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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Gurus of Our Lives

Commencement events, the occasion of saying goodbye to my students at Yale and preparing for my courses next year, and a breakthrough during my daily yoga practice (unassisted handstand) have all inspired me to reflect upon and share some of the early meanings of the Guru, i.e., the teacher. In Sanskrit, Guru comes from the words Gu = darkness or heaviness (like gooey or deep hole) and Ru = lifting or removing. The word Guru thus means the remover of darkness or something that lifts away obstacles. Fortunately, we all have many Gurus is our lives, whether or not we know it. But it is better to know and to acknowledge their existence.

Who are our Gurus of our lives? The Guru Mantra goes something like this:

Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu Guru Devoh Maheshwara,
Guru Sachyat Para Brahma Tasmai Shri Guruve Namahe

A rough translation describes four types of Gurus. Brahma, meaning creation, is everything in our past that contributed to what we are today, our parents, our past relationships, our day care teachers, our ancestors, the city in which we grew up, the hospital where we were born. Vishnu is what sustains and grounds us. It represents our current attachments, our partners, children, professors, colleagues, assistants, bosses. Maheshwara means destruction and refers to negative experiences and interactions. It signifies that the irritating person at the checkout counter or the smelly snoring person sitting next to you during a 12-hour flight is also your teacher. In order for us to flourish, we must know the good and the bad; the Yin and the Yang. Finally, the mantra ends with the Guru that cannot be described. In a way it functions as a legal disclaimer: everyone and everything that we forgot to thank in the three prior categories is acknowledged in the fourth category. For those who believe in a higher being, it also refers to the divine that has no name and cannot be captured in words.

Why do we chant and thank our Gurus? In modern Western traditions, bowing to others has gone out of fashion. In the Jewish religion, bowing to any physicality is basically forbidden. But in many ways, we do have the concept of bowing embedded in our everyday life. The English word name, for example, comes from the same root as the Sanskrit “Nam,” meaning “to bow.”

To give up your name is to receive from others (and in Hebrew, the word name is also the word we use for the divine being, acknowledging that it rests within us). In order for us to grow and to flourish, to be able to learn and to develop our original thinking, and to build our own name, we need to open ourselves and acknowledge the power our teachers have over us. We develop our experience of gratitude and recognition (kinda like nodding to a reference, usuing footnotes, citations and quotes). The ultimate recognition is that, for each of us, our highest teacher is ourself.

Posted by Orly Lobel on May 25, 2005 at 03:54 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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