Get a Teacher

Practice of the Week
Get a Teacher

Category: Key Supporting Practice

Have a group. Whatever your spiritual practice, you need others that you get together with to practice it -- in addition to the ways you practice on your own. If, say, cooking or gardening is your spiritual practice, then find -- or form -- a group of people that gather weekly, fortnightly, or monthly to practice together. This doesn't mean merely cooking or gardening together -- it means being together in the activity in a way that focuses on the spirituality of what you are doing. As you cook together, share your experiences of what's spiritual about this activity; as you garden together, talk about the spiritual lessons of gardening.

In addition to a group, consider a teacher for guiding you on your path and holding you and your practice in a relationship of accountability.

Waiting in the line of students sitting on cushions outside the abbot's dokusan (interview) room, my heart beat rapidly and the sweat on my palms did not match the unusually cool summer day outside. I was about to have my first personal interview with a Zen teacher. The senior monks running this "Introduction to Zen Practice” retreat had prepared us for this interview by encouraging us to think of one question to ask. The encounter would be short. There would be a little bit of personal exchange after the question was posed, but not a lot. For Zen students doing formal koan practice, an interview can consist merely of a recitation of the teaching story under consideration, an opportunity for the student to respond to a question or image in the story, and a response from the teacher. The teacher's response can be quite minimal, perhaps as simple as ringing a bell to indicate that the interview is over. The response can also be more expansive, with further questions or reflections about the koan before the student leaves.

The senior monks had encouraged me to treat this interview as an opportunity to ask the Buddha a question – which both made sense and was extremely daunting. Finally, it was my turn. I stumbled through my recollection of the appropriate bowing rituals that begin the interview. I sat down on my knees and raised my head to look into the eyes of John Daido Loori, the man who would become my teacher. I spoke my name and my practice and then asked my question: "What do I have to give up to follow this path?”

Twenty years have passed since I asked that question. Because I am still answering it, I am no longer sure what Daido Roshi said to me that day. The best summary would probably be that I had to give up my expectations about what the path would be like and just walk on it.

Like thousands of other North Americans, I had grown up with a church affiliation and involvement but with an eclectic commitment to spiritual practice. My Unitarian Universalist church community provided me with many opportunities to explore different disciplines, and I did. I did not feel the need to seek out or commit to a personal relationship with a meditation teacher until mid-life. I was struggling with a stuck feeling, a combination of boredom and frustration with the meditation that had previously brought me joy and contentment. I decided that I needed to find a teacher. After a year of research and visits, I turned to a monastic community and teacher five hundred miles from where I lived for guidance and support in how to deepen my spiritual practice.

Why this extreme step? During much of my twenty-five years of sporadic meditation practice, I was missing a teacher and a sangha. The sangha includes both the teacher and the community of fellow practitioners. Coming to terms with the fact that I needed a teacher was not easy for me. I had to confront many old images and expectations of who I was. I am a grown-up. (Kids have teachers; grown-ups don't.) I was raised and continue to be a member of a liberal church tradition. (We build our own theologies.) Ultimately, what was hardest was admitting to myself that I didn't know what I was doing. In spite of all the sitting, the retreats, and the books, I really didn't have a clue what living and acting from within my true nature meant. I needed a teacher.

No matter where your spiritual home lies, whether within Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, or philosophical traditions, teachers are available, once you accept your need for one. Undertaking spiritual direction has become a vehicle for finding a teacher that requires no theological or participatory commitment to a religious tradition or institution. Developed within Roman Catholic spirituality, the skills of spiritual direction have become more widely available through teachers trained by respected nondenominational institutions.

Choosing a teacher well starts with knowing yourself, as well as learning as much as you can about the teachers available. Personalities, teaching styles, and teaching traditions vary. There are frauds.

A critical reason to seek out a teacher is to make your practice accountable. We live busy, complex, and changeable lives. There are dozens of reasons why it is difficult to sustain daily practice over time. We are masters at rationalizing why we can't meditate. Being accountable to a teacher, a community, and a tradition outside yourself can help.

The path I chose and followed for sixteen years was to become a formal student of the first monastery I went to in search of a teacher. As students, we committed ourselves to a Zen practice in our lives at home. We were expected to complete five “barrier gates” (five steps to help prospective students clarify their intent), sustain a relationship with a training director, attend two week-long sesshin retreats each year, and pursue our practice in each of eight different areas of training. The monastery also supported home practice through books and other resources as well as relationships with the teacher and training director.

When my teacher died, I searched again for a new teacher. That relationship became primary, and the residential experience became more difficult to sustain and less important to me. So I resigned my student status at the monastery. I may return to a residential sangha again, since it was such a valuable experience. I cannot imagine, however, being without a teacher.

For Journaling

Journaling question: What steps you would need to take to integrate the practice of working with a teacher into your own life?

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