Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Gurur Brahmā Gurur Viṣṇur Gurur devo Maheśvaraḥ Guruḥ sākṣāt paraṁ Brahma tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ
Our creation is that guru (Brahma-the force of creation); the duration of our lives is that guru (Vishnu-the force of preservation); our trials, tribulations, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru (devo Maheshwara-the force of destruction or transformation). There is a guru nearby (Guru Sakshat) and a guru that is beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my ignorance; (Guru) it is to you I bow and lay down my life (namah).
The Guru Mantra is one of the most well-known mantras in the context of yoga practice. It calls for a humble respect and acknowledgement of the Teacher in various forms, starting with our parents and ancestors to the ends of time (Brahma); all of those forces that keep us alive in this body (Vishnu); those forces that bring the changes of beginnings and endings (Shiva); the teachers right in front of us that we often don't see (Guru Sakshat) ; the infinite universal forces that are so vast we can't even comprehend it (param Brahma), and the teacher within each of us, that is in fact, creating and observing it All (tasmai shri guruve namah).
This humble respect and acknowledgement is the gateway to devotion, one of the most powerful aspects in the realm of yoga that has it's own word and set of practices called bhakti yoga. For some people, this aspect of the practice may not be readily accessible, or feel like a superficial observance. Often times at the beginning of a yoga class the teacher will ask the student to set an intention ( otherwise known as sankalpa) outside of oneself - for example to simply consider another person and offer them love rather being fixated on oneself. It is understandable that this can feel foreign or even unrelated to the movement practice, considering the contemporary world we are living in that tends to focus on individualism. Devotion entails stepping away from the misunderstood, limited mental projection of ourself (also known as the ego) to consider a bigger picture - that we affect and are effected by the world we live in. Accepting that there is an interconnectedness in all of life means we are in a relationship, and our actions have an impact on others--we have potential for a far more expansive existence.
To be able then, to offer up the deepest respect to the various forms of the 'teacher' entails a softening to be able to step outside of the lens of the ego. When this happens, two things become accessible. First, the teachings are actually able to penetrate a level deeper than the intellect, to a heart and gut level of knowledge. In this sense, we literally become ready to digest the teachings rather than trying to mentally understand or judge them. Second, when the teachings have a bridge to what exists beyond the ego, there is a clearing; the mental fogginess, confusion or overwhelm that comes from the ego itself dissipates.
Consider now, a clear pool of water. It is able to reflect something purely; there is no distortion. When we become clear within ourself, we are able to reflect anything that enters into us in an untainted way. These teachings then, that we at first think are coming from an outside source and that may feel obscure, intangible or vague, find their way through and into our essence when the ego steps aside. This 'essence', or pure source of life is within each and every one of us. It can take a lifetime to understand that any physical manifestation of a teacher is simply a mirror of something already within the student, that is unavailable to see without first 'laying ourselves out on the table'.
I used to have a therapist who, during a difficult and complex time in my life, helped me to understand the concept of 'laying it out on the table'. In practice, this meant that any thought or theme that I was holding in my mind got a name and a place on the table. When every last idea that was present had been dumped out, I could better organise and group together the thoughts, and in fact, this simplified and diminished just how many 'things' were actually there. Once the thoughts were out on the drawing board, I could start to understand they were not all coming from one part of me, but rather, there were a myriad of voices within, all with different needs. There was a child who hadn't felt seen, a critic who 'helped' me to motivate myself, there was even a wise observer who was silenced by all the other voices that were vying for space.
Now, with the help of Gabor Maté, Richard Schwartz and others, I understand that this work of identifying and naming the various mental voices is the concept of what is known as 'parts work' (also known as IFS, Voice Dialogue, and now adopted as an essential element of Compassionate Inquiry). It seems to me to have some similarities to the guru mantra. Just as the guru mantra names the various teachers that each of us has in our lives to bring clarity, we each have various parts as ‘helpers’ that remain jumbled up, until we name them. To honour these essential aspects of ourselves that have kept us alive brings awareness, insight, and moreover, when they all have the space to be seen and heard, internal conflict ceases. They each are there for a different reason but hold in common the need to be seen. By learning to look at these various parts is to better make sense of them. When we acknowledge when our inner child is struggling we can learn how to give it what it needs, and when an aspect of our self is stressed, we can learn how to self-regulate and soothe it, bringing it back in to balance. When the over-arching 'higher' self is being suppressed by louder internal voices, it takes practice to give the other parts space and time to settle, but that is when our essential nature (basic goodness, loving awareness, colourless observer) can step back into the lead.
If I were to flip this guru mantra on its side to represent my parts in the form of internal gurus, it might read:
Inner Child, who helped me survive those youngest years but who may not have always been seen; Petulent teen, who protected me from feeling threatened and fought for self-expression; Royal Critic, who has been hard on me but intended to teach me strength and motivation, I bow down to you for all you have done to get me to where I am. Now kindly step out of the f'ing way as I seek peace and allow the inner light to shine through. Amen.
What would your 'parts' mantra sound like? When the aspects of our selves are identified and there is clarity about their purpose (and they all do have a reason for being there), then it is easier to acknoweledge the trilogy or myriad of 'selves' and pay them some respect. Actually, it's only when each part feels seen and heard that they are willing to pipe down, relax, and let the essential self, the observer (saksi) to shine through.
Through mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, forest bathing, mantra, and slow cooking, may we honour all the teachers/parts who keep the magic, mystery and healing in life, alive.
My analyst told me That I was right out of my head The way he described it He said I'd be better dead than live I didn't listen to his jive I knew all along That he was all wrong And I knew that he thought I was crazy but I'm not, oh no ....... My analyst told me That I was right out of my head But I said, "dear doctor I think that it's you instead Because I have got a thing That's unique and new To prove it I'll have The last laugh on you 'Cause instead of one head I got two And you know two heads are better than one"