I'm convinced that it is time for a new model of what it means to be a "spiritual master." According to the traditional model, a "master" needed to project an aura of having it all together. Often they would also claim to be enlightened or transformed. Students would then seek to be like the master and become enlightened and have it all together as well. However, eventually the clay feet of the master would be revealed through some sort of scandal (generally involving sex or money), and then the students would naturally become depressed and disillusioned.
By contrast, according to the new model, a spiritual teacher willingly admits his or her own struggles and flaws from the very beginning, but then shares the tools that he or she has found for working through those struggles and flaws, enabling the flaws to become transparent to the Divine. This kind of master correspondingly views enlightenment or transformation as a never-ending process, one that will continue for all eternity. As the mystics remind us, each of us - both beginner and master - is forever both "perfect" and "falling short." And this, I would also claim, is true as well of the Divine Beloved. Here I resonate profoundly with the teaching of Process Theology, which claims that while one aspect of God is eternally complete, another aspect is forever EVOLVING.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the true spiritual teacher seeks to empower the students rather than exercise any kind of power over them. A major way of empowering others, I'm firmly convinced, is through BEING IN AWE at the beauty and goodness of their spiritual gifts and their divine essence. This is especially true with regard to teacher and student. Rather than seeking the devotion of the student (which generally is already a given), the true master devotes THEMSELVES to The Beloved who is vitally present, though sometimes hidden, within the spiritual core of the student. This means actively LEARNING FROM the student, through attentive listening to his or her own life-experiences. Counsel is of course offered, but only in the sense that the teacher is offering it to THE DIVINE, who is innately humble, and who is always in the process of evolving within the student, just as He and She is forever in the process of evolving within the teacher.
Much of this model comes from the little-known heritage of Radical Protestant Mysticism. If I'm pressed to identify myself with a single traditional historical religious tradition, this is the one that I most profoundly value. For example, George Fox, founder of the Quakers, counseled his disciples to "travel the land, seeking to ANSWER to that of God in everyone." Another Protestant mystic, John Muir, declared that "Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are people." In the context of a teacher-student relationship, this means that the "master" actively listens to the Divine Word that is being spoken through the speech and life of the student. Here, the teacher learns new things about the spiritual journey through the student, while the student feels correspondingly empowered by being listened-to with love and attention.
To alter Rene Descartes' famous dictum: "I am LISTENED-TO; therefore, I AM." Or, stated more
profoundly, "I am LEARNED-FROM; therefore, I AM." This listening and learning on the part of the master, I am convinced - together with his or her attitude of wonder at beauty of the Divine Core present within the student - is the means by which the student can most profoundly and effectively grow into spiritual maturity.
May all of us become spiritual masters in THIS important sense.
Photo: Rosy Paintbrush, West Elk Range, CO
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.