Life as Guru
The Synchronistic Teachings of Everyday Life
Text and Photos by Ray Grasse
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.
In the years prior to his enlightenment, the would-be Buddha undertook a strenuous regimen of asceticism in hope of attaining his ultimate spiritual freedom. Growing weak and feeble from the prolonged disciplines he had been engaged in, he was sitting one day by the side of the a road, when along came a group of singers and dancers. One of them, a woman, sang these fateful words:
Fair goes the dancing when the sitar’s tuned;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.
The string o’er stretched breaks, and the music flies;
The string o’er slack is dumb, and music dies;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high. 1
Recognizing in these lyrics a timely message about the potential dangers and unhealthy extremism of his spiritual practice, the Buddha came to realize the necessity of excercising moderation in all things, even in pursuing enlightenment. This idea came to be known in Buddhism as the doctrine of the "middle path."
In the mystical mystical traditions of the East, great importance is ascribed to the philosophical notion of karma—the idea that our lives are influenced by the actions and thoughts of the past. Yet many esoteric traditions also describe the presence of another force shaping our lives, one oriented less toward the actions and influences of what preceded this life than toward the yet unfolding potentials of what is to come. As the Jewish mystic Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto remarked in The Way of God, "Things can happen to an individual both as an end in themselves and as a means toward something else." That is, while the principle of karma works to bring all things to a point of equilibrium or homeostasis, our lives also reflect the influence of a principle whose functions appears to be drawing human consciousness into increasingly higher levels of being, as with the coincidental appearance of the singer on the road at a critical junction in the Buddha’s life.
In ancient Greece, this principle found its supreme expression in the concept of telos—the tendency of things to progress toward an end goal. An acorn is an excellent illustration of the teleological principle: If we wish to understand the nature and function of an acorn in its most complete sense, we have to study not only its chemical composition, appearance, and past history, but also its inherent purpose, its fully developed condition as an oak tree. In a sense, the condition of "oak tree-ness" could be thought of as the telos or end goal of the acorn, which pulls it forward in its evolution toward higher stages of development.
By the same token, the esotericist would claim that to understand the life of an individual human being, it is not enough to look simply at the past or current causal forces that have influenced the individual, but at the end results toward which the individual is heading. Like the acorn, human beings are not merely the sum of observable influences and conditions but are the essence of future possibilities as well. While it is important to understand the past, it is just as important to know where human beings, individually and collectively, are heading, in terms of their physical and spiritual evolution.
On a practical level, the principle of telos implies that each of us is subject to a spiritual evolutionary principle that is constantly working to bring us to a realization of our divinity. Towards this end, the evolutionary impetus employs all means at its disposal—including the symbols and circumstances of our waking and dream lives. To paraphrase the first-century Indian master Nargarjuna, the enlightened beings are everywhere, just waiting for sentient beings ripe for spiritual guidance. When an appropriate moment comes, they can manifest as animals, objects, lovers, thieves, spiritual masters, or whatever may be needed to push or pull beings towards a higher state of spiritual development. 2
One finds expressions of this principle in all major religious traditions. In Buddhism, for instance, we have already seen the example of the Buddha and the passing singer; yet another famous instance of this principle from the Buddha’s life occurs in the famous story of the "Four Passing Sights":
Having been born the son of a princely house, the young Guatama’s father wished to see his son grow up to become a great king. Intending to shield his son from the disillusionments of the outer world, he ordered that his son be kept from beholding any sign of life’s sorrowful aspects. Growing increasingly restless with his sheltered existence, however, the future Buddha decided to venture out into the world beyond his father’s walls, where during the course of his excursions, he beheld four sights that changed his life forever. First, he saw an old man; then, a person riddled with disease; then, a dead body; and finally, an ascetic sage who had renounced the world. Witnessing these signs in consecutive order served to awaken him to the transitory nature of life, while simultaneously quickening his desire for spiritual insight and liberation.
To the Buddhist, this succession of images was not accidental, but rather a meaningful expression of the all-pervading Genius of Life, which, as Indologist Henirich Zimmer put it, is "broadcasting all possible initiations, revelations, and messages all the time." 3
Life’s teleological aspect assumes perhaps its most personalized form in the Christian notion of providence, the capacity of the divine to direct and provide for the welfare of all beings. Whereas the Greek philosophers described telos largely in relatively impersonal terms, Christian philosophers, including Aquinas, imbued providence with a decidedly personal, even paternal quality. For Christians, providence derived from a benevolent father in heaven whose concern extended even to the falling of sparrows and whose influence on creation and its creatures was a relatively creative affair, unfettered by the limitations of a universal fate or abstract laws, as so often had constrained the gods of antiquity. For the Christian believer, to say God rules the world by his providence was to say that He orders all things in view of himself, by His knowledge and His love.
In the New Testament, the teleological perspective is glimpsed in various passages, such as the story of Christ healing the blind man. Having encountered a blind man one day, the disciples asked Jesus, "Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" To which Jesus replied, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." (John 9:3) In other words, the blind man’s condition cannot simply be viewed as the result of past causes (karma), but aaas the working out of a greater, long-range design. As a result of being healed, the man experienced a life-changing conversion to Christ’s teaching, with the healing simultaneously serving as a metaphor for others of Christ’s purpose in the world. "I have come for the judgment of this world, so that those who cannot see may see," Jesus said (John 9:30). Thus one man’s state of health is shown to play a vital role in the spiritual design of his life, as well as in the lives of those around him.
The Teachings of Ordinary Life
In our own lives, we can distinguish at least two levels on which the telos principle manifests: one immediate and short-term, the other more long-range in scope.
In its narrower form, the purposive principle of life can express itself through any event that serves the function of guiding us toward higher levels of learning and spiritual awakening. Who has not at one time or another encountered a situation or person who we realized later on had the effect of initiating us into some important new stage of spiritual growth? Such life-initiations can take many forms, even—as for the Buddha—a simple phrase heard in passing.
For instance, a woman who had been searching for spiritual direction in her life contemplated becoming involved with a group of Sufis (a mystical branch of Islam) in her home state of Tennessee. Reflecting on the choice facing her while waiting in the airport to catch a plane back to Nashville, she suddenly heard an announcement over the airport public address system calling to prayer anyone who might be interested in attending Islamic services being conducted in the airport chapel. Never having heard an announcement for Islamic worship in all her years of traveling, the woman thought the announcement might be a hint that she at least give this spiritual path a try. On arriving at her destination, she got together with the members of the Sufi group and experienced what proved to be one of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences of her life.
The teleological principle can also appear to us on rare occasions through seemingly miraculous events or chance circumstances. A man described to me the period in his younger years when he was, in his own words, "unencumbered" by feelings of compassion or sympathy for the underprivileged and less fortunate of the world, being more concerned with looking out for his own interests. One stormy night while driving through a wooded area, he was startled to see what appeared to be a globe of ball lightning floating across the road several hundred feet ahead of his car. He slowed down and watched as it continued its slow glide off the highway and onto an unmarked muddy side road, where it suddenly exploded in a noiseless flash. Surprised, but being of a scientific bent, the man decided to pull off and look more closely at this spot to see if there were any residual traces of this remarkable phenomenon.
Far more commonly, however, the great initiations in our lives take a more modest or prosaic form, sometimes even as a compelling crisis or tragedy that serves to awaken important insights or dormant abilities. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things." For some, this might take the form of a failure in one’s professional life. Suppose a man has risen to a partnership in his law firm, all the while becoming increasingly filled with pride and self-interest. For such a person, a fall from grace, precipitated by a scandal, might bring about a much-needed collapse of the shallow values that had obscured his spiritual vision, paving the way for the birth of a more spiritual sensibility. As mystics have long realized, and as Carl Jung echoed in modern times, a victory of the spirit often takes the form of a defeat for the ego. Many of the greatest advances in the life of the soul arise in conjunction with developments that—by worldly standards—represent great tragedies or failures.
Illness can also be a teacher in the way it redirects people in ways more suitable to their spiritual destiny, or forces them to take a more reflective look at their inner life. Many of us have heard or possibly experience incidents of this sort, where men or women in high-stress positions are forced by a heart attack or other health crisis to reexamine their lifestyles.
In this same category we could include the illness or "wounding" of the shaman or traditional healer, as in African tribal communities or Native American cultures. Shamans are frequently initiated into their role by challenging situations, such as a life-threatening illness that serves to awaken dormant skills and spiritual perceptions. In his book Native Healer, Medicine Grizzlybear Lake describes in detail the crises he experienced early in life which prepared him for his calling as a healer. These included three near-death experiences: an illness, a car accident, and a near-drowning. These trials equipped him with new strengths and sensitivities and made him more aware of the unseen world. "The calling [to be a native healer] comes in the form of a dream, accident, sickness, injury, disease, near-death experience, or even actual death," he writes. Such events comprise a school of shamanic wisdom:
In this kind of school we learn about fear, anger, hate, confusion. We learn about other worlds and how to travel between both. We learn about our strengths and weaknesses, power, love, reality, healing and life itself. We learn that there are, indeed, two separate but interrelated worlds of existence, the physical and the spiritual. 4
As he drove down the side road, he noticed a car with two occupants, apparently stranded. Inside, he found a woman along with her mentally impaired son, who was seriously ill at the moment and in immediate need of medical attention. As a result of the light on the road, the man arrived at the most opportune moment for performing a humanitarian service. He drove the mother and her son to the nearest hospital, where the young man received life-saving treatment. The entire set of circumstances — especially having saved a young man’s life — had a profound impact on this man’s attitudes and life-direction. It served as a catalyst for his learning to be more compassionate and eventually led to his becoming involved with volunteer work in his local community.
Another medium through which life-as-teacher can reveal itself is the printed word. In our serendipitous encounters with books, magazines, or correspondence, we may find ourselves stumbling onto key insights or lessons that we need to learn. The late poet and Zen writer Paul Reps was fond of relating how his introduction into Eastern mysticism occurred while sitting in the New York Public Library reading a book on Western philosophy. Unexpectedly, a stranger walked up to his table, placed a copy of the Hindu Upanishads in front of him, and walked away, never to be seen again. This singular event initiated Rep’s life-long involvement with Eastern philosophy and religion. Writer Arthur Koestler coined the term "library angel" to describe this common phenomenon, inn which a book suddenly presents itself in our lives by falling off a shelf or by unexpectedly being given to us, exactly when we are most in need of the information it holds.
Some Christians seek the help of this particular "angel" by opening the Bible at random to get advice on a problem at hand. For instance, a woman I know set out on a trip to do a spiritual retreat in a cabin on private land in Utah, high on a butte adjacent to Zion National Park. On her way, she was stranded for more than two weeks in Oklahoma City waiting for an engine part to be shipped in from out of state. Exasperated and depressed, she opened the Bible in her hotel room one night; her finger alighted on Isaiah 2.2-3: "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it. And many people shall go up to the house, and he will teach us the way, for out of Zion shall go forth the law." Startled and encouraged by this message, she persevered in her efforts to reach her own mountain in Zion.
A similar but more historic example occurred in the life of the great Latin scholar Petrarch. In 1336, armed with a copy of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Petrarch set off to ascend Mount Ventoux in Italy. Upon reaching the top, he opened the book at random to these startling words: "And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty billows of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, and compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by." Stunned by this coincidence between this passage and his situation, Petrarch was catalyzed into a process of introspection and transformation that led to his influential writings, pointed to by some as a symbolic starting point for Renaissance thought, with its emphasis on the individual psyche and human interiority. 5
Life as Guru: The Broader Perspective
Beyond its narrower form, however, the purposive qualities of life’s teaching also reveal their effects across the span of an entire life, possibly even several lives. At this level, we see the individual soul guided along in its development not simply by isolated events or symbols, but by means of the shaping influence of experiences transpiring over many years. The philosopher Schopenhauer described how in looking back over the course of one’s life, certain encounters and events which seemed purely accidental at the time begin revealing themselves as crucial structure features of an unintended life story; as a result of these broad changes, the potentialities of one’s character are fostered to fulfillment, almost as if the course of one’s own biography were a cleverly constructed novel. 6 Of course, this sense of overall design is rarely visible to us as we are living the events and usually presents itself only from the retrospective standpoint of many decades.
Jungian psychologist Edward C. Whitmont has suggested a similar perspective on how we might look at traumatic events in childhood. If we allow the "destiny" concept into our interpretation of life stories, then what we have commonly viewed as traumas leading to an individual’s mental or emotional difficulties later on may instead be seen as vital stages within an emergent life-pattern. "Traumatic events of childhood which we associate with the genesis of neurosis or psychosis, and therefore regard as quasi-accidental or avoidable under ‘ideal’ circumstances, may perhaps be seen as essential landmarks in the actualization of a pattern of wholeness."
He goes on to liken the unfoldment of life conditions to the stages of a Greek tragedy. In act one, the basic conditions which establish the foundation of the entire story are set. In act two, challenges or misfortunes are introduced into the setting, while in act three, the challenge is brought to a final resolution. Now, although the misfortunes of the second act can be viewed in terms of cause-and-effect dynamics arising out of act two, from the standpoint of the greater story line, they may also be seen as necessary stages in a pattern of growth not readily apparent until the final act of the play. Similarly, Whitmont suggests that the challenges which arise early in our lives may compel us toward modes of action whose purpose lies within a broader developmental design, provided we are capable of bringing emotional awareness and insight to the larger issues raised by those earlier stages. 7
History provides us with many colorful examples which illustrate the influence of teleological principles in action. Recall, for example, the life of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, who early on experienced great difficulty communicating with others. As a result of struggling to overcome his own inherent limitations (involving such practices as shouting into the surf and learning to enunciate with mouthfuls of pebbles), he eventually succeeded in becoming one of history’s greatest elocutionists. In one sense, the process of having to struggle beyond his limitations became the very thing that made possible his later excellence as an orator. Then there is the case of Helen Keller, whose sensory limitations only served to temper the inherent greatness of the woman in a way that may not have been possible had she been a normally endowed child.
In the annals of spiritual storytelling, I now of no tale that expresses this sense of long-range purposiveness in life more beautifully than in the Sufi tale of "Fatima, the Spinner and the Tent," which is worth relating here at length: 8
Once upon a distant time there was a young woman named Fatima, who was the daughter of a prosperous spinner. One day her father asked her to accompany him on a long journey to an island across the sea where he was to do business; while there, he thought, perhaps she would find herself a husband. Along the way, however, a great storm blew up, dashing the ship against the rocks and killing the father. Fatima was washed up on the shore, unconscious and with little memory of her past. Destitute and suffering from exposure, she was found by a family of clothmakers who took pity on her and invited her into their home. There she lived for two years, learning the skills of their trade.
One day, a band of slave traders invaded the family’s dwelling, and took Fatima and her new companions to Istanbul, where she was to be sold as a slave. Her world had collapsed for the second time. Among the buyers at the market was a man looking for slaves to work in his woodyard, where he made masts for ships. When he saw the dejection of the unfortunate Fatima, he decided to purchase her to be a serving maid for his wife, thinking he might be able to give her a slightly better life than if she were bought by someone else. On returning home, however, the mastmaker discovered that pirates had stolen all his money and valuables. Thus Fatima, the man, and his wife were left to run the business by themselves, and Fatima now learned the skill of making masts. She was grateful to the man, however, and worked hard. In return, he granted her freedom, and she became his trusted helper.
One day he told her, "I want you to go as my agent to Java and sell masts…" But while she was sailing off the China coast, a typhoon struck and, once again, she found herself washed up on shore, penniless and far from home. Feeling confused and despondent over such prolonged ill-fortune, she began walking inland. Now, it so happened, there had been a legend in China that someday a female stranger would come from a distant land and make a tent for the emperor. Because no one there knew how to make tents, everybody looked forward with excitement to this event. Through the years successive emperors had sent heralds throughout the land asking that any foreigners be sent to the imperial court.
When Fatima stumbled into a town, it was one such occasion. The people told her that she would have to go see the emperor. On reaching the court, the emperor asked Fatima if she knew how to make a tent. She replied," I think so…." First, she asked for flax, and using the skill learned from her father, spun some rope. Since there was no stout cloth in the region, she used the skill she had learned from the family of cothmakers to weave some. And needing tent poles, she recalled her time spent in Istanbul making masts to make these as well. Putting these elements all together, she was able to make a tent for the emperor.
Delighted, the emperor offered her the fulfillment of any wish she might have. She chose to live in China, where she eventually met and married a handsome prince. There she remained in happiness, surrounded by children until the end of her days.
In this tale we see how one individual’s repeated encounters with apparent tragedy actually proved essential to the fulfillment of a greater destiny, with each skill or lesson learned along the way eventually serving this final end. Note the close similarity of the lead character’s name with our word for "fate." That a specifically royal marriage results from Fatima’s misfortunes tips us to the fact we are dealing here with archetypal symbols. A royal marriage is one of the perennially employed images for enlightenment or spiritual fulfillment. In its broader meaning, this story speaks to the intricate evolutionary design underlying each of our lives as we move towards our own royal marriage, the union of opposites implicit within spiritual self-realization. Seen in a larger context, the twists and turns of fortune that impact each of us make sense only when seen against the backdrop of our long-range spiritual development.
To be sure, this philosophical viewpoint opens itself to obvious questions and concerns, recalling Voltaire’s broadside against naïve providential thinking in Candide: "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." After all, where is the design behind the child dying of starvation in Africa or the divine purpose in the story of a good person turned to a life of crime? And what providential energy would be responsible for the loving father murdered by a terrorist? I is just as obvious that the notion of design in an individual’s life may not always mean a specifically spiritual design; for even though all lives are in some sense appropriate to the characters of those experiencing them, often these do not display any obvious sense of evolutionary, spiritual direction. The events in Hitler’s early life, including his failure as an artist and numerous close calls with death, may be said to exhibit a certain fatedness in their unfoldment; yet one could hardly call this an evolutionary or spiritual pattern.
For the esotericist, however, such problems are perhaps best understood when seen in the framework of reincarnation. That is, while the spiritual dimension of life-purposiveness may not always be obvious within the context of a single lifetime, over the course of many lives, the seeming detours and cul-de-sacs of destiny take on far greater significance as integral stages in a much greater journey of evolution. As mystics have been careful to stress, the higher Self perceives with a very different sense of time than the surface ego, and evolves in terms of spiritual growth over eons of time rather than the seventy or eighty years of a single human lifetime. As one example of this, the famed authority on death and dying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross tells the story of a conversation she claims to have had with a nonphysical being she describes as one of her guides. The guide told her, "When I’m born again to a human body, I want to die of starvation as a child." Never one to believe in the ennobling effects of suffering, Kubler-Ross responded with brutal frankness: "You choose to be born to die of starvation!? What kind of idiot are you?" To which her guide remarked, with great love: "Elisabeth, it would enhance my compassion." 9
Invoking the Teaching of Life
Among the more intriguing aspects of the teleological principle is that it can be invoked at will. Recall the well-known spiritual axiom, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear"; so through the cultivation of a properly receptive and reverent attitude, we can accelerate the teaching process as it presents itself not only through living teachers, but through events, dreams, and symbols of many types. In Out of Africa, writer Isak Dinesen expressed a similar sentiment in these words:
Many people think it an unreasonable thing, to be looking for a sign. This is because of the fact that it takes a particular state of mind to be able to do so, and not many people have found themselves in such a state. If, in this mood, you ask for a sign, the answer cannot fail you; it follows as the natural consequence of the demand.
The process of asking for spiritual signs and teachings can be facilitated through fervent prayer, fasting, and meditation, all of which can help to align one more fully with the hidden intelligence guiding our lives. A dramatic example of this idea can be seen in the Native American "vision quest," where a participant leaves ordinary life behind and lives for a time in an isolated condition in nature, in hope of receiving a specific vision or life-teaching. Though it is commonly believed the sought revelation must take the form of an actual vision of some sort, it can just as easily take the form of a dramatic natural event or synchronistic happening involving an animal, object, or process of nature. And although it is preferable to do so, one does not necessarily need to go out into the wilderness to undertake a vision quest. Cultivating a spirit of receptivity will produce results in almost any environment, often in an unexpected or unconventional way. Even a city dweller can undertake their own vision quest by engaging in several days of mild fasting, periods of daily meditation, and an extra attentiveness to dreams and other symbolic events. During this period, every telephone message, remembered dream, encounter with a stranger, invitation — even advertisements on the sides of buses — might carry potent messages about one’s life direction or spiritual choices.
The evolutionary principle that propels us toward spiritual unfoldment draws not only on the qualities of the present moment, but on the influences of both past and future as well. If we liken our life drama to a type of script, ours is a story comprised of karmic factors from an earlier time along with the purposive influences of future potentialities. Like the acorn, which is both a product of past influences (genetic, environmental, and chemical conditions) and future influences or coded biological potentialities, our own lives and circumstances represent a meshing of both past and future influences, visible in the symbols of ordinary experience. These interact in a dialectic process to reweave the legacies of past karma with the possibilities of future imperatives, drawing us ever closer to the enlightened realization of Self.
© 1996 Ray Grasse – all rights reserved. Adapted from The Waking Dream: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of Our Lives (Quest Books, 1996).
All photographs © 2014 Ray Grasse
1: Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia (New York: Dodd, Mead & co., 1926), 110.
2. Cited by Glenn Mullin, "Personal Glimpses," The Quest, Winter 1993, 96.
3. Paraphrased from Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962), 159.
4. Medicine Grizzlybear Lake, Native Healer (Wheaton, Ill., Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 27.
5. Cited by James Hillman in Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 195-96.
6. Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York: Penguin, 1970), 193-94.
7. Edward Whitmont, "The Destiny Concept in Psychotherapy" Spring, James Hillman, Ed. (Analytical Psychology Club of New York, 1969), 73-92.
8. Paraphrased and condensed from Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969), 72-74.
9. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, interviewed by William Elliot, Tying Rocks to Clouds (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 39.
Ray Grasse is author of The Waking Dream (Quest Books, 1996), Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), and Under a Sacred Sky (Wessex 2015). He worked for ten years on the staffs of Quest Books and The Quest magazine, and studied with teachers in both the Kriya Yoga and Zen traditions. His astrology site is www.raygrasse.com, and his photography website is www.raygrassephotography. He lives in the American Midwest, and can be reached at