FAQ guru

We received the following query about the link between the Spiral levels and gurus from a European reader:

“I’ve got a few important questions I know more and more people are interested in:

Is submission to gurus post-Green (Yellow or Turquoise)?
Or if not, does submission to gurus help us evolve to a post-Green level?
Or is submission to gurus just a concept and practice rooted in Blue Hinduism traditions?
And is the authoritarian and seemingly egocentric behaviour of many gurus really an aspect of the post-Green stages?
And if it is, shouldn’t we better stay on the lower levels then?

You wouldn’t believe how often people ask these questions after reading about Spiral Dynamics in the latest works of Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen and Don Beck.

Many New-Agers and spiritual fundamentalists today argue that resistance to guru worshipping is a symptom of the deeply narcissistic Mean Green meme, that submission to gurus is the best way to evolve to the post-Green levels and that authoritarian egobashing guru behaviour shows you have reached the second tier level. No wonder Spiral Dynamics is suspected to be a cult by those, who only heard from it by these sources.

This not only means that these interpretations have become a danger to the integrity and reputation of Spiral Dynamics, it also means that aspects of the terminology and theories of Spiral Dynamics are used to manipulate people to join spiritual cults. If you want the name Spiral Dynamics to stand for more in the near future than a theory that justifies and supports spreading authoritarian Hindu traditions in the western world, please answer these questions about guru behaviour and submission to gurus in the context of the authentic Spiral Dynamics theories.

Thanks for your answers. Many people need it.”

If many people need it – and we are receiving a lot of questions like this one – we offer a response. We should say up front that we are not experts on spiritual matters or religion, so we sought insight from colleagues who are, and we share tidbits of conversations with some in the remarks below. However, except for the direct quotations, the opinions expressed are ours and should not necessarily be attributed to our friends and associates.

Furthermore, the answers are not simple since there are complex relationships, need systems, and even semantics involved in this discussion. Without referencing specific people, practices, and relationships, it is nearly impossible to characterize spiritual approaches or particular ‘gurus’, so we will make no attempt to do that. Instead, we offer some general views on gurus and submission in the context of the questions above and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions based on their own experiences.


The broader question isn’t about a specific guru or the different ways gurus might be defined. It is about the relationship between people and how transformation occurs as a result of it. This question is more about how people search out and define who their guru(s) might be, what they are willing to do to nourish their souls, and why they attach to one teacher rather than another. The question reflects the longing that propels people towards the spiritual journey. It is this journey that sometimes causes some people to seek a guide, mentor, teacher, or guru. The roles and forms differ, but the general desire is the exploration, understanding, or transcending of one conscious self for another. With the increasing conflation of SD with spirituality, and many seeking to turn a theory-based framework into a faith-based quasi-religion and path to godliness, the questions at hand are relevant. We found this comment offers a useful perspective on the guru question:


“Authentic spirituality is highly demanding; it demands that you sacrifice your ego and its cherished suffering through genuine understanding; it demands that you cast away the known and venture into the unknown; it demands that you committedly respond to and consistently live with the call of the creative vision that you are; and it demands that you be psychologically free from all forms of gurus or external authorities and that you enter the temple of transformation all alone. Authentic spirituality thus demands self-responsibility, self-integrity, and inner freedom from the guru. As defined above, self-responsibility is the ability to respond to the creative vision that you are that summons you to the untrodden path of your singular kosmic destiny; self-integrity is the ability to live your life in a manner that is consistent with this summons and thereby with the creative vision that you are. Freedom from the guru entails that you are possessed of inner authority and authorship and remain independent of all forms of external authority in the matter of thinking and knowing. Paradoxical though it may sound, it is only those who are psychologically and intellectually free from the guru, who can utilize, when necessary or beneficial, someone who is possessed of a higher-order inner awareness of the forces of kosmic intelligence (guru) working in the universe as a syntropic, order-creating, meaning-bestowing, evolutionary principle.”

Yasuhiko Genku Kimura. (2000) “Self-Responsibility, Self-Integrity, and Freedom from the Guru.” p. 6-7.


The meaning of gurus
Just what is a guru? What can the term mean? Let us begin this discussion by differentiating among the kinds of gurus suggested by the questions.

The first and most common usage today grows from the attribution of expertise, mastery and authority (not authoritarianism). This is the usual business book version – a strategy or marketing guru, a management or corporate turnaround guru. The world of sales is rich in slick gurus. The IT world has its share of blue jeans-wearing gurus with skills in software or information systems. Starbuck’s has its coffee gurus and Nikon its lens gurus. This is the guru of competence, experience and demonstrated skills – a guru as a knower and doer.

There are personal development gurus who empower, coach, and help individuals and organizations. They guide change and facilitate transformations by helping the person/group to recognize what is already there by providing information/insight and new frames. Many people who claim the title of “spiral wizard” paint themselves in this light; it is often an Orange phenomenon – the quest for better, fuller, richer lives. There are the self-help gurus who promote engagement in the world for success and prosperity (both their students’ and their own), or for individualized discovery and exploration through expanded consciousness. Others reject the material aspects and promote a return to the spiritual life in a backlash to the mercantile age. In other words, there are gurus of the deny-self and the express-self systems, gurus for the “I” and the “we,” for the do and the be.

There’s another kind of less-directive guru who is a mentor or teacher and shares knowledge with protégés and apprentices who are anxious to learn and carry the understanding forward. Teaching has long been considered noble because it demands a degree of sacrifice of self so the student might grow. These gurus may be secular professors, preachers, executives, and parents; or they might be religious teachers and spiritual guides. Sometimes they instruct, and sometimes they lead by example in a more knowing / less knowing relationship – the skilled master willing to share and the willing apprentice anxious to learn. These gurus range from the scrupulously honest with only the best of intent to unscrupulous charlatans intent upon lining their pockets or feeding their egos.** If this kind of guru/disciple relationship is healthy, both the mentor and the disciple grow in the process since neither is dominating nor exploiting the other; knowledge, wisdom or discovery is their guide. If the disciple ultimately reaches beyond the guru, that is celebrated, not resented, because the relationship was authentic and not competitive. One’s success doesn’t mean failure for the other, and the interplay transforms both in positive ways.

Then there is the traditional meaning of the word as related to established religions and spiritual practices. Many of these rely on gurus (variously called) and find value in the guru/disciple, master/student hierarchical relationship. Sikhism had ten Enlightened Masters through whom divine guidance was delivered to earth. The Hindu guru carries the weight of divine knowledge or spiritual wisdom – a conduit toward enlightenment. In Buddhism, the guru is an experienced guide who can help the individual on the path to inner wisdom (see Yasuhiko’s article for more). Jesus had disciples who carried Christianity forward. Many of these spiritual gurus – both ancient and contemporary – have sought to exemplify ‘higher’ ways of being through their own simple living and thinking. This is typically a long-term relationship that requires fit among the master, the disciple, the practice, and the larger intent. There are three primary relationships within the intent: a) the disciple/guru; b) the guru/practice; c) the disciple/practice. In each, in the traditional sense, one submits to the other. Either the guru or the disciple may insist that the disciple submits to the guru. The guru may submit to the practice or use the practice to boost his own ego. The disciple may model the guru and submit to the practice, use the practice to serve ego needs, or oppose the guru’s approach.

The reason these things happen can be found in Spiral Dynamics® programs, but SD itself is not a practice, though some use it to serve their egos. The thinking of the guru, the disciple and the appropriateness of the practice to either one or both can be better understood through the Spiral lens, just as the Spiral provides a way to think about spirituality and consciousness. The guru is not necessarily perfect and without human flaws; the guru is a person, after all. In the best case scenario, the guru is instructive and is a catalyst for growth. The guru is more enlightened than the disciple, yet still learning as part of a chain of the guru/disciple relationship. Some attributes of the worthy guru would include an ethical base with positive intent, freedom from egoistic thoughts, a desire to help rather than harm, and demonstrated love and compassion. A few are in touch with what Castaneda (a teacher with many of his own issues, guru-wise) called ‘impeccable intent’ as they look within and let others ride along on the explorations of a force that is far deeper than the shaman, the warrior, guru, or even spirituality.

In the worst case scenario, the guru is addicted to guru status and uses the practice and the disciples to feed holes in his/her ego, finances, personality, sense of power, etc. If clever when challenged, the guru will excuse exploitive abusiveness and bullying as a test or a requirement for the disciple’s growth, while demanding greater and greater sacrifices. Thus, the disciple plays a key role, for no guru can be recognized without at least one disciple. In the case of the Hawaiian kahuna – a guru of sorts – the kahuna is an expert in some area, whether it be fishing, hula, healing or shamanic practices. The guru will never call him/herself a kahuna, for to do so is proof that one is not. When the followers or disciples call a person a kahuna, then the master becomes a ‘guru.’ In this case, the guru is created by disciples. The need to worship a person as a guru is an interesting one. The addicted follower might find having a guru is like a drug, as well. Some move from guru to guru as if in addiction; others simply need to place someone on a pedestal for a time while looking outside themselves for instruction, guidance and leadership – in a pinch, any old guru would do. Then there are those who refuse to accept any authority no matter how competent, experienced, or knowledgeable the person might be, guru or not. Finally, a practice itself can be a guide without a human agent. Sometimes interpreters are required; at others the practice fits so well that its intent plays the role of guiding the disciple. The practice itself becomes the guru, a teacher without material form.

As we continue to point out, the models taught in Spiral Dynamics® workshops help explain how a person thinks about the mysteries in life. The Spiral model explains why some need gurus, how gurus think about their disciples, how disciples think about their gurus, and how gurus and disciples approach their practice; but it is not a map of esoteric development or a spiritual path in its own right. Higher Gravesian levels do not equate with increasing proximity to guru qualifications, though it does explain why some gurus demand submission while others would never dream of it, let alone accept the label with false modesty or reject it with false pride.

Again quoting Yasuhiko Kimura who differentiates stages (the Spiral’s levels of existence and psychologies) from the development of spiritual states:


“For the path of state development or the path of spiritual enlightenment, the guru is not the necessary but only the sufficient condition, as there have been numerous people who have attained enlightenment without the presence or help of a guru. However, it is necessary that the person on the path is a disciple or student, totally committed to learning and completely open to be transformed. One must transcend one’s egological confines, and for which purpose the presence of a guru is helpful. And it takes a person of strong and developed character to be able to surrender his or her ego. It is not that he or she is surrendering the ego to his or her guru, but the guru works as a catalyst for the disciple’s surrender of his or her ego. It is not submission to someone but pure surrender, pure release of one’s ego. In today’s society, it is hard to find people who have developed a moral character strong enough to make them able to surrender their egological preoccupations. And it is even harder to find an authentic guru who can work as a catalyst for someone’s spiritual enlightenment.”
(Personal correspondence with the authors, 2006; used with permission.)

So one meaning of ‘submission’ is a surrender of egoism with an openness to the experience of living and becoming. This is growth. Another taken from Islam is submission to God as all-knowing and singularly all-powerful. Our read of the question posed here suggests, however, the surrender of power to human authority. While the surrender of egoism liberates individual freedom of thought and action, submission to authoritarianism is a narrowing of inquiry, a collapse of healthy skepticism, and a decline in degrees of freedom for those whose thinking goes beyond the Blue system.

Many ancient practices demand the discipline and submission which are a necessary step for those learning self-control, impulse management, obedience to rightful authority, and patience in their transitions from Red to Blue. Many practices over the ages were designed to facilitate this very transition which the great religions reinforce. These very practices carry over to our time, even when they are out of step with aspects of today’s thinking and behavior. While submission in recognition of the need to learn and to acknowledge greater wisdom and experience is often constructive, blind obedience or bowing down before intimidation or promised reward is not. Again, ask which Gravesian systems are active in the situation and how the teacher-student, leader-follower dynamics would play out. Some need a dominator ethic; others refute it. Like leadership, submission is a two-dimensional thing: both those who submit and those who demand or accept submissiveness are parties to a social contract.

“Is submission to gurus post-Green (Yellow or Turquoise)?”
Just as there are different meanings for the word ‘guru’ there are different interpretations of what it means to submit. If obedient submission to authority, then it is not likely post-Blue, though someone might choose to submit in order to meet the needs of an authority as a choice, not a mandate, even though that goes against the grain anywhere beyond Orange. If submission means recognition of greater wisdom and insight, then perhaps submission of that type could fit post-Blue. That is not submission to a guru as superior being, however. It is simply recognition of greater skill, insight, wisdom or knowledge. Submissiveness and obedience are more in line with the cool (sacrifice-self systems), so submission to a persona wouldn’t be part of Green, let alone post-Green, i.e., Yellow, Turquoise, etc. An openness to learning and the recognition that a more knowing, more experienced person has something to teach would be, though that is available to the sensible human being at any level and not a marker of post-Green, either.

If submission to a guru is equated with idealization of a higher authority, that is definitely more consistent with the Blue system, just as submission to shamanistic custom and spirit beings would fit well in Purple. (Other shamanic practices fall elsewhere on the spiral.) These kinds of submission are part of human nature the more complex levels move away from.

Refusal to submit obediently and on cue is sometimes framed as blasphemy and sinful by those vested in the guru worship system (see below), especially those in the guru business who see it as a threat to revenues or those vested in absolute faithfulness who see heresy as a threat to their all-important cause or cult. If one takes “submission” in the sense Yasuhiko describes it above, then it is a break from the egoic self-center, but not necessarily into an alignment with a guru or an abandonment of the internal. Quite the contrary. One is less full of one’s self, but more aware of the self in the process of discovering that which is beyond the self. Thus, our sense is that the post-Orange guru/disciple relationship is one of mutual growth in which both elements are expanded in the dynamic process of adjusting to changing circumstances, and with a greater positive intent.

“Does submission to gurus help us evolve to a post-Green level?”
Not likely. We evolve based on the interaction of forces in the milieu (existential problems) and neuronal systems activated in the organism. (Where these come from is a much larger question.) Submission to a charismatic person is a fairly low-order behavior – great for parenting and fostering compliance in authoritarian regimes or theologies, not so good for empowering human beings to think for themselves as beings intervolved with others. (That said, submission is quite appropriate for some people at certain stages of psychological development since the needs to be guided and to be a guru can be complementary and mutually reinforcing in a congruent guru/disciple relationship.) In the typical sense of submission, once a person has had enough of their guru, begins to question the authority of the guru, and challenges basic assumptions, then the disciple is ready to move beyond Blue and into Orange. Perhaps the guru had a lot to do with it; perhaps not.

Consider some variations on submission and guru needs: a Blue reaction is deference to the proper kind of guru (of our sect, religion, belief, philosophy). The Orange reaction is often to challenge and test – it’s a game of who’s the mightier guru, me or him? (All are gurus in their own minds – gurudom is ultimately within.) For Green, the idea of guru is more of a colleague and equal sharing insights from their perspective as one among many; this is a leveling system, so that’s about as far as it goes. (Watch for Green-speak in minds centralized elsewhere, though; thus the reverential tone with some New Age religiosity or over-intellectualizing of simple stuff which is more Orange puffery and Blue hierarchicalism.) For Yellow, he/she might see how others might have a guru, they probably wouldn’t use the term, and a “guru” would imply the more knowing, but not in a submissive way; just a recognition that the person knows something of use and which can be understood. No big deal; no worship, no reverence. Being open to learning from people who are more-knowing and capable is quite different from submission. Only a fool has nothing to learn from others, and apprenticeship is a path for learning. Respect for someone’s personal qualities or their skills requires differentiation, not submission; and one can respect the knowledge of someone who is otherwise a consummate jerk. Temperament is as much a variable among gurus as anyone else. Look to the Spiral for a clue as to guru styles of best fit for the various levels.

If it’s the right kind of relationship, then mentoring could be a catalyst for emergence. The guru as catalyst is a neutral agent who facilitates change but does not participate directly in it; there is no need for worship in a more peer-like relationship. But again, this is not submission in the ordinary sense of obedience and subservience to a superior person; it is to a broader experience of being.

“Or is submission to gurus just a concept and practice rooted in Blue Hinduism traditions?”
Submission to gurus fits many traditions in many ways, not just Hinduism. Like most religious traditions, Hinduism manifests itself in a range of spiral colors and forms. So do Buddhism and other paths (see above). It’s easy to find Christian groups that are guru-centric, too, though the title would be Rev., Father or Brother, or even a first name spoken with all due reverence. It’s the approach to Christianity or any other religion that’s involved more than theology. In any Blue-oriented version, the guru is a directive authority within a hierarchy. Other versions see the guru as enlightener and channel for insight from ‘the other side’ or the ancients. There are also some vestiges of Purple in the sense of extended family and fellowship around a master, but obedience to rightful authority according to tradition is a key to the Blue fourth level.

Submission is, after all, the meaning of Islam; but it is submission to God above anything and anyone else. Submissive obedience to powerful individual leaders came relatively recently to the Muslim world and presents many contradictions to that faith. If there is a recognition of one God or the truth and a universal and absolute set of guiding rules whereby to live which are passed down from God to the guru thence to the follower, it rings of DQ. But the top of the pyramid might be secular, as well, in a non-theistic structure. Was Chairman Mao not a guru for some? For Green, conformity is more to social forces and peer pressures – individuals are seen as equals and don’t have that much influence, so ‘submission to gurus’ would be contrary to this level.

“And is the authoritarian and seemingly egocentric behaviour of many gurus really an aspect of the post-Green stages?”
Egocentric or authoritarian behavior are unlikely aspects of post-Orange stages, though it’s again more a function of individual temperament and style. Some gurus are nicer and better adjusted than others. A little abuse and autocracy feel good to some personalities; it’s how they’re best led and most comfortable. A dominator ethic fits the social contracts of some levels and brings peace of mind, whereas individualized ambiguity does not. As to the post-Green, if compulsiveness and irrational fears drop away as Green fades to Yellow, why would anyone functioning in that way have needs to be a ‘guru’ in the authoritarian sense? It would be an annoyance, not a liberation.

Authoritarianism surges at Blue and often carries over into Orange, especially if there is egotism, narcissism, or pomposity attached to a mind increasingly convinced of its own rightness. (Look to some holdover of Red if it is aggressively punitive.) Stories like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes” and even “The Wizard of Oz” are written about such things. So egocentric behavior is better evidence of not being in the post-Orange stages, as well as a temperament factor. The need for worshippers and priority on self-importance is rather typical of the Blue to Orange transition where narcissism fits so well. The Rock Star impulse seems to be strong for many new-wave gurus who relish fame and prominence more than wisdom, and it is not something one would expect from people actualizing at higher levels of psychological existence who tend to be neither hermits nor celebrities.

“And if it [the authoritarian and seemingly egocentric behaviour of many gurus] is [an aspect of the post-green stages] shouldn’t we better stay on the lower levels then?”
Since the premise is false, no. Green and post-Green stages are what is and must be next for many human beings. The rising F, A’, and perhaps B’ existence problems demands it. In point of fact, people who behave in authoritarian and egocentric ways are demonstrating lower-level functioning and neediness, themselves, rather than the higher level behavior they purport to represent. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not the motto of much of a guru. It’s important to listen to what a guru says and also to look at how the guru behaves and lives; that is part of the teaching. Follow the feet as well as the words. Sometimes there’s consistency, and sometimes the grandiose talk covers a pretty bizarre personality. Beware false humbleness, a cloak of modesty which sometimes covers a manipulative intent. (“I shall act quite humble. That’ll nail ’em.”) Look to what the person finds humorous and whether there is real compassion or only talk about it. Sometimes great truths are uttered by mad men, and sometimes men speaking nonsense are put up on pedestals by mad followers.

As to it being better to stay in lower levels, recall the Gravesian premise: in the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels because they offer more degrees of freedom and open more possibilities for appropriate action congruent with new existential problems. At the same time, the most appropriate level for the problems at hand is a matching one – for a while. Sometimes it is a half step ahead. A stretch is required to promote movement, if movement there is to be. Moreover, we cannot stop the river of life – human experience rolls inexorably on compounding our knowledge and the complexity of our world as we stretch our awareness. Guru-wise, the matter is more the selection of genuine gurus who fit and avoiding false prophets and hucksters than staying in lower levels. Lower levels are inadequate to address many of today’s problems, so building a dam for human awareness is no solution.

“Many New-Agers and spiritual fundamentalists today argue that resistance to guru worshipping is a symptom of the deeply narcissistic Mean Green meme, that submission to gurus is the best way to evolve to the post-Green levels and that authoritarian egobashing guru behaviour shows you have reached the second tier level.”
Our response to the preceding statement is simple: balderdash. In our opinion, the “Mean Green meme” proposition has added great confusion and easy stereotypes but little of constructive substance. (See the FAQ on the MGM for more.) We believe it is a misnomer and that equating narcissism with FS is a serious blunder. Narcissism, when used clinically, is psychopathology and a personality disorder; it’s not a Gravesian level. Although elements of it may be well described in the Blue to Orange transition stage, it’s a mistake to equate the levels with the pathology.

“Authoritarian egobashing guru behavior” might work with followers incapable of thinking for themselves, or who feel better when being dominated and abused. Some people like bondage games, too. But a demonstration of reaching second tier? No way.

Obeisance to authorities is part of the Blue mindset. True believers, whether wrapped in New Age jargon or fundamentalism of another stripe, would find resistance to obedience to rightful higher authority difficult for themselves, and highly improper for others. People centralized in the sacrifice-self systems also object strenuously when individuation rears its head because it brings about disorder and challenges the order of things. In that view, “good” people don’t challenge their political or religious leaders – they submit to their authority, narcissistic or not.