In our Western culture, most of us have been raised to seek out authority figures, especially in the areas of spirituality. We turn to priests, preachers, religious figures, and spiritual teachers hoping to make sense of this crazy life we’re all living. Tell a typical Westerner that they’re on their own, spiritually, and you will see an existential crisis brewing that could flatten the Dalai Lama.
Frankly, most of us like having guides, teachers, and authority figures to help us figure out our lives, hearts, minds, and spirits. I’m not bashing them. I myself have had many amazing teachers along the way – people who have pointed me along my path, encouraged me to journey deeper inward, and helped me discern the often conflicting spiritual messages I was receiving both internally and externally.
When you are seeking out a teacher, though, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for charlatans. I truly believe most people are decent, but there are unsavory types who are happy to prey on the spiritual naiveté of others – especially when there’s a buck to be made.
Many years ago, someone I loved very dearly read a book, met some people, attended some classes and before you know it, he’d sold all his possessions and traveled across the country to join a cult.
Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of the guru.
So how do you know a legitimate teacher from a not-so-trustworthy one? Here are a few warning signs to look out for:
- The teacher opposes critical thinking: A good teacher wants their pupils to ask questions, make suggestions, and grow in their practice. If your teacher is the type to demand blind obedience, you might want to rethink the relationship.
- The teacher is always correct: If your teacher “never makes a mistake,” you may have made one yourself–by picking the wrong teacher!
- The teacher isolates students: Be wary of teachers who do not want you talking to other students, or your friends and family, or studying complementary or opposing philosophies. If their teachings can’t stand up to scrutiny from outside, they probably are not worth studying.
- The teacher convinces pupils they aren’t good enough or encourages dependency: I once heard about a “high priestess” who referred to her students as “puppies,” and treated them with about that much respect. The goal of training is to develop spiritually, and that means gaining confidence and independence is the logical projected outcome. If your teacher is not headed in that direction, you might want to head in another direction yourself–out the door.
- Spying is rewarded and “ousted” students are shunned and perceived as hostile: A good teacher encourages respect and cooperation among pupils. If your guru is bad-mouthing other students, how is this going to help your spiritual growth? A good teacher is a good role-model.
- Monetary, sexual, or servile labor is expected: It’s perfectly acceptable for a teacher to request compensation for their work. It’s not acceptable for them to take your life savings, or demand you sleep with them, or make you clean their house every weekend.
When looking for spiritual guidance, especially in the realm of New Age and metaphysical studies, it’s easy to get swept into the excitement of a new teacher or new ideas. It’s tempting to give away your power to someone you feel has more wisdom and experience than you do.
A good teacher won’t let you do that. A good teacher will encourage pacing, practicality, and have your best interest in mind. A good teacher will treat you like an adult, and damn well expect you to act like one. And when they no longer have anything to teach you, an ethical teacher will send you on your way to the next adventure.
If they don’t? Run.