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Real Teachers Know the Ropes

It seems to me that right now there are so many “spiritual teachers” out there who have maybe done a mindfulness course or two, maybe taken some ayahuasca or stayed in an ashram somewhere for a couple of weeks and then set themselves up as some sort of spiritual authority. Okay, okay, I know it might probably sound a bit judgy, but I really do worry about this shallowness. It’s not that I worry so much about the person who is doing the teaching; it’s more about the people they are trying to teach.

If a teacher is teaching a subject that they really don’t know that much about, how does this honor the subject or the work that needs to be done? Frankly, I don’t think it does. Rather, I think it misleads others, and this act of misleading, whether unintentional or intentional, does both student and teacher a great disservice. I remember hearing a very wise spiritual teacher saying that it takes a great deal of responsibility to teach. I would say this is because if you teach someone, you are essentially serving them. If you’re a real teacher, it is not about you, it is about your student. You are saying, “Look, there it is; there is the wisdom inside you. Take a closer look.”

Real teachers know the ropes. And this might include not taking things at face value, like, for example, the phrase "to know the ropes." Most people assume that "to know the ropes" has a nautical origin and is referring to the ropes attached to the sails of a ship. But if we take a closer look we see there are also early citations from the world of theater, like the one in Opera Goer in 1850: "The belle of two weeks standing, who has 'learned the ropes'." Ropes raise and lower the scenery in theater. So, the exact origin of the phrase to know the ropes is a bit more complex than we originally thought.

Why am I mentioning this? Because sometimes things just can't be taken at face value only. They require a deeper attention. They need to be looked at closely and from many angles. Spiritual life is like that; it requires attention and expertise. The real teachers I have met in my life have these two attributes. They use their attention and expertise to draw the innate knowledge and wisdom out of their students. And sometimes it ain’t easy! (A big shout out to teachers in my life who have persevered with me; thank you for your patience and for believing in me, even when I have been a right royal pain! You know who you are.)

It took me a while to step forward and to say this. Part of me wanted to remain silent: Did I want to add my voice to the cacophony? Did I want to shoulder that responsibility? But then I heard the horror stories. An example: a beautiful friend of mind attended a ‘tantra’ workshop, and was subjected to a non-consensual sexual interaction in a public setting that constituted abuse, all in the name of ‘tantra’ and freedom of sexual expression. And that’s not okay. That’s what is called at best ignorance, and at worst, well, you fill in the blanks. I told my friend in no uncertain terms that whatever that thing was, it was not authentic tantra.

And then there is the other end of the spectrum: the “pretty, spiritual talk.” Or perhaps better: the “pretty spiritual talk.” Where everything slightly worldly or sexual is completely disregarded in the name of purity or “Holiness.” Yes, the capital “H” is completely intentional. Lots and lots and lots of pretty and pure words. Blah. Highfalutin' philosophical talk talk talk. Where is the authentic, fearless discussion? The not-so-pretty nitty gritty?

Real teachers are not perfect and do not profess to be. Thank God! Thank Goddess! That’s a big deal right there. I had the opportunity to live on retreat for many years and do some quality work on myself, and I will always be grateful for that. And the real teachers I met during that time are not perfect. They are human. Truly human. Do they know everything? No.

In fact, the best teachers and Gurus I have met have all said one very important phrase: “I don’t know.” One of them said, “If you stop learning, you might as well be dead.” I totally agree. In the context of my teaching work, I am happy to write about and teach things that I have learned and experienced spiritually, but - and this is the key point - I must have learned and experienced them. Otherwise, they are all just pretty, empty or pretty empty words, and right now in the field of spirituality I think the less empty talk talk talk we have, the better.


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