“Can I walk the spiritual path without a guru? What is the role of a guru?” a first time visitor to the ashram asked the other day (paraphrased).

I wanted to share a brief story in response but held off at the time and instead just elucidated my thoughts on the matter. Today, however, as I sat down to write this post, I felt it was a good time as any to share that beautiful story. As follows:

I first heard Bill Withers while watching Notting Hill in 1999. Like millions of listeners worldwide, I felt the soul in his voice was at once palpable. It hit a nerve with me. Notting Hill’s soundtrack had only one song—Ain’t No Sunshine—by him, but it was enough for anyone to forge a connection with him. At least, that’s what I experienced. 

Bill Withers was 31 years old when he wrote Ain’t No Sunshine while working at a factory, making toilet seats for airplanes. He would save up, record demo tapes and play at various clubs at night. When he debuted with Ain’t No Sunshine, he refused to quit his day job, believing that the music business was a fickle industry. Fortunately for him, the song turned out to be a massive hit. When it went gold, the record company gave him a gold toilet as a gift, marking the start of his new career.

In 1985, at age 47, Bill Withers decided to walk away from it all. He felt that the record companies he worked with were constantly trying to exert more and more control over how he should sound if he wanted to sell more albums. He felt pigeonholed and no longer wanted to be part of the music business. In 2015, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He claimed to have no regrets and provided the following reflection on his later life: 

“I’ve always been serious that way, trying to evolve to a more conscious state. Funny thing about that, though. You tweak yourself, looking for more love, less lust, more compassion, less jealousy. You keep tweaking, keep adjusting those knobs until you can no longer find the original settings. In some sense, the original settings are exactly what I’m looking for—a return to the easygoing guy I was before my world got complicated, the nice guy who took things as they came and laughed so hard the blues would blow away in the summer wind.” 1

That is essentially the job of a guru too. To help you find your original settings, your pristine self. While we are born with certain proclivities, we only start feeling inadequate when we are compared with others. It’s when we are growing up that our teachers, friends, siblings, parents, relatives, media, and everyone around us influence us. Sometimes they help us realize our strengths and at times they highlight our limitations. In many cases, all too common, we are pitted against others, even inadvertently. With each passing day, we start making adjustments to who we really are so the world may approve of us. This often comes at a heavy price: we lose our original settings completely. Our confidence, self-esteem, dreams, everything takes a hit. For the rest of our lives, we keep turning those knobs to find that joyous and blissful setting again.

That’s what a guru does too. He helps you find your original settings.

So can you walk the path without a guru? Of course, you can. In my answer to the gentleman who posed me this question, I gave an example. You see, to have a guru or not have one is not really in your hands. You will end up stumbling upon your mentor, guru, inspiration when you are ready. Why, how?

Light is irresistible to the one whose time has come to seek it. It’s a spiritual calling. When the moths see light, hordes of them rush to the flame. Not one or two, but large clusters of moths. Does it mean that the popularity of a guru is a validation of his awakening? Not quite. After all, flies too come in swarms over a pile of dung, right?

But, there’s a fundamental difference between moths and flies. A moth surrenders to the fire, burning itself in the process. A fly on the other hand, sits for a while on the dung, gets contaminated, and then flits away to defile every other surface it touches. In the end, it’s very simple. If following a guru has transformed you, if it has made you kinder (towards yourself and others), if it has given you peace and greater self-esteem, you are in the right hands. The reboot was successful.

This is where a teacher differs from a guru. A teacher gives you the methods to adjust those knobs so you may continue to be relevant in the world. A guru, on the other hand, helps you reset yourself so you may go back to your original settings. For, if you are at peace, being relevant becomes, well, less relevant.

Look back to a time when you were happy, confident, hopeful, and unblemished. Just meditate on those moments. What would it take to be your joyous self again? Reflect on it and make a commitment to treat yourself with greater love and care. No more tweaking the knobs.

Go on then, do a reset and find your original settings while you can.


P.S. I’ll be coming live on 11-13 Nov and then again on 25-27 Nov at 6:30 PM IST. Join me on os.me/live.

P.P.S. On 12-Nov at 6 AM IST, all those who applied for initiation between 1-Aug and 31-Oct will receive an email from me. Please check your spam or updates folder.



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