I’m a rebel at heart so conforming to another’s view of the world has never been my strong suit.
Before I get into this article, I’m going to put my hands up from the beginning and admit that I’ve never really followed any one teacher, that much of my learning has come through direct experience and only afterward been corroborated by the experience of others.
I believe the day of the guru is gone and that we’re at a stage when we are needing to find ways to connect with our own inner guidance about what’s right or wrong for us, rather than relying on another to tell us how to live.
Having said that, though, there’s plenty we can learn from each other and from those who formally put themselves out there as teachers. Sometimes it can seem like there’s almost too much that we can learn. As the world shrinks and the catalog of trademarked and copyrighted techniques and schools expands, it can become overwhelming trying to find what we need.
Do we go for the modern, flash-smiling teacher who has made a fortune and transformed celebrities? What about the lone guru sitting in his cave, happy in his devastatingly basic isolation? Or the sexy tantrika with scanty yoga clothes and perfect body? Who and what we’re attracted to depends on the stage we’re at in our own lives and the values we hold, among other things.
But there are three questions I always as of myself as a barometer to gauge whether a teacher is for me. And they have helped me to steer a positive course through all kinds of experiences over the last few decades.
The first thing I ask myself is, does this teacher have any experience of the life I’m leading?
Noble as it may be to volunteer as a third world aid worker, and tempting as it has been on various occasions to run off from the stress of modern living, I’ve always felt that the biggest challenge was to live a modern life with awareness. And part of that journey for me has been wading through the highs and lows of longterm relationships, handling the demands of professional life and being mother to three children while also trying to make time for other passions. So when a teacher suggests spending hours a day on a spiritual practice that is separate to everything else in my life, I know they don’t have an understanding for what I’m dealing with. And if they’re sitting pretty in an ashram or cave in a bubble of isolation, I also know they haven’t had a chance to really road-test their teachings in a live environment.
For me to really sit up and take note of a spiritual guide, I want to know that they’ve been through the mill a little, and that they practice what they preach. I want to know that they have an understanding for ‘normal’ life —the kind of life where bills have to be paid, children happily raised, relationships honored.
Even better if they are lovers and parents themselves, and their partner and children seem happy. What better reference for a teacher than a happy household at home? Not saying it’s mandatory, but it certainly helps to win confidence to know that they have immersed themselves fully in the fast-flowing river of life and still have faith in what they teach.
The second question, which kind of leads on from the first, is—are they happy?
I remember being asked years ago by a colleague why I was always so happy and my answer at the time (pre-marriage and children) was ‘because I like myself’. Well, that self-acceptance certainly took a hammering through the ups and downs of intimacy and parenting, with the result that my happiness levels took a nose dive for a while as well. When a teacher has managed to stay positive and relatively happy despite the chaos that life can throw at us, then they’re on to something. It might be just good fortune or good genes. But, then again, maybe—just, maybe—what they’re teaching really works in the ‘real’ world.
Is that smile genuine? Is there a sparkle in the eyes and does a touch of mischief creep into their word at times? Are they able to mix lightness with the serious business of getting on with living?
If so, they’ve got my attention and my respect. It was one of the things that first caught my attention when learning from the Q’ero shaman in Peru—the child-like laughter that often accompanied their work and the smiles that stretched all the way up to their eyes at the smallest excuse. There’s an innocence to some teachers that only comes with having done a journey and reconnected with the simple beauty of life that is always there when we shift our perspective from woundedness to appreciation.
The third question is what grounds it all for me, though. Do they seem healthy?
By healthy, I don’t mean pummeled and chiseled into a modern-day version of perfection. I mean are their eyes and skin clear, is their weight reasonable, do they move with ease and do they live a balanced life-style. Tempting as it can be to follow in the footsteps of the beautiful people, what I’m really looking for are signs that this spiritual teacher respects the body as the temple of the soul. Too many disciplines still encourage students to disregard the physical in favor of the spirit, as if the two are separate. Or, at the other extreme, there are those whose entire existence revolves around the appearance and performance of the body.
Somewhere in the middle is a natural path that respects the body’s own strengths and weaknesses, listens to what it needs and uses self-discipline to support health rather than to support ego-led agendas. A teacher who knows how to balance diet, exercise and self-nurturing with whatever other spiritual disciplines they may be teaching and with their wider commitments in life, is rare but valuable. And the evidence of their balanced approach to life is usually clearly visible.
If you’re fortunate enough to have come across a teacher who ticks all these boxes, count your blessings and keep listening to what they have to say.
Even if they are teaching something you have no interest in, there is much that can be learned from just watching the personal journeys of such souls as they navigate their way through life. But the questions above are also equally useful as filters for self-help books, videos and even advice from well-meaning friends and relatives.
We never stop learning but the best learning is that which has relevance for our own, personal, journeys.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise