In a previous episode, I described my experiences in the early 2000s as I searched for a good meditation manual. After finding one, working with it for a few months, and experiencing some positive results, I wanted more. The teacher who’d written this book lived on the other side of the planet—but a quick Internet search revealed that he was going to be giving a talk near me in just a few weeks! Of course, I showed up for his talk.
At the end of the talk, I raised my hand and proceeded to create an awkward moment. I let him know I was interested in instruction in the practices he’d been teaching, and I asked if he could recommend a teacher familiar with these practices. There was some muted laughter from the audience as he replied that any of the local teachers should be able to provide me with good meditation instruction. (I later realized that these teachers were his hosts, and they were all present at this talk. Since they were local, they would’ve been my logical first choice as teachers; thus the awkward moment.)
However, for me, not just any teacher would do. I felt a special connection with the teacher who’d given the talk, so I sent him an email and asked if he would be open to exploring working with me; he said yes. This was my first connection with a spiritual teacher who I respected highly. For various reasons, we never ended up working together, but I still feel glad that I reached out to him.
Spiritual teachers are our guides to awakening—and they’re all around us. In this episode, I’ll describe the many types of spiritual teachers (including some types you might not have considered), I’ll show you how to get to know a teacher before you enter a student-teacher relationship, and I’ll show you how to avoid problems with spiritual teachers—problems like idealization and exploitation. Finally, I’ll explore various routes to becoming a teacher yourself.
Types of Spiritual Teachers
Over time, religions and other spiritual groups tend to accumulate a large body of views and practices. This can be helpful, giving you a variety of perspectives on awakening—but it can also be confusing and overwhelming, since this body of views and practices may be inconsistent and contradictory. A spiritual teacher, on the other hand, can present a view of awakening that’s clear and self-consistent.
These teachers go by a wide range of titles: guru, lama, rabbi, reverend, shaman, meditation instructor, and more; for simplicity, I call them all spiritual teachers. I view psychotherapists, professors, coaches, organizational development consultants, and kindergarten teachers as spiritual teachers, too, since for me, “ordinary” human development is also a form of spiritual awakening.
Some spiritual teachers are affiliated with a religion or spiritual group, and some aren’t. Some spiritual teachers lead worldwide organizations, some lead local communities, and some run groups online. Some teachers work with groups, some work with individuals, and some don’t work with people at all—they just publish content. Some teachers teach views, some teach practices, some facilitate transformative processes, and some transmit energy.
As you can see, spiritual teachers are quite a diverse bunch. What they all have in common is that they all support spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakening, as I define it, is evolution toward greater empowerment and greater compassion. Both empowerment and compassion are required for awakening; so, in my view, to qualify as a spiritual teacher, you must support evolution toward both greater empowerment and greater compassion. For instance, someone who teaches people exploitative ways of increasing business profits is not a spiritual teacher, in my book. The same goes for someone who teaches people exploitative ways of using intuition or psychic power.
Some teachers are professionals with formal roles, credentials, and titles; others teach informally, as spiritual friends or mentors, without any special credentials. You might think a professional teacher would be more helpful than a spiritual friend, but that’s not necessarily the case. Your spiritual friends and mentors may be more accessible than your formal teachers, they may know you better, you may trust them more, and you may be less likely to idealize them. In my own process of awakening, my spiritual friends and mentors have been just as important as my formal teachers.
Getting to Know a Teacher
If you want guidance from a spiritual teacher, it can take time and energy to find one who’s a good match for you. A good way to get to know a given teacher is to start exploring any books, podcasts, apps, online courses, and so forth that they may have published. This is a do-it-yourself approach that’s based on instructional technology rather than relationship. (I describe do-it-yourself approaches to awakening in a previous episode, at spiritualawakeningforgeeks.com/do-it-yourself-awakening/.)
In many cases, instructional technology will be all you need. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot out of listening to recorded talks by various teachers. One teacher who I was following for a while had posted just about every talk he’d ever given on his website; I listened to them all, and by the end of that, I felt like I’d attended all of his retreats!
That being said, there’s something important you can only get through an actual relationship with a teacher: human feedback. If a teacher’s a good match for you, once they get to know you, they’ll be able to quickly recognize and point out your edges for growth. This can be really helpful. If you’re like me, you’ll come to a point at which you’ve learned all you can from instructional technology, and you’ll start craving human feedback. That’s the time to consider reaching out and creating real relationships with teachers you respect.
When you open yourself to learning from a teacher you respect, that learning doesn’t just take place on an explicit, intellectual level. As you get more involved in a relationship with a teacher, you’ll start to absorb not only the teacher’s ideas but also the teacher’s patterns of perceiving, behaving, and relating with others. This happens via implicit learning—that is, learning “by osmosis,” without being aware of what you’ve learned. You learn implicitly from a teacher in the same way that a child learns implicitly from their parents.
The more involved you get with a teacher, the more bandwidth there is for implicit learning from your teacher. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, because, through implicit learning, you’ll start to absorb not only the teacher’s positive qualities but their negative qualities, too! If you observe a teacher and their close students, you’ll notice that the students have picked up not only the teacher’s ideas but also their mannerisms, patterns of speech, and patterns of relating with others.
Avoiding Problems with Teachers
No teacher is perfect. Before you dive into a relationship with a teacher, spend some time observing them from a distance. Notice how they interact with their followers and with others. Do they approach others with kindness and integrity, with arrogance and disdain, or exploitatively and abusively? Human development is multi-faceted, so it’s possible for a teacher to be highly skilled in some areas while also being highly dysfunctional in others. For this reason, it’s best to appreciate some teachers from a distance.
Just as children idealize their parents, it can be tempting to idealize our teachers. When we do that, it gets harder to see their flaws. If you think a given teacher is perfect, you’re definitely idealizing them. If you’re lucky, nothing bad will happen except that you’ll eventually end up being disappointed by them. However, idealizing a teacher also puts you at higher risk of being exploited or abused.
The teaching relationship creates a power differential; that’s because students tend to idealize their teachers and look to them for guidance. For this reason, teaching with integrity requires good boundaries and good mental health; without these, it’s likely that a teacher will take advantage of this power differential (either intentionally or unintentionally). Given how often we hear about spiritual teachers abusing and exploiting their students, it’s clear that many teachers don’t have what it takes to teach with integrity. So, pay close attention to your gut sense of whether a teacher is acting abusively or exploitatively.
When a teacher is being idealized by their community, all kinds of misbehavior can get rationalized as “crazy wisdom.” Don’t fall for that. Think of teachers as human beings with special skills and knowledge—not as gods. Impressive credentials are no guarantee that a teacher will always act with integrity.
Becoming a Teacher
What if you want to teach, yourself? How do you become a spiritual teacher? That depends on what kind of teacher you want to become and what social and cultural context you want to teach in. To teach well, you need to learn whatever it is that you want to teach, you need to learn how to teach, and you need to remove any obstacles to being an effective teacher. In general, there are at least three models of how to become a teacher: the lineage model, the independent teacher model, and the institutional model.
The lineage model shows up in certain religious contexts. In this model, a student finds a teacher and works with that teacher intensively until the teacher is satisfied that the student has learned what’s being taught; then the teacher gives the student a blessing to teach and an endorsement to carry on the teacher’s lineage.
Unfortunately, the lineage model has never worked well for me. Perhaps I’m just too picky or too independent-minded, but I’ve never had an intensive, long-term relationship with a teacher in a religious lineage. What’s worked better for me has been to study the work of various teachers from a distance via instructional technology, to consult with various teachers briefly, when necessary, to clear up confusion and help me move through sticking points, and to cultivate longer-term relationships with spiritual friends and mentors. As a student, this has been an efficient way to learn. As a teacher, it’s left me without the endorsement of any particular religious lineage; however, it’s also left me free to teach what I want, how I want, drawing from a variety of approaches that I’ve found helpful. This is the independent teacher model—the model I’m using in the Spiritual Awakening for Geeks project. In the independent teacher model, when you decide you’re ready to teach, you teach! In this model, teaching is self-authorized.
There’s another model that’s also worked well for me: the institutional model. In this model, to become a teacher, you follow a path that’s mediated by institutions (rather than individuals) and that’s defined by specific legal requirements or cultural expectations. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, I consider psychotherapy to be a form of spiritual teaching, in a broad sense, since psychotherapy supports people in becoming more empowered and more compassionate. I’m currently a licensed psychotherapist, and I’ve followed an institutionally-mediated path to get that credential. That path wasn’t dependent on the blessing of any particular individual; it involved fulfilling various legal requirements such as getting a master’s degree in counseling, getting a certain amount of supervised experience providing psychotherapy, and so forth.
I’ve found this institutional path to be helpful; it’s given me confidence in my work and helpful relationships with colleagues who’ve walked a similar path. In my work as a psychotherapist, I’m constrained by the ethics and laws that apply to the profession of psychotherapy, but I find these constraints to be helpful and appropriate, for the most part.
Let’s review what we’ve covered in this episode. I defined a spiritual teacher as someone who supports spiritual awakening, and I defined spiritual awakening as evolution toward greater empowerment and greater compassion. I described many types of spiritual teachers, including religiously-affiliated teachers, informal teachers such as spiritual mentors and friends, and people like psychotherapists and kindergarten teachers (who we don’t usually think of as spiritual teachers). I described how you can explore a teacher’s work before becoming their student, how to know when to seek an actual relationship with a teacher, and how to create that relationship while avoiding problems like idealization and exploitation. Finally, I described three models of how to become a teacher yourself: the lineage model, the independent teacher model, and the institutional model.