Essay #4: The Role of a Spiritual Teacher

The last essay pointed out some of the limitations of both religion and the spiritual path as beneficial ways to pursue wisdom.  The hallmark of being on a spiritual path in the 20th century was having a spiritual teacher, a guru.  Given the likely detrimental nature of this arrangement, should we even look for a teacher in the 21st century pursuit of wisdom?

Teachers are an essential part of life; we have teachers in literally everything.  On rare occasion we are self-taught in some skill, as I am in playing cello, but even then we have teachers in the form of books and other resources.  The mindset of pursuing wisdom in the 21st century begins by realizing that everything is a potential teacher.  It’s how we relate to our teachers that makes all the difference.  The essential way to relate to any teacher is from the standpoint of being in charge of yourself and of your teacher.  The old approach was authoritarian; the teacher gave commands and you obeyed.  The new approach is that your teacher is a consultant who works for you.  Any teacher who insists on a different arrangement is going to become an obstacle to your pursuit of wisdom.

The teacher to avoid like the plague is the one who tells you to let go of your own judgment and follow the teachings blindly.  That arrangement is as sure to go awry as if we granted the president of the United States the power to do whatever he or she wants without any checks and balances.  Other spiritual teachers, the ones who encourage your own discernment and accept their role as your consultant, might be helpful at certain stages of the journey.

What else should we look for in a beneficial spiritual teacher?  First and foremost, look for a high level of integrity in their personal life.  Integrity is not determined by how impressively humble the teacher acts or how good you feel in their presence, but by looking into their background.  One of the benefits of living in the 21st century is that we can google the background of anyone who assumes a teaching role.  One reason so many gurus in the 20th century were able to harm so many followers is because it was easy for the gurus to hide the allegations against them.

Once a teacher’s background checks out, and if you are in their company, hold them to an even higher standard of ethical behavior than if they were just a friend.  Too often spiritual groups blindly ignore warning signs in a teacher’s behavior because they don’t want to see anything inharmonious.  I mentioned in the last essay the harmful behavior of the main teacher on my spiritual path; I saw warning signs myself, but I didn’t investigate those warning signs because I didn’t want to believe anything negative about this teacher.  The opposite approach needs to happen in the 21st century pursuit of wisdom: watch carefully and question every detail of the behavior of a spiritual teacher.

Following are more guidelines to help with the selection of a beneficial spiritual teacher, if you feel the need for a teacher at this stage of your journey:

  • You are not under the sway of charisma. Charisma is no more reliable as a guideline for a helpful spiritual teacher than good looks or a beaming smile.  In fact, charisma is a red flag because anyone who knows how to use personal magnetism to attract you also knows how to manipulate you.
  • You are not being bribed by the promise of enlightenment or secret teachings. The only teachings that need to be kept secret are the ones that get you to pay more money.  There is no secret to enlightenment, and the next essay argues that there is no enlightenment either.
  • You are not required to follow the teacher’s beliefs about your sex life. Some spiritual paths teach renunciation as the way to enlightenment.  Renouncing our sexuality is only healthy when that calling originates from within us; it’s never wise to force celibacy because someone else tells you to do so.  In fact, any kind of teaching about something as personal as your sex life should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism and autonomy.
  • You are not asked to give up possessions or to contribute an unreasonable amount of money in exchange for teachings. Because wisdom is a real and immediate need, some of us will give almost anything in exchange for the prospect of enlightenment.  That’s partly why the next essay is devoted to this misleading concept.  Pursuing wisdom in the 21st century is about cultivating the fulfillment of deeper meaning and purpose.  This will never happen in exchange for giving up possessions or contributing an unreasonable amount of money.
  • The teacher does not make magical claims about meditation or ask you to devote large amounts of time to meditation. Please see essay #9 for a discussion of the myths around meditation.
  • The teacher does not promise to make you wealthy or happy. The pursuit of wisdom is not about becoming wealthy, and happiness is a misleading goal.  No one is happy all the time, nor is it helpful to want to become happy all the time.  Even a spiritual teacher’s life is primarily about the same things as your life: challenges and opportunities, failures and successes, disappointments and blessings, sadness and happiness.  The unrealistic expectation that we should be happy or feel good all the time is best exemplified by the drug addict.  The way to ensure that we have a healthy dose of happiness in our lives is to serve others.

While spiritual teachers may be part of our pursuit of wisdom, at some point we take responsibility for our own unique approach to cultivating deeper meaning and purpose.  No one else can do that for you, and anyone who claims to be able to do that for you is a salesperson.  In the final analysis, you are the teacher you’ve been looking for.  Each one of us has the inner discernment to know how to proceed toward deeper meaning and purpose; we each have a reliable inner teacher.  The ultimate answers to the important questions about how you should live your life and what principles should guide your thinking and behavior can only come from within you.  It may take some time and practice to establish this inner teacher, but once that happens we can use outer spiritual teachers for their rightful purpose: words and deeds of inspiration that motivate us in our own quest for deeper meaning and purpose.

Pursuing wisdom in the 21st century means that we use and appreciate all of the resources, teachings, and teachers that appeal to us at any given stage of our journey, but that we exercise personal power over all of these resources, teachings, and teachers instead of them over us.  Ironically, the goal of the 20th century spiritual path was often stated as “freedom,” and that is the literal meaning of moksha, which is the origin of the concept of enlightenment, yet virtually every aspect of that spiritual path took freedom away from the individual seeker.  The 21st century pursuit of wisdom recognizes that individual freedom is the way to walk the journey, and that the journey itself is about the fulfillment of deeper meaning and purpose as we unfold our potential.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill