My first experience as a teacher was in a two-room school in Lillooet, B.C. I stood at the front of the class and asked the children to sit up.
The whole class as one entity immediately sat up very straight. They all looked at me, waiting for the next instruction. A question registered in me at a deep level: What was I to do with the power I had been given in this classroom? What was my responsibility?
Unfortunately, we have all been trained to defer our power to authorities in school, in family, and in work. Even more unfortunately, teachers often don’t realize the power they hold.
As a teacher, I see that as soon as I sit in the chair, students will often give their authority to me. People want a dividing line between the teacher and student, a line that says the teacher knows more. They want someone to tell them what to do. Yet a good teacher should be searching for ways to foster independence instead of dependence. A teacher’s job is to see the potential in people and want to draw it out.
Through teaching I learned how each mind is unique. I also realized that there is no dividing line between teacher and student. What is a teacher?
A teacher is also a learner, a learner of minds. I am learning; they are learning. We learn together. We all have a duty to help each other, like a big sister or brother stepping ahead first and helping others take the next steps.
I remember my own education and how I was drawn to windows – looking out. I wanted to sit in the rows by the windows. I wanted what was happening inside to connect with what was happening outside.
What we were learning in the classroom didn’t have any relationship to my life. There is nothing that we did in the school that related to the environment in which I was living. We learned things in our workbooks; the workbooks were marked. It was what someone else thought I should know. It had no real relationship to my mind, my life outside the classroom.
We have been conditioned to think of our lives in classroom boxes, in neat rows. Our everyday life is segregated from the life force that wants to truly know our selves, our minds, and our purpose.
How do we connect with this spiritual life? People tend to keep it separate, have a different classroom for each part of their life – one for work, one for family, one for spiritual practice, one for recreation – but no connection is made between them.
What each person needs are the tools to explore the mind so that they can find the potential within themselves. We often learn on an intellectual level, but there is another kind of understanding that comes from what we call the heart.
Teachings or spiritual tools allow access to the heart by revealing obstacles that have kept us in safe, mechanical ways of living, just like those neat rows in the classrooms.
The teachings are available to all who are sincere; the path is open to everyone.
The basic principle involved with teaching is to ask what is best for each person. We all have what we need within ourselves. The task is to unwrap ourselves from the covers of conditioning, asking, “Why do I want to wear this wrapper as my real self? It was a protection once; someone put it on me or demanded it from me. But now I have other choices.”
That’s what a teacher does, she tries to get you to remember what you know, put it into the context in which you are living. Then your life can expand.
Spiritual tools can open minds to a broader perspective, put life into a context in which we begin to feel gratitude for what we’ve been given, because things start to make sense. You will discover that there is a purpose and a reason to life. You start to learn about your mind and how it creates the world that you live in. The inner life reflects the outer life.
Life is inconsistent. There is no right or wrong, this or that, up or down, yes or no, in or out. Often there are no answers.
This goes against what we have learned and adapted to through education. These dualities are extremely limiting. There is a bigger context to every situation.
The more possibilities you allow yourself, the less confusing and chaotic life will seem. There are millions of possibilities and many answers to every question. It is not right or wrong, but what is appropriate for the situation, what is serving the best in yourself and others as you see it. Even if you make a mistake, you will learn from that mistake.
Question life around you, learn about the place of questions, and the freedom of having no answers. There is a place inside that can remember, that knows. There is an inner teacher that can discover the teachings.
A spiritual teacher is only a conduit for the teachings, an inspiration and example on the path.
In my teacher I saw something I wanted – a straightness, a light and an intelligence. Often a teacher is someone who can see another dimension to life, who has had an experience of the Light and how it works. They bridge the gap, make a connection between the sacred and the everyday, not leaving it at an intellectual level.
The question of teaching really comes back to the questions we can each ask ourselves. What do I do with the power I have been given as a human being to think and to make choices? How do I envision the future? How can I become more considerate, kind and helpful? What life do I want to create for myself? How can I step out of my old concepts? What is the purpose of my life?
Swami Radhananda was president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram from 1993-2014, and a living example of the quality and integrity of Swami Radha’s teachings. Swami Radhananda passed into the Light on January 28, 2021.
Originally published in Ascent Magazine.
Collage by Swami Radhananda