Rather frequently I hear from clients and students that they believe, or have heard, that they do not need to have an outer spiritual teacher or guru figure to guide them.

That by looking within they will find their inner guru, or that all outer spiritual teachers are illusory. The belief in not needing an outer spiritual teacher is partially true, and mostly false.

The true role of spiritual teacher is to guide someone to the point where they can claim their inner guru. To get to the point where they can see and be guided by their own light.

To reclaim this inner guru requires a type of clarity that has incisively cut through layers of illusion. While some can do this type of cutting through solo, far too often we are too distant or cut off from the light within us that we require another to assist us.

So often the voices within us are not our light, but the voices of our desires, our wounds, our inner critic, our parents, or the voices of the outer world.

The quiet voice of our soul has often been dismissed, drowned out, or told that it was wrong by the world so many times that our relationship with it has become fractured.

The role of the spiritual teacher is to restore this relationship to the vital soul; to teach discernment so that the student can eventually know with clarity what is the voice of the divine speaking within them.

A teacher can only take the student as far as they have gone themselves, as being in the presence of a realized individual creates automatic shifts and awareness within the student.

A realized teacher is like a mirror, reflecting back both the wounds as well as the possibilities of the student. This happens when the teacher can see not only the divinity within the student, but also the shared humanity.

This type of presence cannot be faked, although there are plenty of ways that people try, including careful utilization of words (such as NLP strategies), creation of mob mentalities (a group of individuals all telling one another how wonderful the teacher is), or the teacher creating a back-story for themselves in which they have cast themselves in the role of Demi-god (having gone through terrible suffering, being the reincarnation of “x”, being incredibly intelligent, being the only one to be in contact with some aspect of divinity, etc).

For those genuinely seeking, seeing if energy is going towards the guru or if it is reflected back to the student will show them what they need to know. A genuine seeing of others as fellow humans, ones who have the possibility of coming to the point of awareness or surpassing the awareness that the teacher currently resides in can be felt by sincere seekers.

At first, the student often casts the role of outer guru onto the spiritual teacher. This is a projection– it is the potential of the student, the possible realization of the student, that they are placing outwards onto this figure.

If the teacher is authentic, they will understand that these projections occur, and that their role is to eventually create a space where the student will take those projections back, coming into greater and greater self-realization (and needing an outer spiritual teacher less and less as they take back the energy/projections they have given outward to the teacher).

However, this does not happen for a variety of reasons. The first thought is always to explore the nature or role of spiritual teacher. There are plenty of individuals who play the “game” or inhabit this role with little self-realization. We only have to turn to our favorite streaming service to find a variety of cult leaders and sociopaths who have recognized that becoming a spiritual teacher can be like a pyramid scheme, with power and money and adoration coming from its followers.

The real question is not why spiritual teachers like this emerge, but why they have so many that follow. The answer to this is quite simple: the student is looking for someone to cast in that role as outer guru because that person is providing answers and assurances and meaning and morality that the individual does not then need to provide for themselves through self-inquiry.

The other answer is that we are often ignorant to the idea that we can interface with divinity directly; that we can feel the direct experience of faith within our hearts. Like any relationship of soul, this faith is a relationship between an individual and their beloved, a relationship between individual humanity and divine essence.

We offer so much of our light to others when we are unable to recognize it within ourselves.

One of the main reasons that people need a spiritual teacher is that ego inflation is difficult to navigate alone. It is always a possibility to do so, but it is a rare personality that is willing to cut through the desires of the ego: to see ourselves as significant and important, primarily.

Many individuals are perfectly happy within the confines of ego-awakening. Playing the role of being spiritual requires little sacrifice. Being spiritual is a felt thing, and it requires not only time but also a level of responsibility and seeing that results in a massive overhaul of internal as well as external experience.

Put more simply, to see what is not working in our lives and to do something about it. To let go of beliefs that may provide us illusory comfort, of the defenses that have been created out of trauma, of the need to feel separate and superior (or inferior) or Other. This is a hard task to ask of anyone, and it is understandable if most do not wish to proceed, or wish to proceed in name only.

While it is admirable for anyone to move beyond their childhood pain and illusions and programming (the first part of spiritual awakening), it is easy to come to some degree of awakening and to utilize that to foster ideologies of separation or superiority. This is also a type of ego awakening that is not discussed often enough.

Throughout history there have been many conscious individuals who have gone beyond the confines of their childhood limitations who have failed subsequent tests in which they would need to let go of their need for superiority, to stop seeing themselves as separate from other humans, in order to pass through these initiatory test. Even labels like “enlightened” can be utilized to foster an illusory sense of separation.

These tests are often harder, as when there is a degree of presence or realization people will offer you their power regularly. There is such craving for someone to ease the discomfort of human suffering, to believe someone has all the answers, to put someone in the role of Demi-god, or to look towards a mother/father figure so the student can remain in a childlike state.

It is quite easy for a teacher to accept these roles, rather than looking within to see why the need to caretake, to be superior, or to accept power and approval from outer sources (students) is still present.

The simple answer for “do I need a teacher” is likely yes. There are rare individuals who are able to move through ego inflation and other stumbling blocks of the spiritual path without a teacher. Even in those cases, a road map is helpful, as is being in the presence of someone who has attained some degree of realization so a synchronization process can occur: by being in their presence, that same quality can be realized within yourself.

The longer answer is that a spiritual teacher may not have the name spiritual teacher on their lapel. They may be teaching painting, or gardening, or math. They may be a small child who teaches you how to experience joy again. We grow by being around qualities that we can then find within ourselves, and by finding the essential connection and humanity in all that is around us. We grow most by being around qualities that we have yet to claim within ourselves.

Our spiritual teacher may be our grandmother, who never would call herself spiritual, or someone who is entirely different than ourselves in belief and experiences of this world. In meeting the Other, and seeing humanity instead of difference and separation, we realize something further about ourselves.

Even when we have reclaimed all of our outer projections onto gurus and have found our inner connection to divinity, finding mentors and friends and others who can show us more of ourselves is always helpful. The only thing preventing us from continually growing, learning, and becoming more aware is ourselves (and our ideas about ourselves).

Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author of several books, including The Spiritual Awakening Guide, Working with Kundalini and The Body Deva.

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