choosing our teachers (part 2)

What exactly is the phenomena we call a “teacher”?

At the most basic level, a teacher is simply someone who offers us instruction in a particular subject. At a more complex level, however, a teacher is a guide, a mentor, and one who inspires us to be our best. This, of course, assumes that both student and teacher have good chemistry and approach the relationship with respect and clear intentions.

With this as our starting point, let’s consider four specific categories of “teacher” including the more traditional type. I believe each of these is indispensable if we wish to make the greatest progress along our path of self cultivation.

First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that we are a teacher to ourselves. I see this as the most important level as there can be no learning or progress at all unless we receive what we are offered by others, take the time to process it, and then have the tenacity and fortitude to apply it through practice.

This, of course, is being a good student, but it also involves actually teaching and re-teaching ourselves the material over and over again until it becomes a part of us. Further, we will find that the subtleties of any discipline will only occur to us after we put in our own time, effort, contemplation, and sincere dedication. It is then that the inner teacher emerges to further add clarity, nuance, and depth according to the maturity of our focus.

It is easy at times to give overmuch authority, power, or influence to others to the point where we actually lose some of our own personal sovereignty. I’ve seen this happen in various instances, but especially in martial and “spiritual” disciplines.

It’s a tricky balance, but I believe we must first acknowledge that the magic happens, and can only happen, when we “own” and take responsibility for our own learning and progress. We can then truly appreciate, from a healthy and strong place, the wonderful teachers that come into our lives.

This leads me to the second category of teacher: an actual physical individual. Ideally, this is one who is an expert in the subject we are pursuing and possesses the ability to inspire our hearts and minds.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had many such men and women in my life. (See About for a partial list). A good and dedicated teacher can shave years off the time it would otherwise take us to learn something. They can add dimension and clarity, even profundity to the material they offer us.

How can we find such individuals? Its important that we first strive to be such people ourselves. Even if we are not formally teachers, we still influence each other constantly and have the capacity to encourage, inspire, and inform. In so doing we will then more easily attract similar people to us when they are needed. In part three of this series, I’ll discuss other ways to evaluate schools and teachers as you look to further your chosen art(s).

The third category of teacher is our peers and training partners. In the martial arts, there is simply no substitute for good training partners. We need to have the physical energy, the outside insights, and the good will of our friends in the art to progress. Touching in with another person studying the same kind of principles and practices is always illuminating. It is enjoyable (most of the time) and it allows us to develop our skill, our chi, and our awareness. Cherish your training partners and strive to help your friends in this art as well and we will all be the better for it.

Finally, the fourth category of teacher is a special one: Nature itself. I include the natural world among my favorite inspirations as it expands the dimension and application of study greatly.

If we listen, nature provides us with endless opportunities for growth and understanding of our art. My most recent experience with this involved a hike on a very steep mountain trail. As I headed up the sharp incline, I thought back to my Taiji principles of rooting through the legs, lengthening through the top of the head, and relaxing through out. It turned out to be some of the very best training I’ve had on structural alignment and coordination and by the end of the hike, I had moved quickly, comfortably, and enjoyably through some challenging terrain.

I’ve had many other such experiences, with some being quite profound and surprising. If you think of nature as your teacher and remain open to the subtle influences, even suggestions you might receive, you will find yourself richly rewarded in the process.

All in all, we are always surrounded by an abundance of learning opportunities in our pursuit of self cultivation. No matter our circumstances, there is always a “next best thing” before us that will take us forward. Through honoring our selves, our friends, and our teachers, we are consistently well positioned for greater progress and fulfillment.