Reflections on the Guru Syndrome

There was trepidation in my church when our minister’s contracted sabbatical came due after his first seven years with us and it was time to prepare for (and worry about) his forthcoming six months’ absence. He’s a beloved and charismatic figure, and there was more than a little concern we’d flounder around a bit without him, becoming less lively, losing our sheen, misplacing our mojo.

As it turned out, our concern was overblown. Unfounded, even. The organization hummed along, congregants filled in where needed, we snagged a talented part-time sabbatical minister to help manage the rest, and suddenly six months have gone by, with not one casualty or lost wandering soul among us (near as I can tell) who is bereft and woeful pending Chris’s return.

Oh, we’ll welcome him back heartily enough, and the joy will be genuine. But we learned a thing or two about ourselves in his absence, I think, and were reminded of a few things about people and leaders in general that it is good to remember.


Guru worship is a strange and compelling phenomenon. Human beings need strong and effective leaders to become strong and effective themselves, but often, some very complicated psychological transactions take place between admirers and admirees, followers and leaders. Both parties can become snared in a projective dance, followers willingly swept off their feet and whisked across the parquet floor by sure-footed leaders who brim with confidence and become increasingly convinced their every step will be perfect and true.



But if we have learned anything about the human enterprise in our lives, it’s that “perfect and true” exist only in fairy tales (and frequently not even there, given how dark and grim many of them are).

And that no matter how wonderful and accomplished and deeply admired anyone is, all people—everyone—is flawed as well, in need of the safeguards instilled by caring but independent peers, self-examination, the School of Hard Knocks, and the other feedback systems of life that help us heed our collective mother’s ancient dictum: “Now don’t you be gettin’ too big for your britches…”

That sage piece of advice is easily forgotten when we are bedazzled by charismatic figures who project a sense of confidence and security that appears, at least on the surface, to make us feel confident and secure as well. The problem is that such confidence can come to be in them rather than ourselves, so it is a false confidence in a relationship that infantilizes rather than liberates us.

None of this is to imply there was or is anything unhealthy in our congregation’s relationship with its minister. But the human tendency to make leaders into gurus and thus create a sense of dependency is something to bear in mind and keep everyone en garde, whether we’re talking ministers, teachers, coaches, mentors, or bosses.


God is the ultimate projection, of course, bearing all our needs and desires for being perfectly loved, with all-embracing forgiveness, forever and ever.

I’m certain Chris himself knew we’d be just fine, and not all that deep down, we did, too. A good part of that is because as much as he too loves being admired and enjoyed, he sees the guru trap clearly for what it is: bad leadership that enhances and frees neither leader nor follower. (By the way, who doesn’t love being admired and enjoyed? Even God himself, seemingly as self-sufficient as they come, got all pissy in Exodus when his subjects started admiring golden calves instead of his own all-too-obvious majesty.)

Chris also has the admirable quality of occasionally being absent-minded or making other mistakes right out loud and in public, owning up to them right then and there, forgiving himself immediately, laughing merrily about it, and accepting it as a basic—and let’s face it, charming—human foible. That frees his admirers to recognize and accept his imperfections, too (as well as their own).

Which, of course—and here is where things get tricky—invites his admirers to love and admire him all the more. After all, our free and self-conscious acknowledgement of imperfection just might be one more sign of our actual perfection, yes?

Many a spiritual leader has tasted of that apple and found it delicious, with all manner of scandal flowing from its juices.

Yes, the pitfalls of guruhood and projection are ubiquitous in this life, and the more admirable that people actually are the more difficult it is not to have it go to their heads and ours, resulting in them becoming a lot less admirable than we want to think they are.

God is the ultimate projection, of course, bearing all our needs and desires for being perfectly loved, with all-embracing forgiveness, forever and ever. But God isn’t always the most visible helpmate hanging around the neighborhood, so we often look for human substitutes in the form of our pastors, therapists, authors, actors, singers, quarterbacks or rock stars. (Or even bloggers? Naw, not bloggers…)


Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh brewed up a newfangled blend of ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, mixed it with western psychology self-help cliches, and grew himself an exquisitely long flowing beard to add in the wisdom bauble. He drew spiritual seekers from around the world to his communal ways, eventually purchasing a huge swath of land in rural Wasco County, Oregon, where he founded a new city, named, of course, “Rajneeshpuram.”



There, he set up what amounted to his own government, complete with a voting bloc dominated by the flood of recent disciples who claimed local resident status.

One other thing his “government” also came to include: a private militia armed with machine guns. (The local ranchers who found themselves within his city and its laws were not amused.)

Sticking to a preaching script of love, freedom and selflessness as his chauffeurs drove him around the compound in one of his 100 or so Rolls Royces, Rajneesh (who later renamed himself “Osho”) reveled in a playful, twinkle-eyed pseudo-mysticism. He also preached a gospel of unrepressed sexuality, which, at the time I came across him as a young single guy in my late 20s sounded, well, kinda interesting.

Freud saw it all play out in the therapy setting with his concept of “transference,” and it’s just as applicable in the worlds of ministry, business, entertainment and sports.

Nevertheless, part of Rajneesh’s genius in the early days of his empire-building was to attract an appalling number of western intellectuals with advanced degrees who should have known better than to buy into his hoo haw. One of those, an otherwise sensible, straight-talking psychologist, came to my graduate psychology program at the time to conduct a weekend workshop in Rajneeshni “dynamic” meditation methods (minus the free love, darn it…).

It all sounded rather enticing, but it wasn’t long afterwards that the machine guns began showing up in the hands of Rajneeshpuram security guards, and photos of him smiling knowingly behind the windows of his Rolls started appearing in the pre-Internet media.

The entire experience showed that bad judgment and naivete are limited neither by intelligence nor socio-economic status, and that the human penchant for wanting to believe in a savior figure upon whom we project our deepest longings and needs knows no bounds.

Freud saw it all play out in the therapy setting with his concept of “transference,” and it’s just as applicable in the worlds of ministry, business, entertainment and sports.

It’s one reason why so many ministers fall from grace, as the warm regard of their congregants turns in some cases to starry-eyed worship that serves only the less enlightened needs of both parties. Months or years later, after the minister’s affair with the secretary or budget committee chair comes to light (as does the shiny new Jaguar they bought together with church funds), their respective families and the church community are left in tatters, lessons as old as dirt rising again to be digested and suffered anew.

In Rajneesh’s case, his new city and the lives of his thousands of disciples crashed on the shoals of increasing paranoia that finally saw key figures in his community convicted, in a truth-again-trumping fiction scenario, of trying to influence elections by poisoning local officials and infecting restaurant salad bars with salmonella.

In the end, Rajneesh had his visa revoked, the city was largely abandoned, and he was deported back to India, where he died a few years later at age 58, devotees still clinging to him. His Oregon compound was left fallow until being sold, ironically enough, to a Christian youth camp.


Our minister’s return will be a joyous affair, our affection for him running deep even as these six months have proven once again that no one is indispensable, that effective leaders empower rather than enervate, and that as much as we miss all our beloveds in this life— whether they have gone on sabbatical, to another job, or on to the Great Beyond—life does go on, designed as it is for the living to make of it what they can while, we hope, learning a thing or two from the lessons offered up by the past.


Here is Rajneesh, being very much Rajneesh…

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8 comments to Reflections on the Guru Syndrome

  • Cathie  says:

    Well stated! Ah, yes….I remember the Rajneesh era and a friend of mine who became totally captivated by it all. Silly creatures we humans are with our amazing capacities to justify even the most absurd situations. Thanks for the occasional dose of clarity your blogs bring to my computer screen!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Cathie, as it happens I was just a few minutes ago reading in the New York Times Book Review about a Joseph Smith biography—talk about “amazing capacities to justify even the most absurd situations.” (!) The reviewer offered this, almost echoing your point, and once again highlighting the contortions that religious literalism forces upon true believers:

      “After all, it may be easy to make fun of Mormon theology, but it is surely no more absurd to believe that the resurrected Christ visited America in A.D. 34 than it is to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, or that Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that Jesus was born of a virgin. To see Mormonism in this broader context is to be constantly confronted with questions of belief, of how much nonsense humans will suffer for the sake of making sense of their lives.”

  • Barrie Sutton Noe  says:

    Great blog, Andrew! This doesn’t directly address your blog but it did remind me that I personally wasn’t worried about Chris leaving because having been in the church when we decided to let a minister go, a few years before Chris, I learned that it is truly our church community that keeps us going, no matter what. I’m so thankful that we have Chris, he’s an incredible minister but when it right comes down to it, it’s the people in our church that really carry it forward.

  • Roger DeBeers, Sr.  says:

    I never wonder how I miss all this stuff. It must be that I work hard, was a long time single parent for 2-boys; one now 46 and Roger now 15. Perhaps, I miss the guru parade because I spend a great deal of my other time in my own rather large fictional world that is in my head. Add in a huge amount of cynicism and a deep distrust for authority and my guru meter never gets up past 5 out of 100…

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Barrie: yes! Another reader reminded me the church went years without a minister at all, which begets the question of what a church actually is. I believe that Jesus fellow mentioned something about, “…wherever two people gather…”, which sounds rather right to my ears…

    Roger, I was reading the letters of James Agee this morning just about the time your comment came in, a spiritual brother of yours, no doubt: “…In any judgment of human conduct or ‘rights’ I do not trust or respect it for five minutes against my own, rudimentary as I feel my own to be, and I am a frenetic enemy against authority and against obedience for obedience’s sake, and against ‘society’ insofar as ‘society’ is content with itself.”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    We recently said farewell to a beloved pastor of our UCC congregation in Colorado. The requisite fear of change and the very future of our small congregation set in quickly (and expectedly). As the weeks have now become a few months it is now clear that many members have become ever more resolute in stepping forward to strengthen and sustain the church. Our former pastor felt certain this would happen, further advancing our sense of her great wisdom and faith. In a parallel world, sports teams often display exceptional performance surges following the firing of a coach or loss of a star player. Loss as liberating is worthy of much more exploration.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, I am reminded of similar attitudes toward government, which is on an even more distant scale and thus more easily thought of as belonging to someone else—the president, Congress—just as a church is often seen as the province of the minister or board of directors. Then we’re awakened one day to the reality that, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, “There is no ‘they’ there.” Church, it turns out, is US, and we had better put our shoulders to the wheel of its business if we wish to sustain it.

      Your mention of faith in this regard also anticipates a near-future post on that very word, given how integral it is to understanding religion and the function of leaders/gurus.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Right on Bro. The U.S. is US and, absent closer and more thoughtful engagement, our republic will be endangered by stubborn and entrenched dogmas of ideologues more interested in being right than in doing right; irrespective of consequences.

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