Rarely does a week of my life go by, without someone writing to me either looking for a spiritual teacher, confused about a spiritual teacher, or upset by a deep disillusionment by their spiritual teacher. The question of the spiritual teacher is a perennial question that in many ways is so less real and relevant among seekers as it was 500 years ago. The difference is that the stage is different. Unlike the great Buddhist hero Milarepa who transversed the Indo-Tibetan subcontinent by foot and then built nine houses before his teacher would begin to instruct him, we can simply click on google and within minutes have access to almost every prominent spiritual teacher there is, living or dead, and likely even some type of cyber-transmission.
In other words, the longing for guidance, the ambivalence about seeking the wrong kind of guidance, the hurt by having been guided poorly, are all great themes in world mysticism, but what is relevant to most of us today is: How am I going to approach this matter? What are the real, gritty questions that I must ask, and murky psychological areas in a potential teacher as well as in myself, that I need to consider when approaching a spiritual teacher? How can I distinguish between various teachers? How can I protect myself from getting into a less-than-holy situation and badly disillusioned? How do I do this in a way that is intelligent and not a waste of my time?
There is both a problem, and a value, to attempting to define criteria for spiritual teachers, as well as for us as spiritual students, who are no less responsible for challenges with our challenges with spiritual teachers as they are for themselves. At best, criteria for spiritual mastery offer highly generalized guidance pointing in the direction of where to look when considering a teacher -- a framework for making rudimentary distinctions. At worst, a set of defined criteria is a rigid and subjective moral code that ego creates to protect itself from those techniques in the teacher's bag of tricks that might undermine its autonomy. Criteria for spiritual studenthood can help us to evaluate if deep engagement with a spiritual teacher is what we really want, or if we will end up in over our heads. It empowers us with self-responsibility and discernment when engaging with spiritual teachers.
Criteria for Teachers
To Whom Does the Teacher Bow?
When meeting a teacher, we may be wise to ask of them: "Who is your teacher?" "Who gave you permission to teach?" Or in the words of Arnaud Desjardins, "To whom or what do you bow?" There is a distinct difference in quality between a teacher who considers himself (or less commonly, herself) as God or the embodiment of Truth and one who considers himself a servant of God or Truth.
Does the Teacher Serve the Student's Best Interest?
Is the teacher self-serving or other-serving? Look closely, as sometimes behavior that appears oriented toward others is self-serving, and behavior that seems egotistical and self-aggrandizing is actually profoundly humble when viewed from a deeper context. We can ask ourselves: Would the teacher be genuinely pleased if I surpassed his or her knowledge, or would this be perceived as a threat and met with jealousy? In the nondual world, there is no need for competition, as Truth, God and Love are endless. There is more than enough to go around.
What Are the Teacher's Students Like?
Do the teacher's long-time students exemplify qualities that you would like to emanate if you became a student of this teacher? Sometimes teachers make great claims, yet one cannot see good results in their long-time senior students. If a teacher proclaims he or she has enlightened dozens of students, but those students do not impress you in any way, this tells you to carefully consider involvement with the teacher. You can ask yourself: Do I admire this teacher's strong students? Do I aspire to express my own personalized vision of this tradition in the form they do? This is not a right-or-wrong issue, but a deeply personal one that only we ourselves can determine. We must be careful to sign on with a teacher who will make significant demands of us that we may later regret, remembering that we ourselves are ultimately accountable for all of our spiritual choices.
Other questions we might consider with respect to the spiritual teacher are: Does the example of the teacher's life demonstrate what I wish to become? Is the teacher completely free, and if not, what are his or her strengths and weaknesses? Is the teacher genuinely humble? How refined is the teacher's attachment to money, sex, power, and fame? What is the teacher's track record? How much uneven development is there? How much of something else is mixed in with the spiritual gift?
Criteria for Students
The best way to attract a teacher who fulfills the criteria for authenticity is to meet the criteria for being an authentic student. It is so much easier to point the finger outward than inward, yet we find no deep satisfaction until we claim the power of self-responsibility.
Am I Willing to Commit?
Deep studenthood is like marriage, only even more serious. It must be entered with a commitment to a serious, ongoing course of study and relationship with a spiritual teacher in order to fulfill the responsibilities of relationship and work through all major obstacles.
Am I Responsible and Reliable?
Successful studenthood requires responsibility and reliability in a very pragmatic sense. Our relationship with the teacher is not only an affair of the heart, but one in which we must put our bodies on the line and express our commitment through practice and action. We may ask ourselves: Am I willing to participate with consistency in a relationship with my teacher? Can I be depended upon? Do I show up on time? Do I follow through with commitments? Do I tend to fulfill the agreements I make--do I meet deadlines and accept responsibility? If my answer is "no" to one or all of these questions, am I willing to radically alter my habitual behaviors in order to become a conscious student?
Am I Willing to Overcome my Childishness?
Here we ask ourselves: Am I willing to honor my teacher in her or his teaching function instead of insisting that she or he fulfill the role of good mother, father, lover or friend? Overcoming our childish relationship with the teacher involves a willingness to see with increasing clarity the mass of projections we make on the teacher--and on God Itself.
What is the Quality of My Connection with My Teacher?
Do I feel I am with a savior? Good father/good mother? Friend? Mentor? Lover? Do I idealize this teacher or am I moved to reduce him or her to my own level? Does my respect for him or her arise from an authentic inner place, or do I feel intimidated, swayed by others' opinions? Am I star-struck by his or her charisma and power? There is no one correct answer to this important question about the quality of our connection, but if we inquire deeply within ourselves, we may gain increasing insight into what draws us to the teacher.
Am I Ready for the Responsibility of Being a Spiritual Student?
Spiritual responsibility means we take responsibility for all of our spiritual choices, including the choice to place ourselves in the hands of charlatans who then disappoint us and the freedom that results from the courage to accept true help in the face of ego's stormy, temperamental resistance.
A common mistake is for people to assume that once they commit to a spiritual teacher they can abdicate responsibility for themselves. But the precise opposite is true. Even within the context of practicing surrender, or obedience, we are still fully responsible for all of our choices and actions. Because we are often engaging with strong energies and potent practices, we are called to further integrity and impeccability in our lives, a far cry from the stereotypical blissful, abandoned relationship with the guru that is sometimes fantasized about and portrayed in the media.
Criteria can offer invaluable guidance in our attempts to discern between various teachers, paths, and practices, and to clarify our own motivations as students. And criteria is limited. We must remember that every circumstance is inherently distinct, determined by its context which includes countless seen and unseen variables in both the student and the teacher. Therefore these criteria should be taken as guidelines which we continue to refine and revisit throughout our lives as conscious students of the path.
[Excerpted from the forthcoming: When the Student Is Ready: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher, Sounds True, 2011]