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In Praise of Teachers

“Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ and you shall progress.” – Maimonides

This week I had the pleasure of organizing and hosting a class taught by Mushtaq Ansari Ali on the misnamed “Five Tibetan Rites”. Mushtaq has been practicing these rites since the early 1970s, when he traveled to India and sought out people who could pass to him the proper techniques, the energy locks and breathing that went along with the physical movements he learned from a book. A Sufi and martial artist who is a master in various systems, Mushtaq is a friendly, calm presence. He could easily kill you if he wanted to. Luckily, he would far prefer to share a meal and talk.

Each day since the class, I have engaged with these practices, attempting to do the energy locks and breathing properly, and at the correct times, whether the movements come easily or not. And some of them do not. They present an interesting puzzle for me. I have to show up with curiosity or fail. It has taken me years to learn to show up with curiosity, to seek out things I know nothing about and may even be “bad” at, to accept a learning curve rather than relying on precocity and innate talent to get me through. I had to learn to value being taught.  I had to learn to love the things I don’t yet know.

Several years ago, I was drinking tea with a co-worker at the soup kitchen, talking about teachers. He said that he prefers peer teachers and doesn’t have much faith in learning from someone who isn’t a peer. I countered this, saying that while I learn a lot from peers, and learn a lot from people who are my students as well – and can, if I make myself available, learn from anything in any moment – there is something quite different that happens within me when I study with a master. For me, a master is a teacher who has integrated so many myriad things that the subject at hand becomes infused with a richness we can taste.  Many people have information they can impart. Still others have digested the information well enough that it has become knowledge, which is even more important. A master has taken information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. A master, to paraphrase my friend Katrina Messenger, knows things she has never been taught. Years of integrated study and practice have seeped into the person’s being, shining outwardly, reflecting into crevices, and highlighting the best and worst of us.

A master teacher causes me to confront myself in ways that I did not even know were possible. This is important, because, despite years of daily spiritual practice, of showing up to self-observation, of development of will, there is so much I want and need to learn. Learning keeps me honest. Interacting with a challenge means I’m not resting on my laurels, which is the quick road to ossification, and to passing along things that have become brittle, barely living.

For our teaching to remain a living thing, we have to continue to be challenged toward deeper learning.

So today, I speak in praise of teachers of all types. Whoever you are, wherever you are: Thank you for the gifts you offer to the world. Thank you for the life I lead today.

May one thousand blessings rest upon your heads.

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