Wednesday, 29 February 2012

When The Teacher Appears

We did some work together last fall. He called not at all certain what he was looking for. “Just a sense,” he stumbled. We explored possibilities through that conversation, decided upon a course of action, an appropriate fee. “Thanks,” he said at the end of the session we arranged. He offered a cheque. It was pale grey with a forest green border.

In the early days of the new year I found a hand-written envelope in my mailbox, no return address. I opened it right there and long slip of paper fluttered to my feet. It landed face up, grey with a dark green border. Bending, I recognized both the name and the signature. “With deepest appreciations,” read the words in the lower left corner. The amount was double that of our initial appointment.

Several weeks have passed since the arrival of this cheque. It has sat atop my filing cabinet, a few inches distant from work’s other payments. I have been to the bank several times in this span. Every cheque added to the payment pile has been deposited, but this one has remained. ‘I forgot,’ I have told myself. ‘Can’t be bothered,’ referring to the tremendous effort required to shift my hand slightly to the left and pick it up.

This afternoon I said, “To hell with it.” I grabbed his gift and jammed in into my pocket.
It was crumpled alongside the day’s other deposits as I journeyed to the bank. On the way I came up with a handful of reasons to not cash that cheque. ‘Just put in half of them,’ I thought. ‘Don’t think there’s time.’ Then: ‘Maybe I’ll send it back.'

As the teller flipped through the small pile I placed before her, I nearly reached out and pulled that particular slip from the company of its peers. “Good week,” she offered with a friendly smile. I grinned feebly, averted my eyes. Her red stamp landed on the pale surface with a definitive thud. The last thing I saw before she slipped the bundle away were his words: “With deepest appreciations...”

An uneasy heat flushed my cheeks.

I didn’t feel I deserved his thanks.

As is often the case, this issue has been lingering at the edges of awareness for some time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see it stepping out of the shadows every now and then, edging into the light in sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways. At a meditation program last year someone observed, “You often divert compliments.” I nodded to feign understanding. Not five minutes later: “This has been amazing. Thank you.” My reply? “No - thank you.”

With the bank two or three blocks behind me, my heart started to rattle against my rib cage. It was as if an alarm was suddenly going off in there. An old-fashioned cast iron alarm, bright red with flat-faced hammers clamoring against its surface. I turned into the nearest coffee shop, this coffee shop, and sat down.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ I have always assumed these words refer to the arrival in our lives of flesh and blood mentors: Reggie Ray, Pema Chodron, Debbie Ford - who is a story unto herself. ‘When I am ready,’ this assumption asserts, ‘the person appears.’ Now, however, I am struck by the obvious bias in this: that a teacher is always, invariably human.

One of the more challenging offerings of my time as a meditator, my years with both Reggie and Chogyam Trungpa, is the repeated and ongoing experience of life’s generous accuracy. Events, it seems, do not occur by accident. They instead occur precisely as they must - ‘as they must’, that is, to ensure I awaken a little more.

What happens in the course of day-to-day living has a very definite teacher quality. The flat tire, the unexpected employment opportunity, the difficult relationship - each of these has the capacity to show me where I am hung up, blind, prejudiced, or under-developed. Each of these has a very precise capacity in this regard.

Take the above-mentioned sense of not deserving. Had it arrived six months ago, I am not sure that client’s appreciative offering would have had much resonance. But then, his cheque did not arrive six months ago. It arrived precisely when it did. Feelings of doubt and unworthiness had been lingering for some time; I had been quietly noting both their presence and influence in my life. It was as if I was being primed to finally understand something very specific about myself.

I didn’t feel I deserved his thanks.

‘When the student is ready,’ that saying might more accurately assert, ‘the exactly appropriate teacher appears.’

Years ago, I asked one of Rinpoche’s senior students about working with a teacher. “What does one do?“ I inquired. He smiled. “Watch them closely.” “For how long?” I wondered. His grin curled further up his face. I thought he was going to laugh. “For a very long time.”

It is curious the degree to which this answer echoes the instruction I was given the first time I learned how to meditate in this tradition. “Put your attention here,” I was told, “and stay.” This is the ghost of Chogyam Trungpa speaking - ever confident, if we just stop our moving about, if we just pay attention and allow life to present itself fully, we will be shown exactly what we need to see. “Meditation is like nested dolls,” I said recently. “Let your mind rest in one place. Watch the dolls unpack, reveal themselves.”

Of course it is not quite so easy. Most of us are quick to take our eyes off the teachers that come into our lives; I certainly am. Reggie often speaks of how difficult it was to be around Rinpoche, to be around his teacher. Maybe it is this way with all teachers: difficult to the point of distraction.

That feeling of not deserving is a hard tutor to stay with. Edgy in its presence, nauseous, uncertain, ashamed, my gaze averts for just a moment. In this instant thoughts arise about what the feeling means. ‘How might it be understood?’ I wonder. ‘What can I do to fix it? To change myself?’ In the blink of an instant, the teacher is replaced by my thoughts about the teacher - not the same thing at all.

I do not believe I deserve this person’s thanks and appreciation. There it is, up front and present tense. So naked an acknowledgment leaves my stomach knotted. Something like a fist pushes up the middle of my diaphragm. A choke catches in the throat. There is a desire to push the experience back, to swallow and pretend it’s not there, never was. I worry about the perception of others. I don’t want their image of me to curdle at the touch of these confessions. Sitting here sweat pricks along my hairline. ‘Better to put on a show,’ I think, ‘maintain the façade.’

But ‘putting on’ requires taking eyes off what has come into my life and this is all that has been asked of me: watch closely. It’s just like the breath: “Put your attention here.” And then stay. And settle. And relax. In time, something will open, reveal itself. I will see first hand what this particular teacher is offering this particular student in this particular moment.