What can a documentary about a made-up guru and genuine devotees tell us about the therapeutic process?
Director / Guru
Documentary filmmaker Vikram Gandhi had a problem with the way Eastern gurus attracted and sometimes took advantage of their followers. To spotlight this phenomenon, he decided to take on the identity of a guru and see how seekers would respond. If you’d like to see this film without spoilers, this would be the ideal place to stop reading.
Vikram didn’t start from scratch when constructing his holy-man image of Kumaré. Although he hailed from New Jersey, his Indian heritage, combined with his grandmother’s pattern of speech allowed him to act the part. Growing out his beard, donning crimson robes, and hiring two attractive female ‘devotees’ to follow him around also helped him look the part.
What is ‘Fake’?
The initial goal in creating Kumaré was to see if a fake guru can attract real followers. In order to be convincing, Vikram fabricates a spiritual philosophy and made-up yoga poses. “If people will believe this, then they’ll believe anything.” But wait just a minute. Even though Vikram’s intention was to be false in order to create a believable fiction, he actually taps into processes and structures that are quite real and very alive, both in spiritual practices and psychotherapy. Like every person, Vikram’s history infused his thinking far more than he consciously understood, so a lot of this ‘made up’ stuff was likely near-replicas of rituals and practices from his family.
Vikram constructs a ‘made up’ philosophy called The Mirror as part of the five-part process at the core his teaching, and he asks followers to do quite practical activities such as “reflect,” “envision” and “build a path.” These processes are effective regardless of the person teaching them.
Elsewhere in the movie, Vikram teaches the Blue Light Meditation, also ‘made up.’ And yet he’s simply asking his followers to stop, to focus, and to visualize quietly. A vast number of different meditative traditions use these processes, and regardless of whether the focus is on “blue light,” a candle at the front of the temple, or some other focus, the techniques are effective at stilling the mind. The more he practices, the more Vikram realizes he’s failing at being fake. He’s doing something real.
As a therapist, I also recognize many of Kumaré’s mannerisms as tapping into some of the same wellsprings as psychotherapy. Many times, it seems that Vikram doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing or why he’s getting an intense level of love and devotion from his followers. It’s somewhat terrifying to understand the therapeutic process and watch Vikram play with these forces, and consequently the emotions of his followers, with little understanding of what he’s doing.
I Am Who You Think I Am
We never really know other people. We may have a lot of experience, and we may feel like we can predict their behavior most of the time, but what it feels like to be them, what emotions and memories are driving them are nearly always outside of our grasp. So we make up stories that more or less correspond to what we see in our peers, and act as if that’s the truth.
When people see Kumaré, they make assumptions about him. They assume he’s a holy man. He doesn’t even really need to make the claim himself. People who follow gurus know the signs and signals, and as long as Kumaré fits the bill, they treat him like the genuine article. In therapy we call this ‘projection,’ because the observer projects his own ideas onto the other person, rightly or wrongly.
Every day, most of us manage our own image to similar ends. We dress a certain way to say things about who we are and where we stand in the social pecking order. Therapists take particular care in this respect. Surely we want our clients to believe we are competent professionals, so we dress the part in our clothing and our offices, and yet we take care not to give away too much. Vikram has set up Kumaré’s followers for a fall because he has created this false identity, and before the film ends, he will reveal his true identity as a Westerner and a filmmaker. Therapists take care not only to avoid making false impressions, but to correct any misapprehensions before they become a problem.
Just Being There
VIkram’s documentary is chock full of moments where Kumaré sits with his followers and takes an interest in their problems. For all the lies that make up Kumaré, Vikram can’t avoid hearing his devotees and caring about them. He never judges, rarely advises and simply listens. If I had to pick one word to describe what therapists do, it would be ‘listen.’ I’d go so far as to say if you go to therapy and you haven’t felt heard, something is very, very wrong with the therapy.
Deep, non-judgemental listening is incredibly powerful. Whether it’s done by a therapist, a guru, a relative, or a stranger, the effects of being heard are immediate and intense. To me, there’s no wonder why Kumaré is the ‘real thing’ to his followers: he’s there for them.
Anton Chekhov is famous for saying “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” The loaded gun in Kumaré is the ‘unveiling’ of the guru’s true identity to his followers. Vikram has set up this moment, designed it, built the whole movie around it. When this gun goes off, the emotional boom will be titanic. There very well could be casualties.
Therapists value ‘congruence,’ which simply means our words and outer presentation match our true identity. To be congruent is to be largely immune from the peril that Vikram has created in his film. Being congruent is to be without pretense or secrets which could come to light. There is no ‘other shoe’ waiting to drop.
While Vikram may be concerned with his followers’ response to his revelation, it becomes clear that Vikram hasn’t counted on the power this false identity will have over him personally. As Kumaré, he schedules an ‘unveiling ceremony,’ where he invites his followers to declare their true identity that has emerged as a result of their devotion to Kumaré and his teachings. But when the time comes for Kumaré himself to unveil before the loving gaze of his followers, Vikram can’t go through with it. In fact it takes him several weeks to make a second attempt at coming clean, where he records his message to his devotees on video, thus cutting off easy escape once his assistant pushes ‘play’. Then, in person, clean-shaven and in western clothes, he addresses his followers personally. All of them are stunned. Some flee the room and never speak with him again. One hugs him and immediately accepts what has happened. In the end, most remain in contact and find value in what Vikram did, in spite of the lies.
The power of identity — both how we see ourselves and how others see us — channels our behavior so powerfully that it’s hard to resist, just as Vikram found it nearly impossible to give up his Kumaré identity. If a client starts to see themselves as a person who is sober, or a good parent, or a competent employee, then almost without thinking about it they’ll start doing the behaviors that make those beliefs true. And the same goes for me as a therapist: by setting myself up in the identity of someone who can listen, someone who can be compassionate and invest in seeing clients live better lives, then it’s hard not to want to live out that vision as fully as I can.