Choosing a Meditation Teacher

Do you need a meditation teacher? Should you join a meditation group/center? This is a very common question for people learning meditation, and one for which there is no easy answer. Yet the number of meditation teachers out there is increasing, and it’s important you know who can better serve you, and also be able to separate the genuine from the phony.

Let’s take a look at what’s involved.

The traditional role of a meditation teacher

Traditionally speaking, meditation was not taught as a standalone technique, but as a spiritual practice inside the context of a tradition (Buddhism, Yoga, Daoism, etc.). The meditation teacher’s role was not only to impart the technique, but also to teach the principles, ethics, the worldview and way of life of that tradition. In other words, to help the student live that wisdom tradition. People usually wouldn’t learn meditation or spiritual philosophy from books.

Teacher was normally a priest, monk, yogi or guru of that tradition. The student was to carefully select the teacher by examining his character, examining the lineage, and questioning to probe his understanding and state of realization. The master could also reject the student, if he/she felt that the student was not “mature enough”, “sincere enough”, or a good fit for any reason. Some were very liberal; others were strict.

If there was a match, from that moment onward the student would learn from that master, and was expected to support his livelihood. There wasn’t exactly payment for the teaching. Most disciples would help out by bringing food, clothing, and helping with tasks. The relationship was often seen as the master being the spiritual father of the students.

Meditation teachers in modern times

In the 20th century, the benefits of meditation were discovered by the western scientific community, and the practice started to be sought for goals other than spiritual development/awakening. As a result, new types of meditation teachers arose, and the practice started to be presented in a more secular and “naked” manner. Modernity also brought changes to the dynamic of traditional roles as well.

We can say there are two types of meditation teachers nowadays: secular and spiritually rooted.

  • Secular teachers teach meditation purely as a health or performance tool. Their personal practice may or may not have roots in a mystical tradition, but in any case they teach it simply as a mental exercise, without any reference to spiritual teachings or eastern concepts. For this reason, there is no “barrier of entry” for people of different faiths or for atheists. Meditation is simplified and commercialized for a wider audience. Examples: MBSR facilitators/instructors, therapists, TM teachers, and self-help “gurus”.
  • Spiritually rooted teachers teach meditation as a tool for “spiritual growth”, awakening, or enlightenment. They represent a mystical tradition (usually a school of Buddhism or a lineage of Yoga), and meditation is packed with teachings about life, the universe, and human consciousness. There is a broad variety of teachers and approaches (much larger than in “secular teachers”), so people with different tastes and backgrounds may need to “shop around” before finding someone with whom they truly connect. Generally, though, the meditation techniques taught by all these teachers can be practiced regardless of any belief or religion. Examples: Buddhist teachers, Yoga meditation teachers, Hindu Swamis/Sadhus.

The difference is not really in the meditation technique itself, but mostly in how it is presented, and how they present themselves to the world and prospective students. Sometimes the line gets blurry; if you look deeper, you will find Buddhist teachings behind modern mindfulness, and a Hindu worldview behind TM.

Some meditation teachers are both secular and spiritually, serving a bigger audience.

Secular teachers will charge for their teachings, which is usually in the form of workshops, seminars, group coaching, and classes. Spiritually rooted teachers often do not (it’s donation based), yet retreats are almost always paid for. They usually teach in a “center”, “sangha”, “temple” or an “ashram”.

meditation groups (lifeessence.com.au)

Do I need a meditation teacher or a group?

Nowadays, most of those teachings and techniques can be learned, in great detail, from a book. There are also plenty of videos and audio guides for meditation, from all traditions. Is there still a need for a meditation teacher? If so, what is his role?

That will depend on why you are meditating. What are you seeking from meditation? What are your goals?

If you are practicing meditation purely for the physical and mental benefits (for better health, physical healing, improving performance in studies, sports and work), you don’t need a teacher. You can learn a meditation technique from a good book/DVD, online resource, or workshop, and practice on your own.

You may still wish to have a teacher, either to kickstart your practice, answer your questions, or be a motivating factor in your journey. In that case, many people look for instructors in the secular approach. You can also learn meditation from a spiritually rooted teacher, if you are open for it. You can ignore the things you don’t like, and, chances are, you’ll learn a thing or two about your mind.

You may also find the need to look for a teacher if you have been doing mindfulness or guided meditations for a while, and wish to deepen your practice and explore what else meditation can do for you.

For other people, the drive for meditation is a bit deeper – finding who you are, understanding yourself, mastering your mind, awakening, freeing yourself from suffering, exploring deeper states of consciousness, healing your heart, etc. If this is your motivation, I would encourage you to look for a spiritually rooted meditation teacher. You will likely not be satisfied with the secular approach.

In this case, because the variety of teachers and approaches is so vast, you may need to do some initial research by reading books or talking to friends on the path. Even if you narrow it down to one tradition (let’s say, Zen), there is a huge difference in teachings, energy and the “feel” from one place to another, from one teacher to another. And there are also many “sub-schools” in all these traditions.

Here are the names of a few contemplative traditions, as a starting point for your search:

  • Buddhism
    • Theravada
    • Insight Meditation
    • Tibetan Buddhism
    • Zen Buddhism
    • Pure Land
  • Yoga & Hinduism
    • Raja Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga)
    • Nada Yoga
    • Kundalini Yoga
    • Tantra
    • Advaita Vedanta
  • Christianity
    • Centering Prayer (Trappist monks)
    • Christian Meditation
    • Hesychasm
  • Daoism (Taoism)
  • Sufism
  • Shamanism
  • Jainism
[Check out also the post on What is Spirituality – A Guide To Spiritual Disciplines.]

Whether you are more on the spiritual side or secular side, joining a meditation group with a similar mindset is a huge support on your practice. You will get more motivation, clarification on the finer aspects of practice, and ideas to further integrate your meditation in your life.

What to look for in a meditation teacher

Once you clarify what your goals are with meditation, and if they match more the secular or the spiritual approach, you are in a better position to find a suitable teacher or group.

If you are looking for secular teachers, depending on your motivation it might be a good idea to give preference to those that have a background in Psychology. If you are looking for a spiritually rooted teacher, make sure that the philosophy behind his tradition appeals to you, at least in part. In any case, try to find a teacher that has developed, through meditation, qualities (or states) that you are trying to develop as well.

Here are some other things to look for:

EXPERIENCE. Has the teacher been practicing meditation daily for at least 2~5 years? This practice takes time and consistent effort to mature, so I wouldn’t learn from somebody that doesn’t have enough practice and a daily commitment. In other words, is he/she a serious practitioner too? There is more to meditation than telling you to close your eyes and watch your breath.

MOTIVATION. Why is he/she teaching meditation? How genuine is the motive? Some people are just seeing that “meditation is hot” and want to “ride the wave” and start teaching it, or offering as part of their services. Is the intention of teaching driven by “I have found this treasure, it has changed my life, and I want to share it with the world”? Or is it mixed in with greed, arrogance, feelings of “being special” and “knowing it all”, abuse of power and sex? Is he/she more serving you, or wanted to be served by you? Is the main motivation a love for service, or the dream to become the next self-help guru success story?

INTEGRATION. A person that has been practicing the technique and philosophy of meditation will show certain personal qualities, like calmness, kindness, patience, compassion, humility, truthfulness, openness, and ethical conduct. For those that have gone really deep in meditation, there is a characteristic luminosity and kindness in the face, a presence and stillness in the eyes. Not that we should expect perfection of character, but qualities like this tend to increase with maturity of practice, and reflect the state of the teacher’s mind. This is especially important for those that teach it in the context of a spiritual tradition. It basically answers the question: “Do you walk your talk?”.

BACKGROUND. From whom has your teacher learned to meditate? Only from books, or also from experienced meditators? Be suspicious of people that only learned from books, and start giving mindfulness workshops and expensive meditation lessons. In the secular context, learn from someone who has done a structured course in teaching that particular technique. In the spiritual context, except for extraordinary cases, look for a person with a link to a particular tradition; someone that has learned from a real master in that tradition, did a lot of study and practice, and spent time on retreats.

LANGUAGE. Do they promise you “secret tips”, and “proven methods” guaranteed to “shortcut your progress in meditation”? Do they hide behind an impersonal video that autoplays, or a long sales page in a dodgy website? Perhaps a “branded meditation”, unique to them? Do they look like this? Close your ears and run away!

STUDENTS. Do you want to see the result of learning with a particular teacher? Have a chat with his/her long-term students, the ones that have followed the advice given more closely. What have they learned and “achieved”? This is especially important in the spiritual context.

It’s important to point out that the teacher is somewhat in a position of power in relation to the student; therefore, the ethical guidelines and professional boundaries followed by therapists and teachers also apply to the meditation instructor, who must not abuse this position for sexual benefits.

virtueNaturally, if you are learning not only meditation but also spiritual teachings, you should be more rigorous with these criteria, because the potential harm caused from a bad or fake teacher is worse. So visit as many as you like, until you find one that your heart and mind feels attuned to. Also refer to this excellent article by Thanissaro Bikkhu.

Depth, wisdom and motivation may be faked behind branding and shiny words. However, spiritual virtues like equanimity, detachment, peace, loving-kindness, openness of presence and that glow on the face – these are hard to fake.

Also, from time to time you may feel the need to look for another teacher – either because you have “outgrown” your current teacher, or because your needs are changing. It’s part of the maturing progress. Do not be afraid to move on and seek a more suitable teacher; after all, non-attachment is one of the qualities we develop from practice. Just be sure that your reason to move on is genuine, and not ego-based.

Above all, be confident on your own discernment. If you are in doubt about a certain person or approach, get the opinion of other people that meditate! Ask a question about it in Quora or Reddit, google that person, etc. If you are still in doubt and need a second opinion, shoot me an email and I’ll help if I can.

How to become a meditation teacher

In a spiritual context, becoming a meditation teacher should never be the motivation for the practice, but one of the possible outcomes or side-effects. Ideally, the motivation should be to practice the path itself, and awaken, and not to “practice Buddhism/Yoga so I can become a teacher”.

In the secular context, if you have been practicing meditation consistently for years, and feel motivated to serve people in starting and deepening their practice, perhaps a good starting point would be to do a mindfulness teacher training program. I would recommend looking for a MBSR teacher training program. This usually involves:

  • going through an eight-week mindfulness program for yourself;
  • participating on a 5~10 days silent retreat, related to the practice;
  • developing a theoretical and practical understanding of mindfulness;
  • at least 12 months of daily practice;
  • one-on-one practice of teaching it to beginners.

Now you know

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what types of meditation teachers are out there, and what you should look for in one. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please leave a comment.

Do you know of somebody that needs to read this? Please help me spread the word and share this post.

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[Credits for the images: Sukhi Barber (http://www.sukhibarber.com/)  for the metal Buddha and LifeEssence.com.au for the second image]

  • N Bell

    I teach students in a “secular” manner but allow a considerable depth to be explored. Many of the students I teach are interested in “finding who you are, understanding yourself, mastering your mind, awakening, freeing yourself from suffering, exploring deeper states of consciousness, healing your heart, etc.”. Indeed, from my perspective these practices always return to the heart and serve to awaken it whether we talk about it or not. The deepening of self-awareness is part of learning to “self-regulate”. So the secular teachings really are teacher dependent in terms of how deep you will go. They may also be for many people more practical to their daily lives and more relatable.

    • Yes, indeed there is a lot of overlap between the two, and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate.

      I agree that many secular teachers teach in a way that facilitates also a spiritual deepening, and I’m glad to hear that’s the case for your students. 🙂

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