Gurus and Other Teachers
James Harvey Stout (deceased). This material is now in the public
domain. The complete collection of Mr. Stout's writing is now at
Jump to the following topics:
- Why do we need a
- Techniques for
selecting a teacher.
Why do we need a teacher?
In our study of psychology and spirituality, we can learn many things
on our own -- through books, intuition, personal experience, etc. But
a teacher can help us in various ways:
- A teacher can answer our questions.
- A teacher can point out our errors.
- A teacher can regulate the pace of our growth. In a culture of
mass media, a bookstore has religious books which are directed
toward people who are at virtually any stage of spiritual
realization; thus, we might encounter material which is
inappropriate for us:
- It might be too technical for us to comprehend. For
example, we might not know the jargon or the theoretical basis.
In contrast, a teacher would explain the material in terms
which we understand.
- It might be too disturbing for us. For example, we can be
disturbed by the realization of total freedom (which can
trigger anxiety), total responsibility (which can trigger guilt
regarding our past actions and current conditions), etc.
- It might be unsuitable for our particular needs. For
example, many religious books emphasize the concept of "ego
transcendence"; however, ego transcendence is an unsuitable
goal for people who need to be in a prior stage of ego
selecting a teacher. We have all heard stories of teachers' ethical
and financial indiscretions, sexual and personal abuse of students,
psychological devastation of students who were taught improper
methods, and outright horrors such as the suicides at Jim Jones'
Jonestown, David Koresh's Mount Carmel, and Do's Heaven's Gate. These
"consumerism" guidelines might help us to find a teacher who is both
competent and harmless:
- We can reject a pseudo-spiritual (indeed, irresponsible)
reliance on faith, trust, humility, or any other concept which
would preclude a prudent and intuitive decision-making process.
Unfortunately, many teachers ask us to relinquish those
- We can question our concepts of "the ideal teacher." For
example, some excellent teachers are outgoing but others are
reclusive; some are gentle but others are harsh; some are humorous
but others are serious. These "personality" factors might be
important only insofar as they are reasonably compatible with our
- We can use various means for finding a teacher.
- We can ask friends to recommend a teacher.
- We can ask the manager of a store. For example, if we are
looking for a meditation teacher, we could ask at a
metaphysical bookstore, or a health-food store.
- We can look in phone directories. The teacher might be
listed under a topic such as "meditation."
- We can look in metaphysical publications (local or
- We can look on the internet -- in websites, newsgroups
(e.g., alt.meditation), email discussion groups, chat areas,
- We can look for a teacher who specializes in our field of
interest. There are specialists among doctors, attorneys,
home-builders, etc.; similarly, spiritual teachers specialize in a
particular religion or type of meditation. One type of meditation
might be ideal for us and our goals.
- We can check the teacher's "credentials." Those credentials
- Training. Where did the teacher study? Who were the
- Lineage. Perhaps this teacher is the designated successor
to a highly respected teacher.
- Reputation among peers. We can ask other teachers for their
opinion of this teacher.
- Reputation among current students. However, many current
students are likely to give an excessively favorable evaluation
of the teacher.
- Reputation among former students. However, many former
students are likely to give an excessively unfavorable
evaluation of the teacher.
- We can consider the amount of personal guidance which will be
available. The personal guidance will be limited if the teacher
lives in a distant location, or if the teacher has thousands of
students. In some cases, the teacher might live far away, but
there is a local center where a trained teacher can give personal
guidance; in other cases, a distant teacher claims to be able to
give individual instruction by appearing to us in dreams or
- We can consider the expense. The expense might include
donations, the cost of books and discourses, seminars, etc.
- We can consider the amount of time which is required for the
practice. For example, one type of meditation requires 30 minutes
per day; another requires two-and-a-half hours per day; others
don't stipulate any particular amount of time.
- We can consider the quality of the teacher's written material
-- in books, magazine articles, or other publications.
- We can consider the quality of the teacher's presentations --
at seminars, retreats, or other public functions.
- We can consider the teacher's personal qualities, e.g.,
patience, kindness, warmth, and humor. These qualities might be
- They will enhance our learning-experience with this
- They will enhance our enjoyment while studying with this
- They are the qualities which we want to cultivate in
ourselves. We can use the teacher as a "role model," as we
observe the ways in which those qualities are expressed.
- We can be cautious among teachers who try to lure us with the
- Psychic powers. There is no correlation between psychic
development and spiritual development; they are two entirely
different lines of growth.
- Charisma. Some fraudulent teachers create an excessive air
of authority for the purpose of luring students who lack
self-confidence. In contrast, good teachers generally have
humility and an acknowledgment that they, too, are still
- An exotic appearance, e.g., a robe and sandals. Some
teachers intentionally create an exotic persona to attract
gullible students; other teachers are naturally exotic (perhaps
simply because they are from a different culture).
- An appeal as a father figure or mother figure who can give
us the love and approval which we lacked as a child. A
fraudulent teacher will encourage us to have this delusion and
- A demand for total subservience to the teacher's commands
and beliefs. Even after we begin to study with a teacher, we
can maintain our psychological boundaries and privacy -- and we
can demand the right to think for ourselves, and to question,
and to doubt, and to maintain our free will, and to say "no,"
and to leave at any time.
- A claim to be an expert regarding all aspects of life. Some
teachers want to be our sole source of advice regarding our
finances, marriage or relationships, career, sex life,
psychological distress, etc.; these teachers would be indignant
about our "lack of faith" if we consulted with an outside
authority (e.g., a psychiatrist or financial counselor) -- or
if we consulted with an inner authority (e.g., our
- We can examine the manner in which the teacher conducts his or
her life in terms of relationships, finances, the everyday
obligations of human life, and the enacting of the spiritual
principles which are being taught. However, this examination can
lead us in two directions:
- We can seek a "perfect" teacher. This is someone who knows
everything, has impeccable emotional balance, and lives an
absolutely ethical life. There are problems in this approach:
- We might spend too much time looking for that ideal
teacher when we could instead be learning from a regular,
flawed human who can deliver the information which we need.
- We might make an idol of the teacher. If we project an
image of "god" onto the person, we are more inclined to
overlook or rationalize the teacher's moral lapses. The
teacher might even believe in this idol-worship, and
encourage it among the students, causing a distraction from
- We might discover later that the person actually has
flaws. The students can be emotionally devastated by this
apparent betrayal. Perhaps there are no perfect people.
- We can seek a person who is wise but personally deficient
in some aspects of life. The teacher acknowledges his or her
flaws, and explains them as a lesson in acceptance, personal
growth, and spiritual discernment; then we can get on with the
real teachings without the burden of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and
shame. We focus on the teachings rather than the teacher's
character, to see whether the information itself is valid; then
we use our discernment to separate the teacher's personal
quirks from the wisdom which is mixed in with it. We are
challenged to think for ourselves, and to teach ourselves, and
to make our own discoveries. If we accept this approach toward
our training, then we allow all of life to be our teacher --
every experience, every person, every thought, every feeling,
every action -- instead of refusing to learn from anyone but an
apparently perfect master. Surely, we cherish teachers who seem
to be full embodiments of spiritual principles, but we can also
learn from teachers whose characters we judge to be defective,
as those people teach us how to access our intuition from
spirit which is perfect.
- We can consider the teacher's fostering of our independence,
strength, and maturity. Although some teachers believe that they
can teach all things to all people (and perhaps they can), others
view themselves as merely a temporary instructor for students
whose educational needs are so vast that a series of teachers will
be required. This kind of teacher might inform us when we have
learned all that we can learn there, and then he or she might
recommend an appropriate instructor for the next phase of our
training. At various points, we might decide that we do not need a
formal "teacher" at all; instead, we turn to our own intuition,
allowing life to teach us whatever we need to know in the course
of a regular, "secular" existence.