On Gurus, Masters and Mentors

Who is your Guru?

Guru is a misunderstood word. In the West, and in France in particular (where it is spelled “Gourou”), it has a particularly negative connotation. You talk about a Guru when you describe somebody who thinks he is God, is almighty, and has his head far too up… I would say that the misconception of this word comes from many fears: the fear of being manipulated, abused, stolen from. Indeed, we all know about abuses. It is interesting to take a look at the etymology of the word. And we don’t need to look very far to find it. The sources below simply come from Wikipedia’s excellent article on Guru.

Guru is a Sanskrit word. Murray Thomas explains that “the term is a combination of the two words gu (darkness) and ru (light), so together they mean ‘divine light that dispels all darkness.'” […] “Guru is the light that disperses the darkness of ignorance.” (1997, p. 231)

Joel Mlecko (1982) describes the Guru as a “counselor, a sort of parent of mind and soul, who helps mold values and experiential knowledge as much as specific knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source and who reveals the meaning of life.”. Further, Mlecko demonstrates that the Guru “dispels ignorance, all kinds of ignorance”, ranging from spiritual to skills such as dancing, music, sports and others.

As an adjective, it means ‘heavy,’ or ‘weighty,’ in the sense of “heavy with knowledge”, heavy with spiritual wisdom, “heavy with spiritual weight,” “heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization,” or “heavy with a wealth of knowledge.” Goswami Maharaj as to explaining that a Guru is “a spiritual master; one who is heavy with knowledge of the Absolute and who removes nescience with the light of the divine.” (2002, p. 161)

It is interesting to notice that in countries such as the U.S. for example, a Guru has a much more positive connotation than in France. When people talk about a “Software Guru” for instance, it is usually meant as a way of demonstrating someone’s expertise and mastery in that field. I like this second connotation better, as it resonates with a French slang expression: “quelqu’un qui envoie du lourd” literally meaning “someone who throws heavy stuff”. This expression is used by young people to designate someone who has exceptional abilities at a particular skill, and it resonates more with the Sanskrit meaning of Guru as an adjective.

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[Image from the movie The Love Guru]

In the field of personal growth, it is very common to be searching for a teacher, a Master or a Guru. Whether you want to grow your business, or find more meaning and fulfillment in your life, a Guru can help find direction and answers. A popular example can be seen in the Netflix Documentary, I Am Not Your Guru, depicting the amazing 5-day event lead by Tony Robbins in Florida, one of the most acclaimed and mediatized personal growth coaches on the planet. As a funny side note, it is common knowledge in fields such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (a very common way of analyzing and using language and behavior to drive change), and neuroscience, that the brain cannot picture a negative image. As a demonstration of that, try not to think about a Pink Elephant. What is the thing that came to your mind…? So where I am getting at is that by reading the title of the documentary, the viewer has to associate Tony with the image of a Guru. Funny side note closed.

But here is the trick, Tony is not the Guru. The Guru is only the image that the client/patient projects outwards on a figure that seems to possess the qualities that the client/patient believes (ignorantly) that they do not possess. Masterful coaches know that. Their job is simply to remind their client how powerful, creative, resourceful, loving, beautiful they truly are. They can do that through many ways: conversations, challenges, games, “homework”, research projects, group work, experiences, events, … This is the role of the Guru as well: to remind the student of the potential that is dormant, and that he was unaware of, and help them actualize this potential. Actualizing means making it real and manifested in the world, rather than a dormant capacity within the unconscious. That happens through four steps (Broadwell, 1969, Curtis & Warren, 1973):

  1. The student is unaware and incompetent. They are lost in the world and do not know they are lost.
  2. The student is aware and incompetent. The discover that there is a skill that they do not master. This is the moment they can seek for help.
  3. The student is aware and competent. After some work and practice, the student becomes more competent at the skill or way of being and becomes aware of their progress on the path.
  4. The student is unaware and competent. The student has integrated the skill fully and it becomes part of their Nature (not just second Nature). Can you walk easily? You are a Master walker. What you might not remember is that you probably fell more than 2000 times before you walk. This is the level of Mastery.
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One thing that I find fascinating are how Gurus/Coaches/Masters find the skillful means to teach/awaken their students. Indeed, as pointed out in the great wisdom traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, each student is unique. Hence, the way to teach them is unique as well. Some classic ways of teaching involve lecturing, talking to, giving the student books to read, and practices to exercise with. In coaching, this could be as simple as having a candidate practice a speech slowly in front of the mirror to become accustomed to public speaking. The practices can increase in stake and intensity over time. However, there much more unorthodox and disputed ways of teaching. What is interesting is that they can bear tremendous results.

For instance, there is a story of a Tibetan Lama, who had a particular student. One day, his student was sitting on a rock, meditating. His Master came, with a face full of rage and anger. He picked up a rock, and threw it to his student yelling: “Wake up you mangy dog”. The rock hit the student on the skull, and in an instant, the student awakened to his True Nature. This was his Satori.

Satori is a Japanese term used in Zen Buddhism designating the sudden awakening of an individual. It happens in an instant, in a flash. This term is the opposite of Kenshō, which is the slow and gradual awakening of the individual through various experiences that lead to enlightenment.

Most people would be shocked by behaviors such as that of the Master in the story above, and indeed, these are the most unorthodox methods to help the student. There is a fine border between these practices and what can be seen as abuse. In other cases, some spiritual masters have been reported to have sex with the wife of their disciple to help them get over their jealousy. It is easy to judge these situations externally. However, here are some questions that I find helpful to help in our discernment:

  • What was the intention of the Guru?
  • Was it done from an egoistic perspective, or for the advancement of the disciple?

Furthermore, there have been areas of misbehaviors by Gurus, Coaches, and Masters. Mediatized coaches have had their moments and scandals, and Spiritual Teachers as well. We can be outraged at that situation and throw the stone at them. And, we can also see that as a good reminder that they are, like us, human and fallible. That is a great invitation to project less on them and ask for guidance and assistance without necessarily placing all our hopes in them. Indeed, instead of waiting for an external savior, this can be an invitation to reclaim that:

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

To do that, we need to own our own shadows, because when we point one finger towards the Guru, there are three fingers pointed towards us. When we see the light in him/her, we have three times that light in us. When we point to one of their flaws, we have three times that flaw within us.

This is an invitation to own who we are and take unconditional responsibility for our lives, thoughts and actions.

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Here is a brief note on Mastery. Developing Mastery can take a lifetime (or many…). Anders Ericcson’s famous research (1993), explained that it takes on average 10.000 hours to master a specific skill. This theme has been expanded in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. A more recent study (Hambrick et Al., 2014) has debunked some methodologies and conclusions from the 1993 study. In a nutshell, what we can get from this is that common knowledge that practice might not make perfect, but highly contributes to improvement. Other factors which might come into play could be intelligences, personality, age, environment, among others. To learn more, I would recommend Robert Greene’s book Mastery (2002), where he deconstructs the important steps to Mastery through stories of well-known entrepreneurs, business people, artists and other creators.

The mentor has a specific role. He is a role model for the mentee. The key is that he has walked the path already, and can guide the mentee on that path. The mentee trusts him, as he wishes to reproduce the same results. One of the twists is that the mentor has only a limited capability to guide the student. There might come a moment, especially for highly gifted students where the student surpasses their master (in French: “L’élève dépasse le Maître”). This step is crucial as the student starts to own their Golden Shadow: reclaim the part of him that he was projecting on the Master and seeing it as part of himself. This can be a painful process, as the image of the Master disappears. It can be compared as the death of one’s father, which is a crucial psychological step for men in particular. The death in this case is metaphorical, but has the same psychological weight as a physical one. As the saying goes:

“When the student is ready, the Master appears.

When the student is really ready, the Master disappears.”

Over the course of a lifetime, an individual can have numerous Masters. For example, as a teenager till my young adulthood, I was trained in Karate for almost a decade by a 4th degree black belt Master in France. At first I went to learn self-defense, but what I truly learned was self-confidence. Later, in my first years as a Trainer in Management, my mentor was Michel Vallier. He trained me to deliver tremendously dynamic and engaging sessions for groups, with high power and insights, and helped me start my career in the Middle-East. He past away a few years ago, leaving me with his teachings. Today, I am grateful to be coached by Rich Litvin, who is a world-class coach who lives in L.A. His coaching is bold, unorthodox, powerful and highly creative.

This leads me to the last point. What matters is who is a good fit for you. For example, I would not have much interest in being coached by Tony Robbins, although he could be seen as one of the best coaches on the planet. I would not decline the opportunity if it presented itself, but I would not work hard to get there.

Here are two reflection questions for you:

What would your ideal coach/mentor/guru need to have/be/do?

How will you know that you have learned enough from them before you can move on your own?


Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)”wordsfitlyspoken.org. The Gospel Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2018.

Curtiss, Paul R.; Warren, Phillip W. (1973). The dynamics of life skills coaching. Life skills series. Prince Albert, Saskatchewan: Training Research and Development Station, Dept. of Manpower and Immigration. p. 89. 

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review100(3), 363.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown.

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. Penguin.

Hambrick, D. Z., Altmann, E. M., Oswald, F. L., Meinz, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014). Accounting for expert performance: The devil is in the details. Intelligence45, 112-114.

Maharaj, T. G. A Taste of Transcendence,(2002) p. 161.

Mlecko, J. D. (1982). The guru in Hindu tradition. Numen29(1), 33-61.

Thomas, R. M. (1997). Moral development theories–secular and religious: A comparative study (No. 68). Greenwood Publishing Group.

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