When the Student is Ready


By Phillip Moffitt  |  

She was a 28-year-old, smart, “together” American woman who was committed to
developing her spiritual life through the eight limbs of yoga and had become
a popular yoga teacher. She was also devoted to her swami. He was her
teacher, and insofar as she could, she practiced surrendering to him,
responding to his guidance as one who deserved absolute love and trust. He
was her guru. One day he surprised her with a mind-numbing announcement: She
was to marry a man who was also a devoted follower of the swami. She had met
this man, who lived in a different part of the United States, only twice. He
seemed nice enough, but why should she marry him not know? What about shared dreams, compatibility, and most of all, love? The swami assured her they matched and would be happy together. She argued with him, voicing all the reasons why it did not make sense.

Yet the swami was insistent, and he was her teacher. The woman was trying to
free herself from her ego-driven self-reference, so how was she to interpret
this situation? Was her resistance one more act of egoism, or was the
teacher off base this time?

Upon hearing of this woman’s dilemma, most yogis become impatient and
indignant. “How could she possibly take such a suggestion seriously?” they
ask me. Maybe you find yourself a little agitated just reading about it.
Western students have a natural resistance to authority; therefore, power
issues often arise in teacher-student relationships. Most likely the idea of
some guy in an orange robe telling you who to marry is so far past your
rebellion point that it is hard for you to even examine your mind’s reaction
to this idea. But the yogi had much to learn in taking the swami’s request
seriously. She saw how attached she was to the preferences of her ego and
how those preferences evolved into overwhelming desires. She could see that
living from the deepest part of her being meant not trusting those desires
or someone else’s desire, even her teacher’s. Instead, what was needed was
listening to her heart’s deepest intention toward life and staying true to
it.

The Need for a Teacher

It is very difficult to develop along one of the traditional spiritual paths
without the benefit of teachings and at least occasional guidance and
instruction. If you are on an inner journey, the question inevitably arises:
Do you need a teacher, and how do you find one? A teacher is someone who
helps you sort out for yourself what is of essence in life from that which
is transitory. A teacher does this by informing, challenging, and setting an
example for students, based on what he has learned in his own practice.

If you are going to study intensely with a teacher, you will sooner or later
find yourself struggling with the kinds of doubts the woman felt when the
swami told her to marry her fellow yogi. It may not be so extreme, but how
you embrace the teaching will be just as significant because you are
learning how to respond wisely to all you will ever feel in your life.

So how do you know where to place yourself in regard to this question of
finding a teacher? Maybe the answer is that you only need to be sincere in
your practice, staying grounded in the intention that motivates you to
practice. There is an ancient saying: “When the student is ready, the
teacher will appear.” After years of skepticism, I’ve come to see the truth
in these words. Most people begin their spiritual journey in response to
encountering hardship and loss or through experiencing a sense of
dissatisfaction with life. Out of difficulty comes the need to find greater
meaning in life than pursuing immediate ego satisfaction. This in turn leads
to a search for what really matters. Sooner or later you come to the
realization that to avoid being lost in the endless wants, negative
emotions, and confusion that arise in the mind, some sort of a spiritual
discipline is necessary, whether it is prayer, meditation, study, service,
or a combination of these four.

The examined spiritual life-be it in a Catholic retreat center, an Indian ashram, or a Buddhist meditation center-begins with finding a style of practice that appeals to you, then developing the discipline of mind that allows understanding to arise. Inevitably there is resistance, confusion,
and confrontation with your own emotional issues. The role of a teacher is
to aid you in this inner process, not to make your decisions for you but to
empower you in your own journey of discovery. You may well go through a
number of systems and teachers before finding a practice that works for you.
Even when you have found a practice, it may be years before you develop a
close relationship with a teacher. The Dalai Lama, whose Tibetan lineage
places great importance on the teacher as a guru, says that one should study
with a teacher a number of years before making a commitment of allegiance.

In looking for a teacher, it may be helpful to reflect on the three
different kinds of value a teacher can contribute to your practice. First,
the teacher can be a provider of knowledge. Finding your spiritual path
requires practical knowledge just as much as daily life does, only the
knowledge is more subjective and elusive. A second way that a teacher
provides assistance is through inspiration, which is different from
knowledge, although knowledge itself can be inspirational. Ideally, at some
point you find a teacher who both has knowledge and is a source of
inspiration. Practice is hard, and letting go of worldly desires is very
difficult, so it is of great value to work with someone whose life or
practice inspires you. Better still is finding a teacher who believes in you
just as you believe in her or him.

The third category of value that a teacher provides is what’s described as
transmission of direct understanding, which does not occur primarily through
the intellect. Many people don’t believe that there’s any such thing as
transmission. It is also hard to explain exactly what is meant by
transmission, since each of the traditions has its own interpretation. Yet
many yogis report having an experience with a teacher that was beyond
knowledge and inspiration, in which there was a direct transfer of
understanding that as far as they could tell did not rely on the intellect.
Often a yogi will spend years after such an experience coming to terms with
what was felt. But until such an experience is integrated, the transmission
may seem more like internalization of the teacher’s good intent rather than
authentic inner development.

Provider of Knowledge

The teacher-student relationship isn’t supposed to be perfect. You can be
quite disappointed with the teacher while also finding his teaching
valuable. I once studied for a time with a teacher who had an abusive
personality. But he had knowledge that was very stimulating to me. His
emotional volatility, meandering teaching style, and self-glorification were
constantly challenging.

Yet when I was in his presence, I mostly experienced gratitude, for without
him and the center he had created I would have had nowhere to practice. I
seldom complained about him during the time I was studying with him, doing
so always seemed ungracious and disrespectful of the teaching.
Of course, I also did not sing his praises, allowing my silence to speak for
itself. My contact with him was mostly with other yogis in a group setting.
I learned a great deal that was crucial, and from this experience I learned
how to wisely utilize a teacher when I finally found one that was more
suitable for my temperament.

Currently, I study with a meditation teacher I find to be both knowledgeable
and inspirational, who tells how he was so taken with his own teacher upon
first meeting him that he essentially stayed with him from that day until
the teacher died many years later. He absolutely adored his teacher although
he also saw his shortcomings. He once went to the teacher with a list of his
faults and suggestions as to how the teacher could improve. His teacher
listened to the complaints then said: “Well, I am glad to know that you are
not confusing me with your own perfect Buddha nature.” What a wonderful
teaching for us all.

As a student often you will not be able to immediately perceive the real
lesson in an instruction, story, or interaction. Understanding requires
cultivation, repetition, and reflection. When your mind is locked, it may
well be that the best way for a teacher to help you gain clarity is through
creating so much confusion or frustration that your mind finally lets loose.
This is never fun and can seem so illogical that you doubt the truth of it.
It is also true that a teacher may not know what you need to learn. It is up
to you to periodically check in with yourself and see if it feels as though
you are learning what you need to know. Remember, it is how you work with
the teachings that determines the unfolding of your journey. As the Buddha
taught, the teacher is only pointing to the moon; it is your task to find
your direct experience of the moon. There is a distinction that is sometimes
made between providing “knowledge” and providing “instruction” with the
expectation that much less is required of a teacher who is giving
instruction than of one who is providing knowledge. In the beginning stage
of practice, the best combination may be finding a teacher who provides
great instruction and someone who is incredibly inspiring. Your time for
receiving knowledge may not yet have arrived. This may seem disappointing at
first, but it is actually quite freeing just to be a beginner and allow the
practice to unfold at its own pace.

Source of Inspiration

A teacher may have a love and enthusiasm for spiritual truth that becomes
your inspiration. Or a teacher may display a lot of interest in your
practice, and the energy of this attention inspires you to keep going. You
may feel “seen” by a teacher, and this acknowledgement provides the faith in
yourself you need to persevere. The teacher may seem to dwell in such a
state of love for others that you feel safe and accepted for the first time
in your life.

With any of these experiences, the sense of meaning that arises should not
be understood as an end but as a beginning for your own hard, slow work of
coming to the place where you generate this experience for yourself. A
common pitfall with inspirational teachers is that yogis forget the inner
call and only look outward to the teacher.

I was not someone who easily took to working intensely with a teacher. I
knew that I needed one, but which one? I was too aware of the human flaws of
each teacher I met. Accustomed to relying on my own counsel, I sought
knowledge from one teacher after another without extending the trust that
would have left me feeling vulnerable. I made many mistakes along the way
because I didn’t have a teacher to help me interpret my experiences at key
junctures in my life. I was finally able to overcome this difficulty only
when I encountered a teacher who was so dedicated to his own liberation that
teaching was secondary. The key for me was the teacher’s sincerity and the
integrity of his daily practice. He was an inspiring model. I wanted my
practice and my life to be in accord, just as his was. He did not have to be
perfect in his knowledge or behavior for me to be vulnerable to him.

A good teacher can inspire by her manner of teaching or by the state of her
own inner being as reflected in her words and actions. She may create an
atmosphere in the room that stimulates your practice, or she may be such a
great listener or storyteller that it kindles your enthusiasm. It may be the
teacher’s life story or specific experiences that inspire you and keep you
going in your practice.

Some yogis tend to be drawn to charismatic teachers who evoke the
imagination of practice, like a great movie evokes the imagination of the
audience, without the yogi doing the work necessary to have the experience
itself. Having a relationship with such a teacher can be harmful to your
inner development. The illusion of insight arises from the intense emotions
you experience, but the foundations of your practice and your life are not
really being transformed.

Because of the tendency to glorify the ego, you are always called on to
honestly work through the motivation of your spiritual seeking, owning the
fears, the escapism, and the spiritual ambitions that are inevitably there.

Gradually, you begin to uncover your heart’s spontaneous yearning to be
aligned with the ground of life itself. Sometimes it is hard to believe that
this innocent, sincere yearning is in you, but it is there, and a teacher’s
job is to hold that faith with you and help you find it for yourself. This
is why it is so beautiful when the teacher-student relationship has truly
unconditional love as its intention, no matter the bumps and imperfections
of both parties. Sometimes yogis feel hurt over a kind of impersonal feeling
that they detect in their teacher, but it is actually the teacher who has
too much personalness, too much “I-ness,” that leads to the various boundary
problems of neglect or inappropriateness.

Means of Transmission

You do not get to choose the experience of transmission. It is something
that happens to you. There have been notable teachers with whom a number of
students have reported experiences of transmission, including Neem Karoli
Baba, Ramana Maharshi, and Poonjaji.

However, many people who studied with these teachers felt no such
transmission. Transmission is most commonly described as a deep feeling of
unconditional love, which is so intense it brings about inner change. But
rather than look for intense experiences of transmission, I suggest you
develop your subtle awareness of how you are altered when you experience
moments of fresh understanding or moments of freedom from your usual fears
and wants. These subtle moments of clarity are genuinely transformational
when fully received. I am not referring to the big emotional releases of
anger or fear that often occurs in practice. I mean the small, quiet,
inside-your-own-mind-and-heart experiences in which you are grounded in the
wonder of life’s unfolding. It is through these moments, most of which go
unnoticed, that your life is slowly reconfigured. Every wise teacher fosters
these moments in you, whether through knowledge, inspiration, or even
transmission.

The Inner Teacher

When you find a teacher with great knowledge or who is inspirational, it’s
worth investing in the relationship, and usually this is challenging. Your
teacher may not be readily available; still it is up to you to find a way to
be in his presence. You may not have much personal contact with your teacher
for a long time. It is surprising how little difference such contact makes
compared to taking your teacher inside as an inner image. It does matter,
however, that you have the exposure to really understand what is being
taught, but you can do this through books and tapes and studying with other
teachers whom the teacher has taught. You can study with a number of
teachers while still staying rooted to one primary teacher. Ironically, in
the early years of practice, your teacher need not know you have selected
him; you can just let events unfold without trying to be in control.

The teacher-student relationship is just as difficult and frustrating from
the teacher’s perspective as from yours. Some teachers refer to “How do I
find a teacher?” as one of the “dreaded questions.” The needs and
expectations of students are so varied that anything that is said can be
misleading or become a stimulus for spiritual ambition. There is much
disagreement about the proper role of a spiritual teacher among the various
traditions. Even within the different schools of a particular tradition,
there are sharply divergent views. In some instances the teacher’s role is
held lightly deemed absolutely essential to have a root-guru for there to be the
possibility of spiritual liberation. Then there is the problem of ambitious
teachers of all religious, psychological, and inner-growth stripes saying,
“Choose me, choose me! I know the answers!” without acceptance from the
larger teaching community. It is because of these difficulties that many
teachers are reluctant to answer your questions about finding a teacher.
This is yet another reason for you to be slow and steady in your pursuit of
a teacher.

When the Teacher Appears

Ideally your teacher will be a port for some of the storms in your life, but
there is no guarantee of this. The power and responsibility for your
practice lie within you. With clarity of intention, integrity of practice,
and genuine humility, you are able to separate the teachings from the
teacher. Then if the teacher disappoints you by not having what you need, by
not being interested in you, even by acting in an abusive fashion, you
survive. You are intact and able to move on because you have not forsaken
yourself.

The woman who was told by her swami to marry another devotee is an
inspiration in integrity and strength of intention, even if you disagree
with the decision she made. After many struggles, she acquiesced to the
swami’s direction and agreed to marry the other yogi. To do so required the
courage to overcome her fears and attachments without abandoning authority
for her own life. Although filled with doubt and distrust, she came to
believe that the practice of surrendering was more important than all the
reactions of her mind, so she decided to go forward. Imagine yourself doing
this; think of what it would require.

She never gave up her own judgment or the right to assert herself. She
married the man and they began a long, slow process of becoming friends and
companions, always keeping dignity and respect for the other first and
foremost. In time, she decided the swami was no longer the right teacher for
her, so she left.

Eventually, she had a child with the man. Later they divorced and are now
good friends, raising together the child they both love.

So was she wrong to have given in to the swami, and was he distorted in his
judgment? Who can say? Maybe she would never have had a child without the
swami’s intervention. There could be a thousand other “maybes.” In the end,
what matters is that she was able to surrender her preferences without
surrendering her inner authority. For this reason, her life has unfolded in
a beautiful way with her child and her teaching, and she is still walking
the path of sacred inquiry. She still studies with various teachers and
tells her students that receiving the teachings are a necessity.

She reports that she has no need to make the swami or herself right or
wrong. She is just grateful that the integrity of her practice kept her
aligned with her own intention throughout her many trials. Like her, it is
your task to use your practice to clarify the ground of your true intention.
There will come the day when your teacher will appear, and you will be
ready.

Phillip Moffitt is the founder of the Life Balance Institute and also teaches vipassana meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.