A few things I find helpful when listening to teachers…
If our personality is so inclined, it is easy to not want to be in a teacher role. I know that one well for myself.
Yet, it is also good to acknowledge that we all go in and out of teacher roles in many different ways.
For instance, if someone writes spiritual books and holds retreats, that person obviously goes into a teacher role, whether they want to or not. Others will place them in a teacher role. Nothing wrong with that, just good to notice and acknowledge…
Even for me, when I write on this blog, I go into a teacher role – in the minds of some – whether I want to or not.
If someone approaches me for “consulting”, as happened recently, I say that I am not a teacher (not trained in any tradition, only scratch the surface of all of this in even a conventional sense, and there is not a stable Ground awakening here), and I am not a therapist (not trained), but I am happy to have a conversation as a fellow-traveler to fellow-traveler.
Still, I am mindful of going into a teacher role – in the minds of some – when I write this stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that, just good to notice and acknowledge.
Trigger: Bernadette Roberts resisting being seen as a teacher, even if she goes into a teacher role by writing books and holding retreats. She has turned out to be a great teacher for me, as reflected in some of the recent posts here.
To me, it seems that her descriptions of her own path and awakenings are beautiful and clear, quite similar to what have happened here at different times, and what has been described by mystics from many traditions.
For instance, she differentiates between oneness/unity, where there is a sense of an I one with God/all, and selflessness, where there is a release of identification with a sense of I and Other. And that is awakening 101, found among mystics of each of the traditions, experienced by many today as well, and something we can investigate for ourselves using tools such as the Big Mind process, headless experiments and investigating the sense fields.
(For me, there was first a shift into realized selflessness awakening, coming out of the blue, after consuming a great deal of alcohol one time and then being “absorbed into” the witness for about a year. Then, after some months, a shift into a oneness/unity state, which lasted for several years. Then a dark night for a few years. Then a gradual emerging of the oneness state, then a realized selflessness phase for a few months, and now a oneness phase again where things are worked through some more.)
But when she talks about the different traditions, it seems that very few of the ones familiar with them would agree with how she describes them. Sometimes, it seems that her take on them are 180 degrees turned from what you would actually find there. To me at least, she seems to use a straw man argument, fighting windmills and imaginary foes – as I described in the initial post.
But that is only one possibility, and the other is that I have got it completely wrong. Which is of course true anyway. Any story such as these is just a story, more or less accurate in a conventional sense, and also having nothing to do with what it appears to refer to in another sense.
What it comes down to is its effectiveness as a teaching strategy and pointers for own investigation. How effective is her take on it as a teaching strategy? And how effective is it as a pointer for own practice?
And then finally what this is really all about: a mirror for myself. In what ways do I do exactly what I see in her? When do I overgeneralize? When do I use straw man arguments? When am I blinded by my own stories about something?
Note: See this inquiry for how I worked with one of my hangups around this.
Some things I have found helpful in what to look for in a spiritual teacher, and also in how to work with teachers and teachings.
In terms of teachings, I find it helpful to see any statement as a question and a pointer. It is an invitation to investigate it for myself, in immediate experience. And then hold whatever comes up lightly and as another question. It is an ongoing process of investigation.
In terms of finding a teacher, it is partly just a knowing, but partly also looking for certain things. If they come from a tradition and lineage, are they free in their relationship with that tradition? If they don’t come from a tradition, are they still aligned with the teachings of the mystics of the traditions?
How mature and healthy are they, as a human being? Is the organization healthy, in a conventional sense? How relaxed do they seem, in body and mind?
Are they open and relaxed about their own shortcomings as a human being? How do they respond to challenges and criticism? Do they sincerely welcome it and find the truth in it for themselves?
Is there a sense of receptivity and fluidity in how they teach and relate to their students? Do they encourage students to inquire for themselves? Do they give practical and effective tools for the students to investigate for themselves?
Is there a sense of breadth? Do they expect everyone’s path to be similar to their own, or what is described in their own tradition?
Do they encourage healthy independence in their students? Do they admit when they don’t know, and only talk about what they have experience with themselves?
In short, I look for how mature and healthy they seem as a human being, and in relationship with students and the wider world, and also how mature and healthy the organization is, in a conventional sense. And I also look for maturity in their teachings, a sense of breadth and receptivity, and an offering of effective tools for their students to investigate on their own.
In terms of working with a teacher and the teachings, I find certain pointers and tools helpful. The main one is mentioned above: Seeing any statement as a question to explore for myself. And then hold whatever answer comes up for me as another question, something to hold lightly and stay fluid with, and investigate further.
The other main tool is working consciously with projections and beliefs. What stories do I have about the teacher and the teachings? What do I find when I investigate those beliefs? Do I think the teacher will actually get me something I need? If I see something in the teacher I am attracted to, can I find it in myself, here and now? If I see something in the teacher I don’t like, can I find – and own – that too in myself, here now?
Seeing statements as a question, and working with projections and beliefs, makes anything into material for practice. Any situation, whatever happens, is something to work with for myself.
Finally, even if anything is material for practice, I still use my best judgment about what is going on. If I work with my beliefs and projections around it, and what they are doing still doesn’t seem all that helpful or healthy, can I do something that will change it? If not, would it be most helpful for me to stay or leave?
I haven’t been in many situations where those questions has come up. But where it did come up, in one case, it was not a problem to stay because the teacher was completely open and sincere about what had happened, and tried to make amends. (He cheated on his wife.) In another case, where the teacher seems less than clear in certain areas, I also decided to stay because the practice is very helpful to me and is not touched by whatever lack of clarity he may have in other areas.
More than 700,000 have signed up for the Tolle/Oprah 10 week course, and it is also the most popular podcast on iTunes. Very impressive in terms of numbers alone, and even more impressive considering that Tolle is a genuine a mystic as any. His namesake had only a handful of listeners, at most.
I watched the first episode, and thought it was well worth it. I found it especially interesting to see how Tolle and Oprah helped bridge the gap between fundamentalism and a more open approach, and also between traditional religion and spirituality.
Sign up at the Oprah Book Club website and watch it there, or download the free podcasts.
There is probably no end to the dimensions of practice that can be explored this way. Another one is the dimension of inner and outer teacher.
Again, when stuck in one of the other, the drawbacks of each tends to surface.
If we rely exclusively on an inner teacher, we can easily lose our way. We don’t benefit from the advice and experience of someone who is familiar with the terrain from their own explorations.
If we rely exclusively on an outer teacher, it too easily stays abstract for us. It can stay at the word level. Or even when we do our own practice, we may not fully trust our own experience. We always check it with what we have heard or read.
When tempered by each other, we can benefit from the guidance of an outer teacher, and we can also make it our own through our own experience. We may even discover something outside of the familiarity of any particular teacher.
There are multiple benefits for me in going to CSS.
First, the clarity Joel brings from his Ground awakening and studies of the philosophy and practices of many traditions. (Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism/Advaita.)
Then, what gets triggered in me in different ways.
I often feel that the ways the teachers look at a particular topic is quite limited, so it encourages me to find what is more true for myself. What they say is great, but what else is also true? What are the other ways of looking at this topic? What does the larger landscape look like? And also, what are the truths in the reversals of these teachings?
And then the reactiveness, the hangups triggered in me, which is as valuable and as much a teacher as the above. (If not more of a teacher.) Whenever I go, believes are triggered, and there is something in the setting that allows these to come up more clearly and in more abundance than in any other setting. (I probably have higher expectations/hopes.)
My partner and I stayed at a hot springs place near Ashland for a couple of nights, and she overheard a stressful (to her) conversation one morning, a woman complaining about Gangaji’s followers and why they can’t see how she is no better than them. (Meaning that they already have everything they see in her.)
So she first turned it around for the woman speaking, and then applied it to herself. I can’t see how Gangaji is no better than me. First, it helped her see that the woman gave advice to herself. Then, it helped her find the truth of it for herself. And in this double insight, the stress went out of the situation.
This is a great way of working with the complaints of others. Find the turnaround. See how it applies to the person talking. (The advice is for themselves.) And then see how it applies to me. (The advice is really for me.)
And there is another turnaround here: People go to see Gangaji because they know, somewhere, that she is them. They know, somewhere, that what they see in her is what they know from themselves, they want to be reminded about this, so they go to see Gangaji.
That is of course the case with any teacher or idol. We seek their company, one way or another, because we know, somewhere, that everything we see in them is something we recognize from ourselves. Being with them is a way of finding it in ourselves, whether we are aware of that process or not.
Beyond just teachers and people we admire and look up to, it is true for anyone we experience attraction or aversion to. Our attention goes to them, because we know, somewhere, that what we see in them is something we have in ourselves. Getting familiar with it out there is a way of being familiar with it, and recognizing it, right here. It is a way of becoming familiar with our own fullness.
One way of working more consciously with this is to first visualize whomever we experience attraction or aversion to, then visualize ourselves as them (body-mind-action), and take the time to feel it, allow it to sink in, and feel the fullness of it.
We had a discussion about teachers at the CSS group last night, and as much as I agree with all the conventional points, it was also a reminder of how much I appreciate life as a teacher. Life, just as it is.
Whenever there is discomfort, it is a reminder to look at resistance. Can I be with what I am experiencing right now, resistance and all?
Whenever there is stress, there is an invitation to find the belief behind it and inquire into it. Is it true?
It doesn’t matter how life shows up. It doesn’t matter much what is going on for me. When I notice discomfort, it is an invitation to fully allow experience. When I notice stress, it is an invitation to inquire into a belief.
It is a wonderfully self-correcting process, and there is no risk of running out of material. The teacher always speaks, and speaks perfectly.
In that sense, life is the perfect teacher.
Of course, this is not necessarily a place to start, at least not without guidance, but it is a place we move through at some point.
They should make it come alive.
This one often comes up for me when I am in spiritual groups where a teacher mainly teaches through talking. (Often long, dry, boring talks.)
Why not use one of the many tools out there that makes it come alive here and now, helps everyone find the wisdom from their own immediate experience, and invites the wisdom to emerge from the group rather than one single person?
It seems more fun, juicy and effective, so why not do it?
Why not use the Big Mind process, headless experiments, The Work, or one of the many other simple and effective approaches out there?
I was reminded yesterday of the value of having a seasoned teacher, trained in a solid tradition.
And I was grateful to find some good counter-examples to interrupt any tendency of wanting to make it into a rule…! Byron Katie woke up, and is a brilliant teacher, without ever having had one of her own. And the same can be said of Douglas Harding.
But in general, it can be very helpful to work with a seasoned teacher within a respected tradition. It can be a great help in avoiding some of the typical pitfalls on the path, either at the awakening or the human side.
At the awakening side, it is easy to think that whatever awakening is here is somehow “final” or “complete”, while it isn’t. It seems to amazing, so clear, so profound, and we may not yet have had any glimpses of what is beyond, so we take it as done.
In terms of awakening to what we are, as long as there is any trace – however minute – of any sense of I and Other, inside and outside, center and periphery, subject and object, then we are not done. There is still further to go. Still filters to fall away.
If it seems in any way extraordinary, it is not done. If there is any sense of a doer, it is not done. Any sense of accomplishment. Any sense of it happening “to” someone.
If any of those are there, it is still far from a Ground awakening. A Ground awakening is just existence awakening to itself, already and always free from any of that.
At our human side, there is a lot of healing, maturing and development to be done, before and after an awakening to what we are. And this is exactly why many traditions, including Zen which I am most familiar with, wants the student to stay with the teacher, often for many years, following a clear awakening.
It takes time for this human self to reorganize within this new context, to mature into it, to live it more richly, fully, fluidly. To become a more full human being. To live from it as an ordinary human being.
If there is any trace of arrogance, of this human self being “special” in any way, it is still not quite there. There is still work to be done.
And if the human side is an any way dismissed, ignored or put down, there is still work to be done. There is still stuckness as what we are.
Whenever we look up to someone, a few different things may be going on.
One is projections of qualities alive in our awareness which don’t fit into our identity, so must be happening with someone else. Another person may be more awake, more clear, more insightful, have an open heart, and more, and whenever I see that in someone else, it means it is also right here, although not noticed much yet.
For instance, this is already Buddha Mind, only a Buddha Mind manifesting confusion and not noticing itself very much. This is already awakeness, right here, in the midst of all confusion and dullness, and this awakeness is no different from the awakeness here when it notices itself. There is already a profound amount of wisdom and insight here, as becomes clear when I do inquiry (The Work, Big Mind process, headless experiments) and find in myself what I otherwise go for teachers and wise ones for. There is already an open heart here, only temporarily hidden by all the dust kicked up from beliefs and knots.
Another, related process, is a clinging to certain beliefs and ideas about how people, or a category of people, or a particular person, is/are or should be.
All of this is inevitable and a part of the process, as long as there is still a belief in stories and identities, and still a sense of an I with an Other.
Projections help us notice what is already here, either as potential or unfolded more fully, but we can’t see as here because it doesn’t fit our identity. We see it first out there, in the wider world and someone else, become more familiar with it there, and can then slowly find it right here now as well. The wider world becomes a mirror of what is already here now.
And beliefs and identities inevitably are at odds with reality, which helps us see that they are just beliefs and identities, and in that is an invitation to allow attachment to them to fall away.
For both projections and beliefs (two sides of the same coin) it is helpful for our projection object to – at some point – fail horribly in living up to what we project onto them or our beliefs. It will happen at some point, whether they do it consciously or not, whether they have prepared us for it (to the extent possible) or not, and whether it is a gradual disillusionment or a spectacular downfall.
When we become more familiar with this process for ourselves, in our own life, we learn to see the tremendous beauty in it. There is a perfection built into it, which unfolds as it has to, and is always an invitation for us to find in ourselves what we seek out there, and see how our beliefs are flawed – just by its virtue of being a belief.
There is a beauty in our parents not living up to our childhood godlike image of them. Of Santa Claus to be revealed as fictional. Of our partner turning out to be just human as ourselves. Of Trungpa being a raving drunk. Of GR attaching to one-sided views and being an arrogant asshole. Of Richard Baker’s door having somebody’s wife’s shoes outside of it.
Of course, we have to use some common sense here as well. We are all flawed in contrast with our abstract ideas of how things should be, and it is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we need to put up with abuse or whatever else may be going on. For instance, if a spiritual teacher’s flaws have too much of an impact of the community of students or ourselves, it is probably good to address it openly and see if it can be changed, and if not, have the teacher leave, and if that is not possible, then leave oneself.
Among the many misconceptions about awakening is that it somehow gives omnipotent powers, or omniscient knowledge, or even some wisdom in worldly matters.
The reality of it is that an awakened one is an expert on only one thing: knowing what he/she really is.
Or said another way: the unmanifest knows itself as awake void, and all form as awake void, and that is the extent of its special knowledge. There is not necessarily any profound or unusual knowledge about the operations of the manifest world itself.
And that is because that knowledge, about the operations of the manifest world, comes through experience with the manifest world. It comes through a lived human life.
Any knowledge about the manifest world is worldly knowledge, and not really any different from what we can have even if the unmanifest has not awakened to itself.
This is of course why an awakened one is not necessarily a good teacher, or has a lot of experience with different practices, or is especially wise in worldly and practical matters. It is also why he or she is not necessarily able to give good advice in any area of life, including, shockingly enough, how to prepare the ground for awakening.
All of that comes from experience, and must be gained in the ordinary way, through learning, exploring, trying things out, making mistakes. In short, through living a human life.
And this is also why some folks, who have a great deal of experience with certain explorations and practices, know more about (some of) the mechanisms of samsara than even those who have awakened. The Work and the Big Mind process are good examples of this, offering very differentiated and detailed insights into the mechanisms of the mind to people where there is not yet a full awakening.
So even if we meet an awakened one, we don’t need to expect them to have all – or any – of the answers, or even being able to point the way for us in any particular area. They may, of course, but that comes through their experiences with the world of form, their human explorations and experiences.
And it also means they are fallible, as much as anyone else. They may or may not know how to point the way for anyone else, in any particular area, including awakening. Their insights may be limited. Their strategies flawed. Their judgment poor.
Just as for anyone else of us.
Different teachers (and traditions, and each of us on our own lives) are at different places in terms of transparency and control.
Some are transparent about just about anything. They give it all away in terms of their insights and teachings. They voice whatever concerns come up for them, as they come up, including about own teaching style and how what they say and do may be interpreted and taken by their students. They give a behind-the-scenes view to their students, which is maybe the greatest gift they can offer.
Others take another approach and hide certain aspects of their insights, the tradition, and their concerns about how they teach and how it is received by their students. They keep their cards closer to their chest. And this tends to lead to a perceived need to control quite a bit. They need to control what information comes to their students. They need to control how it is received by the students. They need to keep students and junior teachers in check. They need to deal with the fall out when something goes awry. And so on. There is often a lot of drama coming out of this approach, including the drama of things going on behind the scenes, partly in the mind of the teacher (trying to keep it all together according to their idea of how it should be) and the students (trying to figure out what is going on behind the scenes), and between teachers and students when the students need to be put in place.
The first that comes up for me is that the path of transparency is more appropriate today. It tends to create far less room for drama, and it is also a path of trust. Trust in students being in charge of their own lives. Trust in the teaching being honest and clear enough to survive being out in the open. Trust in whatever happens as God’s will, and offering insights for everyone.
The path of secrecy tends to fuel drama in many ways, including distrust at many levels. The teacher does not trust the students to be able to receive the teaching. The teacher does not trust that even if the student receives it in an unintended way, that too is perfect, that may be exactly what the student needs to gain more experience, refine their understanding, and mature. It requires the teacher to assume that he or she knows what is ultimately best for the student. The teacher takes to some extent on a babysitting role, treating the student as a child. And it can create a great deal of drama and stress for both teacher and student, including unchecked shadow projections either way. (Where there is something hidden, either by teacher to student, or the other way around, shadow projections often have free reign.)
Of course, it is not quite as black-and-white as this.
Often, it is appropriate to portion out the teachings over time, and also target it to where the student is at. But that does not mean that what is temporarily is left out needs to be hidden.
And to hide and control certain things brings, inevitably, up a lot of projections on the part of the student, which helps them see these more clearly. It may be a valid approach, but life itself does a good job in this area anyway, and doesn’t seem to need our help.
I think Douglas Harding (and probably others) mentioned the game of the little guy. The game of being caught up in the identities of our individual selves, propping it up, making it into something.
I know I am, and some times more than others. It is good to notice and be aware of. And the tell-tale signs is when something feels really important and real, when there are certain ideas and identities that appears to need to be defended, any sense of contraction, any sense of a substantial I and Other (whether the Other is a situation, a person, an idea, a sensation, or anything else.)
And it may also be good to notice this in those we set up in the role as a teacher. Is the teacher caught up in the game of the little guy? If so, how, and how does it affect the teachings?
This is obviously quite subjective, just my impressions from their writings and sometimes audio/video, and probably says far more about me than anyone else, but some teachers I detect a “caught upness” in the game of the little guy are… Ken Wilber (macho, hip identity that needs to be propped up and defended), Andrew Cohen, Adi Da, Surya Das.
And the ones where I do not detect it include… Douglas Harding, Byron Katie, Joel Morwood (Center for Sacred Sciences), Adyashanti, Pema Chodron, most Tibetan teachers, Almaas (?).
What I see in each of these says more about me than anyone else. And at the same time, when it comes to choosing a teacher, there are some signs in the world to keep an eye out for as well: which teachers are surrounded by scandals and drama? If they are, they may be caught up in the game of the little guy (or something else may be going on), and in my case, it means that I usually choose to keep my distance. I can still appreciate and learn from them, but when it comes to choose someone as a guide and a more intimate influence for myself, I choose those where I detect less or none of the caught-upness in the game of little guy, and where there are fewer, milder or no external scandals.
It is of course just a general guideline. I am not surprised by some caught-upness in the game and some external (at least mild) scandals, and that is OK. We are all just humans, even if that particular human is a vehicle for reality having awakened to itself. We have to give ourselves and others, including our teachers, some slack.
And at the same time, when the game and scandals are there, we can look at the degree of the game and the scandals, and especially how the teacher deals with it. Do they defend, justify and deny (bad signs…!). Are they receptive, transparent, appearing genuinely repentive and willing to change (approach, organizational structure)? If so, and the degree is relatively mild, then why not give them a second chance (but maybe not a third or a fourth.)