I met my teacher in November of 2004. After a great tragedy struck my life in 1997, I started on a journey to find or reconnect to something inside. I didn’t even know what to call it back then, but this journey, in my mind, did not include a teacher. I was an independent, competent American woman, cavalier and free. The idea of a spiritual teacher had not crossed my mind. I learned from others, yes, managing to flow through life finding what I needed— the right therapist, the right healer, the right workshop and the right movement practice, all at the right time. This is how my life and my development transpired, like a flow. When something was coming to an end, the next thing came into existence. Then after seven years of searching, not knowing what I was looking for and not really finding, I found myself in a situation that delivered me to my teacher. It was synchronicity married to a miracle with a touch of simplicity. I had a sense of how to follow something inside, some of it conscious, most of it not, but it was the mystery of life that led me to my teacher.
Lesson #1 From My Spiritual Teacher: Respect Of Myself
Upon my arrival at my teacher’s meditation group, something inside of me told me to sit in the back of the room and keep my mouth shut, which to be honest, is not easy for me. I have always thought I had something valuable to contribute, which makes me laugh now, but I still act this way sometimes (sigh.) I am so grateful to the part of me that intuitively knew proper behavior in this circumstance because the type of person I met on that day was completely “Other.” My teacher is a human being with a body and a personality, but the amount of dignity, power, and grace moving through him was not something I understood or had ever seen before. I had no clue about proper behavioral protocol in his presence. This being was profoundly large, and I was, appropriately, very small.
I really knew nothing of the student/teacher relationship and I cannot say that I understand it even now. I certainly cannot speak about it from a historical context or even the context of a tradition. Nor can I explain how it works. I can only write about what I observed in myself, interacting with my teacher. Or maybe I can tell how it has changed me, but I can probably only hint at this as well. One thing I learned is very clear: this relationship started with a deeper understanding of the word RESPECT.
One day I was at our meditation group and my teacher said to me in front of about seventy-five people:
“You have no respect.”
At first I was not certain he was speaking to me. There I was, minding my own business. But when I looked at him there was no mistaking he was talking to me. I’m not certain what I said in response. What does one say to this? But knowing me, I probably made a joke to save face. But this was no joking matter. What he said was deeply true and somewhere I knew it. I immediately felt the burning inside. Humiliation. It was amazing to me that I didn’t spontaneously combust. But what he said penetrated a deep place inside of me and would take years to unravel.
I admit I didn’t have much respect. I certainly didn’t respect my schoolteachers, authority figures, my parents, or myself. I simply didn’t learn it. My family held no respect for personal boundaries. I, as a being, was the property of my parents. They did not really have to respect my wishes, my feelings, or my “personhood,” for I was the child. I think this was fairly common in the 60’s, when we didn’t collectively understand personal space, energetic fields, or the impact invasion might have on a small child. Plus, I don’t think my parents had deep respect for themselves, so they couldn’t teach or embody what they didn’t know or experience. So goes the evolution of family life.
The impact of this upbringing was two-fold. I never learned to really value myself or find a connection with my inner knowing, the REAL voice that could consciously guide my life. I was also taught that authority existed outside of myself. And so I learned to value worldly power, the external cultural values over an inner authority. But at the same time, I didn’t respect those who weren’t connected to their inner authority either.
The dynamic between my teacher and me was nothing like my previous relationships with people. The teacher had his own dignity, his own authority, and did not want to control my dignity or take responsibility for my life. He wanted me to have it. At the beginning of my learning he answered the questions I had about myself and the path, but when it was time, he began to leave me with myself by ignoring what I said, changing the subject, making fun of me, or involving other people in the conversation—sometimes all four techniques together.
Here’s an example of a typical interaction between us:
Me: “I had a dream last night. Can I share it?”
Me: “So, I was in corridor that was white and had many doors in it…”
Teacher: “How is your job going?”
Teacher: “What are you working on now?”
Me: “Can I share a dream?”
Me: “I was sitting in the audience watching a play with a great master…”
Teacher: “Have you ever acted?”
Teacher: “I always thought it would be fun to just pretend I was another person.
Don’t you think that would be fun, Stephanie? Have you ever done it?”
So over and over again for years this would happen, off and on. I kept trying to get something from him and he kept pushing me back into myself for the answers, connecting me to my own wisdom. Bit-by-bit, slowly and painfully, I learned to value something inside.
This is not to say that he did not answer me or help me sort out what was going on, for he often did. But he also made it very clear, over time, through these methods that I had to step up and stop being a child. I have to laugh at the cleverness, the cunning, and the sheer intelligence that created this dynamic, for it worked perfectly for me.
Lesson #2 From My Spiritual Teacher: Harness Innate Abilities
But this was not all. At the same time I was made aware of my psychic abilities and my capacity and inclination to push into other people’s energetic space to get information that would benefit me. I had learned this skill at a young age when it was about safety and survival. In my childhood home I needed this skill to stay physically safe and to access the resource of love. I believe this ability, which many of us have, is associated with the unconscious instinctual aspect of being human, needed for survival on the Savannah. But again, the public confrontation with my teacher wasn’t pretty.
Teacher: “You can manipulate people, can’t you? You need to make conscious how you do this to get what you want.”
Me: (Gulp) More burning. Indescribable burning. He waited for an answer. I could not find anything inside. The clock was ticking and he was waiting and so were the other seventy-five people in the room.
Teacher: “You need to tell me.”
Me: “I do not know.”
Teacher: “You do not know? Of course you know…”
Then luckily something dropped into my mind.
Me: “I can make people trust me….”
Teacher: “Yes. Now you need to understand how this works…”
So at the perfect moment in my unfoldment my teacher gave me another task. To make conscious how and when I do this, but what this really forced me to do is to understand my own personal energetic boundaries and those of others. How and when I transgress them and how to stop or be more aware of this process. This felt like another example of how to respect self and others. For if I learned this, I could take care of myself energetically and not invade others’ energetic space. Again, it was about respect.
Lesson #3 From My Spiritual Teacher: The Teacher Doesn’t Fulfill Me
During this time I also began to learn another important lesson: the teacher is not my friend. He does not like or dislike me. My relationship to him is not personal; it is on the Soul level. Prior to this I related to him disrespectfully, in a casual way, the way I might interact with a co-worker or boss because it was my way in the world and up until then, it had been successful in all other circumstances.
This awareness started with an encounter during a break between meditation and Satsang. Most people had sat back down, but I was in the kitchen and he walked past. I looked at his face and said a chipper “Hello!” He looked back at me said, “Do I know you?” I could see that there was no one there. Only emptiness. To be honest, it was terrifying. But apparently, this first lesson was not enough because it came again. We were gathered together and seemingly from nowhere he said:
“I don’t like you.”
I remember my response this time:
“You don’t like me? Come on, I’m likeable…”
No response. Silence. Movement on to the next person/topic/dream. Burning.
I tried to understand that this is not personal, that my teacher is empty. There really was no one there to help me. I believe that to play his role it must be this way. He must want nothing for himself other than to serve God. Otherwise he could not be a perfect mirror to each of us, showing us where we are caught, making conscious what we really want, how we really act. I notice that everyone gets what they need in the way that they need it, but it seems to me that the end game is mostly to help the student take responsibility for their own life.
It became increasingly evident that I needed to have a better understanding of projection. I certainly do not know how projection works, but it does. I’ve learned and actually believe strongly that everything outside of ourselves is a projection. We do create our universe and maybe projection is needed to create reality. I don’t know. But I do know it’s one of the most powerful, magical, and profound tools for self-awareness. The beauty of it is as exquisite as the pain of it is deep.
I, like everyone else in the room with our teacher, wanted to be re-parented. I wanted to feel the love, safety, and approval from a parental figure. Even though it was not conscious, I thought “Now’s my chance!” So I went about trying to get it in the only way I knew how: I tried to have a personal relationship with my teacher. It was fairly easy to believe one existed, because I did some work for him. I tried to do a really good job and get approval this way, but I failed. Over and over again, I was unable to deliver on what I set out to do. This was not ordinarily the case in my work life, for I had always been consistently successful. And there were other strategies as well, none of which worked. It was frustrating for me, and must have been so annoying for him.
Finally, one day he said very loudly in group:
“I am not your daddy.”
Again utter confusion, fear, shame and that familiar burning took over my existence. And again I have no idea how I responded, but another process began inside.
I remember being in India, standing on the stage with the Hindu spiritual leader Amma. I had been helping the production team of the Nightline film “Amma in Action.” With a crowd of about 100,000 people, at one point I stopped and looked out at the vast community gathered for her attention. What I saw paralyzed me. I felt their deep longing or need. Projected up on to that stage, from all the people waiting to get a hug from “Mother,” was a potent and powerful energy or desire to be held by a parent, to be seen, feel safe, be fixed, loved, taught, and shown. All of this was being projected onto her. When I really saw this, allowed it into me, the feeling was so extreme that it almost made me ill.
I understood that this is what I had done to my teacher, which truly was the last thing I wanted to do, to add to his burden. This experience in India reinvigorated my efforts to take back the projection and own my own power. But it took many more years for this process to unfold.
Lesson #4 From My Spiritual Teacher: I Can Not Remain A Child
There were many more side processes and absurd missteps, mistakes, and humiliation, but slowly something inside me developed. I had to pay attention, have an inner awareness about the things I needed to address in myself, as well as other impurities and behavioral issues in my daily interactions with others. I had to hold them inside myself, create a container, witness, and take responsibility, as best I could, for my own evolution. Knowing that Grace is the only way anyone shifts, I still had to have this attitude in order to reclaim my power in this stage of my evolution; I could not remain a child. To me this meant living a certain way, with attention and care in the world and within myself, ultimately taking responsibility for the outcome of my actions. And thankfully, all this came with a developing sense of compassion for myself. For without compassion, I might have gotten lost in a different egoic loop: self-hatred.
The truth is that all my experiences with my teacher were held in a container of love, not in the limited form of a personal relationship, but something larger that was detached and non-judgmental. It was an essence, a power that destroys the lies inside, but also gives you the light you need to see and carry on. My teacher gave me many great gifts, even though I may not have known it at the time. I was helped, assisted, forced to tell myself the truth about who I really am, not what I think a spiritual person is or what I might want to be.
I’ve often heard my teacher say “they had the experience but missed the meaning.” What I take this to mean is that you can have an experience and even understand the experience, but until you live what you have learned you have not really gotten it. Ideas are ideas; embodiment is living something.
I find writing about this process a bit funny, for when I write I’m not sure of what tense to use since I know nothing is done. Have I learned respect? It is a process, everything in iteration. But I have learned enough to know better and I know that I am a life-long student. What I have learned is a certain level of awareness, and maybe freedom, but more of the same is still to come. I’m extremely grateful for my teacher and path, even though the process is killing me. I know everything must go!