Celebrity and Refuge

There was a Newsweek piece today cheekily entitled Bow Down to the Yoga Teacher that brought up some interesting thoughts for me on why people do just that.

Posted three comments about it, two to YogaDork.com where I first heard about it – 

And then one directly on the Newsweek site – 

Here were my key points. From YogaDork comment:

My greatest experience of learning with it has been through my principle yoga teacher — Amma. She’s a very public figure — over 50,000 people have come to see her at a time when she tours in India. She’s started hundreds of universities, hospitals, orphanages, housing programs, has toured the world for decades giving her particular message of realizing peace through a life of Love and Service. No matter how many people come to her, she always gives each person a heartfelt, personal audience and hug. And she’s humble enough to continue in her own spiritual practices daily and not make any claims of perfection — yet, and here’s the tricky part for me — she allows others who wish to worship her as the Goddess to do so.

So one point is that fame and celebrity for yogis, and the deeply egoistic, dualistic relationships that can arise from it are not just a Western phenomenon. They’re the product of two things that can arise anywhere:

1) a teacher really does have something special to offer

2) many who seek need answers so badly that they’re willing to believe that because a teacher has something special to offer, that they are above the ordinary human experience of ego, confusion, despair, and healing

The problems come when teachers themselves begin to believe the second item — that they are above the universality of suffering. That’s a recipe for megalomania.

For me, Amma demonstrates it’s possible to allow yourself to be an object of devotion or worship from a place of real humility, and that there can be real good in this for those doing the worshipping.

Isn’t it better they have their idealization of you to hold on to if they need it, rather than nothing at all? The state of woundedness and fearfulness that would make a person cling so tightly to an ideal of a teacher is a temporary condition, and it offers a safe place, a refuge in which to heal. Many people need that, and don’t have it within themselves or in their previous ideas about the divine.

This is the role of a sat-guru, and my belief is that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as the guru encourages their followers to look beyond the duality of disciple-guru context when they are ready.

Amma’s teaching to her followers is — learn to see Amma in everyone — but she recognizes that many people’s karma doesn’t allow them to see and embrace that for some time on their journey, and allows for that too.

And from Newsweek comment:

It’s easy and I believe good to poke some fun at overblown egos, and to admonish teachers against megalomania.

It’s also a very interesting thing to me to ask, why do people set up others as Gods? What’s going on with a person that they’d need to do that? And what’s the good in it? Since this pattern is at the root of all religion — setting someone up as a God — and it’s been going on since time immemorial, what need is it fulfilling?  

My take is that people need refuge, a safe place to heal from the otherwise overwhelming hurt and confusion which life brings. And that there’s nothing wrong in needing that, and in taking refuge where you are called to take it — whether in a God, religion, teacher or practice. For many, these may be better refuges than the alternatives our society often encourages — consumerism, addictions, and other things that function more as temporary escape than true refuge.  

To me, however you do it, the trick is, to know you’re taking refuge — which a good teacher can help you see — and to know that this can be a temporary stage in your evolution, that it is possible for you to heal and to grow strong enough, that you can help others through the hard things and confusions in their lives too.  

And one more comment on YogaDork:

I’ve found it goes in waves for me .  There’s an ebb and flow of generosity and self-care, of offering to myself that I may be of service to others.  

In that vein of holding seeming opposites at once, I recognize there’s a difference to me between being a celebrity and seeking celebrity, but not so big… Fame and humility can be at odds, both for those receiving adulation and those giving.    But they aren’t necessarily.  

Similarly, seeking fame and being humble are not always at odds  — if the seeking is part of an honest self-estimation that you may have a better message to offer the world than many of the messages that currently have a wide platform, then you need to honor that conviction …

Human beings are the most social animal.  It’s certainly part of my humanity to seek social status, the approval of others, and fame.  It’s part of my humanity to be attracted to and give approval to others’ status and fame, and to take refuge in a great personality….  To me, it’s just part of the karma we’re all working out, a part of the journey.

I’m a bit dubious of anyone claiming to be absolutely beyond these things or willing to criticize others they don’t really know on a public stage for pursuing celebrity, and especially those who do so without acknowledging they’re building their own celebrity in doing so…. 

I think we all ‘know’ yoga to varying degrees, if yoga is a state of Union and  transcendence of the ordinary dualistic, subject-object, Us-Them, Me-Not Me relationship with the world.  There are just those who don’t know they know (young children), those who do (realized yogis who may or may not call themselves ‘realized yogis’), and those who think they know more than they do (probably most all of us who read, write, and ‘do’ yoga :-)…

To me, humility is being true to as much as you really are, acknowledging both your flawed, limited, long-suffering humanity at the same time as your creative, eternal, joyous divinity.   They are all One thing….  

That’s my yoga.  

Though it’s not always my first instinct,  I like to believe it has room in it to love and respect others, wherever they are in their journey.

2 thoughts on “Celebrity and Refuge

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