An online conversation with fellow seeker Marco Acevedo got me thinking about the idea of a ‘spiritual friend’. It’s one English translation of ‘guru’, but i like the obvious English meaning – a friend with whom you share a sincere interest in spiritual growth.
However, within these type of relationships it can happen that one friend is temporarily taking a leading or ‘teaching ‘ role and one the ‘student’. I’ve been pondering the responsibilities incumbent upon students and teachers in a spiritual/esoteric context.
If you don’t want to be known as a teacher who abuses, manipulates, or takes advantage of students it’s best not to abuse, manipulate or take advantage of them.
If you cannot abide the idea that people outside of the teaching relationship, or even your own students, may not understand your actions or may take a disliking to you and thus spread false rumors about you, maybe you shouldn’t teach at this time.
If you’re not open to the possibility of different approaches and paths to esoteric development and growth in compassion, if other people pursuing these aims on their own terms disturbs you, prepare for aggravation.
If you are a sincere student and wish to honor a person who offers teaching, do your best to remain self directed and think/practice things through on your own or with other students in order to respect your teacher’s time and attention. I never really understood why some teachers would draw strict boundaries around interactions with students until I was in line at the restroom at a teaching given by my teacher. She was in the stall, door closed and urinating, while a student asked her questions. This dedicated teacher answered the student patiently, but soon after this incident I noticed that she took her breaks separately from any but her intimate helpers.
There is a lot of claptrap and romanticization in the west about traditional eastern student/guru teaching relationships. You don’t have to read long in the traditional literature to find admonishments to investigate any teacher with a fine toothed comb, by any means you can think of, for years on end before entering into such a relationship. This is wise advice.
Teachers, no matter how revered, are people too and thus subject to the same foibles and temptations as anyone else. It’s naive to expect every spiritual teacher out there to be enlightened and perfected, but this doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. Just keep your wits about you, don’t cut ties with family and friends or other groups, and keep an eye out for unwarranted demands. These demands will tend to vary depending on what you have to offer and what the group/teacher is on the lookout for. Young women or men will tend to be exploited for sex, manual labor, or recruiting new members while academics will be courted for endorsements of writing/philosophy/etc on so on. Know your worth.
At the same time, it’s wrong to take without giving back. If you don’t have a lot of money, many teachers can use volunteers for events or administrative tasks. Check with your teacher for what they need. Be sincere about providing that which you are able. This should include being an even keeled and diligent practitioner willing to help your fellow students. Strive to behave in a way that will reflect well on your teacher when people discover you are their student.
Lastly, don’t fixate on spiritual celebrities or people who’ve been certified through a lineage or organization. Don’t get me wrong, many of these people are very knowledgeable and adept and well worth studying with.
However – the core of the learning relationship is the relationship. What do you two draw out of each other? Do you spark each other to new insights or doggedness and determination in your quest? Does this person inspire you to become more patient and compassionate?
Oftentimes these people don’t have recognition or status. Pay attention to your own reactions to different people, not just the big names. One of my most profound teachers, for whom I still feel great affection and gratitude, has never had any formal recognition from her tradition. Yet my time with her inspires me still today, and her life course after we studied together has revealed her deep devotion and understanding.
Knowledge of the divine is intoxicating. But we do well to remain grounded and sensible while seeking such knowledge.
Best wishes to you on the path.