By role of a teacher here, I mean the role they play in our spiritual journey rather than how they may position or present themselves as a teacher.
A true teaching emphasizes practical application and direct experience, with the understanding to support that. If it’s just philosophy, it may only make the mind stronger. Understanding should be to serve the path, not be the path. (Yes, Gyani‘s have an emphasis on understanding, but direct experience is still the core path. Otherwise, it’s just mind.)
For someone to have the role of a spiritual teacher for us, there is what I call resonance. Their flavour of being speaks to us and enhances our presence or silence. We get the intent of their teaching, although we also may react to them because of purification.
If we’re going to talks because our friends are but we don’t relate, you’re there for social reasons, not spiritual. If you’re cherry picking talks with famous teachers and not choosing a path to commit to, that’s just an amusement.
If there is resonance, then they can be one of two types of teachers for us.
The most common are what I’d call guides. They help with certain stages or learning. They tend to come into our life for a time and then we outgrow them or shift our needs.
For example, I valued Adyashanti for his approach to awakening. He has catalyzed many shifts, but that was not his role here. I don’t relate much to Zen or his techniques but have enjoyed some of his perspectives, especially his books The End of Your World and Falling Into Grace. I also found his Journey After Awakening DVD excellent (On the Self Realization to Unity process).
The other, higher kind are teachers that get you on the right path or catalyze the awakening. These are true or sat gurus for us. They show up when the student is ready. Or we recognize teachers we’re already aware anew.
They offer an effective practice that takes you beyond yourself into source and the understanding to support the unfolding. They don’t make you dependent on them. Resonance or darshan is helpful for shifting, but you also need to culture the ground to sustain it.
With something like learning meditation, this teacher may be the person who taught you, or it may be their teacher, the source of the teaching, or current lineage holder.
For example, in my case Lorn Hoff catalyzed the first and third shifts. (This is not through personal actions but resonant presence or darshan.) Both of us have been students of the source of our practice, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi comes out of the Shankaracharya lineage*.
Anyone can be a true guru for one, a guide for another, and not resonate at all with someone else. We need a diversity to meet the needs of everyone.
However, not everyone who puts out a teacher sign can be a sat guru. Many teachers don’t have effective means for connecting to source. They may serve as a guide to get people pointed in the right direction. Or they may be a distraction, amusing the mind.
I’ve seen teachers find they’re not getting results because they don’t have the background needed. Being awake doesn’t make you a teacher. Many have no tradition behind them or even peer support. They start to experiment on their students, get impatient, or otherwise stray from what they naturally offer. Messes result.
And of course, we all remain human. People change. Karma or blind spots arise. Power dynamics or student expectations interfere.
It’s hard to step away from a teacher you’ve found some value with, especially if you are connected with the sangha (community). But sometimes a break is needed. If co-dependency has developed, that’s unhealthy. People can get cultish with almost anything. Or maybe we’re entering a new chapter and the old has to fall away first.
Don’t try to figure out what role a teacher has for us. This is often only apparent in retrospect. Part of the learning process is not knowing and having guides show up when we’re ready for our next lesson.
We can think we’re ready for more, but the spiritual process runs on a cosmic clock where everything is interconnected. Our next steps happen when everything aligns. Then the doors open and the next step is revealed.
* Maharishi was not a Brahmin so did not become a Swami in the order. But he offered everything back to his teacher who was. Swami Brahmanada Saraswati was Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math in the north seat that Trotaka founded. This is a long tradition going back thousands of years.