Nowadays, a lot of people are choosing to walk the path without a spiritual teacher. With the abundance of spiritual literature out there, a lot of folks embark on the road to enlightenment without anything more than their books.
While there’s nothing written against deciding to do so, this is a choice that must be taken carefully. Experience has taught us that it is only the rarely gifted individuals who can embark on this mission alone and fully awaken!
The greatest teacher had teachers
If you carefully study the life of the great teachers and prophets of different traditions, you will quickly learn that even they had teachers. Buddha, a man whose impact on our understanding of this and all the other realms is simply unmeasurable, had teachers.
Through his journey, Buddha had many teachers, who trained in different spiritual lineages. Yogui teachers, Vedic teachers, Hindu teachers. Probably the greatest student of them all, Buddha eventually surpassed them, and he did not take their acknowledgment as the end of the road. Teacher after teacher, he kept looking for the truth behind it all.
Of course, Buddha was a gifted individual, and yet, he had teachers. Because above all things, Buddha knew he did not know.
This is the same for Jesus Christ: rarely gifted individual, Son of God, who had teachers. In fact, some people believe that in his lost years, Jesus went to Tibet to learn from the Buddhist Lamas themselves!
Just as Buddha, Jesus knew there was something that he did not know. Something out there that could kill him.
If you don’t know what you don’t know…
Imagine you’re a very naive individual, who got a new car. On the manual of your brand new car, you read that every few kilometers you need to change the oil on your engine to keep it going. One day, seeing the massive lines at the service station, you decide to take a shortcut.
“Oil is oil!” – You say to yourself
So you go into the grocery store, and you buy vegetable oil, and you pour it into your car. What do you think is going to happen? Before your engine gets a chance to get going, your car is on FIRE!
But what? Weren’t you supposed to put oil in your engine? You just read it!
Of course, if you don’t know what you don’t know, how could you tell which oil is supposed to be where?
While this is a very naive example, it illustrates how we can only read things from what we are. If you were a complete automotive neophyte, you could be misreading the instructions for your new car.
What could happen if you’re a spiritual neophyte then?
You would probably go, read thousands of books, and get those words into your head. But you’re not going to read through those words as a teacher would. You’re less likely going to read them as the person who wrote them would. You are going to read them as YOU ARE.
Because you can ONLY read things as YOU ARE.
Therefore, you are always going to reinforce the way YOU ARE.
This is not about knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying you don’t need to read books. You absolutely need to read books, they are a great source of knowledge. The thing is, the end goal of spirituality is not to acquire more knowledge. The goal of spirituality is to gain insight.
Knowledge, without insight, is only going to reinforce your ego structures. And that, my friend, is the exact opposite of what you want!
It is insight, and not knowledge, that is going to make you capable of actually deconstructing and reconstructing your ego structures. The very same structures that keep you tied to samsara (or suffering). If you limit your practice to only reading books, without a teacher to offer you the insight you so desperately need, you’re likely to end up putting cooking oil into your car!
In doing so, you would be taking the risk to have all that knowledge used by your subconscious to reinforce the narratives that define your reality. Even worse, it might be used to create new, more sophisticated narratives, that adapt to the sense of progress you may think you’re doing by reading the books!
Unless, of course, you’re a freaking genius!
But if you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us, chances are you don’t know what you don’t know, and that your ascension would benefit greatly from the insight of a teacher!
Rethinking the teacher-student model
One of the main reasons why I have found people resisting the idea of having a teacher is because of the inherent, hierarchical power dynamics of the traditional teacher-student model. Rejection of the power structures that are used to oppress us in daily life, often than not, comes with the rejection of ALL possible structures.
In most cases, this rejection is also linked to trauma. After being taken advantage of, some people shadowbox ALL teachers. Understandably, this creates bad karma for everyone involved. For the student, who won’t ever trust a teacher again in this lifetime, and for the teacher, for creating the conditions where a seeking soul strays away from the light.
While I think this is a fair point of view (I mean, we have plenty of evidence that these particular structures have been used to oppress and abuse), I believe that we need to go beyond these conceptions and rethink the way we conceive and participate in a teacher-student relationship.
Your spiritual friend
Personally, I believe it is not even right to call them a teacher or a guru! In my experience, “spiritual friend” is a much more accurate description of this relationship. With hierarchical denominations out of the way, one can freely flow between different roles within this relationship.
Truth is, sometimes your spiritual friend will be teaching you, and sometimes you will be teaching your spiritual friend. I, for once, have taught a lot of my teachers about finances. We’ve worked together in understanding the power of accepting money and abundance into their life, so they can actually help more people.
But at the end of the day, they’re still my teachers. Because I know there’s something that I don’t know. Something they have realized that I have not. Something more profound and insightful than anything I could realize on my own.
You can’t change a system from the inside
Back in the seventies, Ford became the epicenter of an ethical debate around one of their best-selling vehicles, the Ford Pinto. A small coupé, this automobile blasted into the news due to the safety concerns around its design. Long story short, any small hit on the rear-end of the vehicle would convert the Pinto into a ball of fire!
Amid a turbulent legal process, a now-infamous report was issued by the company insurance department. The report would compare the estimated spending of society on the victims of car fatalities, to the spending of issuing a recall of all defective vehicles for modifications, concluding that it would be more profitable to keep the exploding cars in the streets!
Needless to say, the report generated a wave of outrage from the masses, and the authors of the report were severely criticized for their almost cynical approach to prizing human lives.
Now, I want you to think about it. Do you think these two people from the accounting and insurance departments firmly believed what they stated in the report? Or do you think they did it because that was what Ford needed them to?
There are also reports where it was denounced that the design failure was detected before mass production began. Do you think a group of designers and engineers sent a death trap into the streets under their name at will? Or did they do it because, under Ford management, they had no other option?
You can also think about the German soldiers during the Second World War! Violating human rights, doing some of the vilest atrocities recorded in human history. Do you think they had a chance against the system that was making them do that?
Change comes from the outside
The authors of the report, the engineers, and the German soldiers, they all had one thing in common. They stood no chance against the system they were a part of. Had they rebelled against the system, they would have been substituted for someone willing to issue the report, to pull the trigger.
In order to change the system, intervention from an external force was needed. Be it the people and the victims of the Ford Pinto or the Red Army, change came from the outside.
And that is exactly why we need a spiritual teacher. We need someone capable to apply external force in the right direction. So we can change. So we can learn. So we can break free from our inner systems. From ego.
The teacher IS the external force.
The teacher: a source of experience
This relationship between teacher and student is also fundamental because of our very human nature. If stripped down from our consciousness, we’re still monkeys. And as monkeys, we learn our codes through socialization; we learn by contemplating, assimilating, and repeating!
Having a teacher allows you to learn directly from their experience. By acknowledging they have realized something that you have not yet, you’re opening yourself to the possibility of learning just by being in proximity to them!
This kind of learning is not possible only with books. Because books will be able to provide you with the theory, but they will never be able to provide you with the experience needed for deep learning.
Of course, you could go alone about your path, and you’ll eventually find the experiences needed to advance in your journey. But it is so much faster when you have someone to reflect back to you!
It is fair to say that more than teachers, they’re facilitators. They are willing to share the way they see the universe and help us to get there. They save us from having to go through the same paths and the same mistakes, allowing us to focus on moving forward.
The teaching in the trigger
This is not to say that the relationship with your teacher should be a walk-in-the-park, free from all friction. In fact, the most profound moment a teacher can provide you is one where you get angry! Because that anger pointing at something deeper you might need to look at!
“Why would they say that? Why would I get angry at this? What is that showing me?”
Questions like this need a very deep foundation of trust to spark the transformation and reconstruction of the ego. This is why it is so important to reframe the relationship between student and teacher: so we can all surrender and trust in the benefit of this exchange.
The secret teachings
Lineages such as Vajrayana Buddhism unfold their teachings slowly to their students: the more advanced teachings are secret, guarded in books, away from naive hands. Some of these teachings are legitimately dangerous, especially for someone who is in an early stage of their journey, still being subject to the forces of ego.
In these books, you can find passages that warn against disobedience to your teacher. They warn about not adhering to complete obedience to your gurú, risking yourself to sickness, malaise, and even DEATH.
Of course, a lot of people misinterpret these books. “Why would you make me subjugate myself to someone who could take advantage of me? Isn’t this about achieving freedom?” they would say.
And if you don’t have a teacher to guide you through, you are likely to assume gurú is gurú, just as you would assume oil is oil. You would rebel against any form of structure, or subjugate yourself to the next person that shines a light on you, just as you would pour vegetable oil into your engine and set your car on fire!
Having a teacher allows you to safely learn from these advanced, dangerous teachings, avoiding the pitfalls of misunderstanding.
It is for your own safety
There’s an ancient and very popular yogui prayer that pleads for abstinence from the development of psychic powers:
“Please please please, do not give me siddhis until I am ready”, says the praying adept.
“Because if ego is the source of all the suffering in my life, what would be of me if my ego get hold of powers such as manifestation? Will it use manifestation for self-satisfaction and create even more suffering? No! Do not give me powers until I am ready!”
Just as the praying adept, you would endanger yourself if you get a hold of advanced teachings without proper guidance and preparation.
We all need a teacher
The truth is, each one of us is blind in a way. Some of us might be color blind. Some of us might be partially blind. Some of us might be completely blind. And if we were to contemplate an elephant, every single one of us is going to have a different perception of the creature!
For the color blind, the elephant might be purple. For the partially blind, they might perceive it like a rhino. For the totally blind, they might experience it like a snake! But three blind men are better than one, and in cooperation and trust, they could reconstruct the whole experience!
But if we have decided to go on our own, and all we got is our own reading of the creature, we might never get to collect the full experience. This is why is so important to have a spiritual friend to show us the limits of our vision! Because we need someone to give us insight!
The skillful spiritual teacher
Of course, this is not to say that your spiritual friend will give you the answers. In fact, a skillful teacher will NEVER take away from you a potential realization for you to discover for yourself. But they’re not going to let you have a misunderstanding either.
A very skillful spiritual friend should show you the misunderstanding, without spoon-feeding you the answer. They will point you out the deeper truth.
Because they know that knowledge won’t get you there. They are well aware that not knowing is more likely to get you there. Because once you accept that you don’t know, then you have the motivation to go out and find out for yourself!
And if on top of that you know that what you don’t know can’t kill you, then you will go even faster!
The trap of books
This is the reason why only relying on books can be so dangerous for the unwary. Because books can give you a false sense of knowing. A strong sense of ego. A mouth full of pride.
And we see this malaise manifest every day, everywhere. In every comment section of the internet, you can find people full of themselves, thrusting their truths into anyone willing (or not) to listen.
They have the quotes, the sources, and the facts. Their vision is air-tight, and they’re not open to negotiating anything other than your surrender.
It is pervasive, and it is pushing more and more people away from the light.
A final word on spiritual teachers.
The relationship between teacher and student, between spiritual friends, is one of sacred trust and cooperation. Sadly enough, more often than not, this trust has been broken, giving people more than enough reasons to lash out against all teachers.
“All gurus are bad! All gurus are sexual demons! All gurus are predators!”
And it is true. Many Yogui, Buddhist, and Catholic teachers, teachers of all walks, have fallen prey to their most basic instincts, violating and abusing the trust deposited in them.
But acknowledging this does not remove the fact that having someone to guide you through is fundamental to your ascension.
If anything, this is an invitation for you to consider the possibility to believe and trust in community and cooperation within the spiritual path. To take a look beyond ourselves, and contemplate the possibility that we might not know everything we don’t know. Something that someone out there does know.