by S Alexander Alich

In spiritual work our focus usually begins with our teachers, who they are and what we are going to learn from them. A good teacher can open our minds and hearts and introduce us to new ways of working, seeing the world and seeing ourselves. These are important relationships for our growth and development but are also complex and don’t always go as well as we would like. Over my years of work, I have realized that we don’t have a model for spiritual teachers in the West.

The closest most of us come is with what we experienced in our formal schooling, and unfortunately what we experience there doesn’t prepare us well for working with spiritual teachers. Without good and realistic models, we bring high expectations to our teachers: they will give me all the answers, help me grow up, be my best friend, never hurt me, and more. We can spend years searching for the perfect teacher, only to not find him or her. What do we want from a teacher, or what do we think we want? Are you ready for a spiritual teacher? How do you know that he or she is the right teacher for you? Through this article we will look at these topics and examine our attitudes and expectations of teachers.

You might say, “I am ready for a teacher right now,” but are you? As with any relationship you want to enter, it is good to know where you standtoday and what fears or concerns you have. I have my students work through these exercises:

Make a list of four disappointments or disillusionments you have experienced with teachers in the past. What did you learn from these experiences? How have they shaped the way you think about teachers today? Are you ready to risk making new experiences?

What do you expect from a teacher?

  • I need a teacher because _______________________.
  • I want my teacher to ___________________________.
  • I don’t want my teacher to _____________________.
  • My biggest fear of working with a teacher is ___.
  • My ideal teacher is someone who ______________.

Many times when we would like to begin our spiritual work, the first thing we do is look around for the right teacher and make a commitment to him or her. From my experience this never works well and sometimes can stall our growth. I work with four levels of making a commitment and feel that the commitment to a teacher should be the last.

  • The first level is making a commitment to yourself and to your work. This is the best place to start. Look at what you are doing and why. What is your motivation and how committed are you to working with yourself?
  • The second level is to extend that commitment to Great Spirit or however you perceive that higher power. In doing so, you ask for help and acknowledge that you are part of something bigger, even if you don’t understand what that is yet.
  • The third level is to find a path or form that is close to your heart. Today more than at any other point in history you can choose forms from all over the world. Once you have found a form that you can imagine doing every day, then and only then is it time to find a teacher.
  • The forth level is to make a clear commitment to working with a teacher who can assist you in the next step of your growth. This might range from something as simple as taking an evening class to something as serious as an apprenticeship training.

Are you ready?

  • What do you fear most about change?
  • What do you enjoy most about change?
  • What does being a student or apprentice mean to you?
  • What commitments have you already made to yourself and your work?
  • Are you ready for your teacher to not look as you imagine?
  • Are you willing to work on your next personal growth steps with a teacher who will likely challenge the unworkable parts of your life?
  • Are you ready to make changes that will affect your entire life—not just one isolated part?

The perfect-teacher trap is something you want to avoid. It is normal to want to find the perfect teacher, but this is more difficult than it sounds and for a reason you might not expect. We bring two motivations to our work and to our teachers. The first motivation is what our ego or habits want. Their work is simple: to keep everything comfortable and safe. When a teacher confronts this safety, our response can be to no longer see that person as a good teacher and to move on. We can find ourselves moving from one teacher to another until we face ourselves and see our patterns.

The second motivation is a little harder to talk about. It is what our spirit or soul wants for our growth. My teachers always said that this is the part of us that moves and guides us into just the right situations for learning. These situations are rarely comfortable and never safe for our habits. These experiences, though difficult, usually leave us with a sense of freedom and lightness when we finish them. So when you go looking for the perfect teacher, you have to ask, “Which part of me is looking?”

In closing I would like to offer the guidelines that I share with my students when they are considering work with a teacher:

Can this person help me with the next step of my work? This is a great question to ask early. Has the teacher had similar experiences and come through them well? Has he or she helped others go through these experiences and helped them come out the other side?

Don’t just listen to what the teacher says. Spiritual work has little, if anything, to do with our minds. What do you feel or see in the teacher’s heart and spirit?

I always say, “The best teachers teach us how to think, not what to think,”and that is true for how to work and learn as well. Learning how will take you through your life. Learning only what will eventually have to be discarded.

Don’t look only at the teacher; look also at the students at different levels. Talk to people who have been working with the teacher for one year, two, five and beyond. Ask what they like and don’t like. What have they learned? How are they doing in their lives, not only their spiritual work? This will tell you more than anything else where you can expect to be in the years to come if you work with this teacher.