Because of my limited experience in this area, you probably shouldn’t pay much attention to what I’m about to say. In fact that’s probably good advice in general. But for whatever it’s worth here’s what I think.
Ideally, you should choose a spiritual teacher who is Self-realized. Unfortunately Self-realization is rare and you may not be able to find such a person, although of course there’s no shortage of people who think they are Self-realized.
Luckily, most people don’t need a Self-realized teacher. Most people are at a stage where they need a teacher who can show them how to get “off the thought waves” in Ramana Maharshi’s phrase.
In other words, most people need a teacher who can show them a “place” beyond the mind and help them learn to get there voluntarily under their own steam.
That “place” involves some combination of consciousness, me-ness, love, and something that even an atheist might call intimations of divinity.
That “place” is known. You are aware in that place. There is a kind of vividness and clarity. You can notice this place only when you stop paying attention to thoughts. It is beyond the thought process or “away from” the thought process.
In that place, you’re not lost in thought. There may be thoughts but you’re not absent in them.
When you can get to that place on your own, you have found the real beginning of the path.
It’s not enough for a teacher to give you a glimpse of that place through transmission. You need a teacher who can help you learn to get there by yourself.
It’s not really a place. The word “place” is a metaphor. It’s more like a state or situation.
Until you get to that point you are still a beginner even if you have spent 50 years doing sadhana.
Anybody who is a little bit enlightened should be able to show you where the path begins because they must have come that way themselves.
In an ideal world, every spiritual teacher would be able to show you the start of the path. But the sad fact is that many cannot.
You have to use all your abilities to detect a teacher who can do it.
Use your intuition, your gut, your heart, your intellect. Use everything you know about people. All your ordinary human skills that we use every day to assess other people.
Incidentally, if you try hard enough to do that, that effort by itself may cause you to discover the start of the path on your own! Because in order to recognize that knowledge in somebody else, you will naturally try hard to notice what it is, and by noticing what it is, you will begin to experience it. That discovery is within the grasp of every human being.
Getting back to assessing a potential teacher, ask yourself:
1. Is this person loving? Is this person kind? Does this person care about people?
2. Does this person seem to be more here than most people?
3. When this person talks to me, is he or she really paying attention? Or is this person lost in his or her own thoughts?
4. When this person talks to me, do his or her eyes glance at me in a lively way, meeting me, or are they dull and aimed at nothing?
5. Does this person try to help me discover my abilities to know and feel which in some way go beyond the ordinary thought process? Does this person have access to those abilities in him or herself?
6. Does this person use his or her own spontaneous choice of words to describe experiences connected with enlightenment (which is evidence that this person has had those experiences)? Or does this person merely recite jargon from books like a parrot (which is evidence that he or she has not had those experiences)?
7. Although it’s not essential, a sense of humor is a good sign.
8. Does the person’s manner seem spontaneous and natural? Or does this person seem to be playing a role?
Here are some things that are less important than people often think:
1. Whether you feel peace in the teacher’s presence.
2. Transmission, power, the ability to put you in a meditative state. Beginners think this kind of stuff is very impressive. In most cases it’s not really. In most cases it doesn’t mean the teacher is especially enlightened. Some of these states are useful only if you learn to make them happen by yourself, and some of them are useless. Ramana Maharshi’s transmission was different, but if you are receiving transmission from Ramana you don’t need this article.
3. Lineages, formal traditions, diplomas, the fact that the teacher had a famous teacher. None of this tells you whether the person is enlightened.
4. Concepts, slogans, book learning of any kind.
Here are some warnings and things to stay away from:
1. Teachers who make you feel bad.
2. Teachers who do things that seem wrong or ask you to do things that seem wrong.
3. Teachers who are unkind.
4. Teachers who give you the creeps, even slightly, even faintly. Trust your gut.
5. Teachers who want students to have sex with them.
6. Teachers who claim to know more or be more enlightened than almost everybody who ever lived.
7. Teachers who ask you for large sums of money.
8. Teachers who ask you to work in their organization for below-market wages.
9. Teachers who tell you that your ego needs to be hammered out of existence. In other words, teachers who use force or violence to extinguish your ego.
10. Teachers who ask you to worship them.
11. Teachers who allow students to worship them.
12. Teachers who think the precise choice of words is very important.
13. Be aware that many spiritual teachers are narcissists and sociopaths. Some of them are total frauds. Some of them are self-deluded. This includes some high-ranking people in formal traditions.
Photo copyright Sammy Wong. Title: Hu Nan China.