My Teacher, My Self
"First" has the power of nothing else. It carries the thrill of newness, and nothing that follows it can ever claim such power.
For better or worse, we remember our firsts. First love, first car, first time away from home. But of all these, our first spiritual teacher may be the most important first of all. A teacher's influence leaves an indelible mark that alters our beliefs in one way or another for the rest of our lives. Whether we remain steadfast on our spiritual path or whether we stray from it into a chaotic wilderness depends entirely on the effects of our first learning experience. The curious thing about all this is that since we know nothing when we begin, we have no criteria to judge a good teacher from a bad one. That so much should depend upon the luck of the draw is one of life's most intriguing chances.
I met my first guru at a seminar in public speaking. Being a `front person' for a newly formed Country Western band, I needed to learn how to captivate an audience, to entertain and put on a show; so I took the course to learn how.
The course had attracted students interested in developing their acting talents, salesmen's poise, and political pitchman's savvy; but there were also quite a few religious aspirants, people who found themselves leading what was then an increasing number of new, non-denominational religious congregations. I mentioned the course to my friend Joni. She was a singer with a Christian "rock" band and wanted to polish her presentation, too.
All the seats were taken except two, when we arrived, and these were on opposite sides of the room. Because I was on the left - and for no other reason - I took the seat on the left side. She, being on the right side as we entered the room - and for no other reason than that - took the seat on the right side. I sat next to a woman, who, it turned out, was a Yoga teacher. Joni sat next to a handsome man, a would-be Christian motivational preacher. I remember being nervous waiting for class to start. My furtive glances in Joni's direction must have caught the eye of the woman I sat next to because she looked over at me and said, "Hi. I'm Geneva". Her smile put me at ease. I, not being the sort who can be quiet for long, began to talk to her until the seminar began. I liked her from the start: her friendliness, sincerity, and refined manner were all so appealing.
Later, when class broke for intermission, I watched her as she walked out of the room. She had an elegant carriage, her movements, graceful and lithe. "Is that from doing yoga?" I asked. She laughed, saying that she supposed it was. "Would you teach me?" I inquired. She said that she would, and we arranged for me to join her class. When we parted that evening I felt as though I had known her all my life.
Joni made friends with the motivational preacher. She also made a date with him... but it was not one that was destined to improve her carriage.
Early on Geneva taught me more than postures and philosophy. To her, Yoga was more than a religion. My entire life, from infancy, had been spent practicing a religion that I had finally outgrown. It was as if I had been trying for years to peck my way out of the egg of a childhood faith; it was Geneva who helped me hatch into a new reality of spiritual discovery. Geneva was unlike the religious people I had previously known. They were exclusive; she was inclusive. They were somber; she was bright. Their religion always seemed like drudgery, a burden they dutifully bore; Geneva's Path was one she danced down. She changed my diet and my outlook. She taught me the joy of chanting, the challenge of contemplating a yantra, the peace of meditation. I read religious writings without scheming to use the information to quote in arguments or for egotistical satisfaction. The asanas she taught me gave me a sense of power over my own body. It's difficult to explain, but I simply felt better about everything. But more than all of this, she gave me that same delight and desire for practice that had once made her seem so unique.
Geneva always inquired after my family and if I had an argument with one of them, she'd plead their case and help to heal the breach. One day she announced that she was going to move away to live with her own family. I knew that I would miss her terribly and told her so. "It's time for you to leave the nest, anyway," she said, "and start your own flock." Joni did not fare so well with the man she met at that fateful meeting. He was a hustler, interested in making a buck out of whatever situation was at hand. He made big promises to her. He talked her into leaving her band and becoming his partner. He was going to make a star out of her. She'd sing and he'd speak; and he even had one song that he said he wrote in which she'd sing and he'd intersperse Biblical quotations. They'd perform on radio, television, recordings. But first they had to get noticed by the right producers and booking agents and that meant public exposure. She had some inherited money in savings' bonds and he persuaded her to cash them and to borrow money from her parents so that he could trade his car in and buy a Winnebago for them to travel the concert circuit. I remember feeling very uncomfortable when she repeatedly thanked me for having brought him into her life. If it hadn't been for me, she would never have met him, she told me. All I did was show her a brochure, but the guilt still haunts me.
On the road she worked tirelessly performing on-stage and doing all the trailer-cleaning and other clerical chores. She gassed up the Winnebago and did the driving while he slept. He had a wife which he naturally never mentioned until Joni got pregnant and wanted him to marry her. He gave her money for an abortion even though he preached pro-life causes.
Because her family objected to the way he was exploiting her, he made it his business to alienate her from them. He handled all the money they made on the circuit and none of it went to her parents to repay the loan. By the time he left her stranded in Arkansas with fifteen dollars and a suitcase of tattered costumes and blue jeans, she had no home to go home to. She responded to a "help wanted" sign in a diner window in Little Rock and lived in a room in a cabin style motel built in the 1940s. When I got a Christmas Card from her after years of not hearing from her at all, I grabbed the phone and called. She told me the story of all that had befallen her since that night in class; and when I heard her story I appreciated Geneva even more.
By this time, I was no longer in the music business. I had upgraded from that kind of performance to a kind with a higher purpose and started my own flock as Geneva had suggested. Out of gratitude and a desire to thank Geneva, I tracked her down and called her. It was as though we had just talked last week. She was still the same Geneva; still full of life and happy in her career as a psychotherapist.
When I hung up the telephone I shook my head incredulously, recalling how vulnerable I, too, had been that night I entered that public speaking class. What if I had gone to the right side of the room and Joni had gone to the left? I had no guidelines to follow and I could have been taken in as easily as Joni had been.
It was then that I vowed to be as good a teacher as possible in tribute to my first teacher.
Now, person to person, I'm going to tell you what I've learned about identifying good and bad teachers:
First, don't allow a teacher to make unreasonable demands of time, devotion, or money on you. Students should always be willing to support a ministry in these ways, but this support must be voluntary, not required. A teacher may ask for donations to meet expenses, but never should a teacher require a student to borrow money or leave his or her employment or devote all available social hours to the ministry. Students have family, friends, and employers; and no teacher should interfere in those relationships.
So, don't allow a teacher to separate you from your family and friends. A good spiritual teacher will help you to improve your family relationships; to become more respectful of them but less emotionally involved in their lives. A good spiritual path helps a student to gain stability and equilibrium and this stability will show itself in all of a student's relationships.
Never stay with a teacher who engages in sex with students. Teachers may be warm and protective. They might even share a hug sometimes, but overt or covert sexual involvement is forbidden. Teaching religion and having sex with students do not mix.
Watch the life and actions of the teacher before committing to him or her. The details of his life tell the tale. And pay attention to his manner of teaching. Does he speak in terms that only a few can understand, trying to make himself seem knowledgeable? Or does he attempt to explain concepts in terms understandable by everyone? Is he patient, helping you to rise again if you should fall? Does he make grandiose promises of fortune that lie ahead if only you will follow him? Before you commit to learning from a teacher, examine his behavior both inside and outside the classroom.
A teacher is a person who is ahead of some people and behind others on the Path. Students and teachers are mutually dependent. Students must be respectful and trust the teacher, and the teacher should be humble when receiving this respect. He must not abuse his students' trust, and he must not use his leadership position for self-aggrandizement.
The greatest teacher is fulfilled by the growth of his students, even to the point of hoping that they will surpass him in knowledge and understanding. A good spiritual teacher should strive to help you to deliver from within yourself knowledge and understanding that you already intuitively possess. In Running From Safety Richard Bach urges us to realize that "Every real Teacher is myself in disguise."
Geneva was my friend. Every teacher we have should be counted as a friend, a source of encouragement, a reliable helper, a confidante, a trusted companion.
Once, Ananda told the Buddha that he thought having good friends on the Path was half of the Path itself. The Buddha exclaimed, "Don't say such a thing, Ananda! Friendships like these are the entire Path."
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts