Monday, April 25, 2011

Are you the student you think you are?

I've been having some interesting email conversations today after the post that I wrote thanking my teachers. The conversation has come around to why it is so hard to be a beginner, why it is so hard to learn, why we often need to defend ourselves rather than stay in a place of learning. I thought I'd write a bit about what it means to be a student. 

This is a teacher. But maybe not a student.
I think that often times we have this idea that if we let someone else teach us something, we are admitting that they know more than we do. Advice from other people often is interpreted by us as someone defining our lack, or pointing out their superiority.

This often leads to an internal ego battle which can be ferocious. Especially if the person that you are meant to learn from is younger than you, or not someone who you respect. What if you have more experience in an area than your teacher does? Does that negate their ability to teach you?

What if you are the teacher on a given day. Does this mean that you are not expected to learn anything?

Lets let go of the dogma of what is a teacher for just a moment. The idea of in-charge. The idea of power. The idea that if you are going to learn something from someone you have to subjigate yourself to them in some way, admit your lesser status, grant them some elevated stature...

This is probably a student. And a teacher.
What if a teacher is just another person? What if the teacher is the mountain you are standing on or the river flowing by?

Lets start with the river. It doesn't really have any interest in how smart you are, how much knowledge you bring to the table. It doesn't care if all the other human beings that you hang out with are terribly, terribly impressed with how awesome you are.

The river is just the river. Flowing with gravity from one source to another, where it will become something else, lake or sea or rain or snow.

Its easy to learn from the river, there isn't a power struggle between you and your teacher. You can set aside your need to be right, your need to be respected, your need to roll out your resume, all of the needs which feed the ego, and look at how the river flows. How it has the impetus of movment, how it navigates obstacles, how the force of it wears down the hardest stone. How it dries in the summer to a trickle, or disappears underground, and comes back in the fall with growing volume until it freezes and flows silently under the ice.

You can stand with your feet in the water and let the river teach you how to be present, how to breathe, how to be still, how to see, how to feel. You can do all of these things without worry or fear.

But lets say you come across a person who is new to you. Someone who doesn't come recommended by other people, they don't have a bestselling book, they are just a person.

Neither a student nor a teacher. But maybe both?
Lets say this person is walking on a slackline in the sunshine in a park. They fall off and they laugh. They get back on.

You have an opportunity here to let this person be a teacher. You have a choice, you can take a lesson from afar, learning from the way they seem to persevere, they way they laugh at defeat, the way they play in the sunshine, the way they are present in the moment, taking time to live in the middle of a busy day.

Now lets say you go to a class or a clinic. And the person who is teaching it is abrasive, or unorganized, or unprepared. Can they not still be a teacher to you? Maybe you won't learn what you came here to learn. Maybe you know this material well. Perhaps the lesson you can learn is one of compassion from you to them, or maybe this person is an excellent teacher in another way. Maybe the way they listen to their class is the lesson you are meant to learn. 

When we are really confronted with our abilty to learn from others is when we feel challenged or threatened by the other person's knowledge, whether its direct knowledge of a subject in particular, or just a way of being in the world.

You can take this simple test to see if you are open to teaching: When someone puts a lesson out there, do you feel the need to state things that you know? Or are you able to listen and absorb? Do you only take a piece of the lesson, or are you willing to be present for the whole message, even if you are squirming in your seat, ready to rebut, respond, or try it out? Do you have the presence and patience to be a student?

Is your response to someone who is talking, or teaching (even accidentally teaching) "Yes, I know, because I..." or "I know but..." or "When I do it I..." or "I got it"

The girl with the iPod might be the teacher here.
If this is the case, you are missing a tremendous opportunity. Your opportunity to learn! To become! To evolve! And seperating yourself from your ego so you can first, spot your teachers, and second, accept that they ARE teachers, and third, be open to their teaching without feeling like their knowledge threatens or diminishes yours, is our first job.

A person should not have to prove themselves to you with a resume or a recommendation to have something valid to share with you. You do not give your power away when you learn from all of those around you. On the contrary, you become an open, evolving vessle, more seperate from your ego.

None of us have all the answers. None of us are done growing. In fact hardly ANY of us have scratched the surface of what we can understand. Accepting that, accepting the fact that even those of us with PhDs have a LOT to learn in many areas, even in their area of expertise, makes you suddenly a master student.

And if you want or hope or wish to be a master teacher one day, you must first master the ability to be an eternally humble student.

1 comment:

weems said...

These are great thoughts on learning and teaching.
It is amazing to me how easily we sign up for learnings and then resist them. My learning is driven by a couple of ideas:
1. If a teacher is willing to share with me, why would I not be fully receptive and present in order to honor the gift. If I find it not useful later, I can always reject it, but at least I will have heard it. Therefore, my goal is to ask questions rather than give answers.
2. As Tom Crum said, facing the eye of the whale in the waters off of Hawaii, "I know nothing." Therefore being "right" is just a temporary posturing.
3. Always give thanks.