This is for practitioners to read before attending our meditation classes and our Meditation & Movement retreats.

2019 Responsibilities for Practitioners and Teachers at Mahakala Radio

The responsibilities we ask of ALL our participants are:
1.  Do the meditation practices that are given in the class
2.  Stay within the time-frame of the class
3.  Apply the meditation practice in your life to the best of your ability
4.  Be clear about your intention in participating and return to that daily
5.  Do not misuse your meditation practice, other practitioners or the teacher/student relationship for your emotional needs
6.  Be curious, ask questions, be willing to practice and open to the effects & results
7.  Come to class ready to speak about your sitting & daily life meditation practice during the previous week

Responsible contact with other participants
In some meditation courses, we request in-person participants to contact an online participant at least 1x during the course.   Guidelines will be provided & a sign-up sheet will be distributed for this purpose.  We do not monitor these interactions.  This is a way to meet another practitioner & apply what you are learning.  We expect all participants to show up with respect, kindness and mindfulness.  A list will be sent to you to set up a time with another participant.  We expect you to not misuse the email list or the discussion.

For classes offered online – Responsibilities of our distance participants
1.  Email us at least one time a week, at least three days before the next scheduled meditation class date.  We want to know about your practice, questions/concerns or anything you would like discussed in the next class.
2.  If you have a personal practice concern that needs immediate attention, let us know & we may request to talk in-person.
3.  We offer distant participants one private meditation consultation during the course.  This is to support you as a practitioner & there is no extra fee.  This appointment can be with Jeff or Gail, your choice.

Jeff Bickford and Gail Gustafson have the following responsibilities:
1.  To respond in a timely manner & address what is presented by each individual
2.  To teach what we know through experience
3.  To train practitioners through interactive methods in tools and methods on their path
4.  To point out emotional, physical and mental blocks/patterns & to provide means to address them
5.  To not misuse the teacher/student or the teacher/teacher relationship
6.  To introduce the possibility of living from a different view & finding your way

*A teacher cannot:  do the work for you, save another person, answer your deepest questions

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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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Finding a Teacher

Unfortunately, teachers are humans.  I have said this often recently in response to the many varied difficulties between teachers and students that arise in this complex relationship.  With power and protection, teachers can go awry.  With projections and blind devotion, students can go askew.  The teacher and student become lost in the Four Obsessions from Buddhism, perhaps most often in pleasure & power.  Students suffer emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. The teacher suffers in the same way.  Others suffer by developing distrust of all teachers.  It is said to take a minimum of ten years to recover from the kind of confusion and abuse that can appear in this dynamic relationship.

“When the Student is Ready, the Teacher will Appear”.  This saying is tossed about in regard to spiritual teachers.   It sounds great.  However, few of us have any experience working directly with a spiritual teacher.  It can be confusing, as we have no categories that fit this kind of relationship.  This applies whether the teacher is of a movement centered form such as yoga, qi gong or a stillness centered form such as meditation.  Is this a therapist-client relationship?  no.  Is this a parent-child relationship? no.  Is this a friend-friend relationship? no.  The spiritual teacher-student relationship is unique, having elements of other relationships, it is still none of those.  Clarity needs to be brought into this relationship, so that its benefits can bloom without causing harm.

There are three categories that can clarify this relationship.  What is the basis for a spiritual teacher-student relationship?  How do you discern a useful teacher from a harmful one?  What are the responsibilities of this relationship?

My teacher, Ken McLeod, spoke of the teacher-student relationship as is a Shared Aim relationship.  The Aim is the student’s awakening.  It is plain and simple.  Anything beyond that basis is extra.

In the tradition that I practice, ten years is considered a short amount of time to decide upon a teacher.  No matter how long you take, here are a few points that will help the process.

1.  Find out why the teacher is teaching – what is their motivation?
Ask them.  Are they teaching for power, fame, money? Is their intention explicit?  Observe their teaching.  Does their teaching instill hierarchy, create trance, build connections, diminish others…?  Does their teaching align with your intention?  What are this teachers unique gifts?  What are they lacking?

2.  Find out why students work with this teacher
Ask and observe the students.  How does the group behave?  Do they seem special, exclusive, kind…?  How do they describe the teacher?  What is explicitly and implicitly expected of the students?   Do the student’s speak openly?

3.  Find out if the teacher’s practice is in balance
Balance is dynamic, not static.  Are their words & actions in balance?  What methods are taught to balance physical, emotional and mental material?  Is there too much focus on ascent; ‘leaving the physical plane’, ‘attaining higher energy”, or on descent; ‘dismantling blocks’, ‘digging deeper’?

Both parties of a Shared Aim 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.  Too many students abandon their intention when a charismatic teacher provides “a better one”.  Blindly giving up your intention leads to problems, such as; practicing to get something from the teacher – attention, power, sex…

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.  Be proactive.  If you feel the teacher is asking you to do something unreasonable, secret, or special – watch out!

3.  Apply what is taught in your life
Take the practice into your life and work with it.  Notice the effects.  It is in your life that practice bears fruit.  If you feel something is unbalanced, address it.

4.  Be an open vessel
This requires true maturity, the willingness to look inside and work with the material of your life.  If we try to add water to a full pitcher, the water will overflow.  You need to have some space available in order to learn.  Recall your intention.

5.  Trust
Once you have decided upon a teacher and have studied with them for some time, then you need to trust their guidance.  Follow their suggestions.  Their guidance in your practice will move you to places that are both uncomfortable and sublime.  You need a teacher whom you can trust and with whom you can dive into what is beyond words.  If the teacher’s guidance is not sound, meaning they are abusing ethical behavior and causing harm physically, emotionally or mentally to you or others, then you have a problem.  It is up to you the student to name it as such, as abuse is never okay.

The teacher has four primary responsibilities.  They are: to not misuse the relationship for their own needs, to show the student the possibility of living awake, to train the student thoroughly in the techniques & tools they will need, to point out the physical, emotional, mental patterns that block the student & provide methods for addressing them.

The teacher-student relationship is like weather;  projections form fog, emotional needs cause rain, and mental confusions build thunderstorms.  There are numerous stories of dangers, downfalls & destruction.  It requires commitment, active attention & trust.  Still, the efforts you make working with this type of teacher are worth the time.  This relationship can be a catalyst for deep insight to unfold.  Through it, the mystery of being can open at the center your life and there is no need to look anywhere else.

Copyright© Mahakala Radio May 2018 –  Gail H Gustafson

About Gail Gustafson

Gail Gustafson teaches awareness by means of meditation & movement through courses, retreats, workshops, individual instruction in person & online.  She was a student of Yen Lu Wong, Warren Lamb, Thupden Chodron, Ani Tenzin Kacho, Venerable Geshe Gyeltsen.   Ken McLeod was her primary teacher, who authorized her to teach in 2003.  Gail continues to attend teachings and retreat with various traditional and western Buddhist masters.  She also organizes and participates in two spiritual teacher support groups.

More Gail:  Gail began her study of movement & meditation at a young age.  For 15 years she was a professional dancer, working with choreographers and visionaries who were exploring body, mind and spirit.  She has studied many somatic movement forms including Body Mind Centering, Hanna Somatics, the Feldenkrais method, Movement Pattern Analysis and others..   She is a Laban Movement Analyst, a Tellington Touch practitioner (companion animals), a student of Ba Qua Qi Gong, Chen style Tai Chi and Intuitive Archery.

“I was fortunate enough to find teachers who were willing to be right there in all the ups and downs of actually practicing meditation in this complex world.  For over 15 years, I worked with my primary teacher Ken McLeod.  His unrelenting insight and precise instruction, set free in a field of kindness, inspired and changed my way of  being.  Without this intense teacher-student relationship I could have never moved into guiding others in meditation.

I approach teaching as a unique adventure with each person.  There are many possibilities. Teaching in this way is lively, warm, direct and vulnerable.  I have heart-breaking gratitude for the awesome humanity of the whole endeavor.”

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About Jeff Bickford

Jeff Bickford teaches meditation classes & consults with students from different places in the world, while maintaining his practice in Colorado Springs, CO.  Jeff owns Peak Light Therapy & is a Feldenkrais teacher

He began spiritual practice with Pir Vilayat Khan, a Sufi teacher.  After a number of years he turned to Buddhist practice, first in Zen, then with a Shingon Buddhist monk.  Some years later he began practicing with Venerable Tenzin Kacho, which then led to many years of practice and study with Ken McLeod from the Shangpa/Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.  He completed Ken McLeod’s three year teacher development program and was authorized to teach.

Concurrently, he practiced and studied awareness in movement, beginning in the early ’70’s with Nikolais technique, which led to studies in Laban Movement Theory, Neuro- Linguistic Programming, the Pilates Method, and the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education.  For 25 years, Jeff was a lighting designer for dance companies & choreographers in the United States and Canada. Jeff also was the choreographer/director of his own performance company based in Seattle WA.  Jeff’s keen eye and knowledge of movement, space and light influences all of his teaching of meditation.

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Leave the Valley

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.

©Copyright Mahakala Radio, Gail Gustafson August 2012

More on Teachers & Students, Upcoming meditation classes

Course Registration

This is for new students registering for our meditation classes in Colorado Springs or online. 

2018 Meditation Courses Mahakala Radio– Participant Information

Course Title:

1.  What about this course interests you?
2.  What do you hope to learn in taking this course?
3.  Describe your regular meditation practice:

4.  Describe what brought you to meditation practice:
5.  What are your principal traditions, teachers…
6.  Describe your relationship with your current teacher or your experience with spiritual teachers:
7.  Describe your relationship with sangha (fellow practitioners):
8.  Do you have a somatic movement practice? please briefly describe:
9.  What are three things you have learned through meditation or movement practice?
10.  In some courses, we have online participants.  Are you willing to have at least 1 practice conversation every 2-3 weeks with an online participant?  
You will need to use skype or google+ or facetime for this conversation
11.  Do you have any medical, physical, emotional or mental condition that will affect your practice?
12.  Please read
these responsibilities and let us know you can follow them

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The Art of Grieving

When my grandmother was alive, grieving was a part of living.  People died from influenza, from blizzards, from childbirth, from broken bones… There was a time of mourning, when the person grieving was not expected to do more than experience grief.  Today, we have lost connection with this potent emotion.  We no longer know how to live this rich, life altering experience of change.

Grief is now a study of science, instead of a natural part of life.  As Ken McLeod points out in his recent blog, “Is Happiness a Worthwhile Goal?”, Grief is now seen as a disease, something that needs “treatment”.   Additionally, most of us are under the false impression that we know how to keep our emotions hidden.  Many professions are based on this premise.  Unfortunately, we forget that our first way of knowing is sensory.  That does not end when we become adults, it merely becomes second fiddle to speech.  Sensations, movement, emotions are all definitely there, easy to see to an aware eye.  Yet, when grief arises we work hard to ignore it, bury it or run from it.

Is grief the opposite of happiness?  Is it a disease that needs pharmaceutical treatment?  If we feel grief, should we simply “open happiness” as a cola company leads us to believe?  I remember many years ago, in the late 1970s, there was an advertisement on television.  It showed an olympic gold medalist male gymnast doing his perfect Ring Event.  After his dismount, he smiled with success and drank a cup of coffee.  The announcer simply said “Join the coffee generation”.  Is coffee really the way to win and avoid the grief of loss?  It has worked for Starbuck$.

Joan Didion, in her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” quotes Eric Lindeman’s description of grief from 1944: “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and an intense subjective distress described as tension  or mental pain”.   I am struck by how accurate this description is to my own experience.  I know this well.

Now, compare it to Wikipedia’s: “multi-faceted response to loss… Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.”

In “When Elephants Weep”, the authors present observations of the responses of animals to death and birth of their own species.  One observation is of elephants circling around the body of a deceased elephant while trumpeting, stroking the body, and rhythmically swaying for days.  This book received a lot of criticism based on the belief that “mere animals could not possibly know more about emotions than humans”.  And yet, we have that wikipedia description of grief…

Grief is practical.  It is natural.  When my father died, it was as Eric Lindeman describes above, waves of somatic tension, then wandering that lasted for years.  When I lost the use of my right arm, it was mental fatigue plus a keening ripping in my lungs.  When many a project or event does not succeed, it is the sighing, emptiness in the abdomen and the combined rhythmic dropping of my hands upon my thighs with the downward tone in my speech.  When grief arises, for no reason whatsoever, it is a the slicing pain in my gut, loss of appetite and foggy connection to the world.

Emily Post wrote in 1918 at a time when grief & mourning was integral to life.  I am touched by the practical observations.  “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are unbalanced physically.  No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal.  Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless.  Persons they normally like, they often turn from.  No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely.  Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain the nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received.  At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.  …The bereaved must be urged to “sit in a sunny room”, preferably one with an open fire. …A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral.  The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming…”

Grief is a part of life.  It’s wisdom unfolds gradually, shifting and changing outside of time. Awareness of that which would be normally ignored is increased.  Everything is alive, poignant, awake and unconcerned.

Due to its timeless development, we can easily forget that grieving is working its magic.  Here is where bringing back an element of mourning can be useful.  It can be simple – wearing a black rubber band on your wrist.  It is a reminder, so when you feel: ‘tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen…’,  you can see the black rubber band and remember:  “Oh yes, I am grieving.  I need to ‘sit in a sunny room’.  I need to air out the house of my mind.  I cannot push.  I can allow this rich life altering change to unfold.”

©Copyright 2012 Gail H Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs

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Private Meditation Consultation

meditation consultation, meditation instruction colorado springs Sometimes a meditation class is not quite enough to help you find your way on the path.  The teacher-student relationship is unique and valuable.  It requires trust and willingness, mixed with a lot of courage.  This relationship can be the catalyst for deep insight to unfold.

We offer private meditation consultations by appointment.  Please contact us directly for more information on these sessions.

Or click here for our meditation classes offered, for more on Jeff Bickford, Gail Gustafson, & the student-teacher relationship.