In the past 20 years, Yoga & Buddhism have exploded from obscurity into popular culture. Now we have Yoga & Buddhist retreats in exotic destinations linked to everything from surfing to ecotourism. We have inspirational, charismatic teachers touring internationally. We have Yoga Expos and Buddhist Conferences. All of this is wonderful. It can also lead to confusion about Spiritual Growth and about Types of Teachers.
– Do I have to travel a long distance to achieve spiritual growth?
– Is spiritual growth inextricably linked to a beautiful center far from home?
– Do I have to study with a famous teacher to insure real results?
– Is the unknown teacher in town marginal in comparison with the popular teacher who travels?
There is a Tibetan saying “You must leave the valley of your origin.” Its meanings can help clarify the confusion around Spiritual Growth.
1. If you lived 1,000 years ago in the Himalayas and there was no teacher in your valley, you would have to walk over the mountains to the next valley to find one. Today, in our own valley, there are many teachers. There are teachers who are supported by religious centers and educational institutions with established systems. There are also teachers who teach independently of organizational support. If that does not satisfy, we have access to the internet full of teachers. We no longer need to leave our physical valley to start on our path of Spiritual Growth. However, we do need to make a journey. We must leave the valley of our habitual lifestyle. Leaving this valley requires the same effort as crossing the Himalayas on foot. Both require consistent daily training in order to arrive at the other side.
2. The ‘valley of my origin’ is that mess of ideas, beliefs, stories & ways of seeing that I live in and never question. In spiritual practice, that valley will present itself for reflection & deep inquiry. For Spiritual Growth to happen, you must look, with an open heart, at that valley and see its effects. In this way, you no longer take ‘the valley of your origin’ for granted as the truth. You start to ‘leave the valley’ by looking clearly at your actions, intentions, and emotions. You do not ‘leave this valley’ by skipping off to Tahiti for a month. This valley will come with you, until you choose to work with it.
3. When you commit to spiritual practice, you “leave the valley of your origin” by stepping outside of your comfort zone. You are like a refugee, without a cozy home in which you can hide. You form an intention to commit to growth, which means to move beyond your current condition into what you do not know. You do not seek a safe state or a protected zone. In order to grow spiritually, you must “leave the valley of your origin” within your own life. This does not involve plane tickets and exotic destinations. The traveling is done in your own body and mind, with a well supplied backpack of teachings and with a spiritual guide who knows the language and can help you when the going gets rough.
Traveling to a distant beautiful place to study can be useful. It can give us a jumpstart. However, the real traveling that must be done for Spiritual Growth is internal, in your own body and mind, every day. Like external travel, it requires effort, yet the reward is longer lasting.
Most practitioners have two different teachers in their lives; one is the Inspiration Teacher and another is the Practice Teacher. For a very fortunate few, both of these roles are rolled into one actual person. Knowing the general roles of these two Types of Teachers can clear up confusion.
Inspiration Teachers – These are the teachers who inspire us to practice, study and live in presence. They often are charismatic, acclaimed, uplifting and revered by many. We flock to these teachers for the energy they transmit. We can be galvanized to practice meditation or yoga because of these teachers’ enthusiasm and quality of being. In their presence, we can feel vital, awake, open to possibilities. They travel through our valleys and give us a taste of another way of being. We may see our Inspiration Teacher once every year or once in a lifetime. We may never have a private conversation with the Inspiration Teacher, and yet their energetic influence stirs us on every day.
Practice Teachers – These are the teachers who provide us with the tools, the step-by-step process, to actually make spiritual growth happen in our life. They are often unknown, hard to find, innovative and deeply attuned. We go to these teachers for their ability to listen and apply methods directly to our individual situation. We learn how to practice, look inward, and transform difficulties into energy. In their presence, we can feel vulnerable, vibrant, and known completely. These teachers walk beside us as we go through our dark nights and challenging days. We see our Practice Teachers often and have regular private conversations with them. Through their influence we develop confidence, courage and competence which guides us in all aspects of our life.
These two types of teachers are synergistic. The Inspiration Teacher embodies the possibility of living awake and the Practice Teacher shows you precisely how to get there. If we only have the Inspiration Teacher, we will be passive and never enter the stream. If we only have the Practice Teacher, then we will lack aspiration to energize our efforts. We need them both for balanced Spiritual Growth.
Use wise means in the endeavor of spiritual practice. If you travel to a beautiful retreat then balance it with equal internal travel. If you meet the Inspiration Teacher then use that spark to learn how to awaken with the Practice Teacher. In this way your path is certain to bear fruit.