The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers - Introduction
A wise and practical quickstart guide for anyone who wants—or already has—a spiritual teacher.
HOW THIS BOOK CAN HELP?
If you’re like most readers of this book, you picked it up because you’re feeling two strong pulls.
The first pull is a stirring inside you—an internal pressure to live a deeper life, to become more
of the person you were meant to be. Maybe it’s an urge to deepen your connection with others, with
yourself, with the world, or with God (in whatever way you define God). Or perhaps it’s some urgent,
recurring question about your mission or place in life. Or maybe it’s a call to look closely and honestly
at some of the most basic dilemmas of being human.
You can feel this force inside you, pushing you toward something larger than yourself, toward
completeness—even though you may not know in what direction to move or what spiritual path to
follow. The second pull is the need for one-to-one spiritual direction.
You might already meditate, pray, chant, or engage in some other spiritual practice. You might
read philosophy, or spiritual essays, or the writings of people such as Rumi or Thich Nhat Hanh or Thérèse
of Lisieux or Rabbi Nachman of Breslau. But you also yearn for more: spiritual guidance from a perceptive,
caring, trustworthy human being. Ideally, this person can point out the spiritual choices that present themselves to you and the likely consequences of selecting each one. They can help you see the trajectory you’re traveling and the opportunities and difficulties that may lie ahead. They can help you navigate the often-stormy waters of your own heart and mind. They can help you regain your spiritual footing when you slip and tumble. They can address your most pressing spiritual questions, concerns, and fears. And they can help you discover—and take up— your unique place and purpose in the world.
You might feel strongly that you’ll find this person within the religious tradition in which you
were raised. Or you might feel just the opposite: that you need to explore one or more traditions that have
been unfamiliar to you. Or you might feel caught somewhere in between, not sure where to look or just
what to look for.
Regardless of your background, however, you feel—like so many of us—that you cannot move
forward entirely on your own. You need the help of someone who has walked the path before you, who
can help point the way. Such a person is usually called a spiritual teacher—or, sometimes, a spiritual counselor, coach, director, or mentor. (In this book, for clarity’s sake, I’ll call all these people spiritual teachers.)
In the wired, webbed life of the twenty-first century, all of us have a huge array of these teachers
to choose from. Not surprisingly, they range from enormously helpful to actively harmful. Yet we can’t
go shopping for a spiritual teacher the way we would for a florist or a caterer or a shoe repair shop, because
the opening of the human heart can’t be treated like a service or a commodity.
It’s important to feel an affinity with your spiritual teacher. This rarely comes just from reading
someone’s books, watching their videos, or exploring their website. You’ll need to carefully discern
whether someone is a good spiritual teacher for you. (You of course get to make mistakes, change
teachers, or both.) Often this process involves slow discovery, trial and error, and lots of uncertainty.
This uncertainty may include a whole raft of questions. For example, what qualifications should
you look for in a spiritual teacher? What attributes of a teacher genuinely matter, and which ones don’t
matter much? How can you tell a good spiritual teacher from a less helpful one—or from someone
who’s a fraud, a predator, or mentally ill? Can the same spiritual teacher be great for one person but
terrible for another? What’s the etiquette for asking someone to be your spiritual teacher? Can your
regular minister, priest, or rabbi become your spiritual teacher? Are these even the right questions
And once you’ve become someone’s student, what will you be expected to do or commit to?
Should you feel a binding sense of loyalty to the teacher, or are you free to go elsewhere at any time?
Can you have two or more different teachers at once?
If so, how do you navigate the relationships? After you’ve found a good teacher, how do you
build a strong, healthy, and mutually respectful relationship with them? What can you do to make the
most of that relationship? And what can you do to avoid the dangers and dilemmas that often arise,
such as idealizing the teacher, imagining that they know more than they do, or expecting them to solve
your biggest problems for you? Beyond that, what are the warning signs that something about your relationship with a teacher isn’t right? At what point does someone stop being a teacher and start becoming a cult leader? When does being someone’s student stunt rather than encourage
Then there are the nuts-and-bolts questions. Is it okay for a spiritual teacher to charge money? To ask
you questions about your personal life? To treat one student differently from another? How do you balance
the requirements of spiritual practice or study with the needs of your family and the demands of your work?
And what about your most profound spiritual questions—the ones that put you on this path in
the first place? Is there a right and a wrong way to bring them to a spiritual teacher? Should you expect
direct answers, or guidance in finding those answers yourself, or simply a refocusing or reframing of those
Perhaps most important, what can you do to support your efforts—and the efforts of your
teacher—so that you become fully yourself and a deeply positive force in the world?
If these are the kind of questions you’re asking—welcome.
You’re in the right place and reading the right book. This book won’t answer your deepest religious
and spiritual questions for you. But it will answer most of the questions I’ve listed above—and it will
give you the tools, information, and guidance you need to answer many more for yourself. The words spiritual and spirituality mean many different things to different people. One person thinks spirituality means getting a rush up their spine.
Another thinks it means communicating with angels. A third thinks it’s about sitting cross-legged
until their legs go numb. A fourth thinks it’s about volunteering at a soup kitchen. In this book I use the word spirituality sparingly, preferring other, more specific words whenever possible. I use the adjective spiritual more often—almost always in the context of spiritual teachers, leaders, traditions, organizations, and so on. In my use of these words, they refer to any activity that is meant to make us more aware, more human, and
Whenever you hear anyone use the words spiritual and spirituality, know that the words have a
profusion of meanings. It’s worth asking the speaker how they define those terms. It would be unreasonable of me to expect you to take everything I say on faith—and just as unwise for you to follow my guidance without first knowing who I am.
For the past forty years I’ve studied spirituality and religion—and Buddhism and Judaism
in particular—with several spiritual teachers. In all cases, the relationships have been positive and
productive—though, like everyone, I’ve had my share of challenges and spiritual crises. I’ve also been fortunate to have several friends who are spiritual teachers. I’ve spent a great deal of time with these people outside of their formal roles as teachers—in their homes, on social occasions, and in many restaurants and bars. In addition, I’ve been privileged to serve as editor and literary agent for four spiritual teachers.
I’m a committed proponent of serious spirituality in all forms and traditions. I’ve also been a member of Methodist, Quaker, Zen, and Jewish congregations. I’m the author of over a dozen books that help people to deepen and open their lives. My writing on spiritual topics has also been published in a variety of magazines, books, and other media.
One thing I’m not, however, is a spiritual teacher. I’m simply someone who has been in several
long-term student-teacher relationships; who has closely observed many other such relationships; who
has interacted with many spiritual teachers off duty; and who is able to write about student-teacher relationships honestly and, I hope, articulately.
Please read my words with an open mind—and take them with a pinch of salt. Accept what feels
wholesome, right, and useful—and set aside what doesn’t. When, on occasion, I become emphatic, it’s
to stress the seriousness of what I have to say, not to demand your obedience. When I repeatedly emphasize
a few key themes, my intent is to underscore their importance and subtlety, not to express doubt about your ability to pay attention.
Here is my most vital advice for learning from any spiritual teacher. Show up; pay close attention to
what you see and hear; then test it all against what your heart, mind, and gut tell you. This mindful discernment is the single most important skill for navigating any student-teacher relationship—as well as
the turbulent waters of life in general.
Ultimately, you will discover that you are the one who must do the work; the teacher can only
point the way and remind you of what you alreadyknow.
Journey wisely. Journey well.