There are many types of teachers out there from many traditions. Some are very ordinary and some seem to radiate spirituality from every pore. Some are nice, some are indifferent, and some may seem like sergeants in boot camp. Some stress reliance on one’s own efforts, others stress reliance on the grace of the guru. Some are very available and accessible, and some may live far away, grant few interviews, or have so many students vying for their time that you may rarely get a chance to talk with them. Some seem to embody the highest ideals of the perfected spiritual life in their every waking moment, while others may have many noticeable quirks, faults and failings. Some live by rigid moral codes, while others may push the boundaries of social conventions and mores. Some may be very old, and some may be very young. Some may require strict commitments and obedience, while others may hardly seem to care what we do at all. Some may advocate very specific practices, stating that their way is the only way or the best way, while others may draw from many traditions or be open to your doing so. Some may point out our successes, while others may dwell on our failures.
Some may stress renunciation or even ordination into a monastic order, while others seem relentlessly engaged with “the world.” Some charge a bundle for their teachings, while others give theirs freely. Some like scholarship and the lingo of meditation, while others may never use or even openly despise these formal terms and conceptual frameworks. Some teachers may be more like friends or equals that just want to help us learn something they happened to be good at, while others may be all into the hierarchy, status and role of being a teacher. Some teachers will speak openly about attainments, and some may not. Some teachers are remarkably predictable in their manner and teaching style, while others swing wide in strange and unpredictable ways. Some may seem very tranquil and mild mannered, while others may seem outrageous or rambunctious. Some may seem extremely humble and unimposing, while others may seem particularly arrogant and presumptuous. Some are charismatic, while others may be distinctly lacking in social skills. Some may readily give us extensive advice, and some just listen and nod. Some seem the living embodiment of love, and others may piss us off on a regular basis. Some teachers may instantly click with us, while others just leave us cold. Some teachers may be willing to teach us, and some may not.
So far as I can tell, none of these are related in any way to their meditation ability or the depths of their understanding. That is, don’t judge a meditation teacher by their cover. What is important is that their style and personality inspire us to practice well, to live the life we want to live, to find what it is we wish to find, to understand what we wish to understand. Some of us may wander for a long time before we find a good fit. Some of us will turn to books for guidance, reading and practicing without the advantages or hassles of teachers. Some of us may seem to click with a practice or teacher, try to follow it for years and yet get nowhere. Others seem to fly regardless. One of the most interesting things about reality is that we get to test it out. One way or another, we will get to see what works for us and what doesn’t, what happens when we do certain practices or follow the advice of certain teachers, as well as what happens when we don’t.
Another thing about teachers is that they only know what they know. If we use the scopes of the Three Trainings to examine this, we may find that some teachers may have a good grasp of some of these scopes and not have a good grasp of the others. In fact, mastery in any area guarantees nothing about mastery of the others. It is worth being realistic about this fact, and so I will go on and on about this later.
Also, when we interact with teachers, we may wish to also consider which of their bodies of knowledge we wish to draw on, i.e. which of the Three Trainings we want help with. In fact, I think that it is very important to be clear about this explicitly, so that when we go in to talk with a teacher, we can ask questions from the correct conceptual framework and also fit their advice back into the correct framework. If we ask a teacher about how to attain to some high state and they mention tuning into boundless joy, and we then try to do this when driving to work and crash into the rear end of the car of some poor commuter, we have not followed their advice properly.
Similarly, we may wish to explicitly ask our teachers if they are skilled in the aspect of the specific training we are interested in mastering and also to what level. While you cannot always trust them to tell the truth, either through their own self-deception or the desire to fool you, if they do say something like, “No, I don’t know enough to speak on that level, as my own abilities are not that strong yet,” then at least you know to seek advice elsewhere. I have much more respect for a teacher who once told me that he didn’t feel qualified to teach me than for the numerous teachers who were not qualified to teach me who either didn’t realize this or tried to pretend otherwise.
Also, I would recommend making specific your goals for your life and practice. For instance, you may wish to get a job as a dishwasher so that you can continue to feed yourself. You go to the meditation teacher and say, “I want to get a job as a dishwasher. Do you know how to do this?”
They may say, “Yes.”
To which you could reply, “How do you know this?”
They could just as easily have said, “I have no idea, as I am a meditation teacher, not a career counselor or restaurant manager.”
The same basic conversational pattern could be repeated just as easily for the other two trainings. For instance, you could ask a meditation teacher, “I wish to learn how to get into the early concentration states. Do you know how to do this?”
You could also ask, “I wish to attain to the first stage of enlightenment. Do you know how to do this?”
If they say, “Yes,” the next question would be, “What are the specific steps that will likely produce that result?”
This sort of straightforward approach to spirituality is extremely pragmatic and empowering. Further, it makes interactions with teachers more fruitful.
This brings me to another point: teachers can generally tell if you are serious and if you have clearly thought through what you want. For instance, it takes about two seconds of someone asking a meditation teacher for advice on their emotional stuff for the teacher to realize that this person is interested in working on conventional happiness and is not interested in learning insight practices. Similarly, it takes few conversations with a student to figure out if they are following your advice or not, so don’t try to fool them. If you don’t like their advice, better to tell them that and also why so that they can address this, either by modifying their advice or by further explaining why they feel their advice might be helpful.
Further, if you follow some of their advice but change parts, or select parts and add on other things, and then find that this way of working has not produced the desired results, be careful about criticizing the teacher or the method, as you have not done the experiment they recommended. For instance, if someone told you to stabilize your attention on the individual sensations that make up the experience of breathing so clearly that you can see the beginning and ending of every single sensation consistently for an hour, and instead you do something else or stop the practice before you can do this, don’t blame them if you do not get the results they promised. Barring insurmountable external circumstances, the choice not to do the work was clearly yours, and thus you should accept personal responsibility for your own failure. I am not trying to be harsh but simply realistic. I am obviously a firm believer that people should take responsibility for what happens in their lives and practices. Not doing so is tantamount to disempowering yourself.
While all of this advice on practices and teachers may seem a bit overwhelming, reconnecting with the basics, the simple truths of the spiritual life, is highly recommended. To that end…