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Spiritual Teachers: 8 Traits to Look For

Today let’s talk about spiritual teachers and how to identify whether they’re competent and have the character required for the role.

We’ll cover the key characteristics to look for, the warning signs, and how to have a healthy relationship with them. This is based on my personal experiences teaching meditation, meeting and learning from other teachers, and undertaking my own meditation journey, which has spanned nearly 10 years.

We all know spiritual abuse happens. Spiritual teachers from all traditions, modern and old, have been known to abuse their power, abuse their students in various ways, and basically turn into dictators.

Yet we also know that spiritual teachers can help us navigate the path towards mastery of a specific practice, like yoga or meditation, and to discovering the inner treasure that the spiritual traditions speak of.

I’ve met teachers of all kinds, and I want to pass on what I’ve learned in observing them. I’ve also observed myself as I lead others in their meditation journey and have come to realise which personal traits and values I want to maintain and which I want to discard and grow through.

To start, it’s crucial we look at ourselves first. If we have the wrong expectations or ideas to begin with, they’ll jeopardise our efforts to establish a productive relationship. Besides, before we analyse others, we should always analyse ourselves. To do so, check out my article on toxic spirituality.

Spiritual Teachers & Eight Positive Signs

When looking for a spiritual teacher, look for these eight traits in them. If they exhibit the majority, I think it’s likely they’re the right choice and you’ll be able to develop a strong, productive relationship with them.

Positive Trait for Spiritual Teachers #1: Strong Track Record

Do they have a record of guiding people into proficiency with a spiritual practice and into knowledge of their deeper selves? This is a necessity.

Make no mistake, spirituality is about results. You might call it an anti-result, depending on your tradition, but regardless, there is a process of spiritual growth involved. If spiritual teachers don’t deliver results, you’re right to question their competency and their motivation for being a teacher.

The virtue of a teacher is only in the results that that teacher can get with students.

Shinzen Young

Positive Trait for Spiritual Teachers #2: Genuine Desire to Guide

I believe a spiritual teacher can only be effective if they genuinely desire to help their students on their spiritual path. If there are ulterior motives, like the desire for fame, wealth, power or recognition, their teachings will be tainted and you’ll find it tricky to establish a productive relationship with them.

Helping doesn’t mean changing or fixing, but giving guidance when it’s requested, and seeing students as innately whole people, not projects to work on.

Positive Trait for Spiritual Teachers #3: Humility

Good spiritual teachers are also humble, not grandiose and machiavellian. If they try to claim to have perfect knowledge of enlightenment and to be perfect people, they’re kidding themselves and their students.

Teachers should still be walking the path like their students, not preaching from the altar. One feature of getting good in any area of life is realising the depth of your field and how little you really know about it. Do they radiate this kind of humility, or do they radiate arrogance?

And when it comes to their own character, do they own their flaws? Do they admit that they face ordinary, earthly challenges? Are they quick to tamp down students’ admiration of them? If so, that’s a good sign.

Positive Trait for Spiritual Teachers #4: Integrate Profound States with Everyday Life

Though you want a teacher to have experienced the profound states taught in their spiritual tradition, you also want them to have integrated these states into their daily life. This is especially true if you have ordinary responsibilities, like a job and a family.

Can they continue to lead a normal life, facing everyday challenges using their spirituality to aid them, or do they use their spiritual life to hide from the world and to deny their problems?

Spirituality should help you more deeply and skillfully engage with your difficulties, not escape from them, and I encourage you to find a teacher who realises this.

#5: Honest About Enlightenment

The word “enlightenment” – and its synonyms, like “awakening” – sounds wonderful, liberating, freeing. And it is. But it’s also not as sexy as it sounds, and it’s just a word.

If your spiritual teachers overidealise enlightenment and fail to mention its tricky parts or its mundanity, that’s a warning sign. You want a teacher who is refreshingly honest about both its power and its limitations, otherwise you’re only getting one side of the story, and perhaps they’re not being entirely truthful.

#6: Aware of Their Dark Side

Spiritual teachers guide us through a process of transformation. As such, they should set a good example, and if it’s clear your teacher is aware of the dark side of their personality, this is a sign they have looked deeply and honestly at themselves.

This not only helps you confirm their integrity and self-awareness, but it helps you become a better person. If they clearly see their own dark side, they’ll be fully aware that their students also have a dark side, and will likely incorporate exercises to help you clean it up.

Besides, it’s usually much more pleasant to be around people who have the required self-awareness to see their own shadow. They tend to be refreshingly honest, humble, and aware of their behaviour.

#7: Boundaries with Students

Though spiritual teachers should be competent, honest, kind, humble and ordinary, it’s also important they maintain certain boundaries with students. This is to maintain student safety and stay true to the original purpose of the teaching.

If the line between teacher and student is blurred too much, the student becomes more a friend than a learner, and the teaching process breaks down. And if they can’t maintain boundaries, it might indicate that something sinister is going on.

#8: Good Vibe

This one is less direct, yet also quite easy to sense. Do they have a good vibe, are they pleasant to be around? Are they approachable and open? If so, it’s likely that many of the other factors mentioned above are in place, and they’re a person you can trust.

Learn how to avoid spiritual abuse and toxic gurus in this episode of the Deep Psychology podcast.