Fire ceremony lead by Robert Thurman at a retreat in Molokai. Photo by Jen
“Watch yourself. If you see yourself changing, growing, it means you have found the right [Guru]. He may be beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, flattering you or scolding; nothing matters except the one crucial fact of inward growth. If you don’t [grow], well, he may be your friend, but not your Guru.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj in I am that : talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Since the Guru is largely considered a dangerous, taboo or excessively esoteric subject, it is rarely talked about openly or positively, in terms of what the relationship could be at its best. How then, can practitioners who want to take practice more seriously begin to discriminate between a good teacher and a bad one?
I personally feel that it’s important to read an abundance of opinions and see how they resonate with me. I am drawn to this quote because a teacher might indeed have to be unpleasant and scolding at times in order for us to see our inner process reflected more clearly. The teacher should not reward conditioned behaviors that keep us feeling smaller than we truly are!
Coming to the practice with very little idea of what it is for and wanting mostly just to feel better somehow, we tend to want flattery more than anything else. We believe that if the teacher invites us to have dinner, that must mean we are excelling on the path, when in fact we are likely just playing the same ego games we have our whole lives, seeking approval from others and giving up our own sense of inquiry and responsibility.
I am not suggesting that a teacher cannot be a profound kind of friend or implying that teachers have full license to be mean just for the sake of it! This quote leaves it up to us to decide whether we are changing or not, and if so whether it’s for better or worse. When we feel a teacher is having a poisonous effect without overriding redeeming value, there is no virtue in sticking around and torturing ourselves, which in the end is another way of making ourselves small.
It can be very confusing to tell whether a teacher is worthy of our trust or not, but in my case, my guts are usually shouting loudly, and it actually takes a lot of my energy for me to ignore or act against them. We ultimately know whether what the teacher says makes sense for us or not and can learn to take what is valuable and leave what is harmful. Certain authoritarians might argue that this is self-indulgence or taking it easy, but I feel this is a starting place for developing discriminating awareness (the goal of yoga practices in the Ashtanga tradition).
We know whether we feel ashamed because we’ve been found out (and agree that we have stumbled upon something that want to work on) or whether we are simply being abused. (With time and practice, I feel a little less shame and can have a bit more sense of humor when I get caught identifying strongly with whatever ridiculous ego clinging pattern!) If we have teachers whom we do trust, we might ponder our interactions with them deeply to examine what they may have been pointing towards and consider how we intend to investigate that further.
Unfortunately, we hear language that requires us to either obey unconditionally or rebel continuously, when in fact, it would be a rare case where either of those solutions would be expedient. Teachers are usually not 100% perfect, and we can still benefit from associating with them as long as we accept this and practice becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable space of not knowing how any given scenario will play out. In fact, as in any relationship, every moment changes. We need to stay alert and pay attention to what is happening now in order to experience that being in front of us fully. A real teacher will always be prodding us gently to stay on our toes in just this way.