Several years ago, indie filmmaker Vikram Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) made a true story about a fake guru. As the American-born child of Indian immigrants, Vikram had grown up in the Hindu religion, and was “bemused” by Westerners jumping whole hog into an Eastern religion. So he set out to make a movie about it all.
Along the way, he realized that, to understand the psychology involved, he had to go underground, and therefore became a fake guru named Kumaré.
When I first saw the film I became interested in Gandhi’s technique. On several later viewings, he seemed to be an expert on how to present himself as a fake guru. Several lessons stood out immediately.
How to be A Guru
- Smile always — Sugar versus vinegar principle. Humans are disarmed by a smile. It makes us want to smile back. And since our mind follows what our body is doing, we want to be friendly with whoever we are smiling at.
- Laugh — a lot. – Ditto the above. How can anyone laughing all the time be sinister? Well, there’s the Joker, but… Laughter is infectious. Why else do they put laugh tracks into comedy TV shows?
- Look people in their eyes. –If you don’t, people think of you as being “shifty-eyed”, and therefore unreliable. And it is the most natural thing for a person’s eyes to be roaming, checking out the environment. Looking people in their eyes helps you focus, and they think you are really listening to them.
- Be with people. — How often do you see people being dorks by starting into their smartphones instead of attending to those around them. And that is merely the most obvious of rude behavior. Humans don’t like being treated like chopped liver. (Even though we do it to others all the time.)
- Accept everything people tell you. – It is very human to be constantly and instantly judgmental. It is hard-wired into our survival genes, so to speak. Rare is the person who can simply listen to another person without immediately offering correction, condemnation, or at the least, well-intentioned advice. Don’t do that, just listen, and you will be regarded as a sparkling conversationalist.
- Say “OK” a lot. – Humans like to be affirmed. Validated. So much in life is negative, and seldom is heard the encouraging word, “You’re OK.” When someone says “OK” to another person’s tale, it boosts them up. It accepts them. It elevates them.
- Ask, “Why do you think that?” — Both for clarification, in that your interlocutor hasn’t, perhaps, fully thought out what they are saying. (Grandma used to say, “Some people talk just to hear their heads rattle.”) And because it gives the other person an opportunity to talk some more, about the thing that interests them the most, their own thoughts.
- Tell people, “I like your story.” — Everyone has a story, you know. It is what drives us, as a species. Almost of our motivating ideas are based on myths, legends, narratives. The “story” we all carry around inside us is most particular to the individual, no matter how much of it is common to everyone in their home group. When you declare that you like their story, you are again confirming and affirming them as a special human being.
Vikram Gandhi did these things, and more which I probably did not see, and gained the trust of a motley collection of seekers. But really, what are these, manipulative methods only? Or how we should all treat each other every day? Why would they work so well unless we all were desperate to have them in our lives?
And then, I wondered about what he was actually telling people. He told them the truth, that they saw in him what they wanted him to be. The substance of his “teaching” was seldom explicitly stated, but I could almost (!?!) hear him thinking stuff when people were treating him like The Real Thing..
The Guru Sez
- Accept responsibility for your own life, do not try to pass responsibility off to a “parent” figure. – Whether guru, preacher, priest, monk, philosopher, pundit, politician, or even Mom and Dad.
- Trust yourself, trust your experiences, trust what works. – In the end, all the well-meaning advice in the world, and that not so well-meaning, is only an opinion. What worked well for someone else may easily be a disaster for you. It is your life. You have to choose.
- Gather wisdom and knowledge from wherever you find it – books, teachers, friends, life. — Besides experience, and with the full caveat of blindly swallowing another person’s prescription, it is wise to look around and see how others have done things. You do not want to discover that arsenic is poisonous by ingesting some. You have to learn to be wise.
- Avoid being manipulated, exploited, or abused. — The sheer number of people in this world who willingly submit to abuse and exploitation is amazing. They think they derive some benefit from doing so, even if it is punishment for their “sins”. And it is terribly easy to fall into being manipulated by a ruthless, or even a kindly person. All that is needed is to appeal to some quirk of your nature, and the manipulators are very good at sizing up other people’s weaknesses. But all confidence games are powered by larcenous greed, it is terribly hard to cheat an honest man.
- Face your own illusions, delusions, and lies. — Please, no, anything but that! Or so many folks react. Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists — and gurus — make a decent living off of those who would rather hide from themselves than face the person they are.
- Be present where you are. – Once when I went into our local mon-n-pop pizza place to pick up an order, I observed a couple, out on a date, sitting in a booth near the door. Both of them were gazing rapturously into their smart phones. I so much wanted to yell at them, “Hey! Pay attention to each other, not to your self!” That would have been rude. But people were doing that sort of thing long before Steve Jobs had a brainstorm.
- Do what you have to do without complaint; want what you have to do. — All of us have unpleasant necessities in our lives, from getting up for work in the morning, to being nice to crazy Uncle Bob as he spouts malicious nonsense at the Thanksgiving family gathering. If you grudgingly trail into these tasks, you will not do your best. Indeed, you cannot. This reluctance to engage with what must be done demeans and lessens the entire world. It certainly reduces your personal world.
- Take care of yourself, don’t go cruising for failure. — Like the person who got married and divorced five times, all to hopeless drunks, some of us seem to go out of our way to find ways to screw up. Back in the self-help craze a few decades ago, it was called being “codependent”. Don’t do that, anymore.
- If it sounds wrong or crazy, it probably is wrong or crazy. — Convincing yourself, “it will be all right”, or “this time will be different”, invariably ends in unhappiness. As Kris Kristofferson once said, “Never sleep with anyone crazier than yourself.”
- You already know what to do, all you lack is will-to-do. — People seem to want the Guru to tell them what to do, in detail, in their lives. And when he does, they will nod in agreement, and say, “I thought so.” Seriously, do you need another person to tell you to do what you already know? You want a motivator? OK. Tell yourself what to do!
- You see what you want to see, you hear what you want to hear. – This was Kumaré’s greatest lesson. People saw in him what they wanted to see. But he wasn’t real. Not in the sense they wanted him to be real. Human beings are capable of enormous amounts of self-delusion, of hope, and of doing it again when their illusion fails, again.
- Know what you really want. – This is harder than it seems. We are full of other people’s expectations, admonitions, cultural demands, and the like, that we often go through life never really knowing what we really want. All too often, we will mask what we really want as being “unworthy”, but the seepage will come through anyway. Some folks talk a good game about desiring peace, love, and justice in the world, when what they really want is to get even.
- The only real magic is your desire to believe in magic. – Along with seeing what you want to see, this one is part of our want for results. We think we can’t get something unless a miracle occurs. But, if it is possible at all, we must have the necessary resources within to make it so. Ain’t no fairy godmother going to come along and give you a fancy dress, a gold carriage, and an invitation to the Palace Ball.
- Your true self is not really hidden, you are just ignoring it. – In parts of the Hindu religion, it speaks of a “true self”, which is who you are behind the mask. In the West, we can relate to that. A lot of us put on a false face to greet the world, often a different mask for every group or situation we encounter. But underneath it is who we really are. Some of us don’t think who we are is good enough, or nice enough, or pretty enough, to deal with other people. Maybe we are dirty rotten scoundrels. More often, we are simply afraid. Out “true self” is our best self, the self we wish we were. Again, there is nothing preventing us from causing that ideal to become actual. But, like all of the good things, it will take some work to achieve.
- Breathe. Smile. Eat. Love. Drink. Exercise. Live. – Everyday. To the fullest.
I understand why people are put off by religion. Sometimes, the guru is not a merry prankster like Vikram Gandhi, but a terrible person who uses others for his own benefit. Sometimes the adherents are a collection of rampant hypocrites. Sometimes, the required beliefs simply beggar the imagination. But look at us humans. It seems as if we are hard-wired for religion (not necessarily spiritual, to be sure) and we have a need for something in our lives that is neither cold hard secularist snobbery or what is so petty it is unable to get us to aspire beyond ourselves.
The danger for the “non-religious”, is that they will be more susceptible to fall into something terribly exploitative. As Eric Davis, an American baseball player said, “If you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Which is why I fall back on Shepherd Book’s last words, “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it.”
ABC News Report from 2012
It was nice when I found this TED Talk, he confirmed much of what I had presupposed (Yay Me!)