The Role of Teachers

Last month, my first and most important spiritual teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, passed away. It had been many years since I’d seen him, and the event made me think back to the long hours I spent learning from him and the honor of being made a teacher in his lineage. Despite his great wisdom and unfailing compassion, Maharishi was capable of human foibles. At one time that realization had been disillusioning, but now, with the benefit of maturity and reflection, it made me even more grateful for all that he contributed to my life, and to the world. In any event, his passing made me reflect on the ambiguous role of authority figures on the spiritual path.

The Tibetans compare gurus to fire: stay too far away and you don’t get enough heat; get too close and you can get burned. On the one hand we need spiritual guides as much as an aspiring athlete needs a coach or a teenager who wants a car needs a driving instructor. From our teachers we acquire knowledge; we learn spiritual disciplines; we connect to sacred traditions and receive the wisdom of the ancients; we’re instructed in esoteric rituals; we gain moral and ethical guidance; and, if we’re lucky, we receive personal spiritual direction. In some cases we also gain role models to emulate. But those gifts also carry some risk: you can end up at the feet of a fraud or charlatan; you can choose an authentic teacher only to find that he or she is not appropriate for this stage of your journey; you can become too dependent; you can even be abused. We’ve all heard the horror stories as well as the tales of bliss.

Historically, most people had little or no opportunity to select their own teachers; they were stuck with the parish priest, the village shaman, the local rabbi or minister or other learned men (they were always men) from their tradition. We, on the other hand, have an enormous variety to choose from. The price for that opportunity is personal vigilance. Every tradition asks for a certain amount of deference to its anointed guides. On one extreme, the student is expected only to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt, much as we defer to physicians or car mechanics because they know more than we do about certain things. At the other extreme, the teacher is to be revered as an intermediary between humans and the Divine, or even as an incarnation of God, in which case total submission might be expected.

It comes down to trust. Each of us has to decide how much we are willing to trust the teachers we bring into our lives: too little and you close yourself off to vital knowledge and experience; too much and you end up misled, disillusioned, or exploited. In a culture where the attitude toward authority is cheeky at best, it is easy to dismiss spiritual obedience as weakness or gullibility. But surrender can be an act of great strength, and when properly managed it can yield sublime spiritual rewards. The risk comes when one goes beyond ordinary trust and relinquishes personal judgment and will.

Ultimately, each of us is his or her own master. Whether you are a devoted follower or a died-in-the-wool independent, you have to assume responsibility for your own development and become, as Buddha urged his disciples, a lamp unto yourself. If you find the right teacher at the right time, the marriage can be made in heaven. But you and you alone have to decide what to accept and what to question, which prescriptions to follow and which to reject. And we each have to ask ourselves: What kind of teacher do I want? What kind of help do I need? What am I willing to do to get it? What kind of student-teacher relationship best suits my spiritual needs at this time? So, you might want to ask yourself what role you’d like a teacher to play in your life: Advisor? Mentor? Expert consultant? Role model? Or do you want something more intense, like a master, a guru, or a beloved? And, since it takes two to tango, are you willing to do what is expected of a student in each of those relationships?

“Before taking someone as a teacher, be careful,” the Dalai Lama once said. “It is important…to use your critical faculty and subject that teacher to scrutiny.” Teachers should be held to the highest standards of integrity and truth, so in evaluating them you need to define your standards with care. But make sure they’re realistic. If you expect a teacher to be perfect in every way you might abandon a useful helper at the first sign of a human flaw. Worse, you might fool yourself into justifying improper behavior because, after all, such a perfect being must have good reasons for acting that way.

In the end, what we get from teachers depends on what we are capable of receiving. What are you bringing to the table? Are you inquisitive? Sincere? Disciplined? Humble? Being a good student is a balancing act: you have to be open without being gullible, and discerning without being closed-minded. Above all, it means taking responsibility for yourself. Unless you’re a vow-taking monk or nun, taking on a teacher does not mean turning over your power to another human being. “The outer teacher is merely a milestone,” said the modern sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. “It is only your inner teacher that will walk with you to the goal, for he is the goal.”

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021