There are a number of ways that a teacher, or Guru, impacts the student or disciple. To the extent there is a method or science involved, that science can be described, organised and taught to the disciple. We see this frequently in the sciences of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, as the teacher takes the disciple through very specific processes in order to train the body, the nervous being and the mind to achieve the intended results. In terms of spiritual growth, however, acquiring a teaching is not fully sufficient. The disciple tends to learn from example, and thus, if a teacher actually puts the methodology into practice, and ‘lives’ the teaching, it is much more effective than simply teaching a method or focusing on a specific text.
Yet, it is also true that not every disciple is intended to follow the example set by the destined Guru. The Tibetan yogi, Milarepa had a Guru who was a householder with a family, and he was destined to live an ascetic life without engaging in family, career or business. The Guru was able to provide the teaching, was able to guide the disciple, and was able to set him on his own destined path without expecting him to follow in his own footsteps, so to speak.
The most important aspect for spiritual growth turns out to be what Sri Aurobindo terms to be ‘influence’. This is the atmosphere that is created and the concentrated force that helps the disciple ‘tune’ his consciousness to the spiritual plane and its energies. The disciple feels the contact, is able to adjust his focus to maintain that contact with the higher presence, and eventually is able to live within it as in a bubble of awareness, focused, calm, silent and powerful that keeps him in touch with the Divine at all times.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “Teaching, example, influence, — these are the three instruments of the Guru. But the wise Teacher will not seek to impose himself or his opinions on the passive acceptance of the receptive mind; he will throw in only what is productive and sure as a seed which will grow under the divine fostering within. He will seek to awaken much more than to instruct; he will aim at the growth of the faculties and the experiences by a natural process and free expansion. He will give a method as an aid, as a utilisable device, not as an imperative formula or a fixed routine. And he will be on his guard against any turning of the means into a limitation, against the mechanising of process. His whole business is to awaken the divine light and set working the divine force of which he himself is only a means and an aid, a body or a channel.”
“The example is more powerful than the instruction; but it is not the example of the outward acts nor that of the personal character, which is of most importance. These have their place and their utility; but what will most stimulate aspiration in others is the central fact of the divine realisation within him governing his whole life and inner state and all his activities. This is the universal and essential element; the rest belongs to individual person and circumstance. It is the dynamic realisation that the Sadhaka must feel and reproduce in himself according to his own nature; he need not strive after an imitation from outside which may well be sterilising rather than productive of right and natural fruits.”
“Influence is more important than example. Influence is not the outward authority of the Teacher over his disciple, but the power of his contact, of his presence, of the nearness of his soul to the soul of another, infusing into it, even though in silence, that which he himself is and possesses. This is the supreme sign of the Master. For the greatest Master is much less a Teacher than a Presence pouring the divine consciousness and its constituting light and power and purity and bliss into all who are receptive around him.”
“And it shall also be a sign of the teacher of the integral Yoga that he does not arrogate to himself Guruhood in a humanly vain and self-exalting spirit. His work, if he has one, is a trust from above, he himself a channel, a vessel or a representative. He is a man helping his brothers, a child leading children, a Light kindling other lights, an awakened Soul awakening souls, at highest a Power or Presence of the Divine calling to him other powers of the Divine.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 54-55