Do I need a Teacher?
If, when, who and for how long
Is the age of the guru over?
There are many aspects to the question "Do I need a Teacher?"and many widely divergent opinions regarding each of those aspects. It will be up to the individual finally to decide if, when and for how long to remain with a teacher or tradition.
We need to know what to be aware of when choosing a teacher and about the dangers and benefits inherent in this relationship.The dangers and benefits are very real because of the potential depth and intimacy of this kind of engagement and because of the far-reaching influence the teacher can have, for both good and ill, over every aspect of one's life, perspectives and being.
In this section we will focus on how to choose a teacher, the overall positives and negatives of the teacher/student relationship; the alternatives to such a relationship; when and why to change teachers, or when and why you might want to finally leave the teacher/student relationship behind for good.
'A man can only attain knowledge with the help of those who possess it. This must be understood from the very beginning. One must learn from him who knows.'
- G.I. Gurdjieff
'Only if you reject all the other paths can you discover your own path.'
- U.G. Krishnamurti
It can often happen that our spiritual evolution is impeded by the very teachers and institutions we hope will liberate us. It is all too easy to become caught up in guru worship or devotion to an organisation or belief system and become more interested in fitting in, rising through the ranks and fulfilling our given role than in liberation itself. Twenty years can pass without any genuine transformation. We can easily replace one set of conditionings for another.
In the contemporary spiritual world questions are arising of how to find ways for the timeless wisdom to be passed on without the dogma, complexity and mythologising (as well as the exploitation, misogyny and corruption) present in so many teachings and traditions; and without the overarching structures of a spiritual organisation or the often restrictive and unequal relationship with a teacher or guru.
There is no denying the value and significance of traditional methods and means, with their profound and comprehensive depth of knowledge and experience, but it's important to be aware of the possible pitfalls and potential alternatives.
'Your own self is your ultimate teacher (sadguru). The outer teacher (Guru) is merely a milestone. It is only your inner teacher that will walk with you to the goal, for he is the goal.'
- Nisargadatta Maharaj
Teacher/student relationship: the positives
It is almost impossible for anyone in the early stages of their spiritual journey to make real progress without the guidance and support of a well trained authentic teacher.
The spiritual path is a journey from the known to the unknown, and is full of complexity and subtlety. We are used to using the apparatus of the mind to guide us but the spiritual endeavour takes us beyond what the mind can know or conceive and for this you almost always need a guide. A genuine and ethical teacher can inspire by example and enable the student to trust in and be open to that which is as yet uncharted.The teacher/student relationship in it's finest form is alchemical and transformative and unlike any other human relationship. A qualified teacher stands in the blazing light of his/her own Self and ideally illuminates the way for the student.
The community that gathers around many teachers is also fertile ground for growth, support, self-knowledge and evolution. There can be much fulfillment and meaning found by association with like-minded and like-spirited individuals who share your passion and longing for awakening.
There are many well documented problems with the teacher/student relationship, not the least of which is the inherent power imbalance. This inherent imbalance often gives rise to all sorts of exploitation of the student, including emotional, financial and sexual. Psychological and spiritual trauma can result from the abuse of power from someone in whom we have placed our trust and greatest vulnerabilities. Engagement with a teacher is a serious undertaking and must be approached with caution.
The nature of the teacher/student relationship easily fosters dependency and lack of autonomy in the student. Psychological transference, guru worship and idealisation are rife. It's a very delicate and difficult balance to trust the teacher enough to follow him/her into the unknown while at the same time retaining one's self-sovereignty and judgement.
There are a great many teachers and teachings available in the current spiritual arena. Very few of these in my opinion are fully qualified for the task. Many self-appointed teachers begin their careers with little or no training or experience. Many are not fully established in self-knowledge, don't have a comprehensive teaching, and are not overseen by a higher authority or peer group. Even the best of teachers and traditions have specific conceptual frameworks they operate within, which necessarily excludes other perspectives and understandings and are therefore limited.
The spiritual domain is a marketplace and not a particularly enlightened one. There are many ways to be taken for a ride by unscrupulous or ignorant teachers. Spiritual teachers, even good ones, have livelihoods to maintain and it is to their advantage to utilise your time and resources and to encourage you to attend their retreats and courses. Many seekers are naive and/or unwilling to do the necessary work of discerning when they are being taken advantage of.
As with any group, the community around a teacher is likely to develop a group dynamic or 'group mind' which exerts pressure on the participants to conform. Never underestimate the power of the group to inhibit authenticity, freedom and genuine questioning. You can be steered further and further away from yourself and in worse case scenarios be convinced to do or say things you may later regret. Please be informed about the general nature of group dynamics/peer pressure tactics before getting involved with a spiritual group or organisation.
Observe carefully. Go slowly. Retain your autonomy.
Hallmarks of a genuine teacher
must have a well-rounded comprehensive teaching.
track record of flourishing students, some of whom have awakened.
no unresolved scandals. Highly ethical standards and behaviour.
endorsed by a respected tradition or if self-appointed, submitting to peer review and/or mentorship.
genuine humility and vulnerability and the willingness to be transparent about weaknesses or mistakes.
refuses to accept psychological transference from the student or be the subject of guru worship or dependency.
highly regarded by other well-respected teachers (be aware though that teachers will often close ranks to protect each other during a crisis or scandal).
respects the student's autonomy and independence.
clean record with money and donations. No excessive lifestyles, spending, or overblown ambitions.
does not make themselves the focus of attention but keeps the focus on their students' evolution.
Qualifications for the student
The student needs to be independent, mature and serious about awakening (see 'Fundamentals II').
The teacher is there to point the way but the student must be responsible for themselves and retain the final authority over their own destiny.
The student needs to be aware of the complex psychological nature of transference: projecting the need for an infallible, all-loving parent/authority figure onto the teacher. This can include over-dependence on the teacher as well as guru worship and idealisation. Unresolved needs for love, acceptance and belonging can also be projected onto the spiritual community.
Understand that the teacher cannot give you enlightenment or walk the path for you.
Enlightenment isn't very enlightening.
There are far too many examples of spiritual teachers who seem to embody and express a deep realization of unitive consciousness but who simultaneously embody and express at times limited personal perspectives, various addictions or obsessions, or even other truly awful character flaws.
So what is it that gets enlightened?
One could easily assume that the realization of oneself as awareness would shed a light on (enlighten) the unhealthy or immature mental and emotional dimensions of the individual and spontaneously rectify them, but looking at the lives of spiritual teachers over the last forty or so years, this doesn’t appear to be the case.
How can vast impersonal perspectives sit so incongruously alongside personal limitation and disfunction? And how did we get into a situation where we tend to falsely glorify and idealise our teachers and where the teachers themselves allow and often encourage this idealisation to happen?
The root cause of so much suffering and confusion for far too many seekers and teachers for far too long has been this fundamental fallacy: that enlightenment automatically and perfectly enlightens the whole being including the personality and all its manifestations.
Isn't it time for a radical rethink of the teacher/student relationship, our understanding of enlightenment, and our expectations of our teachers and ourselves?
Some traditions such as Sufism have a loose group of mentors overseeing a student rather than one specific teacher to whom the student is tied.
Collaborative relationship with the teacher based on mutual respect which attempts to avoid the hierarchical pitfalls. Establishing ground rules and expectations.
Peer to peer arrangements, for example the Headless Way, where each person is an independent practitioner of equal rank.
Spiritual friend or mentor who is available for help and guidance but who doesn't 'take you on' or get closely involved with you.
When to leave your teacher
When there is any kind of abuse of power or exploitation of your time, energy, body, ethics or money. If you are subjected to cruelty, humiliation or mistreatment. Sometimes the justification given for the abusive behaviour is "Crazy Wisdom" as in "great teachers do things that may appear crazy but are really meant to wake you up".There is no excuse or place in the contemporary spiritual world for justifications/gaslighting of this kind.
When the teacher changes for the worse and is unresponsive to feedback or the need for reform. Many teachers start out with the best of intentions but the role of teacher is inherently hazardous for the ego: there are many temptations for self-aggrandizement and the misuse and abuse of power.
When through no fault of either party the relationship is no longer working and useful progress is not being made. There is no fault and no blame in this situation and a responsible teacher will let the student go with grace and kindness and with no implication of failure on either side.
When you are only staying with a teacher out of a sense of loyalty. Or because you have already invested so much time, energy and money in the relationship and are unwilling to let it go even though it no longer serves you.
Lifestyle over liberation. When you are settling for a comfortable or familiar lifestyle with the teacher/community rather than single-pointedly pursuing your own liberation.
Unresolved scandal. If there is a growing body of ex-students sounding the alarm and not having their concerns addressed.
Cultic behaviour. If students are reviled and ostracised when they choose to leave; if you are pressured against your will to give donations, shun your family and friends or asked to recruit others; when you are not allowed to express doubts about the teacher or teaching.
Please be as informed as possible before entering into a relationship with a teacher.
Eyes Wide Open
The Guru Question
The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher
International Cultic Studies Association
Spiritual Transmission: Paradoxes and Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path
The Guru Papers
Daughter of Fire
Dr David Lane
When the Skeptical Mind Meets the Mystical
(includes a checklist of seven points to assess gurus)
The Serpent Rising: A journey of spiritual seduction
Critical Thinking: Your guide to Effective Argument, Successful Analysis and Independent Study
American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing
'It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community - a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living.'
- Thich Nhat Hanh
If you meet the Buddha on the road
'In the end, the path must be completely yours, perfectly personalized. Any teacher or teaching will -- again, in the end -- prevent us from owning ourselves and fully flowering.
It's not just an issue of hero worship, or getting stuck; it's the science of the path as a whole. We need teachers and teachings to get off the ground, and we also need to become fully independent.
So maybe this isn't paradoxical so much as a question of stages of the journey.
We always need guidance, and we always need to transcend that guidance to fully flower.'
- Jeff B
'No matter what spiritual path you've walked or what teachings you've followed, they must lead you back to no path and no teaching. A true teaching is like a blazing fire that consumes itself.
The teaching must not only consume you, but consume itself as well. All must be burned to ash and then the ash must be burned. Then, and only then, is the ultimate realized.'