Friday, September 28, 2012

Working with a teacher

Right around this time three years ago I started working one-on-one with a teacher. This is not the Tibetan Buddhist guru-student relationship but what is described as a spiritual friend or mentor, the kalyanamitra. 

The teacher, at least my teacher, doesn't give me the solution to my problems. At times I think he creates more problems for me. "What does he mean by ... " I wonder about any one of a number of observations on my standard operating procedure.

But truly, he is not creating more problems for me to think about -- he's letting me see the ones that I've already developed. I bring them to this relationship, just as I have brought them to other relationships for many years, without being conscious of them.

I listened to a talk once where I teacher whom I respect and admire, who feels like the person I like to think my wiser self is, talked about her habit of calling herself "stupid" when she's forgetful or spacy. It was just habitual self-talk, something that she'd done for years even as she practiced meditation and embodied the Buddha's teachings. She didn't really think about it until her teacher pointed it out.

Our original nature isn't stupid, or any of the other unflattering terms we call ourselves. Changing those words contributes to changing the view.

One thing I run up against constantly is my desire for affirmation. I got good grades all through school because I knew how to discern what teachers wanted and to do my work that way. I can't do this with this teacher. What he wants is for me to know my own mind, not that I use any particular buzzwords or jargon (although he likes buzzwords and jargon).

It is a dance -- sometimes a formal minuet, sometimes a funky unself-conscious groove to the tunes of the artist formerly and currently known as Prince, sometimes a two-step -- finding my way between taking his suggestions and recommendations to see what I can learn about myself and trying to please him. And it is a dance of exploration: how am I reacting? Have I reacted this way in the past? What am I defending? Can I drop my concept and consider what I'm hearing?

In "Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism," Christina Feldman writes that women who embark on a spiritual journey find themselves trying to accommodate to structures and traditions largely created by men, similar to the situation in the larger culture, in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved.

Not surprisingly, when we begin on a spiritual path we find ourselves looking outward to tradition and authority, for they appear to hold the answers we are seeking. Thus we acquire approval and safety in the conformity that these spiritual authorities require only to discover that approval and safety are poor substitutes for freedom. There is no tradition or person who is qualified to tell us who we should be, what we must strive for or achieve. ... We need to be willing to risk the loss of external affirmation and approval if we are to know ourselves deeply.

When I am in touch with my deepest self, my original nature, I know that I don't need someone else's affirmation to tell me that I'm good -- I know that I am basically good. But to stay in touch with that, I need to know when I'm not operating from that place but from the 10-year-old who is validated by getting an A on an assignment. And when I am that 10-year-old, to hold her in loving awareness and let her know that it is OK. An A -- or a B or even (I feel the tension rising in my chest) a C -- is not a measure of my wisdom, just my knowledge. And it's not a rating for my being, just my work. Maybe I can improve my work. But I don't need to improve my nature; it's already off-the-charts good.

These are things I learn from my working with my teacher. These and an immense sense of gratitude to him and to those who have come before him on the path, to myself, and to all beings who help me to see my basic goodness by showing me how I'm covering it up.

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