Choosing a Teacher
Finding the Lineage and Qualities that Speak to Your Path
Meeting a teacher can impact us so powerfully that we’re seized by a desire to change our lives and embrace the quest for mystical realization. When Rumi, a highly respected scholar, met his teacher Shams of Tabriz, Shams took a book Rumi was writing about philosophy and threw it into a well. Rumi became an ecstatic devotee of Shams and abandoned all else, including scholarship and family responsibilities. After finding a teacher a person may begin to undergo a noticeable transformation and change of habits and lifestyle. One may experience deeper meditations or feel a blissful energy or an opening of the heart, the kindling of an inner fire. Rumi said:
What draws Friends together
does not conform to Laws of Nature.
Form doesn’t know about spiritual closeness. . . .
A hand shifts our birdcages around.
Some are brought closer. Some move apart.
Do not try to reason it out. Be conscious
of who draws you and who not.
A common experience after meeting a teacher is for everything in our lives to fall apart. In the Koran it is said, “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake.” Old interests fall away, and old friendships become less compelling as a seeker turns toward the path of spiritual awakening. The disciples of the Indian guru Ramakrishna underwent a profound transformation as a result of their contact with their saintly master. Many were filled with a feverish devotion and burning for enlightenment. Many of them renounced worldly life soon after Ramakrishna’s death and became monks committed to pursuing Self-realization.
We accept a teacher who inspires us to attain the enlightened state through meditation, yoga, and other consciousness-enhancing practices. In deep meditation, the mind quiets down and awareness turns inward, becoming self-reflective, becoming aware of itself as awareness. The diligent practitioner experiences the growth of tranquility, contentment, and wisdom. In Buddhist terms, meditation reveals our dharmakaya nature--the truth body, the pure mind, like a clear mirror. In the Hindu tradition this is known as realization of the Self or Atman, which is one with Brahman, the Absolute.
We need a teacher not only to teach us techniques and doctrine but also to embody the enlightened state, so that we can recognize it in ourselves and attain it. We may also choose a teacher to learn a particular method such as meditation, yoga, or shamanic journeying. Even in cases where a teacher isn’t a fully enlightened Buddha, sage, or siddha guru, we could still grow by studying with that person for a period of time--if the teacher seems clear and balanced and we feel confident that this person can guide us effectively through a stage of our transformation. It’s enough that the teacher embodies a quality of freedom that we wish to emulate.
Teachers appear in many guises. When I met my hatha yoga teacher, Allan Bateman, in 1979, I found that he was quite an unusual individual. Self-taught in yoga, Allan looked like a muscle-bound jock. He moved around his studio in a bikini, sang opera arias, and held in the palm of his hand an enormous cat named Godzilla, who lay on his back stretching out his paws in a magnificent backbend, in full spinal extension. Allan bragged modestly about this and that, and talked about his cattle ranch upstate where he had a herd of Beefalo. I learned so much yoga from this man, I didn’t care if he was some great pundit or intellectual. He wasn’t trying to be saintly. He used his body in his teaching. He was very graceful and respectful and supportive of intelligent movement. He was a free and sexy guy, very confident, and a positive male role model.
John Welwood, author of Awakening the Heart, notes, “Since genuine spiritual teachers come in many different shapes and forms, we’ll no doubt fail if we try to spell out how a good guru should behave.” David Frawley, founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, echoes this view, saying, “Great gurus may be saints with impeccable characters and lifestyles. However, they may also look like madmen and refuse to conform to any social norms. Society may consider them scoundrels.” We shouldn’t accept a teacher just because everybody else says this is an enlightened sage; nor should we immediately reject all teachers who don’t conform to our expectations or conceptions of holiness. The teacher doesn’t have to be famous, or an impoverished ascetic, or surrounded by important disciples. What’s important is that the teacher’s personal example inspires us, the teacher’s words speak to us deeply, and the teacher’s presence affects us intensely. The guide shows us glimpses of the goal of the spiritual journey, as well as a path we can follow to reach this goal.
In this book we’ll consider how spiritual teachers have been described in a number of world religions. From the insights derived from these traditions, we’ll reach a number of conclusions:
1. Spiritual apprenticeship begins with a personal relationship with a teacher who tangibly affects our awareness and inspires us to practice a contemplative discipline in order to attain enlightenment.
2. Initiation connects the student to the influence of a spiritual lineage that transcends the individual teacher.
3. The student-teacher relationship involves the mutual meditation of the student and teacher upon one another, and may entail the deliberate cultivation of a form of psychic merger or unity that can have a transformative effect upon the student.
4. The relationship may involve experiences of grace in which the teacher functions as a conduit for transmission of transpersonal forces.
When choosing a guide, proceed with care. It’s important to take sufficient time to examine the teacher’s character and note any internal changes that occur as a result of contact with this being. A powerful inner shift of consciousness after meeting a teacher signals us to seek further contact and instruction.