There is an important step in spirituality and religion that has been overlooked or not even considered by people who are looking to follow a particular religion or spiritual leader. If this step was followed, society would certainly improve.
In ancient Indian and Buddhist traditions, students and people seriously considering becoming monks were cautioned to carefully and objectively observe potential teachers (gurus, priests, preachers) for a minimum of twelve years before entrusting their spiritual health and guidance to the tradition(s) or leader(s).
To those of us looking to enhance our spiritual lives, the twelve year rule seems like it could be almost impossible to practice. However, when we pause and contemplate the profound impact that a spiritual leader and religion have on our lives, the cautionary time-frame seems more reasonable and possible.
It is common for people to convince themselves to take up the practice of religions and their leaders after experiencing the euphoria of an emotional encounter or recruitment efforts of religionists seeking to enlarge the numbers of followers in their flocks. It is common for humans to follow leaders blindly, especially leaders who promise grand spiritual rewards.
If we allow ourselves to believe the most charismatic smooth-talking spiritual salesperson, we set ourselves up for delusional thinking and possibly worse outcomes. Sudden conversions to religion and/or political ideology should be red flags that caution us to proceed with more care and mindfulness. Unfortunately the careful approach is rarely taken. Most people get swept away by the fervor of the moment.
Most people waive their responsibility to seriously assess their own emotional states and what they hope to accomplish by selecting a particular religion or spiritual path. Potential followers often overlook the consequences of their choices. What sort of personal behavior by the teacher is permissible to dismiss because of the followers’ belief in the teacher’s ultimate purity? All of these considerations rely upon subjective experience and impatience for results.
The sober, enlightened approach is the careful, long-term one. This is one case in which over-thinking is an attribute. After all, the state of one’s spiritual and mental health determines our own well-being along with our interactions with other people. Does the spiritual tradition and teacher foster gullibility or does it open the door to curiosity and growth?
When considering these concerns, whether or not to fully commit to a particular tradition and teacher, twelve years is a short time. Because a meaningful, serious spiritual quest is a lifetime exploration, an investment of a dozen years is a very wise move. A person needs to carefully determine the direction their inner lives will take. A hasty decision can lead to inauspicious results.
Because most of us are slow to admit to errors, we run the danger of becoming rigid about our spirituality, too. If the tradition and teacher discourage flexibility, it is easier to become a passive consumer of that tradition.
To keep from being led down the garden path, its very important to take plenty of time to objectively understand what we accept as wisdom. Is there a truly personal connection? Does the teacher’s behavior mesh with the teachings? Does the tradition and leader put more emphasis on the behavior of outsiders and worldly matters, or is spiritual enlightenment the aim? What do insiders and outsiders say about the teachings and the teacher? Does the teacher practice what he or she preaches?
In everyday life, it takes time to really get to know a person. We don’t accept a friendly stranger as a best friend right away. It takes time to get to truly know someone before she or he becomes your confidant or partner. It is wise to spend more than a year observing the person before entrusting her or him with your deepest secrets. Likewise, if a teacher at first projects a kind, loving character towards us, it does not necessarily follow that she or he is selfless and compassionate. We do not know her or his true motivation.
We need to know our own motivations, too. Do we seek out the teacher or tradition because it is the popular thing to do? Are we looking for wish fulfillment or personal gain? Are we looking to fortify personal power over others or to be a part of an exclusive institution? Are we merely attracted by the pomp and ritual that are practiced? Do we feel pressured to join in order to avoid the threat of horrific punishments? It takes time to sort all of this out in an honest manner.
Being certain about taking a path or avoiding a path is important. In my opinion, careful deliberation is necessary for such a personal, far-reaching decision.