Author Update, April 2015:
In 2012 I wrote this article about how to find a spiritual teacher. Between then and now I have done a lot of growing up and realized that I in fact had no idea how to find a spiritual teacher. It turned of that the man I thought was my teacher was just as controlled by his shadow side as any other person. Which is much worse than the average person if he or she wants you to think of them as a guru.
By the way, the person who I am referring to as my ex guru is not the lovely Tibetan lama in the picture here. I don’t have much else to say, but to present a quotation form Dzongsar Khyensye Rinpoche on the subject:
Understandably, the majority of students are impressed by gurus who are disciplined and knowledgeable, and tend to be rather less interested in seeking a master just because he is kind. After all, kindness isn’t as readily apparent – and anyway most people have their own definition of what constitutes kindness. And yet this third secret quality of a spiritual master, kindness, although far less available or sought after than the other qualities, is both supreme and absolutely indispensable. If a master is very learned and disciplined but not kind, he’s a waste of space on this earth. Even he is is not learned or well-disciplined but is kind, he will make absolutely sure you get what you need ultimately to attain enlightenment and make your life spiritually fruitful; therefor you can trust him completely.
That pretty much says it all! Lets all learn to recognize kindness when we see it.
As the Tibetan adage goes, “Some people take more time picking out a cow than choosing a Lama.” So how do you find a spiritual teacher?
In the 1970s, when a plethora of Gurus appeared on the spiritual radar, this question was especially important. Unfortunately, I think it is time this question was addressed again in our spiritually evolving society. There are more choices than ever for who to trust with your immortal soul—or even just your body and mental health—and while Boulderities insist the “its all good” and people just have to “do their own thing” the end point of choosing the wrong teacher can be more than ugly. It can ruin peoples lives.
This might sound extreme, but I have seen the wounds first hand. I have friends who trusted one teacher or another because they appeared to hold authority from a lineage or doctrine, and later realized the teacher wasn’t even a nice person. As a self-admitted spiritual materialist who likes to check out every yoga group and Buddhist Sangha I can, I have had the misfortune of running into a handful of these teacher posers.
Even if you are just taking causal yoga classes, it never hurts to check out the teacher. We’re not in grade school anymore, so there is no reason to give authority to people we wouldn’t even want to talk to on the street. Their advice may not, in reality, be helpful.
I’m not going to name any names here; feel free to email me with your own questions about my limited opinion. I will just tell you about my own experience with the real thing vs. the fakers.
In my experience, the first indicator is whether the teacher is kind or not. This actually requires discernment, which hasn’t always come naturally to me. I am easily swayed by a pretty face or a honey-dripping voice. It’s the difference between if they make you feel loved, or make you feel small, afraid, or envious of their power. Power is seductive, and can feel good, but kindness is a totally different animal. It should make you feel open and inspired; not guilty and shameful.
Another indication I have learned through experience is that real teachers feel humility towards their own teachers. If they don’t talk openly and with gratitude about their own teachers, this is a warning sign. While people claim a lineage line, how much do you really know about it?
This brings me to the next point: are they respected by other teachers and Sangha communities? Of course there is a line to be drawn: radicals like Trungpa defiantly caused a stir in all communities—but the high Lamas respected and honored him consistently with their presence. The 14th Dali Lama said of him, “Exceptional as one of the first Tibetan lamas to become fully assimilated into Western culture, he made a powerful contribution to revealing the Tibetan approach to inner peace in the West.” While his decision to stop being a monk was controversial, the great teachers still came to support him. Teachers who seem to be completely on their own arouse suspicion for me.
Lastly, what is the community like? Do you feel pressure to be there even if you don’t really want to go? How does the practice actually make you feel? Do you feel empowered by the practice, uplifted, inspired and nurtured? Or do you feel fascinated, obsessed, pressured and tired? While these things may seem obvious, if one is not familiar with how the path is supposed to unfold, it can be difficult to tell what is right or wrong.
This leads me to the last point, which is that it is really necessary to understand the culture of your lineage. Some people who teach yoga like to claim that they are teaching Tantra to people, and they endorse ecstatic energy awakening exercises that the genuine mediators would caution strongly against. These teachers have obviously not bothered to check out what the Indians, who actually discovered Tantra said about it. (Proceed with utmost caution and be damn sure you teacher is a genuine Master of the highest quality.) Using foreign words without understanding of what they mean is basically a slap in the face to the culture who spent thousands of years perfecting it. Westerners who don’t understand Eastern cultures regularly misuse and misunderstand the precious wisdom which they have uncovered over thousand of years through blood, sweat and tears. This gives yoga and Buddhism a bad reputation, and people who might have been otherwise interested are scared off.
Finding a genuine Teacher, Dharma and Sangha is the greatest blessing I can imagine. Following the wrong teachers and groups can create a horrible situation. The biggest indicator that you have found a good teacher is kindness and humility. Gratitude is a good indicator for a healthy feeling for your teacher—Trungpa points out that without a real heart to heart connection with the teacher, it would be difficult to move forward.
Anni Padma is a non-superstitious astrologer who is based in Boulder. She has been studying the zodiac archetypes for over ten years now and has learned from experience how the signs are expressed in people. As a life-long Buddhist, who is grateful to Theravada, Zen and Vajrayana traditions, she likes to use meditative insight to unravel astrology. She lived in Seoul, South Korea for three years teaching English and writing and editing articles for the Korea Times—which is ironic as she can’t spell to save her life. Somehow it has worked out alright, thanks to spell check. Her sun is in Gemini and moon is in Pisces. Check out her website.
Editor: Alexandra Grace