I posted this on the Huffington Post blog last week but wanted to cross post it here. I wrote this originally as a piece on finding a meditation teacher, but have since realized that it applies to finding any mental health or spiritual counselor. Hope it helps!
Yogi Berra succinctly pointed out, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else,” and this applies as much to finding a meditation teacher as it does to foreign travel.
If you are a newcomer to meditation, the prospect of sorting through dozens of studios, retreats, course offerings, books, magazines, apps and podcasts may seem overwhelming. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few basic questions to help you find the right teacher – whether in person, in a book or on the web.
First, a little background: the type of meditation that is currently surging in popularity in the United States is commonly referred to as mindfulness meditation, or just mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhist practices and philosophy, but many teachers now offer it in a secular context, and their teachings incorporate a growing body of scientific research on the mechanisms and benefits of the practice.
You can learn the basics of mindfulness meditation the old fashioned way at one of several Buddhist centers, or you can learn in a more secular environment. The Buddhist centers generally fall into one of three traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, each with its own style and flavor. If you choose the secular approach, you will find a wide variety of courses, regular classes, and apps that share the basics aspects of the practice.
While it is helpful to find a setting that feels comfortable for you, finding a great teacher is also essential. The best way to find a teacher and approach that clicks for you is to try them out. However, I have found in my own explorations that I can spot a great teacher much more easily if I keep a few simple questions in mind. I’ve come to these after sitting with, listening to, and reading from dozens of teachers through over 1,000 hours of meditation practice in both secular and Buddhist settings. I hope they are as helpful for you as they have been for me.
How did you hear about the teacher?
Trust matters. The recommendation of a friend, family member, colleague, or publication is a good place to start, especially if the recommendation comes from someone’s own personal experience.
Knowing that a friend has tried something out and liked it can save you a lot of time perusing and speculating. It may also create a sense of ease and safety that will help you be more receptive to the teachings right from the start.
Is the teacher transparent about money?
Yes. Money. That sticky subject that comes up everywhere, even in places where we are getting in touch with our unblemished cosmic goodness. We all need to eat; we all need to stay warm and dry; we all need access to doctors. Some teachers find that they are more comfortable with donations, while others are more comfortable with fixed prices. I’ve found this distinction to be less important than whether or not a teacher is transparent about their relationship with money. Is he or she willing to talk about how they live, and to discuss their own explorations and findings around money issues?
Can you relate to your teacher as a fellow human being?
Sometimes it is tempting to see teachers as exalted figures or mythical gurus who have transcended the shortcomings of their human bodies and minds. The trouble is that this can lead to a few traps. We might believe that we, as ordinary human beings, are incapable of doing what they have done, or we may find ourselves wanting them to share their superpowers with us and lift us beyond the difficulties of our lives (and you can imagine where that leads).
As a human being with real, human problems, I have found it is important to learn from people who have struggled just like I have and who are open about it. I connect the best with teachers who share honestly about the difficulties that brought them to the practice the teachers who helped them along the way, and the challenges they continue to face in their life and practice.. Meditation guides us to explore and accept the messy, difficult, and vulnerable parts of our human lives. A great teacher leads by example.
Does the teacher push you to adopt a set of beliefs, or do they invite you to explore the practices and make your own discoveries?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” is a good way to start a war, but not necessarily the most effective way to teach. Truth, by its very nature, is self-evident. An inexperienced teacher will tell you what you will see, repeating inherited wisdom. An experienced teacher will show you how to see clearly, so that you can discover the truth through your own eyes. It’s the difference between telling someone how great it is to swim, and actually taking them in the water with you.
Does the teacher make you feel good about your efforts, or bad about what you are not doing?
From my days of tee-ball to my current efforts as a meditator, teacher, and writer, I’ve found that I do better when I’m being encouraged, rather than criticized. This is also one of the key principals of mindfulness. In both Buddhist and secular forms of mindfulness, one learns a positive, open receptivity deepens our capacity for awareness and presence. A great deal of scientific research now says the same.
Does the teacher embody the practice?
Mindfulness, at its heart, is about cultivating a positive, relaxed, non-judgmental awareness and living from that place. It is easier than one might think to tell if someone is enlightened or on the way there, because, as Forrest Gump might say, enlightened is as enlightened does. If your teacher is positive, patient, and relaxed through stressful chaotic moments, it is a good sign that they’ve internalized the teachings. If your teacher speaks carefully and avoids judgment and criticism, it’s another good sign. Having a community of friends, and loving one’s family members – even at a distance – are also good signs. Ditto for treating students with patience and respect. If you notice them barking orders at the Starbucks barista or texting while people are talking to them…. maybe not so much.
How does it feel to be in the teacher’s presence? Do you feel relaxed and open in the body or constricted?
When all else is confused or unclear, I trust my body. If I feel welcome, at ease, and joyous around someone, it’s usually a good indicator that I can learn from them. After all, this is what mindfulness is all about: relaxing and opening into the moment-by-moment experience of life in the body and the senses.
I hope these questions help you to find a teacher and a practice that work for you. They have served me well, but please do not take my word for it; go see for yourself!