On Being a Teacher #2: Finding New Circles

On Being a Teacher - what it is to be a meditation teacher and how it differs from school

[If you want to read #1 first you can find it here]

Starting with what a meditation teacher is not

Now I’m in Edinburgh, sitting in a cafe waiting for my toasted goat’s cheese sandwich to appear.

I spent the last night with my lovely friend Jenny continuing my discussion about what it is to be a meditation teacher. And things are becoming a little clearer in my mind. Starting with what a meditation teacher is not.

No amount of telling is going to transfer the awakening experience into my student’s mind

For example, a maths teacher works with a different paradigm. There is a simpler transfer of knowledge. If my student does not know Pythagorus’ theorem, no amount of ‘pointing out’ on my part is going to make her suddenly recognise it in herself. I will have to tell her, and then she’ll know.

Meditation teachers do a different thing. It’s almost the reverse. No amount of telling is going to transfer the awakening experience into my student’s mind. Rather, it is a pointing out of something that is already there in her already. Teaching in this instance facilitates re-connection or recognising something already present.

There might be not-so-skillful bashfulness in shying away from the term ‘teacher’ altogether

In some ways, I wonder if ‘teacher’ is the right word at all. Jenny prefers facilitator. I like that word but I feel there might be not-so-skillful bashfulness in shying away from the term ‘teacher’ altogether. But nonetheless, there does seem something important to explore here.

What might be the problem of proceeding as a meditation teacher with the class-room pedagogue mindset?

I would regularly feel persecuted by the woman sitting opposite me in the circle

Well, one troubling aspect would be that the unexamined paradigm-at-play might easily reduce students to children and turn the teacher into a parent-figure.Because what is being transmitted here is not just facts and figures; not just the Kings and Queens of England or the 12x table. It’s something much more core, much more emotional, much more in the ball-park of parenting and childhood and internal safety.

Psychotherapists are very attuned to the dangers of what is known as ’the transference’ – the overlay of childhood patterns on an adult situation. But in the wild west of spiritual teaching it often gets overlooked with disastrous results.

For example, I recall when I started out teaching on Holy Island that I would regularly feel persecuted by the woman sitting opposite me in the circle. Whatever I was teaching I felt that she saw through me as a fraud, was secretly undermining my authority as a teacher and disparaging my attempts at holding the class. The paranoia would build up and up and sometimes (I’m ashamed now to admit it) it would make me plot and plan how to get rid of her or sideline her from the course. “If only she wasn’t here this course would be perfect.”

Parental projection in either direction – student to teacher or teacher to student – is a hot mess

It was only after several such courses and several such women sitting in that same position opposite me that I began (shamefacedly) to realise that it was nothing to do with the poor female that happened to chose that spot, nor was it anything that she was doing or saying that created that paranoia, but it was all my insecurities and memories of a critical mother being projected across the Peace Hall onto that spot in space.

Parental projection in either direction – student to teacher or teacher to student – is a hot mess. Nothing very enlightening happens, indeed a lot of stuckness, unconscious aggression and perhaps even harm can flow out of it.

This is why I think the rigours of the psychotherapy training (where this tendency is flagged up over and over) and the need for some supervision for meditation teachers is really necessary.

Something unexpected flowering

But there is another danger in the infantilisation that happens when you have ‘the one who knows’ up front and ‘those that don’t’ down below. This danger is one of psychic silencing.

Dharma Ocean attracted amazingly talented and bright people – therapists, neuroscientists, astrophysicists, writers, bodyworkers – and yet something implicit in the room silenced their skills, infantilised them and prevented their brilliance flowing into the space. Reggie perhaps was aware of this. It certainly seemed to fly against his insistence that everyone follow the promptings of their inner, unique journey. Perhaps this is the reason he dissolved the organisation? Whatever. That dynamic is present in many traditionally structured sanghas and I have noticed it at play in my teaching too.

Whenever I sit at the front of the room and hide behind the idea of me having knowledge that I have to transmit, then I miss something really precious. I miss the possibility of mutual learning, of something unexpected flowering that is greater than the sum of my knowledge and the skillsets of the students.

Meditation is shorthand for living skilfully

Teaching meditation is not like teaching Pythagoras’ theorem. Meditation is shorthand for living skilfully. That’s not something you can transmit like a formula. It’s much more about pointing to something in everyone in the room and saying ‘Look! This thing that you might be feeling or thinking or doing… This thing might be making you miserable. Is it?’

And people look inside and say ‘Yes’ or they say ‘No, but I will look further’.

The net clarity in the room increases

And then gradually we are all looking together. In a Mindsprings circle we sit and everyone discusses how the practices went after they have done them. These field-reports then feedback into my state-of-being as a facilitator and we head off into a bright new direction. Or perhaps we struggle around in confusion for a while. But other people’s expertise in themselves always seems to brighten the circle. The net clarity in the room increases.

In some ways in this model, the teacher is the match, everyone in the room (students AND teacher) are the firewood and the teaching is the fire. And the fire might destroy some stuff but it mostly illuminates, warms and transforms.


Our natural brilliance is switched off by the muscle memory of school, of university

Circles are important I feel. Not having one (man) sitting up front on a dais and everyone rowed in front on the floor. There’s something about this rectangular geometry that unconsciously smothers that fire of knowing. We can be a brain surgeon on the floor but our natural brilliance is switched off by the muscle memory of school, of university, of sitting silently at the feet of ‘teachers’.

And it’s worth asking why we persist in keeping this spatial power dynamic going? What is the unconscious benefit of being that man (and I do feel men are more guilty of this then female teachers) at the front with the silent children on the floor?

The teacher’s seat becomes a fortress against failure

Well, of course, it’s a hidey-hole for our insecurities. If I (the teacher) sit up front with the anxious belief that I have to deliver everything-there-is-to-know about compassion, for example. Then I have set myself an impossible task, doomed to failure. And that sense of impending doom makes me double down on the illusion that I do know and the teacher’s seat becomes a fortress against the failure.

Then the unavoidable pasadoblé of the ego starts up on the teaching dais. Wanting to be loved, not wanting to be rejected. That’s a ferocious and beastly dance that needs to be contained.

It’s nice not having to be adult

But it’s not just the teacher. We should not ignore that hidden benefit for the ‘children’ ranged on the floor. It’s nice not having to be adult. To surrender responsibility for an hour or two.

There’s pleasure in this for sure. Not all negative. I, for example, really enjoy the blank-score-sheet of being a beginner. It doesn’t bother me to make a complete fool of myself if I was never expected to be any good in the first place. It’s the bliss of the beginner’s position.

How do we blow that whole thing up?

But there is also a shadier side of this. In on-going situations, when we choose to feign childishness in the face of a father/mother teacher, then we are also implicitly guilty of propping up an unhealthy illusion. The teacher on his or her chair might be hanging out in a dissociated fortress but the student also colludes in letting that happen by dissociating their adulthood.

How do we blow that whole thing up? (Again, that might be what Reggie is busy doing at the moment with Dharma Ocean…) But how can we do it in a gentle and beneficial way?


That totalising tendency is quite old fashioned

Well, one way would be to reliquish the idea of having complete knowledge of a subject.

I have had an anxiety in the past that I have to deliver EVERYTHING about a given subject in my weekend course. (Again, I think this is something that drives Reggie: a desire to totalise the path of Buddhism in one set of teachings). But that totalising tendency is quite old fashioned. It flies in the face of all the contemporary thinking about knowledge, about the best way of growing communities and the best way of allowing the experience to flourish.

‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?’

I wonder whether this might be a male (yang) trait? The need to totalise and have all the answers. We all know fathers, uncles, male friends and colleagues who feel an unstoppable urge to ‘mansplain’ absolutely everything.

But as Pema Chödron says, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?’.

They are free of the fixity of totalisation

The yin (or feminine) path might be to step up into the teacher’s seat with a sense of knowing a bit very intimately. Perhaps an interesting bit. Maybe a fire-starting bit. But the teacher is relaxed and empowered in the knowledge that it’s not the whole. They are free of the fixity of totalisation.

(Yin or yang doesn’t require gender. Male teachers can be very yin. Female ones very yang.)

There is the possibility of my ‘here-I-am’ sparking everyone else’s ‘here-I-am’

The secret power of the yin path is this. It recognises, of course, that the ‘bit’ will inevitably lead to the whole in its own sweet time. But there is a trust in the group process, in the unique uptake of each student and the specific flowering of experience in different people. The yin teacher can able to relax, drop any totalising ambition and enjoy bringing their bit in all its brilliance.

When I sit in the front of the room, I definitely cannot transmit the whole of the Buddhist path in one day. What I definitely can do is share where I truly am today. I do practice a lot. I do think deeply about the Dharma and how it impacts things like therapy, or everyday functioning. So when people come together in one of my groups for a day or a weekend, there is the possibility of my ‘here-I-am’ sparking everyone else’s ‘here-I-am’.

I can sit in the chair and share what I’m feeling in this moment

Until I’m a Buddha, I can’t stay in the space of open-hearted awareness permanently, I don’t have the eye of wisdom permanently open. So I can sit in the chair and share what I’m feeling in this moment, this weekend in Edinburgh, this slice of my practice, this window into my current fascinating wrestle with Buddhadharma.

There are plenty of Buddhist practitioners, especially in the Tibetan tradition, who maintain that their lamas are in that permanent state of eye-open wisdom and that simply sitting in their presence ‘transmits’ that awakened state.

Perhaps, the greatest teachers are those who refuse to perpetuate that myth of the perfect teacher

It’s a really attractive idea. And in one sense I completely endorse it. Even a ‘bit’ of the awakened state can do that. A true, authentic slice of humanity has that entraining, resonating power. And doubtless, those practitioners who are closer and more stable in their awareness have exponential power.

But we are sadly aware that many such ‘enlightened’ beings have off days. They behave appallingly. They abuse people. Their swerving from the awakened state seems doubly damaging because we had trusted that they wouldn’t swerve anymore.

Perhaps, the greatest teachers are those who refuse to perpetuate that myth of the perfect teacher. Again it’s a plea against totalisation. (Which is, of course, right in the heart of Buddhist emptiness philosophy: nothing has intrinsically stable anything.)

Connecting mind to mind, Big Self to Big Self, heart to heart is perhaps the only way to ‘teach’ this sort of material

Once again. when we bring this insight into the role of the teacher then we find relief. There is a puncturing of the pressure on the teacher. (She might say: “I’m having a shit day. I feel really nervous up here. I don’t want to be here. I find you all rather threatening”). But it also enlivens the students. (“She’s being like me. I can’t hold her as perfect. There is a challenge here. A freshness. I have to be adult”)

Connecting mind to mind, Big Self to Big Self, heart to heart is perhaps the only way to ‘teach’ this sort of material. It respects the mutual adulthood in the room. The web of Big Selves which makes up the network that the teacher has temporarily called together. The clinging, fear-driven solidification of the ‘teacher-who-knows’ fades into the “network-that-knows-MORE”.


End of part 2/

To read more Mindsprings blogs, click here. 

Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter.

Find out more about The Mindsprings School, a series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

Get in touch


  • Teacher says:

    Interesting. Even the maths teachers don’t “transmit” knowledge these days, Alistair. They practice guided discovery. Teaching is a very interesting field, you could explore it professionally. x

  • Ellen Knight says:

    From a blog beginner’s position, I am wooed by the prospect of finding my way more often into those ‘fields of awareness’ that more consistently help me be totally fine with all my parts. (Thinking as an Addiction blog).  But, instead of the “bliss of the (teacher) beginner’s position”, I’m experiencing the angst of the student beginner.  It feels like getting lost on your way  to a conference you can’t wait to attend, then coming in a back door, peeking your head through a dark curtain, and finding yourself on the stage having interrupted the gathering and vexed the presenter. Shaking that off, you then take a seat and join others who are also trying to put a lifetime of deep thought into perspectives that reveal true meaning.  Later when you return home, you find that your dog, playing in a fresh snowfall in a moment of totally fluid movement and perfect joy is in her own awakened state and seems to have all the answers.  Is this part of the process?

  • Ellen Knight says:

    Please forgive my earlier mental burblings (and this one as well, I suppose). There is so much in your blogs for me to think of in a new way that I’m afraid I must give you the perception that I didn’t get the point, when what I’m trying to convey is that you make points that register on different levels, and some that you may not think of as THE most significant point of your blog, may be, for me in that particular moment of time, the meat of your message. I hope you understand. And I’ll try to refrain from anymore off-point replies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × 4 =