It is the middle of December, the last day of classes. Outside, the sky is darkening and the wind is rattling the windows. I am meeting with students in a course called “The Nature of Religious Experience.” We have been reading from the Upanishads, the Life of the Buddha, the Zen Buddhist Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Tao Te Ching, the books of Job, Isaiah, Matthew, the sermons of Meister Eckhart, and the poetry of two great masters of Islamic spirituality, Rumi and Hafiz. We have been speaking about religious experience—we have not been trying to have religious experience.

But, of course, throughout the semester students have been asking the great questions of the heart. And I have been trying to maintain a necessary balance between my academic responsibility on the one hand and, on the other, my personal feelings–not only for the intimate metaphysical needs of the students, but for the fundamental questions about life and the search for truth that are bound to arise in the presence of such texts.

I had promised the students that on the last day of class, after they handed in their final essays, they should feel free to speak about absolutely anything. Attendance in this final class meeting was understood to be purely voluntary. In past semesters, about half the students would remain after dropping off their exams, but today, perhaps because of the threatening weather, only a dozen students, or less than one-third, stayed. I invited them all to come forward and form a half-circle in the front of the room.

Teaching such material, I have over the years felt a duty to my students to provide some kind of forum, even if just as a token, relatively outside of academic considerations, that could more directly acknowledge the personal metaphysical sensitivities that draw so many of these young men and women to such a course in the first place. In these “unofficial” sessions, however, one specific question has always arisen that I have found impossible to respond to in any adequate way. On this occasion it was the first question asked. I groaned inwardly when I heard it:

“How do you recognize a real spiritual teacher? How do you tell the difference between someone who really knows something and someone who’s just a charlatan?”

As is well known, the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work, has for decades been the breeding ground of many new religious movements. Everything good and bad about the now widespread culture of New Age spirituality had its origin here–everything from the entry into our society of authentic teachers from the ancient traditions of Asia and the Middle East to spiritual fantasists from every nook and cranny of the world. The joke used to be that if you threw a brick out of any window in San Francisco, you would probably hit a guru. Representatives of the great traditions present teachings honed over centuries right alongside peddlers of psycho-spiritual superstitions and deceptively marketed forms of self-manipulation and self-inflation. What man or woman in search of the Way would not be confused and bewildered? Of course students need to ask this question.

And of course I need to respond to it.

Over the years I had put together a number of formulations about this question which, taken as a whole, was usually enough to pass for a satisfactory reply. But each time it left me with the hollow sense that they had asked for bread and I had given them a stone. And each time I tried to justify myself by reasoning that it was not my place to imagine I actually had any “bread,” in the form of personal guidance, to give them. Nor was it my place to express my personal opinion about this or that teacher or group or religion. I am a professor of philosophy, not a preacher or a guru. But these rationalizations, although perfectly valid as far as they went, only increased my sense of failure in front of an honest, real question, the very sort of question I had just invited. Yes, I am a professor, but I am also a human being, and as such, I am morally obliged to try to do justice to this question of the heart. But how?

I BEGAN IN MY USUAL WAY by acknowledging the seriousness of the question, citing references in world literature describing the characteristics of a genuine spiritual master. A spiritual teacher, we are told, seeks only the good of the pupil, uses no seductive methods or tricks that play on human weaknesses, and is in some manner connected to a lineage. As for personal qualities, the true spiritual guide is tranquil, humble, unconcerned with material things, and is, above all, compassionate and all-loving, never given to egoistic anger or self-serving personal emotions of any kind.

But this time—perhaps it was because of the loud sounds of the approaching storm—I could not really put myself into this response. In fact, I was never really able to believe in such an answer. It was, I now realized, pretty worthless, but I had never known exactly why.

A flash of lightning brightened the room. In that instant, I saw the faces of my students as if for the first time, and I felt shame. I was answering this heartfelt question in a way that gave them nothing–while making them think they were receiving something useful. And the reason I was doing this–leading them into a revolving door of mere words and academic abstractions—was that I very simply did not know how to answer it. What I was giving them were somebody else’s answers, but what I owed them, with their expectant upturned eyes, was myself, my own conviction.

But what were my convictions?

I was standing by the blackboard facing the students. I put down my chalk and leaned a little against the blackboard. For what seemed a very long period, I said nothing. And nothing occurred to me. But what was entirely new in the situation was that I felt no panic whatsoever. I did not inwardly scramble to find any words or ideas or references. I don’t know how I must have looked to them, but inside I was receiving the experience of my emptiness in front of this question. It was a gift that I was accepting and–here is the main point–it was what I owed to them. Finally, I understood that I was in the realm of ethics, the ethics of communal thought. I put all my trust and faith in the honesty of accepting my ignorance.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” I said. “Let’s think about it.”

I continued: “All those qualities of a true teacher—they can all be imitated, obviously. Anyone can say they are authorized; anyone can say they are sent by God; anyone can pretend to be serene and compassionate, at least for a little while and to a certain extent. So what are we to do? We need help and genuine guidance, but we don’t want to be fooled. We want to be open, but not gullible. We want to be critical, but not cynical.”

Suddenly I saw that I was feeling the question as my own; I too was in need and in search of wisdom and guidance. But now the next question arose in me with great intensity: how much do I really wish for wisdom and guidance? How serious is that need in me—or in any of us?

All eyes were on me.

It was so clear now. “We all have this question,” I said, acutely aware that everyone was watching and waiting. “But how intently do we search for a teacher or for wisdom? Is our need really as deep as we say or imagine?”

Why had I never before thought like this? I had only to allow the functioning of my whole psyche–mind and feeling–to deliver associations that corresponded to the question, which was now my own, and also to the need of the questioners in front of me. In other words, I had to be in question while responding to the question.

ONCE AGAIN, I WAITED FOR the silence to gather. Now I was not at all afraid that the class would see their “wise” professor at a loss. Many seconds passed, a minute, two minutes. The roaring sounds of the storm seemed to increase, and even sweeten the silence. The rain was loud and steady. Thick sheets of water were streaming down the windows.

“We might say we are searching, but what are we actually doing?”

Had I ended the class just then without saying anything further, no one would have been disappointed. Had I myself been a spiritual guide, perhaps that is what I would have done, so as to allow the question to sink down into them. But I was being drawn to something else. I was quietly choosing to have faith in the act of simultaneously accepting both my incapacity and my inescapable duty to respond with honesty to the genuine inquiry of another mind.

I started by saying, “How are you searching?”

The class looked at me expectantly.

I continued, speaking exactly as my thoughts came to me, without weighing my words: “We want to know how to recognize a real teacher, but do we ever ask ourselves in what way we are searching for a teacher, in what way we are searching for truth? Could it be that we can only recognize a teacher when we are in a state of need, when real need pours through us and sensitizes our powers of perception? A hungry man looks for food in a very different way than a full man. Need can attract intelligence.

“We might say we are searching, but what are we actually doing? We read books–sometimes, when it pleases us; or we listen to lectures–sometimes. But otherwise we may go through our day-to-day lives with no thought at all of this question, with no sense of need for something deeper in our lives.

“Just as it is only the real Self that can see the real world behind the appearances, so it may be that it is only the real seeker who can recognize a genuine man or woman of wisdom.

“Does that seem right to you?” I asked Timothy, the student who had initially voiced the question. And then I turned to the others. They were looking back at me with great attention.

I continued: “Imagine a condemned man in prison. Nothing matters more to him than the possibility of escape. This need is always with him, no matter what he is doing. This prisoner hears of people who have a plan of escape, and he listens to these plans openly and with great care. He studies the people who offer them. Who are they? Are they solid? Or are they just crazy? Can they control themselves? Or will they break apart at the first difficulty?

“Some plans he can see through immediately, but as for the rest, he neither rejects nor accepts anything a priori–because it is his very life that is at stake. His need gives him the power to be open and critical at the same time. His need is so great that it makes him cool and patient, yet at the same time ready, if necessary, instantly to mobilize himself for action.”

Suddenly I felt that I was now starting to talk too much, that I was allowing a metaphor to lead, rather than serve, my thought. With a certain effort, I stopped my mind for a second: it was clear that I needed to say more, to think more, to give more, but from where in myself could the next step come?

THE ANSWER SOON APPEARED–and of course it did not come from anywhere in myself at all. It came from them, the students, from the other half of the transaction. How could I have forgotten that? How could I have begun to speak in a way that left so little room for questioning, so little room for the other?

A young woman named Adriana asked, very simply, “But suppose we don’t have such a sense of need? Suppose it is too buried? What should we do? The question is still there–how can we know who to trust?”

A moment passed. I started to pace, then stopped.

Only one thing came to me–the faith that intelligence can appear not from anything I can make happen, but only from staying in front of the truth and the need of the moment. The faith had returned, faith in attention, not in words or concepts.

“Can we stay with that?” I said to her.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“I mean, can you–can we–stay with the truth of our situation? Let’s say that I encounter an individual who seems capable of offering real spiritual guidance. Let’s say I am very interested in this person, but I am not sure–either of my possible teacher or of myself. I don’t know if this person is what he or she seems. I don’t want to turn away from something that might be what I wish for; nor do I want to follow something or someone only through self-suggestion or wishful thinking. What do I do?

“I stay with my uncertainty, which is now sensed as a need. It is not only he or she about whom I now have a question; it is myself who is in question. Perhaps I see something else as well–an impatience, a kind of pressure inclining me to close the question, to get on with it all, to come to a judgment about this person before me. But if I stay with the truth of the situation, the truth that I don’t know if I can really trust this man and that my hunger is not so deep as to bring me instinctive certainty–if I stay like that, what happens then?”

Adriana replied with a relaxed voice: “I think I see where you are going.”

“Here you are,” I said. “You want to know if this man or woman in front of you is a genuine spiritual guide, but your wish is only of ordinary intensity. You do not have the desperate intuition of a great seeker. Yet you are not complacent either, although you sense in yourself the pressure of habit that at any moment may shut down the question. What is taking place in you?”

The class was allowing this strange conversation to continue. No one interrupted the dialogue that was taking place, and now Adriana and I were genuinely thinking together. I had asked her a question, the answer to which I honestly did not know. It was a question to us, not to her. It was to the two of us, supported by the attention of eleven other students.

Her reply, which came to her exactly as the same thought came to me, was:

“I guess I . . . just wait. I really don’t have to make up my mind right away. I just go on speaking to this person, watching him, wondering. I don’t have to decide!”

I nodded—not to her, but to us. “And now what?”

“My God!” she said, and stopped.

What had she discovered? Now it was I who didn’t know.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

“My God!” she repeated—and then went on: “I am now more interested in how open my mind is than I am in knowing whether this person is or isn’t a real teacher!”

A long pause. Sounds of rain. Silence.

Of course, I thought, that’s the answer. Our dialogue had brought her and us to a faith in the mind, a faith in intelligence. A real question had been answered–not by words, but by an event in the mind, an event shared by two people. A creation.

This essay is adapted from Jacob Needleman’s book Why Can’t We Be Good? (Tarcher/Penguin, February 2007). Used by permission of the publisher.

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