I was recently asked a question about the importance of having a spiritual teacher. This provided a nice opportunity to explain in some detail that, yes, according to Yoga teaching it was important for a person wanting to advance in spiritual understanding to have a teacher.
In modern times however, the concept of a spiritual teacher is oftentimes unfortunately viewed with significant misgivings if not absolute dread. One of the major reasons for this kind of reticence is arrogance – not wanting to accept that someone else may know more than I do. Another reason is that many people have been put off by their knowledge or experience of charlatans of one stripe or another.
The matter of arrogance is something that each of us should try to become aware of in our own lives, and hopefully to see it as something that is undesirable. It’s not such an easy thing to do, but nevertheless we should try as much as possible to overcome our arrogance otherwise we will surely be deprived of the opportunity to gain spiritual knowledge. One aid in overcoming arrogance is to appreciate that in any field of knowledge or expertise we need a teacher who can provide us with information about that particular field.
Whether we look at martial arts, music, engineering, mathematics, learning a new language, science, hatha yoga, various kinds of trades – whatever it may be – as novices/apprentices, we naturally look to teachers to help us on our way. Even if we don’t formally accept a teacher we are still influenced by those who have gone before us in any particular field. For example, even the most creative musicians who have never received any formal music tuition, they too will offer tribute to some musical influence that they came under in the early stages of their careers. This also applies in the field of spiritual understanding. Sometimes people will try to get around the ‘problem’ of accepting a teacher by learning on their own – by being ‘self taught’. How do I do that? With the help of books or some other educational aid that doesn’t require the personal presence of a teacher. It doesn’t take much insight to see that this is a complete delusion. Didn’t somebody write the book and when you read that book, didn’t you become either directly or indirectly influenced by what you read?
In other words, if you read a book and are even slightly influenced by what you have read then you have indeed for all practical purposes, accepted a teacher. Let’s say you can’t read and you really don’t want to learn anything from anyone – the reality is that you too will learn from whoever you associate with. If you spend enough time with corrupt police, the chances are that you will learn from them how to be corrupt – or alternatively, if you are a strong personality you may influence/teach them to go straight. The point is that we are continually being taught/influenced by many people – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
Rather than shudder in horror at the realization of this fact of life, and living in denial of it – a wiser course would be to simply acknowledge that having teachers of various kinds is the most natural thing in the world. From the day we are born our first teachers (parents) are influencing us. There is nothing uncool or bad about that. And so it’s not really a question of ‘will I have a teacher?’ but rather the question is ‘who will I have as my teacher?’ Are there charlatans out there just waiting for an opportunity to rip me off? Yes. Are there lots of charlatans out there just waiting to rip me off? Yes. These are of various kinds – those who would exploit me in one way or another, those who would pass on false knowledge, and those who don’t really care about me at all – they are simply interested in self aggrandizement. In any case, it’s not that we should avoid ‘having a teacher’, but rather we should avoid ‘having an unworthy teacher’.
And what can be said about those people, who having come across one or two or even hundreds of such unworthy teachers – they conclude from this that all teachers are unworthy. I was once talking to the sister of a close friend and she was telling me that because she had come across a cheating charlatan, posing as a spiritual teacher of some kind, she had concluded that all spiritual teachers must be charlatans, and she wasn’t going to trust anybody. And this was coming from someone with a university education – someone who thought of themselves as a well rounded, liberally minded person.
Yoga teachings advise us that if we are to gain spiritual knowledge we should seek out a worthy teacher, but in a world filled with so many many unworthy teachers, how do we know who is truly worthy – that’s the big question. This may be a confusing thing to contemplate, but we can take comfort from the well known saying ‘when the student is ready the teacher appears’.