“So I’ve started following a guru,” I said to my oldest friend Herb, trying to make my voice sound casual and breezy. We sat in our favorite Thai restaurant, and he had been amiably teasing me about my healthy eating habits, grinning his wide, cartoonish grin, suggesting I ask the bartender if they had broccoli juice on tap. I’d loved that goofy smile since high school and I’d never seen it fade so quickly.
He put his beer down on the table. “What do you mean? What kind of guru?”
“I mean a guru. A guru guru. A spiritual master.”
Herb’s face hardened, making him look old and senatorial. I had always made the less conventional choices: I played in garage bands while he went to college; taught exotic martial arts while he made a grown-up income in suits and ties. My wife, Carolyn and I spoiled a parade of cats while Herb and his wife had two brilliant boys. I was the artsy, bohemian, quasi-monk; he was the affable, solid, business executive and family man.
But, however different we were, we’d grown to respect each other through thirty years of friendship. We’d gone through the baffling shame of an adolescence without girlfriends, the tacky iniquities of pot smoking in high school, the discovery of then-new music like Devo and Elvis Costello. In our twenties, we’d spent long hours talking excitedly about philosophy — in those days, my man was the Indian iconoclast J. Krishnamurti and Herb was into Trappist monk Thomas Merton. We’d each been the other’s best man at our weddings (his, resplendent, something out of Jane Austen; mine, a dozen people in a park, more like something out of The Beverly Hillbillies). And as we stumbled into our late-thirties, we tussled with the usual existential crises of middleclass, middle-aged men. Now all of that history seemed to be evaporating.
“Wow. Well, I just hope you’re careful.” Herb’s voice was leaden and he frowned into his Pad Thai. I knew Americans disliked gurus, but having read Eastern spirituality books since I was thirteen, gurus had always seemed a natural part of spirituality to me. Consequently, I had never grasped the intensity of that dislike, and I was not at all prepared to see it show up on my best friend’s face. I didn’t know how to respond.
“Careful of what?” I asked.
Herb was almost a foot taller than me, but he hunched down over his food and looked up through his thick brows, “Well, how can you be sure this guy isn’t a con man?”
“I don’t know,” I said, stupidly, “I just am. It’s hard to explain.” My face felt hot and my mind began to race. What if my guru was a con man and I was deluding myself, like one of those pitiful losers on daytime talk shows?
“I mean,” he continued, “aren’t you supposed to give up your will to a guru?”
“No, it’s not like that. I mean, you’re a Catholic, and aren’t you supposed to give up your life to Jesus? Christianity is basically just guru devotion,” I said desperately.
“Your guru compares himself to Jesus?”
“No! Well yes, but not like that. He says all beings are the same as Jesus or the Buddha.” My words were coming faster and I’d completely forgotten about the special order of steamed vegetables in front of me.
“Then why worship him?” Herb said.
I took a slow breath, tried to shift into an authoritative, scholarly tone. “Because we don’t know it’s our state. We’ve forgotten. Gurus are how we remember. We remember by meditating on the guru’s enlightened state. That’s how we duplicate the state of enlightenment in ourselves.” Uggh. I sounded like something out of a bad Isaac Asimov novel.
Given how badly this was going, I was certainly not about to share any of the gory details of my actual spiritual practice—how I bowed before the photo of my guru and gently arranged flowers around his feet, or how sometimes when I meditated my whole body would soften and my eyes would become wet with tears.
I was onto some new, overheated metaphor now, using words like “morphogenic fields” and “entrainment,” no longer really trying to convince him of anything about gurus; I just needed him to stop thinking I was the kind of sap who could get taken in by some cheesy huckster. I felt like yelling, This is me! Sam! The guy who introduced you to Bob Marley, for Chrissake! I wanted so badly to see Herb’s old grin again, his brows raised comically high, eyes bearing down on me with mock-diabolical glee.
Just as I was about to launch into a disquisition on the guru in esoteric Christianity, Herb poked at his food, and asked, “So how’s Carolyn?” And with that, it seemed, my case was closed. We finished the dinner in stiff small talk, and he didn’t even tease me when I asked the waitress if, for dessert, I could simply get a plate of fresh fruit.
Over the next few months I learned, Pavlovian style, not to tell people I had a guru. The lesson came through a procession of stony faces, brittle smiles, and most of all, an eerie lack of questions. Before finding my guru I’d been an ordained Zen Buddhist for twelve years and my friends were boundlessly curious about that. But people wanted very badly not to hear about a guru.
It didn’t seem to matter that guru devotion has been revered for millennia among half the world’s population, the living heart of Hinduism, Sikhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, and a few other assorted isms. Thanks to a handful of lunatic cults, gurus would always look suspect to Americans.
Finally I got so frustrated I decided to write up a manifesto defending guru devotion (I demurely called it an “intro booklet”). I sat for hours in coffee shops, furiously scribbling away, deconstructing every possible criticism with what I felt was irrefutable logic.
Of course, I couldn’t let Herb know how badly I wanted his approval, so, to get the booklet into his hands, I said I was just looking for feedback on it. Style, clarity, that kind of thing. My heart pounded with anticipation when I dropped the booklet by his house, and, in the week before we planned to meet, I sat more than once in our living room, rereading it, imagining him all aglow with new admiration for me now that he understood the greatness of true guru devotion.
Four months after that first talk, Herb and I sat again at that same Thai restaurant. He handed the booklet across the table, avoiding eye contact. “Yeah, it was really good,” he mumbled into his beer. “Good writing. I made some comments like you asked.”
And that he had.
In harsh red pen Herb had filled the booklet with comments that sent me reeling, suspicions I never would’ve thought of in a million years. The fact that my guru had books that cost actual money struck Herb as dubious. The way the guru had changed his name several times over the years seemed highly questionable. It was as if my painstaking explanations were not even there. I flipped through it trying to look indifferent, and I began mentally lining-up my weightiest counter-arguments. But then, for some reason, I stopped. And something inside me simply gave up. If all that writing couldn’t convince him, nothing would.
“Thanks for taking the time and trouble. I can see you put a lot of care into this,” I said as casually as I could manage, though I felt like crying.
But then, about an hour later, the strangest thing happened. We’d finished dinner, and I don’t know if it was the couple of beers we’d had, or that we’d begun laughing about our high school years—pot peanut butter crackers before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, going “raftin’” on Lake Harriet during a roaring, tree-toppling gale. But, at some point, I looked down at the seat where my red-penned intro booklet lay like a mortally wounded animal, and I saw the photo I had glued onto the front of it—the face of my guru, his expression softly luminous with compassion.
In that moment, the restaurant seemed homier, cozier. And I said, “Y’know all that stuff about how guru devotion works? I actually couldn’t give a damn whether it’s right or not.”
“You mean entrainment in the morphogenic field?” Herb said, in affectionate teasing.
I chuckled. “Yeah.” I was silent for a moment and then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I blurted out the worst thing I could possibly say. I don’t know what came over me. Certainly it was the one thing that would most freak out a cult-fearing person.
“The truth is I just love my guru. And when I meditate on him I get really happy. And kinder, I think.” It was such an absurd and forbidden thing to say that I laughed at myself and I could feel my face turn red.
But instead of running out of the restaurant screaming for the cult-deprogrammers, Herb smiled, put his forearms on the table and leaned in toward me. And, to my amazement, he began asking about my new spiritual practice. Before I knew it, we were lost in one of our long, conspiratorial discussions, me telling him about my strange new adventure, its mysterious joys and trials, him telling me about his secret devotional feelings for his own “guru,” feelings that surfaced not in church but while watching baseball games with his kids.
At some point, our conversation wound down and we picked up the dessert menus left on our table long ago by our waitress. As I stared at my menu, Herb’s voice came from behind his, “Maybe they’ll make you a special dessert out of kale and water.” And without even looking up I knew the wide goofy grin that was on his face and I knew the mock-diabolical eyes that were bearing down on me. I knew them well.