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Gurus and Other Teachers

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  1. Why do we need a teacher?
  2. Techniques for selecting a teacher.

Why do we need a teacher? In our study of psychology and spirituality, we can learn many things on our own -- through books, intuition, personal experience, etc. But a teacher can help us in various ways:

  1. A teacher can answer our questions.
  2. A teacher can point out our errors.
  3. A teacher can regulate the pace of our growth. In a culture of mass media, a bookstore has religious books which are directed toward people who are at virtually any stage of spiritual realization; thus, we might encounter material which is inappropriate for us:
    • It might be too technical for us to comprehend. For example, we might not know the jargon or the theoretical basis. In contrast, a teacher would explain the material in terms which we understand.
    • It might be too disturbing for us. For example, we can be disturbed by the realization of total freedom (which can trigger anxiety), total responsibility (which can trigger guilt regarding our past actions and current conditions), etc.
    • It might be unsuitable for our particular needs. For example, many religious books emphasize the concept of "ego transcendence"; however, ego transcendence is an unsuitable goal for people who need to be in a prior stage of ego development.

Techniques for selecting a teacher. We have all heard stories of teachers' ethical and financial indiscretions, sexual and personal abuse of students, psychological devastation of students who were taught improper methods, and outright horrors such as the suicides at Jim Jones' Jonestown, David Koresh's Mount Carmel, and Do's Heaven's Gate. These "consumerism" guidelines might help us to find a teacher who is both competent and harmless:

  1. We can reject a pseudo-spiritual (indeed, irresponsible) reliance on faith, trust, humility, or any other concept which would preclude a prudent and intuitive decision-making process. Unfortunately, many teachers ask us to relinquish those safeguards.
  2. We can question our concepts of "the ideal teacher." For example, some excellent teachers are outgoing but others are reclusive; some are gentle but others are harsh; some are humorous but others are serious. These "personality" factors might be important only insofar as they are reasonably compatible with our own personality. 
  3. We can use various means for finding a teacher.  
    • We can ask friends to recommend a teacher.
    • We can ask the manager of a store. For example, if we are looking for a meditation teacher, we could ask at a metaphysical bookstore, or a health-food store.
    • We can look in phone directories. The teacher might be listed under a topic such as "meditation."
    • We can look in metaphysical publications (local or nationwide).
    • We can look on the internet -- in websites, newsgroups (e.g., alt.meditation), email discussion groups, chat areas, etc.
  4. We can look for a teacher who specializes in our field of interest. There are specialists among doctors, attorneys, home-builders, etc.; similarly, spiritual teachers specialize in a particular religion or type of meditation. One type of meditation might be ideal for us and our goals.
  5. We can check the teacher's "credentials." Those credentials can include:
    • Training. Where did the teacher study? Who were the teacher's teachers?  
    • Lineage. Perhaps this teacher is the designated successor to a highly respected teacher.
    • Reputation among peers. We can ask other teachers for their opinion of this teacher.
    • Reputation among current students. However, many current students are likely to give an excessively favorable evaluation of the teacher.
    • Reputation among former students. However, many former students are likely to give an excessively unfavorable evaluation of the teacher.
  6. We can consider the amount of personal guidance which will be available. The personal guidance will be limited if the teacher lives in a distant location, or if the teacher has thousands of students. In some cases, the teacher might live far away, but there is a local center where a trained teacher can give personal guidance; in other cases, a distant teacher claims to be able to give individual instruction by appearing to us in dreams or visions.
  7. We can consider the expense. The expense might include donations, the cost of books and discourses, seminars, etc.
  8. We can consider the amount of time which is required for the practice. For example, one type of meditation requires 30 minutes per day; another requires two-and-a-half hours per day; others don't stipulate any particular amount of time.
  9. We can consider the quality of the teacher's written material -- in books, magazine articles, or other publications.
  10. We can consider the quality of the teacher's presentations -- at seminars, retreats, or other public functions.
  11. We can consider the teacher's personal qualities, e.g., patience, kindness, warmth, and humor. These qualities might be important because:
    • They will enhance our learning-experience with this teacher.
    • They will enhance our enjoyment while studying with this teacher.
    • They are the qualities which we want to cultivate in ourselves. We can use the teacher as a "role model," as we observe the ways in which those qualities are expressed.
  12. We can be cautious among teachers who try to lure us with the following traits:
    • Psychic powers. There is no correlation between psychic development and spiritual development; they are two entirely different lines of growth.
    • Charisma. Some fraudulent teachers create an excessive air of authority for the purpose of luring students who lack self-confidence. In contrast, good teachers generally have humility and an acknowledgment that they, too, are still learning.
    • An exotic appearance, e.g., a robe and sandals. Some teachers intentionally create an exotic persona to attract gullible students; other teachers are naturally exotic (perhaps simply because they are from a different culture).
    • An appeal as a father figure or mother figure who can give us the love and approval which we lacked as a child. A fraudulent teacher will encourage us to have this delusion and dependence.
    • A demand for total subservience to the teacher's commands and beliefs. Even after we begin to study with a teacher, we can maintain our psychological boundaries and privacy -- and we can demand the right to think for ourselves, and to question, and to doubt, and to maintain our free will, and to say "no," and to leave at any time.
    • A claim to be an expert regarding all aspects of life. Some teachers want to be our sole source of advice regarding our finances, marriage or relationships, career, sex life, psychological distress, etc.; these teachers would be indignant about our "lack of faith" if we consulted with an outside authority (e.g., a psychiatrist or financial counselor) -- or if we consulted with an inner authority (e.g., our intuition).
  13. We can examine the manner in which the teacher conducts his or her life in terms of relationships, finances, the everyday obligations of human life, and the enacting of the spiritual principles which are being taught. However, this examination can lead us in two directions:
    • We can seek a "perfect" teacher. This is someone who knows everything, has impeccable emotional balance, and lives an absolutely ethical life. There are problems in this approach:
      • We might spend too much time looking for that ideal teacher when we could instead be learning from a regular, flawed human who can deliver the information which we need.
      • We might make an idol of the teacher. If we project an image of "god" onto the person, we are more inclined to overlook or rationalize the teacher's moral lapses. The teacher might even believe in this idol-worship, and encourage it among the students, causing a distraction from the teachings.
      • We might discover later that the person actually has flaws. The students can be emotionally devastated by this apparent betrayal. Perhaps there are no perfect people.
    • We can seek a person who is wise but personally deficient in some aspects of life. The teacher acknowledges his or her flaws, and explains them as a lesson in acceptance, personal growth, and spiritual discernment; then we can get on with the real teachings without the burden of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and shame. We focus on the teachings rather than the teacher's character, to see whether the information itself is valid; then we use our discernment to separate the teacher's personal quirks from the wisdom which is mixed in with it. We are challenged to think for ourselves, and to teach ourselves, and to make our own discoveries. If we accept this approach toward our training, then we allow all of life to be our teacher -- every experience, every person, every thought, every feeling, every action -- instead of refusing to learn from anyone but an apparently perfect master. Surely, we cherish teachers who seem to be full embodiments of spiritual principles, but we can also learn from teachers whose characters we judge to be defective, as those people teach us how to access our intuition from spirit which is perfect.
  14. We can consider the teacher's fostering of our independence, strength, and maturity. Although some teachers believe that they can teach all things to all people (and perhaps they can), others view themselves as merely a temporary instructor for students whose educational needs are so vast that a series of teachers will be required. This kind of teacher might inform us when we have learned all that we can learn there, and then he or she might recommend an appropriate instructor for the next phase of our training. At various points, we might decide that we do not need a formal "teacher" at all; instead, we turn to our own intuition, allowing life to teach us whatever we need to know in the course of a regular, "secular" existence.


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