The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers - Selections
A wise and practical quickstart guide for anyone who wants—or already has—a spiritual teacher.
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.
Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a blessing to be
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.
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground;
there are a thousand ways to go home again.
A spiritual teacher is a living, breathing human
being, with normal human emotions, impulses,
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
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
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
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
Elizabeth Gilbert, from her memoir
Eat, Pray, Love