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15 Questions to Ask Before Seeing a Guru

by Ian MacKenzie Jan 28, 2010
Ian MacKenzie shares his thoughts on finding authentic spiritual teachers, and how to tell the holy from the hubris.

Some years ago, I had a discussion with my friend over the value of spiritual literature. I had offered her a particular book (okay, I’ll be honest, it was The Celestine Prophecy) with the wish that she find some sort of insight into her own life.

Months passed. When I asked her about the book again, she confessed to tucking it into a drawer and promptly forgetting about it. After pressing her further, it was clear she had an aversion to even attempting to the read the book.

Granted, the Celestine Prophecy has its flaws. In fact, I can’t remember ever reading a novel where so many characters stared at each other “intensely.” But the narrative does contain an overall message that many around the world have found beneficial – the idea that there is more to life than what we tend to see with our eyes.

When I explained this to my friend, she remained unconvinced. “Why do I need to read about someone else’s version of spirituality?” she asked. “Why can’t I just find out for myself?”

I considered her question. “It’s true, you could do it yourself,” I replied. “But think about it this way: if you were about to head into an unknown jungle, wouldn’t you like to have a map?”

Union With The Divine

At the time, we were only speaking of spiritual literature, yet I feel the metaphor extends all the way back to the spiritual teachers… or as some call them: gurus.

The word guru tends to evoke mixed feelings in most people. You might conjure images of Indian sages who preach non-attachment on the hand, while using the other to pick the pocket of their devotees.

But to understand the true meaning of guru, you must first look to the Yogic system of beliefs, succinctly described by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love:

Yoga is the effort to experience one’s divinity personally and then to hold on to that experience forever. Yoga is about self-mastery and the dedicated effort to haul yourself [to] a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise. Only from that point of even-mindedness will the true nature of the world (and yourself) be revealed to you.

In this case, yoga can be swapped with any belief system that offers the tools and motivation to turn inward. To return to the question of my friend: of course you’re free to stumble about life on your own, making mistakes (and hopefully learning from them), until finally you arrive at the same place.

But often this stumbling causes much unneeded suffering to yourself and others. To use the same metaphor, it’s like trying to hack your own trail through the jungle again and again. Authentic spiritual literature can save us valuable time to practice self-inquiry much more effectively.

Finding A Guru

Fortunately, books can only bring us so far…which brings us to gurus. Elizabeth Gilbert offers her eloquent description:

A great Yogi is anyone who has achieved the permanent state of enlightened bliss. A Guru is a great Yogi who can actually pass that state on to others. The word Guru is composed of two Sanskrit syllables. The first means “darkness,” the second means “light.” Out of the darkness and into the light. What passes from the master into the disciple is something called mantravirya: “The potency of the enlightened consciousness.” You come to your Guru, then, not only to receive lessons, as from any teacher, but to actually receive the Guru’s state of grace.”

I’m sure you’ve experienced the presence of a graceful being at least once. They may not consider themselves gurus, but they appear to attract people to their calm; their inner peace permeates the air around them.

Now imagine this presence offering you the guidance and wisdom to understand your own mind and self. If a book can quicken your path to enlightenment, the right guru can light a fire under your chakra.

So let’s say you agree with me on the value of having a relatively enlightened spiritual guide. How to actually find a guru that fits your heart?

If you take a stroll down the nearest big box book store, you’ll quickly drown under the warm smiles of “gurus” of every size, shade, and style. They’ll offer you spiritual laws of success, how to find the perfect love, how to attract a massive bank account, and how to banish suffering (along with those extra pounds on your hips).

In truth, offering enlightenment is big business. With the rising amount of people beginning to awaken from their slumber, many teachers fill the demand with their specific brand of spirituality.

How can you tell the holy from the hubris?

There’s no real guideline for how to discern the right guru for you. In fact, it may require much trial and error, along with intuition and insight.

15 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Choosing A Guru

With the help of my friend and Taoist teacher Casey, I’ve compiled 15 questions to ask yourself as you navigate the guru gauntlet. I’ve used the word “teacher” in place of guru, just to give the label a rest. Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Does the teacher ask you for money before he/she offers their teaching?
  2. Does the teacher believe in absolute certainty?
  3. Does the teacher encourage you to think for yourself?
  4. Does the teacher pose problems that only he/she can answer?
  5. Does the teacher focus primarily on ideas without action?
  6. Does the teacher make you laugh or smile?
  7. Does the teacher laugh at themselves?
  8. Does the teacher encourage you to talk to other teachers?
  9. Is the teacher in good spirit and health?
  10. Does the teacher mix physical, spiritual and mental techniques to help a student grow in a balanced manner?
  11. Is the teacher just following mass media or mass market trends?
  12. Does the teacher try to use complex language, other terms or jargon to hide what they don’t know?
  13. Do you like the other students?
  14. Does the teacher break their own system (make exceptions for themselves relative to their own rules of conduct)?
  15. Does the teacher show the unexpected?

To reiterate: do you need to find yourself a guru? Of course not. You’re free to experience existence on your own, discerning your own lessons from your experience.

On the flip side, there is a very real danger of becoming dependent on the guru for their presence, wisdom, and clarity. In this way, the relationship can mirror an addiction and in fact, become an obstruction in your spiritual path. An authentic teacher should merely lead you back to yourself, to realize truth on your own terms.

There’s a Zen saying: If you meet the Buddha on the road…kill him.

But that’s a topic for another article.

What do you think about choosing a guru? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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