On the Notion of a Perfect Teacher

   I watched a documentary about the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. His Be Here Now, has long been one of the staples on my book shelf. Now 80 years old, he talks candidly about the struggles he’s faced after his stroke. He confessed the moment when, on the verge of death, he failed to orient himself toward God. That’s the ultimate test, he explained, and according to him, he flunked it. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he says.

His honesty touched me. It is often assumed that those on a spiritual path don’t slip and fall. But as my Zen teacher has said, it’s not whether you fall or not, it’s how quickly you can get back up. In Yoga, we look at growth as it manifests in degrees and stages, the real measurement of which is entirely internal, and rarely consistent. Progress in anything, including life itself, is never a straight line. But what we do have, as seekers, is an ever keener insight into the difference between what our minds have concocted and reality itself; the tools needed to snap out of our delusion; a willingness to laugh about our own folly, and with time, perhaps, the courage to make things right.

As teachers, we can be hard on ourselves when we do find ourselves splashing around in the dark waters of old habits. At our final Yoga teacher-training weekend, Joey told us he had had an altercation with someone just before arriving. I was listening. I had just exchanged words with a demanding student.

We had both been rocked off center and we shared our feelings with the group. We were disappointed in ourselves. We were about to graduate as teachers of Kundalini Yoga. We both share a feeling of responsibility for maintaining the dignity and excellence of this tradition and part of how we do that is through our own conduct.

What happens, Joey asked, when this sort of thing happens and we’ve got to teach a class? Do you cancel? Of course not—what an idea! You go and you teach, our teacher said. And in this tradition, what that means, is that first, we “tune in.” You never know who will be there and what they will take away from the class. There might be someone in your class that day who will decide to become a teacher herself, or who will be so moved as to make some positive life-change. And chances are, you too, will forget all about whatever it was you left outside the door before you took your place on the teacher’s bench. And you did leave it outside the door!

Tuning in means going beyond ourselves to align with the greater wisdom we deliver as teachers. In this way, the teacher is more like a messenger than an originator. The teachings come through us, rather than from us, and have nothing to do with our individual personality or quirks. They go beyond the words that are spoken and are communicated subtly through our own presence.

The conventional, or western, or academic, notion of a teacher is of one that dispenses information and data. From our perspective as Yoga teachers, this reduces teaching to nothing more than a “professional trade.” As our own founding teacher, Yogi Bhajan, quipped, if we look upon teaching in such a shallow way, as merely a profession, “we will train many preachers, but no teachers.”

Our focus should be on getting out of our own way and on uplifting and guiding others, rather than on our own success or failure. Our obsession on perfection is just another ego trip. And that doesn’t mean we stop striving toward excellence—our very ability to develop excellence is directly proportional to our ability to stop striving. At least where that striving is tied up with our ideas and notions of who we should be. We had better simply let go of ourselves.

When we begin to do this, we begin to manifest a certain grace when we teach. Ironically, the very shift in the way we understand our duty as teachers, from one in which we recite information, to one in which we serve, is the first step toward inner transformation. But it takes faith and trust to relax into this role as a conduit of truth. To be entrusted with the task of serving, of being a source of light, makes it, most surely, a noble profession. As such, “to be a teacher is the ultimate human end,” Yogi Bhajan concludes.

Anyone who teaches to be a teacher rather than to serve, will fall. ~Yogi Bhajan

2 responses to “On the Notion of a Perfect Teacher

  1. There is a very large difference between a Teacher like Yogi Bhajan and a person that convenes yoga classes. This distinction gets lost in your post.

    Yogi Bhajan taught that there are three stages to becoming a Teacher:
    and finally
    The first stage begins when a student recognizes a Teacher. This is the starting point because it allows us to explore our connection to our Teacher and the Golden Chain of Teachers that preceded. We are then able to share this connection with others in our classes. This does not make us Teachers, rather instructors that share instructions that we have received from our Teacher as we practice his/her teachings.
    This is distinct from a Teacher, because a Teacher must become self-reliant in their teaching in order to become limitless. As a matter of fact I believe that this is what Yogiji meant with the quote you ended with about anyone that teaches to be a teacher rather than to serve.
    The second stage of becoming a Teacher begins when we admit to ourselves that we have been doing spiritual practices unmindfully and that we do not really know how to truly meditate. This is not to say that we have not received benefit from doing these practices, but because we have not learned to directly purify ourselves in real meditation, our practice and sharing of them is always based in self-serving agendas. This is because we have not learned to truly practice, which only happens when we begin to learn directly process our self-serving nature and to truly meditate, at which point we can graduate to the second stage of becoming a Teacher, a Practitioner.
    Using Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now as an example of this, it is the book of an instructor, a student relating the teachings of his Teacher so that others can also benefit. The book made Ram Dass prominent but it does not make him a Teacher.
    The stage of Teacher is achieved only after the student learns to master spiritual practices to the point that the student realizes how every moment is a spiritual practice with a self-serving element in it and the student then consciously dedicates themselves to always serving what presents itself specifically in each moment.
    That is the caliber of Teacher that Yogi Bhajan was. That is what he taught. Learning to truly meditate cannot be learned from an instructor sharing previous classes that Yogi Bhajan taught and it is the only way to become a Teacher like him.

    It’s not the life that matters, but the courage we bring to it,

  2. Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    As for Yogiji’s three stages, and the distinction between masters and practitioners in any spiritual tradition, I’m not sure it negates anything I’ve said, for based on my experience, both directly and indirectly with masters of Yogi Bhajan’s caliber, they are always the first to concede their own falls.

    And that was the big point!

    Sat Nam.

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