So here are some ways that teachers will often test students to see if they are ready and willing to do the work that they need to do. Many of these spiritual tests will come before a teacher even officially starts working with a student, but they are all done to help students come to the deepest realizations of themselves.
The Buffoon Spiritual Teacher
When a student first comes to a spiritual teacher, s/he may not recognize them. These types of students may be very serious about their spiritual practices, and the spiritual teacher goes into the role of the awakened fool. So the teacher may make fun of the spiritual path and of spiritual practices. The spiritual teacher may make fun of himself and discount the relevance of his/her own work. "Oh that silly blog? That's just some words on a server somewhere."
As the awakened fool, the teacher is testing the student to see if the student recognizes the teacher and to see if the student is able to get the joke. What is the joke? The joke is us. We're a joke. We make up all these huge issues and huge stories--including the spiritual path--and then we take it all super seriously. But life isn't as serious as we make it out to be. All tragedies aside, most of life is very simple, but we foolishly make it way more complicated than it is.
But the super-serious spiritual student may not see this. If s/he doesn't see this, then the student is not ready to work with the spiritual teacher. Or perhaps, the student just needs another super-serious spiritual teacher, one who does not yet fully get the joke either. This is not a bad thing. There are all types of spiritual teachers at all levels of realization (You can read more about that on my What Is a Spiritual Teacher? blog post). So the student will likely decide that this teacher is a fool (S/he is, and so are you), and then move on, missing the lesson. (If you want an example of this, I can think of at least one super popular mainstream sci-fi movie where the teacher plays the role of the fool and the student completely doesn't realize it).
The Unapproachable or Distant Spiritual TeacherThe unapproachable spiritual teacher is just that--unapproachable. No matter how hard the student tries to get close, the spiritual teacher isn't there or seemingly delays the work. An example is the over-enthusiastic spiritual student who is chasing the latest spiritual flavor of the month. The teacher is testing to see the sincerity, tenacity, and perseverance of the student. Without perseverance, the student is likely to move on from the teacher before having really done the necessary work that they need to do. Keep in mind that spiritual teachers like me care about our students deeply and want only to help them to freely and lovingly lead their lives. But there is a danger of the student not completing what they need to, especially right when they are about to reach an important turning point. I've seen a number of students turn back or disengage right when things are getting interesting. Consequently, this test is an attempt to see how much the student is willing to do the necessary inner work with the spiritual teacher. Because if they aren't even willing to wait a couple of months or build a regular meditation practice in preparation for working with a teacher, how much is the student willing to do when things get really intense?
Consequently, this is why some teachers live way out in the middle of nowhere. The journey is part of the test and the preparation of the student. It shows what the student is willing to do not so much for the teacher, but for themselves.
The Seemingly Cruel Spiritual TeacherThe seemingly cruel spiritual teacher repeatedly and intentionally hits a student's key triggers. This can be issues of fear, self-worth, shame and just about anything. This is done as a test to see what the student is willing to endure, and it is usually designed for the undisciplined student with a lot of major issues to heal. It can also be a test specifically for the avoidance student, i.e. the student living in his or her head or trying to use the spiritual path as an escape from their issues. But this type of endurance test isn't meant to get the student through to another feel good moment; it is directing them right into their work. It is a truly rude awakening, and it will show the student all the issues that they have to work on. Being told that you are worthless or unimportant probably sounds like the most unspiritual thing in the world to hear, and the unready student will quickly leave the situation, confusing the teacher as cruel, not-a-true-spiritual teacher, or some other kind of justification to continue perpetuating their self-avoidance.
Certainly, this spiritual test requires a deft touch. But the teacher is always guiding the individual inwards, and if there are mountains of large issues, it is vital that the student shows that s/he is actually serious with engaging with the issues. So the student who is ready says, "I am hearing things that I don't want to hear. Why do I not want to hear this? What is true for me in what I am hearing? What difference does it make what words I hear from others? Who is setting the temperature dial on how I feel: me or the world?" When humility and compassionate questioning arise, the teacher will see the readiness, and the test will likely conclude if that is what is needed and how the teacher is guided.
It may not be as harsh as I'm making it out to be, but it could also be worse depending on the tests that the individual needs to confront. Without the necessary tenacity to deal with inner issues, the student would soon leave. If this student cannot handle 5 minutes of harsh words from the spiritual teacher that mirror back their own self-hatred, then the student is not ready for extended work.
The Truth-Teller Spiritual TeacherThe truth-teller spiritual teacher can be blunt. They may seem like they're being cruel depending on what needs to be said, but this is less about hitting triggers as it is about seeing if the student is ready to hear the truth. Despite what many spiritual seekers think, most are not interested in the truth about themselves. Most are interested in feeling good. Spiritual teachers such as myself are not leading you down the feel good path. Releasing pain and coming into your own love feels extraordinary, but it typically takes most people through a lot of pain first to melt into that inner space you already are. So the truth-teller spiritual teacher starts speaking the truth to you. They will tell you who and what you are. I'll never forget the look in the eyes of one student when I bluntly said:
"You are a spiritual teacher."
The level of fear that came up in response to that truth was almost too much for her. See? It can be truth like that that a truth-teller spiritual teacher will say. If the student can listen to the truth and act upon to incorporate it into their lives, then they may be ready for working with the spiritual teacher. If not, the student leaves.
Learning Your Spiritual LessonsThis spirituality post is intended to help you learn the lessons that confront many of you. Many of you are not ready for a spiritual teacher such as myself, and that is okay. Many of you are not meant to work with me, but you may find another teacher like me who employs these spiritual tests. The point on the spiritual path is to always be tuned into your inner knowing and to learn from the tests that the spiritual teacher confronts you with. If you try to game the teacher somehow, that will be seen. The space of deceit resides in darkness, and it will be clear before long what it is that you are up. But the space of honesty lives in the light, and that too can be see. Coming from that honest aspiration to learn and to grow with a spiritual teacher is a beautiful thing. It will have you laughing, crying, leaving everything you know behind, and embracing all your truth and all that you are. It can be a difficult thing, but it is always immensely rewarding when you engage with a spiritual teacher to guide you back to simply being you.
This picture is gift from Becky Stiller. You can see more of her photography on this Flickr link.