“All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality.”
– Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
When I was very young, I was in awe of my teachers. I view the art of facilitating the process of bringing forth the best in others as a remarkable privilege. I wanted to be like them and had a box in my closet that I put lesson plan ideas in to save for the day when I would finally be a teacher. I went through the School of Education at the University of Michigan, facilitated a leadership Dialogues on Diversity course, taught with Teach for America in Detroit, and then taught at the Arizona Center for Autism. While I struggled to teach English to 12th graders in Detroit, I came to understand myself better and that I did not want to be a classroom teacher. As I retired from formal classroom teaching, I realized that I didn’t have to wait another second or apply for any job to be a teacher; we are always teaching and as Parker Palmer has said “we teach who we are.”
If we acknowledge that we are all teachers, we can be more mindful of the lessons that we are giving. While we are all always teaching we are also always learning and are students even if we are not enrolled in any formal school or university. Once I truly understood this, I found myself expanding my idea of teaching and learning to all beings and forces in the universe. This resulted in an openness and eagerness to learn as much or more from non-human teachers as from my human teachers; like learning patience and equanimity from trees and lessons about the power of the invisible forces of the universe from the wind.
The process of teaching then can be seen as the spiritual facilitation of connecting to reality. Education, the process of maturing our soul, is an unrehearsed adventure of befriending ourselves and the universe by being fully present to our experiences and our feelings and connecting with others authentically to expand our empathy and understanding. We develop wisdom from direct experience, and so it is critical to be fully present and conscious within our everyday moments of life as life’s great teachers create the space in which this rhapsodic and chaotic practice of education happens.
And, over the course of time, we are charged with the opportunity to choose and be chosen by multiple guides for our education. Some of the greatest spiritual human teachers of our time including Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Caesar Chavez, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Teresa Graham Brett, Ram Dass, Ken Wilber, Parker Palmer, Barack Obama, Michele Obama and many others have all been gifted with an ability to connect others to the reality and truths of our world. Reality is our greatest teacher and we seek out mentors who can most intimately connect us to the true nature of the world and ourselves.
Many of our greatest teachers are those who we interact with everyday; our parents, our children, our family, our friends, and our neighbors. And we learn that others will always show us where we are stuck in our education by reflecting, in times of conflict, areas of our own inner work that need to be tended to. If this is acknowledged then those who frustrate or misunderstand us the most can become our greatest spiritual teachers. Everyone and everything has something to teach you and you have something to teach as well.
As we are also our own teachers, many of us learn that the process of mentoring and teaching ourselves is not easy. We struggle to find the balance between our humanness and our divinity and we are always taking risks, making mistakes, learning and growing as we learn about our capacity for both profound love and fear. Abraham Maslow, who is known for his pyramid hierarchy of needs studied what holds people back from actualizing their potential and one’s full humanness; their evasion of the full intensity of life. Maslow’s findings illuminate that “we fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments. We enjoy and even thrill to the god-like possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before those very same possibilities.” Maslow labeled this the “Jonah syndrome”, the idea that we evade our own growth and have low levels of aspiration in fear of doing what we are capable of doing.
Marianne Williamson has addressed this fear as well boldly stating that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” It is time that we take back our own listening, to use and hear our own voice, to see our own light. And as we see our own light, we become free of fear and we feel our wholeness, which can simultaneously release others from the same fear of the power of their own wholeness.