On Finding a True Teacher

I’ve recently been undergoing a significant disillusionment with the whole occult and esoteric community. I would not say that I’ve been suffering it, as all told it has lifted great weight from my shoulders and revealed a lot of what is and is not worth my time and energy. I hasten to add that it is not with esoteric spirituality—nor with magic, etc.—that I have made a break, but with the people and organizations who have decided that they speak for it. Sadhana, practice, is the thing, and all the metaphysical philosophizing, lodge ritual, seminars, guided visualizations, and shared-around ordinations and consecrations in the world cannot help you if you aren’t willing to put in the work on your own.

It may seem odd, therefore, that I’m spilling more ink here on teachers. In Western ceremonial magic, conjure, and other forms of sorcery, teachers may be helpful but are not necessary if you’ve got access to books and other materials. Mysticism, however, irreducibly requires a mentor who has gone before you. A lot of people today really hate hearing this, but it’s no less true for that. Moreover, some modalities do require an initiation of some sort, a sharing of lineage and force, to really enter into the stream. For example, you can get something out of Tantric ritual and mantra practice just by following directions from a good book, but certain depths will be out of your reach without Guru’s grace. You don’t have to like it, and you may choose to push against the point, but that’s the way things are. It’s an experience I’ve shared with many others that as soon as one realizes this fact, a sort of despair takes hold. One may then start to chase down every inviting avenue trying to find a teacher, or else one may give up entirely thinking that the chances are just too slim to find a reliable teacher or proper lineage in this age. Or, like me, you may ping-pong between these two extremes on what seems a daily basis; the once-inviting avenues of the search reveal themselves to be blind alleys, so despair descends, only to give way to a flurry of web searching, correspondence courses, and temple visits. Wash, rinse, repeat.

And, boy, are there a lot of blind alleys masquerading as yellow brick roads. Herein lies the root of my increasing lack of interest in the many teachers, organizations, discussion groups, and such: most of them are more or less harmless enthusiastic amateurs who, like amateurs in any field, desperately want to share the world which has opened up to them with others of like mind, but enough of them are some combination of tigers waiting to pounce or, maybe worse, the sincerely deluded. This latter category is the hardest to deal with because they so often look like the real deal, but an observer can watch as their peccadillos expand to engulf them and their followers as their pain-bringing obstructions grow. I have recently watched this occur with an occult writer and teacher of some note, and not without some degree of sadness on my part as I watch his following build. This, indeed, went a long way toward precipitating my present distance from the occult world; conversation about it brought a friend of mine to suggest this very blog entry.

There’s no bullet-pointed list of specific traits to look for in a real Guru, initiator, guide, or mentor because there’s no one way of “being enlightened”, no one-size-fits-all way of teaching, and no perfect human being. A good rule, however, goes back to the last paragraph. Everyone who is still embodied will carry with them some conditioning; that’s what having a brain is all about. A genuine Guru, one who has walked far along the Way, will know this and acknowledge it. They will therefore also know their own quirks well enough to mostly keep them out of the way. They will not permit mere conditioned preferences and prejudices to negatively impact the sadhana of their students. This is one of several big reasons, but among the biggest, why the majority of even the most sincere spiritual practitioners just aren’t teacher material. (This, by the way, includes me.)

It is entirely possible for a spiritual teacher to, for example, have political opinions, and it is possible for his or her students to agree or disagree with those opinions without the Guru-sishya relationship being in the slightest way disrupted. It all depends on the good faith of both sides. There is no avoiding problems, however, when said teacher tries to enforce their politics as part of their spiritual teaching or make their spiritual teaching a mere appendage of their politics—a topic about which I’ve written before, though I would have been a bit more forceful about it had I known then what I know now. This is just one example of how a teacher’s lack of self-knowledge and self-control can disqualify them. Greed, power-hungriness, egotism, and a host of other issues can arise with the unqualified. Again, it isn’t as if a true Guru will entirely lack these altogether human traits, but he or she will know about themunderstand them, and, most important of all, be able to control them through this self-knowledge and perspective. As a fellow-Nath once put it, we don’t seek perfection but excellence; perfection implies a flattening-out, while excellence enjoys the best of texture. As long as the Guru has a body and brain, just like the rest of us, the knots and pain-bringing obstructions are there; what distinguishes the Guru in this vein is that he knows them inside and out.

When one does not have this depth of self-knowledge but tries to take up the mantle of teacher and/or initiator, the pain-bearing obstructions (ignorance, egotism, attachment, repulsion, and fear of death) will tend to grow in whichever directions present the least resistance. If allowed to continue unchecked, those barriers which exist in other directions will be absorbed and used by the kleshas to continue to grow like tumors siphoning the body’s nutrients for their own use. I don’t mean to speak, here, like a Yogic physician who is expert in this process, but I have watched it happen more than once from several angles.

Be on the lookout, therefore, for hypocrisy. Even minor examples of “do as I say, not as I do” implies an underlying problem which will likely burst forth sooner or later, especially when surrounded by sycophants. Use some subtlety here. It is possible for a teacher to assign a practice to one student that he or she does not assign to all students equally, even a practice which the teacher him- or herself does not generally use. This is simply because a good teacher will dynamically respond to the different needs of people who are in different places, with different karmas and conditioning. This is fundamentally, and recognizably, different from passive-aggression and petty double standards which conflate authority with authoritativeness.

All of this certainly plays into the old standard “by their fruits you shall know them” and this is certainly a good rule. Again, some subtlety of observation is necessary, but if a person claims powers which are not supported by the reality of their life, do you really want to learn their magic? If they speak about refinement and transcendence which is nowhere evident in their behavior, what do they have to teach you of mysticism?

Ultimately, a good teacher is found by a good student, and vice versa. Tantric sources suggest a karmic necessity to the arrangement, and I think that this is true. But even if you find that hard to accept, there does seem to be a sort of magnetism which brings a ripe student and their teacher together. Much Yoga literature therefore focuses on the qualifications of the student rather than those of the teacher. Some have observed that this seems like an imbalanced arrangement, putting the vulnerable seeker at the disposal of any number of people of bad faith. In truth, it puts the seeker very much in the driver’s seat. If a teacher is actively recruiting students, that’s a strike against already. Making oneself available is very far from putting up a billboard. Some fanfares are earned, and some merely purchased. To tell the difference often takes discrimination. Let the seeker, therefore, develop a practice which builds and encourages intelligence. Concentration and meditation, the conscious direction of one’s own mind, are a good place to start, as is a devotional practice to one’s chosen deity which tends to bring to the mind and perceptions a new level of clarity.

Some books which have been helpful for me in these reflections:

  • Bhagavad Gita, because Krishna is a good model of a Guru; he does not hide or deny his quirks but uses them to bring dynamism and personality to his teaching;
  • In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu, as a sympathetic telling of the author’s journey through the “occult rat-race” to his own Guru;
  • Concentration by Mouni Sadhu, for presenting a series of exercises leading to lucidity of the mind;
  • Initiation Into Hermetics by Franz Bardon, for giving a self-paced and well-rounded practical education in both magic and mysticism which puts one in good stead to find a spiritual home;
  • Guru Gita, as devotion to the Divine Guru within and without is a proven method of ripening to meet the human Guru;
  • Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali, for lucidly expressing the aims and core methods of practice leading to an awakened intellect;
  • The Phantastikos by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Dadaji), a lucid and non-dogmatic account of the searches and results of a Tantric Guru’s own journey, prefaced by my own Guru Sri Gurudev Kapilnath telling of how he came to Dadaji’s tutelage (two for one special!).

I wish every reader here the absolute best, whether you are looking to enter the stream of mysticism or searching for the sorcery to enhance your life here and now. Either way, choose your associations carefully, practice with sincerity, watch for results, and keep your wits about you.

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