On Choosing A Teacher

I believe True Teachers are here to take us further than we can go alone.

They’re not here to tell us who to be and how to live. Rather, True Teachers are here to give us permission to be more of who we truly are and to guide us further along the path of being more and more fully ourselves.

While there are many people to learn from, you will be lucky if you meet a few really great teachers in your lifetime.

Having been born and raised in a Buddhist monastery and spent much of my life as an active seeker, I’ve had the unique opportunity to meet and study with some of the best teachers, as well as see behind the veil, as it were.

From this experience, I want to share my perspective on how to choose a teacher.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself is: Do they have what I want in the area that they’re teaching?

Many teachers are very charismatic and have a devoted following. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right teacher for you. Sometimes it’s simply that they’re good at marketing themselves and making a splash. Other times, their methods may be great for others, but not for what you want.

They may or may not be the teacher for you.

For example:

If a person is teaching in the area of financial success, have they had the financial success you want, in the way you want it? Maybe they’ve made a lot of money and that’s what you want, but when you look at their life and see them working one hundred hours each week, you realize you don’t actually want to live that way. Or their method has been through daily blog posts and you hate writing.

Or maybe they’re teaching in the realm of relationships, do they have the kind of relationship you want? Their relationship might look quite different from what you want. Maybe they’re in a polyamorous relationship and you want to be in a monogamous relationship. Or they give very specific advice that doesn’t really work for family life, and you have (or want) children.

While they don’t need to have the exact life you want, it’s important to ask yourself, ‘does this person have what I want in the area that they’re teaching?’ And then to be able to separate out the excitement of the idea, from whether they’re the right teacher for you.

One of the tricky parts of this is: You have to get honest with yourself about what you really want.

Do you want to travel all the time?
Do you value a luxurious life of having enough money to eat at fancy restaurants regularly?
Do you long for simplicity?
Do you want a family?
Do you desire stability?
Yearn for excitement?
Do you want a life that prioritizes spiritual practice?
Or one that is more casual?

None of this is about judging teachers as good or bad, but rather about finding the right fit for you.

Whether a teacher has the specifics that you desire or not, it’s important to take a good, hard look at whether they can guide you towards your dreams, even if they are different than theirs.

There are certainly some very deep teachers, who I have learned a lot from, who live lives very different from the way I want to live. I do not mean to discredit the value I have received from these teachers, but I do believe there is a limit to what a true monastic, for instance, is capable of offering to a householder.

The corollary to this is: Do they live what they teach?

It’s easy to wax poetic on Facebook Live, but are they using the tools and practices they teach?

Another really important question to ask yourself is: How do I feel around them?

This is so personal.

I used to study with the foremost Iyengar yoga teacher in the United States. He’s a bit of a yell-er, but I went to him because, through his gruffness, I could feel his deep love and devotion. There was none of the melodic speaking or gentle invitations most people associate with yoga teachers, but I would literally weep in gratitude when I stepped into his class. He was a perfect teacher for me.

I had a friend, however, who was a longtime Iyengar yoga teacher, and she kept trying to make this man her teacher because she thought she should, because he was the best of the best, because he was who all the Iyengar teachers went to.

She would go to his classes and feel anxious because he would yell and he was gruff, and she would be in a contracted state the whole time. It wasn’t actually serving her to be in his class, even though he was one of the best teachers in the United States.

I’ve struggled with this as well.

There are teachers I have returned to again and again because I could tell they were good teachers and so many other people got value from them, yet I left their classes feeling smaller, more closed and less alive.

I finally had to let go and reconcile that they are simply not the teacher for me.

It is important to note that a good teacher is not meant to make you feel good all the time. I’ve hated all my teachers at some point.

The question to ask is, do you feel more of what you want to feel in their presence and through their teaching(s)?

Lastly, in order to meet your True Teachers, you have to be willing to be impacted – even if it makes no sense.

Knowing a teacher is a match often happens at a very visceral level. I remember the first time I saw my Kundalini yoga teacher Gurmukh. I went because friend had suggested I go to one of her classes. I walked into the room, and before I had even heard her speak, a wave of recognition came over me and I heard the words as clear as day “I will do whatever that woman tells me to.”

I had a teacher when I lived a Tassajara that I wasn’t even sure I liked sometimes.
There were plenty of other teachers who were easier to talk to and more easy-going.
And, yet, when he would walk in the room, I would feel washed with the beauty of the Dharma, and my whole being would come alive.

When I’m around the teachers I want to study with I feel more whole in their presence.

It is important to remember that teachers don’t need to have it all.

We must allow our teachers to be human.
Otherwise we will vacillate between worshiping them, and demonizing them. When they fall from grace, we fall with them.
This is not a useful cycle.

It’s more important than ever to learn to see the humanness of our teachers while not throwing them under the bus – neither skipping over their humanity or pretending they can do no wrong.

I had another incredible teacher in my life, a woman who had a lot of fire and fierceness. She taught me more about my own strength and what I am truly capable of than maybe any other teacher. She held some of the most powerful and pristine containers for practice I have ever experienced, and when my marriage was falling apart, she was the one I called.
She also had a problem with alcoholism.

Not a single great teacher in my life has been without flaws.

Are you willing to be honest with yourself about whether a teacher truly has what you want and lives what they teach, while also allowing them to be human?

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