The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers

Far too many students approach a spiritual teacher with unreasonable or ignorant ideas about what the teacher can do for them. It’s not usually their fault; they just don’t know exactly what a spiritual teacher does.

By Brent R. Oliver

Scott Edelstein has done a great service for anyone interested in studying with a spiritual teacher or becoming part of a spiritual community.

I’m generally disdainful of the term “spiritual,” or at the very least confused by it. Too often people seem to separate the “regular” parts of life, such as work, family and washing the car, from what they consider the “spiritual” aspects—which are, I dunno…prayer and meditation and talking about the Dalai Lama, I guess.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment. Despite my strong feelings that the spiritual and material aspects of life are one and the same, we understand what Mr. Edelstein is talking about here. We all know what a “spiritual” teacher is and how they differ from a swimming teacher or an English teacher or a guitar teacher.

What we don’t all know is how to spot a bad one, relate to a good one, or be a decent student.

Scott Edelstein is primarily a practitioner of Judaism and Zen, although he’s interested in spirituality of any genre and flavor. His experience really shines through in this easy-to-read little guidebook. The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers is an invaluable resource for anyone searching for a teacher but uncertain what to look for or how to go about it. It’ll be especially valuable for people who are going it alone without any veteran practitioners around to offer assistance or advice.

In addition to being a handy guide for beginners, this is also a nice review for seasoned students. Just because you’ve had the same teacher for the past decade doesn’t mean he’s a good one. Maybe you’re blinded by his charisma or dazzled by a few flashy tricks. Maybe you’ve overlooked some inappropriate behaviors. Or, hell, maybe she’s absolutely fantastic and you’ve just never quite realized.

This book has you covered. Everything from basic qualifications, to expectations, to red flags. It’s full of things to ask, look for, and avoid that a beginning student might not ever think of, or a more experienced student may have forgotten. It’s written in a concise, practical style which manages to be casual and yet give you all the info you need. There’s no filler here. And it’s arranged in such a way that it’s easy to come back to if you have a specific issue you need addressed.

I found two sections in this book particularly helpful—the first was on misconceptions. Far too many students approach a spiritual teacher with unreasonable or ignorant ideas about what the teacher can do for them. It’s not usually their fault; they just don’t know exactly what a spiritual teacher does. What they expect is often some form of magic, like the teacher will take on the burden of all their responsibilities, leaving the student light and free and joyful, traipsing through life without a care. Or that perhaps they can hand most of their decision-making over to the teacher, rather than being an authority for themselves.

Mr. Edelstein very carefully points out the traps we can set for ourselves at the beginning of this relationship.

The second section is on saying goodbye. Sooner or later, most students end up leaving their teachers. There are hundreds of reasons for this, not all of them negative. Sure, sometimes a teacher must be abandoned because he’s abusive or a charlatan. That’s unfortunately far too common. But there are plenty of positive reasons to walk away, too. Your teacher could tell you she has nothing else to offer you and it’s time to become a teacher yourself. You could find a teacher you have a deeper connection with who better suits your needs. You could feel called away from spiritual practice in order to do something else entirely.

It’s not easy to leave, no matter what the reason, and most of us haven’t thought much about how to do it. This section gives some sage advice on when the time might be right and how to proceed once you decide it is.

This book may need to be required reading for anyone searching for or already committed to a teacher. It packs a world of information into a small, handy, accessible package. Mr. Edelstein’s wisdom and maturity are obvious, and his guidance is sound. I highly recommend it.


Photo: Wisdom Publications

Editor: Dana Gornall