You Are Your (Own) Spiritual Teacher

Updated: Apr 6

A tautology says the same thing twice in different words, like the title of this piece. You Are Your (Own) Spiritual Teacher. In writing, it is generally considered a stylistic fault. As a writer, it's a no-no. There, I've done it again. However, in certain circumstances, a tautology may be used for emphasis.

Here, I want to emphasize this essential principle of CloudMeditation. It is one we'll likely revisit from time to time, from many different angles. Today, I'll offer three points to consider.

My first is, ultimately, spiritual practice is a solo flight. While we certainly have commonalities as human beings, each soul is on a unique spiritual path.

Spiritual practice is about big stuff--"To Be, or Not To Be"--Hamlet contemplates the pain and weariness of life (Act 3, Scene 1). He considers suicide and death. Religions and spiritual practice are all about this big stuff.

A spiritual practice also requires us to contemplate how we live a "good" life. I mean this in the context of Aristotle's Ethics: Some knowledge of "good" is innate in human beings. How to discern and attain the highest good, a beautiful life, is learned through contemplation and application, and trial and error—all individual efforts.

Part of the process is to look for good examples, seek good instruction, benefit from another's experience. But, it's our sole responsibility to do the work. The product of the work is our character, the spiritual qualities of our soul. How well we fly solo through the unpredictable changing weather of life and death, that's a spiritual practice.

Second, before you enter into a teacher-student relationship, be alert. Take care to sharpen your awareness and wariness of hierarchies of power.

I happened to adopt a Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition as my religious framework. Zen Buddhism contains a lot of stories depicting spiritual masters and disciples. As imprimatur--a teacher's seal of approval of a disciple's spiritual attainment--the master passes his robe and begging bowl to that worthy disciple. This exchange symbolizes and recognizes the so-called mind-to-mind transmission of Zen awakening.

This Buddhist tradition is supposedly unbroken since Shakyamuni Buddha sparked a spiritual awakening in his disciple Mahākāśyapa by merely holding up a flower. The story is, the Buddha gives a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the group understands this "Flower Sermon," except Mahākāśyapa, who smiles. The mind-to-mind transmission of ineffable wisdom sent and received—loud and clear, at that instant. Buddha verbally confirms it:

"I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle [D]harma [G]ate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa."1

The scripture that contains this account was likely written a hundred or more years after the Buddha's death. Chinese and Japanese Buddhism has loads of Master-Disciple transmission stories. It's lovely stuff to read. It indulges one's fantasy a bit. But, it has been pretty well researched that many of these stories are just stories. They may be didactic efforts, teaching tools. Most, if not all, written into the tradition well after these persons might have existed.

There is some considerable opinion that these stories' purpose was to establish lineage. Lineage, the longer, the better, is one foundation of a power hierarchy. Ancients had their shamans, India its gurus, Tibet its lamas, Islam imams, Christianity its papal line, and prominent priests and saints.

Good healthy power hierarchies are useful in that they structure a stable and consistent order. Law enforcement, mayors and city councils, church boards and denominational synods, parents and children within the family, teachers, and students; all, when healthy, are generally useful power hierarchies.

Unhealthy ones can be merely bad, to awful, to destructive. I'm familiar with a fair number of religious scandals in 20th and 21st century America. Autocratic leaders lord over their congregations. Corrupt clergy misappropriate congregational funds. Inappropriate sexual advances and relationships are sadly too familiar.

Congregational members can cause problems, too. Idol worship, toadying for social advantage, hunger for power, or simply not holding religious leaders to high enough ethical standards; all are destructive.

Catholicism's issues in some of these areas are well known. American Buddhist groups have suffered some, as well. Charismatic protestant organizations certainly have their share. Any one of you can likely point to a power hierarchy that has gone badly.

Good or bad? Healthy or not? It would seem clearly easy to discern. But it's not! When one has relinquished control past a certain point, it's challenging to see it, much less claw one's autonomy back!

"You Are Your (Own) Spiritual Teacher" does not preclude learning one's religious lore and practices or entering a mentoring relationship with a spiritual guide. Not at all. We are saying that ultimately you are in control. Discerning the goodness or the badness is your responsibility, and no one else's.

Like so much in life, it depends on one's immediate circumstances. A good experience can be excellent, but a lousy experience might even be more helpful if one can discern the difference.

It's the same with teachers. Good teachers are great, but they can be harmful if the relationship turns into dependence and idol worship. I was close to an outstanding teacher once—in the craft sense of extraordinary. He was extremely knowledgeable, charismatic, funny, entertaining, and compelling. He attracted followers. Our group grew swiftly.

He was also—shall we say—a person of questionable character and an egotist. These traits led to unethical acts that imploded our nascent meditation group. More sadly, he left a delightful bunch of people emotionally damaged and mistrustful in his wake.

Thankfully, I was mature. I had some experience with life. I am self-directed, self-educating. I did not give too much of myself over to this teacher. Still, it was all tough to process—it took some time. Now I look back and still feel a bit of justified anger toward him and sorrow for him. I also bless this teacher for the value of the negative lessons he afforded me. 25 years later, they continue to serve me very well.

My third point is how you recognize the "Real Deals." In the spiritual traditions that I know best, Buddhism and various forms of Christianity, the "Real Deals" reveal themselves similarly. I suspect it's much the same in Judaism or Islam. Whatever "IT" they've experienced rings spiritually true and transcendent. Wait, how do I discern those qualities? First, study them and their spiritual expression. Second, take that knowledge deep into yourself, meditate on it, or pray on it. Three, listen for and heed whatever your "little bell," "inner voice," "gut feeling," each one of us has some version of "spidey-sense."

Let's dig in a bit. First, gain some knowledge. Read about these folks. Absorb what they have said, written, and done. Compare their expressions of the ineffable with others who are considered to have had deep spiritual experiences.

Even when these folks have developed within a hierarchy, common among them is a divergence, a peeling away, a unique experience, a unique expression. They are soloists, sometimes to their detriment. Sometimes they are shunned or regarded as nutty. Sometimes, there is persecution, prosecution, and execution for heresy.

Shakyamuni, Shinran, or Dogen, St. Teresa and St.Francis and St. Benedict, Meister Eckhart; all are fine examples. There are many more in and outside established hierarchies. They are people to study and to study with if one had the opportunity. They are not the be-all and end-all of spiritual practice. We discern what is useful or not. We fold the best into our unique way. It's the same with living teachers, mentors, counselors, parents. We retain what we deem useful and set the rest aside.

Meditate, or pray, on what you have gleaned. Sit with it all. Seek what rings spiritually valid and transcendent, for as long as it takes. The cliche "still small voice" will validate or not. Listen!

To conclude: You are on your way. I'm on mine. In this instant, our paths intersect. We proceed along side by side for a while. You may learn something from me. I will surely learn something from you. We might be called a teacher and student, but we might be called a student and teacher. It's a fluid, changeable, but ultimately a spiritually equal relationship.

Well experienced educators tell me that they don't teach their students much of anything. The hierarchy is one of age, knowledge, and experience. They facilitate. They guide. They help their students stay on track, sweep the clutter off the path. But, the students teach themselves.

Here, at CloudMeditation, we say we mentor, coach, or teacher. Regardless of age, knowledge, and experience, we are all students wherever we are on our spiritual path. Everything along the way is a tool. Everyone is an aide. Ultimately, You Are Your (Own) Teacher.

Vignan Bharaiv(a) Tantra techniques #32 & #34:

#32: "See as if for the first time a beauteous person or an ordinary object."2

(Alternative translation)

"In this way, successfully, wherever there is mindfulness on whether void, on a wall, or on some excellent person, that mindfulness is absorbed by itself in the supreme and offers the highest benefaction."3


"Similarly, by gradually focussing one's attention on anything, whether on space, or a wall, or a great person, one is completely absorbed into the Supreme Reality."4

#34: "Listen while the ultimate mystical teaching is imparted. Eyes still, without blinking, at once, become absolutely free."5

(Alternative translation)

"Fixing one's attention on the interior of the cranium seated with eyes closed, with the stability of the mind, one gradually discerns, which is most eminently discernible."6


"Seated with eyes closed, fix one's attention inside the skulL From firmness in concentration, one will gradually perceive the Supreme Reality."7

Don't overcomplicate the overcomplicated instruction of these techniques. Our purpose here is to discern the "Real Deal" or determine how we might benefit from something or someone lesser.

For example, my Zen sect prefers to meditate, eyes open, focusing on a blank wall or screen. Does that mean that those adherents cannot meditate outside in nature or sitting in the waiting room at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Are they prohibited from closing their eyes and sitting peacefully anywhere? Of course, it doesn't.

Here--eyes open, eyes closed--refers to attitude or perspective. After absorbing what you can about a saint or spiritual adept, or perhaps a teacher you are considering, indeed, you might meditate, eyes open, on a particularly compelling picture of that individual. Observe what arises in your mind about them. Watch it all come and go. Be a neutral observer, a meticulously fair referee, when considering.

You might also consider their writing, their ideas, eyes closed, "fixing on the cranium." This merely means to focus internally on the space between your eyes. You might see nothing. You might see something. You may see moving pictures projected on this internal screen. Again, remain neutral. Observe. Consider.

As I described in an earlier post, I received a vital lesson from an audio recording by a teacher that I listened to over and over, eyes open and eyes closed.

What you are "listening" for is what your particular version of "spidey-sense," tells you. Rinse and repeat, as is said. Do it again and again along the path with this person. Check, check, and recheck, and You Will Be Your (Own) Very Good Spiritual Teacher.

1 Heinrich Dumoulin (2005). Zen Buddhism: a history. p. 9. ISBN 0-941532-89-5.

2,5 Rajneesh, Osho (2010). The Book of Secrets: 112 Meditations to Discover the Mystery Within. Osho, 1931-1990. (1st updated and rev. U.S. ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312650605.

3, 6 Singh, Jaideva. Vijnanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: A Treasury of 112 types of Yoga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

4,7 Chaudhri, Ranjit. Vigyan Bharaiva Tantra: 112 Meditations For Self Realization. New Delhi: Prakash Books, 2008.

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