The Mark Of A Teacher

“Your critiques of guru types is spot on IMO. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the entire spiritual scene is corrupt. It’s time to drain the swamp and clear voices like yours are much needed in this culture. I’m curious about something else. In your opinion, what are some qualities that a “good spiritual teacher” might possess?”
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This is a purely hypothetical answer because I’ve never encountered one. Just kidding! ..Not.

Well, first and foremost, one needs to ask themselves “why” they want to be a spiritual teacher? What is it that they feel they need to teach somebody? Is it some kind of belief system or school of thought one has bought into that one feels one needs to indoctrinate other people into? If that’s the case, that’s fine, except that’s not the kind of person that I would consider a “spiritual” teacher. That’s a teacher of dogma. And I’m sure it is possible to be a good teacher of dogma, but that’s not your question and nor am I interested in answering that question if it were.

So, let’s assume that an individual has realized something of their own spirit. They have undergone a process of maturation: perhaps they’ve had certain epiphanies (awakening experiences) along the way, they’ve fumbled through learning to integrate those experiences and develop a more mature perspective on life. Still, the question remains: why do you want to be a teacher?

Perhaps, one is motivated by the confusion one sees in others and the suffering that results from that confusion and one wants to do something about it. That’s fine. However, if one believes one is on a mission to “save people”, that right there, is a recipe for disaster in the long run and will impede one’s ability to provide true mentorship.

So, the desire to be of assistance, to provide guidance must be balanced by the realistic expectation that not everyone needs guidance, is ready for guidance or will even respond to one’s guidance favorably. One is guiding out of one’s OWN desire to guide, not because people will be lost if you didn’t provide it. No one NEEDS you.

If and when one’s own sense of contribution and expectation is grounded in reality, then one is setup to be in a position in which one could potentially provide useful guidance. Still, this doesn’t mean one will be a “good teacher”.

So, assuming one’s head isn’t in the clouds and one is approaching this from a fairly down-to-earth perspective, what are some of the qualities that one can expect to see as a bare minimum standard so as to be considered a reasonably decent teacher?

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FIRST: ”There simply cannot be any claims of being a “master” or “guru” of anything: life, mind, spirituality, whatever. “

Spirituality is already such a nebulous subject that to claim any sort of mastery is delusional to begin with. Mastery based on what criteria? These absolute titles are meaningless and misleading.

At best you can claim a certain level of experience and proficiency in comparison to someone else less experienced. So, the “role” one takes on is purely relative and in relation to the people you are guiding. Thus, “mentor” is probably the most honest title you could assume, if having a title is your thing. “Teacher” even feels like a bit of a stretch because it assumes a certain “subject matter expertise” which again can’t be qualified. Unless you are providing instruction on an established technique or activity like yoga or vipassana, simply talking to people about your philosophical outlook doesn’t imply that you are an expert of anything except your own thoughts.

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SECOND: ”There MUST be a willingness to meet students where they are rather than expect them to meet you where YOU are. “

This is something that I feel is absolutely fundamental and in fact is intuitive. Any half decent school teacher, for example, will attempt to do this. Of course, in a school setting a lot is limited by class sizes and curriculums. But on a one-on-one basis it is the teacher’s job to work from the level of understanding that the student exists at. And NOT the other way around. Which seems to be how spiritual culture functions.

The danger with expecting the students to meet you at your level of awareness is that the student cannot reasonably do that. If they could they wouldn’t need you in the first place. So, instead they will fake the understanding. They will fake it to you and more importantly to themselves in order to convince themselves that they GET what the teacher is talking about. And in the process, all sorts of problems emerge.

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THIRD: “Regardless of what one understands in comparison to one’s students, there can be no condescending to them by putting oneself on a pedestal or elevating oneself as being superior in any way.”

This is a vital point. Within the role and the dynamic, you might be in the position of a mentor, but there may be other areas in life where the roles could be reversed. A former high school student of mine is now a mechanic and when he talks cars he is the teacher and I am the student. Understanding, that one’s identity as a spiritual teacher does not encompass the whole of what one is, is imperative if one is going to be an honest and effective mentor.

Further, what one knows or understands is simply a drop in the ocean. And one must be willing to be cognizant of what one doesn’t know and openly admit to it.

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FOURTH: “There can be ABSOLUTELY NO communication, whether overt or subliminally implied, that one has found or discovered something that others lack.”

Especially as a spiritual teacher, it is crucial that one establishes the clear equality between teacher and student when it comes to INTRINSIC VALUE. In other words, the teacher’s life is in NO WAY BETTER than that of the student’s. In fact , clearing up that misconception on the part of the student IS the teacher’s job. Most teachers today are doing the opposite i.e. actively creating and building upon that misconception in an effort to create a greater chasm between student and teacher that the student desperately seeks to cross.

THERE IS NO SUCH CHASM. And any teacher who doesn’t communicate that unequivocally, is not fit to teach, in my opinion.

The teacher’s primary role, if the student is willing, is to steer the student towards a recognition of their own authority. It is the student’s job to determine for themselves what kind of life and awareness they want to manifest. And this can only happen in an organic fashion if the teacher isn’t setting up any biases in the student’s mind to begin with. Creating categories of experience like: awake or asleep, liberated or suffering, enlightened or unenlightened and so on sets up a clear inner bias.

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FIFTH: “One CANNOT create an atmosphere of have’s and have not’s. “

The nature of spirituality and mystical experiences is that they often happen spontaneously and unexpectedly. Each is revelatory in their own way. None are superior to any other. Most importantly, even a lack of such mystical experience or insight does not compromise one’s ability to learn, grow and evolve if that is one’s inclination. Displaying such insights and awakening experiences as badges of achievement are petty and miss the point entirely. Ordinary everyday awareness is our highest spiritual achievement and communicating anything other than that is to immediately create an atmosphere of lack. No true learning can ever happen in an environment that fosters lack, desperation or fear of missing out. A “good teacher” understands this and would likewise never display their own experiences or insight as any badge of achievement.

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SIXTH: “One must be willing to teach by example.”

This point is almost too obvious to state, except that in the culture of spirituality that exists today, it can’t be stated enough. Nobody likes a hypocrite. And hypocrisy is rampant among the teachers of our times.

Before you open your mouth to speak, make absolutely sure you can walk the walk. Having some incredible flashes of insight do not equate with actually living those insights. One only lives them when one has gone through the arduous and disorienting process of integrating them. And the wisdom that comes from that aftermath is far more useful than the momentary insights one has had. If all one has to offer is philosophical wisdom then one should become a philosophy teacher.

“Spirituality”, to me, encompasses the entire human experience. Thus, practical wisdom has to be a necessary aspect of one’s teachings as well. Further, if one has not learned to integrate the two, philosophical and practical wisdom, one has yet to learn how to live with paradoxes. And if that is the case, it is best one avoids taking on the responsibility of teaching since one is not in a position to truly guide others spiritually.

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SEVENTH: “One must be truthful and transparent in one’s expression.”

Transparent about who they are, what they understand, where they struggle, what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. To project an image of oneself as being anything more than imperfectly human is unacceptable. To pretend to be some perfect manifestation of the divine, of course, should be considered a guaranteed, “Yeah, leave your resume with us and we’ll get back to you at a future date….in the trash!”

Your job as a spiritual teacher or mentor is not to drone on and on about what “truth” is. It is to demonstrate it by actually living it. Honesty, first and foremost, is how a human being manifests truth in word, deed and action. After that you can talk about the nature of reality being “dool”, “nan-dool” or “uber-dool” all you want: what you say is secondary and purely a matter for intellectual consideration. HOW you say it, is the meat of your teaching. You can say all the right words, but if you are being dishonest, the stench of your hypocrisy will eventually reach noses that are sensitive enough to smell your bullshit.

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EIGHTH: “One must establish a clear ethical stance and boundaries in teacher-student relationships.”

This is a hard one for many spiritual teachers to swallow because they’re so “free and uninhibited” and hey, “they’re not even here” and, besides, who can control what happens since they’re not the “doer” of their deeds! All of these rationalizations should be immediate disqualification criteria for anyone wanting to assume such a role.

Regardless of how “illusory” all of this is, failing to establish a clear framework of engagement is a sign of immaturity. Establishing such a code of ethics and drawing firm boundaries clearly communicates to students what their own responsibilities are and how they may hold the TEACHER responsible if he/she fails to abide by their own standards. A “good teacher” not only establishes clear and respectful boundaries, but abides by them and takes full accountability if and when he/she might falter.

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NINTH: “Maintaining a standard of dedication and work ethic is essential.“

Making a youtube video of yourself just “spontaneously rambling” about life, does not constitute “teaching”. At the very least, one must aspire to the standards of a school teacher: the thought, the preparation, the material, the quality, the professionalism that one brings to the table must be of a reasonable standard. One must take “pride in one’s work” and by that I don’t mean one must be full of oneself. One’s work should stand by itself, independent of the person, and be easily recognizable for its quality.

The focus of your work needs to be your students NOT yourself.

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TENTH: “If one chooses to make a living from teaching, then one must do so ethically, professionally and transparently.”

One must operate like a business and maintain one’s books in a similar fashion clearly outlining what one’s overhead, incidentals and operational costs are and what salary one has decided to pay oneself. That salary too must be transparent and reasonable. What “reasonable” is must be determined in a rational manner.

Given the fact, that this is an unregulated field requiring no education, certification, testing or qualification: one must be willing to accept that no matter how “essential” one believes one’s role is, from a purely practical perspective one is offering nothing more than layman advice. So, at best, one can aspire to the income level of an ordinary school teacher (although they are more educated and more qualified).

Of course, book deals and public speaking engagements once the marketing machine kicks in will greatly inflate that income. But at that point I no longer consider you a spiritual teacher. You are a spiritual celebrity. By teacher, I imagine you have a venue: a school, an ashram, a community center where you regularly hold classes – and if that is the case, then your income stream must be comparable to that of any other teacher’s in your locality.

If you choose to go the non-profit/donation route, don’t be a douchebag and try and game the system like the rest of those pricks out there. Literally, DON’T MAKE A PROFIT from it. Use your donations for operating expenses and offsetting costs for those who may need the financial support. Have a day job that supports you, your family and provides you enough of a livelihood that you can AFFORD to teach people for no profit. Be completely transparent with the money you receive from your donations and what it is being used for.

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This is, of course, only MY OPINION, which is what you asked for. There is so much room for ambiguity in this sort of endeavor that it opens up all kinds of cans of worms: abuse, exploitation, tyranny, brainwashing, gaslighting and so on. Maintaining a clear code of ethics similar to the Hippocratic Oath that all medical doctors take and are expected to abide by is, in my view, the bare minimum expectation we should have of those who claim to be our teachers and guides in matters of existence and spirit.

Abiding by THAT, rather than in some permanently “awake” state is, for me, the mark of a good teacher.

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