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.

Review : All Our Waves are Water

all our waves

Forgive the bad joke, but I’ve really done a deep dive into Jaimal Yogis body of work this past week. I watched the documentary about his life – Saltwater Buddha while reading his latest book released in July 2017 titled All Our Waves are Water – Stumbling Towards Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride . I fully enjoyed the road trip by journeying along through Jaimal’s life and times through both celluloid and print.

All Our Waves are Water is a continuation of Jaimal’s book Saltwater Buddha in which he takes readers on his journey from boy to man – or grommet to older surf dude (I have no idea what the accepted surfer vernacular is around this – forgive me). It’s a wild trip taken by someone who started out like many of us – seeking escape from suffering through drugs, drink and running away from home. He comes to develop a solid relationship with surfing, spirituality and seeing the world as a means of self-discovery, relaxation and personal goal setting. As he says in the book, “Surfing was Zen for the stormy world.”

Carrying the torch from Saltwater Buddha, All Our Waves picks up with a 23-year old Jaimal in India to try to secure credentials to help him get into Columbia Journalism school. He bounced around looking for work and eventually found a job as an English translator for a young Tibetan monk named Sonam. This auspicious meeting was one that transformed Jaimal greatly as Sonam’s outlook towards life was something that changed his outlook as well. The story of their friendship gives all kinds of good heart feels. The young monk’s memories of Tibet and his family are bittersweet, and his wish to return is painful to read.

Jaimal finds the beauty and the wisdom in everything that surrounds him, and the foundation of this book relates to exactly this level of perception of his environment – both internal and external. This book is like sitting around the campfire with an old friend who tells the best stories.

He has a profound ability to create the most vivid and beautiful landscapes through his descriptions of the many locations he has visited. India, Mexico, Israel, Bali – heck even New York City in winter becomes magical through his descriptive lens. It’s clear that he’s connected to nature and has a profound gift for being able to detail what he witnesses around him. Beyond the settings he exposes readers to, he provides insight into the people he meets on his various journeys. You’ll discover the “Queen of Ocean Beach,” Sari a boatload of surfers, and other assorted characters– each person dropping wisdom in Jaimal’s life.

He quotes Rumi in capturing the essence of what his writing is about as he says, “this book is an attempt to understand the ocean in a drop.” As such, the ocean is a central character in the book. We’re gifted with the words of a ‘spiritual surfer’ – someone who asks the deep questions and plunges into the rip curl even though they are scared witless. Jaimal’s understanding of Buddhism is placed in the context of surfing. Emptiness, nonduality, compassion, interdependence, enlightenment – it’s all par for the course when you’re floating on your board waiting to catch the next wave. He has many other experiences, notably at the Wailing Wall that encompass Christianity so this book can best be defined as spiritual rather than exclusively Buddhist in tone.

As you would expect is the case with someone who both travels to remote locales as well as cavorting on monster-sized waves, there are accidents, bails, and near-death experiences. There are also stories from being away on retreat, something that can also feel like a death-defying drop into a rogue wave the size of a building. He deftly describes the mental and physical processes he experienced while on retreat or during meditation – something that helps other practitioners see that they’re not alone in having loopy feelings or thoughts arise when on the cushion.

Fear is another central theme in the book, and it’s something that Jaimal has explored in a previous book titled The Fear Project . He has no shame in speaking to his fears – worries about grad school, about surfing, about his relationships – he gets into all areas of his life where fear lurks below the surface.

All Our Waves are Water is a surf travelogue blended with the journey of a spiritually minded individual. For those who aren’t familiar with either the landscape of surfing or the spiritual space, you’ll discover new lands and take an interest in Jaimal’s experiences as he navigates through his youth and the challenges and joys found in the process of finding (and losing, then rediscovering) oneself. It’s an engaging read that kept me highly interested, and for anyone who enjoys books about travel from the first person point of view, you won’t be disappointed. I’m looking forward to Jaimal’s next book as he transitions from a young father to a grizzled old spiritual surf dude.

Finished Reading – The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying

The Bright Hour

A direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs inherited a love of the written word and graduated with an MFA in poetry. She went on to have a book of poetry titled Lucky, Lucky published in 2009. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. She decided to document her experiences on her blog Suspicious Country where she shared what it was like to be a married, young mother of two with this disease.

Readers are fortunate that Nina was able to write her story, The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying before her death in 2017. This book is a bittersweet one that left me with gratitude for her ability to transform the ordinary bits of day-to-day life into opportunities for deep reflection.

Her writing is honest and exquisite.  She bares all and explores all of her emotions – from dark humor to joy, hopelessness, horror, magic, and beauty. It’s all part of the landscape. She sees the good and bad in all of this and says, “I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.”

Nina’s writing is evocative. She describes people, moments, relationships, and landscapes much in the way that Emerson does. The relationship she has with her mother – the ups and downs, and the details of her decline and subsequent death in some ways set the stage for much of what Nina covers in this book. It’s a memoir of her experience as a daughter who accompanies her mother into death, and then not long after- faces her own. Nina’s love for her children, husband, father, and friends shine throughout these pages. Her appreciation for nature is also featured prominently, and she sees herself reflected in all of it. She punctuates her story with many details from history and a variety of facts – all of which help to serve as anchors for her experience.

She cleverly names the chapters of this book based on stages, and this serves as a way to see both the progression of the disease as well as the decline and realizations that come from the passage of time. The book begins with her speaking to her mother having terminal cancer and then months later; she is in treatment for incurable metastatic cancer. The Bright Hour is an attempt to describe the indescribable. She offers her insight into the landscape of the medical industry and the language of cancer via her experience. Nina writes with the knowledge that she’s dying and she’s so honest about it all.

The Bright Hour is a philosophical examination of illness and of life and death. It’s a gift that she’s left for readers – a vehicle for us to see what it’s like to travel on uncharted waters into the face of one’s mortality. It tells the story of family and how we fumble through our relationships, make mistakes and do the awkward dance of being honest and hiding for fear of hurting our loved ones. It speaks to what it means to live and die with authenticity and helps to advance the death positivity movement. To read Nina’s words is to be fearless and brave and glance into a life that is coming to an end and the powerlessness that can be felt from this reality.

Bodhisattvas and Boundaries

Someone around me is drinking himself to death. It’s not anyone in my immediate family or a friend – but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to watch. It’s made me keenly aware of the sense of powerless that comes when addiction grabs hold of a person and won’t let go. It’s also made me keenly aware of the boundaries that exist between people. There is also an acknowledgment of letting go.

I remember back to a few years ago – I submitted a question to a teacher who was a guest on the Buddhist Geeks podcast related to the concept of “bodhisattva burnout” and what to do if you felt exhausted from running around trying to save the world. She replied something to the effect of ‘if you’re a true bodhisattva, you won’t burn out.”


That didn’t really help. I felt like I did when I first discovered Wonder Woman as a child. I dressed up as her one Halloween and then decided that I would adopt a superheroine ethos and truly embody her full time. I’d run around our neighborhood asking people if they needed help with anything. Usually I’d be helping people hang laundry up, or sometimes they’d need help with eating the extra cookies they made. That part wasn’t so bad.

Discovering Buddhism led me to some pretty great new ways of living in the world and relating to others – all while exploring myself. The drawback though was that I found Buddhism at a time where let’s say my self-esteem and self-concept wasn’t fully realized. I think for a good chunk of my ‘Buddhist career’ we can say this has been the case. Without a solid grip and solid instructions on what it means to be a bodhisattva, it’s easy to see how I could feel much like that kid in the costume, running from house to house, breathlessly trying to save the world.

Now I have a sense of my own self-preservation. I am consciously checking in to see when I start to feel that burnout and know to engage in self-care and chillaxation.

I’m also aware of the boundaries that exist for another ‘self.’ I’ve become more attuned to how individuals are – the forces that come about in their lives to help them become who they are and make the decisions they make. The self-work I’ve done has helped me gain a deeper perspective into this kind of stuff. It’s mind-blowing and life changing really.

I now see that not everyone is going to take the help a bodhisattva offers. I no longer take this personally or think that I’ve failed and need to grind myself to a paste to force what I want to happen. The ideal ending for the story sometimes doesn’t get written.

I practice letting go of the outcome I have in mind and working with the outcome that is. I generate compassion for myself in knowing that I tried my best to save the world – even if those actions seem so small and meaningless.

I no longer feel like I’m burning out because there’s always an opportunity to practice loving-kindness and compassion. There’s always a living being that is in need of aid. True change can only come through the relationship that that other being has in taking the help offered. I’m in no way in any sense of the word someone who understands karma, but I see that some outcomes are beyond what I can influence. There is both a sense of freedom in seeing this as well as a complete sense of powerlessness. I’m learning to dwell in both areas and stay with the discomfort.