What Makes A Spiritual Teacher

Someone asked me, “What makes a spiritual teacher?”

I ask back, “What does ‘spiritual’ mean?”

People use the word ‘spiritual’. I tend to avoid it, because I don’t understand the distinction between ‘spiritual’, and whatever its opposite is. After all, isn’t everything connected? Isn’t everything alive?

The same is true for the word ‘enlightenment’. There’s a well known story of a man who visited a respected teacher. He described all the amazing spiritual realizations he had had. The teacher replied, “Show me!”

The only way to understand words like these is through how you live your life. Spiritual is action, enlightenment, compassion, and wisdom are actions.

It took me a while to get it. We so want spiritual practice to be something you can own, like a car. Or a place you can call home, like a house you can move into, where you can feel comfortable and safe.

With tongue in cheek, we referred to the notion of the kind of enlightenment that’s made into a commodity as the ‘airline ticket approach’ to spiritual practice. You wake up and find yourself somewhere else, someone else. The idea of becoming someone else is very appealing when you don’t like yourself very much.

It took me a while to embrace the ‘nothing special’ approach, with no special visa, and no exotic destination. I didn’t really like myself, so the prospect of waking up to find myself as someone else, somewhere else, was very compelling.

I was hiding behind imaginary expectations and beliefs. But shame makes a poor hiding place. Thankfully, in the end you have only yourself, just as you are, for company.

Many years ago, someone told me that I could easily become a celebrity guru. Apparently I had what it took, whatever that is. They even offered to help me, show me how, pull strings, make the right connections. It was a career move I never made!

At the time I was already teaching yoga and meditation. I had been leading retreats for several years. It had taken me a decade to stop feeling like an imposter; even though I could see that there were some people benefiting from my efforts.

When you sit in the teacher’s seat, something passes through you that is not your own. It’s as if you become a conduit for the voice of your teachers and ancestors. Nothing personal. You just happen to be the one sitting in that seat.

So what makes a spiritual teacher? When I remember some of the truly great teachers I have known, it’s hard to pin down anything that they might have in common with each other. Except perhaps that each of them was entirely themselves, an unlikely bunch of idiosyncratic human beings. Some were kind, some were stern. Some were serious, some were goofy. Some misbehaved, others were angelic. Some were famous, others were unknown. Once we escorted two well-known Bengali Vipassana teachers to Disneyland. They were as excited as children. Giggling with delight after every ride.

I had a conversation with a teacher friend, “Are teachers born or made?”

“Born!” we both decided.

It’s not a choice. And anyway who would make such a choice? Being a teacher is an obscure twist of ‘karma’. (Another sadly misappropriated word). Who would willingly take on such a responsibility, such an ongoing commitment to go deeper, always towards a more authentic life, so that you can lead others with integrity. It’s not something you can fake.

More than twenty years ago, at his monastery in France, Thich Nhat Hanh empowered me to be a teacher in his tradition. It consisted of a beautiful ancient ceremony that lasted for most of the day. Someone had asked him, “When do you know that someone is ready to be a teacher?”

He replied, “When they’re happy.”

Happy, lest the long arm of your neurosis and your unconscious needs become a shadow bigger than you can handle. Happy, so that you trust things as they are while always learning from them. Happy so that you can bear witness to the world. Happy so that you can respond with good humor and skill.

Everyone falls short. Everyone projects imagined fictions onto others on a daily basis. The work is never done.

One afternoon when I came back into the main meeting room at a retreat where I was teaching, I found flowers strewn across my cushion.

My first thought was that one of my students must have spread them there. “Wow! That’s some gesture of devotion.”

It was followed by, “They can’t really know me. I don’t deserve it.”

Then, “That’s a really weird thing to do. Maybe they’re a little crazy. The flowers are strewn all over the place.”

Then, “These flowers are dry and colorless from the desert heat. Maybe they trying to tell me something about my teaching.”

All this in the time it took between arriving at my place, and brushing the flowers aside. Seconds later, as I sat down, I noticed the fallen vase, the open window, and the window sill from which the flowers had been blown onto my seat.

Such is the dance of our imagination and the projections it generates. Call it ‘jumping to conclusions’ or ‘getting the wrong end of the stick’.

I’ve seen renowned spiritual teachers jump to conclusions as energetically as anyone else, and because of their esteem and power, it has sometimes caused irreparable damage and harm.

Does that negate them as teachers? All it negates is your own expectations of perfection. The secret to redemption, in life, as in theater, is in how you recover, how you make amends and self-correct.

The American abbot of the Laotian temple in San Diego told me a story about when he was training with his teacher in a remote area in Laos in the 1980’s. Two idealistic young American seekers after the truth came to visit the monastery. They stayed for a few days, but soon left, disillusioned that the monks were still obliged to visit the outhouse. The two young seekers had assumed that monks should have transcended bodily functions, and entered some sort of incorporeal realm where such things were no longer necessary.

In the 1930’s, the Armenian teacher, George Gurdjieff surreptitiously invited a very difficult, obnoxious, cantankerous acquaintance to co-teach one of his summer training-camps in France. He did not ask him to instruct, only to attend, to be himself, in his own uniquely unpleasant way. It was only at the close of the training, to the amazement of all his students, that Gurdjieff publicly honored this visitor as his co-teacher.

The road to awakening is paved with buttons that other people will push by stepping on.

Rather than looking for someone who helps you feel better, trust that the world is filled with opportunities to learn, and to break down your expectations, and your presumptions about what ‘spiritual’ is.

In many traditions the teacher, or even the fulfillment of the spiritual quest is referred to as The Friend. But such a friend can sweep away everything you intended by your friendship.

As they say .. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” or simply that, regardless of what you may think you need, or want, you usually end up with the teacher best able to open you up to what you most urgently need to learn.

And when you are disappointed, remember that marvelous comment by the poet Joseph Brodsky, “Disappointment makes you a better poet.”

In other words, disappointment makes you a wiser human being. And if ‘spiritual’ correlates to any specific human quality, you could say that it is the quality we call wisdom.