The soul that is alone and without a master and has virtue is like the burning coal that is alone, it will grow colder rather than hotter. He that falls alone remains on the ground alone and holds his soul of small account, since he trusts it to himself alone. ~ St. John of the Cross
If you’ve ever traveled to a new and unknown country or city, you’ve most likely felt the excitement of wanting to experience as much as you can but not knowing where to start. You ask locals, seek information boxes and read maps.
In essence, you’re looking for guidance; someone who has already traveled the paths, knows the byroads, and is able to point out the dangers and problems along the way.
The journey of reconnecting with your Soul is much the same. Without any map, we need a guide who can give us the right directions, the necessary encouragement, and someone who can help us avoid the clutches of the ego.
The inner journey is the most difficult and challenging undertaking that we can ever make. When most people start the spiritual journey, they make the mistake of using the ego’s voice and limitations to guide themselves. But using the ego to seek transcendence is like asking a fish to describe what water is: it can’t possibly know what it’s really looking for.
Without mature spiritual guidance, we easily get lost, deluded, confused and discouraged.
Why We Need Spiritual Teachers
One thing that stood out in my period of intense learning was how my own teacher never used the word “teach.” He would always call it “learning” instead. Now, reflecting back, I realize that he saw his role more as an “opener of doors”: he never told me what to do or how to think. The learning I did was always through my own efforts.
In the realm of spirituality, true teachers never really teach you anything in the conventional way. They don’t want to provide new beliefs, rules or information for you to cling to. Instead, they help you to remove that which is in the way, that which separates you from the truth of who you already are and what you already know in the depth of your being.
In other words, a true teacher’s job is to serve as a mirror, until we’re able to realize that the light within them is also the light within us.
True spiritual teachers are like empty vessels that are filled with nothing. Through them, we experience the limitless, untouched ocean of love that can be found in all things. Through them, we also become conscious of whatever is blocking our ability to experience light. Whether it be past wounds, mental attachments or egotistical desires, these blocks become the next part of your inner work.
I can say from personal experience that many spiritual seekers begin with the craving to find stimulating ideas, theories, beliefs, and intellectual discussions. But under a true spiritual teacher, they eventually end up becoming disappointed.
Seekers who are looking for novel or glittery ideas become disillusioned because such ideas are only signposts towards the Truth – they are not the Truth itself. And in many cases, these novel ideas actually become distractions that mislead us into the labyrinths of the mind again.
In the end, it’s true that the best Teacher is within us, that our ultimate guide is our own Souls. But how can those of us who have no idea what the Soul looks or feels like possibly guide ourselves when we are stumbling through the dark?
For the vast majority of people, a teacher, guru, guide, mentor, spiritually knowledgeable therapist, or even a wise soul friend, is invaluable on the path toward a more awakened state.
How Do You Find a True Spiritual Guide?
In ancient Shamanic wisdom, we don’t find a teacher; the teacher finds us.
Spirit Animals are one example of this truth: we don’t find our spirit animals, our spirit animals find us.
Once our thirst for answers awakens and we begin our spiritual quest, the light within us becomes stronger, and the stronger it becomes, the more we attract guides and people that support our growth. For example, it is common for spiritual seekers to receive guidance from omens, prophetic dreams, and even serendipitous teachings or messages.
Sometimes it takes years for spiritual teachers to find us. But when they come, how do we know whether they’re the right teacher for us?
Understandably, most people feel some level of fear when considering becoming involved with a teacher. Deep down we fear being used, exploited, or entrapped.
The truth is that we are only ever trapped by our own desires and attachments (and what we’re expecting from our teachers). If we truly seek liberation, then all teachers are vehicles of learning in one way or another.
In my experience, you can tell that you’ve found your teacher when you feel an immediate strong and intense link of love for their teachings. Your heart will feel open and elevated when reading this person’s words or sitting in their presence. I’ve seen a man’s eyes fill with tears out of nowhere for no reason other than the sight of a book’s cover.
But how do we know if these feelings are sincere? How do we know that we’re not just being charmed or given a false sense of security?
Here I find that the Sufi tradition has a wonderful approach where the disciples are allowed to test their Sheikhs (teachers).
Abū-Sa’īd Abul-Khayr was a poet and Sufi mystic who was one of the first to describe the qualities to look for as proof in a true teacher. There’s at least ten characteristics:
- He/she must have embodied the spiritual message to be able to have disciples.
- He/she must have traveled the mystic path himself to be able to show the way.
- He/she must have become refined and educated in order to be an educator.
- He/she must be generous and devoid of self-importance so that he/she can sacrifice wealth on behalf of the disciple.
- He/she must have no hand in the disciple’s wealth so that he/she is not tempted to use it for himself/herself.
- Whenever he/she can give advice through a sign, he/she will not use direct expression.
- Whenever he/she can educate through kindness, he/she will not use violence and harshness.
- Whatever he/she orders, he/she has first accomplished.
- Whatever he/she forbids the disciple, he/she has abstained from himself/herself.
- He/she will not abandon the students for the sake of the world.
These characteristics are a starting point to help us distinguish between power/greed/status hungry “teachers” and genuine vehicles of Spirit that contribute toward our collective evolution.
Unlike other teachers, spiritual guides are faced with the most difficult teaching of all: to teach others the way of ego surrender into divine truth. Ultimately, the teacher is a ferryman who takes you from the shores of your ego to the shores of Divine Union.
Anandamayi Ma, described as “the most perfect flower the Indian soil has produced,” once explained that a disciple’s attitude is more important than the guru.
Ultimately, no one can give us self-realization. We must find it ourselves. An outer teacher can only reveal the real teacher hidden within us.
Even the false teachers we come across on the way help us to learn the value of developing our own sense of discrimination and judgment.
Finding a true teacher, deep down, is about discovering how sincere we are on our spiritual quest, for honest seekers understand that the outer world is only a catalyst for bringing us closer to the truth that is already hidden within us.