Daily Archives: November 8, 2006

Spiritual teachers, and who they are.


Edit: The person meant something different, based on thinking I meant something different, and so forth, but I’m leaving this post anyway since it may be useful.

In someone’s response to my post on spirituality (on another blog), they seemed to get the impression that I did not believe in spiritual teachers or mentors. I guess I hadn’t mentioned any (or not explicitly), and had mentioned some people who tried and failed to fall into that category. But actually I do believe such people exist. The trouble is that far more people are trying to sound like such people, than actually are.

This is not to say that a person cannot learn a lot from people who are trying to sound like such people and aren’t. There’s a lot to be said for learning what not to do. But as far as directly learning positive things from people, that’s something different.

I’ve personally never had a spiritual teacher who had a title in that area. I know some exist, but I’ve never met one who had the word reverend, swami, guru, rabbi, lama, etc, around their name. Nor have I met one who is a transpersonal therapist, or for that matter a therapist at all. Nor have I met one who traveled the world giving seminars on spirituality, or who sold tons of books on the topic, or who advertised themselves in general (or were advertised in general) as a very spiritually evolved person, or who was heavily involved in new age pseudo-spirituality. I’ve rarely met one who spoke in any way stereotypical of such people.

This is not to say I’ve never had one, even many.

Within the branch of Quakerism I practice (Quakerism itself, for reference, being a branch of Christianity dating back to the Protestant Reformation, but often distancing itself from other Protestants), there’s a belief that anyone can be called to ministry, not just one person who is picked as a minister. This means that on worship days, you go to the meetinghouse, and you sit silently with everyone else and pray. If someone believes they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak, they do. If not, they keep silent. Some meetings can go without anyone saying anything.

There’s always the question, of course, about how much of what is being said comes from people’s egos, and emotions, and all kinds of other stuff like that. One of the purposes of doing such a thing in a group, is so that kind of thing can be hashed out. That depends often on the composition of the group though, whether that happens, and how often that happens. In a group that’s going off track, Quaker meeting for worship can sound like a bad group therapy session. And given that many people join Quakerism more for its reputation for political activism than for its religion, and given the immense class and race privilege of many Quakers, that can happen sometimes. The clerk of the meeting I used to attend and am still a member of, used to remind everyone, “Remember, Quakers are officially called the Religious Society of Friends, not The Loose Confederation of Political Activists.”

But what it means when things are going right, is that the real wisdom tends to be amplified and the ego stuff tends to fall to the side. That means that all sorts of ordinary people who happen to go to meeting, can end up serving as spiritual teachers. Although, also in well-running meetings, it’s emphasized not to exalt the person for saying whatever they have said, but rather to exalt God for allowing the person the ability to perceive what to say.

Which means I have learned a lot from a lot of total strangers who happened to attend Quaker meetings, who I don’t always even know well enough to tell apart, but who said things that were important for me to hear at the time.

The spiritual teachers that I’ve actually known personally, have tended to likewise be ordinary people, and specifically not people seeking a position of power or fame for their religious beliefs, and specifically people who were adamant that confusing them with God in any way was a Bad Idea. None of them filled rooms, and none of them had a glow around them (and most of them, like me, took steps to avoid people who did do that). None of them were particularly fluffy, all of them were down-to-earth people whose spirituality was incredibly practical and based primarily in the real world. None of them encouraged me not to think for myself, or to take their word for things without evidence. None of them guaranteed I’d find everything they had to say comfortable. And I learned a lot from them, too.

And of course, in a somewhat different sense, all people can be learned from spiritually, just like all aspects of reality can, if you know where to look. But as far as people who directly spoke to me about spiritual matters, I have in fact had spiritual teachers, but they have rarely been the sort of person anyone would expect.