“No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.” – Hunter S. Thompson
I spent quite a few years following various spiritual guides. Some of them totally inspired and helped me, but I can certainly say that a few others were the worst type of douche bags I’ve ever met.
I didn’t get hurt by fake gurus but many truth seekers around me weren’t that lucky. They got fooled and often abused, then they dumped the baby with the bathwater: they totally abandoned spirituality.
It’s not that hard to spot a spiritual con artist, as long as you don’t abandon your common sense: that’s the meaning of this article. I hope it helps you pick a real guide in nowadays’ plethoric offering. Please add your own experience below if you’d like to share and help this blogs’ readers. I’ll be happy to respond.
Choosing the right guide
Discovering spirituality is a personal thing, you’ll be the one that explores this territory.
However, since it’s a long journey, and since one can easily get lost on the way, it’s safer to get help. That’s what spiritual guides are for.
A guide is not going to walk the path for you, but he’ll help you find your way. Ideally, he is very experienced in the spirituality that he teaches, he knows a lot about it in theory and in practice. He covered the path long before you did. Since he knows that path very well, he qualifies as a guide or spiritual master.
For obvious reasons, it’s crucial to choose a spiritual master carefully, you want to do it before you commit!
The following will give helpful criteria to find a good spiritual guide and filter out charlatans.
Spiritual guides’ Quality Assurance list
Here’s what an authentic guide should comply with:
He’s not in it for the money
Genuine spiritual masters don’t provide guidance to get rich. They offer their help to the people who need it. Period. A lot of teachers will charge for their classes, simply because they need to support themselves or the organization they belong to, that’s OK, but make sure they don’t filter out people who can’t afford their teachings. And generally make sure their talks and seminars are affordable.
Also, if you see them in expensive resorts, wearing designers clothes and if only the very rich get access to them, be careful.
No matter what his tradition, a master will try his best to offer his help to whoever needs it.
Don’t worry, there are honest guides around, even though they’re not necessarily famous.
He applies what he teaches
A guide’s preferred teaching method is to show an example of good conduct. So if he’s a Buddhist master, he’ll generally show kindness and patience. The same goes for everything: how he treats people, his wife, his close disciples, so on.
If he’s an arrogant dude, you might want to stay away, not to mention if he’s angry all the time.
If he uses disputable strategies to protect his interests, even if he claims that it’s for a good cause, just stay away.
The well known argument that a master can afford to behave like an asshole because he’s realized is bullshit. Another good gauge of his reliability is to see how he treats people who took their distances from him. If he treats well people who left his spiritual movement, that’s a pretty good gauge that he’s fair and honest.
He takes you where you are
A qualified master sees where you are on the path and will give you just what you need to go a step further. He won’t give you advanced instructions if you are a beginner, even if you think you qualify for them. He won’t get impatient if you are a slow learner either, he’s there for you, and he will support you so that you can progress at your own pace.
It usually takes a while before you can assess a master’s teaching abilities (after all, you would have to be a master yourself to know what he’s doing). However, you’ll usually see that he has helped you by the progress you’ve made.
He can be challenged
Try and challenge him, just for the hell of it. Even if you’re not sure what you’re talking about, try and express clearly an opinion that doesn’t match with his. Insist, once again, especially if you DO have a different opinion.
How does he react? If he goes berserk (or runs amok if he’s Asian), you can safely pack up and leave that schmuck. Genuine guides don’t have an itchy ego, ideally they don’t have much of an ego at all.
They don’t care if you challenge them, at the most they will try to help you understand. If you’re really stubborn, they’ll let time open your eyes.
He does not get involved in worldly affairs
Genuine spiritual guides don’t mingle with politics. Religion and politics are not compatible, some spiritual models paid a high price for not compromising with that rule (c.f. Jesus Christ).
This distance towards politics will be a like guarantee for you that the person you are following is not bound to worldly interests.
He is kind and compassionate
That’s also a common feature of all masters, they deeply care for people.
It might not always be obvious, so once again, take your time and observe carefully the person you would like to follow. If they are a genuine guide, they will often put others’ interest before theirs. Sometimes in a very discreet way.
That’s what you are after, and if you’re lucky enough to have found such a person, you can get a step closer.
The criteria aforementioned are no golden rule, they’re mere rules of thumb, so try and be flexible.
Some authentic masters can even display a very strange attitude sometimes. That’s one of the way they help their disciples reach some level of understanding.
The best approach is to observe the spiritual guide you would like to follow. Give it some time, see how he behaves.
If he really deserves your trust, he will earn it step by step, and you’ll be in safe company for your spiritual endeavors.
Related books that I liked: Jewel Ornament of Liberation – Gampopa
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – Chogyam Trungpa