How to Select a Spiritual Teacher
By Matthew Joyce
What do Tiger Woods, Mick Jagger, and President Obama have in common? None of them would be world class leaders in their respective fields without the help and assistance of the coaches and teachers who brought them to the top of their games.
If you want to succeed in sports, music, politics, or your career you might consider hiring an expert to help you to learn and improve. It’s the same with improving your spiritual practices.
It’s possible to be a self-taught expert, but progress can be slow. If you’re interested in speeding your development in any endeavor you may decide you want a teacher who can show you the basics, help you correct mistakes, smooth over the rough spots, and shorten the plateaus between advances.
The process of finding the right spiritual teacher is as much about asking yourself the right questions as it is about asking questions of the potential teacher. Below are some guidelines and questions that will help you in your search.
What worldview are you looking for?
The choice of spiritual teacher often begins with a decision about which worldview you are looking for. Most teachers are steeped in a particular spiritual tradition. They might be Zen masters, Jewish cabalists, Christian mystics, Sufi pirs, swamis, yogis, or shamans. There are many rich paths that you can choose.
Or perhaps you want to learn some particular skills without any affiliated dogma. It used to be that if you wanted to learn something such as meditation or astral travel you needed to choose a spiritual tradition at the same time. But increasing numbers of teachers and schools are offering straightforward instruction in techniques without delving into specific spiritual philosophies.
What is your ideal spiritual teacher like?
When searching for a spiritual teacher you will undoubtedly have some preconceived ideas about what you expect your teacher to be like. Take some time to explore this so you can proceed with a better understanding of just what you are looking for.
Do you expect them to look a certain way, such as having a shaved head? Do you expect them to dress a particular way, such as wearing loose flowing robes? Do you expect them to speak in hushed riddles or to use a microphone to reach the back of an auditorium? Do you expect your spiritual teacher to live in the world or abide apart from it?
Do you expect your teacher to be perfect? Some people want a teacher that they can revere and give themselves to completely. Others don’t trust authority figures. They’ve seen too many examples of unethical teachers who take advantage of their followers. You’ll need to find your own balance between skepticism and a willingness to open yourself to a teacher’s methods.
With these expectations and a worldview in mind, the next question may be about the type of teaching and the level of experience that you are looking for in a teacher.
What level of teacher are you looking for?
Teachers come in many forms, but to simplify your search you may want to break them down into the following four categories.
A friend. Sometimes friends can be excellent teachers. We can share experiences with them, ask them for advice, and bounce ideas off them. Gaining an outside perspective from someone who knows you well enough to be truly insightful can be very valuable. But chances are your friends are at roughly the same place on their path of development as you are. If you want to advance quickly, you may want someone with more advanced knowledge and skill.
A spiritual instructor knows what you are trying to learn. Instructors can teach you techniques, help you spot and correct mistakes, and show you how to improve your skills. They can also help you through challenging moments and serve as a role model because they have firsthand experience with what you are striving to do.
A spiritual scholar or expert is someone who is well versed in one or more schools of spiritual teachings and who can explain complicated ideas in ways that make them easy to understand. Scholars may also be instructors or they may focus primarily on conceptual education, storytelling, interpreting spiritual texts, and or giving advice about life situations.
A spiritual master need not be someone famous such as the Dalai Lama or a guru with a worldwide following, but they will be someone who provides a consistent living example of their spiritual tradition. Spiritual masters tend to possess more rarified skills, including the ability to shift your consciousness by their mere presence or intention. Some masters act as instructors and scholars, teaching and providing guidance in one-on-one or small group settings. Others serve primarily as leaders of their organizations and interact primarily in large groups.
Directly related to the level of teacher that you are looking for, should be questions you’ll want to ask about the teacher’s background.
What type of background does the teacher have?
When it comes to spiritual teaching there is no central governing body that accredits spiritual teachers with academic degrees or licenses them with professional certifications. Some seminaries, rabbinic schools, and ashrams have specific training programs with set standards, but when it comes to exploring spirituality there are as many ways to do so as there are people doing so. Moreover, nowadays many people study multiple spiritual traditions, combining concepts and insights into an amalgam that suits their individual practice.
So when you are considering a spiritual teacher, inquire into their background.
How long have they been on their own spiritual path? Long years of practice do not necessarily correlate with advanced stages of mastery, but this does demonstrate a degree of commitment that is more likely to indicate a greater level of experience and maturity.
Other questions to investigate include: What experiences got them started on their own spiritual path? What were their most formative experiences? What types of training have they undertaken? Do the ideas that they have studied seem applicable to you? And perhaps most importantly, do the concepts and skills they teach resonate with you?
Does the teacher charge for time or advice?
Another important question to consider is the cost of the teaching. To some ways of thinking, charging money for spiritual teaching is antithetical or even heretical to the spiritual tradition. But the economic realities of our modern era require everyone to make a living.
For thousands of years common people brought gifts and offerings to their priests and religious leaders. Modern congregations pass collection baskets, require dues, or charge admission to support their leaders. Other spiritual teachers support themselves by writing books, teaching workshops, or providing one-on-one coaching.
Of course, some spiritual teachers don’t charge for their services, but these tend to be people who have another source of income, such as the support of a large organization, church or ashram, a day job, a spouse with a job, a trust fund, or otherwise.
Don’t be put off by different types of financial compensation. First find a teacher whose ideas, skills, and teaching methods resonate with you. Then determine whether the costs associated with the training and the potential rewards for you are worth the expense.
How many of these important qualities does the teacher demonstrate?
Regardless of a spiritual teacher’s worldview, background, teaching style, or cost, a worthwhile teacher will demonstrate most or all of these seven qualities.
1. They are good communicators. Much of learning comes down to clearly understanding what the teacher has to convey, be that specific instructions, abstract concepts, a parable, or life advice.
2. They are good facilitators. We also learn by doing. A good teacher knows how to facilitate the appropriate experience for the student. That may be through direct exercises, koans to ponder, missions to fulfill, or even setting challenges to overcome.
3. They encourage questions. They support independent and critical thinking rather than requiring rote memorization or adherence to dogma.
4. They are clear about priorities. They place the learning and advancement of their students before the advancement of their career or their organization.
5. They are humble. Most everyone is more highly skilled at some things than other people are, and recognizing that is appropriate. But holding an air of superiority is something altogether different. The best teachers are those who don’t confuse standing on the podium with standing on a pedestal.
6. They walk the talk. They don’t just preach. They actually demonstrate the qualities that they teach, such as love, kindness, self-control, and compassion.
7. They are ethical. They hold themselves to a moral standard of conduct that is at least as high as the standard that they direct other people to uphold.
Choosing the Teacher Who Is Right for You
Finding the right spiritual teacher for you can be as simple as joining a friend at a spiritual event or it may take many years of seeking. Perhaps you will find one teacher and then after a time move onto the next one.
The main thing to keep in mind when selecting a spiritual teacher is to listen your own inner guidance. If the teacher feels right, he or she probably is. If not, be patient and continue your own inner work.
And then as the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
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