Book Review – The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers | Scott Edelstein

users guide to spiritual teachers

“Open your heart. Discern the truth. Stay safe.”

The cover of this book has these pithy words emblazoned across it, and nothing could better summarize what Scott Edelstein  is advocating in his latest book The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers.

I can’t think of any spiritually oriented book that is of greater importance in these current times than Edelstein’s. One need only look at the issues of abuse raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa community, as well as those reported in the Aro sangha to see how we’re seeing an emergence of students speaking out about mistreatment at the hands of their teachers. Scott’s previous book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher opened the curtains on this situation, and his latest book serves as one that goes that one step further in the process of working with a spiritual teacher – back to where it begins and the selection of – and relationship with a guru.

Humans have sought our spiritual guidance for many years. Sometimes the complex relationship with a teacher can provide us with the understanding and growth we seek, and on the flipside, we can end up damaged and destroyed. It’s a mistake to think that because someone says they are a realized being, that they aren’t manipulating you or in possession of psychopathic tendencies.

Back before people had the opportunity to harness the power of a Google search, Yelp reviews, or social media comments related to a teacher, we only had the feedback of a small group in our direct community. Many of those who were abused were threatened, shamed or too frightened to come forward and share their experience. Today we’re in a period where because of the bravery of others, people now know they’re not alone and can find support.

The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers is a valuable book for those who are curious about entering into a relationship with a guide. It lays out what one needs to look for in such a person, and while it doesn’t attempt to answer all of the questions involved with this process, it does provide guidance and tools that are worth checking out.

Scott speaks to the idea of checking in with ourselves to determine how we feel about the teacher, and to use our discretion to work with what comes up. Blind faith is destructive when entering this kind of relationship. He notes that while they may seem like they’re highly developed, supernatural beings, teachers are a lot like us and have the same emotions, quirks, and downfalls as we do. Just as many people (for some reason I don’t understand) put the Kardashians on a pedestal, some students gravitate towards teachers because of their huge presence and fame. Scott directs readers to evaluate their feelings and see what is drawing them to a teacher. He encourages people to examine a teacher’s credentials and ultimately to check in with both their heart and their gut to see what comes up.

He plainly indicates what he believes is and isn’t acceptable in a teacher-student relationship. A great distinction he makes is that a good teacher is someone who reminds you what’s already in your heart and helps you to feel more human – not less. Scott defines what kinds of expectations, assumptions, and misconceptions involved in the teacher-student relationship and points out where we can expect more from teachers than they can provide. A teacher won’t give you all the answers to the test; they can only help you figure things out for yourself. For some students, this is frustrating beyond belief as they may be looking for someone who tells them what they should be doing. Each person is different and what we are looking for in a teacher varies as well.

Much of the book speaks to the necessity for investigation and inquiry. Whether it’s checking the credentials of a teacher or their sangha, or turning within and asking yourself how you think and feel when you encounter your teacher, Scott suggests we hold our interpretations and beliefs lightly but remain vigilant and aware.

The author investigates the behind the scenes work that goes on when working with and relating to a teacher – from the ways people may interact with them, through to how to set boundaries for yourself to remain safe. There are suggestions on how to deal with ending a relationship with a teacher and/or community. Yes, as much as he focuses on the student-teacher relationship, Edelstein recommends placing great attention upon spiritual communities and organizations as well, as he believes that they serve as a direct reflection of the teacher. I’ve heard this line of thinking from others and remarkably I’ve found it to be quite true.

One of the main things that I respect is that Edelstein provides advice rather than being heavy-handed with one-size fits all approach. This is one of the more powerful lessons of The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers in that it’s truly about the ‘user’ in this journey.

He has a comprehensive list of several red flags and warning signs to watch out for in a student-teacher relationship and defines four essential elements needed for a healthy relationship of this nature. Abuse may take many forms – be it sexual, psychological and financial amongst other types and Scott covers many of the various kinds within this book. He lists several FAQ’s that arise related to this topic and closes the book with a list of useful resources to check out on this topic as well as what to look for when you’re the new kid at a spiritual center (you can read most of this in this article).

I am grateful for Scott Edelstein’s continued work in providing grounded advice in the areas where spirituals communities need to be delving into – namely sexual relationships between teachers and their students as well as selecting and being guided by a teacher. The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers is an important book for those who are embarking on the search for a guide – or who may be wondering if their relationship is or isn’t constructive or healthy. Reading Scott’s books may help many from encountering pitfalls or enduring needless suffering.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – The User’s Guide to Spiritual Teachers | Scott Edelstein

  1. Shaun Bartone says:

    I appreciate your nuanced handling of this difficult subject. But the whole ‘guru thing’ is why I left Dzogchen, and Tibetan Tantra as a whole, although I appreciate and use many of its teachings. Besides the fact that guru relationships are hothouses for abuses of all kinds (there are numerous accounts of Hindu gurus that are just as exploitive) that’s not why I left the guru path. The most important thing I’ve learned is that whatever it is you’re looking for in a spiritual path, it’s not “out there.” It’s not in a teacher, priest, rabbi, lama or guru. It’s not in a sangha, organization or church; it’s not in a book, scripture, course or guide. It’s inside you, and if you don’t find it in there, you’re not going to find it anywhere else. A lama or teacher can’t give you what you don’t already possess, your buddhanature. She or he can help you discover and understand it, but you’re the one who has to do the work of looking, finding understanding and developing within yourself that which you seek. I see a lot of people taking the guru path who abdicate their adulthood and become like needy children, thinking they’re going to find a path to their inner life in the guru. But they’re looking in wrong place. I’ve met people in tantric Buddhism who have spent 20 or 30 years of their lives in courses and retreats, following lamas and gurus, taking samaya vows, doing ngondro and piling up empowerments. And at the end of all that, they still feel empty, lost, unfulfilled, disillusioned, still searching for the next teacher, lama, guru, path, guide that is finally going to do it for them this time. It never works. Again, it’s not ‘out there’, and if you don’t find it within yourself, you’re never going to find it anywhere else.

    • Tanya McGinnity says:

      Thanks so much for this Shaun. You’re so right on when it comes to the wisdom coming from within. I think many students get on this fast track to the guru path without even knowing why or what they’re doing. I think reminders that Scott provides in his book to really inquire and ask questions and check within aren’t discussed as much as the groupthink that we’ve come to know that can like to lurk in the shadows of sanghas.
      I keep thinking to much of this being related to psychology, self esteem and whether we trust ourselves as we are, or if we need external validation to feel like we’re achieving something. I don’t know if any studies have been done on sanghas related to measurements of self esteem or what people come to groups or the teachings but I’d be very curious.

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