My friend Kristin has a talent for finding and savoring the joy in life. No matter what circumstances she is under, she seems to be able to find something to be grateful for. Recently she stayed with me for 5 months along with her two kids and hyperactive dog. It wasn’t unusual for me to come home to find her in the bath. “How’s it going?” I might say. “Wonderful!” was almost always the reply, with a dreamy smile and shining eyes. This is a woman who appreciates a good bath as if it were the greatest gift in the world. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t experience darkness. As a single mom with minimal support who has been through several painful breakups in the past two years, she doesn’t have what anyone would call an easy life. But she moves through the darkness by experiencing it fully all the while trusting that it is bringing her into deeper and deeper connection with the light.

Kristin is one of my gurus. The two literal translations of guru are “the disperser of darkness” and “the weighty one”. I prefer the former, older, translation from the Upanishads.

The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.

– Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5

In my experience, many people have negative associations with the term guru. This is because we tend to associate it with “cult leader” and the abuses of power by people in recent history who have called themselves gurus. As Westerners, we are highly uncomfortable with authoritarian power and many guru traditions emphasize the need to place one’s entire being into the care and trust of the guru. Certainly this has lead to many many disillusioned followers once the guru is revealed to be flawed, human, just like everyone else. But a guru does not need to be fully enlightened in order to bring light to others. There are people all around us all the time who help us see the light. I beleive that the disappointment comes from a misplaced emphasis in the relationship.

If we take the second definition of guru “the weighty one” and make that to mean that the guru is the important piece of the guru-disciple relationship, that is where I see the trouble starting. Whenever we look outside ourselves for happiness, fulfillment, light we are bound to be disappointed. The only reliable source of these comes from a personal connection with our true selves, with the divine. This is because whenever we see light outside of ourselves, it is merely a reflection of our own light. In tantra, we use the analogy of a mirror. The clearer the mirror, the more our light shines back at us. So a person might be an extremely effective mirror for us in any given moment, but all they show us is our own light.

I beleive that the important person in the guru/disciple relationship is the disciple, and even more important their devotion – not to the guru itself, but to the light. Any thing that helps us connect to our own light is our guru in the moment; it could be a baby, a tree, the sunlight. Treating the guru with devotion, with love, can only intensify the brightness because as near as I can tell light and love are pretty much the same thing. So the more we project love/light onto the mirror, the more we will feel it reflected back. And the practices of yoga help us to clear the dust off of our own mirrors – so that we can reflect the light of others back onto them.

Sometimes the mirror gets dirty. Our light doesn’t shine brightly. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, simply that it is concealed. When we have a commitment to the light, we can actually be present in the darkness. The darkness does not wipe out the light. It cannot. It defines the light. So the darkness that creeps into our lives is an opportunity for us to deepen our relationship to the light. The darkness invites us to grow stronger, to make our stories richer, and to become a more reflective mirror for those around us to catch a glimpse of their own light.