Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Choose a Spiritual Teacher?

I had a very good discussion with someone in the comments section of one of my recent entries. Part of our discussion was about how to progress spiritually. This person suggested that one needs to find an authentic spiritual teacher and that Eknath Easwaran, although he seemed like a "nice" enough guy with some commonsensically sound things to say about religion and spirituality, was essentially just an "English teacher"and not a "genuine vehicle of the divine grace." When I asked how one knows an authentic teacher from a charlatan, this person replied:

it is so important to remain within orthodoxy, as these are guaranteed sources of grace. They have an established record, like a boring mutual fund that you know will appreciate over time, as opposed to some hot stock that may or may not grow.

To cite a banalogy, let's say you have a big social function coming up, and you want to look sharp. But like Gagdad Bob, you don't know anything about fashion. Whom do you trust? On the one hand, you could go to some cutting edge place on Melrose Avenue and get the latest style. You'll probably end up looking like an idiot. No, better to stay with a classic look, something timeless, something that will never go out of style. This is why Cary Grant always looks impeccable, while those who follow fashions look very silly five or ten years later.

This seems like excellent advice. If one selects a venerable teacher from within a time-honored wisdom tradition, one is largely "guaranteed" a legitimate teacher who can act as a "source of grace."

As a sideline comment on the clothing metaphor, I recently felt the need to purchase a sport coat for an important job interview for which wearing my one and only suit seemed "over the top," but anything less than a nice sport coat with dress shirt and slacks and matching tie seemed insufficient. My problem was that I have such dismal fashion sense that I hadn't a clue as to what to buy. I had the idea that I needed to get something more on the Cary Grant than Carson Kressley side of fashionability, but whom could I trust to show me what filled the bill? I decided on the Men's Wearhouse because I'm a sucker for those George Zimmer commercials where he earnestly boasts in a mellifluous tone, "You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it." I believed that I could go to one of his stores and find something recommended by someone who knew what he (or she) was doing without having to pay what's left of my bank account for it. I'd like to think I made the right decision not only on where to shop but also on the sport coat I ended up buying, but I don't know for sure. It's not the coat I would have bought on my own by any means, and, as for trusting Men's Wearhouse, I could probably find people who know about clothes who would say that Men's Wearhouse is a good place to shop whereas others would say that it sucks big time.

In much the same way, I could probably find disagreement between even the most spiritually knowledgeable people about who, among even the most revered, is an authentic spiritual teacher and who isn't. For instance, some swear that Andrew Cohen is a great spiritual teacher, while others insist that he's an egomaniacal, cult-leading nutcase. It seems like, in the end, one just doesn't know for sure. Not only does one not know who's a genuine spiritual teacher in general, but one also doesn't know whether that teacher is right for him or her in particular. "Different strokes for different folks," and, perhaps, different teachers for different seekers. It seems to me that if one is really looking for a good teacher, one may need to find someone who not only has a sterling reputation among people who seem qualified to judge (whoever they are), which isn't always that easy to do, but also that he (or she) must strike a chord deep within oneself.

In their own ways, Spinoza, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eknath Easwaran, Ken Wilber, and, yes, even Tony Robbins have come the closest to striking chords deep within me of anyone with whom I have any familiarity. All seem to have pieces of the spiritual puzzle, even though no one seems like a sufficiently complete teacher for me in and of himself. I know that Cousin Dupree would probably roll his eyes in disgust at my mention of at least two of these gentlemen, and he probably wouldn't think much of the remainder as spiritual teachers, but why should I trust Dupree's judgment about spiritual matters more than I do my own deepest instincts? Because he's far smarter and much more widely read than I am and has even had his own book about spirituality published and praised and has been interviewed in a leading magazine about spirituality? Some would say that this is reason enough, but is it?

In any case, I can't force myself to go against my instincts to embrace Dupree's or anyone else's conflicting judgments even if I wanted to. The best I can do is listen to and reflect upon what others have to say and then proceed to make my own choices based on what I think (or feel) is best. And I suspect that there's something to be said for following through with conviction and purpose with one's decision after one makes it instead of wavering diffidently from second-guessing.

What I'm trying to say is that it seems to me that I must make a choice of whom to follow or what path to walk and totally commit to that choice long enough to get a clear sense of where it leads. I can listen to other people's recommendations, but they can't make the choice for me. I must make it for myself.

Interestingly, Easwaran, who, incidentally, moved on (or up) from being a professor of English literature (Wasn't Aurobindo also an English professor for a time?) to becoming a world-renowned spiritual teacher and writer and the founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation where he lived with and taught, in traditional Indian fashion, a devoted community of students or disciples, had the following to say about choosing the right teacher:

My advice has always been to select your teacher with great care. Use common sense and don't get carried away by personal appearance. You don't go to just any stockbroker and ask him to handle your accounts, do you? You study his record; you ask your friends about him. Now, if choosing a stockbroker can command so much attention, you must pardon me if I say that you should take at least as much care in choosing a spiritual teacher. Look closely at his or her life. That is the surest test. Talk to people who have been with the teacher, who have spent time with him or her. See whether he gets depressed when things go wrong, whether she can return good for ill, love for hatred--whether he can support those who offend him, whether she can forgive those who malign her. How consistent are his actions with his words? I give students years before I accept them fully. I watch them carefully, and I expect them to watch me carefully at the same time. And I ask them to give me a reasonable margin for human error. (The Making of a Teacher, Jim and Carol Flinders, 43-44)

That, too, seems like excellent advice, although it raises its own set of questions. Primary among them are: (1) How much "human error" should we accept in an enlightened teacher? and (2) Should we turn to a living teacher with whom we can be physically present, or can we "settle" for a teacher who has either passed on or whom we can never hope to meet much less study with on a continuing basis?

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