Spending time with others who are also on a spiritual journey--whether attending discussion groups, joining an organized religion, or going on a weekend retreat--can help you find like-minded friends and, in turn, suggestions for good teachers. "The Buddha said to surround yourself with the people who want to talk about the things you do," says Boorstein. "It's such a comfort to be with people who are cultivating a sweet heart; they lift you up."
There's no shortage of false mentors out there, those who profess to offer the road to enlightenment or happiness but in truth are motivated by money or power. So caution is needed.
The best way to avoid charlatans, says Mariana Caplan, Ph.D., author of Do You Need a Guru? Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship in an Era of False Prophets, is to take a slow and studied approach. Caplan suggests asking people you admire for their recommendations, then doing the legwork. "When you visit teachers, pay attention to how you feel when you're there, and observe students who are close to them," she says.
In her own search, she asked prospective teachers all the questions she wanted to ask and articulated every doubt she had. "You wouldn't want to throw your mind and soul into just anybody's hands," she says. "An authentic guru leads a life of sacrifice to his or her students."
The last sentiment is echoed by Salzberg. "The best student-teacher relationship is founded on the teacher being there to serve the student," she says. "It's not about the glorification of the teacher."
Look around you
While Americans have great interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, we shouldn't dismiss Western practices in the bargain, says Tony Hendra, author of the best-selling Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. "It's extremely important that the occidental monastic tradition is seen as just as universal and just as rich as the Eastern tradition," says Hendra, whose book chronicles his 40-year relationship with a Benedictine monk. "We shouldn't write off our traditions of monastic guidance and wisdom simply because they're ours"
Indeed, a recent return to mystical traditions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam is one of the most hopeful changes seen in years, says Andrew Harvey, co-founder of the Global Center for Interfaith Scholarship and Respect at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. According to Harvey, who grew up in India and was educated at Oxford, the teacher who had the most profound effect on his own spiritual life was Father Bede Griffiths, a Catholic monk who exuded peace, love, tenderness and acceptance. "He never told me to do anything; he was never authoritarian or directive" recalls Harvey. "He just lived a life that was simple and holy. He had the greatest respect and love for all his pupils; he treated us as a father would his children and wanted us to become our true selves. I'm convinced that this is the real form of teaching because it completely honors and respects the person."