Perhaps the most powerful gift you can receive from an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor is a measure of encouragement to instill the confidence that you are good, loving and lovable, capable, and making progress (however slow)--as long as it's accompanied by the occasional nudge to help you achieve more or simply to be kinder to yourself. "A lot of strength comes from a teacher who looks at you and says, 'You can do it, you can solve your problems,'" says Salzberg.
No matter what name it goes by--guru, teacher, mentor, friend, spiritual buddy--what really matters, it seems, is having someone with you as you travel along the path.
Self-knowledge is the foundation upon which a useful student-teacher relationship rests, and the beginning to the insights that spawn such a relationship. Before you set off to find a guide, take time to meditate on it.
"My belief is that if you do a meditation practice with sincere motivation, it will show you what you need to know; it will show you the places you're holding back and where you're distorting things," says Sharon Salzberg of the Insight Meditation Society.
Andrew Harvey, co-founder of the Global Center for Interfaith Scholarship and Respect, agrees: "Meditation uncovers the deep union between your inner spirit and the great spirit; you discover your motivations."
Be true to yourself
As a student of Buddhism many years ago, Sylvia Boorstein recounts that she was particularly struck by the Buddha's sermon to the people of Kalama in which he said: Don't listen to me; don't listen to anybody; don't listen to someone who says they're the authority. You do this by yourself, and if it works for you, good. If not, don't do it.
"That was a tremendously empowering teaching for me," says Boorstein, who is an observant Jew. "I didn't have to worry about giving up my own authority, my own discernment, and I didn't have to worry about my heart's commitment to another religious lineage."