Finding a Spiritual Teacher

Is life like a fountain? Lindsay shares tips for finding a wise teacher.

A spiritual seeker heard about a guru living in a cave high atop a remote mountain on the far side of the world who had discovered the secret to the meaning of life. The seeker set off to find the guru at all costs. She endured unimaginable hardships for years, following many false leads, until she finally found and scaled the perilous mountain to the guru’s cave. Exhausted after her climb, the seeker crawled to the guru who sat cross-legged on a large boulder in front of his rocky cave.

“Oh Master,” the seeker panted, “tell me please, what is the secret of life?”

The guru smiled down on her and after a long pause said, “Life is like a fountain.”

She blinked at him for several moments. “Life is like a fountain?” said the seeker incredulously.

The guru hesitated. Then he slowly said, “You mean life isn’t like a fountain?”

The moral of this story is to make sure your spiritual heroes are more evolved than you are. We all have a natural tendency to find someone to idealize, someone we can relate to as a superior being. But we often project special qualities onto other people because we don’t believe we could be that wise ourselves.

Instead of nurturing our own growth, it can feel more comfortable to pin our hopes onto an idealized master. Too often we seek self-styled stars who need to be looked up to rather than ethical guides who teach us how to develop ourselves.
Many of us do this because we were raised to defer to authority and credentials no matter what, denying our doubts whenever an authority made a questionable pronouncement. We take it for granted that experts know best, especially in the spiritual realm. It feels secure to put ourselves in the hands of people who show no self-doubt, who seem absolutely confident about their beliefs. But you have to be careful that you’re not putting yourself in the hands of a narcissist who needs to be more important than anyone else.

If anything is true in this world, it’s that truly good and wise guides will keep pointing you toward developing your potential instead of looking for your adoration. They will educate and encourage you, not take you over as their acolyte.

Wise guides enjoy explaining things and answering tough questions because they welcome the chance to think more deeply about their beliefs. If you feel baffled, they’ll keep looking for ways to make things clearer. They won’t muddy your inquiries with vague platitudes or mysterious evasions. They don’t hide behind obfuscation or promises to reveal truth once you’ve paid up.

Conversely, self-glorifying spiritual teachers will make you feel embarrassed for putting them on the spot—especially if their clichés appear airtight on the surface. It feels impolite to let on that their wisdom didn’t quite add up.
There’s a difference between feeling awe and feeling confused. We all have a little awe-center in us that recognizes real wisdom and admirable character in another person. We naturally trust them and sense they won’t treat our ignorance with contempt.

But for narcissistic spiritual leaders, confusion and contempt are their stock and trade. Their power comes from getting you to renounce your hesitation and just trust they know better than you. You are being small-minded if you hold them to the same moral and thoughtful standards that the rest of us follow.

Untrustworthy teachers show contradictions between what they preach and how they behave. You can’t get their behavior and beliefs to go together. They are neither self-reflective nor self-aware when it comes to their impulses, and therefore they don’t see it when they promote one set of standards yet live by another. They never notice the illogic of saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. They are like those Mobius strips, optical-illusion drawings that when you follow a picture’s line with your eyes, it suddenly disappears and turns into something else.

When you find genuine and trustworthy life teachers, you may not be able to get your head around everything they say, but a deeper part of yourself feels safe and cared for by them, even if you can’t articulate it. Your questions are not only accepted, but also encouraged and enjoyed.

Now to return to our initial story: hats off to that guru who had the humility to question his revelation. But what if the seeker had simply worshipped the guru and went forth passing along the wisdom that life is like a fountain? What if she had suppressed her own doubts by telling her subsequent followers that many years of meditation, prayer, and donations would be needed to truly understand this great awareness?

Thankfully, our seeker had an honest reaction and wondered if the guru knew what he was talking about. Just remember that anyone who gives you the feeling that there’s something wrong with you when you question them is creating a cult of personality not a pathway to truth.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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