Taking a Teacher
by (Christina Pratt)
True teachers connect us to rivers. They connect us to a flow of information and experience that was there before the teacher and will be there after us. As students, our attention, questions, and sincerity pull the river through the teacher to us. There are different rivers. Qi gong is a 4,000 year old river, authentic shamanism, some say, is a 40,000 year old river. The musical genre hiphop could be seen as just a few decades-old creek or the vast ancient river of humans dancing as a means of expressing the true self.
The purpose of a teacher is to help us to engage the river and to use it to create a more essential expression of our authentic self. I remember taking classes in college in subjects I was completely uninterested in just to experience learning from the really good teachers. It was exciting to be in their classes. Learning from a really good teacher is like being carried in the current of a river directly into the true self.
True teachers assist students in discovering unique expressions of their true selves. It is their calling. No matter the topic, great teachers are connected to great rivers. Nonetheless, even great teachers are powerless to teach us if we do not take them. It is the student who has the power to take or not to take the teacher. Even the greatest teachers can only lead the horses to the water. It is the student who chooses to bow down low enough to receive the river. In that act of surrender to the river the student accesses the powers of transformation in that river.
The surrender is to the river, the same river the teacher surrendered to long ago. The surrender is not to the teacher. This confusion leads to all sorts of messy boundary issues, projected power, and un-owned authority. A true teacher tends this interface with constancy and compassion, handing the power back again and again and redirecting the student’s attention to the river. Teachers who do not or cannot tend this interface will abuse their rank and privilege, intentionally or unintentionally. But we are not discussing the misuse of power. We are discussing the use of true powers; the power of the river, the power of transformation, and the power of the choice to take a teacher.
Taking a Teacher
What does it mean to take a teacher? While the following is true about anything, let’s use yoga for example. If you go to yoga class twice a week you will experience a benefit in body, mind and spirit. The transformational powers of this path are present, however at this level of commitment you will not access them. It is akin to standing beside the river, appreciating its beauty and drinking deeply from it. It is refreshing temporarily and you are fundamentally still the same. Nothing has changed or transformed. But the practice begins.
In shamanism this is similar to learning to journey and placing a fetish of your power animal on your desk at work or setting an image of your helping spirit as your screen saver. You regularly attend a monthly, local journey circle, you attend classes on shamanism that interest you with one teacher or many. Each step is of great value in and of itself. Each experience, each journey – even the lack-lustre ones – nourish and refresh the spirit, you remain on the bank, refreshed and happy, watching that gorgeous, rich, vast river flow by, but the practice has begun.
Back to yoga; let’s say you now begin to go to class ever-day. On the days that you can’t make it, you guide yourself through the yoga moves and postures to the best of your ability. Then you have made the practice your own. You have not yet taken a teacher, but you have stepped into your power on the path and yoga becomes your chosen practice. That practice is now empowered by your intention and commitment. The transformational powers of the path are available to you, but you will access them only by trial and error. Nothing consistent or complete can emerge. This is akin to wading in the river. You have left the old shore and you are getting wet, but your feet can still touch the bottom. You remain in control and rooted to your old belief system.
In shamanism this is the stage at which you begin to journey on your own for assistance from spirit and look for books about shamanism as a spiritual practice. You take classes regularly, possibly even the healing forms, and you find teachers you enjoy learning from. You may even travel to a faraway place, like Peru or Nepal again and again to experience the teachings there because you can’t really figure out how to live them here. Each of these experiences is of great inherent value, but you have not yet taken your teacher. You have waded into the river and you are getting wet, sometimes soaked through and through. It’s great, but your feet remain on the bottom of the river, keeping you safe from the Unknown and connected to the path back to who you already are.
Back to yoga; now you have been practicing every day either in class or alone. In your explorations of yoga lineages and forms you find a lineage that resonates with you. When you practice any of the forms in that lineage, something stirs within you and your true self awakens just a bit. This is your river. In all of the many, many tributaries to the great river of yoga you have found the waters that nourish the authenticity of your soul. It is time to formally take a teacher in that river so that you are guided to progressively and fully access the river’s power to take you to your true self.
This is taking the teacher. Some find the river first and some find the teacher first. Either way when you take the teacher you have a guide in accessing the transformational powers on the path. You stepped into your power in your practice. You have used that power to choose to bow down and receive the teaching. In this there is the choice to surrender and to trust the river. You push off from where you can touch the bottom and allow yourself to be carried in the current of the river. You have chosen to leave the old shore, the old belief system, and the familiar reality behind. You trust the teacher to guide you in the current of the river toward a true expression of yourself.
In shamanism this is akin to when you have moved beyond journeying, trance dancing, and the healing forms and have placed your powerful skill-set into a daily life lived from a shamanic worldview. For example; you begin each day with gratitude and call in spirit at your alter. You tend to all of your relationships; those with spirit, your environment as it changes as you move through your day, other humans, and your own spirit. At the close of the day you review, turning over the stones you tripped over through the day. You tend your alter, leave offerings, and share your gratitude before sleep. Most importantly you ‘look’ for the resonance of your river to guide you in what and how to do the living practice of shamanism. And you find a teacher who is immersed in your river to guide you in moving beyond the unifying simplicity of the three worlds. The teacher opens up the cosmology carried in the river to populate, relate, and bring depth to your experience of the Other World. With this guidance you can see deeper meaning in the challenges of the day and can access the learning at their heart.
The Formal Relationship
A formal relationship with a teacher begins with the student’s honest and humble request for teaching. If accepted the ongoing relationship then requires honor, surrender, and the willingness to expose and transform the ‘raw materials’. In honoring the teacher, the teachings are given the benefit of the doubt. They are taken in, run past your own internal truth, and those that do not resonate with internal truth are not discarded. They become the discomfort the student embraces to find a deeper truth in which the teaching and inner truth are resonant. For this the student must lay down grandiosity.
Paula Denham beautifully illustrates this formal relationship in her article ‘Local and Intimate Apprenticeship’. In Paula’s way of teaching and learning we see how the power moves continuously in the relationship. We see how the honor flows both ways and grandiosity is dropped by all.
To take a teacher the student must surrender to truly being a student again. As students; gifted, intelligent and highly trained professionals must return to not knowing, to failing, and to the fear that arises when old beliefs prove to be less than adequate to explain reality. The student must surrender to the need for discipline, practice and the discomfort of change. The student must surrender his or her pattern of daily life and make inconvenient schedule changes, possibly forego a day of income, sacrifice money for the teaching, or risk disappointing a family member now and again. To surrender, the student must lay down all excuses.
Finally, to take a teacher the student must be willing to expose and transform the ‘raw material’. The raw material consists of many things; all the places you stop in fear, in hiding, in denial, or lying to yourself. The raw material is the Shadow. The raw material is all the inner stuff that breeds the fear and limits your full expression of your true self. To expose and transform the raw material, the student must lay down the false self. In the article ‘Speaking Woman’ Hank Wesselman shows great willingness to expose his past transgressions and to give up his raw material. In that sacrifice and in doing precisely what his teacher, Hale Makua, prescribes, Hank gains Ka Po ‘ihi- The Mysteries.
Through the decision of taking a teacher you gain access to the transformational powers of the ancient rivers like yoga, qi-gong, and shamanism. Nothing short of that will allow you to evolve and lay down all that the false self holds dear and true. Don’t fool yourself and don’t sell yourself short. You will never know the treasures on the path, no matter how good the teacher is, until you can choose to surrender to the river and take the teacher.
Without surrender we can still have the experiences, but we see them through the lens of the same patterns we always have. When we take a teacher the surrender inherent in that relationship allows us to learn another way to view the world and our relationship to it. We can begin to create new patterns of thought and behavior – tried and true ancient patterns. Life becomes conscious cultivation, not repetition and reaction. Taking a teacher even with all of its benefits is a great challenge for us. Un-consciously we know that our lives will change and we always resists change no matter how welcome. Consciously we resist the loss of control in surrender and fear the trust necessary to engage that relationship. Instead we keep looking for ‘the right teacher’ moving from practice to practice, expecting the teacher to do for us what only we can do for ourselves.
Fundamentally transformation along the path to your true self takes time. Hank Wesselman frankly states in his bio that he has apprenticed for 29 years and counting. Traditionally it takes at-least four years, even for the most intelligent, gifted, and motivated, to even begin to learn at the depth necessary to access deep inner transformation. To walk the path of a shamanic practitioner, each of us continually needs the restoration of deep inner transformation. Your path in life doesn’t really care about your calendar. Your path needs you to make time. Your soul could not care less about should’s, cultural expectations, and other sources of self-deception. There is no right time to take a teacher. There is only this time to give yourself to your inner transformation and true self-expression.
Find the resonance of that lineage that stirs your true self inside of you and nourishes your soul. Take the next step from wherever you are along the path of that practice, even if it is inconvenient or requires the sacrifice of time or money. Take another step and another step until you reach the sacred place where you truly take a teacher. Give yourself to the teaching that touches the longing of your soul. Push off into the current and surrender to the river. Let it carry you into your true self and the man or woman that you have come here to be.