The Student/Teacher Relationship
The role of the spiritual teacher or guru is to mirror and reflect the true nature of awareness. The teacher’s presence should remind the student of their own essential nature. It is the love for the guru and the freedom that he/she represents, that triggers the unfolding of the spiritual journey.
The whole of the success and validity of the relationship depends on who the teachers and who the students are, and on what each of them is willing to bring to the relationship.
It is the warm, open love for the teacher, and the freedom that he/she represents, that triggers the spiritual unfolding. This love enables the student to undergo the onslaught to the ego that is the work of the spiritual journey. Initially, there may be difficulty, as the neurosis of the ego is heightened. The ego needs to be seen in order to be purified. In these moments, the student comes to see the places that are closed to love and those places that crave it. They learn to see the nature of their defenses that arose due to early wounding.
It is the unconditional loving regard of the teacher, characterized by the qualities of mutual recognition, equity, respect, honesty, vulnerability, curiosity, openness and trust, that fosters the best possible growth.
Common Difficulties in the Relationship
One of the difficulties students experience in the student/teacher relationship is the projection onto the teacher of their parent or authority figure who was responsible for their early wounding.
In this case, students may unconsciously engage in the projection by trying to please or seduce the teacher, or alternately, by rebelling against them. This because deep down, they don’t believe that they are lovable just as they are.
Initially they may project the good parent onto the teacher, and if the teacher disappoints them, they may see the teacher as manipulative or abusive. The judging mind can unconsciously create splitting defenses by flipping between what it likes and does not like.
Another issue that may arise is the confusion between submission to a teacher and surrender to a teaching. Submission is the response of an ego that feels a lack of self-worth. It operates from a place of weakness and fear, and depends on the teacher for its sense of self-worth. Surrender on the other hand, involves allowing oneself to be really seen with all the frailties of being human. It is important for the student to be aware of the fact that it is they who grants permission to the teacher to act as an authority on their behalf.
Naturally it is hoped that the student has a strong enough sense of self to be aware of what it is that they want in a teacher. When a person does not have the inner strength of a well-grounded psyche, and embarks on spiritual work, there is a tendency towards spiritual bypassing.
Therefore, there needs to be work on both the psyche and the spirit in order for true spiritual expansion to happen. It is a healthy ego structure that can support the deconstruction of the false ego self without further defensive splitting taking place.
Ideally the student should not idealize the teacher, as idealization constricts the energy. The work is best engaged in a spirit of curiosity, innocence, humility and wonder, allowing for the primordial terrors that often surface as part of the process. Work should be able to contain the student’s feelings of being stuck, resistant, righteous, struggling over power and judgment, with the recognition that these are part of the process. It is in being truly seen, that we heal.
Healthy Student/ Teacher or Guru relationships.
The relationship between student and teacher is an important “crucible of learning”. The crucible should be one of mutual recognition and equity that also embodies the qualities of respect, honesty, vulnerability, curiosity, openness, and trust. This allows the intimacy of the relationship to foster the best possible growth. The relationship that is created should be one that enables both the student and the teacher to come together in a way that allows them both to go beyond perception, projections, and transference.
Because spiritual work involves leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar, adherence to taboos against murder, stealing, lying and abuse of any kind are imperative in order to maintain a relationship of trust and safety.
A good teacher should have the ability to lead by example, and the capacity to admit it when making mistakes. The teacher’s purpose is to enhance the training of the student with appropriate commentary, offer knowledge and wisdom, and ultimately, through love, teach the student to fall in love with the Ultimate Reality.
A student should be able to test a teacher in order to ascertain whether they feel the teacher is right for them. It is also imperative that the student be able to recognize when it is time to leave the teacher. A good teacher never creates dependency, as the teaching should be about freedom. When students are ready to be individuated away from the teacher, they should be able to reflect upon the teachings with gratitude, track their growth through the process, have awareness of the places they had been most challenged, and make reparations to themselves and others for anything that still needs to be mended.
Unhealthy or False Teachers/Gurus
Teachers who are not still working on their own development tend to maintain the dynamic of the parent/child projection. Unhealthy teachers are unconsciously serving their own ego gratification and narcissistic needs and often have power issues. They prey on the vulnerability of their students and are consequently destructive both to themselves and their students.
Warning signs that the relationship is unhealthy:
- The teacher/guru or upper hierarchy inner circle of the group mislead the student about the group’s purpose.
- The teacher/guru or upper hierarchy inner circle of the group denigrate the student’s interpretations and do not allow dissent.
- Students are fed the idea that if they don’t follow group rules or ideas they might “miss out” on some deep inner secret or promise of Enlightenment…..or miss a great opportunity “in this lifetime.”
- Students are segregated within the community
- Students are isolated from society. Isolation removes a person from their normal reference points and puts them in an environment that is controlled by the group.
- Students are deprived of sleep and protein
- In unhealthy groups, students are subjected to peer pressure and reinforcement to group norms and behaviors are stressed.
- Fear and guilt are used as manipulative tools to get a student to adhere to the group ideals. Students who find themselves in this environment are often coming from a deep neediness for external validation and are easily manipulated and brainwashed.
Questions for Students to ask themselves:
What drew me to the group in the first place?
Was I in transition or feeling emotionally lost when I joined the group?
Did I hope someone would give me something that I felt I did not have?
Did I engage in deification of the teacher seeing them as ‘more than human’ or super spiritually accomplished?
Did I have an unconscious desire to be ‘special’?
Was I promised Enlightenment or some deep inner secret knowledge and that I would miss out on if I don’t follow group norms and rules?
Was I told not to trust my intuition?
Was I denigrated for being “in my ego”?
Was I allowed access to the teacher. Or did I have to build up to that privilege by performing certain tasks?
Did I feel seen, heard and acknowledged?
Was it deemed ok just to human?
Was I told to separate from society and my family because they would hold me back?
Was the teacher or the group sexually, physically or emotionally abusive?
Were my movements monitored?
Was I allowed to work, travel and move about freely in the outside world?
Was I told what or what not to eat, read, follow group exercises against my better judgement?
Did I crave the acceptance of the group?
Was I running away from something in my life?