Well here I am, slogging across a muddy field taking Lola for her morning walk. It’s January, and really quite effing cold. Not the inspirational, sharp-edged kind of cold that zings you up and makes everything clearer. No – it’s a sapping, neurasthenically damp kind of cold, the kind of cold that makes you pull your hat down hard over your eyes and make you wish you were back in bed.
Lola runs on. I push my hat back up to watch her go.
But I’m not thinking about how dogs live completely in the moment and that Lola is probably as happy in January as she is in June. What I’m thinking is: I could really do with a Guru.
You can’t blame me. As M. Scott Peck so memorably put it: ‘Life is difficult.’ (The Road Less Traveled, 1978). Filled with frustrations, confusions, complications, prevarications. And I don’t know, but maybe he should have added: ‘Especially in January’.
Because if December is the big-footed, boozy-eyed, cake-bellied, Sanctified Santa of all the long year’s graft, January is the hollow-cheeked wraith rising from the cold ashes in the grate to stare at you as you lie so pathetically on the sofa making yet another list: What I Need To Do With My Life – And This Time It’s Serious. (Underlined three times, drawing of a little skull, in a flowery hat, smoking a cigarette… see how easily you’re distracted…?)
It’s such a typical thing this time of year it’s worse than a joke, along with the increase in divorce applications and Gym membership. Google could probably quantify it nicely; a cheery animation illustrating the increased volume in search criteria: ‘courses to learn Spanish’ or ‘choir local to (insert postcode)’ or ‘questionnaire to help you find the right job’ or ‘questionnaire to help you find the right questionnaire’. Which is to say: I’m like a lot of people this time of year, feeling the urge to make a change but not actually getting on and doing much that’s practically useful about it.
Which is where the Guru comes in. Stepping lightly through the door surrounded by an intense white light & hummingbirds. Laughing generously with expensive teeth. Wiping their sunglasses on a filthy T-shirt that bulges dangerously but you can still make out the slogan: Stop Me and Ask the Secret. A Bentley idling round the corner.
Despite all my misgivings, still it’d be such a relief to just surrender everything to them, all the existential angst. Especially if it WAS everything – work life, social life, spiritual life, (sexual life, probably, almost inevitably, depending on the guru). A one-stop drop for all your disaffection needs! Meet new friends! Stick to that diet! Discover Your Purpose! Realise your Potential! Everything with a smile and an exclamation point! All you need is the will to believe (and a current account).
Because, let’s face it: Gurus are a fascinating and powerful phenomenon. Have been for centuries. And that’s not surprising, given the commonality of human experience. People have felt this ache for years. And if they didn’t ease it with drugs, alcohol or cave paintings (or the modern equivalent – Netflix), your Guru is your next best thing.
Gurus aren’t necessarily bad, of course. But they often feature in the same context as ‘cult’, which definitely IS a bad thing. The trick is to spot the honest, genuinely enlightened guru from the destructive, predatory, poisonous kind. Joe Navarro, who worked in the FBI for 25 years lays it all out in a 50-point checklist to help identify the pathological cult leader (Dangerous Traits of Cult Leaders, Psychologytoday.com 25/08/12). Number one is someone who:
‘…has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.’
and number fifty, someone who has:
‘… isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.’
The other forty-eight points read like the kind of basic primer they might hand out to novice devils in Hell. A set of laminated fob cards you can hang off your fork.
Steven Hassan brilliantly explores the subject of destructive cults in his book Combatting Cult Mind Control. (Park Street Press, 1988). Early on in the book he describes his experiences in the Moonies. He says when they were ‘fishing’ for new recruits they tended to categorize them into 4 groups: Thinkers, Feelers, Doers or Believers, and would finesse their approach
“…we saw believers as people searching for God, or looking for spiritual meaning in their lives. They typically would tell us about their spiritual experiences – dreams, visions, revelations. For the most part, these people were ‘wide open’, and really recruited themselves….. With them it was simply a matter of sharing our ‘testimonies’ with them to convince them they had been led to us by God.” (p.42)
Me, basically. But what happened when they came up against a ‘Thinker?’ (which could also be me, depending if I’m at work or not).
I imagine it might go like this:
THINKER: Ooooh no! No, No, No. They’d never get me. What – that bunch of crusty, flute-playing bastards? With their crooked teeth and cheap extensions? Me and my education? I’ve got a background in corporate finance! I’ve won awards! C’mon! I can hear the crunch of their granola a mile away. I mean – just look at these clowns! Jumping up & down, clapping like the meds finally kicked in. Good grief! Well look. I feel sorry for them, I really do, but they deserve all they get. They’re just GULLIBLE. And when it comes down to it, my friend, I’m afraid the weak are just there to feed the strong. It’s nature’s way of netting the weed out the gene pool. Just try putting it over ME. They wouldn’t come close. Wouldn’t even TRY. They know whose ripe and who’s not. Five seconds, a handshake and they’re on to the lower fruit. It’s how you carry yourself. The look in your eye. That unshakeable confidence in what you HAVE. No, sir. I’m not your average mark. Even though my name IS actually Mark. Scrub that. We’ll edit that later.
GURU: Hey. Yeah. Okay – Mark? Anyone can see you’re a five-sided Son of a Governor. An independent free-thinker who looks at the facts, weighs them up, tosses them in the trash or pops ‘em in their pocket for later. And I respect that. But – you know as well as I do the world is full of people who’ll tell you one thing and do another. They’ll deal out half-truths mixed in with damned lies, and then ice the whole damn shit cake with a layer of FAKE NEWS FROSTING. They’ll distract you, try to bully you (good luck with THAT, am I RIGHT?), then flatter you into making some rookie error! The world is full of Snake oil salesmen, as you know, Mark. Journos and Democrats, basically. You know it. I know it. We all know it! But c’mon! If you’re REALLY as strong as you say you are, you’ll be able to look this pamphlet over and know in a heartbeat if you think it’s of any value or not. Am I right? Yeah? C’mon! I LIKE you, Mark. You and your superman dimple. Let’s sit down and chat some more. And just for the record, what size robe d’ya flavour…?
Because of course, more often than not, that rigid stance of invulnerability says more about a need to see the world as a rational place, something predictable, that can readily be controlled. And as Steven Hassan points out, it’s a stance that makes them as vulnerable to exploitation as the Believer. Whilst he says that most of the people they recruited were more from the Doers and Feelers than the Believers – the Thinkers…? Well, apparently they: “…eventually became leaders within the organization.”
Can’t blame them.