In New York City, spiritual guides are more popular than ever. Motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein draws as many as 4,000 followers a session. The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace on East 45th Street just concluded a series of transcendental-meditation workshops — inspired by Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — for inmates on Rikers Island. With the opening of its new Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University became the first Ivy League institution to offer would-be gurus teaching degrees in psychology with an emphasis on meditation, spirituality, and wellness. In October, the Park Hyatt will partner with East Village meditation destination MNDFL to host private one-on-one pondering powwows based on a worldwide range of guru thought (Hindu, Jewish, Japanese, Tibetan). This is the Age of Enlightenment à la Carte.
In many ways, “guru” has become the four-letter word of Spiritual Truthiness. Many self-appointed gurus have been exposed as frauds, charlatans, and sexually abusive predators. Perhaps this is why Joe Berlinger’s Netflix documentary on self-help pioneer Tony Robbins is called Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. (Nor is Robbins the kind of guy you’d want to walk over hot coals for. Last June, dozens of followers were treated for minor burns after he asked them to “fire walk” at a Texas seminar.)
Harvard psychology lecturer and Rethinking Narcissism author Dr. Craig Malkin says gurus like Robbins and hot-yoga guru/convicted sexual harasser Bikram Choudhury are prone to pathological narcissism. Malkin says: “Anybody who feels special enough to lead a group of people to enlightenment has got to have a pretty strong drive to feel special. And that’s the core of narcissism.” So, what to make of today’s gurus? Are there really any selfless teachers of self-realization?
As Ted Cruz would attest, New York has the densest concentration of narcissists in the free world. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the city has housed gurus for many years, from Sri Chinmoy (“You will see the universe to be the picture of your own being”) to Yogi Berra (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”). The Yankees’ Yogi also said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.” With that in mind, I set out to find my own personal guru.
My search started 25 stories above the lobby of the Park Hyatt on West 57th Street. At a sneak peek of the hotel’s private guided meditations, I sat cross-legged on a purple velvet cushion, parroting the posture of the class’s guru, Lodro Rinzler.
Technically, Rinzler is not a guru. His official title is “chief spiritual officer.” The author of a beginner’s Buddhism book called The Buddha Walks Into a Bar, he tells me the word guru is commonly confused with instructor, its literal Sanskrit translation. Traditionally, a guru has a Vedic or Buddhist lineage — meaning the guru has to have had a guru who had a guru — going back ad infinitum to the original gurus. The “lineage holder” initiates you into a “secret” practice. “If you are doing a basic meditation,” he says, “you offer your guru the Hindu prayer ritual pūjā. In return, your guru eventually bestows your spiritual mantra.”
Today’s questing Gothamites, he says, hunger for a “spiritual friend or kalyanamitra” — a more casual spiritual journey guide who can “recommend retreats and discuss how to integrate meditation into your life.” Most of his clients at MNDFL seek relatable advice from peer to peer. In other words, millennials want their gurus to function as really wise buddies.
As my Wise Bud, Rinzler walked me through a basic Buddhist meditation. I closed my eyes and was instructed to concentrate on my breathing for 30 minutes. He occasionally reminded me to keep focusing on inhaling and exhaling and to try not to let my mind wander. I kept breathing and shutting down random thoughts. After a while I forgot I was in a hotel spa. And I felt calmer. Enlightenment’s Great Ironies suddenly dawned on me: The less you actually think, the closer to the truth you get.
Ever-conscious of the consciousness game, I hit up a guru with a social-media following of over a quarter-million people. Oprah Winfrey has called Gabrielle Bernstein a “new breed of spiritual thought leader.” A student of Deepak Chopra and self-help queen Marianne Williamson, Bernstein is a favorite of young women, particularly those with career and relationship problems.
In 2009, at age 29, she was crowned a “guru” by the New York Times. But it’s a title she shies away from. “The word is loaded,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily be a self-proclaimed guru,” she says. “But I am a self-proclaimed teacher. In some ways, it goes hand-in-hand.” Bernstein teaches through yoga, Kundalini meditation, workshops, and speaking gigs. She’s written five books, with twee titles like The Universe Has Your Back, Adding More ~Ing to Your Life, and Spirit Junkie. There’s also a Spirit Junkie app and six meditation audio albums, one of which — Medidating Meditations for Fearless Romance — promises to help you “release your romantic delusions and start MediDating today!”
Bernstein thinks New Yorkers seek out her workshops and digital online training because she makes the metaphysical as simple and “digestible” as an Ippudo ramen noodle. A recovering addict, she uses her own experiences to make principles “relatable.” As Bernstein puts it, “I say, ‘Hey, this is what happened for me when I did this. It’s hard to say I’m a fraud when I’m only telling you my own story.” This method of guru-logy is similar to the traditions of 12-step programs — attraction rather than promotion.
To better understand the incredible lightness of being a guru, I reach out to the otherworldly filmmaker David Lynch, who in 2005 launched an eponymous midtown-based nonprofit for Transcendental Meditation. Lynch attributes much of his creative success to T.M., which he’s practiced for more than 40 years.
Googling “David Lynch guru” yields nearly 500,000 results, yet that does not David Lynch a guru make. “I am not a guru and I don’t consider myself a guru,” he emails from the California set of his Twin Peaks TV reboot. But Lynch did study under a guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom he calls the greatest of them all. Known as the “Giggling Guru” or “His Holiness,” the Maharishi introduced the world to Transcendental Meditation in the late 1950s, and the Beatles and Beach Boys less than a decade later.
A real guru leads you to “supreme enlightenment,” says Lynch. He quotes an old Hindu saying: “The guru is greater than God because the guru takes you to God.” He adds: “Otherwise, you’ll just stay lost.”
I feel like a Guru Gone Girl. To misquote an old Biggie Smalls saying: “If you don’t know, how do you know nothing?” Or as that guru of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, once put it: “We are nothing and in action become conscious of that original nothingness.”
So what have I learned on my path from Awakening to Enlightenment? Well, that a guru is a guide for life. And you want one who frees your mind, not controls it. And, I guess, that a genuine “guru” will lead you to spiritual divinity.
I’m too much like my millennial peers to find myself a bona fide sage. I prefer Spirit Junkie apps to deep reflection. I’m skeptical of surrendering to anybody, much less to the Void. Perhaps my smart-ass ambivalence toward authority is part of a larger cultural shift — a smart-ass ambivalence toward everything. If only I could focus long enough to really appreciate the words of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru from the 15th century: “Through shallow intellect, the mind becomes shallow, and one eats the fly, along with the sweets.”