The Nine Stages of Spiritual Apprenticeship: Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship

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9780963906854: The Nine Stages of Spiritual Apprenticeship: Understanding the Student-Teacher Relationship

This book explores how associating with a spiritual guide can aid a seeker on the path. Greg Bogart describes all phases of spiritual apprenticeship--from choosing a teacher, initiation, discipleship, testing, guru yoga, and inner awakening, to the stages of separating from a teacher, finding the teacher within, and teaching others. If you are searching for a teacher, The Nine Stages of Spiritual Apprenticeship provides a map of what to expect. If you already have a teacher, this book will help you avoid the pitfalls. If you had a teacher and got burned, this book can help you heal. Of interest to practitioners of all traditions.

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Discipleship in Spiritual Apprenticeship

Excerpt from The Nine Stages of Spiritual Apprenticeship

By Greg Bogart, Ph.D.

The relationship between spiritual teacher and aspirant is founded on the recognition of a need to associate with a person who has fully traversed the process of inner transformation, who has achieved some degree of illumination, and who has the skill to guide students on the path. The student has made the effort to approach a teacher and has received initiation. Now the students task is to assimilate the teachers message and transformative influence. The spiritual apprentice begins to build a life around the teacher, a life that constantly acknowledges the teachers influence. This is the beginning of the phase known as discipleship.

In some cases recorded historically a single encounter with an enlightened being has led to awakening of the student. In other cases the student engages in an extended period of study and service to the teacher. In some instances we become devoted students of teachers who are no longer physically alive. Regardless of the form it takes, the relationship is consciously chosen by the student as an outgrowth of a deepening desire to grow spiritually, to come closer to God, to awaken Buddha mind, to wake up from the sleep of spiritual ignorance. This goal may become so compelling and so central that other concerns, such as the pursuit of wealth, romantic love, fame, or worldly power may pale into in significance.

The commitment of discipleship is usually an outgrowth of encounters with a teacher that demonstrate the teachers greatness and wisdom, and move the student to respond with respect, gratitude, devotion, and a desire to receive instruction. In this stage, the spiritual app! rentice becomes a disciple, a follower of the teachers way. For some, discipleship means performing direct service to the teacher or living in a spiritual community, such as an ashram or monastery. For others it means practicing meditative, yogic, or contemplative techniques, following vows or precepts, or carrying the spirit of the gurus teachings into daily life. Some students accept a teacher whom they have never met on the physical plane and assume the stance of discipleship simply by meditating on the teachers words or pictures, or through inner remembrance of the teacher. Discipleship may be a total commitment, or it may take its place next to other pursuits such as family life, professional responsibilities, and artistic activities.

In either case, the student willingly embraces a reverent or devotional relationship with a spiritual teacher who is acknowledged as a primary guiding influence. As the relationship unfolds and accelerates the disciples spiritual progress, an abiding devotion, faith, and love between teacher and student begins to grow. The teachers personal example and direct transmission of spiritual energy can have such a profound impact that the student feels a natural and enduring gratitude, and thus willingly submits to the teachers discipline and authority. Finding an illumined teacher may elicit feelings of ecstasy, bliss, relief, and a feeling of inner openness to the teacher from a space beyond the rational mind. For some students, recognizing the cord of love that connects them to a teacher is the beginning of a lifelong commitment. Such individuals may follow the spiritual mentors teachings toward the final goal of enlightenment without ever experiencing a significant disturbance in the relationship.

For such students, the teacher is a trusted friend, companion, and guide on the spiritual path. In this stage of spiritual apprenticeship we develop an ongoing relationship with a teacher, listen to instruction, receive individualized guidance, establish a spiritual practice, and have regular opportunities to meet the teachers enlightened mind. Regular visits to the teacher are very helpful at this stage. This in itself requires effort and sacrifices. By putting aside other interests to spend time in the teachers company we signify the growing priority of the spiritual quest in our lives. A desire for enlightenment begins to burn within our hearts.

The Phase of Instruction

Part of the teachers role is to explain things to us, introducing us to some form of doctrine or spiritual teaching. Each aspirant needs clarification of some details of meditation practice, spiritual doctrine, or understanding of the dynamics of the mind. Providing these explanations may or may not be the teachers forte. Some teachers hardly speak at all. Others chat with students or answer simple questions but never give formal discourses. Others lecture with great skill. At this stage of spiritual apprenticeship the student begins to attend darshan or study groups on a regular basis, or reads written materials in order to absorb the teachers discourse of instruction.

Through our regular contact with the teacher, we have our questions answered directly. The teachers words gradually remove our doubts and help us understand how to proceed in working with ourselves so that we can evolve spiritually. The teachers skill in removing our doubts helps deepen our confidence in his or her guidance. We feel that we are washing our minds and hearts clean with the truth the teacher conveys. We begin to experience the delight of living disciplined lives and purifying our minds and hearts. We start to feel the transformative effects of practicing a spiritual discipline.

Establishing a Spiritual Practice

Seeing the teachers state of freedom and joy and receiving instruction inspires us to practice disciplines such as meditation, prayer, asanas and pranayama, mantras, or visualizations. We learn methods of attunement to the inner light, methods for developing peace and equanimity.

Now it is time for the spiritual apprentice to practice these methods, which shift awareness away from ordinary thinking, perception, and mental chatter, toward the field of consciousness itself. Such practices transform us and reveal the intrinsically clear and peaceful awareness that is our true nature. By practicing methods of meditation or Self-inquiry we gradually become like the teacher. At first we learn a set of practices within one particular tradition. Later, we may develop a spiritual practice of our own that blends elements of several disciplines or traditions. My own practice, for example, combines my training in meditation, hatha yoga, depth psychology and dreamwork, astrology, and music. Gradually we find a practice that is in alignment with our personalities and inclinations. I am not partial to devotional practices, but I am quite drawn to the physical rigors of hatha yoga. We must find our own way. The spiritual apprentice also learns what conditions are conducive to practice. For example, I like to practice hatha yoga before sunrise and meditation near sunset.

I also like to practice yoga while listening to music and to meditate while soaking in hot springs. Thus, we identify what factors or environments are helpful to us in intensifying our inner work. We also identify what hinders us or creates obstruction to cultivating mindfulness and a quiet mind. Find the yoga or discipline that works for you and then practice it so that it tunes your consciousness, so that you become fully aligned with your inherent radiance, intelligence, and joy. Maybe your practice is sitting zazen, or contemplative prayer, or martial arts, or ecstatic dancing, or Sufi zhikr (remembrance of God). Hazrat Inayat Khan said, The path you choose is the path for you. When you find the right practice or combination of practices, you will know. It will feel good. Doing this practice feels like a place you want to return to again and again.

There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I have found the right spiritual practices. For me, the disciplines of yoga (such as asana, pranayama, mantra, and meditation) are reliable ways of coming into balance, refining my awareness, accessing expanded consciousness, and attaining inner peace.

Learning One Thing Well

In the stage of discipleship our task is to master specific instructions or techniques that the teacher imparts. Part of the teachers role is to teach us a few basic practices that we can do consistently. In 1979, my hatha yoga teacher, Allan Bateman, taught me a series of sixteen yoga postures, three breathing exercises, and relaxation. As I explored other systems of yoga over the years I noticed that many of them were more complex and exhaustive than Allans method. I was always curious to learn new exercises, so I once asked Allan to teach me new postures and yogic techniques.

To my surprise, he declined, asking in response, Have you mastered everything I have shown you? I had to admit that I had not, and that I could still learn to do the basic poses with greater effortlessness and precision. Thus, over the years I keep going back to the basics, rather than worrying about whether I have achieved the most advanced and difficult poses. The basic practices have always been! abundantly nourishing. I have been doing this same sequence of poses since 1979. Periodically I branch out and learn other methods and new postures, but I always come back to the basic sequence I learned from Allan. This discipline has been deeply transformative for me. I believe it is better to find one method and to work deeply with it, whatever it is, rather than learning many different methods and techniques that we will never practice on a regular basis. Such learning is useless window shopping. Many spiritual teachers convey methods that are too complicated, too demanding, and too time-consuming for the average person to utilize as a regular practice.

A wise teacher passes on a manageable, usable set of practices that the student can take home and practice consistently. As we change our habits and evolve our own daily practice, we may soon notice remarkable changes in ourselves. For example, we begin to wake up earlier, to rouse ourselves from slumber to stretch, to breathe, to chant or repeat a mantra, to rouse the fires of the inner life, to greet the day with joy and devotion and dedication to our upcoming days labors. We may sit to feel the setting of the sun, quieting down into a state of deep absorption that reflects the evenings beautiful dark blue radiance. We remember our teachers with love. Most importantly, we begin to feel more peaceful, mindful, and loving in our daily lives. This is often a time of wonder and amazement as we see the initial results of our new spiritual practices and experience unexpected expansions of our consciousness.

Personal Contact with the Teacher

One sign that our spiritual apprenticeship is being properly guided is that we feel our teachers willingness to engage in open communication. No matter how great a teacher may be, if he or she wont relate to you as a person then you may decide that this person in not your teacher, even if he or she is widely considered to be an awakened sage. What good is a teacher who is never available to talk to you or answer your questions? A teacher should not act like youre asking for a big favor because you request to speak to him or her about a matter of personal importance. A man I counseled named Doug was a close student of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher whom I will call Lama Z. Dougs girlfriend became pregnant and he decided to marry her.

His new responsibilities, in turn, began to cut into the long hours he had been dedicating to working for a business owned and operated by the Lamas spiritual community. After he had heard the news, Lama Zs only comment to Doug was, Too bad about the girl. Doug was hurt by this statement, which seemed to imply strong disapproval of this turn of events. The implication was that Doug would no longer be able to do his spiritual practices because he would be tied down by his family responsibilities. Another student, his supervisor at the business, said, Youre compromising your position with Lama Z. Doug felt misunderstood and perplexed by their statements and their negative attitude toward his marriage. I asked Doug if he felt there was anything nonspiritual about marriage and child rearing. Could not these activities and commitments, like any other endeavors, be fields or vehicles for the practice of the Dharma, the path to enlightenment? Maybe the lama and his other student were falling into the dualistic trap of making a distinction between Dharma practice and worldly life. Doug agreed. His next impulse was to leave the teacher immediately. I asked Doug whether it had ever occurred to him to simply talk to his teacher about his concerns, and to ask him directly if there was some reason why his teacher should disapprove of his becoming a householder.

I told him, If your teacher is unwilling to speak with you about your concerns and questions, and to address them in a personal way, then perhaps he is not really your teacher. If he makes you feel bad about your choices, if he makes you doubt the positive value of your human commitments and responsibilities, then you should q! uestion whether you have found the right teacher for you. Doug gathered up his courage to speak to Lama Z, who, when he better understood how his words had affected Doug, graciously apologized and gave Doug his blessing to marry. Doug has continued to have a long and fruitful spiritual apprenticeship under Lama Zs guidance, and this episode was a critical turning point in their relationship. Both Doug and Lama Z learned important lessons, illustrating how both student and teacher can learn from one another in the process of spiritual apprenticeship. This story illustrates how students have the responsibility to speak their minds to teachers and to not submit unquestioningly. It is also an example of how teachers have the responsibility to listen to students and to not be inflexible or claim to be infallible.

Review:

"Bogart calls upon his expertise as a psychotherapist and his experience as a mature spiritual seeker to discuss issues that are crucial for Western students of inner pathways. The chapter on "Separating from a Spiritual Teacher" explores the issue of the fallen guru from a particularly clear and heartfelt perspective. This is a must-read for all spiritual seekers and their teachers." -- Judith Lasater, Ph.D., Yoga teacher, author of Relax and Renew

Greg Bogart has done an excellent job of describing the experience of self-unfoldment under the guidance of a guru or spiritual guide. His book is a clear and detailed map of the processincluding its difficulties, dangers, joys, and ultimate value. Highly recommended. -- John White, author of What is Enlightenment?

Psychotherapist and yogi Greg Bogart elucidates the path of the spiritual apprentice. Drawing on his experiences with a number of teachers, notably Swami Muktananda, as well as interviews with other students, Bogart explores the subtleties of this special bond. This is a clear, reasoned exposition that will help seekers of all persuasions. -- Yoga Journal, March/April 1998

Sooner or later every spiritual seeker needs expert guidance on the path. Those who have arrived at this critical juncture will find this book clarifying, balanced, highly readable, and above all helpful. This is the best book available on spiritual apprenticeship and the psychological issues involved. -- Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Author of Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga

This is a thorough, well-rounded, and clearly written book on a very delicate subject. Bogart obviously has years of experience attending to the nuances of spiritual relationship, and is able to bring that experience to bear in an intelligent, comprehensible discourse. He unearths the many perilsand promisesof the apprenticeship path, including false idolatry, false messiahs, and when its time to leave the ashram.Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist paths all include some form of devotion to a teacher or guru. In a voice that is personal and heartfelt, Bogart shares his own experiences along this path, and offers numerous insightful examples from the lives of well-known students and teachers. Additional expertise in psychotherapy and astrology broaden the scope of this wonderful examination of the nature of spiritual mentoring. -- NAPRA Review, Spring 1998

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