Coping with the Spiritual Supermarket by Anatole

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Nowadays a person who is seriously interested in the spiritual path and a spiritual life faces a momentous dilemma: so many self-proclaimed spiritual teachers compete for a seeker's attention. This situation is so confusing for a sincere beginner: how do I enter this spiritual maze without getting lost too much, without too many broken bones and hearts?

So many are the interested people, so big a market that opportunists are bound to appear. As one notable spiritual teacher remarked: "Too many broths spoil the cooks." Teachings of yoga that were for millennia considered priceless and thus free for the asking are now being offered for sale. The system of yoga is no less complex than contemporary medicine, but most yoga teachers in the United States have only one or two months of formal, rigorous training! Would you go to a doctor who had spent one month at medical school? And then, a prospective spiritual seeker has no cultural background, knowledge or the experience needed to select a teacher and a spiritual system. All this brings about a tendency to peck and nibble at various traditions, dabble with various teachers. It is too frightening to dig deep.

Yoga, as is mostly taught today, is essentially a hatha, i.e., physical yoga practice. The natural cause for such a bias is the ubiquitous current obsession with physical health, instant gratification and packaged psychotropic agents. Yoga, however, is not limited to hatha yoga. Yoga rather is the technology of ecstasy. It is an integral, holistic, nonsectarian and rigorous teaching that focuses on the spiritual development. Yoga was designed as an integrated spiritual, mental, physical and social discipline, all components of which were meant to be practiced in a balanced, mutually supportive combination. There always exists a very real danger in practicing an isolated element of yoga system (physical yoga is an obvious example), forgetting other components of yoga and even trashing (!) the very purpose of yoga (self-realization) for smaller gains such as health, relaxation, flexibility and good feelings.

Let me offer a few suggestions to make "shopping the spiritual supermarket" a little less daunting:

First of all, a seeker should focus on finding a competent spiritual teacher, rather than on choosing a philosophical system or spiritual tradition such as Hindu or Tibetan tantra yoga, esoteric Christianity, Sufism, etc. The teacher is more important because he or she will transmit his or her unique knowledge of the Divine to you, because you will be steeped in his or her unique spiritual energy born of his or her spiritual realization. It is the teacher’s vision of Divine energy that will spur you on and inspire your spiritual path. There is no doubt that the techniques and philosophical traditions are alluring and engaging to the intellect, especially at the beginning; however, after the first several years on the path, the teacher's ability to guide you spiritually and his or her knowledge of the subtle pitfalls in the advanced stages of the path will be much more important than the tradition in which the teacher was trained and which he or she is passing on to you.

What is a spiritual teacher anyway? He or she is a living human being (a dead one will not do) who has been specially selected and trained, and thus became a conduit for the Universal Guru. The Supreme Being guides you in the guise of a guru. He or she is the medium through which the Divine Energy is able to communicate with you while you are not yet able to be in contact with It yourself. A true teacher is unaffected by, is free from compulsive mental distortions, i.e., his or her ego no longer drives his or her decisions. His or her real motive is love, i.e., the pure will and action to serve the all-round welfare of the disciple. There is no overt or covert desire to gain from his students.

What should the qualities of a teacher be in our post-modern world? The moral integrity, modesty and humility to admit his or her inevitable mistakes would top the list. A teacher need not always announce his or her mistakes publicly or to his students but if there is evidence that he or she is in denial—cannot admit mistakes to him or herself—beware! Beware of a teacher who (like one very famous guru) can stop his heart for hours but cannot control his penis. Or another one, also very well-known swami who could telepathically show up in your meditation but could not limit his secret mistresses. It is the presence of moral strength and humility that allows teacher to say, "I do not know everything, I have screwed up, I have made a mistake."

Do not associate the word "perfection" with spiritual teachers and teaching—the teachers and their teachings seldom fit a beginner’s narcissistic ego’s image of perfection. The ego searches for the perfect master and the perfect doctrine as a way to avoid work on itself, hoping that the teacher will take care of it and if this fails, the beginner blames the teacher’s incompetence. The search for a perfect master is a narcissistic ultimatum that only the best is capable of teaching you. In fact, if you actually get a perfect master (if there is such a possibility) you will find yourself in a situation where a teacher who should act as an example for you is too far advanced, too perfect for you. Thus you may develop a desire to put a teacher too high up on a pedestal, unreachable for you, again so that you need not strive to grow. A teacher who is much more experienced than you but not perfect is easier to approach and, in my view, more useful: you will have an opportunity to see him or her deal with his or her own spiritual struggle. Also there is less of a crowd around an unpretentious teacher—again easier to approach…

When you are ready to begin searching for a teacher, you should sincerely recognize the natural and unavoidable shortcomings of your assessment of the prospective teacher; however, in spite of that, you will have to rely on your common sense, your impressions of the teacher (which you should not form in haste) and referrals from trusted friends. This means—use common sense but keep in mind that you cannot fully fathom the methods, the state and the style of the teacher.

Those who in this incarnation have a strong and clear desire to find a teacher most likely have already had a teacher in the past and have an instinctive understanding of the importance of having a teacher. This is not their first time in the search—they have an intuitive idea about guru-disciple relationship. This innate feeling will help bring them to the teacher who is suited for them and who will teach the right kind of practice for them. Develop faith and patience that the Mother Universe will arrange the right teacher to you in due time.

Another important issue concerning finding a teacher is the dichotomy between searching for a teacher yourself and allowing the Universe to provide you with a teacher. In other words, does the well-known dictum "seek and you shall be found" hold? Should you prepare yourself for a teacher to come, to be attracted to you and then the teacher will arrive by the Grace of God? Or should you actively search for a teacher? In my experience, I find that both sides of the ‘equation’ need to be engaged. Most of us are not that spiritually evolved to wave a magic wand, say "presto" and have the ‘perfect master’ appear. Most of us will need to prepare ourselves some and search some for a teacher. And considering all kinds of ‘naughty problems’ that are recently in evidence around the teacher-disciple bond, such as abuses of power and sex, one must be a little careful. My advice is to be proactive both in self-preparation and in the search for a teacher. And yet, a sincere prayer will bring the guru knocking on your door.

How do you know if the teacher is right for you? First of all, ask yourself if this person promotes a feeling of inner silence and peace in you. Secondly, check out his or her students—a tree can usually be known by its fruit. If there is too much friction between students or toward you, this is not the right kind of tree and fruit for you. Thirdly, you should spend sufficient time with the teacher before making the momentous decision of becoming a disciple. This time can be just a few minutes but one or two years are certainly not unreasonable. Again you will have to rely on both your intuition and common sense.

Although I am obviously downplaying the philosophical and technical side of spiritual teaching, I should say a few words about how to select a spiritual tradition and a system of practice. First of all, recognize that the spiritual path is not about mantra repetition (japa), chanting (kirtan), or sitting aware of breath (vipassana). Such techniques merely facilitate your spiritual growth, which is focused on changing and purifying your intentions. The spiritual path transpires by acting for the welfare of all because all are children of God (karma yoga), by bringing the blissful sweetness of love to all because all are children of God (bhakti yoga) and by using the intellect benevolently toward all because all are children of God (jnana yoga), while using meditative yoga (raja yoga) to stay connected to the Divinity within in order to balance all these yogas. Second of all, your mental and physical ayurvedic constitution should be considered: people of vata type should pay more attention to the raja yoga system (a little of everything), pitta types would benefit more from the insight style of meditation, while kapha types are best to lose themselves in lots of karma yoga. Third of all, a competent teacher will send you away if the practices he or she knows and teaches well are not suitable for you. Of course, a competent teacher will strive to teach you what is suitable.

Enough about the qualities of a competent teacher! Let us not forget that a student also has to be competent. According to tantra yoga tradition, a ripe student should possess the following qualities: 1. He or she should feel tired of the external world. This is awakening viveka or discrimination. The person is able to deal confidently with the worldly matters but is tired of the mundane and wishes to be free of it. (Do not confuse this with escapism!) 2. He or she is ready to leave all that is irrelevant or obstructive to the spiritual path. This is awakening vairagya or renunciation. The person feels ready to give up worldly engagements in order to free up his or her life for spiritual efforts. 3. He or she has the necessary stamina, patience and fortitude to withstand rigors that may be required on the Path. 4. He or she has a faith in the Supreme Consciousness (God) that is based on will and realization and not on emotionality or situation. 5. Finally, he or she should have a relentless longing for God-realization. He or she is ready to do everything and anything to satisfy that yearning. If you possess these qualities to a significant degree, the competent guru will either accept you or will direct you to another capable teacher. You will not be rejected, you will be directed.

Humility, fortitude and patience are the qualities that are consistently wanting in a modern seeker. If you approach a teacher with arrogant attitude ("I already know that stuff. You can’t teach me anything more!"), then why did you come to the teacher—to brag about your "lofty" state and knowledge? You must bend your neck a little and be humble—this will open you to learning. And then there is a childish hope that the spiritual path is easy and rewarding to the ego, that it resolves all problems and that the teacher will act as a substitute parent indefinitely. When after a month or two of sporadic practice the results are less than expected, a quick disappointment arrives at the door and the teacher is blamed. Lastly, you must give time for meditation to work. You need to be determined and patient to succeed.

Finally, what should you expect from a teacher? Of course, he or she must properly instruct you, give you required initiations into spiritual practices (meditation techniques), prescribe correct asanas and offer counsel if necessary. However, the most important duty of a spiritual teacher is to undermine the world you have constructed for yourself, to gnaw at the walls of your ego’s little citadel. As the walls of your ego crumble you start seeing the bright light (jyoti) of living Divinity.

Choose a teacher well: jumping around from one teacher to another is not advisable—this brings to naught a possibility of real closeness, real discipline and thus real practice. Group hoppers and mantra shoppers accomplish little. It is like travelling across the sea with each foot in a different boat. While the sea is calm, your legs are together and everything seems fine. But when a storm comes, you will end up swimming in shark infested waters. That is if you know how to swim…

I conclude with a remark that Swami Vivekananda made in 1895 to a group of American disciples: "Be grateful to books and teachers without bondage to them, and worship your guru as God, but do not obey him blindly. Love him as much as you will, but think for yourself."