What to Look for in a Spiritual Teacher

Note: I originally wrote this article for the Nondual Orlando website, but decided that it represented a limited viewpoint which emphasizes the importance of independent, Self-realized teachers as opposed to more conventional and institutionalized approaches.  It did not really belong on the nondual website because it effectively dismisses a wide range of truly beautiful teachings that each point to a deep abiding truth in their own unique way.  Indeed, there are many paths with the potential to lead us toward early nondual exploration; and if/when we are ready to move beyond them, it will happen naturally and in accord with the needs of the seeker. 

Ask ten different people and you’ll get ten different answers.  But in general, here are a few things that are pretty important to keep in mind as you look for or begin to work with someone who is presenting themselves as a non-dual spiritual teacher:

A teacher should be speaking from his her own direct realization, not from an intellectual understanding. 

Anyone can pick up a book, memorize it, and speak about their perspectives on it.  Or they can go through a course of study where they learn and recite certain facts until they can demonstrate a working knowledge of the subject material.  This is all well and good, but having an intellectual grasp of nondual teachings is not the same as speaking from a place of direct knowing.  If a teacher is operating from a prepared manuscript or reading from a textbook, chances are they are grounded in an intellectual understanding rather than direct experience.  Or, they may have had some degree of direct experience, but it has not yet broken through into a stream of living wisdom.  Someone who is operating from a place of true realization does not need any trappings or preparation.  They simply get out of the way and let everything flow freely from the heart of being.  You can ask any question, at any time, on any subject, and the wisdom inherent in their realization will respond accordingly.  You cannot ‘stump’ a truly realized being with trick questions or catch them off guard or off balance.  You may not like their answers – but there is always a deep wisdom apparent within them.

A teacher should emphasize the importance of Truth in all things, while also abiding in the heart of compassion.

The world of non-duality includes a wide range of teachings and teaching styles.  But the teachings are generally very dependent upon how deeply one has truly seen.  Someone may have just had a glimpse of realization – and ‘think’ they understand what they are saying, but do not know that they are still in early stages of the unfolding process.  In the early stages, many people are trying to ‘escape’ their relative reality by becoming entangled with, enamored by, or attached to the absolute.  They may press very hard on the ‘no-self’, ’emptiness’ or ‘nothingness’ routines – which are all true and valuable, but they need to be held in check with the understanding and recognition that ultimately we must come into a place of loving, inclusive, nonjudgmental, acceptance of ourselves in order to fully embody who and what we truly are.  Indeed, the spiritual journey is much like going up a mountain, seeing the beautiful view from the top, and then coming back down the mountain again.  If you fall in love with the view though, you may forget to come back down into your humanity; and one cannot be an effective teacher if they’ve lost their humanity.

A teacher should always work to move you inward – reminding you that you already have the answers you seek. 

A good teacher has no real interest in being a ‘teacher’, but is instead, completely focused on helping all beings see themselves more clearly so as to reduce and relieve the unnecessary suffering that so many of us put ourselves through in our minds.  They know that they are just a note within the great harmony of being – and they aren’t identified with the role of ‘teacher’ or seeking to be placed on a pedestal.  They just want you to see the truth of things for yourself.  The sooner you find the answer within, the more joyful the teacher will be.  So, if a teacher presents themselves in a way that suggests you need them or should become reliant on them for finding answers, it may be a sign that you are working with someone who is still caught in the illusion of self.  This is not to suggest that such beings have nothing to offer – because we are all teaching and learning from each other, growing and maturing together, but one should be aware that a true teacher is like a mirror – always reflecting what you need to see within yourself.  The clearer the mirror, the clearer the reflection.

A teacher should demonstrate the qualities of wisdom, consistency, confidence, joy and enthusiasm. 

A truly realized being, who finds themselves on the path of ‘teaching’, knows that he or she is just playing a role.  They may be stern and demanding in some ways, loving and kind in others, but there is a clear wisdom present in their words – something that transcends our normal way of seeing things.  You get a sense of consistency from their offerings – a continuous emphasis on letting go, surrendering, and seeing through all illusions.  They are confident in their assertions and have first hand knowledge of the subject matter – they have gone beyond all doubt as a result of their own direct experiential realizations.  There is a joy in how they present themselves – a relaxed sense of ease, a flow of humor, and a genuine kindness that emanates from them; although this may come and go depending on the mode of engagement and how serious you are as a seeker of Truth.  There is an enthusiasm for sharing, a general passion for seeing other beings free of their ‘otherness’ – not born of a desperate need to ‘fix’ anyone, but out of a genuine compassion for our suffering.

A teacher should meet you where you are – not where they are. 

It’s one thing to be sitting in an open group session where a spiritual teacher is offering a talk or a presentation to a broad audience.  These kinds of talks are meant to take us beyond our conditioned notions and beliefs.  But if you are sitting in one-on-one dialogue or participating in a question and answer session, a teacher should be able to get a sense of where you are stuck and what is challenging you.  They should be able to meet you where you are and help you take your next step – not leave you flailing about with some sense of transcendent idealism that makes you feel inferior.  Now, sometimes, this may be the right and appropriate thing for a teacher to do – but if you get the sense that this is how they treat everyone – dispensing esoteric wisdom from on-high without regard for the person, then this may be something to watch out for.  Again, you can still learn a lot from a teacher in this position, but you are going to have to rely on your own innate wisdom to make sense of things – which can actually be very beneficial if you are ready for it.

A teacher should encourage you – while also challenging you. 

In line with what’s already been stated above, a good teacher will encourage you to look deeply within yourself and support your earnest and sincere efforts to find yourself.  If you expose yourself to a good teacher as someone who is really and truly ready to go deep and shed the untruth of the mind-made self, the teacher may turn up the pressure and offer more and more challenging insights and instructions that are meant to press you up against the wall that you have erected around yourself.  You may find yourself feeling very much like a tennis ball being knocked from one end of the court to the other, bouncing between deeply loving encouragement and very painful challenges.  Keep in mind that the goal of the teacher is to help you see beyond the confines of your own mind, to help push you beyond your fears, uncertainties, and doubts; to move you into a place of deep inner acceptance that can embrace the reality of things as they are, beyond what the mind can ‘know’.  It’s all okay so long as its happening at a comfortable pace.

A teacher should be working to simplify your world view.

While there is indeed value to be had in exploring complex spiritual systems, philosophies, practices, models, conceptualizations, stories, and the like; they are meant to be used in early stages of the process and thrown away as the teachings become more grounded in the simplicity of Truth.  The goal of the spiritual teacher is not to replace your existing identity with a new more spiritual one, or to enroll you in a new belief system that will govern your actions.  The direction of this movement – of the teaching process as a whole – should actually be away from ‘learning’ and towards ‘being’.  A good teacher will be quite clear in their introduction of a new spiritual concept or method that ‘this too will one day need to be set aside, once it has done its work’.  In the end, there is absolutely nothing that can be held onto.  The goal of the entire experience is to be free of all conceptual notions – including spiritual ones.  Even the highest attainments of enlightenment must ultimately fall away for enlightenment itself to blossom.

A teacher should be more interested in your freedom than in money. 

There are many different attitudes towards money and spirituality.  As we begin to relax into the understanding of what reality is, money doesn’t really have the same weight to it that it once did and we are not so caught up in an attitude or preference that either elevates or vilifies it.  With this understanding there is nothing wrong with a spiritual teacher charging reasonable fees or asking for donations in order to have their own worldly needs met.  This is simply part of the dance.  However, if a teacher is demanding outrageous sums, or is unwilling to work with you because you don’t have enough money to enlist their services, this can be problematic on many levels.  Every being deserves to benefit from the teachings of Self-realization – no matter their financial status.  A good teacher is like a wise friend who has already traversed the inroads of consciousness and isn’t trying to capitalize on your suffering – they are here to free you from it.


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