The Spiritual Teacher

The spiritual teacher teaches, but not like an ordinary teacher. The spiritual teacher also does a certain amount of what we could call psychotherapy, but probably not like an ordinary psychotherapist. What is it that makes a spiritual teacher different?

As a teacher...
A spiritual teacher may be teaching you a skill or a particular set of facts or theory, but from the teacher's point of view that skill or knowledge is simply a vehicle to a greater learning, a learning of a new way of living, a way of being that transcends all that the student has known before. This difference is qualitative as well as quantitative - that is, the student could fairly be said to be learning to live in a different world with a different set of natural laws.
There is currently a great deal of interest in more 'democratic' ways of teaching, of empowering the student, of self-guided learning. These ideas are very useful in certain kinds of learning, but not in others. That kind of student-guided learning is useful where there is a steady, fairly clear progression from one phase of learning to the next. Interestingly, the spiritual teacher has traditionally demanded that the student think for himself and has asked hard questions to which the student is expected to find answers, rather than simply using the ordinary traditional teacher's mode of didactic exposition.
In spiritual development, there are stages like that, but there are other harder steps that are more like leaps of faith into a new and hitherto inconceivable way of being. In making these leaps, the student may experience the teacher as being like the mother bird, pushing the fledgling out of the nest in order to get it to fly. Hard stuff! It must be hard for the nestling to believe that mother knows best in this case. It is equally hard for the student to believe that the spiritual teacher really understands their situation. This trust in the teacher requires great faith, which is why so many spiritual traditions have strong rules about the appropriate duties and attitudes of the student toward the teacher, rules which fundamentally assume that the teacher is right and should be treated very much as one would treat God. They also assume that the student should be obedient to the teacher.

As a therapist...
My definition of the difference between a spiritual teacher and a psychotherapist:
When your boat is sinking, a psychotherapist can help you to bail it out (at least, they usually know where a bucket is). They then can help you to steer for shore by sitting in the stern and redirecting your course when you start to go astray. This means, of course, that ultimately they are choosing the destination, regardless of how much "positive regard" they may have for your "right to choose" your own.
Better therapists don't quite do this. They sit in the stern, and from time to time, they ask you to look at where you are going and to consider whether or not you really want to go that way. They will also probably be interested in where you have been and what you may have learned, perhaps even without your realizing that you have learned it. Being human, these therapists will sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, suggest that you amend your course in certain ways.
A spiritual teacher, on the otherhand, is more likely to help sink the boat and to show you how to walk - even to dance - on the water.
In this world of ours, not everyone wants their boat sunk, not everyone wants their boundaries pushed back - at least, they don't want it just yet, not right now. Many people just want life to be made a little easier, a little more comfortable, the friction reduced to a more bearable level, but nothing really changed. As a sometimes therapist, I try to respect that, and I try to learn what my clients actually want when they first come to me. However, because my own life is not about that kind of comfort but is instead about transformation and transcendence, I'm not really much interested in clients who just want their rut to be a little more comfortable. The "easy" clients and students are like that. They don't want to actually change themselves or their beliefs; they want the world around them to change so they can be more comfortable. In fact, often they don't even want the world around them to change, really; just their illusions about that world. They usually want a little attitude adjustment and a little information that makes it ok to continue to live in a familiar way.
The"difficult: clients usually want the same illusion of comfort and control, but they can't have it. Given the nature of their problems, radical change in the way they function, in the way they actually are, is essential in order for them to achieve other, over-riding goals like survival or surcease from deep and persistent pain. Becoming the kind of person who doesn't get cancer instead of the kind of person who does is not a simple, superficial, cosmetic matter.
A student recently, after doing some really good transformational work in class, but still hovering on the edge of anger, repeatedly said, "That wasn't any fun!" The third time she said it I actually laughed out loud, just cracked up and laughed until I was limp. She started to be angry, then suddenly got it and laughed too. And then I knew she'd really got it. However, it had taken us the best part of two years to get there. And that was just the first major shift for her.
The enjoyable clients and students are the ones who have already learned that they need to change, that it will be difficult, that it may even (and probably will) be painful at some point, but that the resulting expansion and freedom and joy are worth it. They have learned a certain trust in the process, trust in their teacher. Such people are a joy to work with and very, very rare. Sometimes even they get stuck and become difficult, too. And I also see this in myself at times, feeling the resistance rising and those feelings of frustration and anger trying to lure me off the path and into the bog. Recognizing that this is happening, when/if I finally do, gives me the chance to stop it, but recognizing it isn't always easy...
Part of the purpose in having a spiritual teacher is in having someone there to recognize when we are going astray and to do whatever is appropriate to the situation, whether it is what we think we want or not. Another part of the purpose is in having someone there who knows the next step we need to take in self-transformation. We may not, with our limited experience and understanding, even be able to guess the existence or nature of this step. The spiritual teacher may refuse to do what the student wants, may refuse to answer the student's questions, may refuse to explain his or her decisions, judgements, and reasons for doing what he or she does. In this modern world of self-guided learning and client-centered therapy, the spiritual teacher sometimes stands out as authoritarian and autocratic, perhaps even arrogant in an old-fashioned way.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are appropriate times and places for authority, and this is one of them. If you are stuck in an anti-authoritarian model, or if you think that you know how the authority should function, you will not be able to work very deeply with a spiritual teacher until you let go of some of that stuff.
The trick, of course, is in choosing the spiritual teacher who is the right one for you. Not everyone who is willing to teach you may actually be truly qualified to do so. Even people who are qualified may not be appropriate for your particular needs (although, if they are qualified, they will probably recognize this and send you on your way). I offer no advice on this business of choosing a teacher, but once you have chosen one you need to make a serious commitment to focusing on learning and to letting the teacher teach.

This originally appeared in these electronic pages, then in Otherworld Arts, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
Your comments will be read with interest.