07 August 2023

Relationship – a crucial point in learning and deepening your meditation

In the Western world, relationships with teachers can be really mixed up. Because of the power differential between students and teachers, because of the dependency, the desperation that sometimes can be involved, students worry about giving their power away, of being taken advantage of or being abused.

However, the relationship we have with our meditation teacher can be crucial; it can add great depth and ease to learning and progressing along the path.

So this week, we look at something that may well be provocative, and that is not so often spoken about: the meditation teacher/student relationship, and we will look at it from both sides; but first

     Thought for the day

          The absolute truth cannot be realized 

          Within the domain of the ordinary mind. 

          And the path beyond the ordinary mind, 

          All the great wisdom traditions have told us, 

          Is through the heart. 

          This path of the heart is devotion.

                             Sogyal Rinpoche

Meditation and the student/teacher relationship

Evidence would say there can be risks involved, but in holding back, in taking a defensive stance, students may well miss out on fully developing one of the biggest supports for meditation. And in this day of heightened sensitivities, teachers may well hold back, they may well limit themselves in what they offer.

If you had gone to Dr Ainslie Meares to learn to meditate, it may not have been what you expected. He would request you read his meditation books before attending. Then at the first and subsequent meetings, he spoke little and deflected questions. It was all about how he could share his experience with you. 

Being an accomplished meditator himself, Dr Meares' understanding of the teacher’s role was to impart his experience in the most direct and effective way he could. 

As he was interested in the essence of meditation, the stillness, in his view, talking about meditation only stirred up the thinking mind and created a barrier to going beyond that and into the stillness.

So his approach involved using words to lead into meditation that were abstract, that did not invite rational analysis, that were softly and slowly spoken with plenty of gaps to allow for the silences and stillness to become more apparent.

He used his presence to convey his experience.

This was back in the 1960s to 1980s. 

In those days he also used physical touch; lightly touching his students in a way that these days where the risk of being misunderstood is high is just too risky for practitioners to do. 

Having learnt from and been mentored by Dr Meares, you may well notice a similar use of words and voice when I or people I have trained introduce meditation. In the early days of this work, we used physical touch as well; always having a male and female teacher in the room and touching people lightly on the head and shoulders. 

Sadly – as in my opinion it lessened the experience for our students – as time moved on, this part of the work just seemed too easy to be misconstrued and we stopped doing it around 2015.

Dr Meares was a deeply spiritual man, but not aligned to any specific spiritual tradition. His approach was secular. On the other hand, my even more significant teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, grew up in and was highly trained in Tibetan Buddhism. His quote above reflects his deep connection with, his reliance upon, and his devotion to his own teachers and their unbroken lineage right back to the Buddha himself.

But maybe it is the word “devotion” that encompasses the key issue for Westerners. 

We have been so inculcated in the notion of being independent, or finding “ourselves”, of standing on our own two feet, and so on. 

And there are quite a few stories where devoted people have been taken advantage of, and have suffered as a consequence.

There is not much in this world that does not carry some risk…

But read Rinpoche’s quote again. It does have compelling logic. How do we get past this thinking mind with all its attendant emotions, and connect more directly to our still, inner essence? The path of the heart is regarded as actually being the easiest and most reliable path, and the path of the heart is devotion.

So again, that word that seems to strike fear in some – devotion.

Speaking personally, when I first became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, I really struggled with devotion. What did it mean? What would I need to give up? What would I need to commit to? Would becoming devoted to a teacher diminish me or put me at risk? Why was I holding back? What to do???
Happily, I was able to discuss this with Sogyal Rinpoche and he taught on it extensively during retreats. My own conclusion is each one of us who considers making a conscious commitment to devotion needs to listen, read, discuss and especially contemplate this deeply. It nay takes years to reach clarity.

For myself, I was really helped by coming to understand devotion is a logical conclusion. It is actually a profound commitment to the teachings, based upon an understanding of how powerfully they work, and a gratitude for being able to listen to them, to learn and to practice them. 

A good teacher embodies what they are teaching. If they do this authentically, then devotion to them is devotion to the teachings. 

The more fully we can see the teacher as a pure vessel for authentic teaching, the more fully they will fulfill their role for us.

From the teacher’s perspective, the more they can put their own ego aside (at the very least while teaching), the more effective they will be in sharing their teachings in an authentic and effective manner. 

That is why good teachers start each session with a commitment along these lines. This may well go unspoken, but it does reflect this deep inner wish to present the teachings free of impediments.

Now just to be clear, it is true one can gain a lot from a good meditation teacher while keeping a distance. But there is a greater depth on offer when one makes more of a commitment and engages more fully.

A comparison may be to experience the use of a meditation app where the connection with the person leading the practice is quite superficial. The app and the practices may well be helpful, but it is no surprise within a month of downloading a basic meditation app, only 5% of people are still using it.

This is why with Allevi8 we offer direct online contact with our trained teachers; and the difference in connection and regularity of practice is hugely different.

And it is why wherever possible, the ideal is to go to meditation teachers in person…

So maybe reflect some more on the nature of your own connection to the teacher(s) you have…

Happy meditating 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ian. I have been meditating on my own for many years. I learnt to meditate in 1990s with your tapes! Recently I have felt the need to meditate with others. I know group meditation is not the same as having a teacher but in the past when I have meditated with a group it has helped deepen my meditation experience. I guess the leader of the group is somewhat like a teacher. Thank you as always for your wise words 🙏🏻🌻