The Teacher – Student Relationship

We need teachers to guide us in spiritual work, it is far too easy to lose our way or for our practice to get derailed and go nowhere.  Having someone to point out when we are falling into confusion is useful, perhaps essential.

In spiritual practice, a teacher appears in order for learning to take place.  The teacher’s role is to create the conditions for a student to learn what they need to know in order to move towards meeting the intentions that have brought them to practice.  The student’s role is to fully engage what arises in the interaction and bring that into their practice.

A student – teacher relationship is defined by the intention of the relationship – to help the student recognize and move towards their intention in practice. All interactions are defined by this intention, everything else is secondary.  The interaction is not to meet the teacher’s needs, or the needs of the student for companionship, recognition, or acceptance.

A teacher can appear in many guises:  as a spiritual friend who is there to deeply listen and sometimes give feedback to what they hear and observe, as a consultant who gives feedback on a student’s engagement and interaction with a practice process, as a ‘practice teacher’ who gives a series of practices designed to meet the student’s practice intentions.  It can also take the form of an ‘inspiration teacher’ – a teacher who inspires the student on their path but doesn’t interact with the student directly.

The relationship is best realized if it takes the appropriate form to meet the student and their needs.

The student and the teacher are equals, but in this interaction there is a role difference – the student comes to the teacher because there is something they wish to learn and they hope it can learn it from the teacher.  So there is a respect there.  The teacher recognizes that the student has a great deal of life experience and respects what they bring to the interaction.

Both parties in this relationship have responsibilities. If the teacher or student does not abide by them, then the relationship is over.

The student has four primary responsibilities:
1.  Be clear about your intention.  
Recall it daily.
2.  Practice what is taught, as it is given.  
Work on the method as the teacher intended, without changing it.  If you have questions, ask.   Notice the effects of your practice.  Be proactive.
3.  Take the practice into your life and work with it.  Notice the effects.  It is in your life that practice bears fruit.
4.  Be an open vessel
. If we try to add water to a full pitcher, the water will overflow.  You need to have space available in order to learn.

The teacher has four primary responsibilities:
1.  To not misuse the relationship for their own needs,
2.  To teach what they know from their own experience,
3.  To train the student thoroughly in the techniques & tools that are appropriate,
4.  To point out the physical, emotional, and mental patterns that block the student & provide methods for addressing them.

The teacher expects that the student will listen to what is suggested and whole heartedly open to it enough to try it out.  The teacher in turn will respond to the student’s experience when they try out what has been offered, open to their questions, and let the interaction evolve to continue meeting the student’s intentions.

The relationship requires that both student and teacher be as open and clear regarding their experience as each is able to be.

A student needs to be awake and attentive as they check whether this teacher truly meets them.  At the same time this requires a certain amount of commitment, a willingness to fully engage what the teacher suggests in order to find out if it speaks to their intentions in practice.  At no point should a student give up their own discernment, at no point should a student not raise questions when things don’t make sense.

A student may work with several teachers over a period of time, fully engaging the relationship with each one, but after ten years or so they may begin to be able to deeply trust that the student-teacher relationship with a particular teacher is speaking to their intentions in practice and commit to working with that teacher.  This is when practice begins to deepen and mature.

But even then, the student needs to continually check what a teacher suggests or points to against their own experience.  And keep in mind that teachers are human and may become caught up in reactions that can confuse the interaction.  The student never gives up their power or their responsibility to be mindful and as awake as they are able to be.

Jeff Bickford and Gail Gustafson
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