When I first met my meditation teacher in 2003, I knew instantly that I wanted to study with him. I had dabbled in meditation for years before, and even studied with several other teachers. But until that point, no one else had impacted me as much as him.
Since becoming a teacher myself, I’ve developed an even better understanding of what it means to have an effective meditation teacher, or “guru” as we are sometimes called.
The term “guru” can carry a negative connotation. In India, if you come home and announce that you’ve found your guru, this is an achievement worthy of celebration. However, if this happened in America, our friends and family may assume that we’ve joined a cult.
But a guru is not a cult leader. He or she is simply a teacher — usually a spiritual teacher — who specializes in teaching you a technique, such as yoga or meditation, in a way that allows you to become self-sufficient.
True gurus will not allow you to worship them, or require you to believe in them. They teach you the principles of the practice, and it’s your job to execute what you’ve learned to unlock all of the benefits.
When it comes to learning meditation, here are some criteria to consider when searching for a guru, or a teacher:
1. Are their instructions simple and straightforward?
Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Some of my previous meditation teachers used so much metaphysical language, that I often found their descriptions and instructions confusing. A true guru can break down the nuances of meditation in a way that feels easy to follow and applicable to normal life. They should also be able to provide competent answers to your questions without losing patience.
2. Do they have a daily practice of their own?
Believe it or not, there are people out there who teach meditation and yoga without having a daily practice of their own. Perhaps they’re too busy to meditate, or they don’t think they need to meditate. Irregardless, this is a big red flag.
How is the teacher going to teach you to be consistent, if they can’t even be consistent with their own practice?
3. Are they in good standing within their community?
With Yelp and Google reviews, you can get a pretty good idea of what it's like to learn how to meditate with a specific teacher. But even if there are some negative reviews, you may still want to base your final decision on your own direct experience with that teacher.
Otherwise, you allow the guy complaining on Yelp to become your guru instead.
4. Are they busy?
The best teachers are in high demand and stay fairly busy teaching. If a meditation teacher is too available, this is a sign that they may not be very effective.
5. Are they an expert at managing your expectations?
The best teachers will emphasize how the benefits of meditation will unfold gradually, over a long period of time.
They won’t sell meditation as a practice with overnight results, or as a magic bullet for any disease or ailment. Nor will they persuade you to get off of medications, or change your lifestyle dramatically in order to sustain your practice. And if you do experience fast results, a true guru won’t take any credit for it.
6. Do they require a meaningful exchange?
A true guru will require you to make a meaningful exchange in order to learn how to meditate, though it may not always be monetary.
Whether it’s taking time off of work to go on a 10-day meditation retreat, performing seva (volunteer work), or making a financial contribution, a true guru knows that you only ever get what you are willing to give.
7. Are they strict about their learning protocols?
All meditation has roots in India, which means that when learning, you may be asked to participate in a ceremony, or to keep some aspects of the teaching private, in accordance with tradition. You may also be required to observe silence while learning, or maybe you have to remove your shoes before you enter the teaching space.
Some aspects of learning may not always make sense to Western ears, and could seem unnecessary. But a good teacher won’t negotiate on the purity of their teaching just to appease your American ideals. If they do, then you’re the guru, not them.
8. Are they inspiring?
A true guru will express patience when answering your questions, as if they are hearing them for the first time. Or maybe they'll deal with a difficult student in your training group in a masterful way. You'll also find that they don’t take themselves too seriously. There's just something about them that inspires you to be a better person.
9. Do they require you to "empty your cup?"
A good teacher only gives you information if you display sufficient curiosity and a willingness to follow their instructions. They are discerning with their knowledge of meditation, and refrain from power struggles.
It’s like the Zen story of the meditation master who offered an arrogant student tea, and once the student’s cup was full the teacher kept pouring until the tea overflowed onto the table. The student yelled, “Stop pouring! Can’t you see that the cup is already full?” To which the monk replied, “This is exactly your problem, your cup is full and I won’t be able to teach you anything.”
If you approach a true guru with humility, curiosity and a sincere willingness to learn, they will gladly fill your cup with knowledge.
10. Are they happy to provide you with technical support?
Agreeing to become someone’s meditation teacher is not a weekend or week-long proposition — it’s a lifetime commitment. Your guru should be the one who provides you with ongoing support in your practice. Anyone who’s mastered meditation understands that with practice and experience, questions will arise along the way.
Without someone to provide guidance, you risk dropping off your practice, or developing bad habits. And no true guru wants that. They see you as a reflection of themselves, and would never want you out there practicing incorrectly.
11. How well do they deal with challenges?
There is no such thing as a perfect human. If your teacher lives in a body on planet Earth, they are subject to the same challenges as everyone else (parking tickets, relationships ending, etc.). The measure of a good teacher is not what happens to them, but how well they handle the ups and downs of life.
Are their responses good-natured? Do they have a healthy sense of humor? You’re not going to find anyone who is a 24/7 saint, but you do want someone relatively well-adjusted, who listens to you, and empathizes with you.
It's also important to understand that learning to meditate is a two-way street. When approaching a potential teacher, it's best to show reverence for what they teach and display plenty of curiosity. From any teacher’s standpoint, the hardest students to teach are those who think they already know everything.
Furthermore, always remain sincere in your communications with the teacher (even if you decide to learn from someone else) because you never know if you'll come back to learn with them again one day.
Photo Credit: Stocksy