idea is that the self is limited and to be transcended (Hinduism) or that the idea of the self is a false identity of the mind that is to be transcended (Buddhism). These Eastern ideas are biased towards the reduction or elimination of the self or ego to attain a permanent selflessness or egolessness.7 Any teacher or mystic who claims to be totally selfless or egoless must also claim to be totally conscious.
In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, gives reasons why our unconscious is inaccessible: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try…. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”8
For gurus and spiritual teachers to admit that unconscious factors are at play within oneself would mean that no one can be certain that any person can ever be completely self-aware or can be totally selfless and egoless. It is debatable that so-called advanced masters, mystics, and saints are what they say they are: totally self-aware, in complete self-control, and perfected in selflessness or egolessness; and that the teacher knows what is best for disciples who strive to follow in her footsteps.
Kramer and Alstad write, “If there were even the remote possibility that a totally realized being had an unconscious, how could anyone (including the realized one) be certain that all motives and actions were pure and selfless?”9 Many Eastern-inspired religious teachers negate or devalue Western psychology because its concepts about the unconscious (uncontrollable self) undermines their power and authority.
Countless people look to charlatans, spiritual teachers, or gurus who they believe are completely conscious, totally selfless, and have foolproof answers and magical cures.
Results from meditation: placebo effect?
Our feelings of powerlessness feed anxieties and hunger for coping mechanisms.10 The times we feel most uncertain and helpless is when we most want answers and control. Even an illusory sense of control is enough to satisfy.
Our expectations that a technique or treatment will be helpful can sometimes give us beneficial effects. A meditation technique can enhance a practitioner’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that the practice will be helpful. Medical scientists say that the placebo effect–when a fake treatment or technique (an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique)–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.11
In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that, “If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.”12
The effects we may feel from meditation practice then may be largely a sham, a treatment that creates temporary relief and illusion of control.
The Journal of American Medical Association published a landmark meta-study of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants on the effects of meditation. The researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that meditation treatments were not better than drugs or exercise. (Read my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds). “The studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health, with the important exception that mindfulness meditation provided a small but possibly meaningful degree of relief from psychological distress,” wrote Allan H. Goroll, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital.
A wish for you
In summary, meditation techniques may act as a sham or fake (placebo) treatment for ailments and give an illusion of control. Whether any person is ever able to be completely self-aware, self-controlled, and selfless is debatable. The false promises of personal mastery and magical cures from charlatans is something everyone needs to guard against by using critical thinking.
If you suffer, are in pain, or feel powerless; if the meditation techniques you practice help, then, I am happy for you. Or, if you discovered that meditation techniques didn’t ultimately help, like I did, then I hope you find an effective treatment or another placebo. Understanding that illusions or placebos may have benefits also means there are countless ways you could improve your situation and get a sense of control over your life.
1 The seed idea about the illusion of control was gleaned from James A. Lindsay’s, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
2 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 225
3 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
4 Quoted from “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali
5 See “Samadhi”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi
6 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
7 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) pp. 101-102
8 This quotation of Timothy Wilson is from On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert A Burton, M.D. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) p146
9 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 102
10 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 80
11 See “Definition of Placebo Effect”, MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31481
12 R. Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 256
Many people believe false premises about meditation. Some keep meditating for years, handing over control to teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
In the present post, it is argued that there are implicit premises critical to why many people meditate. Examples of these premises are provided. The implication is that the meditation practitioner must believe in the reality of these premises, while at the same time these premises are actually beyond the awareness and the verification of the practitioner. Therefore, the meditator relies on a given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate the reality of meditation experiences. The conclusion is these premises along with meditation techniques are a method of psychological control that keeps the practitioner dependent on the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
To keep practicing meditation techniques many people believe in one or more of the following premises:
“You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
You are god but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to know you are god. If you don’t know you are god, keep meditating.
You are asleep (ignorant of your delusion) and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake up from delusion. If you are in delusion, keep meditating.
You are suffering. Meditation is the path to transcend suffering. If you are suffering, keep meditating.
You are Nothing, the Void. Meditation is the path to realize you are Nothing, the Void. If you don’t know you are Nothing, the Void, keep meditating.
Each of these premises implies that “there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within you, which is beyond your awareness and control.”1
These premises are beyond the ordinary verification of the practitioner. The supposed way to verify if these premises are true is by validation from the teacher, guru, philosophy or religion. The practitioner must hand over self-validation to the teacher, guru, philosophy or religion that implanted these unverifiable premises in the first place.
Are these premises true? Who decides when the desired outcomes have been attained?
If these premises were true, then we would expect to find millions, if not billions, of people since the Buddha (500 BCE) to today to have ended their suffering or to be walking around as god or gods. These premises appear to be false. The premise and experiments that meditation techniques can end suffering or transform people into infallible gods has failed. With meditation techniques we find what we would expect to find if the above premises were indeed false. We rely not on self but on external authority for self-validation.
It was argued there are implicit premises critical to why many people meditate. Examples of these premises were shown. The implication is that the meditation practitioner must believe in the reality of the accepted premise, while at the same time the premise is beyond the awareness and the verification of the practitioner. As a result, the meditator actually relies on the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate the reality of meditation experiences. The conclusion is that the premises held by many meditation practitioners create a dependence on and a hand over of control to the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.
Many variations of the above false premises
There are many variations of the above premises. Below are some others that I filled in the blanks with:
You are ________.
Meditation is the ____________.
If you are not yet ___________, keep meditating.
path to immortality
path to breathlessness
way to transcend body/mind
path to transcend ego/self
path to pure consciousness
peace, love, joy
path to peace, love, joy
peace, love, joy
blocked life force
way to unblock/control life force
in control of life force
What other compelling premises for meditation practice could fill in those “blanks”?
1 Joslin, Bill. (2014) Duped From the Beginning slide, Interview ‘Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense’, Gnostic Media episode #202
What many Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques have in common is that they involve negating thought to transcend thought.
Whether one can actually transcend or negate thought may be debatable. But these mental methods, that some claim are beneficial, even miraculous, contain contradictions and warnings.
Selflessness contains contradictions, including:
Self-identity is deconstructed and then built up using a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews;
One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent the use of critical thinking which could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility.
Valuing selflessness and denying selfishness is itself “self-centered”. Humans all are out for self-interest.
We may never know if negation of self is possible. Heck, scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics have been debating for millennia what “self” may be. We may have many selves. Here we defined self-identity as what makes up one’s personality and sense of who and what one is at any given moment.
My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers.
I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part3. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them.
“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students.
Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts? Might some gurus and groups distort people’s perceptions of the themselves to take advantage of them?
3 These so-called transcendent or mystical experiences that I have had I have interpreted in various ways at different times throughout my life. While I was fervent religious believer, I interpreted these experiences as supernatural, as a gift from god or guru. After I learned to think more critically, I have interpreted my past and present “mystical” experiences as natural, as part of being human. Just because there may not be a definitive explanation for self-transcending experiences does not give us license to say we know they have some extraordinary or supernatural cause.