Here’s a simple truth: Everyone is a spiritual teacher. Parents, of course, are profound spiritual teachers. So are children. So are siblings. So are priests and imams and school teachers and athletic coaches and scout leaders and doctors and nurses and massage therapists and activists and bartenders. When we get down to it, every human interaction is potentially a moment of spiritual teaching and learning. So a goal for the spiritual quest is to become both a better student and a better teacher, using both sets of skills to consciously make all of our interactions more reflective of our highest selves.
Of course, this isn’t easy. And so we may turn to public experts. What makes these people different from our other spiritual teachers is that we consciously seek them out. We pay for their books and DVDs and weekend workshops and retreats — and sometimes what we receive in return is a new way of thinking that radically changes our lives for the better. Meanwhile, other powerful teachers simply pull us into their own egos, like James Arthur Ray, who failed to notice as his students died beside him in his sweat lodge.
At Spirituality & Health, we are enormously grateful to our own trusted experts, our columnists, and contributing editors. They have different backgrounds and beliefs but are united in the quest for increasing kindness, compassion, service, and justice. Most of all, our teachers are devoted to learning.
We asked our own trusted experts to reveal two or three of their own public teachers — to expand our circle of trust. This began as a fishing expedition. We were looking to broaden our community, and many of the recommended teachers turned out to be people we already have published. So we’d like your help as well. As you read our list, ask yourself who your trusted public teachers are. And why? Then share your answers in the comments below. They can be personal mentors, but they must be publicly accessible through books or workshops. One of the great spiritual practices is to reflect upon our teachers. Doing so helps call into consciousness the values we hold most dear — and helps keep us in the frame of mind to live them.
We hope you’ll accept the assignment.
From Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Zalman Schacter Shalomi
Trained in Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism, Reb Zalman came to see himself as “a Jewish practitioner of universal truth” rooted in the nonduality of God, the ethical evolution of humankind, and the sacred nature of … well, nature. In addition to showing me that Judaism in the hands of an authentic Holy Rascal can be fully alive, relevant, and compelling, Reb Zalman taught me three things: 1) there is no limit to God; 2) there is no limit to love; and 3) there is no limit to how many times I can fail to realize there is no limit to God and love. I would recommend his most recent book, A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters (with Netanel Miles-Yepes).
Father Thomas Keating
I met Father Thomas in the early ’80s when he invited me to join a new interfaith community of contemplatives he was forming at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. It was this introduction to deep interfaith conversation and shared contemplative practice that shaped — and continues to shape — my approach to religion and spirituality. From Father Thomas, too, I learned three things: 1) there is no limit to God; 2) there is no limit to love; and 3) there is no limit to how many times I can fail to realize there is no limit to God and love. It seems that all my teachers teach the same things, and I continually fail to learn them. Among Father Thomas’s many books, I would start with Foundations for Centering Prayer.
The Rockport Shoe Repair Man
I don’t know his name. In fact, I never met him. I had sent my Rockport dress shoes back to the company for resoling, and the shoes came back with a personal letter that explained how much care he and his fellow artisans put into making these shoes, and how troubled he was by the lack of care I put into maintaining them. My shoes were cracked, scuffed, and misshapen. I had broken their backs, crushed their toes, and mistreated them in ways that showed a profound disrespect for both shoes and shoemakers. He restored the shoes to near-mint condition, packed them with polish and a shoe brush, and begged me to honor him and his craft by treating my shoes with care. What was true of my shoes was true of so much else in my life. I was abusing the things in my life, treating them as its to be exploited, rather than thous to be honored, to borrow from another of my teachers, Martin Buber. I never mistreated my shoes again. I’m still working on the rest.
From Geri Larkin
Chinul means a lot to me because he was able to attain enlightenment without the help of a teacher. We Buddhist types love that, especially those of us who live in Zen backwaters. The thing about Chinul is that he ended up taking on all of the politics that consumed Korean Buddhism at the time, making a vow to create a monastery that could house all sincere students. It took him 30 years to pull it off, but he managed to start a temple, Songgwangsa, that is still active today. For all of his students, including me, he was unwavering in his faith in our effort. And he gave practical advice: “Beginners should keep far away from bad friends and draw near to the virtuous and good. You should take the precepts and know when to keep them and when to dispense with them.” To learn more, read Collected Works of Chinul by Robert E. Buswell Jr.
Zen Master Ji Bong Sunim
Ji Bong is a professor of music at the University of Southern California and a dharma heir to Zen master Seung Sahn. This man is completely kind and compassionate. When I worry about the world and about how self-focused we can be, I think of Ji Bong, who has offered his life to the world. I go to him periodically to get my butt kicked regarding my understanding of koans. In interviews, he is a dog with a bone, not willing to give an inch when it comes to my responses. Even on the days when I walk out of an interview cranky because he doesn’t just want a demonstration of understanding but a little poem (capping verse) to go with it, I bow to the ground in gratitude for this man. He is a true, unfailing dharma friend.
From Emma Seppala
During my very first class with Bob Thurman, religious scholar and “Buddhologist” at Columbia University, I was hooked. “Buddha Bob” introduced me to the wild and wonderful world of Indo-Tibetan philosophy and religion. I would leave each class enchanted, looking at the world as if with a new pair of eyes. “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness,” his favorite teaching, turned my world upside down and filled me with wonder. His teachings on the Bodhisattva way of life, a path devoted solely to compassion and service to others, filled my heart with longing. Buddha Bob was my first guru. I devoured his books and all the scriptures he recommended, but one day a student in class asked him why he was not always living the life that he preached. Bob said, “I don’t have time to practice.” That day, Bob gave me the greatest gift he had given me thus far: I devoted myself to daily practice.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
In search of a practice, I wandered from the Tibet House to every meditation center I could find in Manhattan. I sat with great Tibetan monks and Japanese Zen teachers. I spent weeks in a Chinese Chan monastery in Taiwan. I reveled in the books of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Yet I could not still my restless mind. After several years, I discovered the Art of Living class and learned a breathing-based practice (sudarshan kriya) created by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I sat through the class, arms crossed, resistant, and cynical. Yet my mind started to quiet. Sri Sri, as he is known for short, is a yoga shiromani (Jewel of Yoga, an honor bestowed by the Indian president) from India who travels the world teaching, promoting peace, and inspiring service activities. I was taken aback by the devotion that surrounded him. Devotion is quite normal in India, and many of his devotees are Indian. To my Western mind, it was uncomfortable and even repelling. In my first encounter with him, I told Sri Sri that I had enjoyed his Art of Living class but that I felt the devotion of his followers detracted from his teaching. He thanked me for my comments. I soon realized that there was not much he could do to stop them. More important, I realized that my annoyance was entirely my own responsibility. I could ignore the devotees and focus instead on his words. I found that I loved his teachings. The Art of Living class had brought peace to my mind, and that here was someone who embodied the bodhisattva way of life and showed me how I could, too. I learned to take care of my mind so I have the energy to serve others and this teaching has been my greatest blessing.
From Eve Eschner Hogan
In my 20s, I became a schoolteacher because I didn’t know what else to do, but I didn’t like teaching math, English, social studies, or science any more than I’d liked learning it the first time. Then I was sent to a professional development workshop taught by Jack Canfield. Through his training on self-esteem, taking personal responsibility, and thinking powerfully and positively, I realized that I wasn’t teaching “subjects;” I was teaching children. From that point forward, the focus of my life and my teaching completely changed. I followed Jack’s footsteps into the field of writing and speaking, and even edited two of his Chicken Soup for the Soul books. (JackCanfield.com)
When I first stepped consciously onto my path of personal and spiritual growth, I went to a great psychic (Pat McAnaney), who told me that I was full of so much creative energy that I either was going to have babies or start writing. So I fled from his office to a bookstore, where The Creative Journal by Lucia Capacchione literally jumped off the shelf. I bought it and another of her books, The Power of Your Other Hand: A Course in Channeling the Inner Wisdom of the Right Brain, took them home, and began to write. I signed up for Lucia’s workshops, in which she taught how to access inner wisdom in writing by using the nondominant hand. I filled journal after journal (desperately avoiding babies!). The power of this work for me was immeasurable. What writing with my nondominant hand did for me was teach me to recognize the voice of my inner wisdom and intuition among all the other voices a head contains — inner child, inner critic, etc. Once I learned to tap into and identify the voice, I no longer needed to write with my nondominant hand but merely to listen. (luciac.com)
From Thomas Moore
Psychologist James Hillman died in October. He is the most insightful person I’ve ever encountered, in life or in print. I put him above Plato and Aristotle. Here’s one lesson I took from him: He never turned off the switch of his genius. He was always on. Even on his deathbed, he was the thinker and the teacher. Today, people often criticize thinking as an evasion of emotion. Not so with James. He was a passionate and emotional man. If you really want to be taught, challenged as well as inspired, read anything by James Hillman. If you take it in, your life will never be the same. [Note: Thomas Moore wrote the introduction for A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman]
From Peggy La Cerra
The Buddha said that his teachings were like a boat one uses in order to cross the river, and that once the river has been crossed, we must let go of the boat. But one can choose to leave the boat on the near shore and wade into the river itself. The river — the natural/physical world of which we humans are a small but integral part — has unquestionably been my greatest spiritual teacher. By exploring its nature — from initial moments of childish wonderment about what might possibly account for this or that phenomenon, to formally studying the works of the great scientists who have unearthed principles capable of explaining vast amounts of apparently disparate phenomena — by questioning, and testing, and discovering for oneself what rings undeniably true, something essential and profound reveals itself to us.
Fleeting moments of profound spiritual enlightenment not-withstanding, I often struggle to live a life of compassion and peace. When I’m shaken by a life event, her teachings never fail to quell my fear or anxiety. (pemachodronfoundation.org)
From Sister Karen J. Zielinski, OSF
In the first part of life, we find ourselves trying to achieve, establish our identity, and gain financial status. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, says that our second half of life offers us a chance to be life-giving and focused outward. Focusing on establishing ourselves reminds me of the Sinatra song, “Is That All There Is?” It is our losses and loss of control that makes us spiritually gifted and powerful. This is an exciting paradigm for me as I see my life unfold, although seemingly downward, in truth moving upward! I recommend Falling Upward (Jossey-Bass) by Richard Rohr, OFM.
From Marilyn Schlitz
This great teacher is an initiated elder (iyanifa) in the Ifa/Orisha tradition of the West African Diaspora. She is the author of several books on African and African American spiritual culture and feminist myth. Teish designed a Rites of Passage program for the Institute of Noetic Sciences [where Marilyn is president] and is the director of the Full Faze Passage Council, a multiracial, multicultural network of artists, consultants, and spiritual advisors experienced in event design and production. She is the olori (director) of Ile Orunmila Oshun and the School of Ancient Mysteries/Sacred Arts Center in Oakland, California.
This teacher is a cultural anthropologist, award-winning author, educator, and consultant to many organizations and businesses. She researched, created, and synthesized the Four-Fold Way program. Angeles lectures and conducts workshops internationally, bridging cultural anthropology, psychology, and comparative religions. Angeles’s lifelong dedication and commitment to her work reveals how perennial wisdoms are relevant to our families, professions, and our relationship to the earth. She is also the founder and president of the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research.
From Paul Sutherland
Ouch! I Can’t Remember His Name
If I were to attribute my company’s success to one person, it would be my “hard–ass” Systems & Quality teacher for my MBA, because he taught me to think in terms of systems and processes. His words were like magic or alchemy to me. He taught me to take an idea or goal, add some “total quality management”(TQM) and systems thinking to it, and with patience and persistence, it would manifest. Through life experience, I already knew how to get up early, work hard, ask questions, listen, and be honest, present, coachable, and humble. This tall, wiry guy from India just made it seem simple. And it is as simple as working hard at reading about a dozen books, getting some good coaching, being willing to change, letting the mission be all important, and not letting your ego or the team’s ego get in the way of the goal or endeavor. This teacher and I connected over the lunches because we shared a belief that if an understanding of the world’s interconnectedness, ethics, virtue, and compassion were not infused in the endeavor, it would be a shallow, ego-driven “problem” and give business a bad name. Tears come to my eyes when I reflect on the “what if” he had not crossed my path. I can only hope that I expressed gratitude to him with enough humility and sincerity. —S&H