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March 30, 2023

Is Guru a 4-Letter Word?

The can of worms is open. Opening up the question on my last blog of “How To Find a Spiritual Teacher,” or whether we need a teacher at all, tends to incite even the most dormant of creatures. We have strong reactions, powerful opinions and oftentimes righteous convictions regarding this topic, as was seen from the many and varied, but never lukewarm responses to my last post. In fact, when I toured an early version of my book in 2002, there were two uprisings in bookstores where I spoke — one in Manhattan and the other in Barcelona. In both cases, the movement was to incite the crowd to see that spiritual authority comes from within! I have absolutely no problem with this approach, nor with those who deeply feel the need for a teacher, or those who are confused, but why so much energy?

Is Guru a 4-Letter Word?

I have spent time with gurus who are living proof that “guru” can be a four-letter word. Nobody has asked me to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, but I have been offered plenty of other substances. And most of the other crimes of power and passion one hears about in relation to purported gurus have been perpetrated upon me and people I know. After 17 years of experience on four continents and 10 years of research in the field, I am both personally and professionally all too familiar with the kinds of shocking abuses of power that have been committed in the name of spirituality. Yet I cannot denounce spiritual teachers in general, any more than I can denounce all men simply because I have had some less than desirable lovers.

I have learned that when one writes or speaks publicly on this topic, four potential positions can be expected: 1) The strong assertion that the guru and the source of all spiritual authority comes from within, and that people who seek from without are essentially deluded. This group speaks the loudest and the strongest, usually with a slight edge of disdain towards those who have or want teachers; 2) The people who have a particular guru and not only think that the Guru Road is the only destination in town, but more specifically that their guru’s home is the center of the universe. They want the world to join their guru’s mission because they sincerely believe that the world would be a better place if this was so; 3) One step down from this are those who believe that we need a teacher, but that it need not be their teacher. This group is less likely to proselytize their perspective; 4) Those who are either questioning whether they need a teacher, or are looking for a teacher but cannot locate one — this group is humble, open, curious.

Not Always So

If there is anything I have learned over 20 years of study, practice and research on the spiritual path, it is the truth of the teaching propagated by Zen master Shunru Suzuki of “not always so.” There is not one clear-cut road of beliefs and practices to suit all human beings. There are well-trodden paths and religions that have proven to be helpful to many people in indescribable and irreplaceable ways. Yet whether we practice in one of these traditions or find our unique path through the labyrinth of life, we each walk the path differently, in a way that only the inimitability of each of our beings can do — our “unique self.”

I now understand that there are as many unique paths to spiritual unfolding as there are human beings. I remember when Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, my Sufi “uncle,” and Huff Po blogger, told me this. I was a die hard seeker in my twenties. Although in theory it made sense, inside I secretly believed, “But my path is the best path, or at least one of the very best, and there is a best way to follow my path.” Now, almost two decades later, it is clear to me that each human being follows a unique trajectory in relationship to spirit, truth or God.

The Need for Discernment on the Spiritual Path

Spiritual discernment, called viveka khyātir in Sanskrit, is said to be the “crowning wisdom” on the spiritual path.

The Yoga SÅ«tras of Patañjali say that the cultivation of discernment is so powerful that it has the capacity to destroy ignorance and address the very source of suffering. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, to discern is “to recognize or identify as separate and distinct.” Discrimination, its synonym, “stresses the power to distinguish and select what is true or appropriate or excellent.” Those who possess spiritual discernment have learned this skill in relationship to spiritual matters, and they can consistently make intelligent, balanced and excellent choices in their lives and in relationship to their spiritual development. Their eyes are wide open and they see clearly.

Viveka khyātir is believed to be such a powerful tool that it has the capacity to pierce all levels of the physical, psychological, energetic and subtle bodies of the human being. In “Light on the Yoga SÅ«tras of Patanjali,” B. K. S. Iyengar explains that through this unbroken flow of discriminating awareness, the spiritual practitioner “conquers his body, controls his energy, retrains the movements of the mind, and develops sound judgment, from which he acts rightly and becomes luminous. From this luminosity he develops total awareness of the very core of his being, achieves supreme knowledge and surrenders his self to the Supreme Soul.”

I believe that more potent than any of our current spiritual convictions — which if we observe closely and honestly within ourselves over many years, we discover, do in fact change no matter how certain we were of what we believed — is the capacity for discernment. The degree to which our discernment is refined is the extent to which we can move through the complexities of the spiritual marketplace and the deepening of spiritual life with effectiveness and wisdom. We make radiant choices that serve others in smaller and larger ways, and become part of the evolutionary and healing force in life, instead of what George Bernard Shaw calls, “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy.”

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?

Is there a point in one’s spiritual journey when reading books or hearing lectures isn’t enough and the student hungers for a teacher, in the flesh, to learn from directly? In a culture where a distrust of authority is considered a healthy trait, Americans tend to be justifiably suspicious of gurus and spiritual leaders. How do you find a teacher worthy of trust and devotion, or should you?

The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher (Sounds True, June 2011) is a new book by Mariana Caplan that offers advice on what to look for—and what to avoid—when seeking a dedicated spiritual teacher. The book includes a foreword by Robert Thurman.

Drawing upon her knowledge as both a scholar of mysticism and lifelong practitioner of spiritual traditions, Caplan delivers a candid, practical, and daringly personal examination of the student-teacher dynamic, featuring:

  • Are you ready to be a student? If and when you should consider making a commitment to a spiritual teacher
  • The path of the conscious learner—how to retain your power and autonomy while accepting a mentor’s authority
  • Spiritual scandals and predatory gurus—tips for avoiding the inherent pitfalls in the student-teacher relationship
  • The true source of power—how to recognize the inner light of divinity as it manifests in the imperfect human guise of your teacher and yourself

With The Guru Question, Mariana Caplan helps readers develop the discernment that is crucial when seeking a teacher—and reveals the immeasurable rewards that can come from having a trustworthy guide on the spiritual path.

Mariana Caplan, PhD, has spent over two decades researching and practicing many of the world’s great mystical traditions. She is a psychotherapist, a professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the Co-Founder of The Center for World Spirituality. The author of seven books on cutting-edge topics in spirituality and psychology, including Eyes Wide Open (Sounds True, 2009), Mariana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit and

What People Are Saying About The Guru Question

“The Guru Question is a very important, perhaps definitive, examination of this fundamental question, open to professional and layperson alike. The book manages to cover virtually every aspect of this incredibly important and timely topic, and does so in an elegant, comprehensive, and succinct fashion. I think it amounts to something like the final word on the topic (or very close to it). Highly recommended for anybody on a spiritual path or considering one!”
— Ken Wilber, author of Integral Spirituality

“Mariana Caplan has written a powerful and important book about the guru-disciple relationship. What I love about The Guru Question is how Mariana balances her recognition of the depth and sacredness of the relationship between a true teacher and a true disciple, with her recognition of the pitfalls that can arise when we seek from another human being the redemption that can only come from within. Writing from her direct experience with her own teachers, and drawing on the experience of others, she illuminates the mystery of the guru in a way that should be of benefit to many, many readers.”
— Sally Kempton, author of Meditation for the Love of It

“The best disciple is one who is prepared. Mariana Caplan astutely and sensitively explains what this means. I strongly recommend The Guru Question.”
— Georg Feuerstein, PhD, author of The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra

“[Mariana Caplan] unapologetically tackles the most difficult, controversial, nitty-gritty issues without hedging, flinching, or smoothing over the rough edges.”
— John Welwood, author of Toward a Psychology of Awakening

“Mariana Caplan’s book answers this question better than any book I’ve read. If you are curious about the subtle gifts and traps of the student-teacher relationship . . . then read this book.”
— David Deida, author of The Way of the Superior Man

Purchase today!


About Mariana Caplan

Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the author of seven books in the fields of psychology and spirituality, including, The Guru Question: The Perils and Awards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher (Sounds True, 2011), Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path (Sounds True, 2010), which won five national awards for best spiritual book of 2010, and the seminal Halfway Up the Mountain: the Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment.


  1. grannymaui says:

    the truth is found within the quiet consciousness of every human being, a guru may lead you there, but its not necessary, when your ready, you find the secret to life inside yourself. It is not found in the intellectual mind, but only when your quiet and go inside to the Spiritual Reality. We are way past the need for gurus now, as so many are waking up to the truth we are all truly one consciousness and Thought bars our entrance to the spiritual reality that exists along with the physical reality.

  2. Thanks for your post Mariana. I really appreciate your emphasis on discernment, and agree that the depth and intricacy of our unique, deep time trajectories makes room for the truth of the irreducible uniqueness of our spiritual path. This paves the way for true autonomy that is so desperately needed in the dark jungles of questionable spiritual teachers. That said, there is also a reservoir of truths that we share, and reading the Yogasutras closely over the years, in Sanskrit, definitely reveals that in the perspective of that text tradition the universal nature of much of our own limiting experience of mind, as well as the refinement and cultivation necessary for the emergence of luminous vivekakhyāti. That discernment itself, seen from this phenomenological perspective, could be profitably seen as less unique and more universal.

  3. Which was nice. I was hoping to obtain some solid information about the make a difference. I look ahead to a lot much more from you. Thanks again:-)

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