I wrote this article years ago, but I find it as relevant today as it was then,
so I’m bringing it down from the attic and airing it a second time.
It can also be found in its permanent home down near the bottom of the Meetings page.
Most of you will find that it’s well worth your time to read.
SPIRITUAL TEACHINGS ARE TYPICALLY LAYERED. For example, sacred literature, whether it was written a thousand years ago or the day before yesterday, can only reveal to us what we’re already prepared to see. There is a wealth of terrific information and a ton of fabulous pointers in plain sight every day. We can’t see them until we can. We don’t understand them until we do. Yet, once awakening occurs, things that were once overwhelmingly vague and arcane become as clear and solid as glass. Of course, opening never ends; that’s both the nature and the joy of the game. We see more and more and more. We know less and less and less.
SOMETHING SIMILAR OCCURS WITH OUR TEACHERS AND MENTORS. They may be telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – to the best of language’s limited scope – but we’re only going to get what we get until we’re ready to receive more. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “He who hath ears, let him hear.” It’s not all up to our teachers; in fact, a great deal of it is not up to them. Nonetheless, they can be incredibly valuable no matter where we are on the path.
WE TEND TO RESPOND TO OUR TEACHERS IN MUCH THE SAME WAY, as Mark Twain said of his father. The older he got, the smarter his father seemed to get! The longer we pursue the spiritual quest with an authentic teacher, the smarter he or she will seem to get–all because we grew, with their help, a whole new set of eyes and ears. If we want to find water, we don’t dig a whole lot of shallow holes. We dig one deep one. We tend to read and search broadly, but not so deeply. Find what works and stick with it a good long while.
WHILE MY TEACHING IS NOW WORLDWIDE, my overall life experience is mostly with Americans, so I’ll stick with what I know. In the United States, we are a people in a hurry. We are like a nation of cats: we want to be wherever we aren’t. We want to start a practice, or work with a teacher, just so we can graduate. We are doing this so we can do that. We are enduring the here and now just so that we can get then and there.
THIS IS A NO-WIN APPROACH IN SPIRITUALITY. If we’re not established in nondual awareness and our teacher is, we shouldn’t egoically minimize the theoretical gulf between our experience and theirs. That shuts the Light right off. Patience and earnestness are critical if we want to walk through the Gateless Gate and join them. The good news here is that this apparent gulf simply means the teacher has a lot to offer us. We don’t want to be in the position of following someone who’s twenty minutes ahead of us. Yes, they may be able to help a little, but the deeper the well, the longer you can draw from it.
NOW THAT I’VE MADE THAT FLAT STATEMENT, let me swoop in and take it away as well. Many of us begin as followers of the really well-known teachers. I’ll wager that Eckhart Tolle has reached more people on the planet than just about all the other teachers put together. Followers of the famous Watkins Books spiritual book store in London recently voted him the most influential spiritual personality on the planet. It’s a no-brainer. The only other contender is the Dalai Lama, who was number two.
AND IF YOU’RE JIM CARREY, OR OPRAH WINFREY, I’m sure Eckhart is a very cool person to hang out with. But how about us? Most of us are neither rich nor famous, and won’t come anywhere near to even meeting Eckhart, much less getting any direct, one-on-one teaching from him. I’m using Eckhart as the example here, simply because he’s so well known, but a similar situation exists with Adyashanti, Gangaji, Byron Katie, and a few other really big names.
YOU MAY GET TO TALK to Adya at an intensive or a retreat, and you might get to sit on the dais with Gangaji or Katie for twenty minutes in one of their meetings, but none of them is going to be able to do much for you directly and at length in the way that a hands-on teacher can. Frankly, a lot of that is show biz. It’s fine, I get it, I’m even on board with it, and I personally love all of those people I mentioned, but we need to recognize their limitations, too.
EVEN IF OUR TEACHERS ARE A LONG WAY OFF FROM US PHYSICALLY, ultimately there’s only One Thing Going On. Space is just an idea, and Skype has proven to me that it’s an incredibly effective tool for what we’re doing. Ultimately, the difference between walking this path with a one-on-one teacher, with whom you can develop a relationship of candor, intimacy, and trust, and walking it with a big name you’ll probably never, ever chat privately with for an hour, or two, or ten, is beyond large: it’s unfathomable.
I NEVER HAD A ONE-ON-ONE TEACHER until after I woke up, and the cloudy awakeness of those early years cannot compare to the clarity and stability that good teachers have helped me find. If we have a one-on-one teacher, our journey is also less likely to remain one that revolves around ego. Nearly all of us start with egoic spiritual desires. That’s fine, it’s a stage. What matters is where we end up. But it’s critical to realize that in the absence of a teacher, we’re trying to guide ourselves to a place we’ve never even been.
A TEACHER CAN HELP US STAY OUT OF THAT STEW by calling us on unconscious thinking and behavior. Even if we come to realize the truth of No-self, we still inherit one hell of a sticky story. How does my head get me out of my head? Once we establish a friendly relationship with a teacher—and an effective one-on-one teacher should be in a friendly relationship of equals with his or her clients and students—then having that teacher yank us back from the dream and into reality is, at least in this teaching, the bulk of the teacher’s function. Otherwise you can wander forever, you really, really can.
IT’S NICE TO GET OUTSIDE CONFIRMATION of what we’re experiencing, and where we are along the path. Is confirmation necessary? No. Is it generally beneficial? Oh yes. For one thing, it gives us confidence that, as I shared with a friend recently, “We aren’t just sitting in our living rooms smoking spirituality.” That’s really easy to do.
EGO IS MORE THAN HAPPY TO GRANT CONFIRMATION of all our grandiose notions of where we are on the path, and what’s going to happen when we’re discovered and transformed into spiritual royalty. From the very beginning of our journey, ego has been looking forward to being enlightened, and is happy as all get-out when it decides it’s gotten there! Oh, the specialness of it! This is always a false reading; no exception granted. That doesn’t mean our seeing wasn’t authentic. It means that what’s currently grasping that seeing isn’t authentic.
THERE’S NO PROBLEM IN BEING either a seed or a sapling. All great trees were once the same. Trouble only starts if a seed or a sapling begins to believe it’s already a tree. I see it all the time. We can do a lot of damage to ourselves and others if we end up in that position. And it’s all too easy to stay there, because the only way we can get out of it is to admit we’re wrong. Who wants to do that? The willingness to jettison “rightness” and “righteousness” is not common, and neither is the humility required to remain in an open, not-knowing space of being. The thing that knows is the thing that has to be jettisoned.
CONTRARY TO MANY POPULAR REPORTS, there are no firm laws in any of this. Awakeness can and does work anyway it wants to, any time it wants to, with anyone it wants to. Having said that, it’s fair to say that the sort of direction handed out by well known spiritual teachers with large followings, however good that advice or clear those pointers may be for that specific questioner, may not work well for us, and almost certainly will not work for us indefinitely. We have to grow those ears.
THE FURTHER WE GO, THE MORE SPECIFIC ADVICE WE’RE GOING TO NEED, well on into awakening. Only ego wants to graduate from the student’s chair. I make an effort to keep myself in it. As Suzuki-Roshi taught us, Beginner’s Mind is an open mind. In this teaching, I live and die by the Law of Large Numbers. What works most often for most people? Almost all of us, if we’re to “succeed” in the apparent spiritual journey, will need a sharper finger pointing at the moon than generalities can provide. We need someone who knows something about where we are on the path and in our lives, in order to do some direct pointing and counseling that’s specifically for us.
THERE ARE PLENTY OF GOOD TEACHERS available if we’re simply willing to avail ourselves of them. Ego, of course, if it’s not going to be groomed by the famous, often wants us to do it all itself, because at least that way there’s no close scrutiny of our thinking and seeing, and we get to magically advance to any level we wish, just as fast as we want to! Sadly, most of us will also get to pay the ultimate price for that, which is magnified delusion and continued suffering.
IT’S CERTAINLY NOT THE FAMOUS TEACHERS’ FAULT that they may ultimately become limited in their value to us. No matter how awake they may be, no matter long their experience, extensive their expertise, and how brilliant their clarity, they are still human beings. Human beings come with limitations, and time is one of them. Having thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of followers may be a good problem for a teacher to have, but it’s no quite so hot for the student.
THE “SECONDARY” LINE OF TEACHERS is where the gold lies. There are a lot of brightly awake, talented and devoted nondual teachers in our community. For the most part, these folks are at least pretty good, and some of them are very good at what they do. With rare exception, you will get more out of an afternoon with a pretty good one-on-one teacher than an excellent general meeting.
DON’T ASSUME THAT LESS-KNOWN TEACHERS ARE “LESS AWAKE” OR “LESS CLEAR” than their better known counterparts. Many of them just as clear. Some of them may even be sharper than many of their better known contemporaries. Our community is not an island unto itself. Sex appeal, charisma, and the “cool factor” play about as large a role in our community as they do anywhere else. The fact is that any currently awake teacher can help the great majority of as-yet-unawakened seekers who have the luck to spend time with them; there’s no question whatsoever about that.
AND REMEMBER, EFFECTIVE NONDUAL TEACHING IS EASILY MEASURED. We’re awake, or we’re not. Others are waking up around us, thus proving the effectiveness of our teacher, or they’re not. Clarity is the only yardstick worth using. Do we really want freedom, or a charming, attractive star to shine up our self image? Are we really serious, or really not? It pays to ask ourselves these things.
AS WE TRAVEL ALL THE MYRIAD PATHS we find ourselves on during the course of our spiritual career, we want to use our common sense to guide us. We don’t ever “give ourselves up” to a teacher. What’s all that about? In my opinion, we want to look very, very carefully at any teacher who suggests we do so. Again with rare exception, Awakeness would not care about that sort of concession, but ego would be crazy about it. If we are anxious to give ourselves over to a teacher, we are lost before we begin.
IT’S A GOOD THING TO REMEMBER that however wonderful our teacher might be, they are still human beings. Sex, money and power have pulled down many an awake being. We want to be our brother’s keeper in this, too. We are all intelligent people; nonduality doesn’t attract much of anything else. We want to use a teaching to help us cross the ocean, not fall in love with an anchor that holds us stationary, or even underwater.
WE CAN LOVE AND RESPECT OUR TEACHERS without getting stupid. After all, it’s our path; let’s take some responsibility for it.