"Be Your Own Guru" by Douglas Rushkoff (Arthur No. 17/July 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July 2005)

Be Your Own Guru
by Douglas Rushkoff

My good friend Jody Radzik—the guy who first introduced me to raves, actually—started up a blog this year. Jody is about the most loving and optimistic person I’ve ever known. That’s why I was surprised that instead of touting a new spiritual or cultural phenomenon, Radzik had decided to bash one.

Guruphiliac.com is dedicated to exposing the profoundly manipulative legions of grifters preying on the spiritually hopeful, as well as those teachers who simply go around letting people think they’re God, one guru at a time. It’s is an entertaining website, to be sure (for those of us who enjoy watching false messiahs unmasked) but it’s also important ongoing work. And the more I think about it, the more guru-bashing is starting to look like a form of optimism, in itself.

We all have gurus of some sort, whether we realize it or not. Even just for brief moments during the day. Haven’t you felt yourself regress to a childlike state, say, when talking to the auto mechanic about your car, the doctor about your test results, or your bartender about which Scotch to drink? In those moments—for an instant—the person becomes something of trusted authority in whose hands you trustingly place yourself. He will take care of me; he has my best interests at heart.

And in most cases, there’s of no great negative consequence to relinquish that authority. It’s just a drink, after all. And while we may want to self-educate a bit before undergoing surgery, we don’t need to learn how to remove an appendix in order to have one taken out. Unless we’re chronically ill, the doctor doesn’t remain our guru.

Even in situations where we’re learning to do something—say, hang-gliding or building a campfire—it can be helpful to surrender authority to the teacher. Certainly in their area of expertise, and for the duration of the lesson, the teacher is the master.

Where it gets tricky is when we assume that our protector’s expertise in one area makes him or her, somehow, better than us in all in all things. The Outward Bound leader knows how to build a fire and eat nettles—so in the context of the wilderness, he’s certainly got a leg up on you. But does this mean the little life lessons and platitudes he drops on you during difficult moments on the trail are universally valid teachings? They sure seem so in the moment, and they may occasionally be applicable to some other situation. But they’re just the musings of some guy.

Yes, it’s terrific to be able to surrender to the unassailable mastery of your cello teacher. She has stories to tell, techniques to share, and a holistic understanding of her instrument and music that you’d be well to emulate. And focusing on her brilliance, holding her phrases in your head like a mantra while you’re running your scales can make those interminable hours of practice more bearable and even productive.

But nowhere does there exist a genuine Bagger Vance or Horse Whisperer. There are no shrinks like Judd Nelson in Ordinary People or Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Sure, there are great golf pros, horse trainers, and therapists. But they’re just people. The successful therapeutic ending is not surrendering to the loving embrace of a psychologist, however much we may feel the need for a parental substitute or emotional surrender. In the trade, they call this transference, and at best it’s a means, not an ends.

It’s also a terrific technique for engendering loyalty. Back in the ’90s, I did some studies on coercive tactics. From the CIA Interrogation Manual to one of Toyota’s sales handbooks, I found the same basic strategy: confuse or disorient the subject until they regress to a childlike state, then step in as a parent figure and offer relief by accepting a confession or sale.

The guru operates the same way. At the end of the post-modern era, those brave souls courageous enough to see through the religions they may have grown up with emerge frightened and confused. An ex-orthodox Jew or a “recovering” Catholic is also a disoriented, vulnerable person. Although the latest cool bumper sticker says “Eastern religions suck, too,” it’s hard to go through the world suddenly without a ready system and someone to administer it. So, like people who end up in the same bad relationship time after time only with partners with different color hair, people who liberate too quickly or angrily from one system often end up adopting the next one that comes along.

The path of devotion offered by gurus is also a natural fit for those of us who are fed up with the relativistic haze of a world where there are no discernible rules, yet equally disillusioned by institutional religions that appear to have sold out to American consumerism. The guru offers absolutism. Certainty. A point of focus.

As one slick guru, chronicled on Guruphiliac explains on his website: “When you meet a master, you have two choices. Transform or walk away. You cannot be in his presence and remain the same.” Uh, yeah. In other words, conform to his reality or scram.

The guru is the starting place from which all other decisions are to be made. You start with the guru as the one perfect point in the universe, and from there everything else can fall into place. If the guru has instructed you to eat a certain food or do a certain practice, then—according to the logic of gurudom—everything else you have to do for this to happen is part of the perfection. Slowly but surely, surrender to the guru requires you to reject pretty much everything that doesn’t fit whatever model of the world he’s offering you.

But, honestly, that’s what the devotee was after in the first place. An excuse to do or not do all that other confusing stuff in life like encounter people with different ideas, wrestle with the questions of existence, and accept that nobody really knows what happens when we die.

Most of us who have had gurus eventually see something awful—like sexual exploitation, financial abuse, or faked magic—that turns us off. (If we see the guru as perfect, then those blowjobs and false claims get justified: perhaps the guru is testing us, or breaking our hang-ups, At least for a while.) Or we decide that this guy is just too much of an asshole to really be enlightened. Or we simply tire of the idea that “enlightenment” is around the corner, and decide that life is just fine without enlightenment. And getting to that point is a beautiful thing in itself. If an experience with a guru really teaches one the futility of aspirational spiritual quests, then it can even be worth the time, money, and humiliation.

The biggest spiritual victim in the equation is the guru, himself. He’s just a person, after all, who probably had a profound spiritual or psychedelic experience and began to speak or write about it romantically. Charismatically. And this invites admirers and would-be devotees. The guru-in-waiting may not even mean to attract this sort of attention – at least not at the beginning. It’s just the kind of positive reinforcement that naturally comes to a person who speaks passionately about something. I’ve felt shades of it myself, especially when I’m doing a book tour or a lecture about a transcendental topic. Wide-eyed audiences, especially those in areas where don’t get many weird authors, gobble up every word. College students want to hang out late into the night, talking over drinks (or better) about alternate realities, magick sigils or the nature of time. How hard it is not to speak about magick in a magickal way?

And it feels good to give people answers—something to chew on for a while, even if, like a Zen koan, it eventually turns out to be little more than a puzzle to keep them occupied and less afraid of death or existence for a while. To accept this path of the guru, though, however tempting, is certain doom for the artist, writer, or philosopher. It turns his existence from a question into an answer, from flux to certainty—from a life into a death.

Most of the generation of weird sages above my peers and me has died. So now we’re the ones invited to run workshops at places like Esalen and Omega, to speak to groups of young spiritual people or counterculturalists, and to share our insights on the occult, psychic realms, and religious practices.

Lucky for me, I’ve been on the receiving end of the guru dynamic, so I know how and why to avoid doing it, myself. Avoidance usually entails deconstructing an event before it begins, decrying the self-help bias of America’s spiritual community, and then teaching in the most straightforward manner possible, even at the expense of mystery. (I’m married with a daughter, now, so the temptation to succumb to the consequence-free fringe benefits of retreat weekends has diminished, anyway.)

But as I look around me, I see other members of my generation claiming to see the weirdest things, to be enlightened, or to be able to offer access to energies from alternate realms. And it makes me sad and just a bit angry. The insights, such as they are, get lost in fiction. Even if a few of us do happen to be carrying some fragment of real wisdom, the object of the game is to get out the way so the wisdom can be shared. I mean, if I really thought I was channeling something or someone, I’d do it over the radio, anonymously.

The answer, of course, is for all of us to get over our need for gurus. Remove the demand and the supply should dwindle, too. I mean, most of us have already endured one set of parents. Why go through that again? The stuff they didn’t do right simply cannot be corrected. Mourn what you missed and move on. (Meanwhile, if it’s magic you’re after, go to Vegas and see a show. No one can teach you how to walk on water or be in two places at once. And if you do get awakened someday, whatever that means, you’ll realize this very need to talk to God or see the light is what’s been getting in the way of your clarity the whole time. Besides, is it really magical abilities and transcendent experiences you’re after, or merely escape from the pain of everyday experience?)

The truth about the great spiritual quest of our species is that it just can’t work with followers and leaders. There’s way too much duality built-in to such a scheme. Hierarchies are fun, but they’re a construction. I’ve been around the spiritual block more times than I care to mention, and have read the work of the very best teachers and philosophers I can get a hold of. And as I’ve come to see it, there is no such thing as awakening. It’s a ruse. Think about it: the whole concept of reaching enlightenment is so steeped in dualism, expectation, and obsession with self. The word “enlightenment” may sell books and earn devotees, but it doesn’t refer to anything real. It doesn’t exist. The true spiritual path may just be a matter getting over that fact, and in the process, learning to express and enact as much compassion as you can. That’s why I see guruphiliac.com as an optimistic effort; it assumes we’re ready to let all this go.

If you’ve got to start with some perfect point in the universe, start with yourself. There’s no path to take, no one else to follow. And you don’t need anyone to tell you this for it to be true. All the places you might get to are equally valid, because everyone is just as lost as you are. The sooner we all admit this, the sooner we can begin to orient to one another as siblings and partners in the great adventure.

POT.STOPS.TIME: Douglas Rushkoff discusses cannabis

Author and longtime Arthur columnist Douglas Rushkoff has contributed a chapter to THE POT BOOK: A Complete Guide to Cannabis, an essential new compendium of sensible thinking about marijiuana edited by Julie Holland, M.D. and available now from the good people at Inner Traditions. Other contributors include Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil, M.D., and Rick Doblin, Ph.D.

From Rushkoff’s chapter:

Like a girlfriend or boyfriend who sees the “real” you, marijuana desperately wants you to shed the artifacts of the Western European colonialists among whom you live, and just stop where you are. Every action has a reaction. Assess the impact. What happens when you throw that plastic bottle in the trash? Where and under what conditions was this videogame cartridge assembled? Which side of what equations am I on?

After a few hundred conversations on precisely this subject with pot users and ex-users alike, I’ve come to a conclusion about the mechanism behind pot’s ability to raise and question conscience—particularly in older, more experienced users. To put it most simply, pot stops time. Or at least it creates the illusion that time has ceased to move forward. When you are stoned, you are no longer in motion. Even if you are moving, you are no longer moving toward something—but simply moving.

The lean-forward of your directed, intentional life ceases. You are still doing what you are doing, but the goal no longer exists. The simplest effect of this time-stoppage is to bring focus to the task at hand. There is no goal; there is only process. The stoned farmer isn’t growing pumpkins; he is planting a seed—or, better, clearing dirt with his finger, placing the seed in the impression left behind, and covering it with fresh soil. Then doing it again, with Zenlike attention to detail, texture, and grace. The act in this moment is all there is.
Likewise, however, once time is removed from the equation, goals can no longer be used to rationalize your tactics. Without ends, no “means” can be justified. They must be judged on their own merit. So what are you doing?

Download the whole chapter here: “Cannabis: Stealth Goddess” by Douglas Rushkoff (RTF)

Book website here: thepotbook.com

Buy the book here: Inner Traditions

Rushkoff’s latest book is the just-published Programmed or Be Programmed, available only from O/R Books.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF and GENESIS P-ORRIDGE conversation (2003)

As originally published in Arthur No. 2 (Jan 2003), with accompanying photography by Shawn Mortensen…

‘The whole planet is the museum!’
Author-theorist Douglas Rushkoff takes tea and talks shop with veteran mindboggler/conceptualist/artist/visionary Genesis P-Orridge, best known for his work as co-founder of seminal industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle and leader of neo-primitive-shamanic ravists Psychic TV

I met Genesis in the early ’90s in the Bay Area. He needed a lift to Timothy Leary’s house in Beverly Hills, and I needed an interview for a book I was writing about viral media. We spent about six hours in the car together, trying to impress one another with our strangest thoughts while Gen’s two daughters fought in the back seat.

We’ve been friends ever since.

I guess it’s about ten years later, now. I’ve gotten married, become an author and university professor, while Gen has been kicked out of the UK forever, gotten divorced and married again, replaced his teeth with gold ones, and done some other stuff to his body that I’d be scared to. Still, in spite of our outward differences, we’re on the same path, and often use one another for guidance along the way.

See, if you’re going to be an artist or writer or magician, you’ve got to navigate through some treacherous zones. If you’re not traversing new territory (or at least forgotten territory) then why write instead of just reading? And many of these regions and be culturally, intellectually, physically, and psychically challenging. Disorientation can’t be avoided—it is the rule. Panic is the thing you have to watch out for.

So, Gen and I have these long talks every month or so. Sometimes they’re data dumps, and sometimes they’re progress reports. This one is probably a little more the latter, coming as it does on the release of Gen’s new book, Painful but Fabulous: The Lives & Art of Genesis P-Orridge (Soft Skull Shortwave). —Douglas Rushkoff

Dougas Rushkoff (DR): Your new book has served for me as an occasion to look back on the history of cut-and-paste, as well as its tremendous influence on art and culture every since. Cut-and-paste can even be understood as a first, rebellious step towards the attainment of genuine co-authorship. From a broad, historical perspective, it seems to me that we move through three stages. We begin by passively absorbing the information that’s fed to us—the datastream. Then, maybe with the Protestant Reformation and the printing press, we gained the ability to interpret this information for ourselves, to some extent. Then, with cut and paste, we achieve the ability to take what’s been presented to us and move it around a little bit. We can create new meanings through transpositions of what’s there, but that’s limited, in a sense, to a kind of satire or self-conscious juxtaposition. And now, finally, with computing and the internet, with the ability to actually author what for lack of a better word would be ‘original’ material, now we move into artistry. But a truly interesting moment was that first cut-and-paste moment, that first moment of, “Okay this is being fed to us, BUT we can do this with it, or to it, and get something else.” I’d be interested in hearing from you what was it like to be part of that moment.

Genesis P-Orridge (G P-O): Well… The preamble would be this: in the early ‘60s, somewhat parallel to my becoming aware of the beatniks, I started to discover Dada and Surrealism. The first time I’d heard of cut n paste, I think was Brion Gysin giving Raoul Hausman and one or two of the Dadaists the credit as one of his inspirations. He said they would cut up words from one of their poems, putting them in a hat, and then they’d draw words out of the hat, and make a new poem. What had happened was that more emotionally based artists, the ones who were actually involved in feeling human as well as just glorifying creativity, had become very disconnected from the concept of linearity, the concept of Reason, all the material concepts of the world. They had just experienced the first world war, which had led to this Armageddon, this hell on earth, and this was their reaction against what they saw as that war’s cause: the misplaced celebration of Reason, the control over information and culture in society, the harmful repression of irrationality, which has backfired.

That’s really where the first step came, that disconnection from, and obsession with, a finished, perfect result that was ‘owned’ by the artist that made it. One of Brion Gysin’s greatest poems, which I didn’t understand until very recently, was ‘Poets don’t own words.” He would do a permutation: “Poets don’t own words, words poets don’t own, own words poets don’t” and it was only recently that I actually experienced it in a visceral way, that that’s been the big change. This is what you’re talking about: that we are blessed, or gifted, or pushed, by various events to deal with the information that’s coming at us, and that society and culture are, if you like, a solidity that’s based on the inertia and linearity. This solidity is oppressive, and in order to even begin to be anything one might label ‘free’ or ‘liberated, you have to, as Burroughs used to put it, ‘First you have to short-circuit control.’ Because control is ultimately an oppressor. Control really does contain all the feedback loops of consumer culture that you’ve talked about so astutely.

I’m know I’m going in a weird loop here, but basically the point is that during the middle of the last century, the idea of having to be an Artist who owned each thing fell apart. Continue reading

RUSHKOFF: Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book

Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book
by Douglas Rushkoff

I’m getting more questions about my latest book than about any other I’ve written. And this is before the book is even out—before anyone has even read the galleys.

That’s because the questions aren’t about what I wrote, but about how I ended up publishing it: with an independent publisher, for very little money, and through a distribution model that makes it available on only one website. Could I be doing this of sound mind and my own volition? Why would a bestselling author, capable of garnering a six-figure advance on a book, forgo the money, the media, and the mojo associated with a big publishing house?

Because it would make my book twice as expensive for you, half as profitable for me, less purposefully written, and unavailable until about two years from now. In short, the traditional publishing system is nearly dead. And publishing a book under its rules can mean the death of ideas within it, as well. Until it utterly reworks its method, gets rid of a majority of its corporate dead weight, releases its publishing houses from the conglomerates that own them, and embraces direct selling models, the publishing industry will remain rather useless to readers and writers alike.

Authors and readers no longer need Big Publishing to find and engage one another. The sooner we all realize this, the better off we’ll all be.

Think of it from the author’s perspective. Continue reading

"Digital Nation": RUSHKOFF on Frontline (PBS) tonight 9pm/online

From PBS:

Within a single generation, digital media and the World Wide Web have transformed virtually every aspect of modern culture, from the way we learn and work to the ways in which we socialize and even conduct war. But is the technology moving faster than we can adapt to it? And is our 24/7 wired world causing us to lose as much as we’ve gained?

In Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, FRONTLINE presents an in-depth exploration of what it means to be human in a 21st-century digital world. Continuing a line of investigation she began with the 2008 FRONTLINE report Growing Up Online, award-winning producer Rachel Dretzin embarks on a journey to understand the implications of living in a world consumed by technology and the impact that this constant connectivity may have on future generations. “I’m amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I’m also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects,” says Dretzin.

Joining Dretzin on this journey is commentator Douglas Rushkoff, a leading thinker and writer on the digital revolution — and one-time evangelist for technology’s positive impact. “In the early days of the Internet, it was easy for me to reassure people about what it would mean to bring digital technology into their lives,” says Rushkoff, who has authored 10 books on media, technology and culture. “Now I want to know whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize.”

Read more at PBS site