Teacher As A Friend & Human Being

In reading Awake in the Heartland by Joan Tollifson, I am reminded of the different ways teachers manifest.

On the one hand, the main guru for all of us is life itself – Existence as it manifests on its own, as the fluid interplay of awareness, human selves, the Earth, the Universe.

On the other hand, we learn from each other. We are all students and teachers for each other, often without even knowing it.

And then there are people who either take on the role of a teacher, or whom others perceive as in the role of a teacher.

And for these, there are many variations. In many traditions, spiritual teachers are sometimes presented as flawless and superhuman, or at least where their ordinary human life remains a mystery not talked about and not brought into the teachings. In this case, it can be a shock for the students when the human flaws of their teacher becomes visible, and it can lead to a good deal of upheaval. At the same time, this form of exclusion of their ordinary human lives tend to make the teaching seem abstract and mysterious, and there is a good deal of juiciness lost along with opportunities for a different way of connecting between teacher and students.

Joan Tollifson is an example of the completely other end of the spectrum. She does not go into a traditional teacher role but see herself more as a companion and a friend, a fellow explorer – with more experience in some areas, and maybe less in other areas, compared to each of her fellow explorers. It becomes more of a collective exploration process. And also, she reveals her own life in her teachings. She reveals herself as a full human being, with all the joys and sorrows, challenges and talents, problems and ease, as we all recognize from our own lives. She takes the mystery out of who she is, and this brings the mystery to where it belongs – to the mystery of each of our lives, of Existence itself.

Both approaches have their value, and I expect that we will see the second approach much more in the western world as more of us mature into realizations, integration and the roles of teacher/students. And who knows, maybe this spills back over into asia again? Maybe this is one of the contributions of the west to the dharma.

Another aspect of this is the integration of (a) the natural authority of what comes out of a great deal of experience in this exploration process, and (b) appreciating the contribution of any one of the fellow explorers.

There is a natural hierarchy – coming from different degrees of experience and maturity, and there is a natural egalitarianism – coming from realizing that we are all fellow explorers and that we each have a unique perspective and contribution. And the trick is to realize that no one of us are habitually in one or the other role, but shift fluidly between them according to the situation.

Another way to say it is that we are each teachers and students. We all have a unique perspective and contribution and can learn from each other. And at the same time, some of us do have more experience and maturity in certain areas.

We can be receptive to experience and maturity wherever it shows up. We can show respect to anybody, as a human being, no matter their level of experience. And we don’t need to show blind respect to any one person, just because they are in a particular role such as of a teacher – if something needs to be pointed out and dealt with, we can do that as we would with anyone.

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