A few months ago, I was cleaning some old files and came across a personal statement I had written when applying for residency in 1998. It was a deep dive into the word "doctor" that comes from the Latin docere, which means to teach. In the essay, I had written passionately about teaching as the medium of healing and empowering patients through knowledge. I'm not sure how much the essay contributed to my application... however, 26 years later, I was amazed to look back at those words and examine my current life where teaching takes up much of my time and energy.
Perhaps my younger self had a glimpse of what my life would hold, but what she certainly didn't know is that teaching is a slippery path that alternately lifts you up to great heights of beauty and shoves you down to what seems like infinite darkness - especially in the realm of spiritual teaching, where judgment is swift and grace is painstakingly slow.
At no point in my younger years did I imagine I'd be a spiritual teacher, and often wonder if I'd be doing this work if I'd known then what I know now.
One way or another, the answer is yes.
And... as strange as it seems, the yes is not for the soaring or the hard-found grace that comes from students and colleagues that respect me.
The yes is for the excruciating pain of the swift judgment from those who don't.
The Teaching That Teaches The Teacher
All my life, teaching was a thing that came naturally. Perhaps I love to share what I've discovered so others can find it too. Early on my path, my meditation teacher strongly suggested I teach, and I took to it happily and easily. For 7 years, I taught meditation, Ayurveda and yogic techniques at my hospital, which eventually became the foundation of my book, The Heart of Wellness. My deeply personal experiences shaped by meditation and other practices organically turned into the different ways in which knowledge could be shared.
The most gratifying aspect of teaching is the mutual exploration of the subject that interests me the most - the nature of Reality. Finding people - friends, colleagues, students and mentors that are interested in the same thing has been so beautiful that it overrides... well, the everything else.
In the course of my inner journey, I've come to see that human suffering creates the fascinating predicament of seeking relief in every possible way. Spirituality is one way. Most of us that come to spirituality wants relief from the suffering that makes us feel worthless, powerless, restless, and all other "less"es that compress us into smallness. If this smallness can be mitigated in any way, we'll take it.
By the time we come to spirituality, we feel like we have either exhausted all other ways of mitigating our suffering or that it is the easy way to find relief. With rare exceptions, most of us would like to overcome suffering by bypassing it entirely. We bring the familiar mentality of seeking into spirituality that drives all our other motives, where we accumulate things to make us feel safe and loved and better. Instead of resolving the "less"es, we find infinite spiritual ways to negate them.
Spiritual bypassing leads to spiritual materialism. What we couldn't find in the material world, we try to find in the spiritual world - validation (the big one), feeling like we are better than, more accomplished, pious, righteous, knowledgeable, whatever than everyone else.
Essentially, the very judgments that made us feel less than become the basis to feel more than all others.
What I realized is this: when you take on the role of a spiritual teacher, you up the game by several hundred notches. No spiritual teacher (except a rare handful to have walked this planet) is ever "done" in their own inner journey. They - we (since I'm one) - fumble, slip and make mis-takes, like anyone else.
Going through darkness as a spiritual teacher is... well, not fun. The judgments come pouring in; after all, this is an incredible opportunity for students to feel more than someone, especially a teacher. The very students who were inspired to find their own beauty by the teachings that came through you now find their so-called expansion in being more than.
The hierarchy of a teacher-student relationship is useful as long as there is no competition between the two on any level. If we inauthentically place someone above us, our inherent loathing and jealousy are bound to manifest at the first opportunity of the perceived failing of the one we placed higher. In this kind of more than, it becomes obvious that we had been merely pretending to be meek or humble. Whew! There's no greater amusement to Reality than fake humility, which is ironically rampant in spiritual circles.
Two things happen to you as a spiritual teacher at this point: you realize the incredible hardiness of human nature that is a Herculean task to transform AND your failure as a teacher.
Grief washes over you, for here, you see the frailty of your own humanity.
And this here is the potential to find the Philosopher's Stone and the formula for true alchemy.
The Teacher is Her Own Student
The paradox of freedom is this - you can't have only one part of the equation. You can't expect only to soar. You must also expect to fall.
Not only must you expect to fall; you must welcome it.
And until you learn to welcome it, you will fall into an eternal abyss. When you open your heart and welcome the fall with no expectation other than to fall, you will find yourself soaring.
Here's the catch. If you convince yourself to welcome it so you can soar, it won't happen. You'll keep falling into the endless pit of darkness.
This is the nature of Reality.
As a teacher, the periods of darkness have forced me to retrace my steps back to what drew me into the inner journey in the first place. Beyond all the mystical experiences in childhood and walking the path of a successful physician and a happy householder, the inner journey holds its appeal for me to discover the nature of Reality. What moves the universe, time and space, my mind, the billions of stars in the sky and the cells in my body? This is the knowledge I've longed for.
The high soars of recognition and the low depths of humiliation are not only aspects of Reality, but a much-needed exercise to pick out the grain from the chaff. They don't allow for spiritual bypassing or materialism. In fact, they exquisitely demonstrate the impermanent nature of Reality. This is why the quick judgment, much more than the slow grace make up the YES to being the imperfect teacher. Without the judgment and the mud-flinging, Reality would be lopsided. Who wants that?!
In the endless loops of rise and fall, you come to see that old methods of teaching are now irrelevant. New methods and streams of knowledge are the gift of plunging into the depths of pitch-black voids. There, you are stripped of any semblance of pride, cooked in the black fire of nothingness, clothed in smallness and sent back up to the light, armed with two things: patience and authenticity.
Just for a while, of course, until the next high will take you right back for another round of void cooking.
With each iteration, you lose essential aspects of yourself. A role, a title, a chunk of identity... poof!
The teacher needs to die so the student can be born.
What was once valued is now dissolved. Life moves in an infinite circle of soars and falls. And I wouldn't want it any other way, for Reality is what I seek.
Images: Kedarnath Range overlooking the Kedarnath valley and temple, October 2023.