By Stephan Bodian

At some point, you may find yourself in need of a meditation teacher. Like other things in life, you can only get so far after reading a book and watching a few videos. The same is true for meditation. You may have discovered something wonderful with meditation, but know that you can’t get any further without help. Not to worry, meditation teachers are out there to help.

What to look for in a teacher

Before you look for a teacher, examine your expectations and preconceptions. When you think of a spiritual teacher, what images or ideas come to mind? Perhaps you envision a cloistered monastic dressed in earth-colored robes who gives you spiritual counsel in hushed tones and then returns to his cell to continue his practice. Or maybe you think of a joyful, expansive being who lives in the world and radiates love and light wherever she goes.

Some people idealize the teacher and expect him to be perfect — and become disillusioned when it turns out he’s not. Others go to the other extreme and have difficulty treating anyone with reverence or letting go long enough of their staunchly held opinions to allow the wisdom of others to enter.

In the West, people tend to distrust authority and believe, like our pioneer and cowboy predecessors, that other can’t be relied on. Besides, look at all those preachers, priests, and self-styled gurus, you may say, who get caught with their pants down. Although a healthy dose of skepticism can do wonders, too much can make you shy away from teachers (and hence from spiritual practice) entirely.

Whatever your expectations and preconceptions, you may need to set them aside when you look for a teacher because he or she may appear in a guise you don’t anticipate. At the same time, you may want to compare your prospective teacher against the following checklist of qualities that the best teachers embody. Not all teachers will have every one of these characteristics, of course, but the more, the better:

They’re humble, ordinary, down-to-earth, not arrogant or inflated. In Zen monasteries, the head monk cleans the toilets.

They’re honest, straightforward, and clear, not evasive or defensive. As people gain spiritual maturity, they become increasingly free of psychological baggage.

They encourage independent thinking and open inquiry in their students, rather than blind obedience to a particular dogma or ideology.

They’re primarily concerned with the spiritual development of their students, not with fame, power, influence, or the size of their organization.

They practice what they preach, rather than considering themselves exempt from the moral and ethical guidelines that others must follow.

They embody the highest spiritual qualities, such as kindness, patience, equanimity, joy, peace, love, and compassion.

How to find a teacher

The process of finding a teacher can be as mysterious as the spiritual journey itself. For some people, it’s a lot like finding a lover or a mate — it involves a complex mixture of luck, availability, and chemistry. For others, it’s simply a matter of following the counsel of a friend or showing up at the right place at the right time. In the words of a popular Indian expression, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Ultimately, you need to trust your intuition, your own inner knowing, when choosing a teacher — it’s the only reliable equipment you have for navigating in this flawed phenomenal universe of ours.

You may find yourself drawn to teachers intuitively because of the qualities of being they seem to radiate. On the other hand, you may stumble on teachers unexpectedly through a serendipitous sequence of events. Be open but not gullible, skeptical but not cynical. Feel free to ask questions, expect good answers, and take your time.

According to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan students may spend years checking out teachers to make sure they embody the teachings they espouse. Just as you wouldn’t rush into a marriage, you shouldn’t rush into anything as intimate and deep as a relationship with a spiritual teacher.