The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers - Selections
A wise and practical quickstart guide for anyone who wants—or already has—a spiritual teacher.
Basic Wisdom Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness”—then you should enter and remain in them. Buddha Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a blessing to be celebrated. Joan Chittister A true spiritual teacher does not have anything to teach in the conventional sense of the word, does not have anything to give or add to you, such as new information, beliefs, or rules of conduct. The only function of such a teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth. . . . The words are no more than signposts. Eckhart Tolle There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. Rumi A spiritual teacher is a living, breathing human being, with normal human emotions, impulses, and desires. It’s easy to imagine that spiritual teachers are different from us in some basic way—that they have somehow transcended fear, loneliness, grief, and all the other emotions most of us work so hard to suppress or avoid. In my own early days with spiritual teachers, I imagined that they were happy and serene more or less all the time. I couldn’t accept what should have been obvious: that they feel the same emotional pain (and pleasure) that all of us do. I also couldn’t see that, unlike so many of us, the best of them don’t expend much effort trying to avoid the pain or grab on to the pleasure. Instead, they let their emotions— pleasant and unpleasant—arise, pass through them, and blow away like fog. This is what many of the best spiritual teachers will help you learn to do as well. An authentic spiritual teacher is concerned with both helping you and serving the world. Spiritual and religious practices are much more than self-improvement—though self-improvement is often one of their fruits. When I first began studying with a spiritual teacher, I wanted to acquire all kinds of goodies: insight, wisdom, inner peace, mental clarity, and heightened spiritual health. I even wanted to get really good at transcending myself. Every one of these goals was about me and the spiritual booty I hoped to accumulate. Part of the job of my first two teachers was to help me see the acquisitiveness of the approach I was taking. Another part was to help me realize my inseparability from the rest of the world—and to see that, as human beings, we must serve as well as be served. Today, many spiritual teachers promote spirituality as a way to relax, reduce stress, or create more personal power or effectiveness. While there’s nothing wrong with learning these—or any other useful skill—they do little to help us see beyond our habitual, narrow definitions of ourselves and our roles in the world. Some spiritual teachers can do much more: they can help us grow more deeply into ourselves and be of greater service to the world. And as we serve the world, doing what we are called to do—whether it’s designing a helpful newsletter, teaching kids basic financial skills, or being with people as they die—we can forget ourselves and, paradoxically, become ourselves more completely. Perhaps the ancient sage Hillel said it best: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Learning from spiritual teachers means building a personal relationship with them—but this doesn’t always mean you have to live (or travel to) where they are. In aMy heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: “I want a spiritual teacher.” . . . My God, but I wanted a spiritual teacher. Elizabeth Gilbert, from her memoir Eat, Pray, Love