On Being a Teacher #3: Emptiness and Bodhicitta

Impermanence and the awakened heart

Impermanence and the awakened heart

I’m half way through my Edinburgh weekend and sitting back in the Salisbury Centre guest room, resting after dinner, before I sleep.

But I wanted to revisit the theme of being a teacher one more time.

There are two further – rather more Buddhisty – aspects which occur to me. One to do with impermanence and the other to do with the awakened heart. Though these are perhaps intertwined.

One morning grumpy… another filled with the gales of inspiration

Re. impermanence, I was talking to my lovely friend Rachel, a few days back, (who I feel has taken my teachings and run far ahead of me with them), and pondering the fact that I feel so irregular. One morning I might be grumpy, angry with Daniel, a million miles from the ‘awakened state’. Then I might teach a course and feel filled to the spinnaker with the gales of inspiration. And then 24 hours later I’m back to feeling glum and exhausted again.

And we decided that this was not a spiritual failing but rather the experience of all-too-human impermanence.

The illusion of a coherent self… a permanent, fat and delusional lie

The incoherence of my experience (a good practitioner one moment and a rubbish one the next) is not a mistake. It is actually one of the core features of human existence. The very unreliability of these personality traits is a deep human reality. Indeed, the illusion of a coherent self is a papier-mâché mask that covers up the crazy, swirling kaleidoscope of reality.

Often, as a meditator and doubly so as a meditation teacher, I try and work as if I am coherent. As if I know the nature of things in a coherent way. I might admit to being confused in the past but only so I can highlight how together I am right now. But it’s a lie. A permanent, fat and delusional lie.

They’re really a shifting magma flow of red hot mess

The really skilled teacher / therapist / parent is one that has embraced the crazy mish-mash as a badge of humanity, as a sign of reality. If they play at being coherent, it’s only for a contingency – a job interview, a bureaucratic form, a photo opportunity. They know really that they’re a shifting magma flow of red hot mess. And they’re fine with it.

Up until very recently (i.e. yesterday) I didn’t feel like a teacher if I was feeling average. To stand in front of a group, I felt I ought to model some kind of coherent specialness. But I’m now starting to see that the changeable smudge of one-thing-after-another is actually a wiser place to be than some desperately half-baked mask of coherence. Because being incoherent is a human reality and being human is, in fact, what a meditation teacher most desperately needs to model.

The ‘cage of personality’ is the death of the awakened heart

Being special (as a TV presenter, for example) turned out to be a terrible curse. (Like Alice Miller’s tragedy of the ‘gifted child’.) Being special kills off those ‘branches of feeling, out and about’ that Prynne talks about. You stop relating to each other as ‘sharers of the world’ and retreat into the ‘cage of personality’ and that is the death of the awakened heart.

Which brings me to this second thing: the awakened heart a.k.a bodhicitta.

The aspiration to act from love for the world

As a catch up: the bodhicitta motivation is that everything that you do is for the benefit of the world. As Reggie says, a Buddha is someone who is in love with whole world. No exceptions. And while it’s evident that we all fail to live up to this standard (except perhaps a very exulted few) the aspiration to act from love for the world is the hallmark of the awakened heart.

The safest, soundest meditation teachers are drenched in bodhicitta. To teach from that space – where the self is so very secondary to the reality of others – is some security that the teaching doesn’t stick to the sides of the ego.

Then magic happens

Buddhism speaks of ‘two-fold egolessness, empty of self and empty of other.’ In essence this means that our hallucinatory, superstitious ideas about ourselves and others float off and we experience the situation just as it is, empty of preconceptions. And this is automatically a field of bodhicitta.

When the teaching space is like this then magic happens.

No one’s really in control

When there is no teacher, no student, just humans experiencing then it’s magical and some thing new occurs. As I said today in the Edinburgh, people practicing together in a room become like a host of fruitful flower-stamens, with the air all about filled with enlightenment pollen, dusty with brightness. No one’s really in control. The pollinations are haphazard and spontaneous. No one collision of pollen and fruit-bearer is the same.

In situations like this the teacher can really only aspire to open-hearted awareness. Her aspiration can be quite pure even if her mind-state is all over the shop.

Since it is human reality to shape-shift and be incoherent moment to moment, there is no real coherent teacher anyway. The best she can do is simply wish to act for the benefit of the world. And then, the magnetic field of bodhicitta holds the iron filings of self in the right constellation. It becomes the best guarantee of a positive, but unpredictable, outcome.

What happens when aspiration is there but the teacher is harmful

This brings me to the very powerful question of what happens when the aspiration is there but the behaviour (unconscious, unexamined) of the teacher is nonetheless harmful.

We can aspire to help people as a therapist or teacher, or a doctor or a nurse. But sometimes habits, unconsciously-triggered material or half-submerged personality traits take over and we end up hurting people instead of helping them.

They end up hurting people

I’ve ‘strongly enforced’ the container on a retreat before – shouting at people for breaking the silence (!) on Holy Island – and nearly ruined the whole retreat by my unexamined power trip. Somewhere I must have made the vow to help the people on the retreat but I still fucked-up.

This question kicks in very strongly with teachers who have been embroiled in abuse scandals. They think they are acting from a place of wisdom and love but nonetheless they end up hurting people. And maybe hurting them twice as hard because the wounded students trusted them.

Hurting another person would be like hurting yourself

In some ways this is the biggest question. Can people like this really have tasted bodhicitta or emptiness? Does this sort of behaviour rule them out as suitable templates for practitioners?

Tibetan Buddhist teaching implies that when a human has truly stabilised their mind in the experience of ‘emptiness’, when they no longer get caught up in the stories that create a self or create an other, then there is no possibility of cruelty or meanness or harm. In that field of emptiness, harm makes no sense. When everything is unified in non-dual awareness, hurting another person would be like hurting yourself.

Maybe we need to trust our own light and spaciousness

Maybe a fully-realised Buddha experiences this. But how many of those are there in the world? And until there’s one in your city, what are you supposed to do? Wait? In the interim, we have to rely on semi-realised practitioners. People further along. Or perhaps we just have to relax and not be so demanding of others at all. Maybe we need to trust our own light and spaciousness. Maybe the teacher only needs to point to that and then bow out of the room.

My friend Kristine really helped me understand this when she was talking about her teacher, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche. And I immediately translated it to help with my grumbling and pain around Reggie.

‘My teacher is a window that lets the sun into my life’

She said, ‘My teacher is a window that lets the sun into my life. When I see him I often feel the sun of enlightenment vividly and directly on my face. But he’s not the sun. I have made the mistake of thinking he’s the source but he’s not. He’s a window – sometimes wonky, sometimes bent-out-of-shape – but the window for this amazing light to come into my life. I’m grateful to him. But it’s the light I love’. (I’m paraphrasing, I’m afraid. Kristine explained it much more beautifully in her kitchen in Edinburgh…)

This is the paradox with these very great teachers. Beings who have spent their entire life (and maybe many before) perfecting their “window-hood”. They bring light into the world, but we shouldn’t mistake their human messiness for the light. That’s just the window frame.

We are all potential windows for the sun of enlightenment to shine through

This is true for Tibetan lamas, but on a lesser level it’s true for every single human being. We are all potential windows for the sun of enlightenment to shine through. And while we may be diffident about the suitability of our glass or our frame, it would be unskilful bashfulness for anyone of us (teachers, students, anyone) to forget that when we settle the mind and stay present with our experience we let the sun shine through for others.

Obviously, I’m nowhere near this permanent space of emptiness and spontaneous bodhicitta. I regularly get triggered and lost in a fog of dissociation or the hot-mess of anger or desire. But nonetheless, I do find these teachings on emptiness really helpful. As a practitioner and as a teacher.

Emptiness and bodhicitta are the window cleaners of the path

Sometimes, as teachers /therapists / parents we do sense that too much ego is piling up. We feel that the crazy-shifting tectonic plates of self are getting too unruly. At this moment, we can turn to the protective field of emptiness and bodhicitta. We can recognise that self is empty and feel the immediate relief of this. It’s like the pressure-cooker of our little self immediately gets depressurised, and the space of the Big Self opens up. Then at the same time, we can suddenly relax into the underlying desire to help others, serve others, love others (and by others I mean the whole Universe). And this magnetic field clicks in and starts to re-arrange our hearts into an open and loving space.

I suspect it’s these moments of self-correction; of aerating the situation that benefit other beings. The spacious heart of everyone in the room resonates with the sudden in-rush of space and warmth into yours. And the overall sunlight in the room gets brighter.

Emptiness and bodhicitta. They are the window-cleaners of the path.

Part #1: Finding the Thread
Part #2: Finding New Circles

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  • Julie Barrett, Iconographer says:

    Alistair I love this! Thank you for illuminating so many soul qualities of the teacher/student dance within us. My path has shown me (many times!) that my own need to appear “competent” before my students is the stone that trips me; when I am able to practice radical self care, I can come before my students in honest vulnerabilty.

  • Anna Peck says:

    Hi, Alistair.
    I’m new here to your website and your blogging. The first post I read was the one you wrote back in 2018 about waking up with a feeling of dread. I read that only just a couple hours ago. That wrenched at my heart, but I have to wonder about your health. More times than not, the feeling of dread is related to heart problems beginning to develop. Please have that checked, okay? It’s not possible to go deeply into what you want to do if your health is not up to par.

    However, there is no need to worry about it. There are way too many ways to take care of our health, and they’re so easy that most people are suspicious of them. Take a heart condition for instance. All you have to do is change your diet and stop worrying about it so you won’t create a stress condition in your body. Stress puts you in the fight or flight mode and that blocks your body’s ability to utilize your immune system properly, which is what you need to maintain good health.

    I’ve read some more of your blogs and you, my darling friend, seem to be a very deep kind of personality. Are you going too deep perhaps? Sometimes that in itself will create a problem where none before existed. I apologize if I’m getting too nib-nosey here, you can tell me to back off, but I like you. I’ve seen some of your shows and have had a good feeling about you from the start. Granted, I don’t know you enough to butt in, so you may already have this information, but if you don’t, I want to impart this to you. And hopefully all your readers, too. I know of what I am talking, due to years of research and my own experience.

    Now I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about all this because I don’t. There is so much more to learn, but I do know enough to keep myself on track, most of the time, with all the different health levels: physical, mental, spiritual. Most people don’t believe me because I am overweight. I’m working on that, purposely taking it slow because I want it to be permanent this time. But in spite of that and being 71 years old, I don’t have to take any kind of medication nor experience any kind of feeling that I need to visit a doctor. I know how to take care of myself. So. . . now I’m going to tell you how. (Stop raising your brows. I may sound like it, but I’m really not all that bossy) 🙂

    All you have to do is: (according to Macrobiotics)
    Make 80% of your daily diet raw fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and if you can, some seaweeds. Nori, Dulse and Irish Moss are the best for this. They hardly have any taste, and Irish Moss has the added benefit of providing you with collagen. Much needed for every part of your body. If you can manage to eat every day, a cup or 2 of miso, whole grains, preferably medium grain brown rice, organic, a lot of different raw green leafies, raw seeds and nuts, seaweeds, seasalt for the minerals, but not too much, and several glasses of good water, chewing everything extremely well, every single bite, you will get every single thing your body needs to be healthy. And if you can pile all that up within a 3 hour period, noon to 3PM, you will have a good chance of not feeling hungry at all, which will allow you to go all the rest of the time in the intermittent fasting mode, which will allow your body to detox. You can spread all that through the day to 3 meals, if you want to, but everyone who eats this diet say it seems to make them want to cut down to 2, and most of these people, 1 meal a day. I’m down to 2, (until my sweet tooth starts acting up and I get to baking).

    This takes time to get your body used to that. I’m still working on it, but I’m the lazy type. And I love my own cooking too much to work up the gumption to let go of it yet. But I’m working on it and I will get there. However, in the meantime, the things I’ve experienced with doing all this for myself has been phenomenal. I still walk with a cane (I fell and injured my knees) but I have such strength. I can lift things most people my age are surprised when they see me do it. And I feel good. All the time. This in itself seems to let me have a natural kind of feeling of peace and love toward the rest of the world.

    Okay, so I’ve bossed you around a little. Relax. I love you. I want you to be healthy and happy. This is one step toward being that. The next step is to make your peace with God. He does love you, you know. Powerfully. He is the best friend you’ll ever have, whether you believe in Him or not, or even if you like that notion or not. He’s always watching over you, waiting for you to come to Him. And that is what you have to do, go to Him. He gave us all Free Will, and He will not interfere with it, so it is up to you to make that move. Put everything in His hands and He will take care of you. He will send you the information, and the teacher, when you need them. And perhaps he has. Maybe He sent me. 🙂

    Love you, sweetheart.
    Miss Anna

  • I feel that giving the illusion of coherence is often done with good intentions. It’s a human trait, I suppose, to want to appear to be at your best even when the opposite is true. In a slightly different context, as the mother of a troubled child, I often “play” coherent when I’m often falling apart with worry for her but I must keep that smile going for fear of giving her yet another problem to worry over. This ,to me is a necessary illusion, one made from love and therefore, hopefully acceptable. I suspect that your “coherence” is similarly done with love. Love of your subject and the love of wanting to pass on that knowledge. I , personally, don’t care how much you play coherent, so long as you keep those teachings coming. I need them so much.
    Sending love as always
    Patti X

  • Ellen Knight says:

    Dear Patricia, your words were helpful to me. I “played coherent” yesterday trying to calm (by messaging) a friend worrying and waiting for Covid-19 test results. I have no training, no expertise. All I have is ears, heart, and a genuine desire to lessen pain. And so we linked thoughts for over an hour, sometimes about her concerns, sometimes about ridiculous nothings that made us laugh. I felt I gave no brilliant insights, but she said I helped. This blog and your comment makes me feel that sometimes not being ‘everything’ is still ‘enough’ in the moment. And I’ll try my best again in the next moment.

  • Ellen Knight says:

    Dear Alistair, that “cage of personality” you bear I selfishly see as the gift which brought me to this place. I wanted to understand why your immersion into others’ comments was so genuine and complete, and your responsiveness always so kind and spot on. You “get” what people feel when they talk to you, and it is a model I admire. Even the best teacher has students who may not grasp every valuable nugget from a lesson. (That describes me.) You say that you want to be that teacher who is a window that lets the sun into others’ lives, but it seems you cannot see all those times that you are. Your blogs have given me new ways to think differenty about so many things my lifetime has colored with a gray hue. And I wonder if it is possiblle that your search for the right window cleaner sometimes becomes the fog that obscures your chance to see clearly those moments when you have become the window that allows others to bathe in the sunlight you have let in. Thank you for the sunlight your blogs have given me. Please keep your window open.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Ellen,
      Thank you so much for you kind and perceptive comment. Yes, I probably do overlook the times I am window in my fussing over the right window-cleaner. But I guess we are all a work in progress and I am grateful for feedback like yours for helping the work to progress further.
      Hope that you and yours are keeping safe and healthy in these extraordinary times.

  • Sally says:

    Thank you for your thoughts about Buddhist teachers. My teacher of many years had a spectacular fall from grace and left many of us very confused and heartbroken,and suspicious of anyone who purports to be a teacher or somehow enlightened being.
    Much to think about. Perhaps a step towards looking at other Buddhist teachers.

    • alistairappleton says:

      It’s a completely fraught but also fundamental field. I feel that I have to open and trust in order to learn. But at the same time I have to be even more open to the possibility that no one person has all the keys.

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