On Being A Teacher #1: Finding the Thread

So many friends have been discussing what being a meditation teacher actually means

This is going to be a blog in live time.

I’m pulling out of the station at Kings Cross on my way up to Edinburgh on the east coast train line up the country. There’s green tea in my keep-cup and I just scoffed a delicious jack-fruit katsu curry at the station, so I’m feeling well fed and watered.

I wanted to write about being a teacher since that is uppermost in my mind as I head north to teach a weekend class in Edinburgh.

It’s actually been uppermost(ish) in my mind since the summer last year when my teacher, Reggie, went AWOL and so many friends have been discussing what being a meditation teacher actually means.

I also see that it’s a question that has been uppermost in my mind since 2004 when I taught my first meditation class up on Holy Island.

——

I’m wondering what it was about teaching that so magnetised me?

No one appointed me a teacher. There isn’t a meditation teacher council or UK board of spiritual teachers that gave me a certificate in 2004.

And yet I definitely chose to be a meditation teacher before I chose to do the training in becoming a psychotherapist. Unlike my decision to be a therapist, the meditation teaching was largely my own dogged inspiration co-joined with the generosity (and, I hope, wisdom) of Lama Yeshe who allowed me to teach my first classes on the Island.

It felt like opening all the doors and windows in my life

Back then, I had found such transformation from my own practice that I felt almost compelled to teach it to others. It was a hazy, almost unconscious compulsion. But it never wavered. Now I think about it on this train journey, I’m wondering what it was about teaching that so magnetised me?

I remember with great freshness – as I zoom now through the English countryside – the inspiration I felt as I first read Buddhist texts and began to explore the world of dharma in 2000.

It felt like opening all the doors and windows in my life and letting fresh air into a VERY claustrophobic and chokingly dusty room.

I remember that summer (filming Cash in the Attic, most probably) as being filled with sunshine and gusty bright winds of illumination. It seemed so exciting, so expansive what was being pointed out to me by people like Thich Nhat Hahn, Joko Beck, the Ajahns at Chithurst and Amaravati.

If there had been a governing board of meditation teachers I probably would not have been allowed to teach.

And every subsequent door-opening, every profounder ventilation of my mind, seemed to push me more and more compellingly to sharing what I was finding.

If there had been a governing board of meditation teachers back then I probably would not have been allowed to teach. I had barely started meditating in 2004: just four years of enthusiastic Theravadin-style practice. I knew the Ajahns in the Forest Sangha tradition had to be monks for 10 years before they taught. Tibetan teachers often do 9 years of closed retreat before they are even considered. It took me 6 years of excruciating training to be given the imprimatur of the therapy community. So what made me so convinced that I should teach people how to meditate back then?

The answer, if I’m honest is: I don’t know. There was a quiet, unflappable confidence and fearlessness that simply led me to take it up. Though that was on a deeper level.

Up top, I was riddled with insecurities. I used to worry (below the surface of my swan-like gliding) that it was all a big ego-trip. That my confidence was just arrogance and my entitled ego was now piggy-backing on being a monk or being a teacher.

There was ego, of course, but it was what Reggie calls a “practice ego”

But now I know that ego gets involved in everything anyway. And anyway, it strikes me that at the time there were much more obvious avenues for egomania.

In 2004, I was busy being a TV presenter, an up-and-coming small-screen celebrity. Conventionally speaking, being a face on the telly is much richer ego-fodder than sitting with a few people on a Scottish island and watching the breath. But the TV thread had run its course before it had really taken off. I didn’t like the exposure and vulnerability of ‘fame’ and I loved the experiences I was having as a meditator, so on some level a deeper thread took over.

There was ego, of course, but it was what Reggie calls a “practice ego”, silently guiding me, (or perhaps being guided) to a place of greater and greater self-awareness.

Meditation felt like a compelling path. And the desire to teach it emerged as a sort of translucent, half-visible compulsion

In 2004 I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on in my head. I was pre-therapy, pre-Ayahuasca, pre-Bodhisattva Vow. I was still very wrapped up in the double-sided-sticky-tape of my early adulthood. But even in the stickiness of being 30, meditation felt like a compelling path. And the desire to teach it emerged as a sort of translucent, half-visible compulsion.

And somehow it guided me steadily towards sitting in the Peace Hall on Holy Island in June 2004 with a handful of participants, feeling exhilarated but also terrified.

We are called, we are compelled, we are inspired to take a certain form.

Of course, I was riddled with insecurities about everything at the beginning and that definitely spilled out into my classes. But I stuck with it. There was a dogged, bloody-minded insistence from somewhere that I should persevere. That this is, deep down, what I was meant to be doing.

Reggie always teaches that contacting the deeper and deeper layers of our being make the imperatives of our life more and more compelling. We are called, we are compelled, we are inspired to take a certain form. So, perhaps all the ‘chance encounters’, all the myriad decisions and twists and turns were all the unfolding of what James Hillman calls the soul’s code, the acorn pushing forward to becoming an oak.

I don’t know – that sort of language worries me for some reason. Fate. Destiny. It’s all rather 1930s and politically suspect. But perhaps, nonetheless, it’s right. Perhaps its right that I am teaching meditation even if I can’t explain why. I’ve been doing it for more than 15 years. Have taught probably hundreds of courses, retreats, weekly groups. Perhaps it is the thread I was meant to follow.

____

Let me ponder why I might be hesitant in ‘coming out proud’ as a meditation teacher

We’re getting towards Newcastle and I’m intrigued now by my ambivalence about being a teacher. I’m pretty sure footballers or A&E nurses don’t feel this way about what they do. Perhaps they do…?

Let me ponder why I might be hesitant in ‘coming out proud’ as a meditation teacher…

“Bashfulness is an impediment of the soul and work is required to overcome it”

Well, I’m English and I grew up in the ueber-ironic 80s and 90s, so to be unabashedly ‘spiritual’ was to be shot down in flames. Post-Foucault, it is also hard to take some position of self-appointed power without crumbling into deconstructed disarray. Plus, (and perhaps most importantly), meditation is dealing with human beings’ most vulnerable and sacred realities. There’s actually a lot that could be hurt and there’s a lot that could be achieved. It’s daunting.

All told, these might contribute to my pervasive cultural and psychological bashfulness around this business of spiritual “calling”. But as my director of studies at Cambridge, Jeremy Prynne told me once: “Bashfulness is an impediment of the soul and work is required to overcome it”.

All the wasted energy that froths neurotically at the fringes of teaching distracts from the actual benefit of it. Prynne went on to say that “Growing points can connect not by invasion but through branches of feeling, out and about”. He’s notoriously hard to follow on first reading but what I have taken from this is the need for friendly and spontaneous connection with others. Like the tendrils of plants that wave in the air before connecting out, we should never push to invade others or hang back without connection.

In essence, he seemed to be telling me to put all my second-guessing and self-sabotage aside and help others. Connect to others. Share stuff with others. Don’t make such a personal drama out of it all.

I should finally leave this bashfulness about being a teacher behind

In the same email, he finished with: “ Personality is a distraction, self free of the interior cage can be steady enough if left alone and for itself”

This strikes me as incredibly wise and, actually, very Buddhist.

Prynne has spent his entire adult life teaching, wonderfully. And I have always been inspired by the massive interconnected forest of friends, ex-students and colleagues that he weaves around himself. As I graze towards turning 50, I feel that I should finally leave this bashfulness about being a teacher behind and listen to what he said.

I began this blog intending to bluster and investigate the framework of being a teacher. There was probably an unconsious dig at my Buddhist teacher Reggie (with whom I’m feeling really grumpy at the moment). But actually I’ve come to a point where I recognise that my karma is probably all been pointing this way. And that it’s OK that my life led this way. That I am on this train up to Edinburgh not on an ego trup but actually because I was meant to do it.

End of part 1/

Alistair wrote another post recently about “showing his workings” as a teacher – Is my finger pointing at the moon from where you’re sitting?

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8 Comments

  • Alistair,I posted a reply to you, a few weeks back, regarding your calling as a meditation teacher as I feared, from your narrative re D O and Reggie, that you might abandon teaching and Mindsprings. This fear was heightened when, just recently, you were very quiet…no posts, no blogs, no podcasts. So it was with enormous relief that I picked up my tablet, this morning, to find this very positive blog.You were ,most definitely, meant to teach and your TV career upped your profile in a way that made people, like myself, want to find out more about you.Your likeability is a big factor, I think, to your success in all that you do.I don’t think you quite realise what an impact you teachings have on us. I do hope, some time, to attend one of your courses but in the meantime I’m happy in the knowledge that I can still look forward to your online courses.
    sending love and hugs
    Patti X

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hello Patti,

      As always, thank you for your sustained kindness and support over the last few years. Although we’ve never met, I feel that we have connected, like Prynne says, ‘tendrils, out and about’.
      The first online course is in the finishing stage and I’m excited about 2020 and being 50, so who knows what will unfold…

      Thanks for being there,

      A

  • Debra Bentzen says:

    Hi Alistair,
    Your exposure on the TV actually drew me to you in the first place…I knew there was something different about you and I noticed the Buddhist mala beads on a few episodes….I then did some research and found out that low and behold you were a Meditation teacher….which confirmed what I had felt….
    I have had my own disappointments with teachers etc and as I have gotten older…now a senior…I look for honesty, truth and walking the talk…..A teacher is a guide….a friend and person who is willing to help others on the path….I also think it also comes from within….I am following Mindsprings and although I live in TO, Canada, I follow your blogs with much interest….Thanks for sharing that moments of joy, happiness, enthusiasm but also your deep thoughts, confusion and sorrow….it makes you real! Thanks

    • alistairappleton says:

      Ah thank you Debra, it’s so lovely to have comments from Canada – where I nearly moved back in the 90s. Toronto… Glad that the blogs and teachings are landing well. A

  • Judi Sillifant says:

    Alistair I’ve only recently discovered your blog and the way you ‘speak’ almost mirrors a teacher I had in South Africa in the 90’s. Re-membering and re-discovering myself has been quite an adventure and has led me to so badly wanting to teach because I want others to discover the peace that I’ve found. I am doing a few courses and fitting in a retreat or two between work commitments so I’m keeping an eye open for one of your courses that might time itself well.
    Thank you for these wonderful wisdoms that you are sharing with us.
    Judi 🙏🏼

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi there Judi,
      Thanks for the comments. I wonder was it Rob Nairn who taught you? He was one of my first teachers so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his speech patterns rubbed off on me.
      A

  • Sandy Cousens says:

    Dear Alistair
    Selfishly speaking I dearly hope you continue on your teaching path, not only as you inspire me (I’ve recently taken up teaching via art therapy) but I intend to attend one of your courses/retreats (I’m from Australia so there will be planning involved!). Without coming over all blandish, we need your masculine energy to balance, what I feel, is becoming a very feminine dominating area (perhaps this is more so in the antipodes). I say this with the deepest respect for women in our society, as one myself, but I see my two sons growing into young men, and to have you being such a positive compass for both men and women of all age groups is simply refreshing for me. You are a born teacher, healer and kind generous Soul and one I gladly refer to for honest teachings.
    In loving kindness
    Sandy

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thank you very much Sandy for writing. There’s quite a number of people listening and logging-in from Australia – perhaps because of re-runs of Escape? But it’s lovely to know the website is working and my ramblings are doing some good… As for male and female energy, I actually think all teachers (all humans in fact) should have a bit more of both. Yin and Yang is necessary in everyone to really reach and connect with people. A

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