Mindfulness meditation is a life-changing practice that everyone should have access to. While you can learn the basics on your own, in the long run, having a teacher is extremely helpful. A good instructor can usually help you learn more quickly, and stick to the practice more effectively than you can on your own.
It may take a little time to find a teacher that is right for you. Reading websites, listening to word of mouth, or the recommendation of friends may all offer helpful insights or give you ideas of who to start with. However, I propose that there are certain "nonnegotiables" that are important, and which you should think about when assessing any teacher as a possible long-term meditation mentor.
When choosing a teacher, you should consider whether:
They know what they're doing
When learning any complex skill, nothing beats having an experienced guide. There are so many things that can come up in meditation practice, so many internal experiences that are hard to decipher unless the teacher has had similar experiences themselves. So they should have a lot of meditation practice under their belt.
They walk the talk
Nobody's perfect, and mindfulness teacher's are no exception. However, there is a reasonable expectation that if their mindfulness practice is mature, that their life is proceeding in a relatively mature manner. People who are causing a lot of trouble, especially petty, nasty, or especially damaging human interactions, are probably not ready to mentor others.
They are kind
Mindfulness practice is good for building compassion, friendliness, loving kindness, and other skills of human interaction. The results of a teacher's practice should show in the way they comport themselves with others. There should be a palpable sense of kindness that suffuses every interaction. This needn't always look like some kind of cartoon sainthood -- some very good teachers are gruff, intense, or tough with students. But with such teachers there is always a noticeable feeling of compassion in such interactions as well. If a teacher is actually mean, gossipy, or harsh, that is a sign that their mindfulness practice is not yet ripe, and they are not ready to be teachers. Move on, without judgment.
They are in the moment
Sensory contact with the present moment is one of the hallmarks of mindfulness practice. A meditation teacher will be focused on the details of whatever they are doing. And they will tend to draw you into the present moment when you are around them.
There is any hanky-panky with sex, power, or money
No teacher of mindfulness meditation should ever use their influence over the student for purposes of sex, power, or money.
- Sex -- The teacher is in a position of power over the student. That makes sex a very dicey matter indeed. Regardless of the genders or ages involved, it is a bad idea for a teacher to be having sex with their students. If a teacher is having sex with students, then it should be completely out in the open. No secrets or scandals.
- Power -- If a mindfulness teacher tries to make the power dynamic between teacher and student even larger, that is a big red flag. Ways that an unsavory teacher may attempt to power trip the student include: trying to act like a guru, pretending to have special powers, expecting/demanding that students do them lots of big favors, and creating a competitive hierarchy or pyramid of students. If you see a mindfulness teacher doing such things, run.
- Money -- It's not wrong for a mindfulness teacher to charge for their services. They are human beings living in a capitalist society, and need to make a living like anybody else. But if a teacher is becoming tremendously wealthy and has a fleet of luxury automobiles, or speed boats, or aircraft, this is probably a sign that they are not the teacher for you.
They have enough time to actually meet with you one-on-one every so often This is just a practical concern. Often very advanced teachers who are clearly at the highest level of impeccability are the most in demand, and have the least time available to help any new students. It's only natural to want to be the student of such a great teacher, but if there's no possibility of personal interaction, you are probably not going to get what you want out of the relationship. Luckily, advanced teachers are usually aware of their limits, and often recommend a number of their top students as teachers. This can be the best of both worlds, because you get a accredited teacher who also has the time to spend with you one-on-one. Often in this situation, you will also get to be part of a large, healthy community with a body of teaching materials and so forth. In short, the teacher cannot help you learn mindfulness meditation if you cannot access them easily and relatively often.
In short: they model the behavior you're looking to incorporate into your life, they are ethically solid, and they have the time and experience to offer you guidance. There are many dedicated, helpful, talented mindfulness teachers who fit the bill. I wish you all the best in your practice.
To learn more about mindfulness meditation, see Mindfulness with Michael.