In usual terms, a teacher or mentor instructs, guides, or helps another in the process of gaining understanding, knowledge, or skills. How about spiritual teachers or mentors? What is the role they play? And also what role does a spiritual teacher in the Advaita or nondual satsangtradition do? A spiritual teacher's role is different from the usual teacher in that the goal is not so much to transmit understanding or knowledge as to somehow nurture an awakening in the student to their own pre-existing true nature.
This is more subtle than simply teaching someone a skill or piece of knowledge, not that a spiritual teacher never assists with spiritual teachings and understanding about spirituality and self-realization, but by itself, that knowledge or understanding is not the goal. A student can acquire a broad knowledge of the principles of spirituality but may still not have realized those underlying principles as being inherently present in his or her own true nature. So an Advaita teacher may not teach anything or they may teach a lot, depending on what a student needs at that time to facilitate their enlightenment, or realization of the spiritual truth of their true nature.
This may appear to be a subtle distinction between the spiritual teacher's role and that of a regular teacher, but it makes a big difference. The regular teacher usually has something very specific to share, and there is often the implied assumption that the student will have acquired more understanding or somehow be better off when the teaching is finished. In contrast, the spiritual teacher points to a spiritual truth that is always already present in the student. It's like teaching someone to have legs. You can't really teach the having of legs to someone who already has legs! But you can make them more aware of the legs they already have. (continue reading)
In the specific case of an Advaita or nondual teacher, the spiritual teacher is pointing to the essential qualities of the student's true nature, specifically, the qualities of awareness, oneness, and emptiness. The Sanskrit word Advaita means "not two" and refers to the mysterious oneness or nonduality of everything that exists. There is only one nondual reality that everything is made of, including the student and the spiritual teacher. (Here is a definition of Advaita that includes an experiential exploration of oneness.)
SPIRITUAL TEACHERS FUNCTION ON THE RELATIVE LEVEL:
Some may take this ultimate truth of our nature to mean that there is no such thing as a student, or a spiritual teacher for that matter. If everything is truly all one, then differences or distinctions are taken to be meaningless illusions, including the difference between a student/mentee and a teacher/mentor. However, even if ultimately all appearance is a temporary phenomenon and, therefore, not fundamental to our true nature, our being also exists on many levels, not just on the level of our absolute nature. It expresses also on the relative level, where there is an apparent student and an apparent teacher. Both of these roles still function on the relative level until the student has recognized his or her true nature and there is nothing left to teach him or her.
So the spiritual teacher's functioning as a teacher operates on this relative level until it's simply not needed any longer because the student has realized his or her ultimate nature. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this functioning, and one does not need to take their identity as a student or teacher too seriously. It's a quirk of our usual way of speaking that we turn concepts that are better expressed as a temporary verb into a more permanent sounding noun. Someone who functions to provide medical care is called a "doctor," which is just a way of expressing the association of that person with that function. It's not a fundamental or permanent quality of his or her true identity. In the same way, spiritual teaching simply serves a function in our spiritual unfoldment. It's not fundamental to anyone's true nature and is not any more unreal or real than any other functioning in our relative lives. One way this is experienced is that not everyone who realizes their true nature is also interested in being or equipped to be a spiritual teacher.
There are practical considerations in choosing and working with a spiritual teacher. There are qualities one would hope to find in someone who truly serves others by pointing to the deeper truth of essential Being. Unfortunately, there are also many examples of spiritual teachers that don't live up to the ideal. While it is possible for a poor teacher to indirectly serve a student's spiritual unfoldment, it's also good common sense to use your discrimination. There is a list of qualities to look for and to avoid here, and with all of the abundant information on the web, it makes sense to thoroughly explore other people's perspectives and experiences of any spiritual teacher you may be considering being involved with, while also keeping in mind that everyone's opinion is colored by their own conditioning and particular experiences.
DEVOTION TO A SPIRITUAL TEACHER:
However, there is another form of love or devotion that naturally arises within the student/teacher relationship, which is the intense gratitude that is felt when the truth is seen. Even though ultimately every experience teaches us and with complete realization there is naturally gratitude for all of existence, there can also occur a deep appreciation for the apparent teacher who has pointed you to the truth. It's a strange gratitude as you feel grateful to them for nothing and everything at the same time, but it happens nonetheless. So, when there is a human teacher, this gratitude and love may arise in response to the tremendous gift of spiritual teaching they have shared with you. However, at that point there is no real need for giving up control or surrender, and the true spiritual teacher doesn't need surrender or devotion from anyone, even if it does sometimes arise.
The spiritual teacher is here simply to serve the recognition of your true nature. The best measure of how well he or she functions in this capacity is the depth of your own realization. Everything else is relatively unimportant unless it truly serves this subtle but profoundly transformative goal.
About Nirmala, Advaita Spiritual Teacher
Nirmala offers satsang and mentoring in the Advaita tradition of nondual spiritual teachings. He offers satsang or "gatherings for the truth" across the United States and around the world as a celebration of the possibility, in every moment, of recognizing the limitless love that is our true nature. He also offers Nondual Spiritual Mentoring, or spiritual guidance, in one-on-one satsang sessions either in person or over the phone. He is the author of several books, including Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self. More information about mentoring with him as a spiritual teacher and samples of his spiritual teachings are available on this website.