When you hear the word Guru, does it stir up memories of disillusionment or spiritual teachers accused of sexually or financially exploitive behavior? If so, there’s good reason. We’ve seen the guru-relationship go awry time and time again. Moreover, in the West, the guru-relationship is an appropriated paradigm to begin with.
But in the spirit of western psychology, the Nalanda Institute of Contemplative Science is translating this traditionally sacred relationship, and its corresponding meditation techniques, into a modern language that not only makes sense, but feels right.
In keeping with Nalanda’s emphasis on explaining Indo-Tibetan meditations through the lenses of psychology and neuroscience, the Nalanda Institute’s Certificate Program in Contemplative Psychology trains therapists in ancient Buddhist meditation and theory. The program isn’t limited to therapists but also includes other fields such as yoga teachers and business professionals. Joe Loizzo, founder and co-director of the Nalanda Institute, believes it is the only program of its kind.
Within Tibetan Buddhism, the guru-related practices are considered an incredibly powerful means of transforming limited self-conceptions. They are psychologically complex (but not necessarily complicated), and for that reason, they were traditionally presented only after years of study —and in fact, they were once classified as “secret.”
In a similar vein, Nalanda teaches these meditations in the second year of its program, having first introduced preliminary practices which fall within two categories: the first meditations which discipline the mind, or as Joe Loizzo puts it, “learning to be at peace.” Examples include foundational ethical guidelines such as speaking truthfully and kindly, and simple concentration exercises, such as counting the breath.
The second category of preliminary practices includes techniques to cultivate compassion. Joe Loizzo refers to these as “industrial strength loving-kindness” and “social and emotional Kung Fu.” The practice of giving and taking (or tonglen in Tibetan) is a classic meditation that falls into the compassion category. To do this, one breathes in the suffering of another person, transforms that suffering into love and happiness, and then, on the out breath, sends that love and happiness back to the person.
Compassion-based meditations are designed to break down the idea that we exist as separate from the world around us, and to foster a sense of loving connectivity. In these ways, they create a personal and social impact.
Learning to stabilize and focus the mind, coupled with compassion practices that aid in opening the heart, are invaluable tools for anyone, not just therapists. In both the traditional Tibetan Buddhist approach and Nalanda’s, the next step is to deepen and integrate those meditation experiences. Ideally, the integration is both personal and interpersonal. And for that reason, the integration techniques involve working closely with another person, even if only in visualizations. As Joe Loizzo says, “The idea of putting a relationship with another human being at the center of the spiritual path is challenging and unsettling” — but that’s also part of the point.
Traditionally known as Guru Yoga, Nalanda translates these practices as Role-Modeling and Mentor Bonding Visualizations. Classically, an aspirant would visualize their guru, but Nalanda opens the practice up to include anyone that you admire and who inspires you.
In his book The Jewel Tree of Tibet, Robert Thurman, a Nalanda Institute faculty member, says “A mentor is not considered merely a teacher, but is seen rather as an exemplar . . . a model to follow.” In this way, anyone—from your neighbor to your child, to Mother Theresa or Christ—can serve as your mentor. Whereas traditionally the guru was seen as the embodiment of a Buddha, in this contemporary approach, there’s no push to visualize an enlightened figure.
Our original role models were our parents, or care-givers. They created an intentionally sheltered world where the child has the opportunity to develop personally and psychically, without having to worry about basic needs. In a similar way, these Mentor Bonding techniques reconnect us with feelings of safety and creative inspiration. This security allows us to look at the shadow, or painful and hidden, aspects of our personality and past.
Once one feels safe and connected with the chosen visualized mentor, one practices actually seeing one’s self as the mentor. The explorative play gives us the energy to transform these shadow aspects into something bothdelightful and productive. For these reasons, Joe Loizzo refers to these practices as Spiritual Reparenting.
It’s a personal choice whether you take the psychological approach which presents an opportunity to heal childhood difficulties, or you take a more metaphysical approach where, in pursuit of liberation, one endeavors to break free of an existence limited by suffering. Either way, these ancient practices turned contemporary offer the next level meditations for those who have explored the more familiar Buddhist practices of concentration and compassion.