Lotus and Rose

What is a Teacher?

What is a teacher?

By Joan Tollifson

There are some teachers who seem very invested in being wise and special. There are any number of them around today claiming to be avatars, messiahs, and even God. These teachers tell you that they speak only the Truth, and that they can take you to where you want to go, apparently somewhere other than where you are now. In fact, they'll even tell you that you can't really make it there without them. These teachers appeal to that place inside of us that is frightened and uneasy, that wants certainty and answers. People gather at their feet, waiting to be zapped, waiting forever for the future to arrive.

Most of us, if we're honest, would probably, in some shadowy part of our psyches, love to be able to believe that someone somewhere really was God, and that by going to them, we could be enfolded once and for all in the love and protection of the Divine Parent, assured of getting the genuine goods, and maybe eventually becoming certified gods ourselves. But it's an illusion. Caveat emptor.

Once, when I was living in California, I went to see a teacher named Byron Katie, who does what she calls "The Work," a process of questioning our thoughts and beliefs. I went up on stage and did The Work with her (on the question of evil, and whether or not everything is really God), and at one point I said to her, "Yes, but, Katie, when you turn on the news and see something like a school shooting or a massacre, don't you feel sorrow?"

Katie looked me in the eye. "Don't ask me," she said. "Ask you."

Ask you and then investigate the answer that arises. See if it's really true. Keep asking and keep investigating. Then you arrive at real truth, not a borrowed truth.

We hunger for an authority with the right answers, a path with certainty. Again and again we turn ourselves over to someone or something we imagine to be wiser. We look to what the experts have to say. We try desperately to fit ourselves into some pre-existing template, to conform to some model of what we are supposed to think or feel or do. We try to replicate the experiences that others have described.

Or else we go to the opposite extreme of compulsive rebellion and false egalitarianism, and that's just the flip side of the same coin. When we get past both idolatry and rebellion, then it's possible to have a relationship of mutual respect and love. Then, as Nisargadatta once said, "What does it matter who is who?"

The whole context in which we meet somebody plays a huge role in how we experience them. Are they up on a stage or sitting with us in a circle? Have we been told in advance that they are the incarnation of God or an awakened master? Do they arrive with great fanfare or in complete simplicity? Do we get to see them off stage in regular life? What we expect to find is very often what we do find. It's easy to begin fabricating experiences when you want them and have imagined them, based on what others have described. Does a particular teaching paradigm show you that there is nothing to seek, nothing needed, nothing lost? Or does it promote a kind of narcotic spiritual consumerism rooted in the sense that something is missing?

Wherever you find yourself, that's where you belong, not forever, but right now. How do I know that for sure? Because that's where you are! What looks like confusion, stagnation, or outright insanity may be the road to clarity. You can only be where you actually are.

For many years, I thought there was something wrong with me because I went to many different teachers, and sometimes back and forth between them. I had this idea that you were supposed to settle in one place. You were supposed to find one teacher, one way of working, and stay there forever. For many people, this is what does happen. But in my case, it was not what happened. Finally I realized that in my case it was not supposed to be happening, that this was just an idea in my head. I realized that true settling is nothing more or less than "waking up moment to moment," as my first Zen teacher Mel Weitsman told me long ago.

So don't try to imitate someone else's path or swallow anyone else's apparently better idea about what's right for you. Ultimately, you can only be true to your own heart, the guru within, and you can only be where you actually are, not where you or anyone else thinks you maybe could or should be instead.

Watch a  video interview with Joan Tollifson on the Photos & Videos page.

Check out Joan Tollison's Web site.

Excerpt from Awake in the Heartland, pp 135-137
By Joan Tollifson
Published by Trafford
© 2003 Joan Tollifson
Electronically reproduced on Lotus and Rose by permission.