Styles of Teachers

Styles of Teachers

“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?

Update 6/23:
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.


Last Updated on June 23, 2018 by Davidya

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  1. This is helpful, thanks:) There are impulses here to start helping out other people. Some of this is filtered through the impetus of the person, who wanted that:) This is clarifying as I go. I can only share from experience and help via energy work when I meet people 121 (this is just what happens). No system/method to offer here, ha, ha, ha:) Although, I wanted to have one:)

    1. Hi Tomek
      It’s a curious dance. For some people, the way is unmistakable. For most, there is competing dynamics.

      The key is letting go into the flow of life. This takes time and practice as we have many habits otherwise.

      It’s good to want to help and its natural for the person to want to be involved and perhaps control the agenda. If we recognize the later, we can simply dismiss it. But don’t fight to dismiss it – thats just mind distraction.

      Also be careful not to get into second-guessing your motivation. That’s just mind questioning itself. It can create endless loops.

      Why would mind do this? Because it’s a secondary way to control the agenda. So we can recognize that too and not take it seriously.

      And if we fall into it, that’s fine too. It takes time to wind this down. The key is moving towards an OKness. Then minds shenanigans lose their power.

      Going with what is arising is a sort of system. 🙂 But really its mind that wants “system” – something it can manage. 🙂

    1. True, John. But the point of the article is discerning what will bring you to that and what may just be talking about it, etc.

      Energy healing, for example, can be very helpful. And clearing can help with spiritual progress. But it’s not something that brings you directly to source so it’s not “spiritual” itself.

      PS- thanks for mentioning the typo.

  2. Elsa M Lopez

    A multibillion dollar industry, anyway one turns. So much that is just profiteering So sad! We are on our own, crying out for real guidance. Willing to pay for real guidance but with no discernment for who can deliver real truth. How can one knows?

    1. Hi Elsa
      Well – that’s part of the point of the article, to help discriminate better. I also mention a few points. Like is the teacher surrounded by the awake? Do they get results?

      Some teachers have no examples but can have value in other ways, like healing or clarity.

      Part of whats been playing out is the change in times. The quality of offerings has been stepping up markedly over the last decade or so. Certainly much better than when I began a spiritual practice in the 70’s when there were lots of philosophers but results were rare.

      My teachers teacher spent 5 years seeking a qualified teacher in N. India, on foot. The Internet has dramatically increased access but to both quality and quantity. The need for discrimination remains.

      1. G

        “Is the teacher surrounded by the awake? Do they get results?”

        Thank you for the article and yes I agree. The question then becomes how can the seeker who is not awake tell if a teacher is awake and if the people around them are awake?

        For example someone may have studied spiritual knowledge for many years and so can speak eloquently on the subject. They may be a genuinely kind and friendly person, pleasant to be around, but not necessarily awake. Many people also prefer not to speak too much about their own experience and so it would seem rude to directly ask them what stage they’re at 🙂

        1. Hi G

          Yes, learning to discriminate effectively is part of the process. I’ve seen organizations that discourage the awake from speaking about it, effectively making them invisible to most practitioners. And I’ve seen organizations that tell people they’re awake by the thousands even though they wouldn’t meet anyone else’s standard for “awake.”

          Most people learn about the “good stuff” through word of mouth. Many good teachers have a comparatively low profile, making them harder to find. But they’re not invisible. 🙂

  3. I’ve added an update describing roles that are similar to teaching but are not formal teaching.

    For example, you can see a Showboat would primarily be a communicator. There is rarely anything applied. Experimenters may be all about application – as practitioners or trainers. Actualizers may also be about application.

    Even people calling themselves “teacher” may not be clear on this.

  4. As may be obvious to some readers, this article arose partly from my own exploration. There is a call to take another step forward but clarity hasn’t gelled yet. Sometimes, exploring options helps move that along. But it may take some actual doing to see what responds. 🙂

    I have of course been sitting in the Communicator camp. It may be that the form of that will evolve rather than a change in style. We’ll see. 🙂

    1. Eckhart is a classic example of an Accidental teacher. He woke spontaneously through an ego collapse. The techniques I’ve seen him offer are how to culture presence already there rather than culture it in the first place.

      He is a light in the world and has inspired many to a serious path. Some have had openings with him too. I’m not aware of anyone whose woken, but it’s certainly possible.

      Gurdjieff is another well known example of the type.

  5. Amit

    Yeah. I remember watching an event with Eckhart and another spiritual teacher (probably more of a motivational speaker) where the latter says something like, ” Eckhart, how do you do it…I mean I talk the talk but you actually walk the walk of living in the present ” (and this guy has written bestselling self-help books).

    In response, Eckhart smiles beatifically and goes on to describe his “present moment awareness”. I would have much rather preferred if he had just said “Look, I don’t try to live in the present or wake up every morning reminding myself to not get lost in thought… it’s just a byproduct of my awakening …”.

    My sense is that a completely misplaced commitment to modesty and an unwillingly to confront the general misunderstanding about the nature of spiritual awakening only serves to add to the confusion surrounding cause and effect. What matters is how the awakening comes about. Eckhart says little about that, probably because his own awakening was spontaneous, as you pointed out.

    1. Hi Amit
      Right, but this is the point of the post – to put teachers and what they say into some context. He speaks from what is real for him. Without a background or a recognition of the process, this is what he’d be inclined to say. This is how he became established, sitting on park benches and noticing. But it’s not how he woke up.

      I’m reminded that his publisher is awake. She spent a lot of time with him early on. I read her book some years ago and we spoke briefly about what is beyond awakening. She showed evidence of heart opening and agreed there was more. But she said they didn’t have enough information to speak more about it. There wasn’t an interest in knowing more.

      But yes, I agree – what matters is how you can support a shift.

      Ironically, all shifts are spontaneous – they can’t be created as the shift is driven by the Divine from beyond all expression. That said, we can do a lot to prepare the ground to make us more prone and to smooth the process so it’s clearer and easier.

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