By Stephan Bodian

If you choose to seek a meditation teacher, make sure you know what you are looking for before you begin. If you’d like to play tennis but don’t know how, what do you do? You can watch other people play, maybe buy a book or two, and then head out to the court yourself and start practicing. But after you’ve mastered the basics, you may want to take a class or get some personal instruction to help you refine your stroke or eliminate the mistakes you’ve picked up along the way.

The same holds true for meditation. You can practice meditation exercises for weeks, months, or even years and reap the benefits without additional instruction. But at a certain point, you may encounter difficulties you don’t know how to handle by yourself, especially if you’re using meditation for spiritual unfolding.

Choosing the right kind of teacher

Before you can find the right teacher, however, you need to know what kind of teacher you want. You will also need to do your homework if you want expert instruction, because some people just take an eight-week training and then declare themselves qualified to teach.

Many hatha yoga teachers offer basic meditation instructions with a minimum of Sanskrit words, and they may even know the territory well enough to help you if you get stuck. More and more adult-education programs, community colleges, health centers, and churches are offering mindfulness meditation or stress-reduction classes, but you should look over the teacher’s credentials first — he or she may be no further along in practice than you are.

Look for those who are certified (or have at least a few years of experience) in a particular approach. (For direct, nonsectarian instruction in the practice of meditation, you might want to check out the smartphone app Mindfulness Meditation, which offers complete instructions and guided meditations of various lengths.)

If you’re drawn to the mindfulness meditations, you might want to take a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a comprehensive training program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, bestselling author of Wherever You Go, There You Are and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The healing effects of MBSR have been extensively researched, and programs led by certified instructors are available in most major cities throughout the United States.

If you prefer to practice meditation as part of a particular spiritual tradition or path, you may want to consider beforehand what kind of teacher you need. Here are four major categories of teachers, based on the content of their teachings and their relationships with their students.

  • Instructor: Teaches you techniques, offers good advice on how to implement them, and helps you troubleshoot or fine-tune. May be a friend or peer.
  • Mentor: Gives you personal encouragement and support in your practice, offers guidance for getting unstuck, and provides a role model of someone who’s been there before you. Usually teaches techniques as well.
  • Pandit: Transmits knowledge by articulating and explaining spiritual teachings and texts. May be a scholar as well as a meditator.
  • Master: Embodies the essence of the spiritual teachings. Helps you break through your stuck places and facilitates the process of expanding or dissolving the self. May (or may not) have an intense or challenging relationship with students.

Why you may need a teacher

A meditation instructor can help you refine your practice and deal with basic questions that arise along the way. But if you want to deepen your practice and use it as a means to spiritual ends, you’ll definitely want to find a spiritual mentor or master.

First of all, you may encounter difficulties and challenge. For example, you may have trouble dealing with intense recurring emotions like anger or fear. Or you may come up against roadblocks like doubt or procrastination and not know how to move forward on your own. Suddenly you’re in need of a teacher — pronto!

As you continue on your journey, you may encounter genuine spiritual insights and experiences that you don’t know how to revisit or sustain. In fact, the process of spiritual unfolding more often resembles a confusing, trackless outback than a “path,” as it is euphemistically called. The truth is, you never know what you’re going to encounter when you practice intensively.

As you experiment with expanding or dissolving your sense of self in your meditation, for example, you may meet with powerful opposition from the forces of your psyche that don’t want you to change. After all, we’re talking radical transformation here — and most people resist even the most minor changes.

Your spiritual teacher may coach and support you through the transformational process and even accelerate it by pointing out the ways in which you resist or hold back. Some teachers act more like spiritual friends, treating you with the camaraderie and equality you expect from a peer, while also sharing their wealth of understanding. Others act more like traditional gurus, transmitting their understanding directly to you while actively pushing against your stuck places. (Of course, many teachers lie somewhere between these two extremes.)

Whatever their approach, however, all good teachers help create and sustain, through their relationship with you, a sacred vessel or space in which the difficult, wondrous, and ultimately liberating process of spiritual transformation can take place inside you.