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The Art of Teaching

I view teaching as an art - a creative expression of divine inspiration. It is my passion and life’s calling. I feel most alive and energized when I am helping other people learn how to see truth for themselves.

Teaching is not transferring information, repeating someone else’s insights, or paraphrasing traditional wisdom. It isn’t passing on magical stories or promoting superstitious beliefs to explain mysteries. Traditional religions and the emerging new spirituality are already too full of well-worn cliches that make you think you know something, but don’t prompt real change.

The art of teaching is nudging someone to look where they have not thought of looking, in order to find what they are urgently seeking. There is a wonderful story from the Sufi tradition, a mystical expression of Islam, that illustrates this.

Nasrudin, the archetypal Sufi clown and mystic, is on his hands and knees under a street lamp on a city sidewalk at night searching for something. His friend comes along and says, “Nasrudin, what are you doing?” Nasrudin says, “I’m looking for my keys”. “Oh”, says his friend, “Where did you lose them?” Nasrudin points to a dark alley way and says, “Over there” “Really?” says his confused friend, “Then why are you looking for them over here?” “Well” says Nasrudin, “this is where the light is!”

When you hear this story it makes you laugh, and perhaps weep a bit over the tragic shortsightedness of humanity. Haven’t we all found ourselves looking for our lost keys under the street lamp, because that is where the light is? We all act irrationally at times and do things that make no sense. You know, for example, that eating sugar or drinking coffee in excess may be harmful to your health. But, does knowing this make you stop doing it?

It is tempting to try to teach Nasrudin about the foolishness of looking under the street lamp, when he lost his keys somewhere else. You want appeal to his rational mind and point out the error of his ways. But this kind of teaching doesn’t really change anything. We can understand something perfectly well with our brain, but that doesn’t translate into changing our thought patterns or behavior.

A skillful teacher will simply encourage Nasrudin to look over where he lost his keys, because that is most likely where he will find them. That is what I do. I nudge your mind to look where you have not yet thought of looking, in order to make sense of the world or find a stable reference point from which to navigate your life. I show you simply how to redirect your attention, to notice things that are there but you have not seen yet because you’re too absorbed in abstract thoughts and you were looking somewhere else.

A skillful teacher has explored the territory of consciousness, and seen how the perceptual mind distorts reality to make it fit within its parameters. This takes dedicated intention and focused effort. Then the teacher can help a student explore that same territory within themselves.

The teacher knows that the student must discover truth for themselves in order for it to be real and meaningful. Their task is simply to point, and keep pointing in many different ways, while offering tools that enable to student to see more clearly.

The art of teaching is always finding a new way to frame an idea so the student doesn’t automatically assume they already know it. It is essential to keep the teaching alive and spontaneous, using new words and images that keep prompting the student to see from a new perspective.

This is the creative part of teaching, and it requires being fully present with the student. I can’t enter teaching thinking I already know something. I have to simply pay attention and allow myself to be guided as to how to best help the person in front of me. Skillful teaching requires improvisation, and can’t be scripted.

The Calling

I was inspired to start teaching after my experiences at a large meditation center in the U.S. where teachers read their evening dharma talks from papers they had written and rehearsed. In private interviews many of these teachers repeated sayings from the Buddha, defaulted to conventional wisdom, or reiterated popular cliches. I was disturbed by this because these teachers seemed to be missing the point.

Spiritual practice, no matter what form or tradition it comes from, is about recognizing the innate intelligence of present awareness, and the inevitable suffering and limitations created by perceptual mind in service to a false self-image. Meditation is surely one of the most powerful tools for accessing the raw intelligence of pure consciousness, and yet these teachers were using their rational cognitive brain to teach.

I was frustrated and confused by this, until I met a man who became my primary teacher in the tradition of Buddhist Meditation. He sat in front of his students and waited until something occurred to him. It was an unusual and delightfully refreshing approach to teaching, and I recognized immediately that this improvisational style was what I had to offer others.

Over the past 20 years of teaching I have made it my practice to go into a talk or interview empty handed, without knowing what will happen. It is always over the protests of my ego, which tries desperately to get me to plan what I will say, so as not to look like a fool. So, I keep practicing what I teach, and simply notice my fear and anxiety as if it belonged to someone else.

There have been times of panic when the ubiquitous fear of failure that is the banner of the ego rises up into my throat and interrupts the flow of insights coming through me. I try to notice it, recognize it as an old story, and not get absorbed by it. And then I wait, breathe, and relax, until clarity is restored.

I know the teaching that comes through me is effective when I am inspired and guided by it myself. Teaching then becomes a dance with a divine source, and vibrates through my entire being. I give myself up to it, as any true artist gives themselves up to their creativity, and allow the teaching to teach me.

In this way teaching has become my practice of presence, and I encourage my students to do the same. Don’t try to remember or repeat anything you hear, or think that knowledge or truth comes in the form of someone else’s words. That merely reinforces your allegiance to perceptual mind, and insures that you remain stuck in its realm of concepts.

Rather, if a teaching strikes a chord in you, allow that chord to resonate within you. Notice how something awakens in you and makes you feel more vibrant and whole. Allow yourself to be taken by it, and let it move and rearrange your world. Then, out of the ashes of what you thought you knew will arise a fresh revelation, and that will be your truth.

The art of teaching is allowing insights to occur as you are talking. Trust the flow, and make yourself available for whatever the person in front of you needs for support and guidance. Realize that, on another level, you are only ever teaching yourself, and your mind is the only one that needs to awaken. This is what makes teaching come alive.


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