Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Teachers and Paths: True or False?

The greatness of human civilization in the spiritual realm derives from its gradual and hard-earned accumulation of philosophical understanding, practical knowledge, and effective technique, all with layer upon layer of subtlety. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those have gone before us in wisdom and in love, to those who teach us directly and personally, and to those who teach us through their books and other media. The advent of commercial airlines and instant communications has blessed us with a wealth of genuine paths, teachers, and groups. The twentieth century brought an unprecedented transfer and adaptation of profound spiritual teachings across the planet.

Yet modern societies face a market profusion of superficial, consumer-oriented, pseudo-spiritual, profit-motivated, newly invented paths of so-called transformation. Our personal perceptions and intuitions can tell us whether a particular organization, teaching, or teacher is authentic or shallow, competent or deluded, or trading on marketed fame, superficial charisma, meaningless credentials, or unverifiable claims. However, until our perceptions grow subtle enough to shepherd us through such thickets, a few simple guidelines may help us avoid the worst of the lot. The primary point: nobody is perfect, regardless of how many followers they may have, or how pure, kind, and wise they appear to be. They may indeed be pure, kind, and wise, but perfect - no. Any spiritual teacher can be mistaken in his or her teaching methods or other actions. Teachers can, at times, be susceptible to egoistic, misguided or even base motives.

If the path charges excessive fees, be concerned about greed. Spirituality and greed negate each other. An exorbitant demand for money as a test of the aspirant's sincerity serves to cover the avarice of the teacher or organization. Similarly, if a path promises rapid or easy progress, be concerned. Spirituality is a life's work.

If the leaders engage in abusive behavior, emotionally, physically, or sexually, be concerned. Excellent excuses can be made for this. Sexual adventures may be claimed to be a way for the student to draw closer to the guru and thereby closer to enlightenment or God. This is absurd. Emotional abuses may be couched in terms of “awakening” the student through insults or similar means. This may indeed work, but only temporarily at best. A pattern of insults from the teacher or group tends to make the student dependent on this external source for awakening. We need to find our inner source of awakening. Thus, an external dependence on emotional “shock” treatment works against our liberation. Emotional abuse also retards our progress by strengthening our egoism and driving us into defensiveness, self-pity, self-hatred, submissiveness, resentment, or anger.

Even flattery from the teacher, though it seems positive and harmless, retards the progress of the student. Not only does the student become dependent on the teacher for approval and positive reinforcement, but it actually tends to derail the purpose of the studentís inner work from service and self-development to seeking that external approval.

If the path divides people into “us” and “them,” be concerned. We are all, in our core, children of the same God. Furthermore, many genuine paths exist. None can truly claim to be the best, as different approaches work best for different people. The “us” and “them” mentality also fosters a group ego, which itself hinders our progress.

If the teacher or group offers to make your life decisions for you, be concerned. A true path leads us to become more fully ourselves, to find our unique individuality. No one can give this to us, as we are born with it and must uncover it for ourselves. A teacher who tells us whom to marry, what job to take, where to live, or merely advises us on these and other such choices, mixes levels inappropriately and takes away a piece of our will, takes away our opportunities to dig deep for our own answers, to learn from our own mistakes, to develop wisdom. The teacher should let the student make his or her own life choices, guided by the student's own conscience.

If the path promises salvation or enlightenment as a result of merely adopting some belief system, be concerned. A mental or emotional belief only touches a small part of us. To be transformative, our spirituality must reach the whole of our being, transform our energies, purify our will, and open us to direct contact with the Sacred.

If the path promises to show us the way toward material wealth, it may be perfectly genuine in a business sense, but it is not about spirituality. The true abundance that will secure our heart's release lies in the spiritual, not the material. We need not, however, go to the other extreme and seek material poverty. We simply need to be responsible about providing for ourselves and our families, without an overarching attachment to money and goods.

So far, we have discussed the most flagrant problems, but more subtle ones also exist. Does a teaching demand loyalty? This question raises complex issues. We must enter a teaching deeply enough for it to act on our innermost core. That may indeed require us to devote ourselves exclusively to the one teaching. But while this novitiate may last for some years, it is a temporary phase. Afterwards, the teaching must permit us the freedom to search elsewhere if we need to. Loyalty, during the period of its necessity, should be to the teaching, not to the teacher.

Does the teaching focus exclusively on the psychological? Dealing with our personal psychology can be an important part of our path, but on its own, psychology only reaches to the lower rungs of the great ladder. Such psychological “paths” may be hard to recognize, because they often use spiritual terminology. One may help us lower our stress, be happier, and communicate better, but is it truly transformative? Does it lead toward presence, toward deepening of our being and will, toward freedom from clinging, toward a natural kindness and joy? A similar indictment applies to paths that focus on physical health. We certainly need a healthy body, but that alone will not complete our soul.

Is the teacher and teaching part of a long lineage, which has refined its approach over the centuries? Or is it a new invention or a new revelation? If it is new, we should naturally be more skeptical. We need to ascertain that it is complete, effective, and connected to the spiritual depths.

Is the teaching appropriate for you? Does it fit? Does it address your idiosyncrasies? An example case is a path that has only a small set of practices. Perhaps that practice doesn't suit you and is not effective for you. It may be quite effective for others, but not for you. This is not to say that we should expect quick results from any path. But our taste and intuition can tell us whether a path corresponds to our own unique pattern.

Real teachers, though rare, do exist. Contact with them, while not necessary, can be enormously beneficial to our inner search. Two primary models exist for the relationship with a real teacher. In the guru model, the student devotes him- or herself to the guru. Through surrender to the guru, who serves as a temporary intermediary, the student finds the way to the Sacred Reality.

In the instructor model, the teacher points the student directly toward the Reality without any intermediary. The instructor teacher may be very wise, experienced, kind, and effective. The instructor teacher may be more spiritually developed than the guru. The beauty of this approach is that it is never really about the teacher. In either case, guru or instructor, the path must be about the teaching, not the teacher.

Which style we prefer is a matter of taste. Both have advantages and disadvantages. A guru had better be a really high being, because the student becomes spiritually dependent on the guru. Furthermore, though the requirement of unquestioning obedience does work against egoism, it also hinders the growth of individuality. While our missteps deepen our understanding and our lack of progress can awaken our determination, an instructor can leave us to make too many mistakes and waste too much time.

But proximity to a real teacher does give a taste for truth, an understanding of love, and confidence in the higher reality. Unfortunately, teachers on that level are all too rare, although those who claim to be there are more common. Lacking a being meter, how can we judge this? We have to rely on our intuition of how substantial a person the teacher is, how much being they have. Certainly we can be fooled by appearances and outward trappings, by the number of followers, or by the style of communication. But we learn to trust our own perceptions and make our judgments accordingly.

Even without a teacher of great being, we can effectively learn the methods of spiritual practice from more ordinary leaders and instructors. The true power of any real spiritual teaching does not lie in the teacher. At best, it comes through them. The power is in the path and its methods, and can reach us despite the limitations of our teachers, if their egos do not distort the teaching too much.

Just as no person is perfect, no path is perfect. If we hold up too many requirements and unreasonable standards in judging a path, we many never embark. So we choose the best of what’s available and dive in.


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