The Anti-Gurus

In 1999, just after I started researching a book on mysticism, I asked for advice from J.P., a man who works for a holistic-learning institute in New York City. J.P. cautiously recommended a book that critiqued the enlightenment industry and had caused a stir after its publication in 1993. Although the book makes valid points about the dangers of mystical traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, J.P. warned me, it "throws out the baby with the bathwater."

That was how I learned of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. The authors, Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, have lived together in Bolinas, California, since 1974 and are veterans of the American spiritual scene. In The Guru Papers, they analyze and criticize authoritarian ideologies, primarily religious ones.

They take on the great western monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But what has made their book a lightning rod in the alternative spiritual community is its assault on eastern mystical traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Because the authoritarianism of these traditions is better concealed than that of the monotheistic religions, Alstad and Kramer argue, it is even more insidious.

Alstad and Kramer distinguished mystical visions from the interpretations we give them. These experiences, they wrote, can be profoundly transformative, in the best sense; they can "alter one’s relationship to daily life and also profoundly change the way one approaches death and dying." The trouble begins when we interpret our visions, transforming them into beliefs and ideologies.

Like the anti-perennialist philosopher Steven Katz, Alstad and Kramer held that the interpretations we impose upon our experiences—and even the initial experiences themselves--invariably reflect our personal and cultural backgrounds: "Hindus have Hindu mystical experiences, Christians have Christian ones," they stated. Our experience "is not ‘pure’ (nothing is) but is historically and culturally embedded."

Alstad and Kramer looked askance at the notion that mystical epiphanies unveil the oneness underlying the apparent diversity of existence. They noted that since the phrase "Thou are that" was first set forth in the Upanishads, tens of millions of people have tried to create a better world by adhering to moral codes that exalt oneness and self-abnegation as the supreme virtues. This 3,000-year-old experiment, Alstad and Kramer declared, has been a total failure; humans are still as selfish and divisive as ever.

"[T]his morality has failed not because there is something wrong with people," Alstad and Kramer elaborated, "but because the framework constructs ideals that are impossible to achieve, thus setting people up for failure and self-mistrust." It is no accident, Alstad and Kramer added, that oneness-based theologies took hold in India, one of the world’s most highly stratified, divided cultures; Hindu ashrams, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Zen centers, and other organizations founded on the oneness principle are also authoritarian--and usually patriarchal--hierarchies.

The oneness doctrine appeals to modern westerners, Alstad and Kramer noted, because it seems less authoritarian and easier to reconcile with science than western theologies, but it is riddled with contradictions. It takes an individual, after all, to experience oneness; moreover, the concept of oneness "has within it a hidden duality" that leads to a hierarchical division of reality. Oneness ideologies denigrate individuality as illusory and self-interest as sinful, the source of all suffering and evil.

Buddhism and Hinduism in particular postulate the existence of certain rare beings who have transcended their individuality and thus experience oneness in a deep and abiding fashion. These are the enlightened ones, gurus, masters, sages, avatars. "The very nature of any structure that makes one person different and superior to others... breeds authoritarianism," Alstad and Kramer stated.

Indeed, gurus are the ultimate authority figures. The guru insists that the path to enlightenment comes through surrender to him. The guru claims that those who devote themselves to him will be rewarded with bliss, self-knowledge, immortality, states that are "conveniently as difficult to reach as they are compelling," Alstad and Kramer pointed out. The guru projects an air of absolute certainty not only about his enlightenment but about almost all matters. When criticized, the guru accuses the critic of being mired in illusion and egotism, which the guru, of course, has transcended.

Both as individuals and as a species, Alstad and Kramer warned, we face real-world problems, some of which threaten our very existence. Spirituality can help motivate us to address these problems, by boosting our empathy for our fellow humans and for all of life. But spirituality should incorporate reason as well as emotion and intuition, and it should be "embedded in daily life, not separate from it."

Although they were encouraged by the spread of democracy around the world, they worried that so many of us are still looking for saviors—either living ones or ones long dead, like Buddha and Christ. Adulthood means "realizing that ultimately others cannot know what’s best for you," they wrote.

Seen through the lens of The Guru Papers, the rhetoric of mysticism appears not mysterious and paradoxical but Orwellian: Only through submission will we find true liberation. All are one, but some are more one than others. In fact, after I read The Guru Papers, all spiritual systems suddenly seemed suspect. As Alstad and Kramer wrote, religions "construct a realm different from and superior to daily life, label it spiritual, and then create authorities who give unchallengable directives on how to get there."

In the spring of 1999, I met Alstad and Kramer in New York City, where they were visiting friends. Physically, they were as unalike as a couple could be. Kramer was short, wiry, bald, with a bulging, permanently knotted brow. He reminded me of paintings of Boddhidarma, the fierce old Zen patriarch. Phrases such as "in my opinion" and "from my perspective" served as carrier waves for his thoughts—and reminders of his views’ subjective nature. Alstad, in contrast, was tall, blond, serene, almost ethereal—in repose, anyway. When she spoke she was if anything even more fervent and sharp-tongued than Kramer.

Advances in science and human rights, she contended, have rendered obsolete much of the so-called wisdom of our ancestors. "I don’t see any reason to feel that the past had any special or privileged information that we don’t have from our own experiences." Alstad was aghast that so many intelligent people still view eastern religions, shamanism, and other ancient spiritual traditions as a "sacred, special entry way" into cosmic truth. "They were primitive patriarchies," she declared, "that had rigid sex roles and headsets."

Born in 1937 in Coney Island to non-observant Jewish parents, Kramer took graduate courses in philosophy at Columbia and New York University before deciding that academic philosophy was not for him. After moving to Berkeley in 1963, he was swept up in the counterculture. He spent five months in the mid-1960’s living in Millbrook, New York, with Timothy Leary. He taught yoga at Esalen in the late 1960’s and went on to become a globe-trotting yoga instructor.

One influence on his thinking during this period was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who urged audiences to seek liberation on their own rather than submitting to a guru or other authority figure. Kramer was particularly impressed with Krishnamurti’s teachings on "self-reflexivity," a process whereby the mind rigorously examines its own workings. Kramer’s 1974 book The Passionate Mind presented his version of Krishnamurti’s philosophy.

Kramer became disillusioned with Krishnamurti when he realized that the charismatic anti-guru guru had an authoritarian streak himself. Krishnamurti isolated himself from criticism and feedback, "just like everybody he was criticizing," Kramer said, and had to have "the last word on everything."

I asked Kramer how he avoids that trap: creating an anti-ideology that turns into an ideology itself. "I’ll tell you how I think I avoid it," Kramer said. He tries to acknowledge that his point of view is just that, a point of view, based on his own experiences and interpretations of them. "If somebody can come up with something that is more likely, I am very interested in that."

Alstad, born in 1944 in Minnesota into a Lutheran family, spent more time in academia before plunging into spirituality. She earned a doctorate in literature from Yale and helped to create the program in womens’ studies there. By the early 1970’s, when she was teaching at Duke University, she was becoming disaffected with academia and curious about yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices.

In the summer of 1972, she traveled across the country visiting different spiritual centers. She was for the most part disappointed by what she found. One yoga ashram in the southwest was organized as an almost medieval hierarchy, with rigidly defined sex roles. The ashram’s Indian-born guru decreed that only men could work in the garden, and that women must do all the cooking and cleaning. The guru arranged all marriages, and he ordered couples to sleep together no more than once a month.

Alstad’s last stop was Bolinas, California, where at the urging of a friend she attended a workshop led by Kramer. Alstad was moved, even shaken, by Kramer’s teachings. "I went away from the workshop not knowing if I really liked him," she said. When she asked questions about enlightenment, reincarnation, and other issues with which she had been wrestling, Kramer did not give her easy answers, like most other teachers. Instead, he tried to get her to consider what her questions implied about her own fears and desires.

Kramer interjected that he had always resisted his students’ efforts to turn him into a guru. "I don’t know if you have ever been a recipient of real adulation," he asked me.

Unfortunately, no, I replied.

Well, he had, Kramer said, and he knew very well how tempting it could be to encourage that sort of worship in students. For both his own sake and that of his students, he kept his distance from them.

"He was very austere in the workshops," Alstad confirmed. "He wasn’t trying to hook you emotionally, or manipulate you, or please you." At the same time, "there was always great respect." Alstad recalled that one of Kramer’s basic messages was, "Follow your interests. This is what life is about, following your interests."

Alstad took this message to heart. She quit her job at Duke, and over the next year and a half she attended four more of Kramer’s workshops, including one that she sponsored herself at her home in North Carolina.

Their relationship took a while to blossom. Kramer was married with two children when they met, and "kind of shy," Alstad said. She and Kramer only became involved and moved in together after Kramer’s first marriage unraveled in 1974. Alstad became first the manager of his career and then his partner in teaching workshops on male-female relations.

By the early 1980’s, Alstad and Kramer were becoming increasingly disaffected with the culture of spirituality. During a long trip to India, they spent countless hours "talking about how gurus manipulate people and why people let them," Alstad said. Her notes on their conversations--elaborated upon by her and Kramer for almost a decade--became The Guru Papers. Alstad and Kramer lost some friendships as a result of the book, and they were denounced by other spiritual authors. "There are lots of people who don’t particularly care for us," Kramer said.

Alstad and Kramer no longer believe in the concept of enlightenment, especially if it is defined as complete dissolution or transcendence of the selfish ego. "I don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to transcend self-centeredness in a permanent way," Kramer said. "I think there are times you can do it momentarily. Altruism exists." But altruism and egotism "are embedded in each other," he explained.

When I mentioned that some gurus have an air of supreme self-confidence that lends credence to their claims to be enlightened, Kramer smiled grimly. "It’s amusing to me that one of peoples’ conceptions about enlightenment has to do with being this self-contained unit, where nothing can come in and bother you," he said. "That’s what psychopaths are like. Nothing comes in and bothers them."

Alstad and Kramer have had mystical experiences—through psychedelics and in other contexts—but they were reluctant to talk about them. Too often, revealing your mystical experiences sets you apart from others, Kramer explained. He is also acutely aware that he, like everyone, interprets his experiences according to his prior conditioning. He rejected the notion that mystical experiences represent pure, unfiltered visions of reality, which transcend the mystic’s personal and cultural context.

"This is one of the most dangerous ideas the human mind has ever constructed," Kramer said heatedly, "the idea of purity, whether it be pure experience or pure this or pure that."

A healthy spirituality, Alstad added, should not focus on altered states; it should help us confront and find solutions for all the problems besetting us, such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, violent nationalism, racism, and sexism. Religion too often exacerbates our problems rather than ameliorating them, Alstad suggested, and not just by fomenting intolerance and violent fundamentalism.

"A lot of people who could be part of the intelligent solutions are the ones whose heads are lost" in some form of traditional spirituality, she explained. Even a spiritual path that emphasizes selflessness, forgiveness, and unconditional love can do harm by diverting us away from real-world problems.

Although Alstad and Kramer still practice yoga, they are wary of how meditation is often employed in religious traditions. "Traditional meditation is a form of mind control, that has behind it a worldview," Kramer said.

"And we think it’s a harmful worldview," Alstad added sternly. Thousands of years ago, meditation represented a step forward for humanity, because it provided "some deeper understanding of the cosmos that was beyond ordinary perception for that time." Spiritual teachers such as Buddha and Jesus were "great reformers" in their era, but the institutions founded on their original insights have become harmful anachronisms.

Alstad reminded me that Buddha’s quest for enlightenment began with his abandonment of his wife and child. Hinduism and Buddhism still exalt detachment from everyday life and relationships as the pinnacle of spirituality. Women would never have created such religions on their own, Alstad said. "The new spirituality needs to be co-created by men and women." Such a spirituality would emphasize the importance of human relations rather than denigrating them.

You can tell a lot about gurus, Alstad said, from their treatment of and attitude toward women. Even if a guru does not actually abuse women, as many do, he may still treat females--including his own wife--as servants. When someone tells Alstad about a supposedly enlightened guru, she likes to ask, "What has he learned from a woman lately? What has he learned from his wife? What do his intimate relationships with women look like? Does he have a co-evolutionary relationship or an old-fashioned one?"

Humanity, Alstad continued, is in some respects "incredibly sophisticated and creative"—for example, in the realms of science, technology, and the arts--but in other respects we are still an "adolescent species. "It’s our social systems that are lagging behind," Alstad said. "The knowledge we need now is relational knowledge, including relations between nations, races, generations, sexes, classes, and to the environment."

It should be obvious by now that one of my favorite journalistic tricks is springing "gotchas" on interviewees. A gotcha is a moment when I point out a potentially devastating contradiction in my interviewee’s worldview. The point of a gotcha is to provoke a strong response from the interviewee, but not so strong that he or she storms out of the room or physically assaults me.

The gotcha I had prepared for Alstad and Kramer was that these two critics of guruhood came together in the context of what could be described as a guru-student relationship.

I decided that in my interview with Alstad and Kramer I should disguise my gotcha slightly, to soften its impact. As tactfully as I could, I asked Alstad how she would react now if she heard that a friend was quitting a prestigious university job to follow a spiritual teacher, as she had done when she left Duke and became involved with Kramer. In other words, how can you tell if a student-teacher relationship is healthy or not?

Alstad bristled. "I didn’t leave my job to be with him," she said. "I left my job because I didn’t like my field, and his methodology gave me the courage and the clarity to see what wasn’t working for me and to follow my interests." She added that "it’s trivializing to imply that I was following a guru." No one would raise such a criticism if she had moved from Duke to another university after becoming enamoured with the teachings of a professor there.

I hope you’re not offended, I said. "Not at all," Alstad replied, shaking her head. "I’m glad you ask these questions so I get to answer them."

Kramer granted that I was raising an interesting issue. "What are the standards you use to judge the appropriateness of an experience or action or movement? You may not like my answer. I don’t think there are any absolute standards, when you get right down to it."

"I knew in my guts what I was doing was right," Alstad said firmly.

"But some people know in their guts that what they’re doing is right, and then twenty years later they say, ‘What a fool I was,’" Kramer replied. "So basically you can’t use, ‘I knew in my guts’ as an absolute standard."

Alstad retorted that she had never felt a moment’s regret about leaving academia; in fact, she had been exhilarated. The same was true of her involvement with Kramer, who had never displayed the authoritarian tendencies that she found so disturbing in other teachers.

Later Alstad pulled a gotcha on me. She complained that my book The End of Science exalted the quest for truth as the most meaningful of all human activities. She suspected that I saw spirituality in the same way.

Maybe it is time to abandon this concept of the "heroic journey" toward truth—whether scientific or mystical--as the end-all and be-all of life, Alstad told me sternly. To her, discovering ultimate truth—whatever that is--is less important than confronting the real-world problems that threaten our very survival. "We have lots of cards we haven’t played," she said. "One of them is using our brain better."

Selected Works

Books
McSweeney's Books, 2012.
With Reverend Frank Geer. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Hutchinson. Brown Trout, 2002. Royalties go to Help the Afghan Children Inc.
Misc. Writings
Review of The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2011
Review of The Information by James Gleick, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2011
Review of "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, Globe and Mail, Oct. 8, 2010.
Review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2010
Review of "The Shallows," by Nicholas Carr, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010.
Article in Slate, Aug. 4, 2009
Review of "Year Million," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2008
Neuroscientific critique of the Singularity, IEEE Spectrum Magazine, June 2008.
Article in Discover Magazine, April 2008
Review of biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson and Jurgen Neffe, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 2007.
A report on "mystical technologies" for inducing religious experiences, Slate, April 26, 2007.
Q&A with Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, National Geographic, February 2007.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science for Discover, October 2006.
Review of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, New York Times Book Review, April 16, 2006.
Essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
Essay in the New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006.
Review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York Times Book Review, December 18, 2005
Profile of Jose Delgado, a pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
An essay inspired by the Centennial of Einstein's revolutionary papers on relativity and quantum mechanics. New York Times, August 12, 2005
Researchers have found evidence for the controversial "grandmother-cell" theory. Discover, June 2005.
An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005
An essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 12, 2004
Cover story for Discover Magazine, October 2004.
A critique of Buddhism, published online by Slate (slate.msn.com) February 12, 2003.
Published in Discover Magazine, February 2003. A profile of the Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern and his five-year study of peyote use by members of the Native American Church.
An essay published in the New York Times, December 31, 2002.
An essay published on the oped page of the New York Times Christmas Day, 2002.
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Outtakes from Rational Mysticism (published here only)
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?, with digressions on Yogi Bhajan and Amrit Desai.