Recently in the yoga community, we have witnessed the difficulties of a popular, once-respected teacher, John Friend. Discrepancies of teachers with their own ideals is not new to yoga or meditation. The teacher becomes lost in one of the Four Obsessions from Buddhism. In this case, pleasure & power. Students of the teacher suffer emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. The teacher suffers through the power of ignoring and denial. Others suffer by developing distrust of all teachers. It is said to take a minimum of five years to recover.
“When the Student is Ready, the Teacher will Appear”. This saying is tossed about in regard to spiritual teachers. It sounds great. However, few of us have any experience working directly with a spiritual teacher. It can be confusing, as we have no categories that fit this kind of relationship. This applies whether the teacher is of a movement centered form such as yoga, qi gong or a stillness centered form such as meditation. Is this a therapist-client relationship? no. Is this a parent-child relationship? no. Is this a friend-friend relationship? no. The spiritual teacher-student relationship is unique, having elements of other relationships, it is still none of those. Clarity needs to be brought into this relationship, so that its benefits can bloom without causing harm.
There are three categories that can clarify this relationship. What is the basis for a spiritual teacher-student relationship? How do you discern a useful teacher from a harmful one? What are the responsibilities of this relationship?
The teacher-student relationship is a Shared Aim relationship. The Aim is the student’s awakening. It is plain and simple. Anything beyond that basis is extra.
In the tradition that I practice, ten years is considered a short amount of time to decide upon a teacher. No matter how long you take, there are three steps that will help the process.
1. Find out why the teacher is teaching – what is their motivation?
Ask them. Are they teaching for power, fame, money? Is their intention explicit? Observe their teaching. Does their teaching instill hierarchy, create trance, build connections, diminish others…? Does their teaching align with your intention?
2. Find out why students work with this teacher
Ask and observe the students. How does the group behave? Do they seem special, exclusive, kind…? How do they describe the teacher? What is explicitly and implicitly expected of the students? Do the student’s speak openly?
3. Find out if the teacher’s practice is in balance
Balance is dynamic, not static. Are their words & actions in balance? What methods are taught to balance physical, emotional and mental material? Is there too much focus on ascent; ‘leaving the physical plane’, ‘attaining higher energy”, or on descent; ‘dismantling blocks’, ‘digging deeper’?
Both parties of a Shared Aim relationship have responsibilities. If the teacher or student does not abide by them, then the relationship is over. The student has four primary responsibilities.
1. Be clear about your intention
Recall it daily. Too many students abandon their intention when a charismatic teacher provides “a better one”. Blindly giving up your intention leads to problems, such as; practicing to get something from the teacher – attention, power, sex…
2. Practice what is taught as it is given
Work on the method as the teacher intended, without changing it. If you have questions, ask. Notice the effects. Be proactive. If you feel the teacher is asking you to do something unreasonable, secret, or special – watch out!
3. Apply what is taught in your life
Take the practice into your life and work with it. Notice the effects. It is in your life that practice bears fruit. If you feel something is unbalanced, address it.
4. Be an open vessel
If we try to add water to a full pitcher, the water will overflow. You need to have some space available in order to learn. Recall your intention.
The teacher has four primary responsibilities. They are: to not misuse the relationship for their own needs, to show the student the possibility of living awake, to train the student thoroughly in the techniques & tools they will need, to point out the physical, emotional, mental patterns that block the student & provide methods for addressing them.
The teacher-student relationship is like weather; projections form fog, emotional needs cause rain, and mental confusions build thunderstorms. There are numerous stories of dangers, downfalls & destruction. It requires commitment, active attention & trust. Still, the efforts you make working with this type of teacher are worth the time. This relationship can be a catalyst for deep insight to unfold. Through it, the mystery of being can open at the center your life and there is no need to look anywhere else.
May 2012 – Gail H Gustafson