In our society the word “follower” has somewhat of a negative connotation. It seems to imply a person who is weak and indecisive. Yet, when it comes to the spiritual journey, most of us are “followers” to some extent.
On the broadest level, members of various religions follow the teachings of the founder, ideally to acquire the same consciousness as the founder. Besides this overall acknowledgement that we do not need to reinvent the wheel, most of us have also learned a lot from “human” teachers. There are plusses and minuses to this human relationship. In its best expression, the student will surpass the master and be set free to move beyond what the teacher has learned. In its worst expression, the student will idolize the teacher, setting the stage for all sorts of dysfunction.
In her book, The Inward Arc, Dr. Frances Vaughan examines some of the healthy and not so healthy expressions of the teacher-student relationship. She lists five types of spiritual “follower.”
- The Sycophant. In this situation, a fairly common one, the spiritual follower puts the teacher on a pedestal. He or she becomes a “groupie” of the teacher. The “groupie” thus flatters the teacher and the teacher and the teacher allows it to happen. This results in problems of ego aggrandizement for the teacher and in stunted growth for the follower.
2.The Devotee. Here, the student genuinely “loves” the teacher and vice versa. But it is not a personal love. It is a bond forged by gazing, not at one another, but in the same direction. The difficulty here could come from getting “hooked” on one another emotionally, forgetting about the true purpose of the relationship.
- The Student. Here the student is not interested in putting the teacher on a pedestal or even in loving the teacher. The student is interested in learning the wisdom of the teacher. Such a student comes to a session with a million questions. There is great respect for the wisdom of the teacher, but the relationship is principally on the level of the mind.
- The Seeker. At first glance, this type may seem to be the same as “The Student.” But there is a big difference. With “The Student”, there is a presumption that the teacher in some way has integrated wisdom into their lives or at least has come close to doing so. With “The Seeker”, the teacher is seen as one resource among many. The teacher is a kind of consultant, nothing more and nothing less.
- The Disciple. This was the image preferred by Jesus of Nazareth. The teacher is not on a pedestal, but there is a great loyalty towards the teacher. Why? Because of an act of faith (or trust) that the teacher is pointing in the direction of spiritual knowledge and wisdom. The loyalty “holds” as long as the teaching is proven to be true. The teacher is not the issue at all; it is the Reality to which the teacher points that matters. The teacher is seen as a prism through whom a deeper reality can be experienced.
If you encounter any earthly teacher who is looking for adulation, run from them as fast as you can. But if you find a teacher who wants nothing from you except that you grow spiritually, be truly grateful.
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