By Jessica Graham
I’ve recently had the wonderful experience of a student of mine beginning to teach. He has a very unique and compelling voice to share with his students. Watching him grow into himself as a person and a teacher has been such a gift. He now leads my group when I can’t be there. I hope that he is just the first of many of my students to go on to teach. This experience has led me to reflect on my own path as a teacher of mindfulness.
I was never much of a joiner. I never liked to be a part of a group. The word “community” made me a little uncomfortable. But today I find myself helping to create a mindfulness meditation community. Our group has been meeting once a week for well over a year. There are people who come every week, many who pop in when their schedule permits, and there is almost always someone new. After class we hang out, drink lemonade, talk about our practice, and laugh together. After one recent meditation, a group of us went outside to watch the solar eclipse. We looked though our iPhone cameras or crystals or made holes in sheets of paper to cast the shadow of the sun on a nearby tree. It was fun and it it really felt good to me to have community.
It took me a while to feel comfortable calling myself a teacher. I was in a meditation class taught by Michael Taft, and when he moved away he asked me to start leading the group.
Taking over the class wasn’t the most comfortable situation. I wasn’t Michael (an amazing teacher, with years of experience), and I hadn’t even been in the group as long as some of the students. I had a bit of experience, because a few people had started coming to me and asking for meditation instruction. I had also been involved in Shinzen Young’s facilitator training for a few months.
In the beginning to just tried to copy what Michael and Shinzen said. I didn’t yet have my own voice. New people joining the group, however, saw me as a teacher, so I began to step into that role with some of them. I became more comfortable leading the group and started to find my voice. I began working with people one-on-one. The intimacy and the trust that comes from that relationship is breathtaking. It was an amazing experience.
Over the last few years I have become comfortable calling myself a meditation teacher. I’m also very much a student and will continue to be. As a teacher it’s so important to continue to move out of your comfort zone and to work at your edge. It’s sometimes easy for me to get really into being a teacher and forget to check in with my teachers. This limits what I can bring to my students and to my own practice.
Not everyone that comes to my class is looking for a teacher. Some just want to be in a group setting with a guided meditation. Some people have years more experience than I do. Some also teach. There are those who do want a teacher; Meditation students who have just started to practice, are new to this type of meditation, or are just coming back after years away. I’m there to be a teacher, a student, a peer, a facilitator, and a community organizer. I’m not there to get an ego boost or teach anyone the “right way” to meditate.
The people that come to my class get to know me. I talk very frankly about my life, my challenges, and my failure to be perfect. I don’t act like I have it all figured out. I don’t have a “meditation teacher voice.” I just use my regular voice. If I’m feeling anxious or sad before a class I tell them. I also talk about the ways I’m bringing mindfulness to my emotions, but I don’t pretend that I feel great if I don’t.
This isn’t what everyone wants from a spiritual teacher. Some people want someone who appears to be living in a state of continuous bliss, completely recovered, and full of unending equanimity. Someone to place on a pedestal and leave there. I understand that. I want my teachers be leaders. I want to know that they have walked this path a little longer than me, or with more clarity than me. I don’t, however, want someone who talks of compassion and peace when they are teaching and then goes home and cheats on their partner or stuffs the emotions that are “inappropriate” for a spiritual teacher.
It can be tempting to be a perfect teacher and to put out the message that I have no problems, especially when I sense that is what someone wants from me. It’s a powerful place to be, higher than others, more enlightened than others, better than others. It’s much safer and less intimate to be above everyone bestowing the good word. It’s also lonely and a lie. If what I am teaching is about honesty with what is really going on moment by moment, than pretending to be perfect would be in direct opposition with that teaching. It would also set me up to be alone with what is really happening for me.
This honesty that I strive for doesn’t mean that I show up at class and break down crying or yelling. I do have a certain role as a teacher and I honor that, I just practice being open while taking on that role. I don’t do this perfectly. There is a beautiful balance between being hiding myself and bringing my issues into the room in an unhelpful way. As a young teacher I am working every day to find that balance and continue to grow. Each time I grow I have to balance out again, so I imagine it will be a lifelong process.
I never imagined that I would be a meditation teacher. I’m still sometimes shocked when I look out and see the group listening to what I have to offer. It is surprising, but it also feels so natural and people keep showing up. I’m so grateful that I have a group of fellow meditators who want to practice with me and then drink lemonade while we watch the moon eclipse the sun.