I began teaching a new mindfulness workshop this week. As I took my place at the head of the large room I gazed with satisfaction over a sea of expectant faces and felt a nagging question form in the back of my mind. Is satisfaction an appropriate attitude? Isn’t that a bit like unseemly pride? Am I not supposed to be motivated by pure altruism? Even if I were—which I’m not—how could I even make such a claim?
Setting oneself up as a teacher is quite a move for someone long haunted by the demon of self-doubt. My overt credential is that I was a fully ordained Buddhist monk and received in-depth instruction from a dozen or two Tibetan Buddhist masters, just as their oft-recited credential was their lineage connection back to the Buddha himself. A more tangible qualification though, is that I’ve tried as best I could to use what I learned while living the intervening years of prosperity and failure, joy and tragedy, marriage and parenting.
I postponed my teaching career for two and a half decades precisely because all I had to go on back in the 1980s was book learning and a bit of meditation in remote retreat centres. I may have felt as spiritual and otherworldly as can be, but was entirely cut off from the everyday realities of the people I wanted to teach. What finally qualified me in my own eyes was the fact that I’d grown more balanced over the years, and have built the inner resources to reformulate what I learned from experience—not just in Buddhist jargon but from the inside out.
Daily life has challenged my practice in ways I never imagined when I lived the privileged life of a monk. The people behind all those faces that gaze at me expectantly must deal with those challenges too, but without the advantage I had of being exposed in depth, at a young age, to an extraordinary system of thought and practice. Having all that under my belt during the ups and downs of the intervening years has given my life all the purpose I ever hoped for.
I’m not all that altruistic, but wouldn’t it be great? I’m not an enlightened being, though I am a lot more alert to my own limitations and illusions than I used to be. I’m comfortable teaching mindful reflection because I’ve been practicing it for thirty-five years, not because I’ve mastered the art of concentration or left behind negativity once and for all. I don’t even believe that’s possible. I don’t see past lives; I often have trouble keeping this one in focus. I struggle, just like everyone else.
Some of the students to whom I’ve explained this have groaned in disbelief, demanding to know how, if I’m still struggling after thirty-five years, they can ever hope to master their own minds. Mastery of your mind is not the point. The important thing is to continually adjust your course. Like a ship at sea, life and its stresses don’t come to a dead stop and abruptly take a new direction. It takes a while to swing the whole thing around and point it to a new horizon. What’s important is to keep checking your course.
My blog is a record of my hand on the tiller. It documents my failures as well as my successes. It’s an example of mindful reflection in action, and may give you some first-hand evidence to help you decide whether or not it’s for you.
5 thoughts on “Taking my Place”
I think that expecting that felt sense of satisfaction (I.e. your ego talking to you) to not “arise” is unrealistic, at least for us regular mortals. It is ok that you feel that sense of pride because you are simultaneously aware of it as “not you”. Or at least that it is this “thing” that “you” can be aware of (you watch yourself feeling pride). It is not you and you are not it. Maybe you are just so used to having this ability to watch yourself that you no longer recall what it was like to just be/believe all your thoughts & feelings. All to say that of course you still feel pride at times , but you know it for what it is ( the presence of ego) and for what it is not ( “you/the observer”). Sounds to me like you are a very skilled teacher.
Teaching is my first and last hope, passion and ambition. I have pursued other paths because I had to, not because I wanted to.
Being a regular mortal used to be a problem for me. I came to Buddhism in hope of escape. Nothing has impressed me more about the Buddha’s teachings than their ability to disabuse me of that fantasy.
You’re quite right Stephen. Ego has a purpose and is a perfectly practical necessity. Pride is a motivator and can be a pathway to improvement. It is not ego’s fault if I take it too seriously.
While living on and off in Tashi-Jong and Dsala during the 90s, I thoroughly contemplated ordination over and over. I’m sure it would have done me good. I chose to get married and have children. Today I do good by my wife, children, mother, and friends. Well, at least I don’t do bad. I still and always will rely on my teacher, he’s an awesome monk. Thanks again, Stephen, for the bulls eye!
Mindful living in everyday circumstances is far more demanding than the privileged life of a monk. In retrospect I see that my monkhood was a crutch when I was too damaged to fit in to the world outside, an environment in which to regain balance. I have learned and grown more in my family life than I ever did in the monastery. There is no magic in monkhood. Indeed, there is considerable danger of righteousness, complacency and hypocrisy.
Then again I’m older, wiser and better able to learn from each and every situation. Not to say that older is necessarily wiser — I worked hard for the ability to keep learning. Our basic choice is to work and grow more free or laze and grow more trapped by reactivity.
It is nice first and foremost to decipher what one subjectively and authentically wants devoid of social demands, expectations and pressures.
Yet, to actually be able to face the world with that desire and achieve a productive, fulfilling and enjoyable outcome is fascinating, like any artist who’s creation is appreciated throughout his living.
I am fairly well read in most Humanities and I have found that I could never stick with ONE specific Ideology or approach until I came across MINDFULNESS…
Whomever believes we are born into a life without a manual simply has missed the Mindfulness train.
Good luck (with envy…bad,bad,bad I know).
I so appreciate your blog for its candor, openness and edifying presentation.
Thank You Sir…