One of my University professors used a lot of words I didn’t understand in his lectures, and I constantly had to look them up. I imagined he used those words to show off, and I didn’t like having to go to the dictionary so much. Because of this, I thought he was a bad teacher.
Looking back, I believe I was mistaken in my assessment of him. His job as a professor was to get me to learn, and he did. I learned a lot of words I didn’t previously know; words I still know and use, and he motivated me to use the dictionary.
At that time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what makes a good teacher. Since then I’ve had many experiences with teachers, especially spiritual teachers, and I hope that I know a little more now. This article is to share some of what I’ve learned with the hope that others who are looking for a true spiritual teacher will benefit.
Many people, I believe, are unsure of how to find a great spiritual teacher. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the teachers in yoga studios who teach the basics, such as postures and breathing practices. Rather, I’m talking about great teachers; teachers who can lead their students to transform their personalities and reach the highest goals of yoga.
Actually, finding spiritual teachers isn’t a problem. As my University professor would have said, there are a “plethora” (a large or excessive amount, an overabundance) of them. The difficulty is not in finding a spiritual teacher, but rather finding a true teacher. You’ve probably heard stories of teachers who make off with their students’ money, or lead their students astray. Far more common are teachers whose knowledge is limited or questionable. So out of this volume of apparent teachers, how does one find a true spiritual teacher who can lead a person out of his own maze and onto a path that enables him to truly grow?
A common way many people learn about teachers these days is through advertisements. Although advertisements might be helpful for finding products to buy, they are not the best way to find a spiritual guide. This is because anyone can make any claims they want in advertisements. My meditation preceptor, Swami Veda Bharati, once gave a lecture on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and, in an aside, he asked those gathered before him what it takes to be a yoga master. Then, answering his own question, he quipped, “a good marketing advisor.” He went on to say that there are so many “masters” these days but that most of them are masters of marketing rather than masters of themselves. True masters of yoga, he said, are extremely rare.
There are many teachers, made out to be masters by their advertising, who appear great. Often they are called master-this, or yogiraj-that. Some of these people may be true teachers. Others may be charlatans. A person newly on a spiritual path often does not have the ability to be able to distinguish between the two.
So then, how does one find a qualified teacher?
Traditionally, aspirants would seek a teacher who was part of a teaching lineage, where the teacher studied with, and has been authorized to teach by, a master. In such situations, at least we know that the teacher has some qualifications.
These days, however, many teachers are not part of a lineage, but are self-proclaimed. Some of these teachers may have much to offer, but one must be circumspect in selecting self-proclaimed teachers. I still remember Swami Veda Bharati saying “if someone claims to be enlightened, they are either egotistical or lying.” To this day, although he inspires and guides hundreds, perhaps thousands of students around the world, Swami Veda Bharati doesn’t call himself a master and won’t allow his students to do so either.
Great teachers don’t advertise and they don’t extoll their own powers or virtues. Rather, people are drawn to them, like iron is drawn to a magnet, due to their immense love, selflessness, and wisdom.
Many years ago, when I was looking for a spiritual guide, someone suggested seeing Swami Veda Bharati (who, before he became a monk, was known as Dr. Usharbudh Arya). My friend told me that Dr. Arya was a great teacher, so I went to a talk he was giving. Once I met him, I felt immensely drawn to him.
However, just being drawn to a teacher is not enough. The next step is to spend time with the teacher.
We do this to learn from the teacher. A true teacher has something to give; something that, if we practice it, will be life changing. Certainly that has been the case for me with Dr. Arya. My personality is very different now, in many positive ways, due to his influence. And, he used all sorts of tricks and means to get me to grow.
One time, I took him to visit a great woman saint, Shree Maa, who was then living and doing spiritual practice in what used to be a little warehouse that she called Devi Mandir—Temple of the Divine Mother—across the street from an oil refinery in Martinez, California. Swami Satyananda, who was always at Shree Maa’s side, liked to say that “On one side of the road oil was being refined, and on other side, in the Devi Mandir, souls are refined.” When Dr. Arya and I entered the warehouse and Shree Maa greeted him, Dr. Arya fell on the ground in a pranaam at her feet and prayed to her for my growth. Sometimes he used tough love to teach me a lesson, and other times he drew me in with sweetness. A teacher’s sole aim is for his students to grow, and he’ll go to great lengths to make this happen.
As we learn from the teacher, we get to observe the teacher close up. Has he calmed his own emotions? Does he walk his talk? Is he a selfless servant or a selfish egotist? Does he teach from his own experience, or from a book? And, very importantly, am I able to learn from this teacher?
A true teacher treats their students with pure love. Now, and very importantly, this doesn’t mean they are always nice. A teacher’s love can be very tough if that is what the student needs for his growth. At the same time, just because a teacher is tough doesn’t mean they’re a true teacher. We must always exercise our discrimination to know whether the teacher is acting from love or ego.
One time, Swami Veda Bharati invited me to accompany him to the Indian city of Ujjain for the Kumbha Mela. I got fearful and asked him whether “there is malaria there?” A few minutes later, when I was standing in the courtyard outside his cottage, he came out of his door like a bull in rodeo and marched right up to me. In front of all the people gathered around, in a loud harsh voice, he said to me, “You must get over your fear! It is harming your life!”
I was so embarrassed. After returning to my cottage to hide out, I got very angry at him for how he spoke to me in public. Then, as I sat in my cottage feeling my emotions, it became clear to me that what Swami Veda had done came from love. Fear was deeply rooted in my personality and it would take something very strong to get me to acknowledge the problem and to begin to take steps to correct it. At that moment, Swami Veda was like a surgeon, hurting me to save me from a disease. Many years later, I still have some fear, and I'm far more aware of it and better able to deal with it than I was back then.
If we spend enough time with our teacher, in close enough quarters, we’ll come to know him or her very well, and then we’ll have a basis to decide whether to stick with the teacher for the long run.
Now, in assessing the teacher, we should not expect him to be flawless. Sometimes, what looks like a flaw to us may not be so in reality. Even great teachers are human and have their quirks. Yet, in general, true teachers stand above the level of the common person, with greater patience, less selfishness, and greater wisdom and love.
Also, with the passage of quite a few years, we can apply the age-old test set forth in the bible in Matthew 7:16, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.”
In the case of a teacher, the fruit we’re looking for is whether our association with this teacher is producing sweet or bitter changes in us. Are we becoming more stable emotionally? Are we kinder, gentler, and do we act with greater wisdom? Or, is the opposite true?
If sweet fruits have not appeared, before deciding that it’s the teacher’s fault, we need to honestly assess whether our lack of progress is due to some failing on our part. Have we sincerely and consistently practiced the teachings imparted by the teacher or not? The teacher can’t force us to grow. We have to do that.
We all want a great teacher, and despite our best efforts, we might not have found one. In this situation, it’s important to remember the wise saying that “when the student is ready, the master appears.” Until that master appears, the teacher right in front of us may be just what we need, so long as that teacher is helping us grow. Even with a flawed teacher, we can make progress. One time I read a line that a great yoga teacher, Baba Hari Dass, wrote on this subject. It went something like this: “Even if you have true faith on a trashcan as your teacher, you’ll grow.” The teacher is less important than your own devotion and willingness to learn. At the same time, I believe that a master is essential for transformative growth.
As we learn and grow from the teacher we’re with, we are preparing ourselves for the eventual coming of the master.