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Understanding the Role of the Teacher

The term ‘teacher’ has numerous connotations. The word immediately conjures images of high school biology and history. Culturally we recognize the inherent importance of those who assume such a role, even if education in America is sadly underfunded. Sometimes talking about supporting teachers trumps actually doing so.

Yet there exists the murkier domain of under- or un-credentialed teachers arousing suspicion in the public eye. These include a vast array of professionals and charlatans working under this proclaimed role: life coaches, yoga instructors, neo-shamans and the like.

This is not to discredit the important functions that many of these men and women play in society. We all have the capacity to teach and learn from one another. Yet the psychological mindset we bear in relation to the loaded term ‘teacher’ can be dangerous and even crippling.

Relational psychotherapist Pilar Jennings explores this concept in her recent Tricycle article, “Looking Into the Eyes of a Master.” She opens by citing the controversial founder of the Shambhala meditation method, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The popular Tibetan Buddhist monk was known for his adherence to the ‘crazy wisdom’ tradition and inspired many with his direct and emotionally intense teachings; he was also an alcoholic and philanderer, dying at the young age of 48 due to his addiction.

In the film she watched very little pointed out his demons—most interviewed praised his legacy and brilliance. (To this I attest; I’ve read numerous books by him, and practice Shambhala meditation.) This is not uncommon. We sometimes clothe our teachers in impossible robes, claiming blasphemy when their humanity is revealed.

Jennings explores this phenomenon through intersubjective perspective. When a child is growing, the relationship formed with the main caretaker creates a ‘third space’ in which a temporary suspension of self is necessary for healthy development. If that third space is stunted due to trauma or depression on the caretaker’s part, the baby does not develop the emotional skills necessary to mature confidently.

This third space exists in all relationships. When it collapses later in life, depression, anger, confusion and neurosis can develop. A relationship requires such a suspension between two people if they are to evolve together. This is challenging enough in the domain of love and partnership, but can be especially skewed in the teacher-student realm.

If the teacher has not faced his or her own ‘stuff,’ opportunity for manipulation is abundant. As Carol Horton writes regarding a student in a yoga class,

A student unlocks powerful emotions, unconsciously transfers them onto the teacher, and the teacher—rather than sensing what’s going on and working with it appropriately—is triggered into wanting to reinforce these projections in order to meet her own unconscious emotional needs.

Yoga has become the modern domain of such guru-boasting and teacher adulation. The job is an easy sell to the underdeveloped: a mere 200 hours of training, the bulk of them ‘training hours’; scarcely a mention of ethics and moral restraints and no required emotional competence lets basically anyone become an instructor in as little as two weeks. The potential for style to trump substance can be irresistible.

As Joel and Diana Kramer write,

Gurus know that those who show any interest in them rarely do so out of mere curiosity, but want something they are lacking…Once people do not trust themselves, they are subject to easy manipulation. 

Idolizing teachers is, as Horton writes, not necessarily a bad thing. In the Sufi tradition, for example, the student mimics the teacher for years, believing every word uttered truth until, one day, a breakthrough occurs. The student realizes he stands on equal footing as the teacher, a teacher himself.

Such training required years of hard work and nearly unfathomable, to our modern mind, discipline. Throwing certificates at every student who pays you a few thousand dollars and shows up for class could never properly train one in the nuances of leadership. This says nothing of the self-proclaimed life coach movement in which not even that is demanded.  

Should we really be surprised at the recurring yoga sex scandals that appear with increasing frequency? A better question: Why did we treat such men as anything other than men in the first place?

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Which is Jennings’s conclusion. The teacher only has the power we give them. If we desire someone to ‘fix’ us, we are deluded. So-called enlightenment is a daily practice, not a pedestal to lord over your acolytes. Discussing her recent friendship with a senior Tibetan teacher, she writes, 

My hope is that we may begin to bring them into clearer view, not only to better see their gifts of insight and compassion, but to accept the fullness of their own human struggle. 

Image: Lola Tsvetaeva/


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