As we develop spiritually, what we need and want from a spiritual teacher changes. I’ll start by looking at different roles a teacher may play.
Roles of the Teacher
The first of these is the role of teacher. There are many forms this can take. One is disseminating “teachings” or some kind of wisdom. A good sermon, a dharma talk, even satsang may involve this kind of teaching.
Yet most of us recognize that we learn something more deeply when comes through our own experience than if we just hear or read it. Truth needs to be directly felt; it is freshest when it is discovered. It is therefore most useful for the spiritual guide to teach the student how to find truth for him- or herself rather than to become dependent on the teacher for truth.
A second role is serving as a model what it is to be a human being living a spiritual life. We see what Essence looks like on an actual person living in the world, and this can encourage us to live out our own realization.
If we fail to understand the individuality of this process, we will make the mistake of imitating the teacher and lose the real value of the lesson. The teacher-as-model simply shows us that it can be done, not how it should look.
We might call the third role being a window to the divine, a vehicle for grace. This is both the teacher’s most important role and the most challenging one. It is challenging because it is easy for both student and teacher to associate the person of the teacher with this function and to forget that the real teacher is Being.
A person functions as a teacher to the extent he or she can get out of the way and let Being come through. In the words of Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the teacher is but an empty space through which the teachings are made known.
The teacher’s role is to be a window to God and to fuel the student’s love for God, not to stand in as the object of that love. While that could be useful at moments (just as it can be temporarily useful for a psychotherapist to accept a client’s idealization for the sake of creating a strong bond), in the long run it is counterproductive.Too many students (and teachers) get caught here. In this case, it is the teacher’s job to smash the idealization and to remind the student that they are a window only and that the divine shines through everyone. We’re all windows to God. We just need to clean the panes.
Often we want the teacher to take on a fourth role, which I call “Magical Other.” This relates to the transcendent glow the teacher takes on as a window to God, but is also colored by our early infant longings. It is the desire for that all-powerful Other who, with the right look or the right touch, can soothe our distress and put us in a state of bliss. This is less the need of a mature student and more the fantasy of the child inside.
What does it mean to grow up spiritually?
Growing up is leaving this fantasy. We step out of our unconscious identification with the child and step into a more current reality. This one step changes many things, including how we receive the teachings, how we hold the teacher, and our requirements for perfection.
First, in terms of teachings, growing-up means that we no longer act like a baby bird needing its mother to chew up its food and feed it to him. We learn how to search out our own food and undertake our own process of digestion. We learn to take in many views and ideas and don’t need all our nourishment to come from the mouth of the teacher. In fact, if the teacher tries to feed us something that really gags us, we spit it out.
Another shift is that when we recognize ourselves as grown-up, we don’t need perfect love or perfect holding. We don’t look to the teacher to give us a sense of safety and legitimacy or to make us feel special.
We neither need to be special to the teacher or to be special because we’re with the teacher. We don’t use being part of a spiritual group to feel “in” or to give us a sense of belonging.
We don’t need the teacher to be Mommy, and we don’t need the teacher to be God. The teacher can be there as an ally and spiritual friend.
What we’re looking for is someone to help point the way, someone to extend a hand when we trip and fall, to encourage us when we feel disheartened and want to give up. We need someone who can be tough, who can dash our illusions and show us what is false, and who can point us to our own resources and essential nature and help open our connection with God.
Looking back at this list, I see that what I am describing is not so different from what a good parent provides; the difference is in what age child we’re talking about. Wanting the teacher to take away all our problems, to send us into ecstasy with a magic look or a magic touch is the desire of a baby, whereas wanting guidance and encouragement is both the need of a child and of adults in any stage of mentorship.
Being a grown-up doesn’t mean we can’t receive help; it means we become more discriminating about that help. We learn to differentiate between the message and the messenger and make discriminations about each.
The teacher isn’t necessarily all-good, and the message doesn’t need to be swallowed whole. We don’t require the teacher to be all-knowing or all-powerful. When the teacher is functioning as a vehicle of grace, we’re grateful, but we know that it’s God that is the source.
When we stop idealizing the teacher, we can stop feeling like the child and can start to recognize the light that also shines in us.