I feel immense gratitude for the spiritual traditions that I have connected with – for the paths that I am now walking. They have and continue to provide a sense of direction, comfort, insight and challenge that has benefited me in countless ways. Over time, the feelings of clarity, joy and confidence within me have grown and deepened: a really good thing!
Yet a spiritual path would not be a spiritual path were it not for the profound challenges – dangers, even – that arise also, particularly as we begin to confront previously-unseen aspects of ourselves: those shadowy places that ultimately must be transformed, if we are to reap the sweetest fruits of our chosen tradition. It is for this reason that spiritual community – and in particular a spiritual teacher – is important. So whether your inclination is primarily mystical – an intuitive, solitary approach to practice – or more externally interactive and community-oriented, I recommend being open to receiving the guidance of an authentic Teacher, and being genuinely grateful when this happens.
Support along a spiritual path can come in various forms. One form is that of the spiritual friend – someone who is simply further along than you are, on your chosen path. If this is your first taiji class, perhaps they’ve been at it for three months. If you have three years of experience with the Microcosmic Orbit Inner Alchemy practice, perhaps they’ve been exploring it for three decades.
Spiritual friends are those people who can help us learn the basics of a practice form. They’re people with whom we can share our experiences, and concerns – and who can answer questions and offer advice, based upon their own experience. Most frequently, they are simply fellow practitioners – members of the same community that we have chosen to participate in. They are our spiritual “brothers and sisters,” and an important part of our support network, especially when we’re new to a path of practice.
Bona Fide Teachers
As a practitioner gains a certain proficiency in the forms of a spiritual path, they may feel inspired to offer what they have learned to others, in a more formal way – to become a teacher. Teachers have assumed the responsibility not only to deepen their own practice, but also to support others along the path. It was, perhaps, by taking a class from a teacher that you first were introduced to your practice-path.
A teacher, of course, can be a great source of support. The relationship may feel a bit more formal than the relationship with your spiritual friends. It also, paradoxically, may feel more intimate – particularly if the teacher is able to see more clearly than you can, the places that you are stuck. Be willing to ask for and hear your teacher’s advice, while at the same time honoring your own intuition and comfort around what s/he suggests – this is the dance!
A Spiritual Master is someone who has realized the deepest truths, reached the highest levels of attainment, and now embodies the essence of their path of practice. While they may - for their own enjoyment or the benefit of others – continue to practice the various forms of their tradition, they have no need to do so. Their primary purpose now – each in their own unique way - is to be a guide for others.
A Spiritual Master is able to offer support not only physically (i.e. showing us how to practice a certain form) but also through transmissions that happen at the level of the energy-bodies and the Mind. In other words, they are able to transmit not only the external but also the internal “form” or experience of the practice to us – which is possible because they have transcended the dualistic perception of separate selves.
An authentic Spiritual Master is a rare and precious treasure, and should be honored as such! How we go about finding and recognizing such a Being is a rather complex and mysterious issue. What the scriptures tell us is that “when the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”
The Ultimate Guru – Our Own Wisdom Heart/Mind
However sublime our spiritual friends, teachers and Masters may be, they are useful to us – in the deepest sense - only to the extent that they can point us in the direction of the ultimate guru who resides in the core of our very own heart/mind. All true Teachers lead us to an encounter with this “teacher-within” – with our own Wisdom-Mind, our own Body-of-Truth, our own Primordial Goodness.
As we begin to get a taste of our True Nature, of who we are at the deepest level of our Being, our capacity to benefit deeply from the instructions and Presence of our Teachers actually increases: another one of those delicious paradoxes. As we step into our own Mastery, the perceived difference between our selves and our Spiritual Masters dissolves. At this level of attunement, we simply vibrate together in/as a spacious Bliss and Clarity. We have completed the path, and can now offer service to others …
Self-Awareness Is Everything
Central to walking a spiritual path with intelligence is having a sense of where one is along the path. This will determine, for one, how much we need to rely upon our spiritual friends, teachers, and/or Masters. If we’re able, right away, to connect directly with the Wisdom-Mind in the core of our Heart, and be stable in this connection – no need for any of the rest.
For most of us, however, the process is more gradual, and we really do need the advice and support of the kind outlined above – and would be foolish to refuse it. So with a clear mind (and perhaps the help of our teachers and friends) we evaluate our position along our chosen path, and from that place gather the resources that we need, and then do our best to progress – at each step enjoying the process.
Opening The Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard by Chen Kaiguo & Zheng Shunchao (translated by Thomas Cleary), offers a fascinating and inspiring glimpse of a traditional Taoist apprenticeship.