Each year many of us make a New Year’s resolution – a resolution to accomplish certain goals that are important to us. Undoubtedly, some of you have designated 2006 as the year for greater spiritual unfoldment. In other words, you plan to set aside more time this year for introspective reflection: meditation, contemplation, mantra, yoga or other forms of spiritual exercises. Your resolution might include attending spiritual seminars and retreats in exotic parts of the world, or just practicing quietly in the comfort of your home. More significantly, you may have made a resolution, for the first time in your life, to take the monumental step of finding a path to God that is right for you.
The first logical step to learning anything new is to find someone who already knows how to do it, and enroll as an apprentice. As children, our parents enrolled us in school to learn from teachers who were already comfortable with the alphabets, multiplication tables and the conjugation of verbs and other facets of the English language. As adults, we enrolled in the university to learn from more teachers, each specializing in a distinct discipline or subject. And while in the workforce, we continue to take seminars from professionals (teachers) who have expertise in their unique areas of endeavor. Many aspiring entrepreneurs make considerable investments in weekend business seminars, in hopes of duplicating the accomplishment of the facilitators – business people who are usually well accomplished in their field.
Take a moment and reflect on the many teachers who have shaped your life. Can you recollect how many teachers that have taught you since kindergarten? When you add to your list "informal" teachers, as well, you realize that we do learn from a lot of teachers in a lifetime.
Isn’t it a bit surprising that when some new seekers embark on a spiritual journey, this most important and logical progression to mastery is suddenly overlooked? Instead of finding a teacher, some seekers stubbornly struggle alone, for they don’t want to have anyone come between them and God. They didn’t seem to mind someone coming between them and the alphabet, the multiplication table, algebra, calculus, physics, or while attending business school, engineering school, medical school or law school.
By avoiding a spiritual teacher, unnecessary difficulties can arise and meaningful progress forfeited. The first step is to find a teacher – a spiritual teacher, guide or master – and find the best teacher within the spiritual tradition in which you are interested.
To find a spiritual teacher or guide, we must have the desire. It is said that once you begin to look for a spiritual teacher, that teacher immediately starts approaching you. A teacher can save you a lot of mistakes and will be able to answer questions that may be puzzling for you at first. If you can find a teacher who can work with you one-on-one, in a small group, or who is easily accessible, you are fortunate. I remember when I had my father as my spiritual teacher. I would bring to him seemingly complex problems – just to have him laugh at the simplicity of my dilemma. It was truly a source of relief and a blessing to have someone to approach with problems that I was unable to solve at the time.
If you cannot find a one-on-one teacher or one that teaches a small group, then consider a religion or spiritual path that has a living teacher. The emphasis should be on a "living" teacher, as opposed to a teacher who is no longer alive. It is difficult to follow or be guided by a deceased teacher.
In our modern life, we expect living experts to educate us, whether it is in the field of science, medicine or astronomy. We expect a living health specialist to attend to our health needs. We continuously turn to living human experts for help in solving problems. But for some strange reason, when it comes to spirituality, when it comes to finding God, we are eager and willing to accommodate experts who have been long dead. We figure they must have the answer. Why do we behave this way? Is it because we do not believe that we are equally blessed with living spiritual experts, as did those who lived before us? There are many advanced teachers among us today who can train and guide seekers, until such seekers gain proficiency!
After you have found a teacher whom you can trust, then follow the teacher’s instructions without allowing your "mind" to get in the way. This does not mean that you should abandon common sense. It means that you are willing to suspend what you think you know and adopt a tested method, just as you would if a billionaire was teaching you how to get rich. Having trust in your teacher is extremely important, for you cannot learn much from someone whom you don’t trust. In fact, you will not allow such a teacher to guide you for long. When you hear the phrase, "Surrender to the master," it really means, "Trust in your teacher’s ability to guide you."
In trying to find a teacher or spiritual master, many seekers take off to far corners of the world, searching for a swami or guru. This may not be necessary. A true teacher may be very close to where you live. Just have a genuine desire to find a true teacher, and that teacher will start coming closer to you. Inquire from friends about possible "good teachers," solicit opinions of members of a tradition in which you are interested, and use the internet as a resource. My book, God’s Relentless Generosities, contains more information on the subject, and includes criteria for identifying a true teacher.
To reiterate, a fundamental step to spiritual unfoldment is finding someone who has already unfolded significantly, and who is willing to teach you. May the blessings be!