“Spiritual teacher” is a generic term used to describe many types of offerings. It’s useful to be clearer on the differences so you understand what’s there. As usual, I base this on my own observations.
Some who use the term are not “spiritual” per se. They teach energy work, healing, concepts, and other modalities related to more subtle but not-yet-spiritual levels. Perhaps they consider themselves spiritual in orientation but even that can be muddy.
To me, spiritual means related to source, consciousness, being, and enlightenment.
Let’s explore a few related Sanskrit terms first.
Guru: many people equate “spiritual teacher” with guru. But a traditional guru is someone who takes on a few students and directly guides their process. They may also give talks to wider audiences but their focus is on the core students. Their students also spend large periods of time with them in an ashram or similar. Many are not well known.
Rishi: is an awake sage of vision (Seer) and composes words about it. The rishis of the Vedas and epic stories, for example. Teaching is distinct. Some seers teach, some don’t.
Satsang: being with the sanga or spiritual community, usually headed by a teacher. Hopefully, the teacher is awake so there is darshan (below). We can consider a spiritual practice that leads to source an inner satsang. The key here is source. If it’s just philosophy for example, then it’s not technically spiritual and thus not satsang.
Darshan: presence, bathing in the presence of the awake. The more awake, the more universal the darshan. See resonance. Beware of confusing this with charisma.
In Indian tradition, the community supported their spiritual adepts and teachers. Thus they could offer their services for free or by donation. We’ve been strongly influenced by eastern approaches but don’t support them the same way. The west once did, but this faded so the forms of teaching here have morphed into various styles.
Let’s explore some types and see if we can define it better.
Philosophy teacher: this is someone who has studied spiritual philosophy and teaches it in some form but is likely not yet awake. Hopefully, they are at least informed by direct experience so it’s not purely theoretical. Some are academics because this is a way for a philosopher to support themselves.
Accidental teacher: this is someone who woke spontaneously and has not studied a formal philosophy nor practice. They speak from experience but because they woke up “accidentally” they don’t know how they got there. Typically they recommend practices that mimic their experience – the result of the shift rather than how to gain the shift itself. They are unable to help their students directly aside from darshan and understanding.
Traditional teacher: someone who has come up through a tradition and teaches not just the philosophy but the means to awaken. Unfortunately, the understanding of the means has been lost in many lineages. They teach what has been interpreted by the mind so is often difficult. Results are slow. Some are even hazardous. Due to the prior dark age, many also over-emphasize a renunciate approach.
Showboat: this is where charisma is confused with presence. The emphasis is on personality and fame. These are name-brand speakers that usually lack any depth or awakening. Some use tricks and siddhis to impress.
Experimenters: these are the explorers, trying new ground. Many are using technology or chemistry to trigger experiences. Unfortunately some are also using their students as guinea pigs, sometimes to their detriment. They’re usually about chasing experiences which rarely bears fruit. It can also be hazardous.
Actualized teacher: this is someone awake who also knows the means to help others awaken. They’re surrounded by awake people. They may or may not come out of a tradition but if they do, they often end up outside it as few organizations can cope with source-driven beings.
Actualizers: these are people less oriented to teaching per se but have a focus on awakening. You might call them awakening guides. They’ll be less conceptual and more experiential. Their talks will be more satsang, less philosophy. Again, look for results.
Devotional teachers: those with a more devotional inclination who guide devotees. Key here is they encourage healthy forms of devotion and not co-dependency. They encourage the awakening heart and refinement although transcendence is key for the later due to the role of soma.
Many teachers will be a blend of these types. They may give philosophical talks but also spend time helping people wake up, for example. Some only work one-on-one and can be quite low profile.
Any other types you’ve run into?
It can also be useful to get clear on what’s teaching and what’s something else.
Formally, a Teacher is someone who is supporting student learning. They go into detail and often repeat to support learning. Also, students have to meet and maintain a standard. In spirituality, a teacher may not have academic testing but they will expect progress and standards from their students.
Trainers are about implementation, putting things into practice. For example, a person may be a meditation trainer. Or they may combine training in meditation with background theory and classwork, shifting into a teaching role.
Practitioners are people with training they use with clients, such as a healer or guide. They don’t give training so much as use training. A practitioner may teach skills to clients but their primary role is application.
Communicators are those who distribute information. They don’t train or teach but rather act as messengers or journalists. They may inspire or awaken understanding but they’re not offering skills nor structured learning.