Friday, May 5, 2017

Soul Sustenance: The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers

Many people from all faith traditions are looking for spiritual guidance - whether that's from a pastor or priest, or another type of spiritual guide. In my lifetime I can remember crazy stories from spiritual leaders who turned out to be leading cults, sometimes to disastrous ends. I've also heard of groups that may seem to be cults, but really aren't. It can be hard to figure it out - especially once you're already embedded in the group.

I got to review The User's Guide to Spiritual Teachers, a book that can help seekers figure out the legitimacy of their spiritual guides. It's not meant to be a dogmatic book that preaches one right spiritual path to follow, but rather gives universal guidelines for people following any spiritual teacher, whether it's part of an established, traditional faith community; more of a small group with a single leader; or even a one-on-one relationship.

I had a chance to interview author Scott Edelstein to learn more.

Interview with Scott Edelstein, author of the new book The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers, courtesy of Wisdom Publications

What exactly is a spiritual teacher? How are they different from an ordinary member of the clergy? A spiritual teacher works closely with others—often one to one—to help them explore life’s most important questions, live wholeheartedly, and find their spiritual way in the world. They may or may not lead a congregation, or adhere to one particular religious tradition, or be a member of the clergy.

What are the benefits of working with a spiritual teacher? A good spiritual teacher can point out the spiritual choices that present themselves to you, and the likely consequences of selecting each one. They can help you see the trajectory you’re traveling and the opportunities and difficulties that may lie ahead. They can help you navigate the often-stormy waters of your own heart and mind. They can help you regain your spiritual footing when you slip and tumble. They can address your most pressing spiritual questions, concerns, and fears. And they can help you discover—and take up—your unique place and purpose in the world.
How does someone find a spiritual teacher? Follow the smell of truth. Read books and articles and websites. Watch YouTube videos and/or in-person presentations; listen to audios of talks. Recognize what makes sense to your brain and feels right in your heart and body. An authentic teacher will resonate in all three ways, and will continue to do so over a period of months.

How can you tell the difference between a genuine spiritual teacher and a fraud, predator, or a sociopath? If a spiritual teacher pushes hard to get something from you—whether it’s money, sex, adoration, obedience, emulation, or some combination—that’s a very reliable sign that something is wrong. Possibly very wrong.

If I’m looking for a spiritual teacher, what are the most important things I need to know? Take it slow. Don’t throw yourself into any teacher/student relationship quickly and impulsively, no matter how right it may feel. Sometimes what feels very right at first can turn out to be very wrong over time. It’s the same advice you would give to a friend who is beginning a new romantic relationship. If a teacher is wise, caring, and trustworthy, that will naturally become clear after a few months.

Some spiritual teachers turn out to be cult leaders. How common is this, and how can you spot a cult leader quickly? Be deeply suspicious of any spiritual community where students focus more on the teacher than on what they teach. The same is true of any teacher who asks to be revered or mindlessly followed. Also, the less transparent a spiritual group or organization is, and the more it separates itself from the rest of the world, the more likely it is to be a cult. Even a monastery, if it’s healthy, will be transparent about its religious tradition and roots, its daily operations, and its teachers and practices. And if a particular teacher simply feels wrong—whether to your body, your brain, or your heart—get away quickly. It’s possible for a teacher who feels right at first to turn out to be a predator or narcissist or charlatan. But someone who feels wrong at first is very unlikely to be a loving and respectful teacher.
Your previous book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, focused on the problem of spiritual teachers who sexually exploit their students. How common is this?
About as common as being left-handed. It’s certainly not the norm, but it’s a common problem—one that cuts across all spiritual traditions. This is why it’s so important to build a relationship with a spiritual teacher slowly and incrementally.

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