Spiritual teachers can be legendary for their ability to open a person’s eyes to the truth (and some, for their unfortunate ability to harm or mislead). Does an earnest seeker need a teacher? Is awakening possible without the blessing of a clear-eyed, selfless embodiment of wisdom and unconditional love?
Observing another person’s manifest benefit from having spent time in the presence of a great teacher, a seeker may naturally conclude I want this for myself. Perhaps even come to believe that unless the “right” teacher comes along, awakening cannot occur.
There is no doubting the impact when someone happens upon another human being who is clearly not in torment, does not live in the head, and is really and truly “here,” when undeniable wisdom comes from their lips or their pen, or simply from their silent presence. Surely one devoted to coming to know their true self will be moved in the direction of that teacher — whether or not the person is defined, acknowledged, as such. (Not everyone who is radically free assumes the teacherly role; nor is it the case that everyone identified as a teacher is entirely free of ego.)
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It’s beneficial to be aware of underlying assumptions you may carry about all of this. Do you believe a seeker must have a teacher? Do you assume teachers come only in human form, and that they must be acknowledged to be “the real deal”? Are you attuned to the possibility of blessed insights coming from unexpected sources — that life-altering moments can be set in motion courtesy of unimagined sources (the trees, a horrific loss, the company of a little child, of a dog or a salamander or an elephant)?
We are already awake, if only we could grow still and be truly here.
Life is full of surprises, if only we will keep our eyes and hearts open. If only we will be willing to let everything be up for grabs, to question even the most long-cherished assumptions. We are wrong more than we are right. (I include myself in this.) Discovery is never-ending.
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The underlying assumption with the most potent ability to keep a person stuck is this one: I do not already carry, within myself, the longed-for condition. However deeply buried, however impossible for the mind to believe, it is so. Freedom is not “transmitted” from without (by however gifted a teacher or practice). It is uncovered, bit by excruciating bit, until at long and delicious last, there is nothing but space and light. And peace.
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What is it about animals that can make them teachers to a person longing to be free of torment? Whether a beloved pet or farm animal or creature in the wild, one of our fellow creatures (for we are mammals, after all) has the potential to bring us to utter stillness, to quiet our busy minds and locate us — however briefly — in the now. A dog is a master at being with what-is: in this moment (nowhere else), just as it is. A cat does not compare this now with other nows — something that once was, something that may one day be. A cow is disinclined (it appears) to take refuge in the good old days.
It does not appear that a bird or a deer being steadily rained upon is prone to resist the soaking under way. Nor (one can suppose) is it thinking, “God, will this never end?” or contrasting the present condition with the previous sunny stretch of days. A horse isn’t fixated on wondering or worrying about how long a thing (good or bad) will persist.
An animal simply adapts. It attends its body, its home, its food sources. It cares for its young. An animal’s focus is on surviving, on attaining a measure of safety and comfort. It does not resort to useless resistance. It deftly shifts gears, as circumstances require, in an instant. Fear arrives on the scene only in the presence of mortal danger, not in the presence of mind-made scenarios.
Yes, animals have minds. They use them to their advantage, learning from past experiences (remembering what places to avoid, where food can be found, where relative safety and shelter are located). Where creatures’ minds differ from our own is that they do not misuse their intelligence to spin tales of awful possibilities, to regret the painful past, to compare present reality with some other. Nor do they fancy themselves in control of all-that-is, of some possible future (nor, therefore, do they dread the unknown). They are unburdened by the need for an identity, by attachment to outcome. Animals simply deal with the new what-is, when it arrives on the scene, without resistance. They are altogether limber in their orientation to ever-changing outer reality.
Who could ask for a better teacher? For something within our oh-so-human selves, endowed as we are with “superior” minds, is just as it is within our fellow animals. We are already awake, if only we could grow still and be truly here, the way it is with a dog, a cat, a horse, an eagle. Being in the presence of an animal, whether wild or a house companion, can enable something in us to “register” an in-common feature, a deep knowing. To feel what it is to simply be here, without processing the now. To sense that this is possible for me as well.
What is it to be awake, if not that?
No wonder a person may experience profound peace in the presence of an animal. Very much the way utter restfulness can be felt in the presence of an awakened human teacher.
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Each of us began life as an infant. There has been a period of before: before the mischief of the mind, the deluge of outer conditioning, started up in earnest, taking hold of our sense of being and manipulating it. Each of us has been a small child, and along with that early innocence (assuming conditions of relative safety and well-being), there has been a condition of purely and simply being here, moment to moment. Before time (with all its urgency of anticipate, hurry, plan, do-this-so-that, postpone) took us in its ferocious claws, hauling us out of blessed immediacy, of the capacity for pure beingness.
A little child — you may have observed this, even if you have no recall of your own youthful moments — is altogether focused on what’s real right now. The physicality of the immediate sensory scene, of inner sensations. The processing mind altogether still, useless. Do you think a young one feels separate from the sand in its exploring fingers? From the bite of cookie en route to its moist tongue? The fluffy clouds high above its tilted-back head? Ask a young child to entertain the comparative “reality” (the importance!) of something in the unimaginable later, the long ago or far away. Nonsense!
To we who carry torment with us, everywhere we go, what could be a finer teacher than this? When you are happily in the presence of such a great being, for goodness’ sake slow down in your oh-so-grownup urgency to keep at whatever you’ve been doing. Pay attention. Notice how something within yourself is (can be) the very same way. Notice too how very good it feels to be so.
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Perhaps the most potent of all teachers is simple present-moment awareness. It is always with us, wherever we go. It does not ask for a certain company (robed teacher sitting cross-legged, mud-caked kid or four-legged sniffing creature). Even if you do have a beloved human teacher, where else but the now will you be led, if the person is of any real use to you?
To be conscious in this moment, just as it has arrived (for we did not make it so!): to be attuned to the fullness of immediate reality, around you and within yourself, without barriers or mental handling, is the teacher of all teachers. When the walled-off places within yourself are gently penetrated with light, allowing you to feel — to acknowledge — all that is within (and perhaps habitually avoided), then wondrous revelation can occur, along with blessed surrender. The very places we have struggled to avoid have enormous potential to become the most altering teachers of our lives — if only we will allow ourselves to go there, to bow to them.
Wakefulness does not recoil from reality, no matter its pain. It is not defended. It is in the present moment, in utter surrender, that the self is able to come to radical peace.
Being aware of what-is, in the present moment, whether it’s pleasant or makes you squirm, is a teacher without compare. All that’s necessary is to wake up, even if only just now, to what is really happening. Then let your eyes and heart be open. See what happens, if you keep being willing. It takes courage to be real. But the price of otherwise is dear indeed.
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The key is to remain open to whatever comes along, in your explorations — a teacher assuming whatever form — including in a place or from a direction you’d not been looking or anticipating. Best not to hold yourself in a fierce “uni-directional” orientation to anything: what has been helpful thus far, assumptions you might carry, what has been helpful to another. Let everything be up for grabs. You’re just going along for the ride.
It’s help too to remember that a given practice, orientation, or teacher tends to have a particular time, in your spiritual life, when its influence is beneficial. Then — because you never stop moving, opening, changing — there may come a point when you sense it may be time to gently move on. Something else may come along that seems to want to “pick up” where the previous support left off, as it were. Because if anything you are doing, in the way of an inner orientation or outer support, is actually benefiting you, then who-you-are will be changed, as a result: perhaps more open, less resistant, lost in thought; perhaps less needy, less wary of not-knowing and the absence of control, more trusting of what is within, of that deep knowing that recognizes the truth.
We are (after all) only trying to discover what is already within us, and has been from the beginning.
You may be surprised — perhaps even startled — to notice that a long-time practice or source of inspiration seems to be subtly less compelling than before. For goodness’ sake be brave, at such a moment. Be honest about what you’re noticing deep within. Trust it. Some deep knowing is ready to move on. The cost of doggedly “sticking to it” (whatever it is) can be dear: you get stuck. When more and more is wanting to happen, if only you will be true to yourself and trust the radical unknown to take you in its tender arms and at long, sweet last, open you all the way.