Someone writes a book on the spiritual life. It becomes a bestseller, elevating them to talk-show circuit status. The promotional hype is now in full swing, and you buy into it. You attend the seminars, pay a good chunk of money for the workshops, and purchase all the video teachings and audio courses. You place a bumper sticker on your car announcing your newfound affiliation. Because you have a vested interest in getting your money’s worth, you believe that you are benefiting from your new high-profile guru. You are further influenced by the members of the organization, who actively encourage you to continue interacting with the group…and to continue purchasing additional products.
On the surface, you think you are progressing spiritually. But the only true signs of spiritual unfoldment are diminishment of the ego, liberation from deep-seated personality traits, and the quelling of random thoughts and reactive emotions. To feel a sense of conformity because you belong to a group is worlds apart from actually realizing God. You’ve helped to make someone wealthy, but have you enriched your own spiritual plot of soil?
“Many will say to me,
‘Lord, did we not do many mighty works in your name?’
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I have never known you.
Keep away from me, you workers of iniquity!’”
The following guidelines will help to weed out a good percentage of bogus teachers:
- A true spiritual teacher should never, under any circumstances, charge money for initiating a would-be disciple, or for providing one-on-one spiritual counseling, which is defined as highly specialized dialogues between teacher and disciple that address the mechanics of enlightenment: meditation, prayer, spiritual experiences, and so forth.
- Sexual relationships with disciples are absolutely forbidden.
- Genuine teachers will not hanker after publicity.
- Spiritual teachers should not be addicted to money or luxurious living.
- An authentic spiritual teacher will not be obsessed with developing abstruse philosophical systems or advancing complicated theories.
- A true spiritual teacher will never promise their disciples worldly improvement or secular gain.
- Genuine teachers will not make concentrated efforts to attract disciples.
Equally important, a legitimate spiritual teacher in contemporary Western society should never infantilize their disciples or tell them what to think. On the contrary, they should empower their disciples to think for themselves, to act independently, and to make their own decisions in life. Remember, God is found within us, not outside of ourselves. A true spiritual teacher will find joy in helping others find God within themselves, never in establishing a slavish relationship of dependency with their students.
Recall the words of Lao Tzu: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” Many bogus teachers are self-christened; they often make unsubstantiated claims about themselves. Don’t believe their hyperbole. Rather than embodying enlightenment, many are suffering from bloated egos. They rely on your naiveté and gullibility to grant them credibility. Without your patronage they will go out of business. Don’t fall prey to such individuals.
If the above principles are followed, a spiritual seeker will find a certain number of those who are touted as spiritual teachers are not altogether legitimate. These individuals, often egomaniacal autocrats, may corrupt religion for their own self-centered ends. Jesus counseled, “Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15). The very existence of these false teachers mocks the many legitimate and dedicated spiritual teachers who sincerely and joyfully follow their calling. It would be in your best interest to avoid any spiritual teacher who violates the guidelines listed above.
More on Teachers
The benefits of sticking with established mystical traditions sometimes outweigh those of following unconventional spiritual movements and self-proclaimed teachers. As a generalization, the greatest charlatans are typically found among the self-appointed charismatic guru types. True, episodes of deplorable corruption or unacceptable abuse often erupt among the established religions, which rightfully must be addressed and corrected, and the wrongdoers weeded out and brought to justice. But many such religions have centuries of mystical tradition to fall back on, and it’s that wellspring of mysticism into which a person taps. Mysticism is this core element of religion that far outlives the bad apples of this or that decade. Whereas the flash-in-the-pan guru types interchangeably come and go, often duping countless individuals with skillful marketing techniques that are entirely self-serving.
What constitutes a genuine spiritual teacher? One who is charismatic? One who excels in delivering dynamic, mesmerizing lectures? One who draws the greatest crowds or builds the largest organization? One who receives the most media coverage? One who sells the most books? None of the above. The best spiritual teacher may be entirely unknown. That person may anonymously teach by example alone. He or she may be reclusive and shun the masses. The criterion of gauging success by how well a so-called teacher stacks up on the popularity scale is a function of commercialism, which demands that products be sold to the greatest numbers of people. But in the world of pure spiritual values, the numbers game holds no meaning whatsoever. A genuine spiritual teacher will ideally embody an advanced degree of enlightenment; they will be in touch with the Divine presence. This experiential spiritual realization is what constitutes their legitimacy.
A true spiritual teacher will typically never be self-appointed. Their validity should always be confirmed by other legitimate teachers within their tradition. They should have respect for, and not denounce other legitimate religious traditions. They should not espouse inflexible, dogmatic tenets. He or she should shy away from making spiritual claims about themselves. (Okay, you may cite Jesus… there are exceptions.) They should embody ethical values. An advanced teacher will have little or no ego. The most advanced will be content everywhere. Such teachers are seemingly invisible and forever ungraspable.
The single-most important function of a spiritual teacher is to plant a seed, to ignite a spark of spirituality within their disciples. If the teacher originates from a bona-fide tradition, they act as conduits for the blessings of that tradition. When interacting with their charges, a certain mood overtakes them, which the Hindus call guru bhava —the spiritual mood of the teacher. Any so-called spiritual teacher who is not overtaken by this mood, which descends upon them from God, lacks the authenticity to impart genuine spirituality. They may give electrifying lectures, they may sell scores of books, they may claim thousands of followers. But none of these secular accomplishments qualifies them to infuse the vibrant, living realization of spirituality to others. Of many hundreds of spiritual teachers, this function may be activated in only a handful.
How do you know if a spiritual teacher has access to this sublime mood? In their presence, and especially when receiving their blessings, you will feel unshakable contentment and freedom from all worries and earthly concerns. When this occurs, you will have been put in touch with your soul. You will have been transported to a timeless realm of unending, ever-new wonder. The teacher’s spiritual mood will have transferred to you as if by osmosis, and you will have been given a glimpse of your own true egoless spiritual nature, which is unalloyed peace and indescribable joy.
However, a person does not categorically need a teacher in order to attain this state. Why? Because this state already exists within you. The outer teacher merely awakens it. If you have incentive and an ardent desire for spiritual realization, you already possess the key components that will fuel your entire spiritual journey. Your motivation and the degree of your faith will solely determine your rate of progress, aided by the grace of God, which is an intangible, mysterious factor. God will be revealed to the aspirant who seeks nothing except God alone.