What to look for in – and how to work with – a teacher

Some things I have found helpful in what to look for in a spiritual teacher, and also in how to work with teachers and teachings.

In terms of teachings, I find it helpful to see any statement as a question and a pointer. It is an invitation to investigate it for myself, in immediate experience. And then hold whatever comes up lightly and as another question. It is an ongoing process of investigation.

In terms of finding a teacher, it is partly just a knowing, but partly also looking for certain things. If they come from a tradition and lineage, are they free in their relationship with that tradition? If they don’t come from a tradition, are they still aligned with the teachings of the mystics of the traditions?

How mature and healthy are they, as a human being? Is the organization healthy, in a conventional sense? How relaxed do they seem, in body and mind?

Are they open and relaxed about their own shortcomings as a human being? How do they respond to challenges and criticism? Do they sincerely welcome it and find the truth in it for themselves?

Is there a sense of receptivity and fluidity in how they teach and relate to their students? Do they encourage students to inquire for themselves? Do they give practical and effective tools for the students to investigate for themselves?

Is there a sense of breadth? Do they expect everyone’s path to be similar to their own, or what is described in their own tradition?

Do they encourage healthy independence in their students? Do they admit when they don’t know, and only talk about what they have experience with themselves?

In short, I look for how mature and healthy they seem as a human being, and in relationship with students and the wider world, and also how mature and healthy the organization is, in a conventional sense. And I also look for maturity in their teachings, a sense of breadth and receptivity, and an offering of effective tools for their students to investigate on their own.

In terms of working with a teacher and the teachings, I find certain pointers and tools helpful. The main one is mentioned above: Seeing any statement as a question to explore for myself. And then hold whatever answer comes up for me as another question, something to hold lightly and stay fluid with, and investigate further.

The other main tool is working consciously with projections and beliefs. What stories do I have about the teacher and the teachings? What do I find when I investigate those beliefs? Do I think the teacher will actually get me something I need? If I see something in the teacher I am attracted to, can I find it in myself, here and now? If I see something in the teacher I don’t like, can I find – and own – that too in myself, here now?

Seeing statements as a question, and working with projections and beliefs, makes anything into material for practice. Any situation, whatever happens, is something to work with for myself.

Finally, even if anything is material for practice, I still use my best judgment about what is going on. If I work with my beliefs and projections around it, and what they are doing still doesn’t seem all that helpful or healthy, can I do something that will change it? If not, would it be most helpful for me to stay or leave?

I haven’t been in many situations where those questions has come up. But where it did come up, in one case, it was not a problem to stay because the teacher was completely open and sincere about what had happened, and tried to make amends. (He cheated on his wife.) In another case, where the teacher seems less than clear in certain areas, I also decided to stay because the practice is very helpful to me and is not touched by whatever lack of clarity he may have in other areas.

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