The Spiritual Teacher-Student Relationship

A spiritual teacher is someone who serves as a guide along the path of your soul’s journey, providing information, methods, transmissions, and modeling that help you realize your life dream. They help you strengthen your connection to the source of your own soul and spirit. Spiritual teachers come in different varieties from well-known gurus to personal mentors. As spiritual teacher-student relationship can catalyze great change in your life, it is important to be discerning about who you work with, for how long, and to what end. It is also a relationship that can easily suffer from misconceptions and misplaced projections. Below are some guidelines and considerations for forming a healthy and mindful relationship with a spiritual teacher.

1.  Spiritual teachers are human beings. They have their own strengths, weaknesses, issues, fears, hopes. They make mistakes; they are not infallible. Sometimes we expect our spiritual teachers to be super-human but this is a projection no one can live up to.  If you hold your teachers as being above human foibles they will at some point prove that to be untrue. This can lead to feelings ranging from disappointment to betrayal. When this happens check in to see if there was an overt breach of your relational contract, or if it was an assumption you had that was proven untrue, and approach the situation accordingly.

2.  Spiritual teachers are not substitutes for your personal authority. A spiritual path will push your boundaries and make you question your assumptions about yourself and reality. It can be tricky to distinguish between what is not your personal truth and what is an uncomfortable unknown to you. One way to maintain your personal power in these circumstances is to own whatever choice you make and learn from the results. Having a spiritual teacher helps you develop your inner teacher: your own wisdom and sense of personal direction. Your inner teacher will teach you through successes as well as mistakes. The spiritual path provides ample opportunities for both.

3. The spiritual teacher is not always right (remember not infallible or super-human). Their perspective has limits. Run everything through your personal truth-o-meter and keep in mind that while not usually intentional on the part of the teacher, inaccurate reflections can be very effective at strengthening your sense of personal truth as long as you maintain your personal authority. When you think a reflection about you from your teacher may be inaccurate still give it due consideration as it could very well be a personal blind spot. But if over time it fails to prove true feel free to put it in the thanks-but-no bin of personal reflection.

4.  You don’t need them – everything you need is within you. A true spiritual teacher will not foster dependence on them or their methods (unless you are undertaking a more formal lineage training which can have stricter protocols and require adherence to established methods). There are many paths to Source and your own soul is your truest guide there. Whatever you respect and love about your teacher – you have that too. Your teacher will often be a positive projection of your own abilities; in being with your teacher you are developing your own expression of those abilities. If you find yourself thinking your teacher is special in some way and beyond the human experience, and therefore beyond anything you can create yourself, remind yourself that while you may not be experiencing what your teacher is modeling in the same way, and you may not end up expressing it in the same way, you have it too. Use the inspiration of the relationship to develop the qualities you admire within yourself.

5.  A strong energy field does not a good spiritual teacher make. There are plenty of examples of self-styled “gurus” who have strong energy fields, usually with an appealing high-vibration quality, who use energetic charisma in service to their personal agendas. Energy-body development and the development of integrity and wisdom can be done independently. If you find yourself having to make excuses for a teacher’s personal conduct, for example giving them more benefit of the doubt than you would anyone else because they are “spiritual”, that is a flag. Other flags include fostering a culture of exclusivity and favored hierarchy where some participants have special status for reasons not based on practical factors like more developed skills and experience, a forced sentiment that it is special just to be able to follow them, and any fostering of dependency – only they can help you (insert goal here). Make sure the person you are working with has personal integrity and maintains professional boundaries, and do not compromise your own. Teachers are not to be followed blindly. It is possible to maintain personal authority while still being open and flexible to change.

6.  Spiritual teachers are not here to make us feel good. Spiritual awakening takes psychological mettle; it is both a wonderful and challenging process. The job of the spiritual teacher is to serve the awakening of your soul’s true nature. They are not always going to do or say things you like or that feel good in the moment. Sometimes spiritual teachers can dish out hard lessons. Ask yourself if you want a nurturing healing environment or spiritual awakening and seek appropriate contexts accordingly.

7.  Many teacher-student relationships are temporary. Feel like a rebellious teenager? It may be time to leave the nest. The point of a teacher-student relationship is to help you develop your own, ultimately autonomous, wisdom and skills. The time may come when in order to practice and further develop that autonomy you have to actually be autonomous. When this happens thank your teacher, do whatever you need for closure, and leave the relationship. When a relationship lasts longer than is in the best interest of either student or teacher, forces will come into play that will eventually make it impossible to stay; there will be a falling out of some kind or situations will change making it hard or impossible to continue. If you’ve been feeling like the relationship is due for a change and have been disregarding that feeling, hunker down for a push in that direction.

8.  The relationship between a spiritual teacher and student is intimate yet impersonal. The spiritual teacher and student should not be trying to fulfill personal needs through the teacher-student relationship. This may never be 100% – we are all human after all – but we should be tracking our “relationship lines” and discerning when there may be a conflict of interest between the teacher-student relationship and personal feelings and agendas. Keep in mind that multiple relationship lines (teacher and friend for example) make for more complicated relationships. How someone interacts with you as a teacher in any given circumstance may be different from how they would interact with you as a friend, and if you see them as both teacher and friend there can be a sense of betrayal in one of the relationship lines.

Part of the spiritual awakening process is accessing your capacity to feel love and your own vital life force. It can involve profound heart openings. These feelings can sometimes be projected onto whomever we are spiritually engaged with – teachers, other students – as we confuse the awakening of our own heart nature and vital energy with romantic interest. Conversely, sometimes teachers have unmet personal intimacy needs that they project onto their students. Remember the relationship is intimate, and may be one of the few intimate relationships you have; it can be tempting to try to turn that impersonal intimacy into personal intimacy. I recommend having a blanket policy that your relationships with teachers and students never become romantic. Assume that if someone is coming into your life as a teacher or student they are not meant to be your romantic partner and act accordingly. Any romantic feelings can be enjoyed as indicators of your own love-nature awakening and can be channeled into creative expressions or an appropriate romantic partner.