Find Your Avatar
A few years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving a public talk in New York’s Central Park and, like thousands of others, I woke before dawn and rushed to be there at 5 a.m. to get a good seat for the 10 a.m. event. What I found was a madhouse of competitive hostility. Everyone wanted to sit near the front and was doing whatever it took to get there and hold a place. But after an hour of listening to the Dalai Lama, this crowd changed. We were now the epitome of considerateness, picking up trash and going out of our way to be courteous.
There are countless such stories of elevation and transformation in the presence of spiritual gurus. I once heard an interview with a gentleman who was asked about his heavy involvement in serving the homeless community in Washington, D.C. He said that it all began when he was in charge of leading Mother Teresa to a stage for a talk she was delivering while on a visit to our capital. As he accompanied her up the stairs, the short and elderly lady smacked him in the chest with the back of her hand and demanded, “What are you doing?” That was enough to wake him out of a self-centered life to one filled with compassion and service.
In the same vein, many times I have turned to look at an audience in the presence of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Faces previously clouded with stress, sadness, or anger are transformed and are now beautiful, innocent, and youthful-looking once again.
These great international spiritual teachers are people who, by example, show us how to be. More than that, these are people who transform us through their very being: people we might call “avatars.” What do I mean by that?
In Sanskrit, the word avatar means the embodiment of a deity; traditionally, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who comes down to Earth. In the 1980s the word was picked up by the computer community to mean a computer user’s alter ego in cyberspace. And of course, James Cameron’s movie made “avatar” a household word, as we see a young wheelchair-bound soldier transformed through his avatar into a completely new being with carbon-fiber bones and the deep wisdom of an indigenous elder. My definition is a combination of these ideas. An avatar is a person who embodies the divine for us — and who draws us into being closer to the divine ourselves. Yet the great avatars see their role differently. As Sri Sri says, “With whomsoever we fall in love, we are really falling in love with ourselves.” Thus, the role of an avatar is to show us our own inner beauty.
On an individual level, an avatar can be your mother, your gardener, your spiritual teacher, or a holy figure that moves you. His or her thoughts and deeds continually inspire, uplift, and — most importantly — provide a home, a sense of rest, a sense of support and growth. In India, it is understood that devotion to a spiritual teacher is matched by the teacher’s complete commitment to the devotee’s individual growth. In other words, this is a relationship that should bring you closer to your own self.
But all this begs some questions: what are these avatars or teachers actually doing for us or to us? How does the process work? Whom do we choose? And, while spiritual teachers are seen as essential in many Eastern forms of spiritual practice, why does the idea of devotion, surrender, and the word “guru” provoke allergic reactions?
Avatars and the West
One explanation behind this allergic reaction is that many spiritual teachers have misused and abused their special role. Powerfully transformative places like the San Francisco Zen Center and Kripalu yoga center have suffered through scandals worthy of books (check out Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center and Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self). And of course, similar scandals in Western establishments, such as Catholic churches, are described all too frequently in the nation’s headlines. Where power and adulation is given, the possibility for abuse inevitably exists.
Another reason our society is guru-phobic is cultural. Psychologists who research cultural differences have highlighted a systematic divergence between Western and Eastern cultures. Western cultures like the United States prefer a more “do it yourself” approach to life, with a more horizontal societal structure, while Eastern cultures have a more interconnected understanding of their community, in which a vertical or hierarchical structure is the norm. In the East, there is a profound understanding that in the realm of spirituality, only a person who is awake can wake up the sleeping. In the West, few are willing to admit to being asleep.
Ironically, despite our sometimes vehement anti-devotional stance, our society celebrates countless “gurus.” We have housekeeping gurus like Martha Stewart, lifestyle gurus like Oprah Winfrey, real estate gurus like Donald Trump, music gurus like Madonna, and the list goes on. These celebrities receive love, adoration, and attention, not to mention immense power and wealth, which can allow them to seamlessly switch from being a Terminator in a blockbuster film to being a political leader as California state governor. There is a reason why People has the largest readership (43.6 million) of any magazine. We are a nation that is wholeheartedly devoted to its celebrities.
And we certainly understand the need for good guides in other realms of life. In order to reach a destination in any given field — whether it’s a Ph.D. in economics or a gold medal in the Olympics — we understand that specialized instructors are essential. In the West, however, the idea of a spiritual teacher still somehow leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. In fact, celebrities, professors, and self-help coaches seem to have replaced spiritual leaders in this country. We look to them for information on how to live the “good life,” and we thereby often get misled. The best-seller list is not a measure of spiritual attainment.
Why We Need Avatars
Right now, try a simple experiment. Call to mind someone who really pushes your buttons, a person who perhaps all too often crawls around inside your brain. Let that person crawl for a full minute. Go ahead and notice how you feel. Chances are, you’ll feel constricted and uncomfortable, as thoughts of that person connect to intricate webs of related worries. Now stop and shift your mind to someone you truly admire. Fully envision that person, and allow all of her or his related qualities and feelings to fill your mind. Chances are that you will begin to feel more expanded, relaxed, and happy.
Now consider how often you allow the button-pushers to dwell in your mind, rather than the ones you admire. Many people will spend more time on the former than the latter. Indeed, research suggests that our minds tend to focus on the negative. By putting our attention on people who bother us — and activating all the neural networks associated with negative people — we become more like them! However, placing our attention on an avatar keeps an entirely different set of neural networks open, and it helps us embody those qualities in ourselves.
The Presence of an Avatar
While calling an avatar to mind can be uplifting, being in the physical presence of an avatar can be transformational for other reasons that science is beginning to understand. One clue comes from the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the brain. In the early ’90s, scientists in Italy observed that, when a monkey witnessed a person raising an ice cream cone, neurons were activated in the monkey’s motor cortex, as if the monkey were actually lifting the cone. (See “Neurons of Compassion” on the Practice Page “Compassion” at SpiritualityHealth.com.) Human beings also have such mirror neurons, and this finding suggests that, whenever we witness someone engaging in an act, we internally mirror his action at a neuronal level in our brains. These neurons may be the reason that we feel, for example, an immediate gut feeling of empathy when we see someone in pain. Other research shows that, when we look at someone who is smiling, the “smiling muscles” in our face are activated. Still other studies suggest that, when we witness acts of moral virtue or beauty (e.g., when we see someone engaging in kind and compassionate actions, such as going out of her way to help another), we experience an “elevated” state of mind. By the same token, when we sit in the presence of an enlightened person — and fully open ourselves to being present — our mirror neuron may allow us to internally mirror that person and have a taste of that blissful state.
His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar explains this well in his commentary on a verse of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, vitaragavishayam va chittam: “When you put your attention or mind on the enlightened, your consciousness becomes more and more alive, more filled with light.” A teacher can be like an avatar of our ideal self. A teacher should not be regarded as a personality as much as a representative of our own potential.
A Place of Safety
Brain scans have found that M.D.s tend to be less emotionally responsive to watching a person being pricked by a needle than other people, which shows that we can train our mirror neurons to be less responsive. Certainly there are very pragmatic reasons for being able to wall off our feelings and reactions. The promise of the avatar, however, is a place of safety, where we can let down our walls and surrender. To whom or to what we surrender ourselves may be less important than the sense of surrender in itself. It is an opportunity to relax, let go of our self-centered limitations and fears, and to allow our consciousness to expand into a greater place of wisdom, love, and service. The Bible quotes Christ as saying, “It is your faith that healed you.” It is not necessarily the spiritual teacher but the beauty that flowers within the devotee’s heart and mind that has a potential to create a shift.
Using Intuition to Find Your Special Teacher
As a psychiatrist and medical intuitive, I teach patients to awaken their intuition in all areas of life. Intuition is nonlinear, non-analytic knowledge that can come through as gut feelings, knowings, images, sensing energy, and dreams. This invaluable intuitive information can help guide you in finding a spiritual teacher or healer who is right for you.
I’m convinced that everyone, including physicians, can benefit from a spiritual teacher, although such a notion would surely make many of my medical colleagues roll their eyes. Unfortunately, spiritual teachers don’t grow on trees. The relationship is one of those fated bondings, similar to finding a soul mate. You can search for years and come up with nothing. Then, one day, you are walking down the street, and he or she appears. Meeting my spiritual teacher through the recommendation of my then massage therapist, twenty years ago, was a blessing. It occurred when the time was right. Our practice comes from Daoism, which venerates the power of the heart, intuition, nature, and compassion. My spiritual teacher is the most important person in my life.
Although meeting the right spiritual teacher or healer has a fortuitous element, here are some tips for how intuition can help:
1. Sense the person’s energy.
When power is used discerningly, a person radiates an understated sense of authority and calm. We see before us someone who has no need to glorify himself and is profoundly simple. You can sense the compassion coming from him. It feels warm, inviting, nurturing, comforting. Authentic spiritual teachers and healers have developed a heartfelt sense of presence. Look for this as a factor in determining if this person is right for you.
2. Trust your gut feeling.
You need to feel comfortable with this person, deep in your gut. Sometimes a teacher or healer might look good, sound good, and get pubic applause, but if something in your gut says “stay away,” “danger,” or “I feel uncomfortable,” you must trust that. Intuition isn’t about taking a poll. It is about how you feel about a teacher or a healer in your gut, in your heart, in the deepest parts of yourself.
3. Tune into humility.
On an intuitive level, a teacher’s humility feels like a sweet balm, a sense of authority that doesn’t need to be flaunted. An authentic teacher or healer doesn’t grab your palm in the middle of the supermarket and insist on giving you a reading, nor does she blurt out unsolicited information. She is an ordinary person; the most remarkable thing about her is that she appears unremarkable. Her power is internalized, integrated, and balanced. She has no need to flaunt.
4. Look for a guide, not a controller.
Authentic spiritual teachers and healers want to guide you and help you access your own power. They do not want to control or manipulate you. So-called healers who are domineering, self-serving, and motivated by greed rather than compassion are dangerous. No matter how aware and knowledgeable we may be, when we are ill or distraught, with our defenses down, we are susceptible to being tricked. There is a temptation to go to any lengths to get well, even if it means participating in something in which we don’t really believe. But it is never worth it to betray our own instincts. Whenever we want the teacher to “do it for us,” rather than using him as a facilitator, we become internally weakened. Beware of teachers who are eager to impress, who encourage dependency, or charge large sums of money for their services. These are signs that they are not reputable. The best teachers and healers I have known are the most modest and humble, and they charge reasonable fees. They do not coerce by fear, and they have nothing to prove. The impeccability of a true healer’s practice lies in his or her skill at bringing your power out, not in taking it away.
— Judith Orloff, M.D.
Editor’s note: This piece is adapted from Dr. Orloff’s newly re-released book, Second Sight: An Intuitive Psychiatrist Tells Her Extraordinary Story and Shows You How to Tap Your Own Inner Wisdom (Three Rivers Press, 2010). The book is a great read and important contribution to the understanding of intuition. If you feel you have intuitive abilities or are just curious, pick up a copy.
Ten Pitfalls to Avoid on the Path
To choose a teacher or avatar is to choose a path. Indeed, seekers often become Buddhists or Sufis or Taoists or Methodists because they meet a special person and are called to her path. And as much as we may want to let go and surrender into the path, we should also step off occasionally and ask where it is taking us. Is our path creating the person we truly want to be?
Ten years ago, in her book The New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide (Random House, now titled The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure), Elizabeth Lesser came up with guidelines for evaluating one’s spiritual path, and it remains the best list we’ve seen. Lesser was a co-founder of Omega Institute, this country’s largest holistic education and spiritual retreat center, and she has had a front-row seat at a show starring modern philosophers, indigenous shamans, feminists, drummers, psychics, and religious leaders from around the world. Being on the inside of a cultural movement, she says, has made her both a cynic and a believer (which sounds like the healthy mix). Here again is her list of pitfalls of which we should beware as we co-create twenty-first-century spirituality:
NARCISSISM: There’s a thin line between narcissism and “following your bliss.” Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to plain old self-indulgence. Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness, even as you work to heal and love your self.
SUPERFICIALITY: Twenty-first-century spirituality is often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life’s complexity and pain. Spirituality must not be used to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any worldview that suggests that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn’t often complex, is offering superficial promises.
THE NEVER-ENDING SELF-IMPROVEMENT: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement — your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears — that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in an endless loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy. It just isn’t true that your self-empowerment and self-healing will necessarily lead to the health and happiness of others and of society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves.
INSTANT TRANSFORMATION: Just as the never-ending process of self-examination seduces some people, some are disappointed when they don’t achieve inner peace after reading a book or taking a daylong workshop. Spiritual awakening takes patience, hard work, and the grace of God.
DESIRE FOR MAGIC: Don’t throw common sense out the window in the search for God. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.
GRANDIOSITY: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.
ROMANTICIZING INDIGENOUS CULTURES: There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad, the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified,” writes Chogyam Trungpa.
THE INNER-CHILD TANTRUM: When praying, remember that “no” is also an answer. It is good and holy to know what you want, to respect your own needs, and to honestly ask for what you deserve. But it is also important to know how and when to humble yourself to the greater and wiser will of God.
RIPPING OFF THE TRADITIONS: Many modern seekers skim off the ritual trappings of a tradition but with little respect for the depth behind them. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honeybee.
THE GURU TRIP: Harry S Truman lamented, “Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying.” Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of twenty-first-century spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, New Age, modern, indigenous — none have escaped the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of include extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (whether gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers). With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name.